On June 21, 1788, 225 years ago today, New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the United States Constitution, cementing its place as the cornerstone of our republic. That this document has endured for more than two centuries — with relatively little alteration — is a testament to its strength and wisdom. Its remarkable tenure makes it the oldest written constitution still used in the modern world.
The need for this document became increasingly apparent even as the ink on the Articles of Confederation began to dry. One of the chief deficits was the lack of a central authority to regulate both foreign and domestic commerce.
In late May 1787, a Constitutional Convention convened at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. President George Washington presided over three grueling months of debate. On September 17, 1787, the resultant draft was signed by 38 of the 41 delegates present at the end of the convention. The path to full adoption is specified in Article VII, “The Ratification of the Conventions of nine States, shall be sufficient for the Establishment of this Constitution between the States so ratifying the Same.”
Building on some of the framework provided in the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution created a strong federal government nested inside a complicated web of checks and balances. This structure proved to be a relatively easy sell with seven states — Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, and Connecticut — ratifying it quickly. After the initial seven, the real work began.
Massachusetts in particular proved resistant. Its reservations revolved around the Constitution’s failure to reserve undelegated powers to the states. Also, the lack of provisions guaranteeing protection of basic political rights, such as the rights of free speech, assembly, religion, and press.
By February 1788, a compromise had been brokered that paved the way for Massachusetts, South Carolina and Maryland to join in ratification. The terms of the deal provided assurances that amendments guaranteeing the aforementioned rights would be shortly forthcoming.
Four months later New Hampshire provided the ninth and final signature necessary for adoption. New York and Virginia followed suit in July. It was agreed by the states that the new government would take effect beginning March 4, 1789.
Even with the putative deal seeming to coalesce, the fledging nation still faced significant challenges in drafting its formational documents. By September 1789, it adopted 12 amendments to the Constitution — the Bill of Rights. The amendments were then sent to the states for ratification. Echoing the problems encountered in ratification of the core document, the Bill of Rights had its own rocky path to enactment. As history records, only 10 of the 12 were eventually ratified.
By the end of 1789 North Carolina became the 12 state to ratify the Constitution, leaving Rhode Island as the single holdout. Rhode Island opposed federal control over currency and was critical of the slavery compromise. So vehement was their resistance, the federal government had to threaten the severance of commercial relations before they relented. With a margin of just two votes, on May 29, 1790, Rhode Island became the last of the 13 colonies to ratify the Constitution.
In this long road to our Charters of Freedom, there exists a lesson for today. We see that government, even the best government, is seldom neat. It is messy business, rife with compromise and disappointment. It demands concession. It demands resolve.