The Constitution: The Fight for Ratification

By Audrey W. | Arcadia Staff
The path to the ratification of the United States’ Constitution was a tiresome and twisted route, taking nearly three years to finalize and pass. The first meeting on the Constitutional Congress took place in 1774, but it took the Revolutionary War and many long debates before the document met the needs of the people and earned a majority vote. This is the story of the fight for the ratification of the Constitution. 

A Need for Unity

The First Continental Congress was held in 1774 in Philadelphia in response to the Coercive Acts imposed on colonists by the British government. The second time these leaders met was just as the Revolutionary War (1775-83) was beginning, and served as a jumping off point for declaring independence from Britain in 1776. Congress recognized the need for order upon such a declaration - a budding nation needed a functioning government to provide them with a sense of unity. 
 
This unity came in part with the passage of the first attempt at a national constitution, the Articles of Confederation. The Articles were written in 1777, but weren’t ratified until 1781. Passage of the Articles was greatly slowed by deeply-seated fears of a too powerful central government. There was a large portion of the population that felt a strong central government betrayed the ideals of an established America and would steer the country towards a monarchy or aristocracy. On the other side, there was a concern that a central government with too little power would only lead the country to fail

A 1776 engraving of the Pennsylvania State House, where the first Constitutional Convention was held.This debate resulted in an early version of the Constitution, in which the states functioned more like individual countries rather than states of a single nation. There was no president or judicial branch, and the government consisted of one legislature that had relatively little power over state governments. Still, the states were declared sovereign and independent and perhaps most importantly, the Articles of Confederation gave a name to this newly formed nation: The United States of America. 

Congress Meets Again

The newly formed United States encountered problems almost immediately. The articles granted little power for the federal government. It had power to manage currency, conduct foreign relations, and engage in war, but it could not require taxation or troops from the states. When the Revolutionary War ended, it was clear to leaders in the Continental Congress that a stronger central government was necessary if the country was to remain stable. 
 
The Constitutional Congress met again in 1787 in Philadelphia at the Pennsylvania State House, today known as Independence Hall, with representation from all 13 states except Rhode Island, who refused to send a representative because it opposed a central government. This time Congress was determined to correct the issues posed by the Articles of Confederation. The goal at the start of the meeting was to make amendments to the Articles to fill in their weak points. However, none of this came without disagreement. Three divisions were at the heart of the debates: large versus small states, northern versus southern states, and slave versus free states. 

Future president George Washington presided over the Constitutional Convention.For 17 weeks, the representatives discussed plans varying from Virginia’s “large-state plan,” which suggested abolishing the articles in favor of a bicameral government, to New Jersey’s “small-state plan,” which pushed for equal representation by the states in a unicameral government. One of the staunchest critics of alterations to the Articles of Confederation was George Mason of Virginia. He spoke at the Virginia Ratifying Convention in 1788 saying, “is it supposed that one National Government will suit so extensive a country, embracing so many climates, and containing inhabitants so very different in manners, habits, and customs?” His words represented the opinions of many and it was clear that both sides would have to make concessions to reach an agreement. 

Meeting in the Middle

By the end of the 17 weeks, the two opposing side reached the “Great Compromise.” This formed a new national government with three branches and included their powers, responsibilities, and limits. Taken from the “small-state plan” was the guarantee that the Senate would have two representatives from each state regardless of size while the House of Representatives would be based on state population. The House and Senate formed the Legislative Branch. A Judicial Branch composed of the Supreme Court was created to uphold the statements of the Constitution, and an Executive Branch was where the powers of the President and Vice-President would reside. The three portions of the new government would act as a checks and balances on each other, guaranteeing a limit to the power of the central government. 
 
The Constitution was ratified as the supreme law of the land in July 1789, with the Bill of Rights containing the first 10 amendments to the Constitution passed in 1791. The Articles of Confederation set the framework for what would become the Bill of Rights and Constitution. It revealed to leaders in the Constitutional Congress where a strong central government was necessary and where states could be free to govern themselves. After years of revision and debate, the Constitution served as a statement to both Britain and the American people that the United States was a free and sovereign nation.