thanks but no thanks
The United States Constitution. Just hearing the name of our magnificent founding document causes Americans to swell with pride as we marvel at its wisdom, its language, its vision.
Unless, apparently, you were an 18th-century Rhode Islander.
Gordon S. Wood, Brown University’s eminent history professor, has a long essay in the latest issue of The New Republic which takes a look at how the fight over whether to ratify the Constitution played out among average Americans. “Nothing before had ever engaged such a large proportion of Americans as did the debates over the Constitution,” he notes.
Buried in Wood’s piece, though, was this nugget I never knew (emphasis mine):
Since Maier wishes to recover as closely as possible the way ratification happened, she frames her history as a chronological narrative of the process, which began in November 1787 and lasted until the summer of 1788. … After much debate, Massachusetts ratified in early February, 187 to 168, and proposed amendments. At the end of February the New Hampshire convention adjourned without ratifying. A month later the citizens of Rhode Island voted directly to reject the Constitution, 2,708 to 237.
So about 92% of Rhode Island voters said no to the Constitution. That’s pretty decisive.
In fact, the state was so down on the idea of a stronger federal government that we didn’t even send anybody to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. We didn’t actually ratify the thing until May 1790, when George Washington had already been president for more than a year.
But the lopsided vote against the Constitution is also a bit misleading, because the document’s local supporters actually boycotted the referendum, which was opposed by the Founding Fathers. Here’s the story from the General Assembly’s official history:
The state’s individualism, its democratic localism, and its tradition of autonomy caused it to resist the centralizing tendencies of the federal Constitution. This opposition was intensified when an agrarian-debtor revolt in support of the issuance of paper money placed the parochial Country party in power from 1786 through 1790. This political faction, led by South Kingstown’s Jonathan Hazard, was suspicious of the power and the cost of a government too far removed from the grass-roots level, and so it declined to dispatch delegates to the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, which drafted the United States Constitution. Then, when that document was presented to the states for ratification, Hazard’s faction delayed (and nearly prevented) Rhode Island’s approval.
In the period between September 1787 and January 1790, the rural-dominated General Assembly rejected no fewer than eleven attempts by the representatives from the mercantile communities to convene a state ratifying convention. Instead, the Assembly defied the instructions of the Founding Fathers and conducted a popular referendum on the Constitution. That election, which was boycotted by the supporters of stronger union (called Federalists), rejected the Constitution by a vote of 2,708 to 237.
Finally, in mid-January 1790, more than eight months after George Washington’s inauguration as first president of the United States, the Country party reluctantly called the required convention, but it took two separate sessions – one in South Kingstown (March 1-6) and the second in Newport (May 24-29) – before approval was obtained. The ratification tally – 34 in favor and 32 opposed – was the narrowest of any state, and a favorable result was obtained only because four Antifederalists either absented themselves or abstained from voting.
Such an ornery little state. Sort of puts all the talk about regionalizing local services and merging Central Falls with Pawtucket in perspective, doesn’t it?
Then again, Massachusetts and Connecticut waited until 1939 – a century and a half – to ratify the Bill of Rights. Bonus fact: Rhode Island still hasn’t ratified the 16th Amendment, the one that allows Congress to levy an income tax. Take that, IRS.