Disclaimer: The transcript that follows has been generated using artificial intelligence. We strive to be as accurate as possible, but minor errors and slightly off timestamps may be present.
You can click the timestamp to jump to that time.
Mike Duncan (00:01):
This week’s episode is brought to you by Harry’s Razors.
So you go to the drugstore to pick up some razors. First, you have to find the guy who can open the case. Then you have to wait around while he finds the keys to the case. And then when the case finally gets open, your reward is paying $25 for four blades and some shaving cream. You leave, muttering obscenities about the waste of time and money. Such was the last straw for Andy, one of the co-founders of Harry’s Razors, who was convinced that there had to be a better way, and there was. Focused on providing guys a great shaving experience for a fraction of the price of the competition, Harry’s Razors offers high quality blades engineered in their very own German factory. Order online, it gets shipped to your home. It’s simple. I’ve got my own kit working for me as we speak. The blades are sharp, the razor design is clean, which I like, and the cream is exactly what I need it to be. No cuts, no irritation, it’s great. And plus, I don’t have to wait around for the guy with the keys just to pay way too much for it all. So stop overpaying for a good shave and go to Harrys.com, use the promo code Revolutions, save $5 off your first purchase. That again, Harrys.com, promo code Revolutions.
Hello and welcome to Revolutions. Episode 31 The Rising Sun Today marks the end of our run through the American Revolution, a revolution that wound up taking more than 25 years to work through, from the end of the French and Indian War in 1763 to the sitting of the first Congress of the United States in 1789. It had started as a simple protest against an unpopular tax, had somehow ballooned into a full-scale war for independence, and then resulted in the founding of a new American Republic. Today, that new American Republic will vote on whether to adopt a new constitution to replace the existing Articles of Confederation. It was a vote that would expose the deep divide within the revolutionary generation about what the point of the revolution had even been.
We left off last time with the call for a convention to amend the Articles of Confederation. This call was officially endorsed by the Congress of the Confederation on February 21, 1787, and so the convention was set to meet in Philadelphia in May.
In the intervening months, state legislatures began selecting delegates. Not surprisingly, the men most willing to pack up and head to Philadelphia for the summer tended to be men already predisposed to greatly enhancing the power of the national government. Those who didn’t care one way or the other obviously had no motivation to take part, while those who actively opposed the project tended to boycott the convention, as did, for example, Patrick Henry, who refused to serve as a member of Virginia’s delegation because he smelt a rat in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, for those opposed to amending the Articles, their absence simply packed the convention with men totally in favor of wholesale revisions.
As the convention approached, though, there was genuine fear among the delegates that their recommendations would not be taken seriously, so it was essential to secure the presence of the two men who would lend instant credibility and gravitas to the proceedings. The first was Benjamin Franklin. Recently returned from half a lifetime in Europe, Franklin was breaking down physically, and had the convention been held anywhere but Philadelphia, he could not have attended. But it was, and he believed in the cause, so he lent his fame and prestige to the project.
But the real key was of course George Washington. It took a bit of prodding, since Washington had just spent a whole war dreaming of retirement, but he did believe deeply in the goal of a strong national government, and was always susceptible to the romance of setting aside personal interest and doing your public duty. And so he agreed to lead Virginia’s delegation. His presence guaranteed that the convention could not just be dismissed.
The Constitutional Convention, as we now call it, was supposed to begin on May 14, 1787. But 18th century travel being what it was, almost no one was there on time. But one guy who was there on time, who had gotten there early in fact, was James Madison of Virginia, who it has taken us the entire series to get to, but who is probably my favorite of the so-called Founding Fathers. Probably because I studied political theory in school, and political theory was the water within which James Madison swam.
James Madison was born in 1751, so he was a little too young to be a major player in the run-up to the War of Independence. And then, standing at just 5 foot 4 inches and weighing no more than 100 pounds, he was just too small to be a soldier. Which is why it has taken us the entire series to get to him.
Like the other leading Virginians, Madison inherited a lot of land and a lot of slaves. But when it came time for the young man to pick a college, he did not follow his aristocratic brethren to the College of William and Mary, and instead headed up to the College of New Jersey, which is now Princeton University. Now I don’t know how much of a role that kind of cross-colonial experience played in his eventual emergence as a strong proponent of national government, but it did certainly give him a unique perspective.
