"Fame" Announces Ratification of Constitution
Credit: "Tenth Pillar," City Gazette (Charleston), July 22, 1788. Library of Congress.
The United States Constitution occupies the central place in the American political system. The Constitution embodies the basic principles of the federal government and defines both the powers granted to the three branches of government and the checks intended to limit that power. As has been the case throughout American history, today a wide range of political actors invokes constitutional authority on a regular basis, often disagreeing about what the document says and how government should operate. However, many Americans are not aware that constitutional conflict and debate are part of a tradition that goes back to the writing and ratification of the Constitution itself.
This lesson is designed to introduce students to the vigorous debates surrounding the ratification of the Constitution that took place in the states. In these state ratification conventions, delegates argued the wisdom of adopting the Constitution. Elected specifically to serve in these conventions, they came from a range of backgrounds, from the very elite and highly educated, to those of humbler birth and station. Yet just as in the debates among the delegates to the Constitutional Convention, state delegates grappled with questions about the nature of democracy, the distribution of wealth and power in society, the rights of individuals and minority groups, and the role of dissent in a republic. By analyzing some of these exchanges students will gain a basic understanding of the political controversies surrounding the adoption of the Constitution and a better grasp of the historical period in which it was created.
After completing this lesson the student will be able to
After four months of debate and compromise in Philadelphia, the Constitutional Convention came to a close on September 17, 1787. The delegates’ work was not yet over. Now supporters of the new Constitution returned to their respective home states faced with the task of convincing the public, and their representatives, to adopt the Constitution. If they failed, all of the argument and negotiation of the convention would be for nothing.
State by state ratification moved debate into the public sphere where anti-Constitutional opposition was strong. Anti-Federalists led a vigorous campaign against the Constitution, criticizing the limits it set on state power, the distance it placed between the people and their representatives, its failure to protect individual liberties (the Bill of Rights was not part of the original document), its acceptance of slavery, and the division of powers which, in their view, undermined the democratic process. The debates over the lack of protections for individual rights were central to the ratification process. They resulted in qualified support for the Constitution and, in turn, promises from the Framers that proposals for a Bill of Rights would be among the priorities of the new Congress. In his first term in the new Congress, Representative James Madison insisted on fulfilling these promises. In the long term, the amendments that were added, now known as the Bill of Rights, are recognized as among the most important provisions in the Constitution. They provide convincing evidence of the value of the ratification process as well as the influence of the Anti-Federalists.
Federalists responded with a highly persuasive, sometimes ruthless campaign of their own, stressing the benefits of nationhood, centralization, and expansion. In a hotly contested political battle they were able to rally important sections of the population to a close victory. Within a year, nine state conventions had ratified the Constitution, making it the law of the land.
This lesson asks students to attend to the details of the vigorous debates surrounding the ratification of the Constitution in order to gain a greater appreciation of the conflicting political ideas and historical forces that created the document. It encourages them as well to reflect on the meaning of the democracy and the manner in which it works or the reason why it fails to work.
Teachers preparing to teach this lesson should review the following primary and secondary sources:
The Constitution: A well-organized presentation of this document can be located on the National Archives’ Charters of Freedom website. The text is a transcription of the Constitution in its original form with hyperlinks to amended or superseded sections.
Teachers will be familiar with the best known of Madison, Hamilton, and Jay’s Federalist Papers, (e.g., Federalist # 10 in which Madison discusses the dangers of factions and how the new government will check this threat). In preparing for this lesson, teachers may want to review the Federalist Papers and examine specific exchanges between Federalists and their opponents as these appeared in newspapers such as The New York Journal, The Daily Packet , and The Independent Journal. (Online, see the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers in the feature on the Constitution on the Teaching American History site). This will give a clearer understanding of the major controversies of the ratification process.
