Ratification of the U.S. Constitution: An Overview of the Process

The procedure established in ratifying the proposed new Constitution of 1787 was critical. Previous attempts to amend the Articles of Confederation had failed because of the requirement in the Articles for the unanimous approval of the state legislatures. Without an alternative method of ratification, it was unlikely the Convention’s proposal would be adopted. Consequently, politically astute alternatives were proposed and utilized in ratifying the new Constitution.

Rhode Island Democracy Rejects the Constitution

Throughout the colonial and Revolutionary eras, Rhode Island was the epitome of democracy. The legislature usually met for weekly sessions six times a year in five different towns within the tiny state. The state’s thirty towns held formal meetings on average nine times each year and regularly used the initiative and referendum. Rhode Island’s democratic proclivities often angered its neighbors. Such was the case when on three occasions in 1787 the legislature refused to send delegates to the Constitutional Convention, when it repeatedly refused in 1788 and 1789 to call a state ratifying convention, and when in 1788 it submitted the Constitution directly to the people in a referendum conducted in town meetings. Ironically, Rhode Island’s referendum was condemned as anti-democratic even though it was the only time in the ratification process that the people actually voted on the new Constitution that began “We the People.”

The Founders’ Poet: Alexander Pope

Alexander Pope was the most commonly cited author in America’s Revolutionary era. Often simply referred to as “the poet,” Pope was regularly cited in the public debate over the ratification of the Constitution. He viewed Mankind as an integral part of God’s universe forming part of a “Great Chain of Being” composed of inanimate objects, beasts of the wild, human beings, angels, and God. All were inter-connected, Pope wrote, in a system devised by God in which “Order is Heaven’s first law.” His most famous poem, An Essay on Man, popularized the optimistic philosophy of the Revolutionary era.