He spent the war years serving in the Virginia House of Delegates, where he came under the sway of Thomas Jefferson, forging the political alliance that would define the first few decades of American history. If I ever get around to writing that history of the political parties I’m always talking about, just know that Thomas Jefferson and James Madison will dominate the early episodes.
During his off-hours, Madison read voraciously, from the ancient Greeks to Enlightenment philosophers like Locke and Hobbes and of course another favorite of mine Montesquieu, whose theories about separated power struck a deep chord with Madison as he developed a thoroughgoing critique of the Articles of Confederation. He was a prime mover in the push to amend the Articles, so when it came time to finally get down to business in May 1787, he couldn’t wait to get to Philadelphia with his briefcase full of ideas. He’s basically the kid so eager to take the task that he gets to school like six hours early and is then drumming his fingers impatiently waiting for the other knuckleheads to show up so he can blow them all out of the water.
The rest of the knuckleheads started showing up by the end of May, and no of course they’re not knuckleheads, this is widely seen as one of the more impressive assemblies of leaders in American history. Washington and Franklin were there of course, but also Alexander Hamilton of New York and a powerhouse Pennsylvania delegation that included Robert Morris, the financer of the Revolution who deserves a supplemental, Governor Morris, no relation, and then James Wilson, who along with Madison would come to dominate the proceedings. Also present was John Dickinson, now representing Delaware and who frankly I’d kind of like to write a book about at this point.
The Virginia delegation included Peyton Randolph and George Mason, who were both early radicals and deeply committed patriots who will also wind up opposing the Finnish Constitution. I could go on like this, but seriously, every state seemed to be sending its best men, every state that is but Rhode Island, who refused to send any delegates to this ridiculous farce of a convention. Nodding approvingly from across the Atlantic, Thomas Jefferson called the delegates nothing less than an assembly of demigods. Or if you want to be less rapturous about it, you could call them a bunch of rich white guys looking to make sure the little people didn’t get ahold of the levers of power.
On May the 25th, there was finally a quorum of seven states, and business could begin. Franklin nominated Washington to be president, and deliberations got underway. Now unfortunately for historians, as the delegates started taking the floor, it was quickly agreed that the only way this was going to work was if their debates were kept secret, so detailed records of who said what when just don’t exist, and we have to rely on informal vote counts and diary entries and a few scribbled summaries to get us through it. This was probably not such a bad thing, especially since one of the other things they agreed to right off the bat was that they were going to ignore whatever limited mandate they had to amend the Articles of Confederation and probably just rewrite the whole thing from scratch. There was some brief protest to this, but as I said, the kind of guys who were willing to serve as delegates were also the kind of guys predisposed towards overhauling the Articles, so the decision to press on with a whole new constitution meant very little opposition.
And because Madison had gotten there first, and already had a pretty detailed outline for a new constitution in hand, the convention voted on May the 29th to take his work, dubbed the Virginia Plan, as their starting point.
A few alternative plans popped up along the way, including a proposal by Charles Pickney of South Carolina and a proposal by Alexander Hamilton, and then the New Jersey, or small state plan that we’ll talk about in a minute. But through it all, the Virginia Plan was the plan that everyone agreed to work with, and it contained most of the defining features of the Constitution’s final draft. The bicameral legislature, the independent executive, the independent judiciary, all based on Montesquieu’s theories of separated power, which Montesquieu had developed after reading our old old friend Polybius’s analysis of the Roman Republic.
So the first major innovation contained in Madison’s Virginia Plan was the separation of the legislative branch into two houses.
