Object of the Month

The Ratification of the U.S. Constitution in Massachusetts

"Federal Superstructure."
Engraving published in The Massachusetts Centinel,
30 January 1788.
From the collections of the MHS

These two cartoons, published ten days apart in a Boston newspaper, The Massachusetts Centinel, illustrate popular concern that Massachusetts would not ratify the new federal Constitution. Without the Commonwealth's imprimatur, ratification of the Constitution and with it the recent union of the newly independent states still could fail.

Although the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia finished their work in September 1787, a ratification process of many months remained ahead before the Constitution could become the system of government for the new country. For this to happen, at least 9 of the 13 states had to approve the document, and Massachusetts was at the crux of that lineup. In January 1788, the Massachusetts convention met in the Old State House to address the matter; at that time, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, and Connecticut had already ratified the Constitution. The remaining states watched the proceedings in Boston closely, anticipating a close vote that could fall either way.

Massachusetts had the largest convention of any state, and a fundamental disagreement divided the 364 delegates: Federalists supported a strong central government and the Constitution as written; Anti-Federalists held that a centralized government would concentrate power in the hands of the elite and lead to the dissolution of the democratic ideals espoused during the Revolution. The turning point in the debate in Boston came when Gov. John Hancock proposed that Massachusetts recommend several amendments to the Constitution, including a Bill of Rights. This proposal effectively gave voice to many of the Anti-Federalist concerns, and after Revolutionary leader Samuel Adams spoke in favor of Hancock's "conciliatory proposition," a sufficient number of delegates shifted their positions to approve ratification.

Massachusetts ratified the United States Constitution on February 6, 1788, by a vote of 187 to 168. In June, when New Hampshire came on board as the ninth state to ratify, adoption of the Constitution was guaranteed. Its formal enactment, on April 30, 1789, coincided with George Washington's inauguration as the first president of the United States.

The Massachusetts Ratifying Convention and the MHS

The Massachusetts Historical Society holds correspondence from delegates who attended the convention in Boston in 1788, as well as many accounts of the convention by contemporary observers. These documents include those of supporters and opponents of ratification, such as notable Massachusetts Federalists John Hancock and James Bowdoin and Anti-Federalists Elbridge Gerry and Mercy Otis Warren.

Another connection also ties the ratification of the Constitution to the Society's history: after the delegates first gathered in the Old State House, they moved briefly to the Brattle Street Church and finally settled in the church of the Reverend Jeremy Belknap, who would soon after lead the founding of the Massachusetts Historical Society. In 1788, to celebrate the work of the state ratifying convention, Boston changed the name of the street where Belknap's church stood from Long Lane to Federal Street.


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