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On Principle and Pragmatism II - Ratification of the U.S. Constitution Almost Didn't Happen

Updated on December 9, 2016

Constitutional Convention


The Founding Fathers

The Founding Fathers
The Founding Fathers | Source

Once is Enough

On September 17, 1787, the Constitution of the United States was returned out of the Constitutional Convention to the Continental Congress who, in turn, debated on its merits and then refereed the Constitution to the various States for ratification. On June 21, 1788, New Hampshire, the ninth state to do so, ratified the Constitution thereby fulfilling Article VII contained therein. On May 29, 1790, the 13th state, Rhode Island finally ratified the Constitution. It was not an easy process as all Americans should know. The country was split, much like today, down the middle between Federalists (today's Democrats) and anti-Federalists (in my opinion, today's Tea Party and many Right-wing Conservatives). It is this split between the pragmatic Federalists and the rigidly principled anti-Federalists, and their counterparts today, that is the subject of today's hub.

First, let me expand (or as a professor I have been listening to loves to say "dilate", can you believe?) on the ratification process a bit. Ratification almost did not happen. That was due to the lack of a bill of rights in the Constitution. I will save the arguments for and against the inclusion of a bill of rights into a federal constitution to another hub but let me leave this point by noting that the Pragmatist won and the Federalists let states such as Massachusetts and Virginia amend the Constitution which they then ratified "as amended". Not sure about the legalities of that, but that is what happened. I raise this point identify a third group of citizens that were in this fight. I would characterize them as today's Moderate Conservatives or Conservative Democrats. These were the patriots who believed in a central government but were strong states-rightists who wanted to ensure there were specific guarantees protecting the people from the central government. These are Conservatives who were willing to Compromise.

Articles of Confederation


Aren't the Articles of Confederation Better?

WHY am I concerned with this long forgotten piece of American history? Because I believe there are strong parallels with what is going on today and therefore needs to be revisited. Those that unseated the Democrats on November 2, 2010, call themselves Patriots, States Rightists, and Constitutionalists. They want us to return to our roots, the way our founders intended this country to operate. The problem is this, as I see it, what the Tea-Partyers and Gingrichites want isn't what those great men who penned the Constitution of the United States wanted; far from it.

Sarah Palin, Rand Paul, Newt Gengrich, Mitch McConnell, and John Boehner want what Patrick Henry wanted, no U.S. Constitution at all!!

Well, that is not quit true, they do want a document, but it isn't the Constitution. Instead, it is the Articles of Confederation.

Boy! What a statement; no Constitution. How can I say this? Well, enter the Anti-Federalists and why I am hoping America rediscovers them and truly understands the path there vote potentially could take them. This was exactly the goal of the anti-federalists, to stop the ratification of the Constitution in order to preserve States Rights and individual freedom and prevent the formation of a central federal government that had more power than that held by the current Continental Congress. What I am struck by is the arguments used today by the Right-wing Conservatives sound awfully close to the arguments used by the anti-federalists in the late 1700s!

Consequently, an understanding of just what the anti-federalist were fighting for, the tactics they used, and what led to their defeat is in order.

Anti-Federalist Patrick Henry


Who Were the Anti-Federalists?

MANY OF THE NAMES YOU MIGHT RECOGNIZE, and many more you won't. When the Constitution was sent out for ratification,some of the most notable anti-federalists were Patrick Henry, George Mason, Richard Henry Lee, George Clinton, Samuel Adams, James Monroe, Robert Yates, Mercy Otis Warren, and James Winthrop. As time went on, however, several of these patriots didn't remain anti-federalists because they were willing to compromise. The others fought to the bitter end although a few, most famously Patrick Henry, ultimately became federalists after they saw the Constitution in action. (Today, Patrick Henry, Henry Lee, Samuel Adams and others would be castigated as "flip-floppers"! How absurd is that?)

Why were these patriots, and patriots they all were, so against the document crafted and signed by such august heroes of those times as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Johnson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton? Two words, and you here them today - States Rights. The fundamental objection to the U.S. Constitution as originally drafted was the perception that too much power was being given to the federal government. Even though this debate was officially over on September 17, 1787 with the ratification by New Hampshire, it is still being fought today with the latest movement being the Tea Party.