Almost uniformly, the delegates were small R republicans, not small D democrats, so they agreed that some kind of upper house would be needed to put the brakes on the runaway anarchy sure to come blowing out of the lower house. This is where, for example, Shay’s Rebellion helped frame the debate. No one thought it was a good idea to just let the people run amok, I mean they’ll come in one day and just vote to abolish debt and contracts. Plus they had the example of the Pennsylvania state government meeting right down the street. Pennsylvania had wound up drafting one of the most democratic constitutions in American history with an all-powerful unicameral legislature. To men like Madison and Hamilton, this was like completely crazy and led to wild swings in policy every time one of the bitter Pennsylvania political factions was able to outvote its rivals. So yeah, some kind of upper house was needed, a more deliberative body made up of the better sorts. Let’s call it a Senate, like the old stoic Romans used to have.
The next major overhaul was to the executive branch. Now aside from talk in some circles that George Washington ought to be crowned king, it was kind of taken for granted that the executive would be some kind of elected official serving some kind of fixed term. But in Madison’s plan, the executive would not be some mere executor of the legislature’s demands. The lack of a strong executive was seen as one of the great failings of the Articles of Confederation. So the office would instead be independent and invested with unique powers of its own that would allow it to check the scourge of a tyrannical legislature. Just as the unique powers invested in the legislature would allow it to check the scourge of a tyrannical executive. How the president, as the executive was soon dubbed, would be elected and for how long he would serve would all soon be points of contention. But it was agreed in principle that an independent executive was essential for the stable and just operation of government. And obviously that everyone knew the first president would be George Washington helped quell any fears of immediate tyranny.
Finally there was the matter of the courts. Now the appointment of judges turned out to be an area Madison thought executives traditionally wielded too much power. Unchecked the appointment power becomes a key instrument of tyranny. This is one of those things they had fought about during the English Revolution. Whether the king would have the power to remove judges at his pleasure or whether there had to be a legitimate case for dismissal. Whether the king or governor or president has unlimited power of appointment well then the courts are just going to do whatever the king or governor or president wants and that’s no good at all. So the Virginia plant placed judicial appointments in the hands of Congress. But this of course wound up simply handing the tools of tyranny to the fickle mob rather than some power hungry tyrant which was in many ways scarier to our small R Republican delegates. Which is how we wound up with the compromise system whereby the president nominates judges and the Senate confirms them.
As the delegates walked through the Virginia plan the first major point of contention was over the issue of congressional representation. Being a good Virginian Madison had devised a system of proportional representation based on population size. This was of course a deal breaker for the smaller states like Delaware, New Jersey and Connecticut who could see their interest counting for very little in the United States of Virginia. So an alternate proposal was introduced by William Patterson of New Jersey hence it being dubbed the New Jersey plan.
This plan was in its essence exactly what the convention was supposed to have been about. It was drawn up as a list of amendments to the Articles of Confederation that would maintain the supremely powerful single house of Congress and preserve the rule of one state, one vote. While granting the national government more power to tax and regulate trade and enforce compliance with its laws. In terms of overall form the New Jersey plan went nowhere but that issue of is Congress an assembly of the states or an assembly of the people was not going to go away.
After a few weeks of fruitless debates the question was referred to a committee where the famous Connecticut Compromise was hashed out. It was called the Connecticut Compromise because it was hashed out by Roger Sherman of Connecticut who gets a special shout out for being the only guy to sign the Continental Association the Declaration of Independence the Articles of Confederation and in a couple months the Constitution of the United States. So good work Roger Sherman.
Sherman’s deal was that the legislature would have the two houses prescribed by Madison the lower house the House of Representatives would be based on population while the upper house Senate would be based on states specifically two senators per state. To help seal the deal with Madison Hamilton and the other big state advocates it was stipulated that all revenue bills would originate in the population based lower house which is how it still works today in case you fell asleep during sophomore government class.
With these basic issues worked through the convention created the Committee of Detail in late July to draw up an official rough draft. This committee spent the next 10 days cobbling together sections of the Virginia Plan approved language from the deliberations various parts of state constitutions and whatever was still viable from the Articles of Confederation. They reported out a preamble and 23 articles on August the 6th that mostly conformed to what had been agreed to with a few rather glaring exceptions.
