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devised a form which would make the action appear to be unanimous:
"Done in Convention by the unanimous consent of the states present...
in witness whereof we have hereunto subscribed our names." Thirty-nine
delegates, representing twelve States, then signed the Constitution.

When Charles Biddle of Philadelphia, who was acquainted with most of
the members of the Convention, wrote his "Autobiography," which was
published in 1802, he declared that for his part he considered the
government established by the Constitution to be "the best in the world,
and as perfect as any human form of government can be." But he prefaced
that declaration with a statement that some of the best informed members
of the Federal Convention had told him "they did not believe a single
member was perfectly satisfied with the Constitution, but they believed
it was the best they could ever agree upon, and that it was infinitely
better to have such a one than break up without fixing on some form of
government, which I believe at one time it was expected they would have

One of the outstanding characteristics of the members of the Federal
Convention was their practical sagacity. They had a very definite object
before them. No matter how much the members might talk about democracy
in theory or about ancient confederacies, when it came to action they
did not go outside of their own experience. The Constitution was devised
to correct well-known defects and it contained few provisions which had
not been tested by practical political experience. Before the Convention
met, some of the leading men in the country had prepared lists of the
defects which existed in the Articles of Confederation, and in the
Constitution practically every one of these defects was corrected and by
means which had already been tested in the States and under the Articles
of Confederation.


The course of English history shops that Anglo-Saxon tradition is
strongly in favor of observing precedents and of trying to maintain
at least the form of law, even in revolutions. When the English people
found it impossible to bear with James II and made it so uncomfortable
for him that he fled the country, they shifted the responsibility from
their own shoulders by charging him with "breaking the original Contract
between King and People." When the Thirteen Colonies had reached the
point where they felt that they must separate from England, their
spokesman, Thomas Jefferson, found the necessary justification in the
fundamental compact of the first settlers "in the wilds of America"
where "the emigrants thought proper to adopt that system of laws
under which they had hitherto lived in the mother country"; and in the
Declaration of Independence he charged the King of Great Britain with
"repeated injuries and usurpations all having in direct object the
establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States."

And so it was with the change to the new form of government in the
United States, which was accomplished only by disregarding the forms
prescribed in the Articles of Confederation and has been called,
therefore, "the Revolution of 1789." From the outset the new
constitution was placed under the sanction of the old. The movement
began with an attempt, outwardly at least, to revise the Articles of
Confederation and in that form was authorized by Congress. The first
breach with the past was made when the proposal in the Virginia
Resolutions was accepted that amendments made by the Convention in the
Articles of Confederation should be submitted to assemblies chosen by
the people instead of to the legislatures of the separate States. This
was the more readily accepted because it was believed that ratification
by the legislatures would result in the formation of a treaty rather
than in a working instrument of government. The next step was to
prevent the work of the Convention from meeting the fate of all previous
amendments to the Articles of Confederation, which had required the
consent of every State in the Union. At the time the committee of detail
made its report, the Convention was ready to agree that the consent of
all the States was not necessary, and it eventually decided that, when
ratified by the conventions of nine States, the Constitution should go
into effect between the States so ratifying.

It was not within the province of the Convention to determine what the
course of procedure should be in the individual States; so it simply
transmitted the Constitution to Congress and in an accompanying
document, which significantly omitted any request for the approval of
Congress, strongly expressed the opinion that the Constitution should
"be submitted to a convention of delegates chosen in each state by the
people thereof." This was nothing less than indirect ratification by the
people; and, since it was impossible to foretell in advance which of the
States would or would not ratify, the original draft of "We, the People
of the States of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island,..." was
changed to the phrase "We, the People of the United States." No man of
that day could imagine how significant this change would appear in the
light of later history.

Congress did not receive the new Constitution enthusiastically, yet
after a few days' discussion it unanimously voted, eleven States being
present, that the recommendations of the Convention should be followed,
and accordingly sent the document to the States, but without a word of
approval or disapproval. On the whole the document was well received,
especially as it was favored by the upper class, who had the ability and
the opportunity for expression and were in a position to make themselves
heard. For a time it looked as if the Constitution would be readily

The contest over the Constitution in the States is usually taken as
marking the beginning of the two great national political parties in
the United States. This was, indeed, in a way the first great national
question that could cause such a division. There had been, to be sure,
Whigs and Tories in America, reproducing British parties, but when the
trouble with the mother country began, the successive congresses of
delegates were recognized and attended only by the so-called American
Whigs, and after the Declaration of Independence the name of Tory,
became a reproach, so that with the end of the war the Tory party
disappeared. After the Revolution there were local parties in the
various States, divided on one and another question, such as that of
hard and soft money, and these issues had coincided in different
States; but they were in no sense national parties with organizations,
platforms, and leaders; they were purely local, and the followers of one
or the other would have denied that they were anything else than Whigs.
But a new issue was now raised. The Whig party split in two, new
leaders appeared, and the elements gathered in two main divisions - the
Federalists advocating, and the Anti-Federalists opposing, the adoption
of the new Constitution.

