The Fight in the States

The Fight in Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, Georgia, and Connecticut

The Pennsylvania General Assembly had a head-start over other state legislatures.  The morning after the Constitutional Convention had vacated the lower floor of the Pennsylvania State House, the state’s Assembly began occupying the same space, and they got the first peek at the new Constitution—even before the Confederation Congress had seen it.  Some of the supporters of the Constitution wanted to take advantage of their situation and call for a ratifying convention immediately, without even waiting for the official go-ahead from Congress.  As patriotic Pennsylvanians, they wanted the credit for being the first state to ratify the new plan of government, and they were already spinning dreams that the nation’s new capital might be placed in their centrally-located state.

There were two obstacles to Pennsylvania’s schemes to take short cuts on their race to the finish line.  In the first place, the state might run into some potential embarrassments if they acted prior to Congress in this matter.  What if Congress refused their assent to the new Constitution?  What if the Constitution they sent to the states came with congressional amendments or recommendations?  In response to these objections, the defenders of immediate action argued that the state legislatures had never paid so much deference to Congress before.  Virginia and many other states had selected delegates for the Constitutional Convention before Congress had actually called the Convention.  But there was a second obstacle to a hasty ratification: a small but feisty opposition movement taking shape in Pennsylvania.  These naysayers did not have the numbers to outvote the majority, but they did have the numbers to obstruct.  By refusing to attend the Assembly, the opponents to ratification denied the Assembly a quorum, so the majority was unable to vote on this (or any other) question.  This tactic became the opposition’s last resort by September 29, when an express rider from New York informed them, unofficially, that Congress had voted to send out the Constitution in the same form in which it had been received.  The Federalists were now determined not to wait for any official word from Congress before they acted.

The Assembly sent out the sergeant at arms to collect the absentee members, but they resolutely refused to comply.  At last, a small mob forcibly dragged two members into the State House, and then barred the exits to compel them to stay.  These maneuvers enabled the majority to vote in favor of a ratification convention which was slated to convene in late November.  But the strong-arm tactics used to achieve their victory cost the Federalists some measure of legitimacy in public opinion.  The newspapers in Pennsylvania began publishing accounts of the outrage perpetrated against the dissenters.  They also published the abused minority’s objections to the Constitution, and these accounts and objections began circulating in other states.  With a nod to Virginia—whose Antifederalists were already organizing through private correspondence—the more public Antifederalist movement was born in Pennsylvania.  It was in this state that the war of words would begin in the newspapers, and the numerous Federalist and Antifederalist essays published there would inspire similar compositions in other states.

Pennsylvania’s ratifying efforts had gotten off to a rough start, and time would not smooth over hurt feelings.  Pennsylvania’s opponents to the Constitution were never able to shake their minority status, but they remained a stubborn and fierce minority.  By the time the Convention met on November 21, the battle lines were sharply drawn.  The debates were more of a public performance than an exercise in deliberation, because none of the participants were inclined to yield to the persuasions of the other side.  Even worse, neither the speakers nor the onlookers treated the opposition party with the civility which graces the best examples of public discourse.  Then, as now, such lack of civility was to come with a price.  Nevertheless, since the Philadelphia area was predominantly pro-Constitution, the public records and newspaper accounts of Pennsylvania’s ratifying convention tended to suppress any evidence of dissent.  Almost all of the widely published speeches came from the Federalist members.  Even though the Federalists had the outcome “in the bag” from the outset, however, the debates dragged on for over three weeks.  James Wilson, who was the only delegate to the ratifying convention who had also been a member of the Constitutional Convention, defended the Constitution at length and on numerous occasions.

Since the opponents to the Constitution knew that they lacked the votes to prevail, they tried again to delay and obstruct.  They cast doubt on the elections for delegate members, saying that they had failed to achieve enough of a turnout to reflect the genuine sentiments of the people.  They proposed delaying the final vote for ratification until those sentiments could be better known.  These accusations were summarily dismissed by the majority.  A petition was presented to the convention, urging the convention to propose amendments to the Constitution, and the minority took up the challenge by drawing up a list of proposed amendments.  Among its most prominent features was a bill of rights.  Once again, the majority refused.  Finally, on December 12, Pennsylvania’s convention ratified the Constitution on a vote of 46-to-23.  But their victory was a bittersweet one; their shoddy treatment before and during the convention served only to increase the acrimony of the opposition.  The dissenters had refused to sign the ratification statement, and their objections and proposed amendments to the Constitution again began circulating throughout all the states.  

To add to Pennsylvania’s woes, it had failed in its bid to be the first state to ratify the Constitution.  Between their convention’s first day of meeting and their vote to ratify, Delaware’s convention met, debated for four days, then unanimously voted to adopt the Constitution.  Pennsylvania came in at second place.  Just a week after their vote, New Jersey followed Delaware’s example by voting quickly and unanimously to ratify.  Each of the three states—Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey—offered to carve out the ten-square miles from its own state to serve as the nation’s new capital.  And in the final ratification act of 1787, Georgia likewise adopted the Constitution unanimously on December 31, after only a single day’s deliberations.  Many of the small states (with the exception of Rhode Island and New Hampshire) were clearly well satisfied with the compromise that gave them equal representation in the Senate, and they now embraced the protections they expected from the new Constitution.  In the case of Georgia, she was no doubt anxious to reap the benefits of greater protections on her western frontier.

The first state to hold a ratifying Convention in 1788 was Connecticut, and support for the Constitution ran high in this state.  Since Connecticut’s newspapers were dominated by Federalist editors, the appearance of invulnerability was even stronger.  Given the Federalist monopoly on the news media, Connecticut was not a model of public debate about the Constitution before its convention met.  Its citizenry could not have even been exposed to both sides of the debate, unless they received their newspapers from out of state.  The Federalist compositions, however, were frequently skilled and eloquent.  Two of Connecticut’s delegates to the Constitutional Convention, Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth, were among the authors contributing their talents to the Federalist cause.  When the Convention began in Hartford on January 3, the public had been primed to expect and to favor ratification.  Antifederalists were among the delegates elected to the convention, but their arguments were easily outgunned by the Federalists.  After only a week of deliberations, on January 9, the convention voted to adopt the constitution on a vote of 128-to-40. 

The first five ratifying conventions got the process of adopting the Constitution off to a deceptively hopeful start.  Of the first states to hold their ratification conventions, four of the five had adopted the Constitution with such overwhelming support that optimistic Federalists might have been tempted to describe Pennsylvania’s pitched battle as the outlier.  In fact, the three states that had voted quickly and unanimously to ratify were the true outliers, and the tussle in Pennsylvania was merely a warm-up for the real contests that lay ahead.