Constitution Ratification: How US Constitution was Ratified by Three American Heroes
These Three American Heroes Almost Singlehandedly Got the Constitution Ratified

These Three American Heroes Almost Singlehandedly Got the Constitution Ratified

Larry Holzwarth - February 28, 2022

These Three American Heroes Almost Singlehandedly Got the Constitution Ratified
Announcement of Virginia’s ratification of the Constitution in the Independent Journal, July 2, 1788. Wikimedia

11. Other newspapers began reprinting the essays in New York within days

The first of the essays written by Publius appeared in The Independent Journal on October 27, 1787. The New York Packet and The Daily Advertiser began reprinting the articles, with the three newspapers agreeing to a schedule for their appearance. Within a month seven essays had been printed and reprinted, the first, sixth, and seventh written by Hamilton. Jay wrote the others. Jay’s essays were titled “Concerning Dangers from Foreign Force and Influence”. He argued that only a strong union of all the states could ensure lasting security and prosperity. In his view, sovereign individual states would look first to their own security, without concern for those of another region. Thus, individual sovereign states weakened the nation as a whole. He also addressed the need for a national military supported by all the states, rather than each state relying on its own militia for its security.

Jay’s arguments were timely. Following the recognition of American independence, merchants of the new nation lost the protection of the Royal Navy for their shipping. Piratical activities in the Mediterranean were already plaguing the young United States, which had disbanded the Continental Navy at the end of the Revolutionary War. Several individual states authorized their own “navies”, which was impractical and inefficient. Arming merchant ships added expenses to trade, in return for relatively little protection. At the same time, Native American raids on the rapidly expanding frontier (often encouraged by the British), demonstrated the need for a unified army to defend the territories of the Old Northwest. The British retained some of their forts in the territories, in violation of the Treaty of Paris. Jay argued that only a strong central government supported by unified states could successfully address such issues.

These Three American Heroes Almost Singlehandedly Got the Constitution Ratified
Shays’ Rebellion, an uprising against tax collectors in Massachusetts, demonstrated the inadequacy of the national government. Wikimedia

12. Hamilton used the essays to address the issue of conflict between the states

In essay number six, first published on November 14, 1787, Hamilton argued that a weak central government held no power to resolve differences between the states. He presented the view of internal dissension leading to conflicts between the states, much to the delight of foreign nations. He cited examples of republics and city-states of antiquity in his arguments. Hamilton wrote the failure of the Ancient Greeks to unify led them to constant wars among themselves, and eventually their collapse. Examples of failed republics of history included the Roman Republic, Sparta, Carthage, and others. The recent uprising in Massachusetts known as Shays’ Rebellion is presented as an example of what could be expected in the future should the Constitution not create a strong central government.

Hamilton’s arguments drew a direct response from anti-federalists. Their published response attacked the Constitution itself, rather than Hamilton’s arguments supporting it. Chiefly, they decried the lack of the rights of citizens being inserted in the document. While Hamilton envisioned a strong republic which eventually would cover the continent, his opponents foresaw a loose confederation of individual nation states, more allies than united by one government. Federalist 6, and its immediate successor, Federalist 7, also written by Hamilton, remained sources of debate during the Nullification Crisis, the secession crisis, and in modern times. In Federalist 7, Hamilton argued that disunited states would likely find reasons to go to war with each other. Though anti-federalists dismissed that argument, Hamilton’s point was proven correct in 1861.

These Three American Heroes Almost Singlehandedly Got the Constitution Ratified
Madison served in the Confederation Congress in New York at the time he wrote his essays for the Federalists. Wikimedia

13. Madison’s first submission appeared as Federalist 10

On November 22, 1787, Publius submitted Federalist 10 in The Daily Advertiser. It was the first of the Federalist papers to make its initial appearance in that newspaper. In the preceding essay, written by Hamilton, the dangers of factions to the nation were introduced. Madison expanded upon Hamilton’s arguments in Federalist 10. He described the emergence of factions as irretrievably linked to property. “Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society”. Madison wrote the causes of faction were innate to human nature, and thus the only means of preventing its damage to the nation and government were to control its effects. Eliminating factions was impossible, but limiting its damage imperative for a free nation to survive.