There were differences of opinion over all the questions which had
led to the calling of the Federal Convention and the framing of the
Constitution and so there was inevitably a division upon the result of
the Convention's work. There were those who wanted national authority
for the suppression of disorder and of what threatened to be anarchy
throughout the Union; and on the other hand there were those who opposed
a strongly organized government through fear of its destroying liberty.
Especially debtors and creditors took opposite sides, and most of the
people in the United States could have been brought under one or
the other category. The former favored a system of government and
legislation which would tend to relieve or postpone the payment of
debts; and, as that relief would come more readily from the State
Governments, they were naturally the friends of State rights and State
authority and were opposed to any enlargement of the powers of the
Federal Government. On the other hand, were those who felt the necessity
of preserving inviolate every private and public obligation and who
saw that the separate power of the States could not accomplish what was
necessary to sustain both public and private credit; they were
disposed to use the resources of the Union and accordingly to favor the
strengthening of the national government. In nearly every State there
was a struggle between these classes.

In Philadelphia and the neighborhood there was great enthusiasm for the
new Constitution. Almost simultaneously with the action by Congress, and
before notification of it had been received, a motion was introduced
in the Pennsylvania Assembly to call a ratifying convention. The
Anti-Federalists were surprised by the suddenness of this proposal and
to prevent action absented themselves from the session of the Assembly,
leaving that body two short of the necessary quorum for the transaction
of business. The excitement and indignation in the city were so great
that early the next morning a crowd gathered, dragged two of the
absentees from their lodgings to the State House, and held them firmly
in their places until the roll was called and a quorum counted, when the
House proceeded to order a State convention. As soon as the news of this
vote got out, the city gave itself up to celebrating the event by
the suspension of business, the ringing of church bells, and other
demonstrations. The elections were hotly contested, but the Federalists
were generally successful. The convention met towards the end of
November and, after three weeks of futile discussion, mainly upon
trivial matters and the meaning of words, ratified the Constitution on
the 12th of December, by a vote of forty-six to twenty-three. Again the
city of Philadelphia celebrated.

Pennsylvania was the first State to call a convention, but its final
action was anticipated by Delaware, where the State convention met and
ratified the Constitution by unanimous vote on the 7th of December. The
New Jersey convention spent only a week in discussion and then voted,
also unanimously, for ratification on the 18th of December. The next
State to ratify was Georgia, where the Constitution was approved without
a dissenting vote on January 2, 1788. Connecticut followed immediately
and, after a session of only five days, declared itself in favor of the
Constitution, on the 9th of January, by a vote of over three to one.

The results of the campaign for ratification thus far were most
gratifying to the Federalists, but the issue was not decided. With the
exception of Pennsylvania, the States which had acted were of lesser
importance, and, until Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia should
declare themselves, the outcome would be in doubt. The convention
of Massachusetts met on the same day that the Connecticut convention
adjourned. The sentiment of Boston, like that of Philadelphia, was
strongly Federalist; but the outlying districts, and in particular the
western part of the State, where Shays' Rebellion had broken out, were
to be counted in the opposition. There were 355 delegates who took part
in the Massachusetts convention, a larger number than was chosen in
any of the other States, and the majority seemed to be opposed to
ratification. The division was close, however, and it was believed that
the attitude of two men would determine the result. One of these was
Governor John Hancock, who was chosen chairman of the convention but
who did not attend the sessions at the outset, as he was confined to
his house by an attack of gout, which, it was maliciously said,
would disappear as soon as it was known which way the majority of the
convention would vote. The other was Samuel Adams, a genuine friend
of liberty, who was opposed on principle to the general theory of the
government set forth in the Constitution. "I stumble at the threshold,"
he wrote. "I meet with a national government, instead of a federal union
of sovereign states." But, being a shrewd politician, Adams did not
commit himself openly and, when the tradesmen of Boston declared
themselves in favor of ratification, he was ready to yield his personal

