On this day in 1788, Massachusetts became the 6th state to ratify the new Constitution for the United States, but it was a close call.
There were many opponents who had misgivings about the Constitution’s lack of a bill of rights and what many in the opposition considered a shift of power from the states to a new central government.
Due to strong opposition in Massachusetts, the fate of the Constitution “as it now stands” (how many opponents of unqualified ratification referred to it), and thus as a whole, was in doubt. Without recommended amendments, ratification would almost certainly fail in Massachusetts, with likely rejections to follow in New York, New Hampshire and elsewhere.
In short, ratification in Massachusetts was do-or-die.
John Hancock, who was governor of Massachusetts at that time, had those same concerns. But he was very popular among people on both sides of the ratification debate. A favorite son who helped lead the resistance to the Stamp Act and the Townshend Acts, Hancock was also popular for diffusing the aftermath of Shays rebellion by pardoning all of the insurgents.
Due to his popularity on both sides, Federalist supporters felt that Hancock was the ideal person to propose recommendatory amendments.
Hancock rarely spoke once he started attending the convention, but as it drew to a close, he gave a speech in favor of ratification on January 31, 1788. Eager to hear one of the Revolution’s favorite sons, the galleries were filled with the general public.
Hancock called for the Constitution to be unconditionally ratified with nine recommendatory amendments. According to Hancock’s proposition, the Convention was to ratify the Constitution unconditionally, while recommending that the form of ratification include amendments that would be considered by the first federal Congress. The Convention, acting in the name of the people of Massachusetts, would instruct the state’s delegation to the first federal Congress to pursue these recommendatory amendments.
The first of those recommendations was a precursor to what became the 10th Amendment:
First, That it be explicitly declared that all Powers not expressly delegated by the aforesaid Constitution are reserved to the several States to be by them exercised.
Without this proposal, the Constitution was unlikely to have been ratified in Massachusetts, and its fate in other important states was a likely defeat. And although the first amendment proposal included in that speech was a popular recommendation from so-called “antifederalists,” he was the first prominent figure to present the idea as a strategic move to secure ratification.
Massachusetts was the first state to ratify with a recommendation for future amendments. This paved the way for the same steps in states like New York and Virginia.