Ratification of the US Constitution: the beginning



By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph. D., Gettysburg College

The Constitution has enjoyed an almost mystical reverence in American life. Because of this, it can be hard to fathom that it would have been greeted with anything other than automatic approval, if not adulation, by Americans in 1787. Well, in some places it was. But in other places it was not. Was it because there were people who were skeptical about the Constitution?

George Washington had played a key role in shaping the Constitution during the Constitutional Convention of 1787 (Image: Frontpage / Shutterstock)

The skeptics and the constitution

No matter how solid and still the Constitution now seems to our horizons, it was never going to overstep those horizons unless states approved it. In general, this meant foiling what Governor Morris denounced as “state officers and those interested in state governments” who “will intrigue and turn the popular current against him.”

We shouldn’t dismiss as easily as Morris did the motives of people like Patrick Henry or, for that matter, George Mason and other skeptics. Americans like Henry and Mason had fought a high-stakes battle against the Atlantic world’s greatest empire for the sake of governing themselves in their own way. They were not going to be easily persuaded that they now had to embrace what appeared to them to be the reimposition of Imperial rule they had shed.

This is a transcript of the video series America’s Founding Fathers. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The motivations of the federalists

The motives of the federalists were not entirely devoid of self-interest; it was a matter of principle to complain about the arrogance of stubborn legislatures who imagined they could redistribute debt and assets in one go and for their own benefit. But maybe it wasn’t so noble when it turned out that building good credit and preventing states from printing funny money also had very direct personal benefits for Friends of the Constitution.

Rarely in a democracy will a lofty goal work without self-aggrandizement; in fact, the latter might turn out to be the former’s best friend. It is also rare in a democracy for a high goal to gain its place simply by showing itself; a high goal must also win votes, just like the Constitution. There were, however, three elements that worked in favor of the Constitution as it prepared for its long and dangerous passage of state ratification conventions.

Learn more about the Philadelphia Convention of 1787.

Factors in favor of the Constitution

First of all, working for it was prestige. It was the product of a long convention involving some of the most respected figures in American life, starting with George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, and their prestige would pay great dividends to influential opinions. “It is probable that General Washington will be the president of the United States”, explained Alexander Hamilton who “will ensure a judicious choice of the men to administer the government”.

A second factor playing in favor of the Constitution was surprise. The convention had kept its secrets surprisingly well, which meant its critics had to rush to absorb the Constitution and then generate enough criticism to slow it down.

Engraving of the Philadelphia Convention of 1787.
The proceedings of the Constitutional Convention of Philadelphia were kept secret. (Image: Frederick Juengling and Alfred Kappes / Public domain)

A third factor in favor of the Constitution was organization. The Constitution emerged from the convention with a strong cadre of supporters who could provide the intellectual firepower to engage, if not actually crush, the objections raised by skeptics.

Pennsylvania Assembly

There was also a fourth element that worked in favor of the Constitution, and that was momentum. Benjamin Franklin and the Pennsylvania delegation to the convention immediately offered to table the Constitution in the Pennsylvania Assembly and called for a state convention. The Pennsylvania Assembly met on the second floor of the State House, so Thomas Fitzsimmons, on behalf of Franklin, only had to climb the stairs on September 17, 1787 to seek permission to present the Constitution to Pennsylvania Assembly.

Franklin, in his role as Speaker of the Assembly, wanted swift action, as he wanted Pennsylvania to be the first to offer the Ten Mile Square District that would become the nation’s capital. He wouldn’t get his wish, however. The assembly was to take an adjournment from September 29 to October 9 for elections, and he could not call for the ratification convention until Congress notified that it was indeed sending the Constitution to the states for ratification.

Learn more about Benjamin Franklin and the republic’s formative years.

Speeding up the ratification of the Constitution

When that word finally arrived on September 28, George Clymer, one of the members of the Pennsylvania delegation to the convention, offered to convene a state ratification convention, which would hold an election on the first Tuesday in November and would meet on the last day of November. This slight delay has given the Delaware legislature the opportunity to move forward and convene a ratification convention, with elections to be held on November 9 and 10.

When the Delaware convention met in Dover on December 4, the 30 members of the convention had only one idea in mind: the new Constitution would prevent the small state from paying tariffs to Pennsylvania for goods shipped by the Port of Philadelphia. The decision to ratify on December 7 was swift and unanimous, and it was the first of all states to ratify.

In no time, Connecticut and Massachusetts called their municipal assemblies to choose delegates to a state convention that would meet in November and January. New Jersey convened a convention which met in Trenton and ratified the Constitution on December 18, followed by Georgia, whose convention was convened on October 26 and met in Augusta for two days before voting for ratification.

But from then on the momentum started to slow down.

Common questions about the start of ratification of the U.S. Constitution

Q: Why were George Mason and Patrick Henry skeptical of the new Constitution?

George Mason and Patrick Henry believed that the Constitution was the reimposition of imperial rule they had rejected after winning a high-stakes battle against the world’s largest Atlantic empire.

Q: Why couldn’t Benjamin Franklin call for a ratification convention in the Pennsylvania Assembly?

Benjamin Franklin could not seek ratification of a convention until Congress notified that he was in fact sending the Constitution to states for ratification. In addition, the assembly was to take an adjournment from September 29 to October 9, 1787, for the elections.

Q: Who presented the Constitution to the Pennsylvania Assembly in place of Benjamin Franklin?

Thomas Fitzsimmons presented the Constitution in the Pennsylvania Assembly in place of Benjamin Franklin.

Keep reading
The Constitutional Convention of 1787: William Paterson vs. Edmund Randolph
The Philadelphia Convention and the New Constitution
Benjamin Franklin and the creation of the new America



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