There were many delegates in the Massachusetts convention who felt that
it was better to amend the document before them than to try another
Federal Convention, when as good an instrument might not be devised. If
this group were added to those who were ready to accept the Constitution
as it stood, they would make a majority in favor of the new government.
But the delay involved in amending was regarded as dangerous, and it was
argued that, as the Constitution made ample provision for changes, it
would be safer and wiser to rely upon that method. The question was one,
therefore, of immediate or future amendment. Pressure was accordingly
brought to bear upon Governor Hancock and intimations were made to
him of future political preferment, until he was persuaded to
propose immediate ratification of the Constitution, with an urgent
recommendation of such amendments as would remove the objections of
the Massachusetts people. When this proposal was approved by Adams, its
success was assured, and a few days later, on the 6th of February, the
convention voted 187 to 168 in favor of ratification. Nine amendments,
largely in the nature of a bill of rights, were then demanded, and
the Massachusetts representatives in Congress were enjoined "at all
times,... to exert all their influence, and use all reasonable and
legal methods, To obtain a ratification of the said alterations and
provisions." On the very day this action was taken, Jefferson wrote
from Paris to Madison: "I wish with all my soul that the nine first
conventions may accept the new Constitution, to secure to us the good
it contains; but I equally wish that the four latest, whichever they may
be, may refuse to accede to it till a declaration of rights be annexed."

Boston proceeded to celebrate as Philadelphia, and Benjamin Lincoln
wrote to Washington, on the 9th of February, enclosing an extract from
the local paper describing the event:

"By the paper your Excellency will observe some account of the parade
of the Eighth the printer had by no means time eno' to do justice to
the subject. To give you some idea how far he has been deficient I will
mention an observation I heard made by a Lady the last evening who saw
the whole that the description in the paper would no more compare with
the original than the light of the faintest star would with that of the
Sun fortunately for us the whole ended without the least disorder
and the town during the whole evening was, so far as I could observe
perfectly quiet."*

*Documentary History, vol. IV, pp. 488-490.

He added another paragraph which he later struck out as being of little
importance; but it throws an interesting sidelight upon the customs of
the time.

"The Gentlemen provided at Faneul Hall some biscuit & cheese four qr
Casks of wine three barrels & two hogs of punch the moment they found
that the people had drank sufficiently means were taken to overset the
two hogspunch this being done the company dispersed and the day ended
most agreeably"*

* Ibid.

Maryland came next. When the Federal Convention was breaking up, Luther
Martin was speaking of the new system of government to his colleague,
Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer, and exclaimed: "I'll be hanged if ever
the people of Maryland agree to it!" To which his colleague retorted:
"I advise you to stay in Philadelphia, lest you should be hanged." And
Jenifer proved to be right, for in Maryland the Federalists obtained
control of the convention and, by a vote of 63 to 11, ratified the
Constitution on the 26th of April.

In South Carolina, which was the Southern State next in importance to
Virginia, the compromise on the slave trade proved to be one of the
deciding factors in determining public opinion. When the elections were
held, they resulted in an overwhelming majority for the Federalists, so
that after a session of less than two weeks the convention ratified the
Constitution, on the 28th of May, by a vote of over two to one.

The only apparent setback which the adoption of the Constitution had
thus far received was in New Hampshire, where the convention met early
in February and then adjourned until June to see what the other States
might do. But this delay proved to be of no consequence for, when the
time came for the second meeting of the New Hampshire delegates, eight
States had already acted favorably and adoption was regarded as a
certainty. This was sufficient to put a stop to any further waiting, and
New Hampshire added its name to the list on the 21st of June; but the
division of opinion was fairly well represented by the smallness of the
majority, the vote standing 57 to 46.

Nine States had now ratified the Constitution and it was to go into
effect among them. But the support of Virginia and New York was of so
much importance that their decisions were awaited with uneasiness. In
Virginia, in spite of the support of such men as Washington and Madison,
the sentiment for and against the Constitution was fairly evenly
divided, and the opposition numbered in its ranks other names of almost
equal influence, such as Patrick Henry and George Mason. Feeling ran
high; the contest was a bitter one and, even after the elections had
been held and the convention had opened, early in June, the decision was
in doubt and remained in doubt until the very end. The situation was,
in one respect at least, similar to that which had existed in
Massachusetts, in that it was possible to get a substantial majority
in favor of the Constitution provided certain amendments were made. The
same arguments were used; strengthened on the one side by what other
States had done, and on the other side by the plea that now was the time
to hold out for amendments. The example of Massachusetts, however, seems
to have been decisive, and on the 25th of June, four days later than
New Hampshire, the Virginia convention voted to ratify, "under the
conviction that whatsoever imperfections may exist in the Constitution
ought rather to be examined in the mode prescribed therein, than
to bring the Union into danger by delay, with a hope of obtaining
amendments previous to the ratification."

