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This Day in History: Massachusetts ratifies the Constitution

On this day in 1788, Massachusetts becomes the sixth state to ratify the Constitution. It was a close call, though. The state had nearly rejected the Constitution altogether.

What would our world look like if Massachusetts had never joined? Would other late-joining northeastern states such as Rhode Island have followed suit? Ratification in Massachusetts was then considered important. Other states were waiting and watching. They wanted to know what Massachusetts would do.

The state had been the hotbed of the Revolution: The Boston Tea Party, the “shot heard round the world,” the Boston Massacre, and the Siege of Boston were all early conflicts that occurred within the state’s borders. Such patriots as John Adams, Samuel Adams, and John Hancock hailed from Massachusetts.

The Massachusetts Centinel ran a series of illustrations (“The Federal Pillars”) as state ratifying conventions considered what to do. A pillar was added for each state that ratified. The Centinel ended its series when the 11th state joined the Union.

It’s hard to imagine these lovers and defenders of freedom conceding *anything* to a new national government too quickly, isn’t it?! Unsurprisingly, then, the state took its time in deciding what to do.

The state’s ratifying convention met and spent almost the entire month of January debating each constitutional provision in great detail. For quite a while, the convention seemed pretty evenly split between the Federalists (pro-ratification) and anti-Federalists (anti-ratification).

The anti-Federalists might even have had a slight lead. Then Major General William Heath proposed an idea that would turn the tide in favor of ratification.

Heath noted that the delegates could ratify now, but amend later. “If we should ratify the Constitution,” he said, “and instruct our first members to Congress to exert their endeavors to have such checks and guards provided as appear to be necessary in some of the paragraphs of the Constitution, communicate what we may judge proper to our sister states, and request their concurrence, is there not the highest probability that every thing which we wish may be effectually secured?”

Heath’s proposal wasn’t the end of the debate, but it helped to break the stalemate. At the urging of John Hancock, President of the Convention, the delegates spent the next few days drawing up a proposal for a Bill of Rights.

In the end, Massachusetts approved the Constitution by a vote of 187 to 168. It also recommended a list of proposed amendments for the first Congress to consider.

That list of amendments included one line that would perhaps be surprising to modern Americans? The Convention explicitly acknowledged “with grateful hearts the goodness of the Supreme Ruler of the Universe in affording the People of the United States in the course of his providence an opportunity deliberately & peaceably without fraud or surprize of entering into an explicit & solemn Compact with each other . . . .”

Massachusetts’s ratification brought the total number of consenting states to six. The consent of three more would be needed—and would be obtained by June 1788.

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