Madison argued that a large republic, with representative government, had a greater chance of survival than a confederation of small democracies. The anti-federalists disputed this notion, arguing that the diverse regional interests of the emerging nation could not possibly be governed equably by central authority. It was Madison’s Federalist 10 that explained the principle that the rights of the minority must be defended and protected by the majority, and that only the federal government created by the Constitution could ensure this. Otherwise, the states would be subject to the tyranny of a majority faction. Thus, certain liberties had to be restrained to limit the influence of factionalism. Federalist 10 serves as evidence that the Constitution was intended by its creators to avoid the emergence of partisan politics, though the seedlings of political parties were sown during its ratification debate.

These Three American Heroes Almost Singlehandedly Got the Constitution Ratified
The demands of anti-federalists in several states led to the adoption of the Bill of Rights after ratification. Wikimedia

14. Madison listened to the arguments of the anti-federalists and proposed corrections to the Constitution

Both Alexander Hamilton and James Madison initially opposed specifying individual rights within the Constitution. Madison believed that specifically citing some rights would lead to the exclusion of those not cited. During the debate over ratification, Madison applied the arguments of the anti-federalists to the proposed Constitution. While many he rejected out of hand, others he considered more carefully. During the debate, he drafted a series of corrective measures, seventeen in all, to address the issues raised by the anti-federalists. They were not proposed until after the Constitution had been ratified, and were not part of the Federalist Papers. Instead, the measures were proposed as amendments to the Constitution, the first ten comprising the Bill of Rights. Another, the second measure proposed by Madison, became law as the 27th Amendment in 1992.

One of the chief arguments of the anti-federalists during the ratification debate hinged on the perceived difficulty presented by amending the Constitution. Federalists argued that such difficulties were required in order to maintain a continuity of government. Otherwise, factions such as powerful banking interests could easily change the role of government at their whim. Yet Madison came to agree that flexibility was necessary for the government to adapt to changing society, as the nation expanded and grew in population. The debate over ratification and its impact on the thinking of James Madison, in particular, is clear in his role first opposing, then supporting, and finally authoring the Bill of Rights. Following ratification, Madison ran for the House of Representatives in Virginia. During his campaign, he promised to submit a Bill of Rights to Congress during his term.

These Three American Heroes Almost Singlehandedly Got the Constitution Ratified
Local militia stand against British regulars in Lexington, Massachusetts, April 19, 1775. Wikimedia

15. Hamilton wrote an essay defining a “well-regulated militia” in Federalist 29

On January 9, 1788, Alexander Hamilton published Federalist 29, under the usual pseudonym of Publius. It appeared in The Independent Journal, and it was out of sequence. By then Federalist 36 had already appeared in print. Why Federalist 29 was out of sequence is unknown, but it dealt on a subject which had always been in the hands of the states, even when those states had been British colonies. Titled Concerning the Militia, Hamilton presented his thoughts about what a well-regulated militia should be. He argued for small, well-trained, militia units maintained by the individual states, but subject to the call of the other states when necessary. Such necessities could include insurrections, foreign attacks, and other crises of an undefined character. To Hamilton, a well-regulated militia included small uniformed units, with each state providing its own units.

“Little more can be reasonably aimed at, with respect to the people at large, than to have them properly armed and equipped; and in order to see that this be not neglected, it will be necessary to assemble them once or twice in the course of the year”, Hamilton wrote. Hamilton argued the state militias served as a check on government tyranny. The anti-federalists disagreed, arguing they could easily be used by the federal government to impose unwanted laws. Hamilton responded in writing, “Wherein in the name of common sense, are our fears to end if we may not trust our sons, our brothers, our neighbors, our fellow citizens?” The term “well-regulated militia’ later appeared in the Second Amendment, as a prelude to the right to bear arms. It has been a point of contention between Second Amendment supporters and gun control activists for decades.

These Three American Heroes Almost Singlehandedly Got the Constitution Ratified
John Hancock helped engineer a compromise with the Federalists to ensure ratification in Massachusetts. Wikimedia

16. The ratification debate grew more rancorous even as states voted for the Constitution

By January 9, 1788, five states had ratified the Constitution; Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, and Connecticut. Under the terms provided by the Confederation Congress when it submitted the document to the states, nine states were required for it to go into effect in those which had ratified. Notably absent states were in which the debate over ratification was loudest, Massachusetts, Virginia, and New York. Between January 11, 1788, and February 20, 1788, James Madison submitted 21 essays, explaining the Constitution, the government which it would create, and its relationship to the individual states, as well as the people. Following that impressive display of energy, Madison composed just two more essays, submitted on February 27 and March 1, 1788. By then, Massachusetts had joined in ratifying the Constitution, after its convention entered a compromise.

