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Introduction to the Ratification Web Site

The “In Doors” and “Out of Doors” Conversations

The years were 1787 and 1788. The places: a) “in doors” in the State Houses in the various states attracting over 1600 elected delegates who debated the merits of the Constitution and b) “out of doors” where the world witnessed the largest outpouring ever of pamphlets, newspapers, broadsides, and letters in favor and against the ratification of the Constitution. This is the story of a) the records of the debates of the official delegates that took place essentially between December 1787 and July 1788 and b) the public advocates who participated in the conversation over whether or not to ratify the newly proposed Constitution for the federal republic of the United States that took place mainly between October 1787 and July 1788.

We have provided a Timeline to assist the reader to follow the unfolding of the twofold ratification process. There are also brief Biographical Sketches of the leading delegates and principal authors. These include, but are not limited to, the 29 Framers of the Constitution in Philadelphia who participated in the ratification process.

There are two questions that have bothered scholars of ratification over the last two hundred years.

The first can be put in the form of the following question posed by the historian Jackson Turner Main: “Since the Federalists were a minority in at least six and probably seven states, they ought surely to have been defeated. Yet they came from behind to win.” Why? We will explore, and challenge one of the leading answers: that the aristocratic Federalists manipulated the electoral system, the media, and the use of personal prestige to unjustly defeat the Antifederalist opposition. Why, continues the critique, the Federalists even stole the name from the “true” Federalists and bestowed on them the appellation Antifederalist. We invite readers to immerse themselves in the debates and to grapple with what it means to engage in democratic republican political conversation. In particular, we need to examine the role of political compromise in the ratification process. And did the Antifederalists really lose if their ideas on the Bill of Rights and the enumeration of the powers of the federal government were incorporated into the Constitution?

Main is bothered by the fact that “at least sixty delegates, perhaps as many as seventy-five, who were chosen as Antifederalists, ended by voting for ratification.” He seems to be suggesting that they abandoned their principles. And who are these people? They “came from the regions near the coast and from the upper socio-economic stratum of society.” But what if these “converts” were actually motivated by political considerations?

The second question turns on the issue: how enduring and educative, over against how immediate and propagandistic, is the pamphlet war that took place in the press and letters between 1787 and 1789? Aren’t The Federalist and Antifederalist essays “tracts for their time,” and self serving ones at that? To be sure, there are a lot of outrageous claims and exaggerated rhetoric being made by both sides, but that too is the stuff of democratic republican political conversation. It is a vital part of being politically free that one can distinguish between the demagogic and the democratic, between hope and fear, and between the high appeal to liberty and responsibility and the low urge to anarchy and paternalism.

Acknowledgements

I wish to thank Susan Allegretti, Joseph Groff, Margie Hope, Andriana Ivanovic, Ben Kunkel, Jack Polson, and Lindsey Svendsen for their assistance.

I also thank Peter Zabriskie, a tenth generation member of the Zabriskie family, for pointing out that Elliot incorrectly spells Peter Zabriskie, a pro-Constitution delegate from Bergen County at the New Jersey Ratifying Convention, as Peter Zobriskie. See Elliot’s Debates, Volume I.

Contents

Introduction

In 1787 and 1788, following the Constitutional Convention, a great debate took place throughout America over the Constitution that had been proposed.

In-Doors Debate

View in-depth studies of the Massachusetts, Virginia, and New York state ratifying conventions.

The Federal Pillars

View drawings of the federal pillars rising published by the Massachusetts Centinel during the ratification debate.

View Feature

The Stages of Ratification: An Interactive Timeline

View the six stages of the ratification of the Constitution with links to many other features on this site.

View Feature

Interactive Ratification Map

View interactive maps showing the breakdown of Federalist-Antifederalist strength at the state level during the Ratification debate.

View Interactive

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