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Primary Sources
The Constitutional Convention and the Debate Over Ratification
Primary Sources

Theme: American Political Thought: The Constitution and American Democratic Institutions
Topic: The Constitutional Convention and the Debate Over Ratification
Date: November 2005 Primary Sources from Partner Collections

Primary Sources from Partner Collections
Selections and annotations by SALEM in History staff.

 Objects & Architecture
11172007_82312_2.jpgGardner-Pingree House, 1804 - 1805
Samuel McIntire (1757–1811)
Salem, MA
Peabody Essex Museum

This Federal-period home was designed by Samuel McIntire for John Gardner, who made his fortune in maritime trade with the opening of new markets after the close of the Revolutionary War. Gardner’s fortunes declined with the advent of Jefferson’s Embargo Act, and cargo lost to pirates.  

The beautiful Federal style house features a symmetrical façade (an indication of a central hallway), two stone stringcourses, which emphasize the separation of floors, dentils for decorative molding below the roofline, keystone lintels above sash windows of six windowpanes over six, and an elaborate door surround that includes a fanlight over the front door, sidelights (covered by shutters), and an entry porch, in this case a portico, with classical columns and pilasters (flat columns).

11172007_82348_3.jpgSalem Common on Training Day, 1808
George Ropes, Jr.  (1788-1819)
Salem, MA
Oil on canvas
Museum Purchase, 1919
Peabody Essex Museum, 107924

Although George Ropes only lived to age thirty, he produced a number of works that portray daily scenes of life in Salem.  He worked as a sign, carriage, and landscape/marinescape painter to support his family following his father’s death.  Ropes was trained by an Italian artist in Salem, but maintained a unique, personal style, seen in such elements as the stylized trees that line the park here.  

Salem Common is still public land today. It was once used as pasture for farm animals as well as a practice area for military training.  Documents suggest that men practiced their skill with firearms there as early as 1685.  In the years following the Revolutionary War, pride in local military skill would have held particular meaning.  From this depiction, the festive and social spirit of the event is evident, as are people from different social, economic, and ethnic backgrounds.

Manuscript Materials
Samuel Tenney, New Hampshire, to Major M. Hodge, Newburyport, MA, 20 February 1788.  Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum. Transcription by Abaigeal Duda.

Tenny wrote with lively language regarding the New Hampshire ratification committee controversy over the Third Article of the Constitution.

William Taylor, Baltimore, Maryland, to George Thatcher, New York, 17 May 1789.

The issue of taxation and revenue collection under the new Constitution was of great concern to Taylor, who offered Taylor very specific suggestions regarding taxation on molasses, salt, fish, hemp, alcohol, and maritime transportation.  He pointed out that Britain offered lower costs for the transport of goods and simultaneously cut the U.S. from trade with its colonies.  He also encouraged trade with France.  Finally, he recommended a friend for a position in the new government.

Willliam Lithgow, Hallowell, [New Hampshire?] to George Thatcher, New York, 29 May 1789.

Lithgow wrote to Thatcher to express the general satisfaction that people in his area felt regarding their representatives, but also their concern about taxes (especially on molasses) and how the taxes would be collected.  He recommended his brother, Arthur, for a state tax “Collector General” position, if one were created.

Ebenezer S. Fowle, Springfield, MA to George Thatcher 6 July 1789.  Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum. Transcription by Abaigeal Duda.

Fowle wrote to his former classmate, Thatcher, who was a representative to the first Federal Congress from Maine.  Fowle has nearly completed his service as soldier, and hopes that Thatcher may be able to help him secure a governmental position.  Thatcher later served as Associate Justice for the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

 Published Documents

11172007_82535_4.jpgArticles of Confederation and Perpetual Union Between the States of New Hampshire [et. al.]...printed 1777. Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum.

For text, information and a history of the Articles of Confederation, Constitution, and Bill of Rights see the "Charters of Freedom" at the National Records and Archives website. High-resolution downloads of the documents are also available there.

