Ratifying the Constitution: The Deliberations of the State Legislatures

From the lecture series: America's Founding Fathers

By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph. D., Gettysburg College

After gaining initial momentum, the process of ratification of the new Constitution ran out of steam. The Pennsylvania ratifying convention met in Philadelphia on November 20, 1787, but its members showed no sense of urgency in their deliberations and consumed four days on procedural matters and adjournments before finally getting down to business. Why were the states slow in ratifying the Constitution?

Patrick Henry addressing the Virginia assembly.
Some state legislatures weighed in the pros and cons of the Constitution before signing the ratification resolution. (Image: Martin & Johnson/Public domain)

The Pennsylvania Ratifying Convention

Just as he had done in October, James Wilson the only member of the Constitutional Convention to serve in the Pennsylvania ratifying convention leapt forward with a lengthy speech in support of ratification. He supported the call of Thomas McKean, the chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, for a single up-or-down vote on the whole Constitution. Taking his cue from the Federalist Papers, Wilson insisted that the new Constitution was a genuinely federal document which struck the middle-of-the-road note between a disconnected shambles and a centralized despotism.

But Wilson was just as promptly brushed back by a vicious attack by John Smilie, a small farmer from Fayette County, who demanded that the convention begin “to alter or amend” the Constitution. And so the Pennsylvania convention commenced plowing doggedly through each article, including the preamble.

The absence of a bill of rights was cited as a radical wrong. The nightmare of a consolidated government was conjured up. On November 26, Wilson and Thomas McKean won a test vote, which prevented the convention from going into a committee-of-the-whole and delaying the ratification. On December 12, they finally managed to force a vote on ratification and won, 44 to 24. But the dissenting delegates were so unreconciled to the ratification that they refused to sign the ratification resolution.

This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding Fathers. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Sluggish Pace of the Ratification in Other States

The Connecticut convention, which had been called in mid-October, did not assemble in Hartford until January 3, 1788, and several of the Connecticut town meetings instructed their delegates to bring up proposed amendments. Once assembled, the convention then proceeded to move tediously through a review of each article, and not until January 9 did the Connecticut convention finally vote to ratify 128 to 40. That made five states, but the issue was clearly losing its initial headway.

New Hampshire’s legislature was not scheduled to meet until January of 1788, so John Sullivan, the state president, called a special session of the legislature for December 14; a ratifying convention was duly authorized, but it did not meet until February 13. And then, after nine days, it voted, not to ratify, but to adjourn.

Learn more about the Federalist Papers.

Lack of Enthusiasm in New York, Maryland, and South Carolina

In New York, George Clinton, the unsympathetic governor waited until the legislature convened in its regular session in January 1788. The New York legislature scheduled the ratifying convention for June.

Maryland ignored Federalist demands for a ratifying convention until November, and even when it authorized the convention, did not schedule its meeting date until April, 1788. The South Carolina legislature did not take up the Constitution until January. It held its own debate on the Constitution before finally authorizing a state convention on January 19—a convention which did not elect its members until April and did not convene until May 12.

The Reaction in Massachusetts

Painting depicts a protester taking down a tax collector over a river with onlookers.
Those who had participated in Shays’s rebellion refused to approve the Constitution in Massachusetts. (Image: Wmpetro/CC BY-SA /4.0/Public domain)

Massachusetts issued a call for a convention in late October when the legislature met. But the lower house of the legislature refused to schedule a ratifying convention’s first meeting in Boston until January 9, and even then, the delegates arrived with instructions from their town meetings to demand a variety of amendments, including a bill of rights and religious tests for federal officeholders.

A few of the delegates from the western counties of Massachusetts had even been part of Daniel Shays’s little army, and they had no interest in approving a federal constitution whose provisions were intended to suppress such rebellions.

The president of the Massachusetts convention was the old revolutionary, John Hancock, who refused to declare himself for or against ratification. Another old Revolutionary, Samuel Adams, was chosen as a delegate from Boston, and he had no hesitation in expressing himself as absolutely against the Constitution.

Beginning on January 14, the Massachusetts ratifying convention proceeded to pick its way through the Constitution. This went on until January 23, when a Federalist delegate, Samuel Nasson, moved to consider the Constitution as a whole. But Samuel Adams led a charge which defeated the motion and dragged the debates out until February 6. The final vote to ratify was an uneasy 187 to 168, with nine absences.

Learn more about Daniel Shays’s Rebellion.

The Unenthused Patrick Henry

The Constitution’s decaying momentum set an unhappy stage for what everyone understood would be the ultimate test of the Constitution in Virginia. Six of Virginia’s nine newspapers published the text of the Constitution between the signing in September and the end of November. Nevertheless, the Virginia general assembly that met in October did not set elections to a ratifying convention until March, nor the meeting of the convention until June.

Patrick Henry was unenthused about the calling of the Philadelphia convention. George Washington personally appealed to Henry to swing his considerable influence and talents behind it. However, Henry mobilized every political resource, and employed every political strategy at his command to stop the new Constitution in its tracks.

He scared the political willies out of people with prophecies that adopting the Constitution would mean the surrender of the Mississippi River to the Spaniards and the establishment of a national Church, which would stamp out the toleration Henry had championed for the promise to keep evangelical Awakeners in the backcountry.

If Virginia’s consent was necessary in order to make the overall ratification process work, then neutralizing Patrick Henry would be the most important task the Federalists would have in America.

Common Questions about the State Legislatures and their Deliberations

Q: What did James Wilson think about the new Constitution?

James Wilson insisted that the new Constitution was a genuinely federal document which struck the middle-of-the-road note between a disconnected shambles and a centralized despotism.

Q: Who was John Hancock and what was his view about the ratification of the Constitution?

John Hancock was the president of the Massachusetts convention. He was an old revolutionary and refused to declare himself for or against the ratification of the Constitution.

Q: What did Patrick Henry tell the people of Virginia about the new Constitution?

Patrick Henry prophesied that adopting the Constitution would mean the surrender of the Mississippi River to the Spaniards and the establishment of a national Church.

Keep Reading
James Wilson and Alexander Hamilton: Defense of the Virginia Plan
James Madison’s Proposal for a New Government Framework
The Constitutional Convention of 1787: William Paterson vs. Edmund Randolph