Anti-Federalists and the Virginia Ratification Convention

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By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph. D., Gettysburg College
Federalists had to agree to certain conditions when the Virginia assembly passed the ratification. (Image: Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Gwillhickers / Public Domain)

The vitriolic attacks of the anti-federalists

The long prelude to the Virginia Ratification Convention was a gift to the anti-federalists in Virginia – Richard Henry Lee, George Mason and, of course, Patrick Henry. Richard Henry Lee took the lead as a writer, publishing a 64-page pamphlet of excerpts from the Constitution and vitriolic attacks on them; Edmund Randolph published another. Patrick Henry artfully frightened Virginians who had unpaid pre-war debts owed to British merchants or who had occupied confiscated properties from the Tories, with the specter of being dragged into distant federal courts to be shaken. No speech by Henry to the assembly, whatever the subject, ended without a blow to the Constitution.

Elections to the ratification convention became fiercely competitive, and in March Madison, who had been invited by George Washington to run for election at the convention, had to sever his collaboration with Alexander Hamilton to produce The Federalist At New York. He had to return to Virginia to stave off a challenge from an anti-federalist convert, Thomas Barbour, in Orange County. Madison won easily, 202 to 56.

This is a transcript of the video series America’s Founding Fathers. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The start of the ratification convention

The real test, however, would come in the ratification convention itself, which met on June 2, 1788, in Richmond. The convention was ordered by Edmund Pendleton after George Wythe, Virginia’s greatest lawyer and judge, and on motion by George Mason, agreed to enter into a “full, article-by-article discussion.”

But the convention awaited Patrick Henry, and on June 4, he solemnly announced: the States. ”

Who authorized them to speak the language of Us the People instead of Us the States? States are the hallmarks and soul of a confederation. If the states are not the agents of this pact, it must be a great consolidated national government.

George Mason was quick to follow Henry’s line of attack. Mason asked if “a national government” could oversee a nation as large as the United States without becoming tyrannical out of necessity. Was there ever an example of a general national government spanning such a large country, abundant in such a variety of climates, et cetera, where the people retained their freedom?

Learn more about William Patterson’s dissent.

The defense of James Madison and Light-Horse Larry

A portrait of Henry Lee.
Henry Lee believed that the Constitution appealed to the people whose sovereignty it embodied. (Image: William Edward West / Public domain)

Speaking briefly at the end of the June 4 session, Madison paved the way for Henry Lee, the famous Light-Horse Harry, to go on the attack. Lee said the phrase “We the people” was not forced on constitutional convention by crafty schemers. Indeed, what could be more appropriate than to start a constitution by appealing to the people whose sovereignty it embodied?

But it would be up to Madison on June 6 to deliver a resolute dissection of Henry’s alarm. Did Patrick Henry fear deprivation of liberty? “After a review of history,” Madison replied coldly, he would have found that loss of freedom was very often the result of factions and divisions – of local considerations, which lead eternally to quarrels – he would have found that internal strife had. more frequently demolished civil liberty than consolidated government.

The government of the 13 states of America

Madison said the new constitution created common ground between a bunch of disconnected states and a single, concentrated government. Madison said the government was not fully consolidated, nor fully federal. Who are parties to it? The people – but not the people as a component of one great body – but the people as a component of thirteen sovereignties.

If all the states adopt it, then it will be a government established by the 13 states of America, not by the intervention of the legislatures, but by the people in general. In this particular respect, the distinction between the current government and the proposed government was very important and would turn out to exclude the evils of absolute consolidation, as well as of simple confederation.

Learn more about the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

Ratification with certain conditions

For nine days, the arguments wavered, including a powerful speech by Patrick Henry on June 24. On June 25, after three weeks of wrangling, the question was asked, and in a roll-call vote requested by George Mason, ratification was won. 89 to 79.

But the federalists had not won their victory without conditions. The ratification resolutions demanded that all imperfections in the Constitution be corrected by amendments that would ensure that no right of any religious denomination could be nullified, abridged, restricted or changed by Congress, the Senate or the House of Representatives. , acting in any capacity, by the President, or any department or officer of the United States. Among other essential rights, freedom of conscience and of the press could not be nullified, curtailed, restricted or modified by any authority in the United States.

Madison and her federalist colleagues had secured the largest number of state ratifications and only at the cost of committing to add a bill of rights. New York’s anti-federalists narrowly followed suit on July 26 after hearing the news of Virginia’s ratification. The Constitution had finally arrived.

Common questions about anti-federalists and the Virginia Ratification Convention

Q: When did the Virginia assembly pass the ratification of the Constitution?

On June 25, the question was asked, and in a roll-call vote requested by Georges mason ratification won 89 to 79.

Q: How did James Madison defend the new system of governance as spelled out in the new Constitution?

James madison said it would be a government established by the 13 states of America, not by the intervention of legislatures, but by the people in general.

Q: Why did James Madison break off his collaboration with Alexander Hamilton in the production? The Federalist At New York?

Elections to the ratification convention have become fiercely competitive, and James madison had to return to Virginia to stave off a challenge from an anti-federalist convert, Thomas Barbour, in Orange County.

Keep reading
US Constitution: Bill of Rights
US Government: The Constitution
Wilson and Morris: Arguments for a Nationally Elected Executive


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