Dickinson, John. “Letters of Fabius on the Federal Constitution” [Excerpt: Letter IV] Pamphlets on the Constitution of the United States: Published During Its Discussion by the People, 1787-1788. Edited by Paul Leicester Ford. Brooklyn, NY. 1888 (181-187).

In this selection which favors adoption of the Constitution, Dickson pointed to the balance of power created through three primary branches of government and good administration to protect rights.  He argued that, “Trial by jury and the dependence of taxation upon representation, those cornerstones of liberty, were not obtained by a bill of rights, or any other records, and have not been and cannot be preserved by them. They and all other rights must be preserved, by soundness of sense and honesty of heart.”

Gerry, Elbridge, “Observations on the New Constitution, and on the Federal and State Conventions.  By a Columbian Patriot” Pamphlets on the Constitution of the United States: Published During Its Discussion by the People, 1787-1788. Edited by Paul Leicester Ford. Brooklyn, NY. 1888 (1-23)

Gerry, a Massachusetts representative to the Constitutional Convention, refused to sign the Constitution.  He was not elected to the state ratification convention, but did promote his anti-ratification point of view.  Originally, this particular pamphlet may not have been generally circulated, according to Ford,  the editor of this reprint, although it was reprinted and circulated in New York  Gerry specifically cites and enumerates fifteen points of objection against the Constitution.

11172007_82635_5.jpgHancock, John.  A Proclamation. Boston: Adams and Nourse, 1787. [Broadside] Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum. Transcription by Abaigeal Duda.

From August 1786 – January 1787, a series of rebellions in Western Massachusetts (Springfield and Northampton) known as “Shay’s Rebellion” brought the discontent of farmers to the attention of the state.  In response, Governor Hancock issued this Proclamation, which essentially forgave most rebels if they took an oath of loyalty to the Commonwealth.  11172007_82022_0.jpgThose determined to be leaders of the insurrection, however, were not pardoned from their actions.  The list of names in the Proclamation includes Daniel Shays.

Lee, Richard Henry.  “Observations of the System of Government proposed by the late Convention. By a Federal Farmer” Pamphlets on the Constitution of the United States: Published During Its Discussion by the People, 1787-1788. Edited by Paul Leicester Ford. Brooklyn, NY. 1888  (Letter 1 278-288)

Richard Henry Lee’s “Letters of the Federal Farmer” pamphlet was one of the most-used texts by Anti-Federalists.  He charged that the proposed federal government is evidently calculated totally to change, in time, our condition as a people.  Instead of being thirteen republics, under a federal head, it is clearly designed to make us one consolidated government.”  His writing is permeated with an underlying sense of suspicion regarding the motives and secrecy with which the new Constitution was formed – rather than revising the Articles of Confederation as originally planned.

“Resolve of Congress, and Resolutions of the General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts” Proceedings of the Federal Convention.  Boston: T. and J. Fleet, 1788 (17-20).

This section includes the Constitutional ratification and recommendations from Massachusetts.

Wilson, James. “Substance of an Address to a Meeting of the Citizens of Philadelphia” Pamphlets on the Constitution of the United States: Published During Its Discussion by the People, 1787-1788. Edited by Paul Leicester Ford. Brooklyn, NY. 1888 (155-161).

Wilson, a delegate from Pennsylvania at the Constitutional Convention, offered his pro-ratification arguments on some debated issues, such as a bill of rights, maintaining a standing army, and the potential institution of a federal “aristocracy” that would destroy the authority of state’s rights.

Salem Mercury Newspaper Articles (arranged chronologically).  
These newspapers are available on microfilm at the Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum.

  “Extract from a Federal Essay, Published in a Philadelphia Paper” The Salem Mercury 25 September 1787.   

The writer recommended a federally-organized militia, but differentiated what was needed in America from what was found in England or France.  In Europe, the author claimed, war was regarded as a “theatre of glory, [rather] than a trial of patriotick [sic] virtue; and values a Cesar much more than a Fabius...”