In most of the 13 colonies, the fight between the anti-federalists and the federalists were supported by about equal numbers on each side. Anti-federalist held sway for a while in such states as New York, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Virginia, New Hampshire, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Massachusetts. While violence was no stranger to the fight, such as when federalist mobs kidnapped anti-federalist Pennsylvania legislators and forcibly made them attend legislative meetings in order to obtain a quorum to debate and vote on ratification, the battle was mostly fought on the field of ideas. This was exemplified by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay's writings, collectively known as the Federalist Papers under the pseudonym of "Publius", and the anti-federalist counterpart "Brutus", who was Robert Yates of New York, an original delegate to the Constitutional Convention but who left in protest when it became clear to him the central government direction the Convention was going.

In the next section, I will briefly cover some of the specifics the States-Rightists were concerned about. I think at times, you might have a hard time discerning if I am referring to 1787 or 2007.

Robert Yates of Pennsylvania:  The Ultimate Anti-Federalist
Robert Yates of Pennsylvania: The Ultimate Anti-Federalist | Source
The Anti-Federalist Source of the Bill of Rights Who Was Satisfied Once the 1st Congress of the United States Adopted Them
The Anti-Federalist Source of the Bill of Rights Who Was Satisfied Once the 1st Congress of the United States Adopted Them | Source
Anti-Federalist turned Federalist Richard Henry Lee of Virginia when Federalists Agreed to Adopt Bill of Rights.
Anti-Federalist turned Federalist Richard Henry Lee of Virginia when Federalists Agreed to Adopt Bill of Rights. | Source

Anti-Federalist Issues, Then and Now

STATES-RIGHTS IS A VERY BROAD TERM, and in the context of the anti-federalists of 1787, covered a whole spectrum of issues. It is a little more defined today because several of the main stumbling blocks some anti-federalists had were resolved with the Bill of Rights.

On the one end of the spectrum, you have anti-federalist such as Robert Yates of Pennsylvania who wrote under the pseudonym Brutus.He was opposed to any sort of centralized government who's powers exceeded those granted in the current Articles of Confederation which had no executive branch, no judiciary, no standing Army, and where it took unanimous agreement among the States to be taxed. As Robert Yates and others of his extreme point of view saw it, ninety-nine percent of power should be vested in the State and only 1% in a central government. In his world, the only real duty of the central government is to coordinate the national defense without having the power to fund it.

At the other end of the anti-federalist spectrum were men like Henry Lee of Virginia. Although he helped draft the Constitution, he would not sign it because he believed it did not guarantee the States nor the People rights that properly belong to them. As it turned out the problem was one of semantics. Now clearly, I am over-simplifying a bit, but when the dust finally settled and the Federalist finally understood what all of the hub-bub was about, they compromised.

It came down to this, and this is a problem that plagues the Democrats to this day, the Federalists didn't listen to the people and they let their intellect get in the way of common sense. What Henry Lee and many others simply wanted was for the Constitution to spell out the guarantees the federalists just assumed were implicit in the document and therefore it wasn't necessary to "spell it out". They figured that 1) since eight of the states had bills of rights in their own constitution and 2) the Constitution was designed to limit government what was the point of granting to the citizens and states rights the federal government had no power to withhold anyway. Well, the anti-federalists (and history) didn't see it that way, they believed the federal government did have the power to withhold these rights and they wanted them guaranteed or there would be no United States of America. They got their way with the promise of the Bill of Rights. With this promise, enough states came over to guarantee ratification.

But what were the specific complaints of the anti-federalists? They are:

