The United States of America had won its freedom from Britain, but the newly-born country was far from being out of danger. The leaders of the time faced the monumental task of developing a system of government that would help the new country retain its unity while still allowing for the sovereignty of the states. After a few years, they realized that the first attempt with the Articles of Confederation simply was not working. The Congress and the government lacked the necessary rights and powers to enforce the decisions made in individual states. The enlightened men of the time knew a change was necessary, but there would be strong opposition, many debates, and a long road to the creation of a federal government powerful enough to form a lasting nation.
Formed to unite the States during the Revolutionary War, the Articles of Confederation gave Congress such duties as calling for troops, dealing with outsiders, and encouraging trade. However, because the states desired to maintain certain autonomy and feared falling under the tyranny of a vast, over-reaching government, the Articles failed to grant the authority to Congress to act when post-war problems arose. Failure to collect revenue or pay foreign debts, inability to compel state militia to act against uprisings, inability to settle disputes over trade routes and river ways, and other issues forced the bitter truth into the open. Something new was needed to keep the “United States” united.
As early as four years after the Articles of Confederation became unanimously adopted in 1781, the movement towards reform and creating a stronger federal government started. Over the next two years, conferences and conventions were held to discuss the problems that the new central government had to face and settle the issues that had already arisen. The Congress of the Confederation endorsed a plan for changes that would hopefully result in a federal government adequate enough to enforce its decisions and capable of preserving the union.
In May 1787, delegates from twelve of the thirteen States convened in Philadelphia for nearly one-hundred days to discuss, debate, and draft the Constitution of the United States. This convention resulted in plans being proposed, such as the Virginia Plan and the New Jersey Plan, and compromises like the Connecticut Compromise or “Great Compromise” being reached. In frustration, several delegates left, and ultimately only 39 of the original 55 men attending the convention signed the proposed Constitution (Bowen, 2010). After submitting the new Constitution to the Congress, it was necessary to get the nine state minimum required for ratification.
Under the terms of the new Constitution, it would be binding and enforceable only for the states that signed it. This situation could have become a problem as many delegates had left the convention and did not endorse the Constitution. If the states chose not to ratify the Constitution, it would fail, and the already weak Congress under the Articles of Confederation would appear even more inept and powerless than before. The new nation would falter and dissolve and the “United States” would remain a conglomeration of smaller bodies.
While hundreds of men were involved in either promoting the Constitution or defaming it, there were several individuals who were the champions for each side. Their voices could be heard both privately in conventions and publicly in newspapers and pamphlets. Notable persons, such as James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay (collectively known as Publius, authors of the Federalist papers), as well as John Hancock, Rufus King, and Roger Sherman all supported the ratification of the Constitution. They believed that in order for the new nation to not only survive, but thrive, it needed a strong central government in the coming years. The systems proposed and adopted from the Virginia Plan allowed for the creation of multiple branches of government that balanced each other instead of a single body with absolute power. These men desired a government strong enough to oversee all the States and protect the borders from outside interests. The people responsible for promoting this new Constitution were the nationalist majority, or Federalists, primarily representing the large population States. The Federalists desired a powerful central government capable of not only being legislative, but also executive, with the power to handle the paperwork that bogged down the Congress under the Articles of Confederation, and judicial with the power to interpret and rule on laws. They understood from the problems the Congress had faced that certain changes were essential, such as the national government being able to levy taxes against the states and having a national army to enforce the new government’s decisions. However, to ratify the Constitution, they had to convince the other delegates who opposed it.
The men who stood in opposition were the Antifederalists, mostly representing smaller population states. Key figures were Samuel Adams, Abraham Yates (published as Brutus), Richard Henry Lee (published as the Federal Farmer), Patrick Henry, and Luther Martin. While many of these men recognized the need for changes in the Congress under the Articles of Confederation, they feared the power of a large central government for many reasons and expounded how the new Constitution lacked several key articles that would address their concerns. They were mostly concerned with the new government creating the same problem of tyranny they had fought against during the war (Madison, 1788). They were worried that the President would simply become a king who would rule them. They wondered how the states could ever oppose the might of a standing national army if they people of the state were in opposition. Many of these issues came about during the Constitutional Convention, and the delegates who feared that their concerns were not addressed had chosen to leave and fight the Constitution when the states voted to ratify it.