NUMA, “The following Strictures on some late Proceedings of Government are extracted from a Piece in the Northampton Paper.”  The Salem Mercury 9 October 1787.

The author expressed a critical response to Shay’s Rebellion and the lenient response by the government.  

The Salem Mercury 25 October 1787.

A small paragraph announced that the Federal Convention had completed its work on 17 September 1787.  The section continued with a overview of recent events in Rhode Island, which did not send delegates to the Philadelphia Convention.  The article suggested that the state felt some concern that their allegiance to union might be questioned; therefore, the RI general assembly met to pass a resolution to “comply in all respects with the Articles of the Confederation.”  There was also discussion of the devaluation of paper currency.  To offset this trend, the Assembly voted to raise taxes in order to remove some paper money from circulation and therefore increase its value.

“A National Constitution, Proposed for the Adoption of the United States, by the Federal Convention”The Salem Mercury 2 October 1787.

The entire proposed Constitution is here reproduced.

“On the Federal Government. Number 1”The Salem Mercury 16 October 1787.

Following the publication of the proposed Constitution, the Salem Mercury issued several follow-up articles, each of which explored one aspect of the Constitution at length.  This first response highlighted the contrast between the King of England and the proposed President of the United States.  As a Federalist newspaper, the Mercury argued in favor of the Constitution’s articles.

“On the Federal Government. Number 2”The Salem Mercury 23 October 1787.

The power of the Senate was discussed at length here, with the argument that the “Senate have no similitude to nobles.”  The specific powers and responsibilities of Senators were outlined along with the “checks” in place to prevent too much power in the Senate, and to ensure that only men of merit serve in that branch of government.

“The Following Address of His Excellency Benjamin Franklin, Esq. to the President of the late Continental Convention, was Delivered by Him Immediately Before His Signing the Proposed Constitution for the United States”The Salem Mercury 11 December 1787

Franklin’s address set for his belief that while no Constitution might be perfect for the needs or wishes of everyone, no better document could have been produced.  He offered his hope that those who would govern do so equally well, and that the Constitution be adopted unanimously.

“Federal Constitution,” The Salem Mercury 1 January 1788

This article summarized some key issues debated by states considering Constitutional ratification.  The excerpt provided here examined the question of whether to include a Bill of Rights, and whether the federal government should maintain a standing army.

“Conclusion of the Debates of the late State Convention” The Salem Mercury 1 April 1788.

On 6 February 1788, Massachusetts became the sixth state to ratify the Constitution of the United States.  Delegates felt that the document needed amendments to clarify some personal and state rights.  This article included statements made by some delegates on this issue, and the final vote tally:  187 Yeas, 168 Nays (19 Majority).  Massachusetts submitted their ratification along with their suggestions for amendments.

Primary Sources from Local Archives and Collections

--none selected at this time--

Additional Primary Sources Used in Content and Follow-up Sessions

Sources selected by Saul Cornell, Ph.D. Professor, Department of History, Ohio State University, and SALEM in History staff. Annotations by SALEM in History staff

11172007_82022_0.jpgScene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States, 1937
11172007_82022_0.jpgHoward Chandler Christy
Oil on Canvas
U.S. Capitol Building

This painting depicts Christy’s interpretation of the historic moment of the signing of the Constitution.  Christy’s family traced its lineage back to the Mayflower, and the artist’s work includes a number of patriotic works.  This piece was commissioned for an anniversary of the signing of the Constitution, and hands in the United States Capitol.  Christy carefully researched the event, and included figures who were present for the signing, and left out those who left the Convention at Independence Hall.  The lighting, composition, and scale (5 x 7’) suggest the impressive importance of the event.  For more information, see the Teaching American History site at:


 George Washington, 1785-88
Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828)
Carrara marble
Virginia State Capitol Building

The French artist Jean-Antoine Houdon depicted a realistic portrait of Washington through a number of careful measurements and a facial casting that he took during a visit to Mount Vernon.  He also imbued the sculpture classical symbolic references.  The sword in the leader’s  left hand references his military service, but the cane in his right suggests civil power.  Behind him, a ploughshare pays homage to Washington’s own life as a farmer, but also the Roman farmer Cincinnatus, a general who left his land to fight for his state and, after victory, returned to the peaceful life of his farm.  Cincinnatus and Washington represented a republican ideal for their choice to eschew power in favor of selfless service and a return to the land.

