The US Constitution: Convention and Ratification
By Adam Stengel
(AP/IB History, English Literature, English Language, History tutor at The Edge Learning Center)
Some understand Constitutional Ratification (1787-89) to be a cohesive act of groupthink and patriotic team play: a founding father sports huddle in which all those wigged and powdered gentlemen joined together and in unison chanted, “U-S-A! U-S-A! 1, 2, 3, BREAK!” In reality, the 1787 Convention and the multiyear ratification process that followed were laborious convocations, with uneasy resolutions reached only through pragmatic compromise.
IB folks studying the History of the Americas route, IGCSE kids in certain curriculums, and especially AP US History students will need to know all about the Constitution Period—especially with regards to the reasons why the convention emerged as a civic necessity and how the controversial, although ingenious, document that emerged from Independence Hall shaped (and divided) the new nation—politically, socially, and economically—then and thereafter.
The two documents that influenced and, to use an historiographical term, “caused” the Constitutional Convention, bringing about its subsequent text, are the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the Articles of Confederation (1777-81). The former, as soon as it was signed, sealed, and delivered, became the official act of rebellion against Great Britain. During the American Revolution and after, the Declaration remained the text that most encapsulated the new nation’s ideals and reason for being. While the Articles initially served as the de facto constitution of the thirteen original states, it notoriously failed because of its innate lack of power to do anything (to tax, to govern, to legislate, or to amend) on a centralized, national scale.
So, with the Revolution won and independence firmly established, the people—and by people I mean the Second Continental Congress—concluded that the drafting and ratification of a new-and-improved supreme law was warranted. Hence, a bunch of white male property-holding citizens (“delegates”) agreed to meet in May 1787 in the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia, PA, to hash out a fresh set of fundamental principles to quell dispute, gather strength, and establish domestic tranquility. Hilarity ensued.
Live from Independence Hall: “The Convention”
If you weren’t aware, Philly sits in a swamp, and from late May through mid September—which is when the Constitutional Convention took place—the city swelters. In the pre-air-conditioned days of the eighteenth century, it must have been borderline unbearable, especially for a bunch of bros in long stockings, cooped up in an overcrowded room, mansplaining hot air in all directions. And it was in these dog days that the Constitution was brainstormed, outlined, drafted, and signed. For students studying this topic, it’s best to comprehend the Convention not as a narrative but as an ongoing debate that featured main players, key issues, and emerging factions, which I’ll highlight below.
Broadway Star, King of the $20, and majority composer of The Federalist Papers, Hamilton was the Convention’s event planner. He endorsed the Virginia Plan, which would have established proportional representation in both houses of Congress. Forever suspicious of democracy, he favored a strong centralized government, overriding executive power (honestly, he would have been okay with a King), and a national bank. Hamilton and Madison and there crew championed Ratification in the months and years following the Convention, and they formed the nation’s first real political party: the Federalists.
If Hamilton was the organizing GM of the Convention, his co-Federalist, James Madison, was the head coach/point guard. Prior to setting off for Philadelphia, the Virginian geeked-out hardcore—supposedly, he spent months locked up in his private study, reading political philosophy and developing a game plan for America. Many historians consider Madison the Convention’s most influential delegate. Though originally he didn’t feel that a Bill of Rights was necessary, eventually he had a change of heart, and he became one of the chief architects of the first ten constitutional amendments (AKA the Bill of Rights).
Of course many delegates had their say, as the final draft of the Constitution reflects, but some had more influence than others. Below I’ll list a few of the Hype Men who lived by the “Get-in-where-you-fit-in” model in Independence Hall.
Benjamin Franklin: We know life is all about the Benjamins, and the Convention was no different. Serving as a local (Pennsylvania) delegate, Franklin, at age 81, was the oldest founding father there, and probably used some fancy brass contraptions—that he himself invented—to hear and see what was going on around him. He spoke out against slavery, but, as we know, the Constitution didn’t reflect Poor Richard’s enlightened views.
George Mason: The Virginian Delegate was the mastermind behind the Executive Branch scheme, which he developed at the convention, introducing such details as term limits and impeachment criteria. In the end, Mason is perhaps most famous for being one of three delegates—along with Edmund Randolph and Eldridge Gerry—to not sign the final draft. Concerned that the Constitution lacked a Bill of Rights, Mason emerged as the model Anti-Federalist, a political identity I’ll detail a bit more down the line.
Roger Sherman: The Connecticut Yankee of Independence Hall, Sherman, along with William Patterson of New Jersey, as well as the Delaware Delegation, proposed the Great Compromise, formatting the legislative structure still in effect today: a bicameral (two-house) Congress, with a lower-house (House of Representatives) of representation based on state population and an upper-house (Senate) with equal representation. Given that how to organize the legislature was such a major point of contention at the Convention, Sherman’s stroke of diplomacy most likely saved that whole fiesta from devolving into a fistfight.
George Washington: A man universally respected and revered, George Washington presided over the Convention. Always the strong silent type, he didn’t get involved in the heated debates, but he did make a few grand prophetic statements that most of the loudmouths ignored.
Ramifications and Ratification
On September 17, 1787, the U.S. Constitution was submitted for signing, and all but three delegates (who I’ve already mentioned above) provided their John Hancocks. The most common method for assessing Constitution Era knowledge is to explore the issues that arose during the ratification process and how they reverberated over time, giving birth to factionalism.
States Rights vs. Federal Government
How to divide power between the States and the Federal Government—and which to give head-to-head advantages to—emerged as a pivotal issue before, during, and after the Constitutional Convention. Divisive events such as the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Nullification Crisis, and the dispute over the institution of slavery have their roots in this constitutional dichotomy. Consequently, the debate remains an essential issue in the Two Party System that dominates U.S. partisan politics to this day.
A Bill of Rights: To Have or Not To Have? (That Is the Question)
The original Constitution does not feature a statement of guaranteed unalienable rights for U.S. citizens, nor does it include any lawfully dictated proclamations that parrot the spirit and values of the Declaration of Impendence. For George Mason and his posse, this missing link was a crying shame, and that’s why they refused to sign the document as it appeared in final draft form. During the ratification process, many political leaders began to echo Mason’s sentiments. Eventually, it became obvious that some amendments were necessary. Thus, in September of 1789, the Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution. Today these first ten amendments serve as both a practical and ceremonial framework for the personal freedoms and lawful protections of U.S. citizens.
Federalists vs. Anti-Federalists
Read the text in the image above. It’s a good guide!
Ratification Played Out
By the end of 1787 New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Georgia had all ratified the U.S. Constitution. The following February, a compromise was reached guaranteeing immediate amendments (i.e. a Bill of Rights), which was a gesture good enough to get Maryland, Massachusetts, and South Carolina to join the party. New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify in June, thus making the document official on a national level; it would take effect in March of 1789. Virginia ratified that summer, and so did New York, and North Carolina did too by year’s end. Rhode Island—those crazy folks who didn’t even send delegates to the convention—was the last of the original thirteen to ratify in the spring of 1790.
Despite George Washington’s prediction that the Constitution would not last for over ten years, it remains the law of the land over two hundred after it went into effect. Some claim it is the greatest legal document in the history of the universe, while others maintain that ratification was a conspiracy-laced power seize by an East Coast mercantile elite. Wherever you fall between such poles, as a student of U.S. History, you must recognize that the Convention and the process of Ratification were major events that established a unique system of government and shaped a revolutionary nation.