The final article in the original Constitution, Article VII is also the shortest. It clearly states its purpose of defining the conditions necessary for operationalizing the new Constitution: ratification by nine states would be sufficient to put the document into effect among the states so ratifying. It is arguably the most necessary part of the Constitution since without it there would have been no clear definition of what would have to happen in order to put the new framework of government into operation.
Article VII certainly shows the influence of its times. In creating a system of ratification, the Framers were well aware that their work would give rise to controversy and meet opposition. This can be seen in the decision not to require all of the thirteen states to ratify before the Constitution would go into effect. The Articles of Confederation then in effect had required unanimous approval, and the process had taken four years, with a single state holding up ratification for the last two. The number of states needed was stated as nine, a proportion of states consistent with the three-quarters required in Article V's amendment process. (It should be remembered that Rhode Island had not sent a delegation to Philadelphia, and so twelve states rather than thirteen had been represented at the convention.)
The text of Article VII, however, does not specify what means of ratification should be used. This question was addressed by a resolution of the Constitutional Convention passed on 17 September 1787 that accompanied the Constitution when it was transmitted to the Confederation Congress in New York. (It was also on this day--which we celebrate as Constitution Day--when the Constitution was signed.) The resolution called for special ratifying conventions to be held in each state. It would be these conventions—not the state legislatures—which would decide the question of ratification. It was also a conscious way of embodying the "We the People" of the Constitution's Preamble. The Constitution would be given life by the directly elected representatives of the people of the states chosen for that purpose; it would not, like the Articles of Confederation, be the creation of the state governments.
The process proved to be a dramatic one and ratification was no foregone conclusion. Proponents of the new Constitution quickly labeled themselves Federalists, emphasizing the division of power between the states and the new national government. Its opponents were left with the label of Anti-Federalists, emphasizing more what they opposed rather than what they favored. The ensuing debates were among the most remarkable political discussions in American history. The Federalists not only emphasized the defects of the Articles of Confederation, but argued that the proposed constitution embodied the true principles of republicanism, most famously in the eighty-five essays written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay that were brought together as The Federalist Papers. The Anti-Federalists found many specific points to criticize in the proposed constitution and stressed that it threatened to centralize power at the national level. Their most potent criticism, though, was that the absence of a bill of rights would make the proposed new government a threat to individual liberties. The Federalists made the most of the support of Washington, Franklin, and other heroes of the Revolution and had the advantage of controlling more newspapers. Still the debate was a fierce one.
Five states (Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Connecticut) ratified quickly by unanimous or large margins. Then attention focused on Massachusetts, whose convention was closely divided. Ratification was in doubt but the Federalists were able to muster a modest 187-167 majority by agreeing that amendments would be proposed after the Constitution went into effect. The state's ratification, however, was not dependent on the future amendments. Maryland and South Carolina then followed, by comfortable margins. Meanwhile, Rhode Island refused to call a convention. Instead it held a referendum, which the Federalists boycotted. Ratification was overwhelmingly rejected.
By June of 1788, eight states had ratified and one had rejected the Constitution. One more was needed to fulfill the terms of Article VII and establish the new government. New Hampshire, where the state convention had met earlier in the year but had adjourned to see what other states would do, next became the center of attention. Originally thought to have an Anti-Federalist majority, the vote in neighboring Massachusetts and the promise of amendments proved enough to secure a ten-vote majority in favor of ratification.
Preparations for the new government could now proceed, but four states had still not ratified. Many wondered about the viability of a nine-state union, especially one that as yet lacked the large states of New York and Virginia. In the latter, the climactic debate vote came during a violent thunderstorm. The Federalists, led by Madison and John Marshall, prevailed by a vote of 89-79 after promising that amendments including a bill of rights would be offered. News of Virginia's ratification influenced things in the closely-divided New York convention, where Hamilton led the Federalists. Talk that pro-Federalist New York City would secede and join the new union on its own was also a factor. Even after the Federalists had promised to propose amendments, New York's vote was still close: the margin for ratification was only three. North Carolina's convention decided not to vote, but to wait and see if amendments, especially a bill of rights, would be added. It was thus an eleven state union that formed and witnessed George Washington's inauguration in the spring of 1789. North Carolina would follow in in that year, once the first Congress had sent to the states the amendments that would become the Bill of Rights, and Rhode Island would finally ratify—by a mere two votes—in 1790.
The process of putting Article VII into effect had not only provided one of the nation's great political dramas, it had fostered one of the most enlightening periods of political debate and discussion in American history and led directly to the addition of the first ten amendments that we have ever since called the Bill of Rights. Despite the fact that Article VII is one of parts of the Constitution most closely tied to the circumstances of its day, its effects are still clearly evident in our own time.
William C. Lowe, PhD
Dean, College of Liberal Arts
The University of Arizona Global Campus
published September 2013