Selling the Constitution to the Individual States

The convention of delegates who drafted the United States Constitution submitted its work to the Congress that was still laboring under the old Articles of Confederation, and Congress accepted it after three days of sometimes-intense debate. But because of the enormity of the issue, Congress also didn’t want to be totally responsible if things went wrong (proving that some things never change).

So Congress sent the proposal to the states for ratification. Each state had to elect delegates who would consider the proposed Constitution, and when nine states had approved it, it would become the law of the land.

It was a gamble because if any of the big states — Virginia, New York, Massachusetts, or Pennsylvania — rejected it and went its own way, the whole deal might fall apart. In addition, a lot of people who hadn’t thought much about the need for a central government (which was probably the majority of Americans) weren’t sold on the idea at all.

But the idea of letting “ordinary” people have a say (actually, only about one-fourth of the population was eligible to vote) led to a great deal of spirited debate on the subject, which allowed pro-Constitution forces a chance to make their case.

They did. In a brilliant series of 85 newspaper essays that became known as the Federalist Papers, Hamilton, Madison, and John Jay argued eloquently for adoption of the Constitution. Much more important was the public support of the two most popular men in America: Franklin and Washington. Anti-Constitution forces also made powerful public arguments, but their efforts were not as well organized and lacked star appeal.

The first five states to ratify did so by January 1788. The following month, Massachusetts agreed — but only on the condition that a list of specific individual rights be added to the Constitution as soon as possible. By July, all but North Carolina and Rhode Island had ratified it, and they fell in line by May 1790.

“Our constitution is in actual operation,” Franklin wrote, “and everything appears to promise that it will last. But in this world, nothing can be certain but death and taxes.”
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