Ratification

Many delegates at the Philadelphia Convention determined that simply altering the Articles of Confederation would be inadequate for effectively governing thirteen independent states. Consequently, the Convention delegates constructed an entirely new system. Among the many differences between the Articles and the Constitution were the amendment and ratification procedures. The resolutions accompanying the proposed Constitution specified that ratifying conventions should be called in each state, and its delegates should be “chosen in each state by the people thereof.” Article VII of this new Constitution required only nine of 13 states to ratify before it would become the new form of government for those ratifying states. Additionally, in Article V, the Constitution’s amendment clause only required three-fourths of the states’ approval. All of these features were significant departures from the previous requirement that only a unanimous agreement of the thirteen state legislatures could alter the Articles of Confederation. Many critics of the Constitution during the ratification debates maintained that these changes were unacceptable, since it meant that the sovereignty of the states was diminished.

Ratification of the Constitution

Article VII stipulated that the approbation of only nine states was necessary to establish the Constitution among those states, even though all thirteen states that were under the Articles of Confederation eventually ratified the Constitution. When the proposed Construction was submitted to the states, a quick succession of states—Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, and Connecticut—ratified within four months after the Convention had adjourned. The adoption of the Constitution seemed to be moving quickly, and the opposition, though formidable, was poorly organized. As the Massachusetts Ratifying Convention opened and progressed, however, the smooth process was derailed.

The contest there, as well as in Virginia (which ratified on June 25, 1788) and New York (which ratified on July 26, 1788), was bitterly fought and resulted in ratification only by the narrowest of margins. Though the Virginia delegates were unaware at the time of the June 25th vote, ratification had already been assured when New Hampshire—the ninth state—ratified the Constitution on June 21, 1788.

Later, in both North Carolina and Rhode Island, the process proved even more difficult. After two separate conventions in North Carolina the Constitution was ratified on November 21, 1789. Initially the Constitution was rejected in Rhode Island in a statewide referendum in 1788. It was eventually ratified on May 29, 1790, after the United States threatened to place tariffs on Rhode Island’s exports, and because it would be deemed a foreign nation under the Constitution.

A Higher Authority

The Framers believed that all legitimate power was derived from the people. Because the Articles of Confederation had been ratified by the state legislatures, Madison argued that it—just like any other simple contract—became nonbinding on the parties involved once any one of its members reneged on its obligations. He explained this principle at the Constitutional Convention:

If we consider the Federal Union as analogous, not to the social compacts among individual men, but to the convention among individual states, what is the doctrine resulting from these conventions? Clearly, according to the expositors of the law of nations, that a breach of any one article, by any one party, leave all the other parties at liberty to consider the whole convention as dissolved. . . . He observed, that the violations of the Federal Articles had been numerous and notorious. Among the most notorious was an act of New Jersey herself; by which she expressly refused to comply with a constitutional requisition of Congress, and yielded no further to the expostulations of their deputies, than barely to rescind her vote of refusal, without passing any positive act of compliance. He did not wish to draw any rigid inferences from these observations. He thought it proper, however, that the true nature of the existing Confederacy should be investigated. (James Madison, June 19)

Madison would return on several occasions at the Convention to this theme that the parties to the Articles had violated their agreements: “Besides the various omissions to perform the stipulated acts, from which no state was free, the legislature of that state had, by a pretty recent vote, positively refused to pass a law for complying with the requisitions of Congress” (June 30). Because the Articles were not a social compact, it was more fitting to regard them in the same light as any other contract or treaty. The Articles of Confederation therefore ceased to be a binding document as soon as any one of its members failed to comply with its terms.