The United States Constitution went into effect in 1789. Ratification by nine states was needed for the Constitution to be adopted. The decision to ratify it was made by ratifying conventions from eleven of the thirteen states; North Carolina and Rhode Island initially refused to ratify the constitution. The two most important states that had not decided by June 1788 were Virginia and New York, and without them in the Union the country would have been divided into parts: New England, the mid-Atlantic states, and the southern states. In effect, the new system of government could not have functioned without Virginia and New York. The leading prospect for the president or the head of the executive branch was George Washington from Virginia, adding another reason that the United States needed Virginia.
Virginia was not only one of the largest states of the thirteen, as it included what is now West Virginia and Kentucky, and the most populous state, but it also was the largest exporter of tobacco, an important cash crop of the time. New York had the fifth largest population at the time and was also of immense commercial importance. Within New York's ratifying convention the Anti-Federalists had a more than two-to-one majority. The delegates began debating while they awaited the response of Virginia on the issue. If Virginia rejected the Constitution, then New York would have done likewise. Though New York was prepared not to ratify, many members of the state convention did not wish to divide the nation if Virginia was not with them; there was also the potential for the new nation's capital to remain in New York City. The decision of the New York convention rested in part on that of Virginia.
The Virginia ratifying convention ratified the U.S. Constitution on June 25, 1788, by a vote of 89 to 79. Alexander Hamilton, a leading Federalist in New York, had requested that James Madison have a message sent from Richmond to the New York convention in Poughkeepsie by express rider in order to inform them of Virginia's decision. Members of both parties in New York anxiously awaited the news. When the message arrived on July 2, 1788, it helped to convince Anti-Federalist leaders that New York must ratify, which was done on July 26, 1788. In addition, New York Anti-Federalists recommended that amendments be added to the Constitution similar to those proposed in Virginia, and the New York convention unanimously agreed to a circular letter to the states calling for a second general convention that would consider them.
Virginia and New York became the tenth and eleventh states to ratify the U.S. Constitution, giving the new nation the strength it needed to recover from the debts of the Revolutionary War and to prepare for future events. The later addition of the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution eased the concerns of many of the Anti-Federalists. It prohibited Congress from infringing such essential rights as freedom of speech and of the press, freedom of religion, and the right to jury trials in civil and criminal cases, as well as stating in the Ninth and Tenth Amendments that all individual rights not enumerated in the Constitution remain with the people and that all powers not delegated to the national government remain with the people and the states.
1. Where is Poughkeepsie, and what was the importance of this city?
2. What is a ratifying convention?
3. Who was Alexander Hamilton?
4. When did New York ratify the U.S. Constitution?
1. Consider how the states that hesitated to ratify the United States Constitution, such as New York, depended on Virginia's decision. If Virginia had not ratified the Constitution, what might have happened to the structure of the new nation? How might the new nation's political, economic, and military power have been affected if Virginia had not joined?
Virginia ratified the United States Constitution by a vote of 89 to 79. This broadside states the vote was 88 to 78. Two votes were recorded after the main vote on June 25. The news of the results may have been sent out before those belated votes were cast.
Conley, Patrick T., and John P. Kaminski, eds. The Constitution and the States: The Role of the Original Thirteen in the Framing and Adoption of the Federal Constitution, Madison, Wis.: Madison House, 1988.
Brooks, Robin. "Alexander Hamilton, Melancton Smith, and the Ratification of the Constitution in New York." William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 24 (July 1967): 340–358.