Every September 17, this nation celebrates Constitution Day. September 17 is the date we celebrate the Constitution because it was the date in 1787 that 39 Founding Fathers from 12 colonies signed the United States Constitution. However, just because the delegates to the Constitutional Convention had signed their names to the document, it did not mean that the Constitution was governing law.
As the delegates left Philadelphia, the signers of the Constitution understood that the real fight was just beginning. They had labored for 117 days in Philadelphia to iron out compromises and establish the framework of how 13 colonies could be united as a single nation. What were the people going to think? Would the people elect representatives who would support a Federal government or would they vote for state-rights representatives who wanted to preserve the Articles of Confederation?
As the word spread, reactions around the country were polarizing. There were strong voices who denounced the Philadelphia convention and publicly chided the representatives who had signed such a treasonous document. Many of the representatives who had voted for the new Constitution immediately had to start working on changing the minds of the public by educating them on the value of a new Constitution.
One of the most well-known efforts for educating the people on the pitfalls of the Articles of Confederation and the benefits of the Constitution was that of Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison in The Independent Journal. The people in New York were opposed to a national government and they needed to be persuaded. By the time these men had finished, they had written 85 separate articles encouraging the people of New York to support the Constitution.
Hamilton started the first article with these words:
After full experience of the insufficiency of the existing federal government, you are invited to deliberate upon a new Constitution for the United States of America.”
Hamilton finished the final article with this heartfelt plea:
A nation, without a national government, is an awful spectacle. The establishment of a constitution, in time of profound peace, by the voluntary consent of a whole people, is a prodigy, to the completion of which I look forward with trembling anxiety. In so arduous an enterprise, I can reconcile it to no rules of prudence to let go the hold we now have, upon seven out of the thirteen states; and after having passed over so considerable a part of the ground, to recommence the course. I dread the more the consequences of new attempts, because I know that powerful individuals, in this and in other states, are enemies to a general national government in every possible shape.
Efforts like Hamilton, Jay, and Madison were going on in almost every newspaper around the colonies. Local leaders let their voices be heard as to why they did or did not support the new Constitution. The debate was on, were the states going to ratify?
In order for the Constitution to become the governing document of the United States of America, nine colonies had to ratify the Constitution. Each colony had to elect a delegation to a ratification convention. Georgia had the smallest convention with 26 representatives while Massachusetts had the largest with 355. Each colony selected how many representatives they would have, and when and where their conventions would be held.
Delaware was the first state to ratify the Constitution on December 7, 1787. They were also the first of three states whose ratification convention unanimously approved the Constitution. The other two states were New Jersey and Georgia.
On June 21, 1788, New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the Constitution. Madison knew that both New York and New Hampshire were debating whether they were going to ratify the Constitution. Madison was in regular correspondence with the conventions in both of these states trying to understand the political climate and the likelihood of ratification.
Madison would have loved for Virginia to be the ninth and decisive ratification vote and argued persuasively throughout the Virginia convention that it was best for Virginia that they ratify. On June 25, 1788, with a vote of 89 to 79, Virginia voted to ratify the Constitution. Madison was elated. He believed that his state was the all-important ninth state. It was a couple of days later that he learn that New Hampshire had beaten both New York and Virginia and became the state that officially created the United States of America.
Virginia did end up beating New York by one day. New York ratified the Constitution by a vote of 30 to 27 on June 26, 1788. The New York ratification vote is a testament to the power of the press and the desire of the nation for a national government. When the New York delegation was initially elected, 19 were Federalists while 46 were Anti-Federalist. The New York delegation was strongly against the Constitution but they were persuaded to vote for ratification as they watched their fellow states vote for ratification.
One interesting fact about the ratification process is that by the time George Washington was sworn in as President of the United States on April 30, 1789, two states still had not ratified the Constitution. Neither North Carolina nor Rhode Island was allowed to vote for the President. North Carolina ended up ratifying on November 21, 1789, and Rhode Island on May 29, 1790. With a vote of 34 – 32, Rhode Island ended up being the closest ratification vote of all the original 13 states.
On this Constitution Day, please remember to take the time to read the words of the United States Constitution.
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.