Patrick T. Conley| Guest columnist
Patrick T. Conley is Rhode Island'shistorian laureate and past president of the U.S. Constitution Council.
Sept. 17 was Constitution Day the date in 1787 on which the U.S. Constitution was approved by delegates to the Philadelphia Convention.
Although Rhode Island was among the first in the movement for independence, it was undeniably last in peace. Its strong local doctrines and traditions religious freedom, church-state separation, democracy, federalism, and local autonomy kept the newly-independent state from attending a constitutional convention in Philadelphia a gathering that might replace one strong, remote central government, just deposed by war, with another.
Rhode Island quickly ratified the nations first constitution, the Articles of Confederation. That document exalted state sovereignty and created a weak central government with little coercive power or financial resources. The Articles gave each state a veto on legislation, and Rhode Island exercised its veto early by opposing the proposed Impost, or Tariff, of 1781, a measure that would have given the central government a significant source of revenue.
When the so-called Founding Fathers properly moved to strengthen the central government via a convention called merely to amend the Articles, Rhode Island declined to attend. When that 1787 Convention produced a new Constitution (thanks to James Madison), Rhode Island refused to ratify it. One reason for Rhode Islands obstinacy was purely local. In 1786, an agrarian political uprising led by Jonathan Hazard of Charlestown placed the Country Party in power. Their campaign was based upon the promise to relieve debtor farmers who were in danger of losing their property for non-payment of taxes on land imposed by the merchant-controlled legislature to pay the principal and interest on state and national war bonds held mostly by these merchants.
The Country Party immediately authorized the issuance of 100,000 of paper money that could be borrowed by the farmers and secured by their land. With that money, which was legal tender, they could pay their public and private debts.
The new Constitutions Article I, Section 10 prohibited the states from issuing paper money, so Rhode Islands rural-dominated General Assembly waited until the currency plan had run its course and achieved its intended effect.
But Rhode Island had more noble reasons for resisting the new Constitution: (1) it lacked a Bill of Rights; (2) it thrice gave assent to slavery in Article I, Section 2, the Three-fifths Clause, relating to representation in the House; in Article I, Section 9, the 20-year moratorium on any federal law banning the foreign slave trade; and in Article IV, Section 2, the Fugitive Slave Clause; (3) it threatened state sovereignty; and (4) it specified the use of a convention rather than a popular referendum for ratification.
In defiance of the convention directive, Rhode Island held its own referendum in March 1788. With the Constitutions supporters, called Federalists, boycotting the balloting, the proposed basic law was rejected by a vote of 2,714 to 238 a margin of 11 to 1.
Ultimately, under strong federal and internal pressure, the Rhode Island legislature authorized a ratifying convention in January1790 by a 1-vote margin. The first session met at South Kingstown in March and adjourned until May after offering 36 amendments to the new basic law.
Enraged Federalists threatened Rhode Island with tariffs and made other financial demands, and Providence threatened to secede from the state if ratification did not occur. This pressure brought compliance.On May 29, 1790, Rhode Island ratified the Constitution by a vote of 34 to 32, the narrowest margin of any state. This approval was accompanied by 21 suggested amendments to that founding document.
When one considers the basis of Rhode Islands disapproval of the original Constitution resistance to a possibly unrestrained central government; concern for the sovereignty and integrity of the states in the spirit of true federalism; solicitude for individual liberty, especially religious freedom; opposition to slavery and the incidents of servitude; and concern for democratic participation via referendum in the Constitution-making process perhaps Americans might ask not why it took a state that Federalists called Rogues Island so long to join the Union, but rather why it took the Union so long to join Rhode Island. The future course of American history has vindicated Rhode Islands obstinacy and resistance.
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