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The Constitution (1781–1815)

History SparkNotes

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

Creating the Constitution: 1786–1787

Washington Strengthens the Nation: 1789–1792

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.

The Federalist Papers

The most difficult battle was waged in New York. Although New York eventually became the eleventh state to ratify the new Constitution, it was heavily Anti-Federalist, and victory was by no means assured at the outset.

In support of the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay published a series of anonymous essays now known as the Federalist Papers. These propaganda essays extolled the benefits of a strong central government and allayed fears about civil liberties. Well written and persuasive, the essays are now regarded as some of the finest writings on American politics and republicanism.

Though many political philosophers in the 1700s had argued that republican government was impossible for large countries with diverse populations, the writers of the Federalist Papers argued the opposite. In their now-famous tenth essay (Federalist No. 10 ), Madison wrote that factionalism would not be a problem in a large republic precisely because everyone would have different interests. In other words, people would be so busy pursuing their own interests that emerging factions would cancel each other out, allowing freedom and republicanism to prevail.

The Federalist Papers and New York

It’s debatable whether the Federalist Papers had any significant impact on New York voters. Some historians point out that New Yorkers, like those in other states, based their votes on economic interests. Generally, those who stood to gain from a strong central government (such as merchants, shippers, and those who lived on the eastern seaboard) supported the Constitution, while those who would not gain (principally farmers) voted against it.

Perhaps more significant to New York State than the Federalist Papers was Alexander Hamilton’s warning that the New York City government might secede from the state and join the Union on its own unless the state ratified the Constitution too.

The Bill of Rights

Despite the Federalist Papers, most New Yorkers, North Carolinians, Virginians, and Rhode Islanders agreed to ratify the Constitution only if the document was amended to include a list of undeniable rights and liberties of the people. The new Congress kept its promise to do so and in 1791 established a committee to draft a Bill of Rights. Much of this work was done by James Madison, who sponsored the Bill of Rights in Congress. Congress added these rights to the Constitution as the first ten amendments later that year.

Major Amendments

The First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition. The Second Amendment protects the right to bear arms. The Fifth and Sixth Amendments guarantee the right of every person to trial by jury and safeguard the rights of the accused.

The Ninth Amendment stipulates that the Bill of Rights is not an exhaustive list and that the American people have rights beyond than those expressly stated in the Constitution. Finally, the Tenth Amendment states that all powers not granted to the new federal government are reserved for the individual states and the people.

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