Two hundred and twenty-five years ago on this day, September 17, the Constitutional Convention finished its work and adjourned, sending the document that became our Constitution through the Confederation Congress to the states for ratification.
At this distance in time, it is easy to forget that the Constitution was highly controversial in 1787-88. Two-thirds of the New York delegation walked out of the Convention in early July when they saw that the proposed government would be much more powerful than that of the Articles of Confederation. Soon after, when the Convention voted to give each state an equal vote in the Senate, delegates from the large states met and seriously discussed whether they should also take their leave. (The small states had likewise threatened to depart if not given an equal vote.)
On September 17, three of the delegates present refused to sign, and a fourth was persuaded to affix his name only at the last minute – without committing himself to actually support the Constitution. Other delegates had left early, heading back to their states to get a head start on opposition to ratification.
This opposition was a blessing in disguise. It forced a long and thorough debate which went far to clarify the meaning of many portions of the Constitution and the intention of its framers. No less than James Madison pointed to those arguments as the best place to gain an understanding of the Constitution.
The nearly-completed Documentary History of the Ratification of the U.S. Constitution, when finished, will include twenty-one volumes of that debate. At a time when some claim that it is impossible to know what the Constitution was supposed to mean, these debates are a precious resource against a flexible, “living” Constitution.
By Charles Orndorff, TCC’s Constitutional Scholar