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6.4: Ratifying the Constitution

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  • The convention voted to send its proposed Constitution to Congress, which was then sitting in New York, with a cover letter from George Washington. The plan for adopting the new Constitution, however, required approval from special state ratification conventions, not just Congress. During the ratification process, critics of the Constitution organized to persuade voters in the different states to oppose it.

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Delegates to the Constitutional Convention assembled, argued, and finally agreed in this room, styled in the same manner as during the Convention. Photograph of the Assembly Room, Independence Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Wikimedia. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.

    Importantly, the Constitutional Convention had voted down a proposal from Virginia’s George Mason, the author of Virginia’s state Declaration of Rights, for a national bill of rights. This omission became a rallying point for opponents of the document. Many of these Anti-Federalists argued that without such a guarantee of specific rights, American citizens risked losing their personal liberty to the powerful federal government. The pro-ratification Federalists, on the other hand, argued that including a bill of rights was not only redundant but dangerous; it could limit future citizens from adding new rights.11

    Citizens debated the merits of the Constitution in newspaper articles, letters, sermons, and coffeehouse quarrels across America. Some of the most famous, and most important, arguments came from Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison in the Federalist Papers, which were published in various New York newspapers in 1787 and 1788.12 The first crucial vote came at the beginning of 1788 in Massachusetts. At first, the Anti-Federalists at the Massachusetts ratifying convention probably had the upper hand, but after weeks of debate, enough delegates changed their votes to narrowly approve the Constitution. But they also approved a number of proposed amendments, which were to be submitted to the first Congress. This pattern—ratifying the Constitution but attaching proposed amendments—was followed by other state conventions.

    The most high-profile convention was held in Richmond, Virginia, in June 1788, when Federalists like James Madison, Edmund Randolph, and John Marshall squared off against equally influential Anti-Federalists like Patrick Henry and George Mason. Virginia was America’s most populous state, it had produced some of the country’s highest-profile leaders, and the success of the new government rested upon its cooperation. After nearly a month of debate, Virginia voted 89 to 79 in favor of ratification.13

    On July 2, 1788, Congress announced that a majority of states had ratified the Constitution and that the document was now in effect. Yet this did not mean the debates were over. North Carolina, New York, and Rhode Island had not completed their ratification conventions, and Anti-Federalists still argued that the Constitution would lead to tyranny. The New York convention would ratify the Constitution by just three votes, and finally Rhode Island would ratify it by two votes—a full year after George Washington was inaugurated as president.

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