Orientation and Getting Started
Early Development of the Legislative Branch and the Problem of Representation
Enumerated Powers of Congress
Implied, Expansive, and Limited Powers
The Two Congresses: Representation and Lawmaking
Separation of Powers and Interaction between the Branches
Institutional Development and Change
Congress and the American People

Ratification Debates

Virginia Debates the Constitution

By May 23, 1788, within eight months of the date the Constitution was signed by delegates to the Convention, eight states, beginning with Delaware, had ratified the Constitution.  One month later, New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify. Except for a close vote in Massachusetts (187-168), the state conventions had little trouble reaching consensus.  But, without the support of two of the largest states, Virginia and New York, the Constitution would have little practical feasibility. 

The Virginia Convention met in June and featured spirited debates between Anti-Federalist Patrick Henry and Federalist Henry Lee. Madison also engaged Henry, though with more repose. The debate lasted over three weeks. History deemed the Federalists, particularly Madison, victorious over the formidable Henry. In his analysis of the debate, political scientist John Roche (1960, 814), observes: “Henry would give a four- or five-hour speech denouncing some section of the Constitution on every conceivable ground…” Then, “Mr. Lee of Westmoreland would rise and literally poleaxe him with sardonic invective.” Thereafter, “the gentlemanly Constitutionalists (Madison, Pendleton and Marshall) would pick up matters at issue and examine them in the light of reason.” Writing in 1960, Roche concluded, “modern Americans who tend to think of James Madison as a rather desiccated character should spend some time with this transcript.” He praises Madison’s “spectacular demonstration of nimble rhetoric” in challenging Henry and concludes, in reference to Madison’s argument, “To devise an assault route into this rhetorical fortress was literally impossible.” 

On June 25, 1788, Virginia narrowly ratified the Constitution by a vote of 89-79, and, one month later, New York followed suit by an even tighter margin (30-27). The only states left were North Carolina, which ultimately voted for ratification on November 21, 1789, and Rhode Island, which barely approved the document (34-32) on May 29, 1790. 

Ironically, in spite of his leadership during the Convention and ratification debates, Madison preferred a stronger national government and he was less than sanguine about the prospect of the new government. In a letter to Jefferson on September 6, 1787, Madison offered that “the plan should it be adopted will neither effectively answer its national object nor prevent the local mischiefs which everywhere excite disgusts against the state governments.”