  1. No statement of rights guaranteed to the states and citizens
  2. The members of the House of Representatives will be out of touch with their constituents and will not have their interests at heart
  3. The Senate is much too powerful and unbalances the government
  4. The federal judiciary is so constructed as to make the state judiciary mute and enable the rich to oppress the poor.
  5. The president doesn't have a Constitutional Council to provide advice and information and is therefore subject to ignorance and subjugation by the Senate or the Department chiefs
  6. The Vice-President, for want of anything better to do, was appointed President of the Senate thereby dangerously blending the executive and legislative branches
  7. The President has unrestricted power to pardon for treason thereby giving the capability of covering up his own crimes
  8. Because only the President and Senate are needed to approve treaties, they have exclusive power to legislate in these areas
  9. By requiring only a majority to make all transportation and navigation laws, the eight Northern and Eastern States may ruin the five Southern States
  10. The federal government will become immediately a moderate aristocracy and later become either a monarchy or corrupt, oppressive aristocracy.
  11. The Executive, bi-cameral, judiciary form of government has never been tried before and is doomed to failure.
  12. The federal government will have the independent, unrestricted power to levy taxes and ruin the States
  13. The federal government will have the power to keep a standing Army to oppress the people
  14. The power of Congress is so omnipotent as to make the State legislators meaningless
  15. The House is not Representative enough (it needs more members)
  16. It is not fair that Rhode Island carries as much weight as Virginia in the Senate who will be aristocrats in any case,

There are others issues as well which weren't quite as popular. In addition, the very first bullet regarding statement of rights has many parts to it. What are some of the issues today brought by the Tea Party and Right-wing Conservatives.

  • Significantly restrict the power of the federal government relative to the States (1, 9, 14)
  • Continually lower taxes and restrict federal governments ability to levy taxes (12)
  • Remove judiciary as third branch of government or, at the very least, reduce its power and scope (4)
  • Increase the number of State representatives to the House (2, 15)
  • Deficit reduction
  • Balance budget
  • States Rights (1)
  • Christianizing of government

As you can see, there was great fear among anti-federalists that the federal government would become corrupt, a monarchy, an aristocracy, or a combination of these (3, 7, 10). They thought this would be especially true as America grew in size. As events have turned out, this hasn't happened. (If it comes to corruption, in my opinion, the federal government civil servants and elected officials are saints when compared to state and local elected and hired officials). But this not withstanding, given the issues today's Conservatives and those further to the Right who are clamoring for power are fighting for, they appear to want to fight the ratification of Constitution all over again.

A Look Inside the Court the two men below violently disagree about what Its Role Should Be

Minority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell
Minority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell | Source
Majority Leader Senator Harry Reid
Majority Leader Senator Harry Reid | Source

March to the Rear

WHEN you consider the rhetoric of the Conservative movement as it is being presented to us today, it is clear, to me at least, that their goal is to move America back in time. What is ironic is that the Conservatives today want to become the Democrats of yesteryear for that is the political party that the anti-federalists became once they lost their battle to prevent the United States from becoming a reality. The Democrats of old, fought basically the same battle the Conservative Republicans of today are fighting; and with the same inherent weakness. A weakness that has the potential to ruin our way of life today as it did in preventing our way of life from having become a reality in 1778 had the anti-federalists prevailed.

What the federalist understood and the anti-federalists didn't is that you had to build into a constitution the mechanisms that allowed for the fallibility and weakness of humans. The federalists understood that to strive for the Perfect constitution was to guarantee no constitution at all. The anti-federalist didn't understand this. Both sides new that virtue is the foundation of any republic but the federalists were realistic enough not to expect too much of it while the anti-federalists were more inclined to throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bath-water in order to get it just right; a characteristic they share with their conservative counterparts today; witness the actions of Senator Mitch McConnell on behalf of the Republicans in the 2010 lame-duck session of Congress.

American cannot afford to look backwards; to do so means we are certain to be left behind for which we are seeing signs of the that today.


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    • My Esoteric profile imageAUTHOR

      Scott Belford 

      20 months ago from Keystone Heights, FL

      For the most part you are wrong by saying "Anti-federalists wanted the inclusion of bills of rights for the people as they believed the constitution proposed by the federalists would not be able to protect the individual rights of the citizens." - If that were true, then people like Patrick Henry, George Mason in VA would have supported ratification, yet they didn't. Ratification in NY succeeded by only 3 votes, even with the promise of a Bill of Rights.

      I do agree with your last statement, but do know that the Federalists also agreed with most or all of the provisions in the Bill of Rights - they just didn't think a separate document was needed because they were already implied in the original document. But to satisfy skeptics, they agreed to add them in later. (They were created by Federalist James Madison.)

    • bradmasterOCcal profile image


      20 months ago


      You say in your article, "Federalists (today's Democrats) and anti-Federalists (in my opinion, today's Tea Party and many Right-wing Conservatives). It is this split between the pragmatic Federalists and the rigidly principled anti-Federalists, and their counterparts today, that is the subject of today's hub."

