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Alternative universe: How the U.S. Constitution was defeated



Russell E. Saltzman - published on 07/04/17

The fun of exploring alternative history isn’t seeing history as it was, but as might have been.

The United States of America, in some parallel universe, is still governed under the Articles of Confederation. The proposed Constitution of 1787 was never ratified.

To the dismay of the Federalists (called “nationalists” or “conservatives” at the time) and to the relief of the Anti-Federalists (“radicals,” they were called), ratification of the proposed Constitution was defeated in four state conventions. While eight of the 13 states ratified the proposed constitution, nine were required for it to go into effect.

In the hard political battle of radicals vs. conservatives, the radicals won, barely, and the “United States, assembled in Congress,” the actual name of the country, remained the political subordinate of the states.

Under the Articles, the “[Confederation] Congress could function only within an area of precisely delegated and carefully limited authority,” relates a historian from the parallel world. “It was a creature of the state governments and thus, ultimately, of the electorate of the states.”

Initially, things were looking like a nationalist slam dunk. In the fall and early winter of 1787, five state conventions rushed approval: Delaware (30 to 0), Pennsylvania (46-26), New Jersey (38-0), Georgia (26-0), and Connecticut (128-40).

Then there was the Massachusetts convention in early February, 1788.  The radicals rallied. Debate was rancorous and the convention long, sitting from January 9 to February 6.

The Massachusetts radicals were the same men who fought at Bunker Hill against the coercive intrusions of the British Empire. They fought the Constitution on the same grounds (especially the provisions that empowered Congress to levy direct taxes and create a standing army), alleging those powers would create another bullying government like the one they threw off. Plus, there was no bill of rights.

Only after reluctantly permitting the radicals to propose amendments to the document, Federalists barely won. Enough Anti-Federalists came over to clinch the vote. With that concession — and the nationalists didn’t like giving that much — the Massachusetts ratification was adopted by a small 19-vote margin, of 355 votes cast.

Opposition in Massachusetts stirred radicals elsewhere. Rhode Island submitted the Constitution to a state referendum, where it died: 2708 “no” to 237 “yes.” No one in any case expected Rhode Island to ratify, but the near loss of Massachusetts was concerning.

Following adoption by Maryland (64-12) and South Carolina (149-73), ratification was defeated in New Hampshire. A tie vote (52-52) prevented adoption. Ratification was stalled at eight states.

The loss of Virginia in June and of New York that July, 1788, scuttled the nationalist Constitution.

Patrick Henry in Virginia gave a brief speech against the Constitution and then, uncharacteristically, shut up. Regarded as a sometimes very irritating man, he instead worked privately with delegates where he proved unusually effective. Instead of popping up at every opportunity to hear his own voice, as detractors described his usual legislative style, his restraint helped the radical cause.

He had said that he stayed away from the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia “because he smelt a rat.” Truth is the Virginia legislature (dominated by James Madison with a bit of help from George Washington) never seriously considered making him a delegate. His public silence in the convention saved the Anti-Federalists. Still, the result was slender, another tie: 84-84.

Virginia and New York were crucial to the nationalists. Learning of the Virginia failure, New York Anti-Federalists made a simple argument: There can be no union of only nine states without Virginia. Three expected Federalist votes shifted to the “no” column and ratification lost (27-30).

The North Carolina convention saw little reason to proceed. It assembled July 21, 1788, and upon notice of New York’s action, adjourned August 4, having never voted.

So the Constitution was defeated. And then what happened? The parallel “United States, in Congress assembled,” continued on, noticeably different from our present timeline:

  • Erroneously advised that his attendance at the Constitutional Convention would ensure adoption, George Washington ended up staying at Mt. Vernon until his death in 1799.
  • No one became an “officer holder.” The president of the Confederation Congress could serve only one year in three and no congressman could serve more than three years in six.
  • The work of Congress devolved to departmental secretaries. They attended sessions and could be openly questioned. A “committee of states,” one member from each state, acted for Congress when it was in recess.
  • State representation in Congress remained “one state, one vote.” The southern states never had the inordinate legislative clout embedded in the defeated Constitution. It had provided that three-fifths of the slave population could be counted for representation in Congress. Without that incentive, slavery held no political advantage for the South.
  • Sales of state land claims ceded to the Congress, along with territory acquired by treaty at the end of the Revolutionary War, became the financial engine of the United States. Sales to settlers soared and enabled the Congress to pay off the national debt and funded it well for many years thereafter.

The fun of exploring alternative history isn’t seeing history as it was, but as might have been. Happy 4th of July.

This is the author’s revision of an earlier piece published elsewhere in 2015.

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