Story of Our Constitution - E. M. Tappan

Will the States Ratify?

After the Constitution had been the law of the land for a century, Gladstone said that it was "the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man." Nevertheless, it was not altogether easy to get this "wonderful work "adopted in the first place. Nine States must accept it before it would become law, and with some of them the acceptance was decidedly slow.

Whatever Benjamin Franklin had to do was always done promptly, and even if he was eighty-one years old, he was up early on the day following the close of the convention, and at eleven o'clock he with his seven colleagues marched straight to the hall in which the Pennsylvania legislature was assembled, made a little speech expressing his pleasure, and presented a copy of the important paper. It had a warm reception, for no other State was more indignant than Pennsylvania at the lawlessness that prevailed. On the morning of the 28th of September it was moved that a State convention be called to consider the ratification of the Constitution.

This motion stole the powder of the Anti-Federalists, or Antis, as those were called who opposed the Constitution. The assembly was to adjourn on the 29th, and they had never supposed that so near its adjournment it would call a State convention. They had it nicely planned to secure a majority if possible before the assembly met again, and so prevent the Constitution from being laid before the people at all. They declared that until Congress sent the paper, it was highly improper to admit any knowledge of it; and in any case, notice should have been given beforehand, they insisted. Nevertheless, the vote was taken. Forty-three were in favor of the convention; the nineteen Antis were against it. That afternoon, when the assembly came together, the nineteen were missing. The sergeant-at-arms went in search of them, but they refused to come. There was no quorum, so the assembly had to adjourn.

Then the City of Brotherly Love was wrathful. To form a quorum only two more were needed, and on the following morning crowds burst open the doors of two of the runaways, dragged them to their seats in the State House, and held them there while business went on. The 30th of November was chosen as the day for the State convention.

Now everybody began to write letters to the newspapers, and everybody made speeches. Some objected because the Constitution did not contain a bill of rights. To this James Wilson, delegate from Pennsylvania to the constitutional convention and now its earnest defender, replied that in England such a bill was necessary, because the king was regarded as the source of power, and all rights must come from him; but that in the United States all power came from the people, and any power which they did not definitely give to the general government remained in their own hands. The preamble to the Constitution begins, "We the people of the United States do establish," "and this is in itself a bill of rights," he declared. Some one brought up the criticism of six months earlier, that the delegates had gone beyond their authority in making a constitution at all. Wilson replied that they claimed no authority, that they had framed a constitution which they thought good for the country, and it was now laid before the States for them to ratify or reject, as they might choose.

Not all the Antis presented reasons. Many were satisfied to produce silly doggerel, many mistook ridicule for reason. When the Federalists demanded whether their opponents had no respect for the work of Washington and Franklin, they retorted flippantly that Franklin was a childish old man, that Washington was a soldier, but not a politician; and that the rest of them were mere boys. One went so far as to call Washington a fool from nature and Franklin a fool from age. There was occasionally a touch of wit, but there was a constant stream of what no one but its originators would have ever dreamed to be wit.

In the midst of this contention, news arrived one morning that little Delaware, the smallest of the States represented at the convention, had "fully, freely, and entirely approved of, assented to, ratified, and confirmed the federal Constitution," and had done it unanimously, too! Evidently there was no mistaking what Delaware's opinions were.

The Philadelphia Federalists were delighted. Thus far, the Antis had done everything in their power to block any action by the convention. They had talked five, seven, nine hours on a stretch—the State paying them a salary for the time that they wasted; they had spent day after day disputing about the meaning of common words, until some of the thrifty Pennsylvanians had begun to wonder how the bill would ever be paid if they kept on.

A great deal of Anti propaganda had been carried on in the western part of the State. The people beyond the Susquehanna were assured that Congress would increase the taxes; that, as members were to be paid from the Federal treasury, they would be independent of their own States; and that therefore the State was to lose all power. From these people a petition was brought in demanding all sorts of "rights "which belonged to them in any case. Pennsylvania had lost her chance to be in the lead, but six days after the Delaware ratification she became, by a vote of forty-six to twenty-three, the second in the procession of States. Twenty-one of the twenty-three prepared an address to the effect that Congress would promptly become a despotism, and that the country was altogether too large for a centralized government.