      B: Anti-federalists wanted the inclusion of bills of rights for the people as they believed the constitution proposed by the federalists would not be able to protect the individual rights of the citizens. Their views finally prevailed with the inclusion of bills of rights in the constitution.

      Without the anti Federalists we wouldn't have a Bill of Rights would we!

    • My Esoteric profile imageAUTHOR

      Scott Belford 

      8 years ago from Keystone Heights, FL

      I appreciate you visiting and commenting. I stopped by yours as well and enjoyed it very much; I liked the way you hooked things together; it made things very clear and I added it to my Related Hubs. (I also see we like the same picture.)

      One of the things that you pointed out in your hub was originally, the Senate was chosen by the State legislatures. While not quite democratic, I would offer it is just one step removed since the legislatures are directly elected at the state level which makes them somewhat more responsive to the voters in their choice of Senators.

    • Freeway Flyer profile image

      Paul Swendson 

      8 years ago

      I wrote something similar to this a while back, making the same parallel between modern Tea Partiers and people who opposed ratification of the Constitution:

      It is also important to note that the Constitution was arguably less democratic than the Articles. Only representatives in the House were directly elected by the people. The Constitution was largely about restoring order, and the conservatives of the late 18th century were the ones most supportive of this strengthening of federal power and reduction of "the power of the people."

      The conservative glorification of the Constitution is similar to the often-promoted fantasy that all of the Founding Fathers were good Christians building a country on a Christian foundation.

    • My Esoteric profile imageAUTHOR

      Scott Belford 

      9 years ago from Keystone Heights, FL

      Thank you both for your kind comments. There is no doubt that local officials are more in tune with the local population than those in the State legislators or Congress. It is the nature of things but, theoretically, the people have control over that. If the people they elect do not stay in touch enough, then they need to elect someone else. I would argue that it is not the fault of the Constitution but a lack of virtue of the voters and without virtue, many philosophers have argued, you cannot have a viable republic.

      In terms of the level of corruption, I think that would make a great study. Obviously your observations are different from mine. Where I sit in rural Florida, the corrupt officials outnumber the non-corrupt ones. Ditto, from my vantage point in Las Vegas, where I have an office. I was in the civil service at a relatively high level and didn't perceive rampant corruption although it was certainly there. And, when it happens, it happens in a big way. One where I at least knew and had interacted with was Darleen Druyun, the Air Force's number 2 civilian acquisition official. She got a bit too cozy with Boeing who then hired her when she retired.

      HS, I put a link to your hub on judicial restraint and you are so right about the general ignorance of our history, let alone the Tea Party members.

    • CMerritt profile image

      Chris Merritt 

      9 years ago from Pendleton, Indiana

      Wow! I think you did an excellent job explaining your case and point. As a self-proclaimed conservative, I'm not sure if I have anything to argue about either. I actually agree with several of the specific complaints by the anti-federalists. I think that fear they had of the government becoming corrupt turned out to be spot on. You see, I believe that the state and local elected and hired officials are far more in tune with the people and are more likely to be kept honest, than those on a federal level in Washington DC. I really don't think we want to ratify anything, I think we just want those in Washington to quit spending and become more responsible for the people of this country.

      I really enjoyed this hub, and I am going to re-read this again later. I give you props for a very useful and awesome hub.

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 

      9 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      You have summed up very nicely the constitutional arguments that have gone on since our country's inception. Unfortunately, the Tea Partiers probably have no knowledge of these things and only a vague outline of founding principles. One of the great states rights and strict constructionist founders was Thomas Jefferson. That was until he became President. He vowed to dismantle Alexander Hamilton's corrupt Treasury until he found that it worked efficiently and productively so quietly kept it. He also made the Louisiana Purchase deal with Napoleon. He had no authority to make this deal without Congress but he knew it was in our interest. These Tea Partiers and Conservatives use this argument when it suits them. I wrote a Hub on the myth of conservative judicial restraint. They cherry pick parts of the constitution when it suits their cause. All sides do it, they just claim constitutional puity. They are simply hypocrites. I enjoyed your Hub thoroughly and I hope some on the far right will read it.


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