THE CONSTITUTION BEFORE THE PEOPLE
The ship Constitution had experienced a rough voyage thus far; but the most dangerous breakers were still ahead. Nearly half the people opposed the new plan of government, and a bitter contest resulted. Those favoring the Constitution called themselves Federalists, while they dubbed their opponents Anti-federalists. The cry of the Anti-federalists was that the new government would be too strong and too centralizing. There was a vague fear that Congress would become a tyrant, would crush the liberties of the people and tax them without their consent, as England had attempted to do before the war. The farmers cried out that the lawyers and men of wealth would control the government and would swallow the common people like a great leviathan. Among the opponents we find such leaders as Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, and George Clinton; and, in a milder degree, Samuel Adams and John Hancock. These men were sincerely honest in their opposition; but they labored at a serious disadvantage in that their position was purely negative--they had nothing to offer instead of the plan they sought to defeat. The Federalists were not very enthusiastic in their praise of the Constitution; but they asserted that it was the best attainable, that disunion and anarchy would prevail if it were rejected, and that the fear of its opponents were groundless, as the government would still be in the hands of the people. The most powerful argument for the Constitution was brought out in a series of papers, written mostly by Hamilton,1 and since known collectively as "The Federalist." On the other side Richard Henry Lee was the foremost writer.
Some of the state conventions, chosen to consider the new plan, wrestled for weeks over the subject, while others ratified it after a few days� debate. Delaware won the honor of being first to ratify it, the action being unanimous. Pennsylvania came second. In this state the people were almost equally divided, but the Federalists held a "snap" convention and won the day, after a fierce contest. New Jersey came third and, like Delaware, ratified the plan by a unanimous vote. These three states had acted in December, 1787, and the new year brought others, month by month, into the Union. Georgia was bounded on the south by troublesome Spaniards, and on the west by hostile Indians. The people of the state therefore gladly accepted the promised protection of a stronger government; they ratified it without division on January 2, and Connecticut followed a week later.
Thus within four months after the breaking up of the convention that had framed it, the new Constitution was adopted by five states. But now came a half. The Anti-federalists had been half asleep. Now they roused themselves and formed in line of battle for a more determined opposition; and many a time during the coming months it seemed that the new Republic would die while being born. It was left for the great state of Massachusetts to turn the scale. Next to Virginia, her weight was the greatest among the states. Her convention sat for several weeks and discussed the Constitution, article by article, and it would doubtless have been rejected but for two things--the wholesome lesson taught by the insurrection led by Daniel Shays, and the ultimate conversion of Samuel Adams. Adams was extremely democratic in his theory of government. He feared too much centralization of power, and at first opposed the new plan. But he was an honest soul; he reflected that a rejection of the Constitution, with nothing to offer in its place, might be disastrous. During the early weeks of the convention he sat meditative and silent. Many turned to him as children to a father, to decide the momentous question. And further, a committee from a great meeting of artisans, headed by Paul Revere, famous for his midnight ride of years before, came to Adams with a series of resolutions begging him to favor the new government. Adams was deeply moved, and at length he decided for the Constitution. John Hancock experienced a similar conversion, and Massachusetts soon after ratified the new plan by a narrow majority, proposing at the same time a series of amendments in the nature of a bill of rights. Maryland and South Carolina followed late in the spring, and but one state was now wanting to insure the formation of the Union. The Old Dominion, which had called the Annapolis convention and had taken the lead in furnishing the plan of government at Philadelphia, still held aloof. Even more powerful than in Massachusetts was the opposition in Virginia. Arrayed on the negative side we find George Mason, who had helped to frame the Constitution and had then refused to sign it, Richard Henry Lee, who had opposed it from the beginning, and Patrick Henry, the orator of the Revolution. Against these were the weighty influence of Washington, the keen logic of Madison, and the powerful judicial mind of the rising Chief Justice, John Marshall. Jefferson, who was then in France, wavered and hesitated to give his support, and the Anti-federalists were quick to claim him as their own; but, like the great New England democrat, he at length came to favor the Constitution and gave it his hearty support, urging at the same time that it be carefully amended.2 His letter conveying these views reached Madison early in June, while the convention was in session, and had its weight in the final decision. The vote was taken on June 25, and the new plan received a majority of ten in a vote of one hundred and sixty-eight delegates. But Virginia did not become the ninth state; New Hampshire preceded her by four days. The Union was now assured. The Federalists rejoiced exceedingly. The coming Fourth of July became a day of jollification, especially in Philadelphia, where the street spectacle surpassed any before seen in America.
The importance of New York to the Union was incalculable. It was the commercial center of the country. It alone bordered the great lakes and the ocean. A majority of the people, led by Governor George Clinton, opposed the Union. Hamilton led the other side. For many months it seemed that the state would refuse to ratify the Constitution; but when she was about to be isolated from the rest of the country, her people began to reflect more seriously, and late in July, 1788, the convention was carried by the Federalists. At the same time it called for a new national convention to frame a better Constitution; but little heed was paid to this call, and it came to naught.
Two states, North Carolina and Rhode Island, owing to their paper money heresies, still remained sullenly out of the Union, the former adjourning its convention without action, the latter refusing to call a convention. But at length, after the first amendments to the Constitution had been assured, and after the new government had been organized, and the President seated, and when the United States revenue laws were about to be enforced against them, these states sought admission to the sisterhood, and the whole thirteen became united in one strong government. Never before had any people wrought so great a political revolution without bloodshed. From a loosely bound confederacy that lacked the power of governing, the people, deliberately, thoughtfully, without drawing a sword, with no pressure from without, banded together and founded a nation, and based it on a firm and abiding foundation. Never did the American people so exhibit their moderation, their capacity for self-government, as when they adopted the Constitution.
1Madison wrote several of the papers and John Jay a few.Return
2Fiske�s "Critical Period," p. 351Return
The Constitution, Created May 7, 2000, by Kathy Leigh Copyright 2003
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