op-ed

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About The First Ratification Of The U.S. Constitution* (*But Were Afraid to Ask)

Constitution Shutterstock/Billion Photos

Joanne Butler Contributor
Font Size:

The 230th anniversary of the first ratification of the U.S. Constitution occurred on Dec. 7 — a critical date in American history. The ratifying state was little Delaware, which passed the Constitution unanimously. The stakes were high: Were the states to become mini-countries under an ambiguous confederation, or would they be united under one overarching document?

Did Delaware have its factions, even as a small state? Yes.  According to Pauline Maier’s 2010 book, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, the state was deeply split between Whig and Tory factions with grudges that went back to the Declaration of Independence.

Nevertheless, Delaware’s constitutional convention met for four days, and on December 7, 1787 its ratification was done.

New Jersey followed 11 days later by also ratifying unanimously.

A major factor for both states was Pennsylvania’s tax on goods shipped outside its borders. The Constitution did away with such impediments to interstate trade in goods.

Delaware had extra backstory. For most of its history, it had been known as the ‘lower three counties of Pennsylvania’. In fact, the spot where William Penn first landed in America in 1682 is in the town of New Castle, Delaware, not Philadelphia.

Around the time of the Declaration, Delaware decided to declare its independence from Great Britain and Pennsylvania simultaneously. Thus, over a weekend in mid-June, the state celebrates ‘Separation Day’ to commemorate this event.

By ratifying the Constitution before Pennsylvania did, Delaware put down another marker that it was a separate state.

Speaking of Pennsylvania, their Constitutional convention was sloppy: it started later than scheduled as delegates failed to show up, never met before 3 p.m. on Mondays, and had a penchant for taking days off. It also was contentious.

The prickliness began on Day One. According to Maier, Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia (a notable physician and signer of the Declaration) asked the convention to appoint a minister who would open the session with a prayer. It was immediately and vigorously opposed by an Irish-American from western Pennsylvania. There was no ministerial appointment.

This small incident encapsulates Pennsylvania’s ratification problems. Unlike the 1776 meeting of the Continental Congress, where Philadelphia’s elites spoke for the colony, the Constitutional convention included Abe Lincoln-type backwoodsmen from the mountainous west. These men wore no silk stockings, but probably were excellent squirrel hunters.

Pennsylvania’s convention began on November 21 and ended on December 13 with ratification.

Did Delaware’s quick action spur Pennsylvania’s convention to move on? Perhaps. Did it influence the Georgia convention to ratify unanimously on December 30, after only one day of discussion? Perhaps.

What is clear is how Delaware’s vote got the ball rolling to ratify the Constitution; a journey that ended in July 1788 when the Constitution was ratified by the required minimum of nine states.  Further, it appears George Washington’s assent to be the first president (while carefully refusing to participate in Virginia’s Constitutional convention) brought the other states to the ratification side.

Of course, ratification did not silence discussion. The need for a Bill of Rights, similar to the one passed in England in 1689, was intense.

But, as the saying goes, every journey begins with a single step. Two hundred and thirty years ago, Delaware took a momentous step.  And our nation’s journey continues.

Joanne Butler is a graduate of the Kennedy School at Harvard, was a professional staff member (Republican) at the House Ways and Means Committee, and served in President George W. Bush’s administration. The Ghanaian poet, Kwesi Brew, has described her as ‘vibrant.’


The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.