At the behest of southern members the committee had taken it upon itself to insert clauses that restricted Congress’s ability to interfere with slavery and set the bar for approval of tariffs at two-thirds super majorities in both houses both designed to protect the southern economy from northern meddling. It also tried to ignore the approved language that Congress would have the power to legislate quote over all cases of general interest. And instead it drew up a list of 18 enumerated areas that Congress would be given jurisdiction over. But James Wilson of Pennsylvania killed this by tacking on at the end a 19th clause that said oh and also Congress can pass any laws it deems necessary and proper for the execution of government. In other words go ahead and ignore that enumerated list.
When the Committee of Detail reported its draft it was pretty well received and most of it made its way into the final draft. But the slavery and trade issue stuck out like sore thumbs and led to a whole new round of wrangling. Luckily the slavery issue also touched on one of the other big points yet to be decided because though it had been agreed that the House of Representatives would be rooted in proportional representation it was not yet agreed how those proportions would be calculated.
To paint with a large brush the Southern delegates wanted their slaves counted the Northern delegates did not. This of course was the opposite of the positions taken during the debates over the Articles of Confederation when population size was about to become the basis of determining each state’s financial obligation to the national government. In that case the North wanted slaves counted and the South did not. So clearly everyone was working from a mentality of you know make whatever argument gets you the most while costing you the least. Finally the two sides agreed to a set of compromises that settled everything neatly and without any troubling moral implications at all.
The South gave up the two-thirds majority requirement for tariffs and agreed that the final number used to allot seats in the House would also be used to determine financial obligations to the national government. In exchange the North agreed that that number would be calculated by adding up the free population plus three-fifths of all other persons. Everyone knowing exactly what all other persons meant. So right there in Article 1 Section 2 of the United States Constitution it explicitly states that an African American is three-fifths of a person. Oh by the way it also says that Indians who do not pay taxes are not even people at all. So yeah like I say no troubling moral implications at all.
With this compromise in place the delegates decided that that was about all the heat they could stand for the moment and they wrote in a clause forbidding Congress from taking any action on slavery for 25 years. Everyone agreed it would be much easier to just kick the can down the road on that one. As the summer wound down so too did the convention and on August the 31st they created the Committee of Postponed Parts to take up the grab bag of leftover issues. A committee that was intentionally stacked with delegates who had demonstrated a willingness to cut deals and make compromises.
Mostly this was about crafting more precise language about how patents would be handled and the legal process of war making. But this last committee did lower the term of the president from seven to four years and sanctioned the right to re-election which was actually a fairly big thing to just slip in at the last minute. It also drew up the final language for the Electoral College system of presidential elections which don’t even get me started about the Electoral College. Everything was then handed to the Committee for Style on September the 8th for a final write-up. This committee was run by Madison, Hamilton, and Governor Morris who actually gets most of the credit for writing the final draft including the famous preamble.
The Committee for Style produced its final draft on September the 12th, rearranging the previous 23 articles into seven main articles each divided into subsections. Which is why lawyers quote the Constitution Article II, Section III the way a preacher quotes the Bible, chapter, and verse. Article I dealt with the legislative branch since everyone assumed that would be the most important branch. I think it would come as quite a shock to the framers to see just how presidential the government of the United States has become. Article II dealt with the executive branch run by a president elected every four years with the power to appoint judges, veto laws, and act as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Article III covered the judicial branch which is actually pretty hilariously underdeveloped in the actual text of the Constitution with no mention whatsoever of the power of judicial review, that is the ability to declare laws unconstitutional, which is obviously like what the Supreme Court actually does these days.
If you stayed awake in sophomore government you know that that power was simply asserted by Chief Justice John Marshall in the 1803 case Marbury v. Madison. Which is something you can needle your friends about if they ever start going on about how they want strict constructionist judges because a strict constructionist judge would have to admit that the Supreme Court does not have the power to declare laws unconstitutional. Article IV covered relations between the federal government and the states, and then between the states themselves. Article V covered the amendment process. Article VI establishes the Constitution as the supreme law of the land. Article VII lays out the ratification process, which we’ll get to in a minute.
On September 15, these seven articles were unanimously approved by the 11 states able to vote. Rhode Island never did send anyone, and Alexander Hamilton’s two New York colleagues had been among the 13 delegates who quit the convention early, so New York didn’t have a vote. This led to the nice line in Washington’s diary that the Constitution was approved by 11 states and Colonel Hamilton. Thirty-nine men wound up signing the Constitution, with only three of the remaining delegates refusing to sign — Peyton Randolph and George Mason of Virginia and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts.
