Constitution Day lesson

When 39 delegates to the Philadelphia convention signed the U.S. Constitution 225 years ago this past Monday, it brought to a close a summer of debate and compromise among some of the brightest and strong-willed statesmen in the nation.

But the famous four-page document adopted on Sept. 17, 1787, was only a proposal. That day, which we celebrate as Constitution Day, was the beginning of a more than year-long debate on approval in the states.

For the first time, the fifth page of the Constitution was put on public display in Washington, D.C. last week. That page—known as the transmittal page—explicitly stated through resolution that the Constitution “be submitted to a Convention of Delegates, chosen in each State by the People thereof, under the Recommendation of its Legislature, for their Assent and Ratification.” The second resolution called for the execution of the Constitution “without delay” once nine of the 13 state conventions had ratified it.

No less a luminary than James Madison (himself a pre-eminent figure in the Constitutional Convention) cautioned that appropriate study of the process should focus more on the ratification than the drafting.

“If we were to look, therefore, for the meaning of the instrument beyond the face of the instrument,” Madison said in 1796, in Congress, “we must look for it, not in the General Convention, which proposed the Constitution, but in the State Conventions which accepted and ratified the Constitution.”

Madison’s perspective is a good starter premise for teachers looking for new angles from which to approach constitutional education in public schools.

The story of the state ratification struggles is an oft-overlooked aspect of our constitutional debate, and is a testament to the framers’ enduring belief that government closest to the people was always the most accountable. Submission to the states was also a prudent path since the convention doors at Independence Hall had been tightly closed to the public. The delegates knew well the arguments likely to crop up in state conventions; indeed, The Federalist Papers helped shape those discussions. But it was nonetheless important that the people be heard through their state assemblies.

In the compressed simplicity of textbook history, it’s easy to assume near-unanimity for support of the freshly minted Constitution in 1787. Only three delegates refused to sign it in Philadelphia, and all 13 states eventually ratified it.

A closer look at the state conventions reveals a much more divided populace, wary of a federal government as despotism in disguise.

In some states, ratification sailed through the conventions. Not even three months after George Washington’s gavel dropped to close the convention in Philadelphia, Delaware unanimously ratified the Constitution by a 30-0 vote on Dec. 7, 1787. The conventions in New Jersey and Georgia, within weeks, had also cast unanimous votes to ratify—38-0 and 26-0 respectively.

But in the midst of those overwhelmingly supportive votes, the convention in highly influential Pennsylvania was anything but unanimous. Dissension in the host state of the Constitution Convention resulted in a 46-23 ratification vote on December 12.

The new year brought debates and votes to convention floors in Connecticut (which ratified on Jan. 9, 1788, on a 128-40 vote) and Massachusetts, where ratification barely squeaked by with 187 votes for, 168 against, on February 6. Contrary Rhode Island, which had earned the moniker “Rogue Island” for refusing to send delegates to Philadelphia, vehemently rejected ratification in a public referendum by a 10-to-1 margin on March 24.

The late spring brought ratification from conventions in Maryland (63-11 vote) and a more closely contested vote in South Carolina (149-73). The pivotal state convention ballot occurred on the Summer Solstice in 1788, when New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify when its delegates voted 57-47 in favor.

Even though the minimum requirement had been met for ratification, debates about joining the federal union were still fervent in the crucial states of Virginia and New York. Four days after New Hampshire, Virginia’s convention approved ratification, also by a 10-vote margin (89-79).

Another month passed before the convention in New York was ready to vote on ratification, and even then (after 10 states had approved) the support was decidedly shaky: The final vote was 30 for and 27 against.

Ultimately, North Carolina and Rhode Island would round out the unanimous ratification of the Constitution, with the Tar Heel state delegates approving, 194-77, on Nov. 21, 1789. Rhode Island’s ratification didn’t come until 1790, after the new constitutional government was already in effect, and even then it provided the narrowest margin of victory of all, with a 34-32 vote.

It’s important for all citizens to understand that disagreement isn’t inherently destructive; quite the contrary, especially when it involves intellectual debate. What all too often poisons debate, this milestone year and always, are “take no prisoners” special-interest groups that are fine with scorched-earth strategies if it advances their agenda.

One of the best lessons about Constitution Day is as a reminder that civil people can disagree and still achieve extraordinary progress.


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