Not one bit did the Federalists care for this. They were not at all afraid of Congress, and the thought of a large country did not alarm them in the least. On the next day there was a grand procession to the Court House, and there the ratification was formally read aloud. The bells of Christ Church rang merrily—almost of their own accord—a Federal salute of thirteen guns was fired, and the members of the State convention had a fine dinner together. It is not stated whether the minority were present or not, or whether the feast disagreed with them if they were.

On the very day before the Pennsylvania ratification, the New Jersey convention met in Trenton. Slowly the proposed constitution was read, section by section, with an opportunity to discuss each one. Nothing was done hastily. For a week they debated and deliberated; then, "by the unanimous consent of the members present, agreed to, ratified, and confirmed the proposed Constitution and every part thereof." This was as clear and determined, even if not quite so jubilant, as the ratification of little Delaware, and the emphatic envoi, "and every part thereof," must have cast a gloom over the Antis. Indeed, in western Pennsylvania it was a question whether the people would not take up arms and rebel. The Federalists were carrying on a mild celebration of bonfire and salute, when down upon them came a wild mob of Antis. These new arrivals did no worse than to spike the saucy Federalist cannon and burn the new almanac for 1788, which had audaciously ventured to print the proposed Constitution on its revered pages. The Federalists meant to have their celebration, and so they and some muskets tried again—successfully. Then the Antis burned Wilson and his colleague, Judge McKean, in effigy; which did not injure the two men and possibly did somewhat to soothe the Anti-Federalistic feelings.

The Antis had lost the central States, but the Southern States and New England remained, and it seemed quite possible that even the compromises might not prevent these States from slipping through the fingers of the Federalists. But alas for the hopes of the Antis! Georgia had her two votes in the Senate just the same as Pennsylvania. She had a very small population as yet, but her soil was rich, and she expected to have before long a population that would greatly increase her number of representatives in the lower house. As it was, the compromise had given her the right to a larger representation than her number of free men entitled her to have, and Georgia saw no reason why she should not be satisfied. Moreover, much of her area was forest, and in this forest were hostile Indians. Spain held the land to her south, extending from the Atlantic to the Mississippi River. Who could say when she might need help against one or the other of these foes? She would have been foolish indeed to toss aside the one friend whom she could so easily and advantageously bind to give her assistance in time of need. Georgia called her convention for Christmas Day. One week later, she unanimously ratified the Constitution. As the last name was signed, a salute of thirteen guns was fired. So Georgia signified her faith in the Union.

Before the Constitution could become the law of the land it must be accepted, as has been said, by nine of the thirteen States; but the Antis were especially strong in New England, and if it should be rejected by the four New England States and one more, it would fail. With the confusion following such a failure, the condition of the country would be worse than ever. It is no wonder that both parties kept close watch of New England.

Connecticut's convention met on the last day of the year. It had a dignified membership, for it was made up of government officials, judges, clergymen, and some sixty veterans of the war. One section of the Constitution was read and debated upon, then another, and so on; but no vote was taken until the whole had been discussed. Connecticut men who had helped to make the Constitution were present to explain it; and as the discussion proceeded, one of them said gravely, "If we reject it, our national existence must come to an end." One of the veteran officers objected to having duties on imports, because he thought this would favor the Southern States; but a delegate replied that Connecticut was a manufacturing State, that the manufacturers were rapidly increasing, and that such a law would be of great benefit. The veteran objected that a central government ought not to have both sword and purse; it would become a despotism. The delegate replied that the government must have revenues, and it must have power to defend the country, that there could be no true government without sword and purse. When the vote was taken, the Federalists were delighted, for it stood three to one in favor of the ratification.

Now came the tug of war. Massachusetts was in population the fourth State; only Virginia, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina contained more inhabitants. Her vote would strongly influence that of New Hampshire and Rhode Island. Indeed, when her convention met, prominent men from both States went to Boston to watch proceedings, and they said confidently that as went Massachusetts, so their States would go. Madison, the "Father of the Constitution," declared that the decision of Massachusetts would involve that of New York; and that if Massachusetts should reject the Constitution, the minority in Pennsylvania would be aroused and would make a stubborn resistance.

It did not look as if there was much hope that Massachusetts would ratify. Several of the most prominent men were believed to object. Shays's Rebellion had indeed been suppressed, but many of his supporters had not changed their minds, even though they had been forced to yield. The farmers had been hoping for laws that would release them in whole or in part from their contracts; and this new Constitution would have nothing of the sort. The land that is now Maine was then a part of Massachusetts, and its people were eager to cut loose and have a State of their own. The Constitution would tend, they thought, to bind them more closely. Massachusetts as a whole never did like interference with her affairs. She was accustomed to attending to her own business on her own ground. She liked a town meeting and not a long-distance government. It is no wonder that the Antis looked upon Massachusetts as a most hopeful State.