All three of them had their reasons for opposing the draft, but the most important for our purposes was that they did not contain some kind of enumerated Bill of Rights, explicitly drawing the lines that no matter what the government would not be able to cross. In hindsight, the omission of the Bill of Rights turned out to be a major unforced error for proponents of ratification, but for whatever reason they had never drawn one up and weren’t about to do it now at the last minute. A few delegates thought, for example, that George Mason’s push to tack one on was just a stall tactic to torpedo the whole project, so they ignored the issue and signed the damn thing on September 17, 1787, so they could all go home.
As the convention ended, Benjamin Franklin offered a final few memorable quotes about what had been achieved. After remarking that the Constitution was not perfect and that every one of them could point to something in particular they didn’t like about it, he told his fellow delegates that during their deliberations he had often considered the painting on the back of the president’s chair, depicting a sun on the horizon, without being able to tell whether it was rising or sitting, but now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun.
Then of course there was the likely apocryphal line uttered as the delegates dispersed. Asked by Elizabeth Powell, who is by the by an utterly fascinating woman, what form of government the convention had created, he said, a republic madame, if you can keep it.
But for the moment, the question was not whether this new model for a national republic would be kept, but whether or not it would be launched in the first place. As I mentioned, the deliberations of the convention had been secret, and though rumors swirled, it was still something of a shock to discover that the states were about to be asked to vote not on a few amendments, but on a whole new system of government. And not only that, the vote would take place according to rules completely outside the system set up by the Articles for Ratifying Amendments. As I hinted last time, the requirement of unanimous consent was regarded as unworkable, giving everyone a veto over everyone else, so that nothing would ever get done. So the framers wrote into Article VII that only nine of thirteen states needed to ratify for the Constitution to take effect. Then, in another calculated bit of stacking the deck in their favor, they prescribed that the process of ratification would run through state conventions, specifically called to decide the issue not, I repeat not, through state legislatures. This was critical, because no one would lose more power if the Constitution was ratified than the state legislatures.
The Congress of the Confederation received the signed Constitution on September the 20th, and voted a week later to send it to the states for ratification.
But even before this vote was taken, the war over ratification was underway. Because though we’ve mostly been talking about the guys who favored a stronger national government, there was strong opposition in almost every state to the very idea of a stronger national government, seeing as how defeating centralized tyranny had been the whole point of the revolution, and here we are, not five years removed from the Treaty of Paris, and you want to hand the keys over to some corrupt despot, and yes, we know Washington will be the first president, but for God’s sake, what about the next president? And look, you’ve got standing armies in here, and what does necessary and proper even mean? That sounds like Congress is just going to be able to get their hands into everything.
Opponents of ratification were a diverse lot, and not at all unified, and they quickly fell prey to a clever bit of political labeling. Proponents of ratification were calling themselves Federalists, and they managed to dub their opponents Anti-Federalists, as if they were simply Henri Mules standing in the way of America’s rise to power, rather than what it’s fair to actually call them, the keepers of the original revolutionary flame.
In terms of ideological rhetoric, the Anti-Federalists can draw a straight line all the way back to 1763. The Federalists, on the other hand, had to somehow prove that that rhetoric had been fine in its time. But we need to survive as an independent nation now, and it’s time to get real.
One of the things I love about the Federalist-Anti-Federalist campaigns is that everyone’s revolutionary credentials were positively sparkling. Anti-Federalists like Patrick Henry and George Mason and George Clinton had given everything they had to the Patriot cause, and believed deeply that the Constitution was a betrayal of the Revolution, just as Hamilton and Madison, Washington and Franklin had given everything they had to the Patriot cause, and believed deeply that the Constitution was the fulfillment of the Revolution, the thing that would guarantee the survival of an American republic.
