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Ratification of the Constitution

By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 4, 2012

The Struggle for Ratification

Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts and Edmund J. Randolph and Thomas Paine of Virginia refused to sign the Constitution, feeling that it gave too much power to the central government. Their refusal foreshadowed the struggle for ratification that would end in the addition of ten amendments to the Constitution. These amendments are collectively known as the Bill of Rights.

Those who supported the Constitution were called Federalists because they had designed a federal government—one in which the national and state governments shared power and authority. Those who opposed the Constitution as originally written were known as the Antifederalists. Both sides took their case directly to the voters in pamphlets, speeches, and newspaper editorials.

The Antifederalists feared a repetition of what had happened between the colonies and Great Britain: that local interests would be ignored in favor of national ones, that a distant central government would ignore the people it had been designed to represent, and that smaller and weaker states would come under the sway of the larger, more powerful states. Above all, the Antifederalists stressed the fact that the Constitution said nothing about the rights of individual citizens.

James Madison had been the best-prepared delegate at the Constitutional Convention. He had shut himself up in his Virginia home for months before the convention, reading historical and political works as he considered what kind of government would best suit the United States. His detailed written notes of the debates in the Constitutional Convention have been a priceless record for historians to study ever since. Now Madison took pen in hand to defend the Constitution. Beginning in October 1787, a series of essays known collectively as the Federalist Papers began to appear in print. Signed with the name Publius, these essays presented a variety of reasoned arguments in favor of the Constitution. “Publius” was actually three men: Alexander Hamilton, wrote fifty-one of the essays, Madison, twenty-nine, and John Jay, five. The entire collection was published together in the spring of 1788.

By far the most famous of the Federalist Papers is number 10, written by Madison. In this essay, Publius discusses the danger of factions—what we today call “special-interest groups.” He argued that the United States included so many factions that only a representative central government, in which all factions had an equal voice, could possibly succeed, as smaller local governments were bound to discriminate in favor of the majority. With so many diverse interests in the national government, Publius argued, there would be no danger of any one faction gaining a majority.

Ratification and Its Aftermath

By May 1788, eight of the nine necessary states had ratified the Constitution: Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, and South Carolina. On June 21st, New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the Constitution, making it officially the law of the land.

Virginia was one of the largest and most powerful states; thus, its ratification was especially crucial to the success of the Constitution. After intense debate, Virginia ratified the Constitution with recommendations that it be amended. Led by Antifederalist Patrick Henry, those who opposed the Constitution offered the Congress a bill of rights and twenty suggested changes to the Constitution.

New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify; Virginia and New York followed. On July 2, Congress announced that the Constitution had been ratified. On September 13, it called for the first national elections. As everyone had expected, George Washington was elected president. John Adams had come in second in the voting and was named vice president. George Washington took the oath of office on the steps of Federal Hall on Wall Street in New York, which was then the national capital. The first Congress of the United States, comprising 59 representatives and 22 senators, convened in New York in March, 1789.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

The Constitution and the Bill of Rights Practice Test

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