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The Ratification Debate on the Constitution

Written by: Bill of Rights Institute

By the end of this section, you will:

  • Explain the differing ideological positions on the structure and function of the federal government

Suggested Sequencing

Use this Narrative with the Were the Anti-Federalists Unduly Suspicious or Insightful Political Thinkers? Point-Counterpoint and the Federalist/Anti-Federalist Debate on Congress’s Powers of Taxation DBQ Lesson to have students analyze the debate between Federalists and Anti-Federalists.


On September 19, 1787, the Pennsylvania Packet newspaper published the draft of the Constitution for the consideration of the people and their representatives. On September 28, the Confederation Congress voted to send the Constitution to the state legislatures as written, so state conventions could be called to decide whether to ratify the new framework of government.

During the year-long debates over ratification, supporters of the Constitution called themselves Federalists; as a result, their opponents were known as Anti-Federalists. At the center of the often-contentious arguments that took place in homes, taverns, and on the printed page was the federal principle of balancing national and state power. Federalists defended the Constitution’s strengthened national government, with its greater congressional powers, more powerful executive, and independent judiciary. They argued that the new government supported the principles of separation of powers, checks and balances, and federalism. Anti-Federalists, on the other hand, worried that the proposed constitution represented a betrayal of the principles of the American Revolution. Had not Americans fought a war against the consolidation of power in a distant, central government that claimed unlimited powers of taxation? They feared a large republic in which the government, like the Empire from which they had declared independence, was unresponsive to the people. They also feared that a corrupt senate, judiciary, and executive would conspire to form an aristocracy. Finally, they argued against the absence of a bill of rights. States had them, in no small part because they remembered the English Bill of Rights of 1689, which had helped focus attention on the ways in which the British government abused its power.

Through September and October, various Anti-Federalists published essays under pseudonyms like Brutus, Cato, and the Federal Farmer in New York newspapers critiquing the Constitution. Although they did not coordinate their efforts, a coherent set of principles about government and opposition to the proposed Constitution emerged. Alexander Hamilton noted that the “artillery of [the Constitution’s] opponents makes some impression.”

In mid-October, for a series of essays he planned to defend the Constitution from critics, Hamilton enlisted the contributions of Madison, the “father of the Constitution,” as well as John Jay, the president of the Continental Congress and a New York diplomat. The first of these Federalist essays was published in a New York newspaper, under the pseudonym Publius, on October 27. It was addressed to the people of New York but was aimed at the delegates to the state’s Ratifying Convention. In it, Hamilton described the meaning of the choice the states would make:

It seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.

A portrait of Alexander Hamilton is shown.

Alexander Hamilton, shown in an 1806 portrait by John Trumbull, was the driving force behind The Federalist Paper sand wrote fifty-one of the essays arguing for ratification.

By mid-January, 1788, five states (Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania) had ratified the Constitution. The Federalists were building momentum toward the nine states they needed to win, but they knew the main opposition would come from Anti-Federalists in large and powerful states, including Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia.

The Anti-Federalists were also mounting an effective opposition in essays and debates. Some demanded prior amendments to be sent to a second convention before they would accept the new government. During the debate in Massachusetts, opposition forced the Federalists to promise to consider amendments protecting the liberties of the people after the Constitution was ratified as written. On February 6, Massachusetts became the sixth state to approve the Constitution by a narrow vote of 187 to 168.

In New Hampshire, the Federalists thought they did not have enough votes to ratify, so they strategically adjourned the convention until June so that they could muster more support. Two other states, Maryland and South Carolina, met that spring and overwhelmingly ratified the Constitution, bringing the total to eight. Still, to be considered legitimate the Constitution would need the support of Virginia and New York, because of their political and economic influence and geographical location, even if the approval of nine other states met the constitutional threshold for the new government to go into operation.

