Constitution Day is our opportunity to celebrate the signing of the U.S. Constitution 232 years ago and to esteem the Bill of Rights that guarantees our individual freedoms.
The Articles of Confederation’s Congress approved a federal convention in Philadelphia in May 1787 “for the sole and express purpose of (improving) the Articles of Confederation.” During this (Constitutional) convention, Virginia’s George Mason proposed adding a bill of rights to the forthcoming federal governing document. This was voted down 10-0. Delegates weren’t against such rights; they considered the Constitution a bill of rights in itself. Besides, most state constitutions already contained a bill of rights.
To believe the Constitution became “the Supreme Law of the Land” on September 17, 1787, is to error. As Paul Harvey once said, “Now for the rest of the story.” After the Convention’s adjournment, its President George Washington sent a signed Constitution copy, a letter to the Congress president, and additional resolutions on ratification to Congress in New York City. A divided Congress argued inconclusively for a week over making changes to the Constitution before it “resolved unanimously” to transmit the original Constitution and other documentation to the states for ratification.
The Constitution signers wanted the new government to be accepted by the people and be the peoples’ government, as the Constitution begins, “We the People…” To minimize political impact, state convention representatives elected by the people — not state legislatures — ratified the Constitution. Each state established its own rules for how people would be chosen for the ratification conventions, and also how much voting discretion to allow each delegate. Per the Constitution’s Article VII, nine states had to ratify before it went into effect.
Upon reading the Constitution, people were disappointed because it lacked a bill of rights. They began demanding amendments, but the implication was “Take This (Constitution) or Nothing.” Even Jefferson, America’s Ambassador to France, wrote Madison about two things he disliked. His first was, “…the omission of a bill of rights.”
Delaware (December 6, 1787), New Jersey (December 18), and Georgia (January 2, 1788) ratified the Constitution unanimously. Pennsylvania ratified 46 to 23 (December 12). Connecticut ratified 128 to 42 (January 9). Powerful Massachusetts (February 6, 1788) ratified 187 to 168, with an agreement to provide nine amendments, not as a condition for ratification but as recommendations to the future Congress. Maryland (April 28, 1788) ratified 63 to 11, with 13 amendments, after the Massachusetts example. South Carolina (May 23, 1788) ratified 149 to 11, with 4 amendments, as the eighth state to ratify.
While New Hampshire met, adjourned, and delayed, Virginia held its convention in Richmond. Virginia could ratify and become the ninth state, taking the Constitution over the top. But on June 21, 1788, New Hampshire ratified, 57 to 46.
In describing Virginia, “(Virginia’s) was to be the ablest of all the ratification conventions and the best prepared, a gathering studded with stars, with names and faces known throughout the state and beyond — well-speaking gentlemen on both sides, well-dressed, wellborn.”
The leading anti-Constitutionalist was Patrick Henry, the best orator in Virginia, along with Mason and others. Leading pro-Constitutionalists were James Madison, George Nicholas — most formidable to Patrick Henry, John Marshall and others. Clause by clause, the Virginians debated the Constitution. Virginia (June 25, 1788) ratified 89 to 79, which included a Declaration of Rights with 20 articles, and 20 additional amendments.
New York (July 26) ratified 30-27 with explanatory amendments, a declaration of rights, 32 recommended amendments, and a form of ratification, which included restrictions New York would place on the new federal government until a convention met to consider amendments to the Constitution. New York also sent a circular letter to all state legislatures calling for a new convention under the amendments procedure described in the Constitution’s Article V.
On September 15, the Articles of Confederation Congress set March 4, 1789 to commence the new government.
After James Madison’s election to the first House of Representatives, he proposed nine amendments that addressed the Constitution’s Articles and pushed a reluctant Congress to address the states’ amendments forwarded with their ratifications. Finally (July 1789), the House submitted Madison’s and the states’ proposed amendments to a select committee, then to a committee of the whole, and finally to the entire House. The House decided that any approved amendments be placed at the back of the Constitution to keep the body of the Constitution “inviolate,” as it had been signed. The House submitted its 17 amendments to the Senate, which compressed the House’s list to 12 amendments. After conference committee reconciliation, President Washington submitted them to the states (October 2, 1789). Amendments 3-12 were ratified (December 15, 1791) and became the first 10 amendments. Later in American history these amendments became officially recognized as our Bill of Rights.