Ratifying the Constitution

16c. The Ratification Process: State by State

John Hancock
The man behind the signature: This portrait of John Hancock was painted by John Singleton Copley.

The ratification process started when the Congress turned the Constitution over to the state legislatures for consideration through specially elected state conventions of the people. Five state conventions voted to approve the Constitution almost immediately (December 1787 to January 1788) and in all of them the vote was unanimous (Delaware, New Jersey, Georgia) or lopsided (Pennsylvania, Connecticut). Clearly, the well-organized Federalists began the contest in strong shape as they rapidly secured five of the nine states needed to make the Constitution law. The Constitution seemed to have easy, broad, and popular support.

However, a closer look at who ratified the Constitution in these early states and how it was done indicates that the contest was much closer than might appear at first glance. Four of the five states to first ratify were small states that stood to benefit from a strong national government that could restrain abuses by their larger neighbors.

Copy of Constitution
This copy of the Constitution was used by delegates to the New York ratification convention.

The process in Pennsylvania, the one large early ratifier, was nothing less than corrupt. The Pennsylvania state assembly was about to have its term come to an end, and had begun to consider calling a special convention on the Constitution, even before Congress had forwarded it to the states. Antifederalists in the state assembly tried to block this move by refusing to attend the last two days of the session, since without them there would not be enough members present for the state legislature to make a binding legal decision. As a result extraordinarily coercive measures were taken to force Antifederalists to attend. Antifederalists were found at their boarding house and then dragged through the streets of Philadelphia and deposited in the Pennsylvania State House with the doors locked behind them. The presence of these Antifederalists against their will, created the required number of members to allow a special convention to be called in the state, which eventually voted 46 to 23 to accept the Constitution.

The first real test of the Constitution in an influential state with both sides prepared for the contest came in Massachusetts in January 1788. Here influential older Patriots like Governor John Hancock and Sam Adams led the Antifederalists. Further, the rural western part of the state, where Shays' Rebellion had occurred the previous year, was an Antifederalist stronghold. A bitterly divided month-long debate ensued that ended with a close vote (187-168) in favor of the Constitution. Crucial to this narrow victory was the strong support of artisans who favored the new commercial powers of the proposed central government that might raise tariffs (taxes) on cheap British imports that threatened their livelihood. The Federalists' narrow victory in Massachusetts rested on a cross-class alliance between elite nationalists and urban workingmen.

Samuel Adams
A revolutionary leader in Massachusetts, Samuel Adams founded Bowdoin College when he was governor of Massachusetts. At the time, Maine (where Bowdoin College is located) was part of Massachusetts.

The Massachusetts vote also included an innovation with broad significance. John Hancock who shifted his initial opposition to the Constitution led the move toward ratification. Satisfied that certain amendments protecting individual rights were going to be considered by the first new Congress that would meet should the Constitution become law. This compromise helped carry the narrow victory in Massachusetts and was adopted by every subsequent state convention to ratify (except Maryland).

By the spring conventions in the required nine states had ratified, and the Constitution could become law. But with powerful, populous, and highly divided Virginia and New York yet to vote, the legitimacy of the new national system had not yet been fully resolved.

On the Web
A Biography of John Hancock
John Hancock might be most famous for his distinctive signature, but he was much more than some flashy penmanship. He was governor of Massachusetts during the ratification of the Constitution, and it was his change in position to support the document that helped it pass in the state. Check out this in-depth biography of Mr. Hancock to find out more about his legacy.
Samuel Adams
Here is a brief biography of Sam Adams, one of the more prominent Antifederalist in Massachusetts, and a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Signers of the Declaration
Bios of all the signers of the Declaration of Independence
Growth of the Nation: Historical Maps of the U.S.
The ratification of the Constitution began a long history of U.S. expansion. As each state was admitted to the Union, the country's maps changed. Spend some good quality time with these maps of growth of America from 1775 to the present, prepared by the U.S Geological Survey.
Debates on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution
Each state debated the Constitution as drafted by the delegates in 1787. This site contains the record of all the Constitutional debates, along with The Federalist Papers and other important source documents.
We have fled from the political Sodom; let us not look back, lest we perish and become a monument of infamy and derision to the world. -Samuel Adams
Learn More...
Want a fun way to keep track of the order that the states entered the Union? Just use the state quarters issued by the U.S. Mint between 1999 and 2008. Each state has supplied a special design for its quarter.
Learn More...

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