The Federalists had their fears, to be sure, but they also had their hopes. Commerce was an important matter in Massachusetts, and it would be much to the advantage of commerce to have a government strong enough to make commercial treaties with European nations. Therefore, workmen, business men, and the people of the cities generally favored the Constitution.

The convention met, and a good representation of Massachusetts it was. There were clergymen, lawyers, veterans of the war, scholars, substantial farmers, and some of Shays's followers. There was opportunity for everybody to speak, and everybody was listened to. Many of the delegates were terribly afraid of this unfamiliar government which had been proposed to them. No one knew what it might do, or whether it would be wise to trust it with power. It might turn upon them and crush them; who could say?

"But our State legislatures have power," said a New Bedford clergyman quietly. "What hinders them from abusing it? Will not the men whom we choose be in general good men?"

"I would not trust them," declared one, "though every one of them should be a Moses."

One great difficulty was that many of the country people were afraid that the wealthy men and the lawyers were scheming to get in some way the better of them. The best speech on that point was made by a level-headed farmer from the Berkshires. He had obtained a copy of the Constitution, and he had read it and studied it by himself. Now he slowly rose to his feet. "I am not used to speak in public," he said. . . . "I never had any post, nor do I want one. But I don't think the worse of the Constitution, because lawyers and men of learning, and moneyed men are fond of it. . .Brother farmers, let us suppose a case now. Suppose you had a farm of fifty acres, and your title was disputed, and there was a farm of 5,000 acres joined to yours that belonged to a man of learning, and his title was involved in the same difficulty: would you not be glad to have him for your friend, rather than to stand alone in the dispute? Well, the case is the same. These lawyers, these moneyed men, these men of learning, are all embarked in the same cause with us, and we must sink or swim together. Shall we throw the Constitution overboard because it does not please us all alike? Suppose two or three of you had been at the pains to break up a piece of rough land and sow it with wheat: would you let it lie waste because you could not agree what sort of a fence to make? Would it not be better to put up a fence that did not please everybody than keep disputing about it until the wild beasts came in and devoured the crop?"

This sensible, reasonable speech contained the real gist of the matter, and had a strong influence; but there was one man for whom everybody was waiting, Samuel Adams, the "Father of the Revolution." Every one trusted him. He would be wise, and he would be faithful to whatever he thought best for the country. Day by day he had listened, but as yet he had not spoken. It was believed that he was not fully in sympathy with the Constitution; but could he not be brought over to the Federal side? There was one argument that would be sure to influence him, namely, what the masses of the people thought, for he had a strong confidence in the common sense of the "plain man." The people knew this well, and the mechanics of Boston determined to take the matter into their own hands. They met at the Green Dragon Tavern, passed resolutions in favor of the Constitution, and then sent a committee to present them to Adams. Their leader was Paul Revere.

"How many mechanics were at the Green Dragon when these resolutions passed?" Adams questioned.

"More, sir, than the Green Dragon could hold."

"And where were the rest, Mr. Revere?"

"In the streets, sir."

"And how many were in the streets?"

"More, sir, than there are stars in the sky."

Samuel Adams was perhaps a little shy of the reasonings of the lawyers, but he trusted the people. He became a supporter of the Constitution.

Gradually the strongest objections came to the front. Like the people of Pennsylvania, the Massachusetts folk did not feel safe without the familiar bill of rights. They wanted to be definitely assured that there would be no interference with their religious belief, that they might send petitions to government if they wished, that they might be sure not to have soldiers quartered upon them in time of peace, and that they might be safe from general search warrants. In short, they seemed to forget that they had advanced from colonial times and had cut loose from a royal government. It was suggested that while the Constitution must be accepted as a whole, these points might be proposed as amendments. President John Hancock brought this before the convention. Samuel Adams upheld it. The result of the vote was that on February 6, 1788, Massachusetts became the sixth State to ratify the Constitution.

The crowds in the streets shouted with delight. The national salute was fired over and over again. Bells rang, bonfires burned all night long. "The Boston people have lost their senses with joy," wrote General Knox. There is a street in Boston known as Federal Street. It used to be called Long Lane, but it ran by the meeting-house where the convention met, and from that day to this it has been Federal Street.