When the New York convention began its sessions on the 17th of June, it
is said that more than two-thirds of the delegates were Anti-Federalist
in sentiment. How a majority in favor of the Constitution was obtained
has never been adequately explained, but it is certain that the main
credit for the achievement belongs to Alexander Hamilton. He had early
realized how greatly it would help the prospects of the Constitution if
thinking people could be brought to an appreciation of the importance
and value of the new form of government. In order to reach the
intelligent public everywhere, but particularly in New York, he
projected a series of essays which should be published in the
newspapers, setting forth the aims and purposes of the Constitution.
He secured the assistance of Madison and Jay, and before the end of
October, 1787, published the first essay in "The Independent Gazetteer."
From that time on these papers continued to be printed over the
signature of "Publius," sometimes as many as three or four in a week.
There were eighty-five numbers altogether, which have ever since been
known as "The Federalist." Of these approximately fifty were the work of
Hamilton, Madison wrote about thirty and Jay five. Although the essays
were widely copied in other journals, and form for us the most important
commentary on the Constitution, making what is regarded as one of
America's greatest books, it is doubtful how much immediate influence
they had. Certainly in the New York convention itself Hamilton's
personal influence was a stronger force. His arguments were both
eloquent and cogent, and met every objection; and his efforts to win
over the opposition were unremitting. The news which came by express
riders from New Hampshire and then from Virginia were also deciding
factors, for New York could not afford to remain out of the new Union if
it was to embrace States on either side. And yet the debate continued,
as the opposition was putting forth every effort to make ratification
conditional upon certain amendments being adopted. But Hamilton
resolutely refused to make any concessions and at length was successful
in persuading the New York convention, by a vote of 30 against 27, on
the 26th of July, to follow the example of Massachusetts and Virginia
and to ratify the Constitution with merely a recommendation of future

The satisfaction of the country at the outcome of the long and momentous
struggle over the adoption of the new government was unmistakable. Even
before the action of New York had been taken, the Fourth of July was
made the occasion for a great celebration throughout the United States,
both as the anniversary of independence and as the consummation of the
Union by the adoption of the Constitution.

The general rejoicing was somewhat tempered, however, by the reluctance
of North Carolina and Rhode Island to come under "the new roof." Had
the convention which met on the 21st of July in North Carolina reached
a vote, it would probably have defeated the Constitution, but it was
doubtless restrained by the action of New York and adjourned without
coming to a decision. A second convention was called in September, 1789,
and in the meantime the new government had come into operation and was
bringing pressure to bear upon the recalcitrant States which refused to
abandon the old union for the new. One of the earliest acts passed by
Congress was a revenue act, levying duties upon foreign goods imported,
which were made specifically to apply to imports from Rhode Island and
North Carolina. This was sufficient for North Carolina, and on November
21, 1789, the convention ratified the Constitution. But Rhode Island
still held out. A convention of that State was finally called to meet
in March, 1790, but accomplished nothing and avoided a decision by
adjourning until May. The Federal Government then proceeded to threaten
drastic measures by taking up a bill which authorized the President to
suspend all commercial intercourse with Rhode Island and to demand of
that State the payment of its share of the Federal debt. The bill passed
the Senate but stopped there, for the State gave in and ratified the
Constitution on the 29th of May. Two weeks later Ellsworth, who was now
United States Senator from Connecticut, wrote that Rhode Island had been
"brought into the Union, and by a pretty cold measure in Congress, which
would have exposed me to some censure, had it not produced the effect
which I expected it would and which in fact it has done. But 'all is
well that ends well.' The Constitution is now adopted by all the States
and I have much satisfaction, and perhaps some vanity, in seeing,
at length, a great work finished, for which I have long labored

* "Connecticut's Ratification of the Federal Constitution," by B.
C. Steiner, in "Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society," April
1915, pp. 88-89.

Perhaps the most striking feature of these conventions is the trivial
character of the objections that were raised. Some of the arguments
it is, true, went to the very heart of the matter and considered the
fundamental principles of government. It is possible to tolerate and
even to sympathize with a man who declared:

"Among other deformities the Constitution has an awful squinting. It
squints toward monarchy;... your president may easily become a king....
If your American chief be a man of ambition and ability how easy it is
for him to render himself absolute. We shall have a king. The army will
salute him monarch."*

* "Connecticut's Ratification of the Federal Constitution," by B.
C. Steiner, in "Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society," April
1915 pp. 88-89.

But it is hard to take seriously a delegate who asked permission "to
make a short apostrophe to liberty," and then delivered himself of this

"O liberty! - thou greatest good - thou fairest property - with thee I wish
to live - with thee I wish to die! - Pardon me if I drop a tear on the
peril to which she is exposed; I cannot, sir, see this brightest of
jewels tarnished! a jewel worth ten thousand worlds! and shall we part
with it so soon? O no!"*

* Elliot's "Debates on the Federal Constitution," vol. III. p.

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Online LibraryMax FarrandThe Fathers of the Constitution; a chronicle of the establishment of the Union → online text (page 8 of 13)