Federalist Papers – A Historical Review and Timeline for Ratification of the Constitution

This is a brief historical review of what was taking place from the time the new Constitution was approved by the Constitutional Convention until the time that the Constitution was ratified by the States.

In September, 1787, when the Constitutional Convention approved the draft of the new Constitution of the United States instead of amending the existing Articles of Confederation as was agreed upon when the members of the convention assembled, fierce debates began.  The intent of the debates was to argue FOR or AGAINST ratification of the Constitution.

Those advocating a strong central government were known as the “Federalists,” and, conversely, those advocating giving more power and independence to the individual states were known as “Anti-Federalists.”

James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, with assistance from John Jay, wrote a series of highly coordinated essays to persuade people to ratify the Constitution – aiming mainly at the citizens of New York. The 85 essays, known collectively as “The Federalist” (or “The Federalist Papers”), detailed how the new government would work, and were published under the pseudonym Publius (Latin for “public”) in newspapers across the states starting in the fall of 1787.

The purpose of this current series of posts is to summarize the main points in each of the 85 essays.

Essays and articles opposing the Constitution were also written – most opposing the new Constitution because of their fear that a strong central government might threaten individual rights and liberties. As one opponent put it, “Whatever the refinement of modern politics may inculcate, it still is certain that some degree of virtue must exist, or freedom cannot live.”

When we have covered all 85 of the Federalist Papers (Essays 1-85) we will turn our attention to the less coordinated “Anti-Federalist” papers.

It might be appropriate to offer a timeline of the events from the signing of the final text of the Constitution in September 1787 until it’s final ratification by all states in May 1790. The following is taken directly from History.com – you can access the source by clicking HERE.  

The principal points of contention in ratifying the constitution were twofold:

  1. The creation of a strong Federal Government as apposed to a looser confederation of states.
  2. The guarantee of individual rights and freedoms – such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press.

Ratifying the Constitution

By September 1787, the convention’s five-member Committee of Style (Hamilton, Madison, William Samuel Johnson of Connecticut, Gouverneur Morris of New York, Rufus King of Massachusetts) had drafted the final text of the Constitution, which consisted of some 4,200 words.

On September 17, George Washington was the first to sign the document. Of the 55 delegates, a total of 39 signed; some had already left Philadelphia, and three–George Mason (1725-92) and Edmund Randolph (1753-1813) of Virginia, and Elbridge Gerry (1744-1813) of Massachusetts–refused to approve the document. In order for the Constitution to become law, it then had to be ratified by nine of the 13 states.

Beginning on December 7, 1787, five states–Delaware, Pennsylvania, New JerseyGeorgia and Connecticut–ratified the Constitution in quick succession. However, other states, especially Massachusetts, opposed the document, as it failed to reserve undelegated powers to the states and lacked constitutional protection of basic political rights, such as freedom of speech, religion and the press. In February 1788, a compromise was reached under which Massachusetts and other states would agree to ratify the document with the assurance that amendments would be immediately proposed. The Constitution was thus narrowly ratified in Massachusetts, followed by Maryland and South Carolina.

On June 21, 1788, New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the document, and it was subsequently agreed that government under the U.S. Constitution would begin on March 4, 1789.

George Washington was inaugurated as America’s first president on April 30, 1789. In June of that same year, Virginia ratified the Constitution, and New York followed in July. On February 2, 1790, the U.S. Supreme Court held its first session, marking the date when the government was fully operative.

Rhode Island, the last holdout of the original 13 states, finally ratified the Constitution on May 29, 1790.

The Bill of Rights

In 1789, Madison, then a member of the newly established U.S. House of Representatives, introduced 19 amendments to the Constitution. On September 25, 1789, Congress adopted 12 of the amendments and sent them to the states for ratification. Ten of these amendments, known collectively as the Bill of Rights, were ratified and became part of the Constitution on December 10, 1791.

The Bill of Rights guarantees individuals certain basic protections as citizens, including freedom of speech, religion and the press; the right to bear and keep arms; the right to peaceably assemble; protection from unreasonable search and seizure; and the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury. For his contributions to the drafting of the Constitution, as well as its ratification, Madison became known as “Father of the Constitution.”

To date, there have been thousands of proposed amendments to the Constitution. However, only 17 amendments have been ratified in addition to the Bill of Rights because the process isn’t easy–after a proposed amendment makes it through Congress, it must be ratified by three-fourths of the states. The most recent amendment to the Constitution, Article XXVII, which deals with congressional pay raises, was proposed in 1789 and ratified in 1992.

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