University of Wisconsin–Madison

The Rhode Island State Referendum on the Constitution

Article VII of the newly proposed Constitution provided that once the Constitution was ratified by nine states in specially-elected ratifying conventions the Constitution would go into effect among the ratifying states. The Federal Convention forwarded the Constitution to the Confederation Congress on 17 September 1787 accompanied with two resolutions one of which requested Congress to transmit the Constitution to the states, with the recommendation that state legislatures then call conventions to consider the Constitution. All of the states complied except Rhode Island, where, over the next two years, the state legislature repeatedly rejected the call for such a convention. Instead, on 1 March 1788, the legislature called a statewide referendum on the Constitution to be held on 24 March 1788 in each of the state’s thirty towns.

Despite the fact that the Rhode Island legislature had adopted the Article of Confederation in 1778, Rhode Island Antifederalists argued that only the people could approve a new Constitution. Sensing that a large majority of Rhode Islanders opposed the Constitution, Antifederalists did not want to risk considering the Constitution in a convention where Federalists might eke out ratification through skullduggery, as was seemingly done in Massachusetts on 6 February. Federalists opposed the referendum because (1) it violated the express wishes of the Federal Convention and Congress, (2) it was an inappropriate method of deciding a constitutional issue, (3) it would not allow for a full scale discussion of the Constitution, (4) it did not provide a forum in which amendments could be proposed, (5) it was “anti-democratic” because prominent town leaders would intimidate freemen into voting against the Constitution, and (6) eventually, like all of the other states, a convention would have to be called to allow Rhode Island a means to re-enter the Union.

On 24 March the freemen assembled in their town meetings and voted on the Constitution. Oral votes were recorded by a scribe and the compiled lists were then forwarded to the state legislature. Federalists often boycotted the vote, particularly in Providence and Newport where the Constitution was defeated 1 to 0 and 10 to 1, respectively, even though each town had at least 500 freemen. Only two towns, Bristol and Little Compton, approved the Constitution (26-23 and 63-57, respectively). Bristol and Providence adopted petitions requesting the legislature to call a convention. The city of Newport instructed its deputies in the legislature to seek a state convention.

When the legislature tabulated the vote, the Constitution was overwhelmingly defeated, but fewer than half of the state’s freemen had voted. The legislature prepared a letter to Congress explaining the vote, which Governor John Collins signed and forwarded. After reading the petition from Providence and the instructions from Newport, the legislature again rejected the call of a convention.

Follow this link for a more complete explanation of the struggle for ratification in Rhode Island (pdf). Below is a collection of key documents associated with the unique set of events surrounding the Rhode Island referendum of 1788.

Documents Relating to the Proposed Modes of Ratification of the Constitution

The Rhode Island General Assembly Considers the Report of the Constitutional Convention

The Rhode Island General Assembly Calls for a Referendum

The Vote

Opposition to Referendum Procedures

The Rhode Island General Assembly Tabulates the Vote

Commentaries on the Referendum