Finally, teachers may also want to look over the debates that occurred at the state ratification conventions, particularly those held in Massachusetts and New York where the vote was hotly disputed. These were printed in The Debates in the Several Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution by Jonathan Elliot in 1836, a work now available online from the Constitution Society. The Massachusetts and New York debates are contained in Volume II. These deliberations provide a glimpse of ordinary citizens’ views on adopting the Constitution.
Several prominent historians and political scientist discuss “The Constitutional Thought of the Anti-Federalists” or “The Federalist” and other topics on “This Constitution: A Bicentennial Chronicle,” a link on the EDSITEment-reviewed Teaching American History.
Teachers should read the following sources on the ratification process. These same link is recommended as background for students later in the lesson.
Teachers should bookmark the two sites listed above on the ratification processes because students will be asked to read them in the first activity.
Teachers should download the PDFs with the excerpts from the newspapers exchanges and the Massachusetts ratification convention. Students will be asked to open these or work on hard copies made from these files.
1. Students should read a textbook summary or the following account of the Constitution’s ratification:
2. In this step, students will analyze the public debate that emerged around the ratification of the Constitution. Students will begin by examining the debate at the more elite level of the Federalist and anti-Federalist papers, and then at the slightly broader level of the Massachusetts state ratification convention. To do this they will read and analyze two sets of documents.
The first set is taken from a series of articles published in prominent newspapers during the period when the Constitution was being debated and ratified. Famous Americans who opposed and supported the Constitution wrote the articles under pen names. The articles written in support of the Constitution have come to be known as the Federalist Papers. (Both sets of documents are presented below, after the class activities are described.)
The selections from the documents that will be used in this activity are presented in a separate PDF file. The full documents can be found at the following websites from the Teaching American History website: The Federalist; Anti-Federalist Papers; and Massachusetts Convention Debates
First Set of Documents: Newspaper Debates on the Establishment of a House of Representatives
Second Set of Documents: Excerpts from Speeches at the Massachusetts Convention for the Adoption of the Constitution in 1788:
Groups A and C should represent the pro-ratification view and Groups B and D the anti-ratification viewpoint. Within their groups, A, B, C, or D, students should take notes about the specific arguments for or against the Constitution
Students reading the first set of documents (Groups A and B) should consider the following questions:
Be sure to assign one person in the group to write down the group’s answers to each of the questions, but remember that this assignment is a group effort.
Students reading the second set of documents (Groups C and D) should discuss and respond in writing to the following questions:
1. From the original division of the class into four groups (A-D), ask each group to prepare a speech – A and C had represented the pro-ratification view; B and D had taken the anti-ratification position. Their speech should explain why they have taken this position. They should use evidence from primary source documents from this lesson to support the arguments they present in their speech. Students should take notes on the speeches, jotting down what they think are the most important and persuasive points.
After the speeches have been presented to the class, students should discuss and debate the various positions presented in the four speeches.
2. Each student should now write their own individual speech to support either the pro- or anti-ratification stance, as they prefer. They should also criticize the views of their opponents, using the speeches given in class or the primary documents.
1. Students could look at the writings of William Manning, a Massachusetts laborer who wrote a manuscript treatise critiquing the Constitution and the new government. Two excerpts are available on History Matters: “All Men Are Born Free and Equal”: Massachusetts Yeomen Oppose the “Aristocratickal” Constitution, January, 1788 and William Manning, “A Laborer,” Explains Shays Rebellion in Massachusetts: “In as Plain a Manner as I Am Capable”. Some possible questions to answer would be: Where does Manning’s critique echo or depart from other commentaries on the Constitution? What are his goals for the new government?
2. To explore the issues surrounding the call for a Bill of Rights, students could read a brief introduction on The Bill of Rights from the National Archives’ Our Documents initiative, linked to the EDSITEment-reviewed Digital Classroom. Then students could read these two opposing points of view, both available from The Constitution Society:
The students could then go back to The Bill of Rights and read the Bill of Rights. One question to have students discuss would be: Were DeWitt’s concerns addressed in the final Bill of Rights?
3 class periods