Ratification from nine states was required to give the Constitution a legal standing. Virginia had emerged as the biggest challenge for George Washington and other Federalists. It was clear to him why Virginians were divided between those who wanted the Constitution as it was, those who were prepared to concede the necessity of amendments, and those like Patrick Henry who refused any part of the Constitution.
The Vitriolic Attacks of the Anti-Federalists
The long prelude to the Virginia ratifying convention was a gift to Virginia’s anti-Federalists—Richard Henry Lee, George Mason, and of course, Patrick Henry. Richard Henry Lee took the lead as a writer, publishing a 64-page pamphlet of extracts from the Constitution along with vitriolic attacks on them; Edmund Randolph published another. Patrick Henry shrewdly frightened those Virginians who had unpaid pre-war debts to British merchants or who had occupied confiscated Tory properties, with the specter of being dragged into faraway federal courts for a shaking down. No speech of Henry’s in the assembly, no matter what the topic, ended without some swipe at the Constitution.
Elections to the ratifying convention became fiercely competitive, and in March, Madison, who had been urged by George Washington to stand for election to the convention, had to break off his collaboration with Alexander Hamilton in producing The Federalist in New York. He had to come back to Virginia to stave off a challenge from an anti-Federalist convert, Thomas Barbour, in Orange County. Madison won easily, 202 votes to 56.
This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding Fathers. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Beginning of the Ratifying Convention
The real test, however, would come in the ratifying convention itself, which assembled on June 2, 1788, in Richmond. The convention was gaveled to order by Edmund Pendleton after George Wythe, the greatest of Virginia’s lawyers and judges and on a motion from George Mason, they agreed to begin a ‘full discussion, clause by clause’.
But the convention was waiting for Patrick Henry, and on June 4, he announced solemnly: “I conceive the republic to be in extreme danger…a proposal to change our government—a proposal that goes to the utter annihilation of the most solemn engagements of the states.”
Who authorized them to speak the language of We, the People, instead of We, the States? States are the characteristics and the soul of a confederation. If the states be not the agents of this compact, it must be one great consolidated national government.
George Mason was quick to follow Henry’s line of attack. Mason asked whether ‘a national government’ could supervise a nation as big as the United States without becoming tyrannical by necessity. Was there ever an instance of a general national government extending over so extensive a country, abounding in such a variety of climates, et cetera, where the people retained their liberty?
Learn more about William Patterson’s dissent.
The Defense of James Madison and Light-Horse Larry
Speaking briefly at the end of the June 4 session, Madison paved the way for Henry Lee—the famed Light-Horse Harry—to go on the attack. Lee said the expression, ‘We the People’, had not been foisted on the Constitutional convention by cunning schemers. In fact, what could be more proper than to begin a constitution by appealing to the people whose sovereignty it embodied?
But it would fall to Madison on June 6 to deliver a resolute dissection of Henry’s alarm. Was Patrick Henry fearful for a loss of liberty? “Upon a review of history,” Madison coolly replied, he would have found that the loss of liberty very often resulted from factions and divisions—from local considerations, which eternally lead to quarrels—he would have found internal dissensions to have more frequently demolished civil liberty than consolidated government.
The Government of the 13 States of America
Madison said that the new Constitution had created a middle ground between a disconnected heap of states and a single concentrated government. Madison said that the government was not completely consolidated, nor is it entirely federal. Who are parties to it? The people—but not the people as composing one great body—but the people as composing thirteen sovereignties.
Should all the states adopt it, it will be then a government established by the 13 states of America, not through the intervention of the legislatures, but by the people at large. In this particular respect, the distinction between the existing and proposed government was very material and would be found to exclude the evils of absolute consolidation, as well as of a mere confederacy.
Learn more about the Constitutional Convention of 1787.
The Ratification with Some Conditions
For nine days, the arguments swayed back and forth, including a powerful speech by Patrick Henry on June 24. On June 25, after three weeks of wrangling, the question was called for, and on a roll call vote demanded by George Mason ratification won 89 to 79.
But the Federalists had not won their victory without conditions. The ratifying resolutions required that any imperfections in the Constitution be remedied by amendments which would guarantee that no right of any religious denomination can be cancelled, abridged, restrained or modified by the Congress, by the senate or House of Representatives, acting in any capacity, by the president, or any department or officer of the United States. Among other essential rights, liberty of conscience and of the press could not be canceled, abridged, restrained or modified by any authority of the United States.
Madison and his fellow Federalists had obtained the most important of the state ratifications and only at the price of pledging themselves to add a bill of rights. The anti-Federalists of New York narrowly followed suit on July 26 after they got the news of Virginia’s ratification. The Constitution had arrived at last.
Common Questions about the Anti-Federalists and the Virginia Ratifying Convention
On June 25, the question was called for, and on a roll call vote demanded by George Mason ratification won 89 to 79.
James Madison said that it would be a government established by the 13 states of America, not through the intervention of the legislatures, but by the people at large.
Elections to the ratifying convention became fiercely competitive, and James Madison had to come back to Virginia to stave off a challenge from an anti-Federalist convert, Thomas Barbour, in Orange County.