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The Ratification of the Constitution and the New U.S. Government

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  • 0:05 Constitution Sent to Congress
  • 0:54 Constitution Sent to…
  • 1:48 The Antifederalists
  • 2:47 The Federalist Papers
  • 3:52 The States Begin to Ratify
  • 4:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Clint Hughes

Clint has taught History, Government, Speech Communications, and Drama. He has his master's degree in Instructional Design and Technology.

The U.S. Constitution may be one of the most important documents in history, but it wasn't a sure thing. A lot of debate took place. There were many people passionate about ratification, and many people passionate about ensuring it didn't get ratified. The divide over the Constitution shows us the root of political parties in the U.S.

The Constitution Is Sent to Congress

In September 1787, most of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention approved the documents they had worked on since May. Delegates quickly returned home to shore up support, most for, but some against, the new Constitution. Before the Constitution could become law it would have to survive public scrutiny.

The document put to the United States in Congress assembled that same month. For two days in September, Congress actually debated whether to discipline the delegates of the Constitutional Convention for going too far and creating a new form of government instead of just fixing the Articles of Confederation. Congress got over it, and directed the states to call conventions to vote on the new Constitution. Nine states would have to vote to ratify the Constitution for it to go into effect.

The Constitution Is Sent to the States

The states held conventions to ratify the Constitution, but these conventions had other purposes too. The Constitution had been produced in complete secrecy at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. So, the ratifying conventions also informed the public of the details of the proposed new government. They also served as a public place to debate ideas. Importantly, the state conventions, not Congress, were responsible for ratification. This made sure that the Constitution's authority came from representatives of the people, not the standing state government. By circumventing debate in the state legislatures, the Constitution avoided amendments by the state governments, who were jealous of yielding power to the national government.

Ratification was in no way certain. Passionate and articulate citizens used newspapers, pamphlets and public meetings to debate the Constitution.

The Antifederalists

The Antifederalists opposed the Constitution. Many of them kept arguing that the delegates had exceeded their authority by replacing the Articles of Confederation with what they saw as an illegal document. Many said the delegates were a well-born aristocracy and had written a document that only served their own interests and only reserved rights for the property owning upper class. A common big objection was that the Constitution gave too much power to the national government. There was fear that a representative government could not manage a republic this large.

The biggest criticism was that there was no Bill of Rights. Most state constitutions had a Bill of Rights, or at minimum, a statement of the natural rights of man as found in the Declaration of Independence. George Mason had actually proposed a Bill of Rights. George Clinton, governor of New York, aired these Antifederalist concerns with the Constitution in newspaper essays in New York.

The Federalist Papers

The people who supported the ratification were called the Federalists, and they fought back. They were convinced that failure to ratify the Constitution would result in anarchy and continued strife for the public.

Three men, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, responded to Clinton's writings. They wrote 85 essays for New York newspapers. Later these papers were collected into two volumes with the title The Federalist. These essays analyzed the Constitution, laid out the details and the thoughts of the framers and responded to the Antifederalists' concerns.

To the issue of a Bill of Rights, the Federalists argued that a set list might not be complete and that the new national government was so controlled by the Constitution that it could not threaten the rights of individual citizens. During debate in Virginia, James Madison ceded the point that a Bill of Rights was needed, and the Federalists guaranteed that first on the agenda for the new government would be the adoption of a Bill of Rights.

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