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History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard
» PART III. THE UNION AND NATIONAL POLITICS
» CHAPTER VII

«·The Framing of the Constitution · CHAPTER VII·»


The Struggle over Ratification

On September 17, 1787, the Constitution, having been finally drafted in clear and simple language, a model to all makers of fundamental law, was adopted. The convention, after nearly four months of debate in secret session, flung open the doors and presented to the Americans the finished plan for the new government. Then the great debate passed to the people.

An Advertisement of _The Federalist_
An Advertisement of The Federalist

The Opposition.—Storms of criticism at once descended upon the Constitution. “Fraudulent usurpation!” exclaimed Gerry, who had refused to sign it. “A monster” out of the “thick veil of secrecy,” declaimed a Pennsylvania newspaper. “An iron-handed despotism will be the result,” protested a third. “We, ’the low-born,'” sarcastically wrote a fourth, “will now admit the ’six hundred well-born’ immediately to establish this most noble, most excellent, and truly divine constitution.” The President will become a king; Congress will be as tyrannical as Parliament in the old days; the states will be swallowed up; the rights of the people will be trampled upon; the poor man’s justice will be lost in the endless delays of the federal courts—such was the strain of the protests against ratification.

Defense of the Constitution.—Moved by the tempest of opposition, Hamilton, Madison, and Jay took up their pens in defense of the Constitution. In a series of newspaper articles they discussed and expounded with eloquence, learning, and dignity every important clause and provision of the proposed plan. These papers, afterwards collected and published in a volume known as The Federalist, form the finest textbook on the Constitution that has ever been printed. It takes its place, moreover, among the wisest and weightiest treatises on government ever written in any language in any time. Other men, not so gifted, were no less earnest in their support of ratification. In private correspondence, editorials, pamphlets, and letters to the newspapers, they urged their countrymen to forget their partisanship and accept a Constitution which, in spite of any defects great or small, was the only guarantee against dissolution and warfare at home and dishonor and weakness abroad.

Celebrating the Ratification
Celebrating the Ratification

The Action of the State Conventions.—Before the end of the year, 1787, three states had ratified the Constitution: Delaware and New Jersey unanimously and Pennsylvania after a short, though savage, contest. Connecticut and Georgia followed early the next year. Then came the battle royal in Massachusetts, ending in ratification in February by the narrow margin of 187 votes to 168. In the spring came the news that Maryland and South Carolina were “under the new roof.” On June 21, New Hampshire, where the sentiment was at first strong enough to defeat the Constitution, joined the new republic, influenced by the favorable decision in Massachusetts. Swift couriers were sent to carry the news to New York and Virginia, where the question of ratification was still undecided. Nine states had accepted it and were united, whether more saw fit to join or not.

Meanwhile, however, Virginia, after a long and searching debate, had given her approval by a narrow margin, leaving New York as the next seat of anxiety. In that state the popular vote for the delegates to the convention had been clearly and heavily against ratification. Events finally demonstrated the futility of resistance, and Hamilton by good judgment and masterly arguments was at last able to marshal a majority of thirty to twenty-seven votes in favor of ratification.

The great contest was over. All the states, except North Carolina and Rhode Island, had ratified. “The sloop Anarchy,” wrote an ebullient journalist, “when last heard from was ashore on Union rocks.”

The First Election.—In the autumn of 1788, elections were held to fill the places in the new government. Public opinion was overwhelmingly in favor of Washington as the first President. Yielding to the importunities of friends, he accepted the post in the spirit of public service. On April 30, 1789, he took the oath of office at Federal Hall in New York City. “Long live George Washington, President of the United States!” cried Chancellor Livingston as soon as the General had kissed the Bible. The cry was caught by the assembled multitude and given back. A new experiment in popular government was launched.

References

M. Farrand, The Framing of the Constitution of the United States.

P.L. Ford, Essays on the Constitution of the United States.

The Federalist (in many editions).

G. Hunt, Life of James Madison.

A.C. McLaughlin, The Confederation and the Constitution (American Nation Series).

Questions

1. Account for the failure of the Articles of Confederation.

2. Explain the domestic difficulties of the individual states.

3. Why did efforts at reform by the Congress come to naught?

4. Narrate the events leading up to the constitutional convention.

5. Who were some of the leading men in the convention? What had been their previous training?

6. State the great problems before the convention.

7. In what respects were the planting and commercial states opposed? What compromises were reached?

8. Show how the “check and balance” system is embodied in our form of government.

9. How did the powers conferred upon the federal government help cure the defects of the Articles of Confederation?

10. In what way did the provisions for ratifying and amending the Constitution depart from the old system?

11. What was the nature of the conflict over ratification?

Research Topics

English Treatment of American Commerce.—Callender, Economic History of the United States, pp. 210-220.

Financial Condition of the United States.—Fiske, Critical Period of American History, pp. 163-186.

Disordered Commerce.—Fiske, pp. 134-162.

Selfish Conduct of the States.—Callender, pp. 185-191.

The Failure of the Confederation.—Elson, History of the United States, pp. 318-326.

Formation of the Constitution.—(1) The plans before the convention, Fiske, pp. 236-249; (2) the great compromise, Fiske, pp. 250-255; (3) slavery and the convention, Fiske, pp. 256-266; and (4) the frame of government, Fiske, pp. 275-301; Elson, pp. 328-334.

Biographical Studies.—Look up the history and services of the leaders in the convention in any good encyclopedia.

Ratification of the Constitution.—Hart, History Told by Contemporaries, Vol. III, pp. 233-254; Elson, pp. 334-340.

Source Study.—Compare the Constitution and Articles of Confederation under the following heads: (1) frame of government; (2) powers of Congress; (3) limits on states; and (4) methods of amendment. Every line of the Constitution should be read and re-read in the light of the historical circumstances set forth in this chapter.



«·The Framing of the Constitution · CHAPTER VII·»