This Day in History: A battle of heavyweights at the Virginia ratifying convention

On this day in 1788, Virginia ratifies the United States Constitution. At the time, many thought that Virginia had provided the critical 9th vote to put the Constitution into effect. They were wrong. New Hampshire provided that vote on June 21.

Virginia’s ratifying convention was a battle of heavyweights. There may have been just a few strong opinions in the room.

On one side of the aisle, the “Father of the Constitution,” James Madison, advocated for ratification. George Washington was not present, but he wrote letters in favor of the Constitution from home. Governor Edmund Randolph also argued for ratification, despite the fact that he’d earlier refused to sign the document as a delegate at the Constitutional Convention.

On the other side sat Patrick Henry, future President James Monroe, and the author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, George Mason. You can imagine that, given his oratorical skills and big personality, Henry’s opposition may have been the biggest obstacle.

Prior to the convention, Madison wrote to Thomas Jefferson, who was then in Paris: “Mr. Henry is the great adversary who will render the event precarious. He is I find with his usual address, working up every possible interest, into a spirit of opposition.”

Oh, to be a fly on the wall! Can’t you just imagine Henry passionately ranting a bit? Madison trying to counter his points in a more stoic way?

Adding to the drama, the Convention had agreed to go through the Constitution “clause by clause,” but Henry seemed unable to stick with the plan. On the second day of debate, he gave a very long speech. It covers more than 20 pages in Elliot’s debates! Henry concluded his tirade by noting that “I have not said the one hundred thousandth part of what I have on my mind, and wish to impart.” Yikes! No wonder Governor Randolph concluded the day by noting: “Mr. Chairman, if we go on in this irregular manner, contrary to our resolution, instead of three or six weeks, it will take us six months to decide this question.”

Well, I guess so!

Henry felt that the national government created by the Constitution was too strong. It was a “consolidated” one, when it should be a confederacy of states.

“That this is a consolidated government,” he opined, “is demonstrably clear; and the danger of such a government is, to my mind, very striking. . . . What right had they to say, We, the people? . . . Who authorized them to speak the language of, We, the people, instead of, We, the states? States are the characteristics and the soul of a confederation. If the states be not the agents of this compact, it must be one great, consolidated, national government, of the people of all the states.”

In short, Anti-Federalists did not believe that the national government would remain limited. At a minimum, they wanted a Bill of Rights to reserve certain powers to the states or to the people.

Madison argued that such an enumeration of rights would be actively dangerous to liberty. He asked the convention: “Can the general government exercise any power not delegated? If an enumeration be made of our rights, will it not be implied that every thing omitted is given to the general government?”

It took the better part of a month, but Madison’s arguments eventually won the day. On June 25, the Convention ratified the Constitution, without requiring the addition of a Bill of Rights first. It did, however, later approve a list of proposed amendments to be recommended to the First Congress.