Though quickly ratified in five States (Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, and Connecticut, in order) (“Ratification dates and votes,” n.d.), the process came to an abrupt halt when the Antifederalists pamphlet barrage finally took on some steam. Dozens of letters and essays were published arguing about the problems of the Constitution and why ratification would lead to ruin. The Federalists realized they had a fight ahead of themselves despite only needing four more states to vote for the ratification of the Constitution. They, too, published articles and essays, illuminating the benefits of a strong federal government, and responded in kind to the points made by the Antifederalists.
The Federalists wanted a strong central government capable of enforcing policy on individual states, since any policy would be a result of the actions taken by the vote of the legislative branch, which represented the consent of the people. One argument against this notion was that the states were inviolable and should be solely responsible for governing themselves within their territory. Others believed that a strong national government would merely become a false-front for a power similar to the monarchy, so recently cast-off, and threaten the very liberties people fought so hard to gain. While some of the Antifederalists thought the Articles of Confederation were adequate, other Antifederalists believed that the current government was weak, but a government formed under the proposed Constitution would be too strong.
Other issues with the new government under the Constitution were well eluded to and listed in the article “To the Citizens of the United States”, published in February 1788 (“Anti-federalists’ letters to newspapers,” n.d.). Besides lacking a bill of rights, the author cites the issue of the lack of the freedom of speech and liberty of the press clauses. He also believed that having three branches of government, instead of a single entity like Congress under the Articles of Confederation, would only serve to slow down decisions and hamper an effective action. He argued that having a larger government with more members would be more expensive, and that the delegates would no longer be selected annually (a concern brought up by other Antifederalists as well). He feared that the states would be deprived of the power to legislate and enact their laws. Other issues included the ability of the national government to indebt the people by borrowing money from other nations, as well as concerns about a standing national army in time of peace and military jurisdiction over the peoples of a state.
The Constitution also called for an executive branch headed by an elected President. Debates raged over this issue in the Constitutional Convention and continued when ratification was under process. Some Antifederalists still feared that a single individual with such enormous powers would become a new king. The Federalist countered by pointing out the system of balances in place to limit the President’s power through the vote of the legislative branch or rulings in the judicial one if the President’s actions were in violation of the Constitution and his appointed powers.
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However, the greatest cause of concern for many of the Antifederalists was the lack of a bill of rights in the Constitution (Hamilton, 1788). This point, too, was debated heavily during the drafting of the Constitution. It was argued that since many state constitutions already contained a bill of rights and the Constitution could not repeal them, those present rights were sufficient. When Pennsylvania ratified the Constitution, the Antifederalists wanted to include a list of amendments with the ratification document, but were not allowed to. They then published a report, known as the Pennsylvania Minority Report, detailing the needed rights (“The dissent of the minority of the convention of Pennsylvania,” n. d.). Many of these rights reflected the ones already existing at the state-level and included such concerns as trial by jury in federal courts, freedom of speech, and the right to bear arms. However, the report also included additional concerns about the power and scope of the new government. They did not want a standing national army, believing state militias to be enough, and granted that the federal government could call on a State for the use of its militia. The Antifederalists also believed a constitution council should be added to aid the President in making decisions and assist in the duties of the executive branch. While the report did nothing to aid the Antifederalists in Pennsylvania, it was circulated widely during the following months and most certainly had an impact on the ratification in other states.
