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Building the State (1781-1797)

Ratification

The Constitution and a New Government

Defining the National Government

Summary

Though accepted by the convention, the Constitution had to be ratified by the people of the United States before it could take effect as the law of the land. The framers devised a system by which special state conventions of popularly elected delegates would be created to ratify the Constitution. Only two-thirds (nine) of the states needed to ratify the Constitution to put the new government into operation. Since those states that did not ratify the constitution would remain under the authority of the Articles of Confederation this situation presented the possibility of the division of the United States into two separate nations.

As the process of ratification began, the majority of Americans were hesitant to support the Constitution, which represented a drastic shift away from the Articles of Confederation, whose weaknesses many common citizens had not been in a position to observe. The long process of ratification began with the entrenchment of opposing sides. The supporters of the Constitution called themselves the Federalists, and their opponents, who supported states rights over centralized power, were dubbed the Anti-federalists. The main contention of the Anti-federalists was that the Constitution failed to balance the power of state and national governments, erring in the direction of granting too much power to the national government. The Anti-federalists claimed that the Constitution doomed the states to be dominated by a potentially tyrannical and uncompassionate central government. Federalists, for their part, defended the necessity of a strong national government and pointed to the Constitution as the best possible framework for the United States' government.

With the aid of funding and experience, the Federalists pushed ratification through eight state conventions between December 1787 and May 1788. Only Rhode Island and North Carolina rejected the Constitution outright. However, by May 1788, along with New Hampshire, neither Virginia nor New York, both states crucial to the Union in terms of population and economics, had made a move toward rejecting or ratifying the Constitution. The Union, for all intents and purposes, could not function without the membership of both states. When, on June 21, 1788 New Hampshire ratified the Constitution, making it effective as the framework of national government, neither Virginia nor New York had reached a decision. Both states were torn by debate between solid constituencies of both Federalists and Anti-federalists. On June 25, 1788 Virginia finally ratified the Constitution by a narrow 53 percent margin. In New York, the debate raged on until Alexander Hamilton's Federalists finally emerged victorious by nearly as slight a margin on July 26, 1788.

The fierce debates over the issue of ratification, particularly in Virginia and New York, mobilized both Federalists and Anti-federalists in media campaigns to convince the population of the value of their causes. The writings of the political leaders of this period have become an important part of American history. The most notable works produced are collectively entitled The Federalist Papers. The Federalist Papers contain a series of newspaper articles written by John Jay, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton. The articles most likely played little part in the ratification of the Constitution, but clearly lay out the arguments in favor of the Constitution and against the Anti-federalists.

Commentary

The framers realized that if they sent the Constitution straight to the state legislatures, it would no doubt be defeated, as it took power from the states and gave it to the national government. Additionally, the framers intended the source of governmental legitimacy to be the population at large rather than the states. In keeping with this ideal and with concern for the state legislatures' bias toward rejection, the framers established the system of ratification which eventually took place. The people would elect reppresentatives, not to govern, but to decide on the form of government. However, the framers knew that the process of ratification would not be easy. They anticipated the resistance that sprung up among the Anti-federalists.

The Anti-federalists' arguments against the Constitution represented deep-seated mistrust of centralized government, which found its source in Enlightenment thinking, and more concretely, in the colonial experience leading up to the revolution. The principle contention of the Anti-federalists was that the national government could never be as responsive and compassionate to the needs of the citizens as could state governments. The Anti-federalists claimed that the people would not submit to being governed by a geographically distant central government controlled by politicians who had little incentive to vote for the best interests of individual states. They saw the submission of state government to national government as representative of the submission of the interests of the individual to the dangerous interests of the nation. Indeed, one of the Anti-federalists' main points of contention with the Constitution was that it nowhere guaranteed the protection of individuals' civil rights, and nowhere explicitly guaranteed that the national government would not attempt to unjustly limit and usurp the power of the states. Indeed, the absence of a bill of rights was a common criticism of the Constitution, and turned many to the Anti-federalist side.

Conversely, the Federalists' political values were grounded more recently in the experience of government under the Articles of Confederation. They extolled the Constitution as the perfect balance between state and national power, and claimed that the system of checks and balances would keep the government honest and limited in its power. The Federalists had many advantages on their side. Most of the nation's wealthiest and best respected men, including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, were Federalists. Most newspapers supported the Constitution, and Federalists dominated the national networks of experienced politicians. The results of the early conventions may well have been more a reflection on the aggressiveness and organization of the Federalists than the actual opinions of the people.

Though the Anti-federalists lost the battle to prevent the ratification of the Constitution, they did make significant progress in some areas. Virginia, Massachusetts, and New York all ratified the Constitution with the request that the government adopt a bill of rights. This became an immediate goal of the government. And, as the government began to take shape, Anti-federalist forces remained vigilant as a counter-balance to the Federalist tendency to accord great powers to the central government. The division of the nation into Federalists and Anti-federalists during the ratification of the Constitution set the stage for the continuing deepening of the rift between those in favor of a strong central government and those wary of the limitation of states' rights.

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