Category Archives: Ratification Debates
Virginia – Part 1
Of all the states that – even for a fleeting moment – thought that they might be able to go their own way and reject the Constitution, Virginia is probably the only one that realistically had a chance of success. But Virginia is also the center of The Enlightenment in America; and it is her leaders who have the nations confidence. So much so, that James Madison almost won’t make it home in time to be elected to the Virginia Convention, because he is busy conducting the Nations business which is entrusted to Virginia.
It is here that the most eloquent Anti-federalist of all, Patrick Henry, will probably join forces with George Mason, a man who attended the Philadelphia Convention but refused to sign the final document. Together, they look to face down the Federalists. If they succeed, Virginia will not ratify and it will be likely that other States remaining to consider the Constitution will follow her example.
Patrick Henry will take the lead. He has a long history of being a defender of individual, particularly religious conscience, and States rights. He has opposed Madison and Jefferson before; this time he means to pull out all of the stops to prevent what he sees as a usurpation of power from the people. Mason has become surprisingly (one might say, Samuel Adamsish) passive. Madison, having just made the convention, faces the most important task of his life…
As the ratification process turns to South Carolina, it is clear that the Federalists who run the State favor ratification. It was South Carolina, after all, that teamed up with James Wilson to cement the 3/5th’s compromise and stuck to the deal as the tides of anti-slavery climbed against it.
But it won’t be as simple as that. First, the State Legislature will do something that no other legislature has done – it will openly debate the Constitution “for the sake of informing the country’s members” of the reasons why the Constitution should be ratified.
Then there is a second issue. South Carolina. like Massachusetts, is concerned about the lack of religious tests for holding offices. As it turns out, South Carolina has an official religion, one that is traditional but quickly becoming an anachronism.
Lastly, Mr. Rawlins Lowndes rises in opposition to ratification. A Charleston lawyer, he takes upon himself the mantel of speaking for those “less accustomed to public speaking,” and he outlines the problems that many in South Carolina have with the overall tone of the Constitution. Which is, of course, the one thing that all of the Southern States, South Carolina most of all, fears the Constitution will do – end slavery.
There is strong majority anti-Federalist sentiment in the State, and indeed, there are many in South Carolina who believe that the State should “go it alone” rather than remain joined to the Union. It is Charles Cotesworth Pickney who puts a final rest to that political heresy.
When South Carolina votes to ratify, it is over the objections and the will of the people of the State. but it is the eighth pillar to be raised in the new government…
Over the course of the Convention, Luther Martin (Maryland) had been a petulant opponent of the plan and an irritant to pretty much everybody there – even those who agreed with him. Now that his State, Maryland, is taking up ratification, he will continue to adamantly and vociferously oppose the Constitution. He is the very embodiment of the Anti-Federalists.
Pretty much nobody will listen to his ranting, and Maryland will easily vote to ratify.
It’s what happens after that is so fascinating to me. Because of our own historical myopia, we tend to only see the good and heroic sides of the Framers and Founders. We don’t relate to them as people just like us, facing difficulties and crises. Consequently we don’t learn from their example of how to deal with and even overcome those difficulties.
The rest of Luther Martins’ life will be spent in various pursuits as a lawyer – including defending Aaron Burr against charges of treason – and in the bottle. But by 1807, he will be called, “The Federalist Bulldog,” by no less than Thomas Jefferson. What drives a man who is virulently anti-Federalist to change his mind? Was it the ultimate “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em?” Or did Luther Martin discover something about human nature in his later years?