Tuesday, February 19, 2013

New Hampshire & the U.S. Constitution – 1788

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, Feb. 15, 2013.


A number of years ago, while going over flag etiquette with a Brownie Troop, New Hampshire’s role in the adoption of the U.S. Constitution came up. As we discussed the flag’s meaning, I explained that the stars stood for the fifty states. “So, which one is New Hampshire?” they asked. Of course, the beauty of the American flag is that we don’t have the states’ names embroidered on the stars. We’re all equal in our participation in government, but that wasn’t going to fly with 18 pairs of eyes looking up expecting an answer. “Well,” I fumbled, “New Hampshire was the ninth state to ratify the Constitution, so I guess we’re the ninth star.” Small fingers immediately began counting off the stars until; there we were – number nine – third star, second row.

The ninth star isn’t the FIRST star and it’s not even in the first row. You’d never guess its importance, but being the ninth state to ratify the U.S. Constitution made New Hampshire the state that made the Constitution the law of the land.

By 1787, it was well agreed that the original system of government, the Articles of Confederation, was a shambles. Individual states saw themselves as sovereign nations loosely aligned with one another. The federal government was given few powers and couldn’t effectively raise money. The Revolution had been costly and now the government couldn’t pay down the debt. Trade between the states was unregulated and disagreements were breaking out. There was no executive branch – all legislation had to come from Congress, which required nine out of thirteen states to pass a law. All the states had to agree to any amendments made to the Articles, which proved to be as impossible as it sounds.

In May of 1787, delegates met in Philadelphia to fix the problem, their first decision being to toss the Articles down the outhouse and start over. If you remember your civics class – and I supremely hope you do – the biggest issues involved representation, the slave trade and the Bill of Rights. Over the course of that summer, the delegates argued and compromised their way toward creating a new system of government. Still lacking a bill of rights, it was sent, in September, to the individual states for ratification. Article 7 required nine of the thirteen states to ratify it before it would become the law of the land.

Delaware, New Jersey and Georgia easily passed the document with little opposition. Pennsylvania and Connecticut also ratified early in the process. By February of 1788, the Constitution had five of the necessary nine votes and no state had voted it down. New Hampshire set its convention to begin in Exeter on February 13th.

Many of the delegates in Exeter arrived with strict instructions from their towns to vote down the Constitution. Primarily from rural areas, the ‘Anti-Federalist’ who opposed the new system were suspicious of a centralized government and weren’t comfortable yielding local control. There was also a small minority of delegates who were not comfortable with the civil nature of the document. New Hampshire had a long history of creating religious requirements for holding office – indeed, the requirement to be a Protestant Christian wasn’t removed until 1877. General Sullivan would later write to historian Jeremy Belknap, “The want of a religious test was urged here…but even if that was given up in all other cases, the President at least ought to be compelled to submit to it; - - for otherwise, says one, ‘A Turk, a Jew, a Roman Catholic, and what is worse than all, a Universalist, may be President of the United States.’” Cooler heads prevailed, John Langdon reminding the group, according to the American Herald, “Religion must stand upon its own ground, if it could not, (it) should never think of calling upon the civil arm for its support.”

Another issue that troubled the assembly was the provision that allowed the slave trade to continue for twenty more years. Slavery, although not illegal in New Hampshire, was frowned upon as an evil system. The system as it existed in parts of the country was seen as revolting, but not nearly as revolting as the violent kidnapping of people from the African continent. To approve the Constitution appeared to tacitly approve of the slave trade. Some delegates also objected to the ‘three-fifths’ provision that allowed slave owners to count their slaves, whom they considered property and not people, as part of the population. Joshua Atherton, of Amherst, justifiably questioned why, if the south could count their slaves, couldn’t New Hampshire men also count their cattle as population?

But by and large, the Federalists had the edge. As the debates continued, it was obvious to the majority that voting down the Constitution was far more perilous than approving it, but many of the delegates, although personally swayed by the discussion, were still bound by their towns to vote it down. To avoid this, the Federalists called for an adjournment, which was quickly approved, and the convention was postponed until June.

By the time the adjourned meetings took place in June – this time in Concord – the stakes were higher. Massachusetts, Maryland and North Carolina had all ratified. Virginia was holding its ratification convention at the same time as New Hampshire and the delegates realized that if they voted before Virginia the Constitution would stand. The four month recess had done its work. After four days of discussion, New Hampshire voted to ratify the Constitution by a vote of 57 to 47. They beat Virginia by four days and made New Hampshire the deciding vote.

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