On this day in 1787, Delaware ratifies the Constitution, thus becoming the first state to enter the Union. So, yes, when Delaware calls itself “The First State,” that term is literally true.
Delaware’s quick ratification is interesting, given the manner in which the state sent its delegates to the Constitutional Convention. The state sent five delegates, but then specifically instructed them not to vote in favor of a document that violated the principle of “one state, one vote.” As a small state, Delaware was worried that it could be overrun by the large states without sufficient protections.
Did Delaware’s delegates violate their commissions by voting for the Constitution?
Our Constitution reflects the principle of one state, one vote in the U.S. Senate. Indeed, the Senate was designed to give the states, themselves, a voice in national legislation. As it was originally designed, U.S. Senators were selected by the state legislatures, not by individual voters. In the Senate, therefore, the states were all equally represented. The states, themselves, could influence national legislation. Our Senate was never intended to be a purely democratic body; it was meant to be a more deliberative, republican body.
The House, by contrast, was always intended to be more purely democratic. We elect congressmen based upon a principle of one person, one vote. Before the 17th Amendment, the Senate reflected the voices and concerns of the states, but the House reflected the voices and concerns of the people themselves. (The 17th Amendment changed the election process for U.S. Senators and disrupted this original intent.)
The nature of our bicameral legislature was a compromise—the Great Compromise—between large and small states at the Constitutional Convention. In the Convention, all five of Delaware’s delegates chose to sign the Constitution, with this compromise in it.
Delaware’s quick ratification suggests that the state’s citizens, back at home, agreed with their decision. When the Constitution was sent back to Delaware, a special election was held to select delegates for a state ratification convention. Thirty delegates were elected. Since the State House had not yet been constructed, these thirty delegates met at Battell’s Tavern in Dover. They began their work on December 3. They unanimously ratified the Constitution on December 7.
Today is “Delaware Day” in the First State. The state is proud of its status! So, if you are a Delawarean reading this post. . . . Happy Delaware Day! ;)
Primary Sources :
Carol Berkin, A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution (2002)
Catherine Drinker Bowen, Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention May to September 1787 (1986 reprint)
Pauline Maier, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 (2010)