Roughly a decade after the United States declared independence, the United States Constitution was created to replace the failing Articles of Confederation. At the end of the American Revolution, the founders had created the Articles of Confederation, which set forth a governmental structure that would allow states to keep their individual powers while still benefiting from being part of a larger entity.
The Articles had gone into effect on March 1, 1781. However, by 1787, it became clear that this structure of government was not viable in the long term. This had especially been apparent during the 1786 Shay's Rebellion in western Massachusetts. The rebellion protested rising debt and economic chaos. When the national government tried to get states to send a military force to help stop the uprising, many states were reluctant and chose not to get involved.
Need for a New Constitution
In this period, many states realized the need to come together and form a stronger national government. Some states met to try and deal with their individual trade and economic issues. However, they soon realized that individual agreements would not be enough for the scale of problems that were arising. On May 25, 1787, all the states sent delegates to Philadelphia to try and change the Articles to deal with the conflicts and problematic issues that had arisen.
The Articles had a number of weaknesses, including that each state only had one vote in Congress, and the national government had no power to tax and no ability to regulate foreign or interstate trade. In addition, there was no executive branch to enforce nationwide laws. Amendments required a unanimous vote, and individual laws required a nine-vote majority to pass.
The delegates, who met in what was later called the Constitutional Convention, soon realized that changing the Articles would not be enough to fix the issues facing the new United States. Consequently, they began the work of replacing the Articles with a new Constitution.
James Madison, often called "the Father of the Constitution," set to work. The framers sought to create a document that would be flexible enough to ensure that states retained their rights, but that would also create a national government strong enough to keep order among the states and meet threats from within and without. The 55 framers of the Constitution met in secret to debate the individual parts of the new Constitution.
Many compromises occurred over the course of the debate, including the Great Compromise, which tackled the thorny question of the relative representation of more and less populous states. The final document was then sent to the states for ratification. In order for the Constitution to become law, at least nine states would have to ratify it.
Opposition to Ratification
Ratification did not come easily nor without opposition. Led by Patrick Henry of Virginia, a group of influential colonial Patriots known as the Anti-Federalists publicly opposed the new Constitution in town hall meetings, newspapers, and pamphlets.
Some argued that the delegates at the Constitutional Convention had overstepped their congressional authority by proposing to replace the Articles of Confederation with an “illegal” document-the Constitution. Others complained that the delegates in Philadelphia, being mostly wealthy and “well-born” landowners, had proposed a Constitution and federal government that would serve their special interests and needs.
Another often-expressed objection was that the Constitution reserved too many powers to the central government at the expense of “state's rights.” Perhaps the most impactful objection to the Constitution was that the Convention had failed to include a Bill of Rights clearly enumerating the rights that would protect the American people from potentially excessive applications of government powers.
Using the pen name Cato, New York's Governor George Clinton supported the Anti-Federalist views in several newspaper essays. Patrick Henry and James Monroe led the opposition to the Constitution in Virginia.
The Federalist Papers
Favoring ratification, the Federalists responded, arguing that rejection of the Constitution would lead to anarchy and social disorder. Using the pen name Publius, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay countered Clinton's Anti-Federalist Papers.
Beginning in October 1787, the trio published 85 essays for New York newspapers. Collectively titled The Federalist Papers, the essays explained the Constitution in detail, along with the framers' reasoning in creating each section of the document.
To the lack of a Bill of Rights, the Federalists argued that such a list of rights would always be incomplete and that the Constitution as written adequately protected the people from the government. Finally, during the ratification debate in Virginia, James Madison promised that the first act of the new government under the Constitution would be the adoption of a Bill of Rights.
Order of Ratification
The Delaware legislature became the first to ratify the Constitution by a vote of 30-0 on December 7, 1787. The ninth state, New Hampshire, ratified it on June 21, 1788, and the new Constitution went into effect on March 4, 1789.
Here is the order in which the states ratified the U.S. Constitution.
- Delaware - December 7, 1787
- Pennsylvania - December 12, 1787
- New Jersey - December 18, 1787
- Georgia - January 2, 1788
- Connecticut - January 9, 1788
- Massachusetts - February 6, 1788
- Maryland - April 28, 1788
- South Carolina - May 23, 1788
- New Hampshire - June 21, 1788
- Virginia - June 25, 1788
- New York - July 26, 1788
- North Carolina - November 21, 1789
- Rhode Island - May 29, 1790
Updated by Robert Longley