On March 22, Hamilton and Madison arranged for the first thirty-six Federalist essays to be published in book form and distributed copies to friends in hope of influencing the delegates to the New York and Virginia ratifying conventions. Because the outcome remained highly uncertain, a second volume including the rest of the eighty-five essays was published on May 28. George Washington praised The Federalist for throwing “new lights upon the science of government” and giving “the rights of man a full and fair discussion.” Thomas Jefferson said it was “the best commentary on the principles of government which ever was written.” The Anti-Federalist essays contributed important reflections on human nature and the character of a republican government in making arguments about why the writers thought the proposed Constitution dangerously expanded the powers of the central government.

When the Virginia Convention met on June 2, a titanic debate took place as two Federalist masters of political debate, Madison and John Marshall, clashed with George Mason and the fiery orator Patrick Henry. Among other Virginians, Washington stayed above the debate, although everyone knew he supported the Constitution, and Jefferson, then in Paris, at first opposed and then supported ratification with prior amendments, because he favored a bill of rights.

Railing against the Constitution, Henry warned that the states would lose their sovereignty in a Union of “we the people” instead of “we the states.” He cautioned that a powerful national government would violate natural rights and civil liberties, thus destroying “the rights of conscience, trial by jury, liberty of the press . . . all pretentions to human rights and privileges, are rendered insecure, if not lost, by this change.” Henry also thundered that the president would lead a standing army against the people.

Madison countered with a line-by-line exposition of the reasoning behind each clause of the Constitution. On June 25, the Virginia Convention voted 89 to 79 for ratification.

Meanwhile, the Anti-Federalists dominated the New York Convention three to one. Hamilton passionately defended the Constitution and urged his allies in Virginia and New Hampshire to send word of the outcomes in those two states by express rider to influence the New York debate. New Yorkers soon learned that the Constitution had officially become the fundamental law of the land for the states adopting it. The question was now whether New York would join the new federal union. On July 26, by a narrow vote of 30 to 27, New York answered in the affirmative, conditionally ratifying the Constitution with a call for another convention to propose a bill of rights. Only after Congress voted in 1789 to send amendments to the states for approval did North Carolina and Rhode Island vote to ratify the new Constitution.

States in Order of Ratification Date of Ratification Convention Vote for Ratification Convention Vote against Ratification
Delaware December 7, 1787 Unanimous
Pennsylvania December 12, 1787 46 23
New Jersey December 18, 1787 Unanimous
Georgia January 2, 1788 Unanimous
Connecticut January 9, 1788 128 40
Massachusetts (including Maine) February 7, 1788 187 168
Maryland April 28, 1788 63 11
South Carolina May 23, 1788 149 73
New Hampshire June 21, 1788 57 46
Virginia June 26, 1788 89 79
Constitution declared ratified July 2, 1788
New York July 26, 1788 30 27
North Carolina November 21, 1789 195 77
Rhode Island May 29, 1790 34 32

The sovereign people participated in a great deliberative moment in which they ultimately decided to accept a new Constitution with a central government wielding greater powers to protect their rights, safety, and happiness. The formal and informal deliberations about the principles of government defined the republican nature of the new U.S. government. Meanwhile, the spirit of compromise that yielded not only ratification but also, at the urging of Anti-Federalists, the adoption of the Bill of Rights, reflected genuine patriotism by the people who served the public good and suggested that the Americans were capable of self-government.


Review Questions

1. Who of the following were key advocates for the Constitution?

  1. Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison
  2. John Jay, George Mason, and James Madison
  3. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and Edmund Randolph
  4. George Mason, Patrick Henry, and Edmund Randolph

2. Who of the following refused to sign the Constitution because, in their opinion, it gave too much power to the federal government?

  1. Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison
  2. John Jay, George Mason, and James Madison
  3. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and Edmund Randolph
  4. George Mason, Elbridge Gerry, and Edmund Randolph

3. What key feature, which many Anti-Federalists argued was essential, was missing from the original Constitution?

  1. A due process clause
  2. A decision on the issue of the slave trade
  3. A bill of rights
  4. Multiple branches of government

4. Which of the following was the primary source of disagreement between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists when debating the merits of the Constitution?