For some excellent photographic details of this statue, see Colonial Williamsburg’s “Rediscovering an American Icon: Houdon's Washington”

Sampler, ca. 1785
Mary Munro (no dates)
American; Miss Balch's School, Providence, Rhode Island
Silk on linen
Inscribed: With / sheba's queen ye / american fair to adorn your / mind bend all your care / MARY MUNRO'S / Work done in / Providence
Metropolitan Museum (1984.331.14)

Education for most girls included learning to sew and to show skill at depicting the alphabet in stitched samplers.  Some fortunate girls were able to continue their education as such schools as Miss Balch’s School in Rhode Island.  This pictorial sampler is an example of the more advanced skills achieved by these girls.  Samplers produced at Miss Balch’s School often include public buildings, as in this example, and other Federal-era works portray symbols of the new Republic.  See, for example, a Sampler by Laura Hyde, in the Metropolitan Museum Collection:

By Topic:

Lee, Richard Henry, “Deficiencies of the Confederation.”  The Letters of Richard Henry Lee. Edited by James Curtis Ballagh.  2 vols.  New York:  Macmillan Co., 1911-14 (2:343-45). Online at: The Founders’ Constitution.  Vol. 1, Chapter 5, Document 8. []  (17 November 2005)

Madison, James, “Vices of the Political System of the United States” The Papers of James Madison.  Edited by William T. Hutchinson et. al.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962-77 (9:348-57). Online at: The Founders’ Constitution.  Vol. 1, Chapter 5, Document 16.[]  (17 November 2005)

Carrington, Edward to Thomas Jefferson, 9 June 1787.  The Papers of Thomas Jefferson.  Edited by Julian P. Boyd et. al.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950 (11:408-9). Online at: The Founders’ Constitution.  Vol. 1, Chapter 5, Document 19. []  (17 November 2005)

Anti-Federalists and Federalists

“Brutus, no. 2” 1 November 1787.  The Complete Anti-Federalist.  7 vols. Edited by Herbert J. Storing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981 (2.9:23-33). Online at: The Founders’ Constitution.  Vol. 1, Chapter 14, Document 26. []  (17 November 2005)

“Federal Farmer, no. 7.” The Complete Anti-Federalist.  7 vols. Edited by Herbert J. Storing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981 (2.8:9-99). Online at: The Founders’ Constitution.  Vol. 1, Chapter 13, Document 22.

Madison, James, “Federalist No. 10:  The Same Subject Continued: The Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection.”  23 November 1787.

Hamilton, Alexander or James Madison, “Federalist No. 51:  The Structure of the Government Must Furnish the Proper Checks and Balances Between the Different Departments.”  8 February 1788.

Hamilton, Alexander.  “Federalist No. 78: The Judiciary Department.”

Second Amendment

Martin, Luther, “Genuine Information.” The Complete Anti-Federalist.  7 vols. Edited by Herbert J. Storing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981 (2.4:61-62). Online at: The Founders’ Constitution.  Vol. 3, Article 1, Section 8, Clause 16, Document 8.[]  (17 November 2005)

“Debate in Virginia Ratifying Convention.”  The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution as Recommended by the General Convention at Philadelphia in 1787  5 vols. 2nd ed.  1888.  Reprint. New York: Burt Franklin, n.d. (3:380-95, 400-402). Online at: The Founders’ Constitution.  Vol. 3, Article 1, Section 8, Clause 12, Document 27.[]  (17 November 2005)

Story, Joseph.  Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States.  3 vols. Boston, 1833 (1890-91).  Online at: The Founders’ Constitution.  Vol. 5, Amendment II, Document 10. []  (17 November 2005)so