Today in 1788, the Constitution of the United States was ratified. It was the day New Hampshire, the ninth and final state required for ratification, added their support to the Constitution.
The Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation, a document drafted after the Revolutionary War. The Articles suffered from having no central authority over the economy. Congress approved of a plan to draft a new document and on May 25, 1787, the Constitutional Convention was held at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall.
Three months of debate ensued, moderated by George Washington, president of the convention. At the conclusion of the convention, 38 of the 41 present delegates signed the new Constitution. The new Constitution was recommended over the Articles by its formation of a strong federal government whose authority was governed by a system of checks and balances.
On December 7, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia and Connecticut ratified the Constitution. Article VII dictated that the Constitution would not become legally binding without at least nine of the thirteen states. Some of the remaining states opposed the Constitution on the grounds that it divested too much authority from the states and did not provide protection of rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of the press.
A compromise was struck in February of 1788. Massachusetts and other objecting states were promised that amendments to the constitution would be immediately passed to protect these rights. It was enough to win over Massachusetts, Maryland and South Carolina. Then, finally, New Hampshire ratified the Constitution, making it binding. The new federal government, with the U.S. Constitution as its founding document, was set to begin on March 4, 1789. Virginia and New York then ratified the Constitution as well.
The first 12 amendments to the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights, was first adopted on September 25, 1789. Ten of the twelve were ratified in 1791.
In November of 1789, North Carolina ratified the Constitution. Rhode Island still held out, over opposition to federal control of the money supply and capitulations to slave owners. It only ratified the Constitution under force of threat that the US government would sever all commercial relations with the state. Rhode Island ratified on May 29, 1790, the last of the thirteen states.
As it now stands, the U.S. Constitution is the oldest legally binding constitution in the world. It has undergone a long, contentious process of revision. There are now 27 legally binding Amendments to the Constitution. It continues to be the guiding document of American law.