The Tipping Point

Virginia Ratifying Convention.

The Virginia Ratifying convention brought together great minds and great leaders in a large, influential state. Though ratification was perhaps imminent, the Virginia convention served as the tipping point in establishing the new United States.

Two delegates from each Virginia county gathered at the new academy on Shockoe Hill in Richmond on June 2, 1788. Eight states had ratified the document. Virginia, so it thought, could become the ninth and requisite state. It could also have become the first state to steer the remaining states against ratification. No one could tell for sure which side had the majority. “[T]he numbers in the convention appear equal on both sides,” Antifederalist Patrick Henry predicted, “So that the majority, which way so ever it goes, will be small.” Delegate William Grayson agreed, “Our affairs in the convention are suspended by a hair; I really cannot tell you on which side the scale will turn.”

In addition to Henry and Grayson, a respected group of intellectuals and war horses put this assembly on par with the Philadelphia convention. They included James Madison, Edmund Randolph, a non-signer and current governor who now supported ratification, and Antifederalists George Mason and James Monroe. General George Washington remained at Mt. Vernon.

Two camps quickly formed. Patrick Henry, the defender of liberty and first governor of independent Virginia, led the charge against the new plan. Henry dominated the floor more than any other delegate. He spoke on all but five of the convention’s 22 days, with galleries filled with spectators. The firebrand was so determined that he didn’t even yield the floor to receive his son who came to tell Henry his wife had bore another child.

Henry and the other Antifederalists appealed to emotions, confused, delayed, and exaggerated to turn the tide against the Constitution. They refused to accept federalism as Madison and the Framers presented it. “I never heard of two supreme coordinate powers in one and the same country,” said William Grayson, “I cannot conceive how it can happen.” Though delegates agreed to discuss the document line by line, clause by clause, the Antifedralists found it useful to bounce around from one exaggerated defect to another.

Federalists wanted to strengthen the nation and gain respect abroad. Governor Randolph feared Virginia was as not just another state making a decision, but the most important vote in this delicate debate. “I am convinced that the Union will be lost by our rejection,” he said, predicting the national political fabric might begin to unravel. For Madison, this was a personal judgment day. Would his own state support his brainchild? This short, shy intellect worked better behind the scenes than in front of peers and superiors. Madison’s insecurity likely compounded his chronic stomach illness. After one strenuous debate he fell ill and went to bed for three days. Later, he spoke to the US’s reputation, “The Confederation is so notoriously feeble, that foreign nations are unwilling to form any treaties with us.”

As the convention winded down, it became apparent delegates could vote in a few different ways. There were those wholly opposed to a strengthened central government and this Constitution, those who could accept the proposed Constitution but desired a bill of rights, and those willing to consider ratification only after amendments and alterations. Federalists accepted compromise favored ratifying with suggested amendments for the new Congress to quickly pass. Henry denounced the third option. “Do you enter a compact first,” he asked, “and afterwards settle the terms?” As Henry and others sensed momentum against ratification, a powerful thunderstorm consumed the town and rattled the academy. Rain slammed against the windows and violent thunder drowned out Henry’s oratory.

The vote finally came on June 27. Delegates first considered the resolution to put forth a declaration of rights and amendments before ratifying. This measure failed 80 to 88. Then the convention considered direct ratification with suggested amendments to address “imperfections which may exist in the said Constitution.” Virginia ratified by a vote of 89 to 79.

New Hampshire had actually voted to ratify on June 21 and thus became the ninth state that put the Constitution into effect. Now with Virginia agreeing, and New York following on July 26 by a narrow vote of 30 to 27, the new Union was on its way.

Federalists kept their word helped draft a list of concerns in order to amend the document. George Mason and other Antifederalists gathered to prepare a public statement to alert the nation of the political dangers that came with ratification. The group summoned Patrick Henry to include him. Henry refused. He said they should cherish the outcome, support the new system, and leave the federal system free to function. They abandoned this plan.

If not the pivotal vote in the ratification process, the Virginia convention served as the precipice in creating the new republic, and the Constitution’s leading naysayer had ultimately joined the cause for Union.