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The Constitution (1781–1815)

History SparkNotes


The Federalist Papers and the Bill of Rights: 1788–1791

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1787 First Federalist Papers are published
1788 Nine states ratify the new Constitution
1789 George Washington becomes the first U.S. president
1791 Bill of Rights is ratified
Key People
Alexander Hamilton -  New York statesman who ardently supported the Constitution; coauthor of the Federalist Papers
James Madison -  Virginia lawyer; coauthor of the Federalist Papers; congressional sponsor of the Bill of Rights
John Jay -  New York lawyer; coauthor of the Federalist Papers; first chief justice of the Supreme Court

Ratification of the Constitution

The Articles of Confederation stipulated that all thirteen states had to ratify any new constitution for it to take effect. To circumvent this hurdle, the delegates included in the new Constitution a section outlining a new plan for ratification. Once nine of the thirteen states had ratified the document (at special conventions with elected representatives), the Constitution would replace the Articles in those nine states. The delegates figured correctly that the remaining states would be unable to survive on their own and would have to ratify the new document as well.

Federalists vs. Anti-Federalists

Debates erupted throughout the states about whether the new Constitution was an improvement. On one side were the Federalists, who favored the Constitution and a strong central government. The Federalists counted among their number many of the wealthier, propertied, and more educated Americans, including John Adams, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton, among others.

On the other side were the Anti-Federalists, who favored a weaker central government in favor of stronger state legislatures. Not all of them liked the Articles of Confederation, but none of them wanted the new Constitution to be ratified. Generally from the poorer classes in the West, but also with the support of patriots like Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry, the Anti-Federalists feared that a stronger national government would one day destroy the liberties Americans had won in the Revolution. They worried that the new Constitution didn’t list any specific rights for the people.

A Federalist Victory

Several of the smaller states quickly ratified the Constitution because it gave them more power in the new legislative branch than they had under the Articles of Confederation. Other ratifying conventions didn’t end so quickly or peacefully. Riots broke out in several cities in 1787, and public debates between Federalists and Anti-Federalists were heated.

By mid-1788, nine states had ratified the Constitution, thus making it the new supreme law of the land in those nine states. Though the remaining four states—New York, Virginia, North Carolina, and Rhode Island—had Anti-Federalist majorities who hated the new Constitution, they knew they couldn’t survive for long without the other nine states.

Virginia, North Carolina, and Rhode Island

Just as the final four states knew they couldn’t survive without the other nine, the other nine realized they couldn’t thrive without the final four. The Federalists had succeeded in putting the Constitution into effect, but they knew the new national government would lack legitimacy unless all the states were on board. Ardent Federalists campaigned for the Constitution in the remaining states, and in time, Virginia, North Carolina, and Rhode Island ratified it by narrow margins.

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