As the battle lines were being drawn, both sides picked up pens and started railing against each other, often using well-known Roman pseudonyms. So the Anti-Federalists were Brutus and Cato, and they argued that the Constitution vested too much power in the central government, that the president would soon enough be a king, that the long-fought-for sovereignty of the states was being destroyed, that no republic could survive if it tried to encompass so vast an area and so many different people. And above all, they agreed that the failure to include a Bill of Rights was an unconscionable omission. On the other side, the Federalists ran with a campaign that played up the support of Washington and Franklin, the existential threat posed by the current disunity of the states, and the fact that the states themselves were not doing a very good job of running things. But of course, the most famous batch of polemics that came out of the ratification campaigns were the Federalists, a set of 85 essays published in New York under the pseudonym Publius, after our old, old, old friend Publius Valerius, and written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay.
The most famous of these is probably Federalist Number 10, which argued that the National Union was a necessary safeguard against internal factionalism and insurrection, and pretty much demolished the argument that a republic could only survive if it was small in size. Number 10, written by Madison, argued that in fact the opposite was true, that the larger the republic, the less likely it was to be hijacked by narrow interest groups. Other greatest hits include Number 51, which is the definitive statement on how the system of checks and balances works, and Number 78, written by Hamilton, which is the one that says that judicial review is actually a thing, even if it’s not there in the actual text.
Now something I didn’t know going into this was that at the time, the Federalist essays were not influential at all. They were neither widely read nor timely enough to sway opinion. Today, of course, they are fundamental to understanding how the federal government is supposed to work, and are cited regularly in judicial opinions, and act as basically an annotated reference manual to the Constitution. The first state to ratify was Delaware, on December 7, 1787.
The lower counties had suffered mightily under the Articles of Confederation, and without a strong port of their own, had to rely on the whims of New York and Pennsylvania for all trade. Ratification was swift and unanimous.
Surprisingly, Pennsylvania became the second state to ratify. Surprising, because there were strong anti-federalists feeling across the state. Remember, these are the same guys who came up with the radically democratic unicameral legislature. So the Federalists acted quickly, and ruthlessly, to ratify the Constitution before opposition forces could really organize themselves. The state ratifying convention was assembled on November 20, and after furious debate seemed to be headed for ratification, when opposition anti-federalists deserted the hall to deny their opponents the necessary quorum to take the vote. Federalist delegates literally hunted down and dragged a few hiding anti-federalists back into the State House, declared a quorum, and voted for ratification on December 12.
New Jersey followed a few days later and ratified unanimously, they being in the same basic situation as Delaware. Then Georgia followed with a unanimous vote of its own on January 2, because now that they didn’t have the British to protect them from Indian attacks, they needed the federal government. Connecticut then joined them all on January 9. So this brought the movement to its first great test, Massachusetts.
Still reeling from the anarchy of Shea’s Rebellion, the leaders of Massachusetts who might have been inclined to try to go it alone, wound up fairly evenly divided on the matter when the state convention met on January 9. They spent nearly a month at each other’s throats, but it would appear that the decisive break came when Sam Adams and John Hancock were persuaded to vote yes and bring along the bloc of voters they controlled. Massachusetts ratified the Constitution on February 6 by a vote of 187 to 168. It was a close thing, but it lent the ratification movement a huge dose of momentum. I mean, if the boys in Boston are for it, it can’t be all bad.
But critically, the Massachusetts convention requested 19 alterations be made. Alterations that amounted to a warning that unless some kind of Bill of Rights was attached to this thing, the new federal government was going to be in deep trouble. The first state to say no was, naturally, Rhode Island. Having never sent delegates to the convention, the leaders of Rhode Island left it to a public referendum that saw the odious national power grab shot down in a landslide.
This blip aside, though, Maryland voted to ratify in April and then South Carolina in May, South Carolina also strongly urging the adoption of a Bill of Rights, something all Federalists now took for granted would be one of the first things they took care of when, hopefully, the first Congress took its seat. So that meant that by June 1788, eight of the thirteen states had ratified, one short of the required nine. In that month, three states began deliberations, Virginia, New York, and New Hampshire. If just one of them ratified, the Constitution would take effect.
