Themes of the Ratification Period

While it is important to note that every one of the thirteen ratification stories is unique, when looking at the time period from a larger perspective, some notable concepts emerge. Each of the items below will take you to primary sources designed to give you a sense, at a regional and national level, of the complexity and intensity of this unique period of American History.

General Chronologies of the Ratification Period


The Stages of Ratification

Below are two perspectives on how scholars sequence and frame the events of 1787-1790. Although there is a broad agreement regarding the Ratification Period in these two views, the essential differences are a few details regarding the sequencing and placement of particular states and how they fit within the overall story. The major distinction is that Kaminski maintains that the period before the meeting of the Constitutional Convention and the Convention proceedings themselves should be seen as a part of the narrative, while Lloyd suggests that the story of ratification begins after the Philadelphia Convention adjourned on September 17, 1787.

Federalist and Antifederalist: The Evolution of Terms

As the ratification debate began in the fall of 1787, opponents and supporters of the Constitution were engaged in a marketing campaign and appropriated terms that would bolster their position in the minds of the general public. Click here to see how both sides attempted to appropriate and use political labels during the ratification process. 

The Federalist Papers

Often seen as the definitive explanation of the U.S. Constitution, The Federalist Papers were written collectively by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay. Access to all eighty-five essays can be found here

Publius: Three Themes of American Nationalism

One consideration among scholars is whether Publius should be read as one or as separate authors. Madison, Hamilton, and Jay were in New York and did collaborate initially on the structure and themes that Publius would address. Due to the pace of publication there was little time to fully coordinate their thoughts into a consistent whole. Madison did in fact indicate that there were "known differences in the general complexion of their political theories." However, Publius was a clear voice of a nationalist vision for the Unites States during the ratification debate. These selections illustrate three facets of this vision espoused by Publius as well as Madison, Hamilton, and Jay individually.

Publius/James Madison: The Vision of American Republicanism

Publius/Alexander Hamilton: The Vision of American Power

Publius/John Jay: The Vision of American Prestige


Major Themes of the Ratification Debates

Throughout the Founding Period, Americans debated both the theory and practical applications of governance. In a real sense, those debates reached a high point in the late 1780s. The issues discussed during the ratification debates were important since they were the basic character and components of the federal government. These original disputes also provide the basis of how we have framed subsequent discussions about governance. Below we have assembled items from newspapers, pamphlets, speeches and some private letters that represent the thinking of Americans throughout the ratification debates.

The Debate Regarding Amendments to the Constitution

Both Federalists and Antifederalists had objections to the new Constitution. The former insisted that the Constitution should simply be voted up or down in the state conventions. If alterations were needed, Federalists insisted that changes should occur after the ratification and implementation of the Constitution. Antifederalists advocated for amendments prior to the ratification of the Constitution. A new precedent entered the ratification debate when the Massachusetts ratifying convention included recommendatory amendments in their form of ratification. With the adoption of the Constitution by the requisite nine states, Antifederalists generally accepted the fact that amendments would have to wait. Click here to read the complete "The Debate Regarding Amendments to the Constitution" webpage.

The Idea of a Second Convention

Toward the end of the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention and throughout the ratification process, critics of the Constitution argued that another convention should be called to consider amendments. After the summer of 1788 when the requisite nine states had ratified the Constitution, many critics were satisfied with amendments proposed by Congress. Federalists ardently opposed any call for a second general convention, fearing that such a body would go too far in altering the new Constitution. See The Idea of a Second Convention.

The Evolution of the “Federal Pillars” Illustration

Perhaps one of the most unique images in early American History, the “Federal Pillars” appeared often in rhetoric and occasionally as an illustration. The illustration first appeared in the Boston Massachusetts Centinel and was subsequently modified as the ratification process unfolded. We have provided two sets of images that trace the evolution of the image as well as an excellent article by Robert L. Alexander that fully provides the background and history of the image.

Celebrations and Ratification

Throughout the ratification process the Constitution was scrutinized, celebrated, and condemned by the public at large. Both supporters and critics of the Constitution utilized song, poetry and public demonstrations to express their opinions on the work of the Constitutional Convention. They even directed their polemic towards individuals who were taking positions contrary to their views. We have assembled some examples that capture some of the spirit and revelry of that debate.

Foreign Assessments of the Constitution

There was considerable interest abroad in the Constitution. Many Europeans were attentive to the risks and possible advantages to them of the United States having a new system of government. We have assembled some of this diplomatic and private correspondence from our volumes that illustrate the French, British, and other nations’ assessments of the Constitution. Click for more information about Foreign Assessments of the Constitution

Metaphors Used during the Ratification Debates

In any public debate, metaphor is often used in an attempt to persuade. Throughout the ratification debates, writers and speakers would frequently employ this literary devise. You can see through our selections that both the Constitution’s advocates and opponents were quite adept at turning a well-crafted phrase. These entries have been selected from the DHRC’s Ratification by the States (RCS) and Commentaries on the Constitution (CC). See Metaphorical descriptions of the Constitution

Political Humor and Ratification

As in all periods of American History, humor played a significant role during the ratification process. For many, the issues surrounding the public debate about the Constitution was conveyed through the use of humor ranging from subtle allegories to biting satire. The selections here offer a variety of approaches used by both the Federalists and Antifederalists. See Political Humor in the Ratification Debate.

Religious Issues During the Ratification Debates

The American society was a deeply religious thus; it was no surprise that the Constitution’s provisions in relation to religion were heavily scrutinized. The debates were as much about what the Constitution said as well as what it did not say about religious freedom. The range of issues ran from concerns about the involvement of the clergy in the ratification process to concerns that public officials would not be required to take an oath to hold office. Often, both Federalists and Antifederalists employed religious rhetoric as they sought to persuade Americans that their actions had eternal consequences. See Ratification and Religion.

Quaker Opposition to the Slavery Provisions in the Constitution

Although the importation of slaves was nearly ended during the Revolution, the trade began in earnest after the war. Quakers throughout the country were generally in favor of the new Constitution, but because of long-standing convictions launch a new round of abolitionist sentiment and activities during the Ratification Period. These items taken from volume 2 of the Commentaries on the Constitution (CC) will give you a sense of their renewed effort to end slavery in America. Click here for the Quaker Opposition to the Slavery Provisions in the Constitution Essay and more.

George Washington and the Constitution

The role of George Washington in the drafting and ratification of the Constitution was crucial. His assessment of the work of the Philadelphia Convention was the subject of much speculation. Washington’s views served as a litmus test on the proposed Constitution. Although publicly silent on the matter, Washington’s letters revealed his enthusiastic approval of the new plan. See George Washington and the Constitution.

Newspapers during the Ratification Debates

Over 90 newspapers comprised the information network by which Americans kept abreast of the events of the Ratification process. Antifederalist publishers found it difficult to stem the tide of favorable treatment the Constitution was receiving in print. The overwhelming majority of publishers were Federalists. The Press and the Constitution will take you to some selections and an essay that highlight the debates surrounding the partiality of the newspaper men during ratification. Also, we have organized a list of all the newspapers circulating during 1787-1788 by state, some materials that highlight the specifics of newspapers within each state, and some additional information on the major newspapers that had a wide circulation. See American Newspapers during Ratification, 1787-1788.

Original Printings of the Constitution

After the Constitutional Convention ended printers began their work. The Philadelphia printing firm of Dunlap and Claypoole (the Convention’s official printer) was the first to put the Constitution into a broadside that was given to the delegates who took them home. We have posted a listing of the known surviving copies of this original run and a digital copy that was originally owned by James Madison. Click for more information on The First Printing of the Constitution Sponsored by the Constitutional Convention