Ratification of the Constitution

Author:Robert A. Rutland

Page 2118

Plans for a convention to revise the ARTICLES OF CONFEDERATION were in fact a subterfuge, because the delegates in Philadelphia convened in May 1787 with no serious thought whatever of an attempt to keep that instrument in force. But a legal problem had to be resolved, for the Articles were a fact and their revision was to be made only by unanimous agreement of the Continental Congress which "the legislatures of every state" would later confirm. Delegates to the CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION OF 1787, including several lawyers who later became Supreme Court Justices, wasted little time in disposing of such restrictions, but they were wary of the manner in which the Constitution could be made acceptable to the people. The solution hit upon by JAMES MADISON in his VIRGINIA PLAN was to circumvent the state legislatures and ask Congress to send whatever plan they adopted in Philadelphia to "assemblies of Representatives ? expressly chosen by the people, to consider decide thereon." Frankly fearful of local officeholders who would see the new Constitution as a threat to "the importance they now hold," the Virginia delegates were united on this point. "Nine States had been required in all great cases under the Confederation that number was on that account preferable," GEORGE MASON suggested, and his logic prevailed.

After some maneuvering, the expiring Continental Congress by unanimous resolution forwarded the Constitution to the states for their approbation, thus placing an implicit seal of congressional approval on Article VII. The principle of a two-thirds majority rather than unanimity was crucial. Ominously, Rhode Island had sent no delegate to the convention. To avoid embarrassing obstructions, prudence dictated a fair trial for the Constitution, provided key state conventions ratified the document. Rarely in American history has such a sweeping change moved so rapidly through the cumbersome machinery of disparate state governments, and the phenomenon can be explained only in the adroit handling of GEORGE WASHINGTON'S implied endorsement along with the urgency which supporters of the Constitution preached in pamphlets and newspapers or wherever influential citizens congregated.

Much of the credit for the Federalists' strategy must go to James Madison. As a central figure at the convention and in the Continental Congress he carefully brought forward the accompanying documents which gave an impression of unanimity by...

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