A SWELTERING summer of secret political debate ended on Sept. 17, 1787, when 39 delegates signed the new Constitution of the United States. Now came 11 months of open, grass-roots debate over the fundamental law that had been forged behind the closed doors of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. No other nation has decided its destiny through the kind of public and private argument that raged over ratification of the US Constitution from September 1787 to August 1788. ``We have done our best and it must take its chance,'' said Benjamin Franklin when the new document was printed for the first time in Philadelphia newspapers. Dr. Franklin, with an eye toward the possibility of foreign influence on ratification by the states, sent copies of the new Constitution to friends in foreign capitals.
Horse and packet boat carried the freshly printed document to a dozen states to be printed in newspapers and pamphlets. Anticipating an attack by critics of the new Constitution, 10 delegates hurried to New York to reclaim their seats in the Continental Congress. This was the scene of the first verbal volley between friends and foes of ratification, a process requiring approval by at least nine states in special ratifying conventions.
``A lukewarmness in Congress will be made a ground for opposition by the unfriendly in the states,'' Edward Carrington of Virginia wrote to James Madison, who was in Philadelphia; he was urged to come to New York without delay.
Calls for censure by Congress of what was done in Philadelphia and for a second convention were defeated in debate Sept. 26-28. Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, an ally of Col. George Mason, moved for inclusion of a Bill of Rights - a guarantee to the American people defining strict limits on the new national government. It met with the same defeat that befell the proposal when Colonel Mason offered it near the close of the Convention. Advocates of the Constitution, impatient for approval, were blind to the Bill of Rights issue as a weapon of the opponents.
``The greatness of powers given, and the multitude of places to be created, produce a coalition of monarchy men, military men, aristocrats and drones whose noise and imprudence and zeal exceeds belief,'' wrote Richard Henry Lee, presaging the intensity of the debate.
A ploy to send the new Constitution to the state legislatures first, not directly to the required ratifying conventions, produced a stalemate. The price that opponents of the document demanded was transmittal to the states without Continental Congress endorsement.
On Sept. 29 an exhausted express rider, carrying the news of what Congress had done, reined in his lathered mount on reaching Philadelphia - only to find that a majority of the Pennsylvania legislature had decided not to let a dissenting minority stand in the way of being the first state to ratify. The dissenters sought to prevent a quorum by hiding out, only to be dragged to the State House, clothes torn and faces white with rage.
The Pennsylvania ratifying convention was approved amid angry charges by the minority that the whole process amounted to a rush to ratify inspired by a ``tyrannical yoke'' fashioned in Philadelphia. This was the first indication of a polarization that would become clear: The cities would favor and the rural areas would oppose the new Constitution.
Dissenters in Pennsylvania had the consolation that many supporters of the proposed government turned against it when word reached other states that Pennsylvanians had rigged their convention, bullied the minority, and refused to publish its dissent in the official records.
Delaware became the first state to ratify, on Dec. 7, 1787, robbing Pennsylvania (Dec. 12) of the honor. New Jersey followed on Dec. 18 and Georgia on Jan. 2, 1788. Connecticut gave its sanction on Jan. 9, 1788.
In each of these states approval was secured in haste, without robust debate. Delaware, New Jersey, and Connecticut concluded that the new Constitution gave them commercial advantages. Georgia was so small in population that it needed a strong central government to defend it against Indians and Imperial Spain.
The truly public ratification debate was carried on not in the state conventions but in the newspapers of the cities and states of the infant nation. Beginning only 10 days after the Philadelphia Convention adjourned and continuing well into the late summer of 1788, a stream of essays on both sides appeared. Almost all the essays were written by two dozen authors who chose to hide their identities. For example, the first such newspaper essay to attack the work of the Convention was published in the New York Journal on Sept. 27, 1787. It was penned by New York Gov. George Clinton, writing as ``Cato'' - after the 2nd-century Roman statesman, orator, and first Latin prose writer of importance.
``Beware of those who wish to influence your passions and to make you dupes,'' Cato warned. ``Attach yourselves to measures not to men.''
A bitter political enemy of Col. Alexander Hamilton of New York, Governor Clinton issued his ``Letters of Cato'' periodically until January 1788. And Colonel Hamilton collaborated with Virginia's James Madison and New York's John Jay on a series of newspaper essays known today as the Federalist Papers.
Jay wrote only five essays and dropped out because of illness. Hamilton and Madison turned out the majority of the 83 essays at the harried pace of sometimes four a week. The first appeared exactly a month after Cato's, on Oct. 27, 1787, in New York's Independent Journal. Its author used the pseudonym of Publius, after a 1st century BC Roman writer and contemporary of Cicero.
``History will teach us,'' Colonel Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 1, perhaps with Governor Clinton in mind, ``...that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying obsequious court to the people; commencing as demagogues, and ending tyrants.''
Not until Massachusetts approved ratification by only 19 votes (187 to 168) on Feb. 6, 1788, did a Bill of Rights emerge as the key issue between victory or defeat. In return for ratification, Massachusetts secured two promises: that its governor, John Hancock, might be president if George Washington declined; and that there would be a Bill of Rights, secretly written by Samuel Adams.
Maryland's acceptance as the seventh state, on April 28, 1788, by a lopsided 63-11 vote, was no surprise. Nor was South Carolina's approval on May 23, 1788, by 149 to 73, unexpected. What did come as a surprise was the strength of the anti-Federalists in South Carolina in demanding a Bill of Rights or amendments.
Anxiously the supporters of the Constitution looked to New Hampshire to become the necessary ninth state and give legal force to the new Constitution. The state's ratifying convention first met in mid-February and adjourned until June, which was, as James Madison later admitted, ``an expedient to prevent rejection.''
When New Hampshire reconvened on June 18, the all-important Virginia and New York conventions were already in session. From a legal point of view, when New Hampshire ratified on June 21 by a 57-40 vote, victory for the pro-Constitution forces had been achieved.
In terms of practical politics, however, the essential step was ratification, albeit with narrow votes, by Virginia (89 to 79) and New York (30 to 27). Without this, there is little doubt that these two large states would have caused the new American Union's eventual dismemberment. Agreement to the new Constitution by both states was contingent on the eventual submission to the states of what became the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights.
North Carolina did not ratify until Nov. 21, 1789, and only after it followed its sister state's demand for a Bill of Rights. Rhode Island boycotted both the convention in Philadelphia and the ratification process. It was not until May 29, 1790, that it became the 13th and final state to ratify the Constitution - and then only by two votes (34 to 32).
``Since the bond of union is now complete,'' President George Washington, wrote to Rhode Island's governor in April 1789, ``...it is much to be hoped that reproaches will cease and prejudice be done away; for we should all remember that we are members of that community upon whose general success depends our particular and individual welfare; and, therefore, if we mean to support the Liberty and Independence which it has cost us so much blood and treasure to establish, we must drive far away the daemon of party spirit and local reproach.''
On Dec. 15, 1791, Virginia was the necessary 11th state to ratify the first 10 amendments to the Constitution. On March 1, 1792, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson - the author of the Declaration of Independence just 15 years before - notified the states that the Bill of Rights was now the supreme law of the land.
Jeffrey St. John is the author of the daily ``Constitutional Journal,'' a series of Constitutional Convention reports that began May 22 and conclude today (back page). On the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution (Sept. 17), the complete text of the document will be printed in this space.