The ratification debate

A ratification-era cartoon, showing the ‘federal pillars’ being lifted into place, one by one

The Articles of Confederation had contained a clause that required decisions of Congress to have a two-thirds majority of the states – that is, at least nine of the thirteen states – before legislation could pass. The Constitutional Convention determined that the same requirement would be necessary for the ratification of the Constitution; nine states would therefore have to accept it. The delegates realised the great difficulty of achieving this: the people had just been involved in a revolution against a strong central government that had been, to them, abusing its powers and authority to tax … and the Constitution itself formed another strong central government. How could the states be convinced to ratify? A process of informative debate, education and (some would say) propaganda was needed to win support for the Constitution. In a sense this would be the last great battle of the American Revolution.

The Constitution was submitted for public debate in late September 1787 and interested parties soon divided into two groups. People who supported the Constitution became known as Federalists because they supported a federal system of government as determined in the Constitution. Their numbers obviously included almost all of the constitutional drafters from Philadelphia, such as James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin. Despite his notionally objective role as the Convention’s chairman, George Washington also publicly backed the Constitution, a factor that convinced many to support it. Those who did not support the Constitution came to be known as Anti-Federalists or ‘states-rights men’ and their most notable representative was Patrick Henry (who had refused to attend the Convention because of his suspicion of it, declaring “I smell a rat”). These two groups, Federalists and Anti-Federalists, were not cohesive, organised or centrally controlled. They were two ‘schools of thought’ rather than distinct political parties, much like Whigs and Tories in the old regime.

“Alexander Hamilton shared pessimism about the Constitution, but for different reasons. A lawyer by profession, Hamilton was assertive… on the last day of the convention he declared that ‘no man’s ideas were more remote from the plan than his own’. [He had sought] to make the federal government more like that of Britain, which Hamilton considered ‘the best in the world’. He signed the Constitution despite his misgivings, Hamilton said, because the alternatives were ‘anarchy and convulsion on the one side’ and, on the other, a remote chance the Constitution would do some good.”
Pauline Maier, historian

In the end the Federalists won the day, the ninth state ratifying in June 1788 and the final four states eventually signing (largely due to considerable pressure and threats of economic isolation from the rest!). Why did ratification succeed? There are many reasons. Among the political elites of the day the Federalists probably ended up with the numbers. State leaders concerned about their status, position and property gradually realised they had less to fear from ratification than from Shays’-like uprisings. The Federalists had outstanding propagandists and essayists like James Madison, while the Anti-Federalists only had Patrick Henry, Randolph and other figures, who were no match for ‘Publius’. The man who could have been the Anti-Federalists’ greatest figurehead, Thomas Jefferson, was in France – and even he refused to side entirely with their cause. A strongly-written letter from Washington in support of the Constitution won many over to the side of ratification. State conventions were nominated to vote on ratification, rather than leaving the matter to state assemblies, who had more to lose. Perhaps the final deciding factor was the promise of the Federalists to agree to a bill of rights, by way of constitutional amendment, once the new government was in place; this swung many Anti-Federalists towards ratification.

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