  1. Inclusion of clauses that acknowledge slavery and included slaves in representation
  2. Size and scope of the federal government balanced with that of the states
  3. Ability to conduct foreign affairs at the federal level only
  4. Possibility of the legislative branch requiring taxes at the state level

5. The Anti-Federalists’ distrust of corrupt elite politicians is best exemplified by their adamant insistence on the

  1. electoral college, which would elect the president
  2. Supreme Court Justices, who would be elected not appointed
  3. Bill of Rights, which articulated the rights of each person
  4. executive position, which would be eligible for reelection

6. One advantage the Federalists had during the ratification debate was that

  1. many smaller state governments were open to the concept of a stronger federal government
  2. highly organized authors published essay after essay supporting and explaining the new form of government
  3. the large and influential states of New York and Virginia were eager to ratify the Constitution as soon as possible
  4. almost unanimous support for the Constitution existed in every state

7. Many Anti-Federalists argued that the Constitution’s strong national government was

  1. absolutely necessary to protect the sovereignty of the nation
  2. too similar to the monarchy from which colonists had fought to be free
  3. carefully crafted to prevent any abuses of private citizens
  4. akin to the Articles of Confederation, which required no change

8. How did the debate for ratification ultimately end?

  1. Not enough states voted to ratify and the Constitution did not become the government of the United States,
  2. The minimum number of states ratified the Constitution, so it became the law of the land, but only for the states that accepted it.
  3. Each state ultimately ratified the Constitution, despite close votes and thorough debates.
  4. Debates continue on the merits of the Constitution, and a few states still need to hold their ratifying convention.

Free Response Questions

  1. How did the ratification debate demonstrate republicanism in the United States’ founding?
  2. How was the deliberative process of making and ratifying the Constitution a key moment in the history of republics?

AP Practice Questions

An engraving titled

The Federal Pillars.

Refer to the image provided.

1. The image shown best supports which argument of the ratification debate?

  1. The need for a bill of rights to curtail the powers of the central government and guarantee people’s individual liberties
  2. The potential destruction of deliberation and creation of rival factions
  3. The view that states need to stand individually without an overarching, omnipotent central government
  4. The need for states to support and ratify the Constitution to guarantee the existence of a republican union

“In the course of the preceding observations, I have had an eye, my fellow-citizens, to putting you upon your guard against all attempts, from whatever quarter, to influence your decision in a matter of the utmost moment to your welfare, by any impressions other than those which may result from the evidence of truth. You will, no doubt, at the same time, have collected from the general scope of them, that they proceed from a source not unfriendly to the new Constitution. Yes, my countrymen, I own to you that, after having given it an attentive consideration, I am clearly of opinion it is your interest to adopt it. I am convinced that this is the safest course for your liberty, your dignity, and your happiness. I affect not reserves which I do not feel. I will not amuse you with an appearance of deliberation when I have decided. I frankly acknowledge to you my convictions, and I will freely lay before you the reasons on which they are founded. The consciousness of good intentions disdains ambiguity. I shall not, however, multiply professions on this head. My motives must remain in the depository of my own breast. My arguments will be open to all, and may be judged of by all. They shall at least be offered in a spirit which will not disgrace the cause of truth.”

Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist Papers: No. 1, October 27, 1787

Refer to the excerpt provided.

2. Which of the following best describes the purpose of The Federalist essays?

  1. To promote the advantages of states’ rights
  2. To convince delegates and people to support the Constitution to secure ratification
  3. To narrate the ongoing deliberations at the ratification conventions
  4. To outline characteristics of a new form of government to be included in the Constitution

3. Which of the following is an accurate statement about Anti-Federalist and Federalist beliefs in constitutional principles?

