Rhode Island, the Constitution, and States’ Rights

rhode island
rhode island
Pachaug Trail – “Welcome to Rhode Island sign” at Beach Pond, Hope Valley, RI

My Country – When Rhode Island Ratified the Constitution

Today, we take for granted the fact that many did not like the Constitution. We always paint the Founding Fathers with a broad brush as if they had one mind. In fact, many colonies feared the Constitution. On September 17, 1787, the delegates of the Constitutional Conventured signed the Constitution and submitted it to Congress. But it took until May 29, 1790 (almost three years) for Rhode Island to ratify it.

The Ratification Process

The ratification process started when the Congress turned the Constitution over to the state legislatures for consideration through specially elected state conventions of the people. On December 7, 1787, Delaware became the first state, as we all remember from the state quarters. Only three states had unanimous votes: Delaware, New Jersey, and Georgia. Otherwise, each state legislature was divided. Remember Massachusetts stalled ratification without a bill of rights.

Overall, must like Massachusetts, many leaders sought a Bill of Rights to restrain the new national government.

What About Rhode Island?

Rhode Island failed to send a representative to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. It got many nicknames. “The Perverse Sister.” “An Evil Genius.” “Quintessence of Villainy.”

Central to its opposition was its main political party: the Country Party, which opposed the idea of a federal government. Between September of 1787 and January of 1790, Rhode Island’s legislature rejected 11 attempts to ratify the Constitution. They wanted more checks and balances. They requested a more limited federal government. But after a while, the federal government got tired. Rhode Islanders finally acted after several neighboring states threatened to tax its exports as though it were a foreign country.

States’ Rights

Although very few people think of Rhode Island as a bastion of states’ rights, this argument became central to the Democratic-Republican Party. Justice Douglas quotes George Mason and the fear of the new central government.

The very idea of converting what was formerly a confederation to a consolidated goverment is totally subversive of every principle which has hiterto govered us. This power is calculated to annihilate totally the state governments.

Justice Douglas also noted that Mason may have feared what Chief Justice John Marshall created with the doctrine of implied powers. As the federal government grew after McCulloch v Maryland, the basic argument of a decentralized government died. However, we continue to fight over how much power the federal government can and should wield.

I suppose we just have to remember our Perverse Sister and remember to debate these concepts, even if some name-calling occurs.

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