But it was not lost on anyone that if something along the lines of, say, New Hampshire saying yes but Virginia and New York saying no, then it would be really difficult to proceed, nine of thirteen states or not. In Virginia, the anti-Federalists were led by the enormously influential Patrick Henry and lent considerable weight by George Mason and Peyton Randolph, who could say that they had been there when the thing was written and they did not like what it said. Virginia had every means at its disposal to proceed outside of a national union, and the most to fear from a bunch of small states banding together to dictate terms to mighty Virginia. It wound up being an incredibly close race, and until the vote was actually taken no one knew which way it would go, especially since everyone realized that Virginia’s vote would be the vote to establish the union, except it turns out it really wasn’t because New Hampshire ratified four days before the Virginia vote, earning New Hampshire the title, the state that ratified the Constitution.
But the Virginians didn’t know that yet, and so their vote maintained the solemn gravitas that Virginians like to attach to things. They voted in favor, 89 to 79. But like Massachusetts and South Carolina, they also demanded amendments. The Bill of Rights was now a foregone conclusion. This put New York in a bind. The state was pretty wildly anti-federalist, and its dominant political leader, George Clinton, was prepared to go it alone, and had Virginia not ratified I’m sure that’s exactly what he would have done. But Virginia did ratify, and so staying out of the union was now a far trickier proposition.
The Alexander Hamilton-led federalists did not have the votes to compel ratification, but they did manage to produce one little trump card that did help convince Clinton to lay down his guns. New York City itself was dominated by federalists, and they threatened to secede from the state and join the union themselves if the rest of the state didn’t get on board.
Clinton freed up just enough voters to let New York ratify 30 to 27 on July the 26th. This left only North Carolina and Rhode Island out of the union. North Carolina wouldn’t join until November 1789. Rhode Island would hold out until May 1790. So first to declare independence, last to ratify the Constitution. God bless you Rhode Island, I love you. With the Constitution in effect, elections for the inaugural government were held over the winter of 1788-1789, with George Washington, of course, elected president unanimously.
As I mentioned, one of the first orders of business for the new government would be to drop a list of amendments that would satisfy all those calls for a Bill of Rights. James Madison himself introduced a list of 12 in August 1789, 10 of which would eventually be adopted.
These amendments focused not on structural changes to the government, but rather on protecting individual rights from state abuse. And they included all the greatest hits. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, guarantees of habeas corpus and trial by jury, and access to legal counsel. Accompanying this episode is a supplemental where I read the Bill of Rights in full. Please go listen to it. It encompasses just about everything I love about America. And for all our faults and all of our mistakes, I believe the Bill of Rights will stand today and tomorrow and forever as objectively worthy of universal admiration, and they should hang on the wall of every classroom.
Now that they have been adopted, we can close this chapter of the Revolutions Podcast. And just in time too, because in a few days I will be flying to London for the first Revolutions Podcast tour, where we will get to relive the glory of the English Revolution and get fired up for the coming French Revolution. Since I obviously can’t do any real work during those 11 days, I’m going to have to be gone for longer than the four weeks. So I am officially setting the break to end on — oh, look at that — Bastille Day.
See you then.
- John Marshall
- Elbridge Gerry
- George Clinton (vice president)
- John Jay
- Samuel Adams
- John Hancock
- Publius Valerius Poplicola
- Elizabeth Willing Powel
- Patrick Henry
- George Washington
- Thomas Jefferson
- John Dickinson
- Charles Cotesworth Pinckney
- Roger Sherman
- Robert Morris (financier)
- Benjamin Franklin
- James Madison
- Alexander Hamilton
- Peyton Randolph
- James Wilson (Founding Father)
- George Mason
- William Patterson (Maryland businessman)
- The Virginia Plan: William B. Thalhimer & a Rescue from Nazi Germany (American Heritage) by Robert H. Gillette: None
The ratification of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights marks the end of the Revolutionary Era.
If you enjoyed this podcast, please consider buying Mike Duncan's books:
- Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution: https://amzn.to/3VNqViT
- The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic: https://amzn.to/3h26YpW
- The History of Rome: The Republic: https://amzn.to/3UAvImK
Podscript is a personal project to make podcast transcripts available to everyone for free. Please support this project by following us on Twitter.