The convention that had the greatest impact on the successful ratification of the Constitution was the one in Massachusetts. While voting was hotly contested in Pennsylvania during its convention, the race was much closer in Massachusetts, being decided in favor of ratifying by ten swing votes (187 yea, 168 nay). The Antifederalists wanted amendments before ratification or ratification contingent on later amendments. However, the proposal supported by John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and others key figures suggested that amendment proposals should be included with the ratification document. The distinction being the Constitution would be ratified as it was and the later amendments would be considered. If the later amendments did not occur, Massachusetts could not choose to “unratify” the Constitution, i.e. the ratification was not conditional. This compromise became known as the Massachusetts Compromise (“Ratification of the Constitution,” n. d.) and is summed up in the phrase, “ratify now, amend later.” Enough voters changed their position on the belief, so after the new government came into being, the amendments suggested would be consider and ultimately lead to a bill of rights for the citizen under the central government. This compromise paved the way for several other conventions to ratify the new Constitution under the same belief. Only North Carolina and Rhode Island waited until the Constitution was amended before voting favorably for ratification (Maier, 2011). So, it was due to the idea of the Massachusetts Compromise that the new Constitution was ratified and the new government given its foundation.
One item of note during the debates was the lack of violence. When the compromise was reached, the Antifederalists who opposed the Constitution turned around and decided to try working within the new system to make peaceful changes. While it is true that some Antifederalists continued to rage against the new government and its now ratified Constitution, several key figures, such as Melacton Smith, the leader of the New York Antifederalists opposition, accepted defeat gracefully and looked forward for ways to bring about the changes they desired (“The six stages of ratification,” n. d.). This situation was a profound example of the spirit of the delegates who wanted to embrace changes in order to preserve the Union.
While a debate will normally have a winner, in this case, the winner was the compromise. The compromise led to victories for both the Federalists and the Antifederalists. The Federalists succeeded in ratifying the Constitution to form a new, large, strong central government. They won a House where representation was determined by population, power to make decisions that would affect the states and the ability to enforce those decisions, and the face of a natural leader to usher the revised United States into the future. The Antifederalists succeeded in gaining the all-important Bill of Rights, which addressed many of the common concerns held against ratifying the Constitution. During the Constitutional Convention, the Great Compromise allowed smaller states equal representation through the Senate. This situation became a classic example of most people getting at least something they wanted, even if it meant accepting other things they opposed before. Policies were adopted to satisfy both parties. It is truly a case where, without the delegates willingness to compromise, the country would have floundered and been torn apart in all likelihood.
Even though both sides won to one degree or another, the Federalists were the more active in bringing about the successful ratification of the Constitution. Despite quickly ratifying the Constitution in five states, the Federalists faced an uphill battle and knew ahead of time at several conventions that defeat was a very real possibility. Of the remaining eight States, only Maryland and North Carolina voted to ratify with significant numbers in favor (“Ratification dates and votes,” n. d.). The Federalists used reasoned arguments to postpone votes in conventions that were unfavorable, and persuaded Antifederalists who supported many aspects of the new Constitution with guarantees for consideration of their concerns once the ratification process was complete. Heavy propaganda, such as the Federal Pillars series (“The federal pillars,” n. d.) illustrating the concept of “united we stand, divided we fall,” were major weapons against the Antifederalists in trying to swing public opinion toward the Federalists. Still, several of the remaining states were determined by less than ten swing votes in favor. Additionally, once the required nine states voted to ratify, the remaining states reluctantly joined simply to remain in the Union, with Rhode Island notably being the last after several attempts were made by the Assembly to call a convention for the purpose of ratifying the Constitution.
It is incredibly frightening to understand how close the ratification process came to failure. Doubt plagued the Federalists much of the way, and the Antifederalists fronted a strong opposition based on concerns born from struggles in the recent past. While the debate was long and arduous, the results of cooler heads prevailing and working together cannot be overestimated. Their efforts brought forth a new government for a new nation, stronger than the one before and capable of leading it to greatness. While every form of government has flaws, the outline formed by the Constitution and the added Bill of Rights is arguably the best the world has ever known.