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The Ratification Process: State by State

The ratification process started when the Congress sent the Constitution to the state legislatures for approval in state conventions of the people. Five state conventions voted to approve the Constitution almost immediately and by overwhelming majorities. The Federalists began the contest in strong shape and quickly captured five of the nine states needed to approve the Constitution. The Constitution seemed to have broad popular support.

However, a closer look at who ratified the Constitution in these early states and how it was done indicates that the contest was much closer than it seems. Four of the first five states were small states that would benefit from a strong national government that could prevent abuses by the larger states.

The process in Pennsylvania, the one large early ratifier, was corrupt. The term of the Pennsylvania State Assembly was about to an end. It began to consider calling a special convention on the Constitution even before Congress had forwarded it to the states. Antifederalists in the state assembly tried to block this move by refusing to attend the last two days of the session. Without them, there would not be enough members to make a legal decision. As a result, the Antifederalists were forced to attend the session after being dragged from their homes and being locked into the Pennsylvania State House. Eventually they voted 46 to 23 to accept the Constitution.

The first real test of the Constitution was in the influential state of Massachusetts. Older Patriots like Governor John Hancock and Sam Adams led the Antifederalists. The rural western part of the state was an Antifederalist stronghold. A bitter month-long debate ended with a close vote in favor of the Constitution. The strong support of artists helped pass the Constitution. They supported the new commercial powers of the proposed central government that might raise taxes on cheap British imports that threatened their business. The Federalists' narrow victory in Massachusetts depended on a cross-class alliance between elite nationalists and urban workingmen.

John Hancock initially opposed the Constitution. After he was satisfied that there would be laws for protection of certain individual rights, he helped get it passed. This compromise helped carry the narrow victory in Massachusetts and was adopted by every successive state convention to ratify (except Maryland).

By the spring, conventions in the required nine states had ratified, and the Constitution became law. But with powerful, populous, and highly divided Virginia and New York yet to vote, the authority of the new national system had not yet been fully resolved.


Source: The Ratification Process: State by State
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