Massachusetts was evenly divided among Federalists and anti-federalists. Among the latter were two leaders of the Revolution, John Hancock and Samuel Adams. It was they who proposed a compromise which broke the deadlocked convention. They agreed to support ratification if the letter which announced the fact also included a recommendation to amend the Constitution to correct perceived deficiencies. The compromise included a promise of Federalist support for the recommendation. How much the Federalist Papers persuaded the Massachusetts leaders to give even grudging support for ratification has been debated ever since. Massachusetts made six, but the critical states of New York and Virginia, the homes of Hamilton and Madison respectively, remained openly opposed to the Constitution. Both states’ governors were strongly anti-federalist. Neither appeared open to compromise.

These Three American Heroes Almost Singlehandedly Got the Constitution Ratified
Jay’s final contribution to the Federalist Papers described the power of the Senate in foreign affairs. Wikimedia

17. John Jay returned for one last essay, Federalist 64 in March 1788

Federalist 64 was published on March 5, 1788. The essay is one of just four which exist in the original, all of which are in Jay’s hand. In Federalist 64, Jay broke with his fellows regarding the role of the Senate in negotiating treaties. While most of the founders believed the Senate was responsible for that role, Jay argued the main power for foreign treaties sat with the Executive Branch, acting with the advice and consent of the Senate. That approval, under the Constitution, required two-thirds of the Senate supporting the treaty. Most interpreted the “advise and consent” entry to give the Senate the power to overturn treaties which did not meet its approval. Jay argued “advise and consent” gave the President leeway to decide when he needed its assistance in negotiating a treaty.

At the time it was written, Jay had more experience negotiating treaties than either Madison or Hamilton. He called on his experience, arguing the Senate represented the states and had less exposure to foreign affairs than the President. Over the course of American history, Presidents have come to rely on executive agreements between heads of state over treaties. Executive agreements allow the President to enter into foreign relationships without dealing with potential political difficulties in the Senate. The process developed early, and since the beginning of the 20th century, such agreements far outnumber formal treaties. Anti-federalists argued against Jay’s stance, and also opined the terms for the Senate, six years rather than a Representative’s two and the President’s four, were excessive. Jay disagreed, and defended the longer terms as essential for legislative experience.

These Three American Heroes Almost Singlehandedly Got the Constitution Ratified
Certification of electors from the State of Delaware, 1789. Wikimedia

18. New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the Constitution

On June 21, 1788, New Hampshire ratified the Constitution, meeting the nine states required for the document to become law. The Confederation Congress was established December 15, 1788, as the date federal elections would begin in the nine states, with the election continuing through January 10, 1789. The states were to elect Representatives to the house, and electors to vote for President and Vice-President. Senators were elected by state legislatures. Not until 1913 did American voters vote directly for their Senators, as the Constitution read, “The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each state, chosen by the legislature thereof for six years…” Each of the men composing essays as Publius supported such a composition of the Senate. All of them feared what some called “mob rule”, which would result from uninformed voters following factionalism.

The new government, under the Constitution, was scheduled to begin operating on March 4, 1789. But where it would be seated remained uncertain. New York had not ratified the Constitution, nor had Virginia. New York finally ratified the Constitution after weeks of contentious debate on July 26, 1788. Its ratification letter, (drafted by Jay and amended by Hamilton), called for the states to join in another convention for the purpose of amending the document it had just ratified. It listed 31 amendments, and 25 specifics to be included in a bill of rights. In the end, another convention proved unnecessary. Madison, elected to the House from Virginia (which ratified in June 1788) introduced amendments in Congress which led to the Bill of Rights during his first term. The government began operating on schedule, but with just eleven states in the Union.

