On December 7, 1787, Delaware became the first state to ratify the new United States Constitution. Delaware was concerned about their small size and lack of economic viability and decided that ratifying the Constitution would be in their best interest. .
Because the Articles of Confederation did not provide an effective national government, a Constitutional Convention was held in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787. When the new document was brought to the Delaware Ratifying Convention, the delegates were pleased with the new powers of Congress including the power to lay and collect taxes, duties, pay the debts, coin money, and provide for the common defense of the country by raising armies, maintaining a navy, and declaring war. The new Constitution was a great solution for the citizens of Delaware struggling with their small size and economy and they unanimously and readily ratified the document.
Compared to states like Virginia and Pennsylvania, Delaware was small. Delaware lacked population, land, and a major economic hub. Delaware also had a large coastline, but they did not have enough military power to protect themselves from a naval attack on their shores. The citizens of Delaware believed that a stronger national government under the Constitution would help protect them against attack and level the economic playing field with larger states.
Agriculture was a main economic driver in Delaware, but much of their land was losing its fertility due to over-farming. The lack of fertility led to lower yields from crops and less money in the pockets of the people of Delaware. Many farmers were deeply in debt after the American Revolution and Delaware itself was bearing a burden of war debt. At the time, the national government did not have control over coining money, so each state was responsible for printing their own. This paper money was next to worthless if you came from a state without economic power like Delaware.
Another major issue for Delaware was that they did not have a seaport for importing and exporting goods. The national government was not strong enough under the Articles of Confederation to manage economic issues like importing and exporting, so states were left to fend for themselves. Most materials that came into or out of Delaware had to go through Philadelphia or another large port. The Pennsylvania government charged high prices and taxes for the imports and exports leading to Delaware’s accrual of even more debt.
John Dickinson, Delaware Delegate to the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, was also known as the Penman of the American Revolution. In 1768 he had written the Liberty Song, in which he encouraged Americans to stand up for liberty. “Then join hand in hand brave Americans all, By uniting we stand, by dividing we fall…” A strong voice for ratification in Delaware, he believed the new Constitution would provide the best framework for protecting liberty for generations to come. In 1787 he wrote, “Let our government be like that of the solar system. Let the general government be like the sun and the states the planets, repelled yet attracted, and the whole moving regularly and harmoniously in several orbits.”— John Dickinson (Delaware Delegate), 1787
If you are interested in learning more about John Dickinson and the ratification of the Constitution, see our curriculum Founders and the Constitution, Volume 2.
What do you think of Dickinson’s analogy regarding the relationship between the federal government and the states?