Conflict Over Ratifying the Constitution

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Digital History ID 3798

Conflict Over Ratifying the Constitution

Interpreting Primary Sources

Reading 1:

These lawyers, and men of learning, and moneyed men, that talk so finely, and gloss over matters so smoothly, to make us poor illiterate people swallow down the pill, expect to get into Congress themselves...and then they will swallow up all us little folks, like the great Leviathan.

Amos Singletary, 1788

Reading 2:

I am a plain man, and get my living by the plough....I have lived in a part of the country where I have known the worth of good government by the want of it. There was a black cloud [Shays' Rebellion] that rose in the east last winter, and spread over the west....It brought on a state of anarchy and that led to tyranny. I say, it brought anarchy. People that used to live peaceably, and were before good neighbors, got distracted, and took up arms against government....

Our distress was so great that we should have been glad to snatch at anything that looked like a government. Had any person that was able to protect us come and set up his standard, we should all have flocked to it, even if it had been a monarch, and that monarch might have proved a tyrant.

Jonathan Smith, Massachusetts farmer

Reading 3:

A little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical....It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.

Thomas Jefferson, 1787

Reading 4:

It cannot be denied with truth, that this new constitution is, in its first principles, most highly and dangerously, oligarchic.

Richard Henry Lee, 1787

Reading 5:

Among the numerous advantages promised by a well constructed union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction....Complaints are every where heard from our most considerate and virtuous citizens, equally the friends of public and private faith, and of public and personal liberty; that our governments are too unstable; that the public good is disregarded in the conflict of rival parties; and that measures are too often decided, not according to rules of justice, and the rights of the minor party; but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority....

The Federalist, 1799

Questions To Think About

1. Why did opponents object to the Constitution?

2. How did supporters of the Constitution defend the new plan of government?

3. Which quotations do you find most persuasive--those that argue that the Constitution represented a threat to the liberties of the people and an attempt to impose aristocratic rule or those that argue that the Constitution gives expression to republican values?

Interpreting Statistics

Politics and Society in Post-Revolutionary America

Composition of State Assemblies in the 1780s 
State Farmers Large
Artisan  Professional  Merchant 


12  13  20 
New York


10  18  19 


22  15  20 
South Carolina


32  15  13 


36  21  10 

Questions To Consider

1. Which occupational groups were most highly represented in the new state legislatures?

2. What differences can you identify between the occupational make-up of the various state legislatures?

Changes in Wealth of Elected Officials 
  Over 5,000
pounds sterling
pounds sterling
Under 2,000
pounds sterling


36 %  47 % 17 %


12 % 26 % 62 %


52 % 36 % 12 %


28 % 42 % 30 %

Questions To Think About

1. What changes took place in the wealth of elected officials over time?

2. In what respects did the wealth of elected officials in the North and South differ?

Differences between Federalists and Antifederalists

Political Alignments of State Senators by Wealth 
  Federalist  Antifederalist 
Wealthy  82 % 18 %
Well-to-do  65 % 35 %
Moderate means   42 % 58 %

Questions To Think About

1. Were state senators who supported the Constitution wealthier or poorer than opponents of the Constitution?

2. What conclusion might you draw about support for and opposition to the Constitution?

Votes of Delegates to Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire Ratifying Conventions, by Occupation
  Federalist  Antifederalist 
Merchants, manufacturers, doctors, lawyers, ministers, large landholders 84 % 16 %
Artisans, innkeepers, surveyors 64 % 36 %
Farmers 46 % 54 %

Questions To Think About

1. Which occupational groups were most likely to support ratification of the Constitution?

2. Which occupational groups were least likely to support ratification?

Study Aid

The Articles of Confederation and the Constitution

Deficiencies in the Articles of Confederation

  • No separate executive branch to carry out the laws of Congress.
  • No national judiciary to handle offenses against the central government's laws or to settle disputes between states.
  • Congress did not have the power to levy taxes.
  • Congress could not regulate interstate and foreign commerce.
  • The states as well as Congress had the power to coin money.
  • Congress could not support an army or navy and was dependent on state militias.
  • Nine states had to approve every law.
  • Amendment of the Articles required unanimous consent.

The Bill of Rights 
First Amendment  Freedom of religion, speech, the press, peaceable assembly, and petition
Second Amendment  The right to keep and bear arms 
Third Amendment  Prohibits quartering of troops in citizens' homes 
Fourth Amendment  Protection against unreasonable searches and seizures 
Fifth Amendment  Rules against taking of life, liberty, or property without due process of law
Protection against self-incrimination 
Sixth Amendment  A person accused of a crime has a right to a defense lawyer, speedy and public trial, the right to hear charges, call witnesses, and be present when witnesses speak in court 
Seventh Amendment  The right to trial by jury 
Eighth Amendment  Protection against excessive bail and cruel and unusual punishments 
Ninth Amendment  The rights enumerated in the Constitution are not a person's only rights 
Tenth Amendment  Powers not delegated to the U.S. nor prohibited to the states are reserved to the states or to the people 

Checks and Balances 

Executive Branch 
can veto laws 
can call special sessions of Congress 
controls enforcement of laws 
nominates judges 
can pardon people convicted of federal crimes 

Legislative Branch 
can impeach President and other high officials 
Senate approves Presidential appointments
Senate approves treaties 
can override presidential vetoes 
exercises power of the purse 

Judicial Branch 
can declare laws or presidential actions unconstitutional  
lifetime appointments 


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