On this day in 1788, the newly-minted Constitution becomes the official governing document of the United States of America when New Hampshire weighs in as the ninth of 13 states to ratify. The path to passage, however, was arduous, requiring the best efforts of some of the greatest statesmen in our long history.
The tiny original U.S. government had been operating under the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, a document tailored to a newly formed nation made of states acting as independent countries, which required the unanimous assent of all 13 original states for its very ratification and any amendments. As the Confederation Congress attempted to govern the continually growing American states, delegates discovered that the limitations placed upon the central government rendered it ineffective at doing so.
As an illustration of the unwieldy system under the Articles, there were eight Presidents of the U.S. in seven years, commencing with John Hanson; some argue, then, that Washington is actually the ninth POTUS. As the government’s weaknesses became apparent, especially after Shays’ Rebellion, individuals began asking for changes to the Articles, which would still require ratification by all 13 states.
With an original intent of amending the Articles, however, as more states became interested in meeting to change the charter, a conference was set in Philadelphia on May 25, 1787. This became the Constitutional Convention, where it was quickly realized that changes would not work, and instead the entire governmental system under Articles needed to be replaced, requiring the assent of at least nine of 13 states.
Alexander Hamilton and James Madison led the lobbying efforts for votes in favor of ratifying the Constitution. With assistance from John Jay, they produced the 85 essays known as “The Federalist Papers” which explained and defended the manner by which the proposed new government would function. The essays were published in newspapers nationwide and were pivotal to securing ratification.
The first state to ratify the Constitution was Delaware on December 7, 1787, followed by Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, and Connecticut. Some states voiced opposition to the Constitution on the grounds that it did not provide protection for rights such as freedom of speech, religion, and press. However, the terms of the Massachusetts Compromise reached in February 1788 stipulated that amendments to that effect, those that would become the Bill of Rights, would be immediately proposed. The Constitution was subsequently ratified by Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina, and, finally, New Hampshire, 230 years ago today.
After ratification, Congress set dates for the first federal elections and the official implementation of the Constitution. Elections were to take place from Monday, December 15, 1788, to Saturday, January 10, 1789 and the new government was set to begin on March 4, 1789. Of the new Constitution, Washington remarked “If, in the opinion of the people, the distribution or modification of the constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way which the Constitution designates. But let there be no change by usurpation; for though this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed.”
On March 4, 1789, the government under the Articles was literally replaced with the federal government under the Constitution. The new Constitution provided for a much stronger federal government by establishing a chief executive, the afore-mentioned Washington, a bicameral legislature, courts, and taxing powers. North Carolina and Rhode Island were the 12th and 13th states to ratify the Constitution, well after the new government was in operation.