Digital History

The Constitution & The Bill of Rights

Ratifying the Constitution Previous Next
Digital History ID 3242



The Constitution encountered stiff opposition. The vote was 187 to 168 in Massachusetts, 57 to 47 in New Hampshire, 30 to 27 in New York, and 89 to 79 in Virginia. Two states, North Carolina and Rhode Island, refused to ratify the new plan of government.

Those who opposed the adoption of the Constitution were known as the Antifederalists. Many feared centralized power. Many doubted the ability of Americans to sustain a continental republic. Some Antifederalists were upset that the Constitution lacked a religious test for officeholding. Others were concerned that the Constitution failed to guarantee a right to counsel and a right not to incriminate oneself in criminal trials, or to prohibit cruel and unusual punishments.

Several arguments were voiced repeatedly during the ratification debates:

Some Antifederalists saw no need for the Constitution's intricate system of separation of powers. Some wanted to know whether the elastic clause would sanction a broad interpretation of national powers at the expense of the states.

From October 1787 to March 1788, Madison, Hamilton and John Jay wrote a series of 85 essays that appeared in New York newspapers. In these essays, they argued that the powers of the national government were distributed and balanced in a way that would sustain limited government. They also argued that there were sufficient guarantees to ensure that the national government respect the boundaries of state authority and that individuals would be secure against federal encroachments.

In the end, even some of the most outspoken Antifederalists, like Melancton Smith of New York, ultimately voted for the Constitution. They feared that the only alternative to the Constitution was the breakup of the Union.

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