  1. Anti-Federalists argued for the value of limited central government, whereas Federalists maintained that natural rights to life, liberty, and property would be best protected under a strong central government.
  2. Anti-Federalists supported the idea of a strong executive elected by the consent of the governed, whereas Federalists argued for states’ rights and cooperation of the states as a confederacy.
  3. Anti-Federalists asserted that the rule of law would best serve the people of the United States, whereas Federalists promoted a limited government and cooperation of the states.
  4. Anti-Federalists advocated for republicanism and self-governance, whereas Federalists argued that a representative government could be legitimized only through cooperation with international allies.

“Amendment I. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Amendment II. A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Amendment III. No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.”

The United States Bill of Rights, 1789

Refer to the excerpt provided.

4. Which of the following pieces of outside evidence provides context for this document?

  1. Many citizens were concerned that individual rights were not expressed in the Constitution and demanded the addition.
  2. The Founders wanted to follow in the footsteps of Great Britain by adding a bill of rights.
  3. Women felt strongly their needs were not being met by the Constitution and held a convention of their own, resulting in this document.
  4. After intense debate, state conventions decided this document would replace the Constitution.

5. Which of the following did not influence the addition of the Bill of Rights?

  1. Actions taken by the British government before and during the Revolution inspired some of the amendments.
  2. State constitutions had articulated many of these rights prior to the Constitution.
  3. Political factions demanded clarification of inalienable rights to support the Constitution’s ratification.
  4. The French alliance inspired the founders to adopt the French form of government.

6. Which of the following explains why the amendments provided were not included in the original Constitution?

  1. State delegations at the Convention argued that additional amendments were unnecessary because most states already had a Bills of Rights.
  2. The Founders published the Constitution in newspapers and forgot to include the page with these amendments.
  3. The Founders were influenced by the British tradition of unwritten government that relied on precedent.
  4. Delegates at the convention were unable to reach a quorum to vote on these items, because the summer was over and many had already headed home.

7. Which political faction primarily advocated the document excerpted previously?

  1. Patriots
  2. Loyalists
  3. Federalists
  4. Anti-Federalists

Primary Sources

Hamilton, Alexander. The Federalist 1. American History. University of Groningen. http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/documents/1786-1800/the-federalist-papers/the-federalist-1.php

U.S. Constitution. Yale Law School. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/usconst.asp

Suggested Resources

Allen, W.B. and Gordon Lloyd, eds. The Essential Anti-Federalist. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002.

Bailyn, Bernard, ed. The Debate on the Constitution: Federalist and Anti-Federalist Speeches, Articles, and Letters During the Struggle over Ratification. 2 vols. New York: Library of America, 1993.

Carey, George W. and James McClellan. The Federalist: The Gideon Edition. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2001.

Cornell, Saul. The Other Founders: Anti-Federalism and the Dissenting Tradition in America, 1788-1828. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

Ketcham, Ralph, ed. The Anti-Federalist Papers and the Constitutional Convention Debates. New York: New American Library, 1986.

Lloyd, Gordon. “The Federalist-Antifederalist Debate.” TeachingAmericanHistory.org. http://teachingamericanhistory.org/founding/

Lloyd, Gordon. “The Ratification of the United States Constitution.” TeachingAmericanHistory.org. http://teachingamericanhistory.org/founding/

Maier, Pauline. Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010.

Main, Jackson Turner. The Anti-Federalists: Critics of the Constitution, 1781-1788. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961.

Meyerson, Michael I. Liberty’s Blueprint: How Madison and Hamilton Wrote the Federalist Papers, Defined the Constitution, and Made Democracy Safe for the World. New York: Basic, 2008.

Morris, Richard B. Witnesses at the Creation: Hamilton, Madison, Jay, and the Constitution. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1985.

Rakove, Jack. Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution. New York: Vintage, 1996.

Storing, Herbert. What the Anti-Federalists were For: The Political Thought of the Opponents of the Constitution</e