These Three American Heroes Almost Singlehandedly Got the Constitution Ratified
A bound edition of the Federalist Papers, signed at the top by Hamilton’s wife, Elizabeth. Wikimedia

19. The list of essays known as the Federalist Papers came to a close in August, 1788

Alexander Hamilton wrote the last of the Federalist Papers, publishing the 85th essay on August 13 and 18, 1788. In it, he admitted the Constitution, as already ratified by several states, was imperfect. Yet he argued that imperfection was not sufficient reason to delay adopting it as the basis for government. “I never expect to see a perfect work from imperfect man”, he wrote. He argued that in order to bind the mutual interests of the states, “compromise of the dissimilar interests and inclinations” was necessary. To Hamilton, no compromise offered perfection, writing, “How can perfection spring from such materials”. Hamilton argued that opposition to a strong national government arose from “powerful individuals” seeking to maintain their own regional power and influence. Much of Hamilton’s essay attacked the leaders of the anti-federalist faction in New York, where the ratification debate had been particularly bitter.

Even before the Federalist Papers had been completed, copies of those already published had been gathered and bound in volumes. How widely they were disseminated during the ratification debates in several states is unknown. Surely Madison made certain they were available in Virginia, his home state, and they were published in New York. Yet those states were among the last to ratify, and both did so conditionally upon the enactment of a Bill of Rights, among other changes to the document. Rhode Island and North Carolina did not ratify the Constitution until after the first Washington administration was inaugurated. Both demanded changes to the document in their letters notifying Congress of their ratification. In 1791, Vermont formed a convention and ratified the Constitution, becoming the first state outside of the original 13 to join the Union.

These Three American Heroes Almost Singlehandedly Got the Constitution Ratified
Alexander Hamilton helped create America’s financial system before dying at the hands of Aaron Burr. Wikimedia

20. The three men who wrote as Publius remained active in the new government

James Madison served four consecutive terms in the House, as Secretary of State under Thomas Jefferson, and as the fourth President of the United States. He came to be widely regarded as the Father of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Alexander Hamilton served as Washington’s first Secretary of the Treasury. His efforts helped place the United States under a stable financial system. He also made numerous political enemies, became embroiled in scandals, and eventually died following a duel with the then sitting Vice-President, Aaron Burr. John Jay served as the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and later as Governor of New York. In 1795 he negotiated the Jay Treaty, which gave the United States “most favored nation” status in trade with Great Britain but failed to address American grievances. The treaty helped create party factionalism within the new government.

How much the Federalist Papers contributed to ratification remains controversial. But there is no question they contributed to the creation of political parties by publicizing the rift between the Federalists and anti-federalists. The latter morphed into the Democratic-Republican party, led by Jefferson and Madison. The former became the Federalist Party of Hamilton, Jay, and John Adams. Federalists influenced the form of the Supreme Court for the next thirty years, through John Jay and later John Marshall. George Washington despaired of the formation of partisan political parties in American government, and famously warned against them, to no avail. The Federalist Papers, though relatively obscure, continue to affect American government, used by judges and legislators to determine the intent of the Founders when interpreting the Constitution they were written to support. As of 2000, the Supreme Court has cited the essays by Madison, Hamilton, and Jay, in 291 legal decisions.

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Articles of Confederation: Historical Background”. Official Publication, Government Printing Office. Online

“The Virginia Plan”. Article, United States Senate. Online

“The Constitutional Convention”. Article, Online

“James Madison, 1751 – 1836”. Entry, Miller Center, University of Virginia. Online

“A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic”. John Ferling. 2003

“Alexander Hamilton”. Entry, George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Online

“John Jay”. Article, Online

“George Clinton”. Entry, Miller Center, UVA. Online

“The anti-federalist papers”. Article, Historical Society of the New York Courts. Online

“Federalist 1, General Introduction”. Alexander Hamilton. 1787. Online

“Federalist 2-5, Concerning Dangers from Foreign Force and Influence”. John Jay. 1787. Online

“Historical Overview of the Federalist Navy, 1787-1801” Article, US Navy History and Heritage Command. Online

“Federalist 6-7, Concerning Dangers from Dissensions Between the States”. Alexander Hamilton. 1787. Online

“Federalist 10, The Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection”. James Madison. 1787.

“27th Amendment: Congressional Compensation 1789, 1992″. James Madison. Online

“Federalist 29, Concerning the Militia”. Alexander Hamilton. 1788. Online

“The Ratification Debate”. Essay, Bill of Rights Institute. Online

“Federalist 64, The Powers of the Senate”. John Jay, 1788. Online

“Direct Election of Senators”. Article, United States Senate. Online

“The Significance of March 4”. Article, United States Senate. Online

“Federalist 85, Concluding Remarks”. Alexander Hamilton. 1788

“Federalist Papers”. Editors, January 28, 2020