Today in history, on Jan. 9, 1788, Connecticut ratified the United States Constitution, becoming the fifth state to do so.
The state’s chief proponents of the document were Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth, both of whom exercised considerable influence on the Constitution in Philadelphia. Ellsworth’s opening remarks noted that a union was necessary “for the purposes of a national defence.” He also concluded that the problems under the Articles of Confederation would be correctable through implementation of the new model. Appealing to the interests of Connecticut, Ellsworth asked, “If divided, what is to prevent the large states from oppressing the small?”
Ellsworth recognized the cultural, political, and economic differences present in the states, believing that the new model would elevate his state’s position in the new union. Referring to New York, he asked: “Do we not already see in her the seeds of an overbearing ambition?” Ellsworth believed that Connecticut’s ratification could successfully challenge the expansionary tendencies of neighboring states, while also giving credence to the state’s influence in the general government.
He also emphasized the structural advantage the new plan offered, pointing out that some countries, including Germany and the Dutch Republic, served as examples of federalist republics that thrived while preserving localized political authority.
Oliver Wolcott wrote that the Constitution “effectually secures the states in their several rights. It must secure them for its own sake; for they are the pillars which uphold the general system.” Wolcott recognized that the general government derived its few powers from the states, which retained most powers. Certainly, they were the “pillars” which held the general government up. Without the states to provide the Constitution with life and validity, there would be no general government.
Richard Law also made an important contribution by drawing a strict contrast between Great Britain’s executive and legislature and the proposed branches under the Constitution. He explained that “our president is not a king, nor our senate a house of lords. They do not claim an independent heredity authority. But the whole is elective; all dependent on the people. The president, the senate, the representatives, are all creatures of the people. Therefore the people will be secure from oppression.” This philosophy is consistent with the traditional republican view that governments derive all authority from the people. Without the people’s consent, a government’s rule is illegitimate.
Sherman, writing under the pseudonym “A Countryman,” worked to dispel some of the other allegations against the Constitution. These attacks against the Constitution, said Sherman, were “nonsense and alarm.” Like several other prominent Federalists, Sherman did not believe a bill of rights was necessary because such rights were not alterable under the existing constitutional model. After all, no provision of the Constitution explicitly gave the government the power to deny individuals the right to assemble, worship, or possess firearms.
In addition, Sherman pointed out that the state of Connecticut already had its own bill of rights, enacted so that the citizens’ liberties were already affirmed. Sherman wrote of Connecticut’s “General Assembly under your present constitution are supreme…so long as the members of the General assembly are as much interested, and interested in the same manner as the other subjects.” Sherman assured that the Congress “can take no improper step” to assume powers not granted, and that “we need not apprehend that they will usurp authorities not given them to injure that society of which they are a part.”
The Constitution was described in Connecticut as a compact that preserved state power and recognized the states as the building blocks of the republic. Wolcott reiterated this concept by assuring disbelievers that the general government secures the rights “of the several states.” Law joined this sentiment, announcing that the state governments “will not be endangered by the powers vested by this constitution in the general government.” Because few powers were divested, Law believed that the general government “will not have the disposition to encroach upon the states.”
On one of the final days of the convention, Ellsworth declared that in times of disagreement with the general government, the states could forcibly reject repugnant law through their own independent means. “If the United States and the individual states will quarrel, if they want to fight,” Ellsworth said, “they may do it, and no frame of government can possibly prevent it.”
Sherman and Ellsworth’s joint letter to the governor of Connecticut also highlighted one of the focal points of their energies at the Philadelphia Convention: the text in Article I, Section 10 that forbid states to emit bills of credit, noting that the clause was added in Philadelphia in order to “secure the rights of the particular states, and the liberties and properties of the citizens.” This prohibition, which Sherman arduously fought for, was seen as a crucial political victory.
In Connecticut, ratification was fairly decisive. Some writings within the state projected hostility toward the Constitution, but such tracts were notably less influential compared to those in the other states. Many of the contentious issues were not debated in Hartford, as the floor was dominated by supporters of the document.
The most important members of the assembly in favor of the document, such as Sherman and Ellsworth, were at the Philadelphia Convention and contributed greatly by crafting much of its text. The active roles these men played in the proceedings there undoubtedly helped secure the document’s acceptance. In proceedings that lasted only five days, Connecticut adopted the Constitution by a margin of 120 to 48.
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