by John F. Di Leo
December 7, 2018 A.D.
Reflections on the anniversary of the first ratification convention’s conclusion…
On December 7, 1787, at Elizabeth Battel’s Golden Fleece Tavern in Dover, Delaware, the state of Delaware became the first state to ratify the new Constitution of the United States, and did so by a unanimous vote of thirty to zero.
With such an auspicious beginning, we might think that national ratification would be a foregone conclusion, but … no such luck. As easy a decision as it was for some states, it was a very difficult one for others.
We think there are huge differences between the states today – and there are – but differences were just as great in the Founding era. Until the War of Independence (in fact, for many, not until decades afterward), most Americans thought of themselves as Virginians, New Yorkers, Pennsylvanians, etc., not as “Americans” at all.
Each colony had been an independent country, with its own direct relationship with England. Most had little or no formal (or even commercial) relationship with their neighbors, until the 1760s, when the French and Indian War first forced them into a relationship of necessity, and then afterward, when British tyranny awakened the recognition that they had a shared cause, shared challenges, and a shared culture that had developed into something separate from what they shared with their Mother Country across the Pond.
Even so, despite those years of working together – first in war, then in fighting the Stamp Act, the Townshend Acts, the imposition of martial law, the forced closure of ports and severe limitations on the international trade on which each colony depended – they still distrusted each other politically, and often viewed each other, at best, as friendly neighbor countries, but not as part of the same nation.
The Articles of Confederation, an agreement of loose confederation that held us together throughout the War of Independence and in the first few years after the peace, was woefully insufficient once the war was over (and had in fact been recognized as woefully insufficient from the beginning, by those struggling with the finances of a bankrupt nation at war with the most powerful military on earth).
This relationship had to be improved… and since, frankly, the Articles couldn’t be improved, they had to be replaced.
But this was not a hasty time, and Americans, back then at least, were not a hasty people. For many, they would “choose the devil you know over the devil you don’t,” postponing such a decision until long after it was needed.
That’s how we got into the war in the first place, after all; Great Britain had held Massachusetts under martial law for seven years before our Declaration of Independence, and even then, many politicians from other states would say that their British overlords weren’t tyrannical, or at least, not enough to merit a separation. We were slow to act, in those days. We weren’t hasty.
But by the mid 1780s, two, three, four years after the peace treaty had finally been signed in Paris in 1783, particularly after Shays’ Rebellion began in 1786, it was obvious to all that some formal improvement to our interstate relationship was needed. So, first there was a conference at Annapolis, and then a full convention at Philadelphia, and finally in September, 1787, the product of that convention was sent to the several states for their consideration.
And the battle was joined.
Big, populous states with strong economies like New York and Pennsylvania were understandably worried that they’d lose their influence, or be used as piggy banks by the small states. Small states like Delaware and New Jersey were afraid that in a more “democratic” union, their influence would be eliminated by their giant neighbors.
Almost everyone admitted that the Articles were dreadful – with every state having a veto on any measure, and no Congressional decision having enforcement powers. The national government had been revealed to be utterly useless as soon as the war was over. But many dreamed that all they needed was tweaking; the delegates at Philadelphia had recognized that mere tweaking would never be enough.
So, in anticipation for the ratification fight, the delegates crafted a Constitution that had something for everyone, setting up a population-based House of Representatives to give appropriate strength to the large states, setting up a state-based Senate to protect the small states from being unfairly overwhelmed by their neighbors. They devised a system of checks and balances between the branches, and envisioned the new concept of shared sovereignty to respect every level of government, rather than to make everyone else wholly subsidiary to the new national capitol.
Oonce this groundwork was laid, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, knowing that their states would be among the toughest to convince, started on one of the most ambitious projects in the history of political science: a formal PR campaign, through organized letters to the editor, that would convince those on the fence and even win over many outright opponents. Having invited Gouverneur Morris, the editor of the Constitution, who declined, Hamilton ended up writing 2/3s of these essays, Madison a third, and their third partner, John Jay, only managed five, having been severely injured trying to maintain the peace during the Doctors riot in New York.
The Publius letters – collectively known as The Federalist – were widely circulated and helped the cause… but most of the real work was still political, done by speechmaking, dealmaking, and almost evangelizing, state by state, politician by politician, convention by convention.
In Virginia, for example, it came down to John Marshall debating against Governor Patrick Henry (Marshall for, Henry against). In New York, the powerful Governor George Clinton had spent the year marshalling his forces against the document, with the line being drawn with near-geographic perfection, as New York City politicians for, and upstate politicians against.
State by state, from December through the following July, progress was made. The Federalists hoped that they could reach necessary majority of nine before New York and Virginia voted, thinking that if ratification was a foregone conclusion, then even they would rather join than be left out.
And sure enough, it came down to the wire, but that’s how it worked out. Once New Hampshire ratified on June 21, 1788, becoming the necessary ninth state, it became far more difficult for the remaining ones to refuse. The momentum tipped the balance, leading Virginia to ratify on June 25, and New York finally falling in line on July 26. (North Carolina and Rhode Island wouldn’t decide until after the new government was in place, in 1789 and 1790 respectively).
But the whole path – from beginning to end – like so much in politics, was dependent on momentum.
What if the first state’s ratification convention had gone the other way? What if the process had begun with a defeat instead of a victory?
We all owe Delaware our thanks on this anniversary. Their unanimous ratification – on December 7, 1787 – set the ball rolling toward the right result.
And here we are, 231 years later, proudly celebrating the greatest work of marriage – of political philosophy and practicality – in the history of the world.
Copyright 2018 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicagoland-based Customs broker and trade compliance trainer, actor, and writer. His columns are found regularly here in Illinois Review.