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The Real Constitution Day?

Today’s post comes from Jessie Kratz, historian of the National Archives.

June 21, 2013, marks the 225th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution’s ratification. As we prepare for a long, hot summer here in the nation’s capital, I can only imagine what it felt like in 1787, when delegates from 12 states met in Philadelphia’s pre–air conditioning summer heat.

Their original purpose was revising the ineffective Articles of Confederation, the country’s first constitution. The delegates, however, soon decided to abandon the document altogether and start from scratch.

For four months the men worked tirelessly on a document outlining a new form of government. On September 17—now known as Constitution Day—delegates representing 12 states finished and signed the document (Alexander Hamilton signed the document even though New York lacked a quorum to vote in the convention).

Resolution from Constitutional Convention concerning ratification of the proposed Constitution, September 17, 1787, from Record Group 360: Records of the Continental and Confederation Congresses and the Constitutional Convention (ARC Identifier 6277391)

Then the delegates passed a resolution to the Continental Congress, recommending that the Constitution be implemented upon approval by nine state conventions rather than by the unanimous approval of all 13 state legislatures as required by the Articles of Confederation.

On December 7, 1787, Delaware’s convention became the first to ratify the Constitution, earning the state its nickname “The First State.” Pennsylvania and New Jersey ratified later in December of 1787; and Georgia and Connecticut in January of 1788.

The remaining ratifications stalled as states argued that the new Constitution created a federal government that was too strong, and that the Constitution lacked protections for basic rights such as freedom of speech, religion, and the press.

In February 1788, Massachusetts became the first state to include a list of proposed constitutional changes as part of their state’s ratification. The following month Rhode Island rejected the Constitution outright by popular referendum. But April and May saw Maryland and South Carolina’s state conventions approve it, and on June 21, 1788, New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the Constitution, making the document official. Shortly afterward, Virginia and New York narrowly approved the Constitution.

New Hampshire’s ratification of the Constitution, June 21, 1788, from Record Group 11: General Records of the U.S. Government

When a sufficient number of states approved the Constitution, the Continental Congress set dates to select Presidential electors and cast ballots. Congress also determined the time and place the new government would convene—on the first Wednesday in March 1789 in New York City.

In New York, the new Congress began to create the governmental structure the Constitution had sketched out. When Congress first convened, only 11 states belonged to the union—North Carolina waited until November 1789 to ratify the Constitution, and Rhode Island, who hadn’t even sent a representative to the Constitutional Convention, only ratified the Constitution on May 29, 1790, after Congress threatened it with sanctions. Rhode Island’s ratification finally united all 13 original states into the union under the Constitution of the United States.

See all four pages of the original Constitution along with the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC.

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