Rhode Island was the only state that did not send delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. The reason for this was because Rhode Island had a strong mercantile economy and was very protective of its state sovereignty. The state was wary of giving up too much power to the federal government and believed that the proposed Constitution would be too powerful and would threaten its autonomy.
Ratification of the United States Constitution by Rhode Island
The ratification of the United States Constitution by Rhode Island was the 1790 decision by the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (“Rhode Island”) to accede to the United States Constitution. It was a controversial process which occurred only after the United States threatened a trade embargo against Rhode Island for non-compliance.
Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States, a 1940 painting by Howard Chandler Christy depicting the 1787 event. No representatives from Rhode Island are shown in this painting, as the state refused to send a delegation.
Rhode Island acquired a reputation for opposing a closer union with the other former British colonies that had formed the United States of America. It vetoed an act of the Congress of the Confederation which earned it a number of deprecatory nicknames, including “Rogue Island” and “the Perverse Sister”.
One provision of the Articles of Confederation stated that an amendment to the Articles could only be made with the approval of all the states, and this gave any state a functional veto power over amendments. Other states opposed amendments that might harm their own interests, but Rhode Island was particularly ready to use its veto power. The Confederation Congress called a convention to discuss amendments that would address this and other perceived shortcomings in the Articles, to be convened in Philadelphia in May 1787. But Rhode Island refused to send a delegation, and the convention instead set about drafting a new Constitution. Rhode Island was the only state that did not participate in its proceedings.
Ratification of the Constitution
The new Constitution took effect on March 4, 1789, since the required nine states had completed their ratification process, and the First United States Congress proposed 12 amendments on September 25. Rhode Island still had not ratified the Constitution and continued to effectively operate outside the new governmental structure.
Rhode Island’s opposition was chiefly due to the paper money issued in Rhode Island pounds since 1786 by the governing Country Party, intended to pay off the state’s burdensome Revolutionary War debt. Other issues included fear of direct federal taxes and aversion to the lengthy terms for members of Congress. The state’s large Quaker population was offended by provisions on the slave trade, while the federalists’ scorn for the state’s “excess of democracy” made its residents see the Constitution as a threat. The handful of federalist supporters in Rhode Island were chiefly among the mercantile classes of Providence and Newport.
Nearly a dozen conventions that had been called in Rhode Island to ratify the constitution failed to do so, often by wide margins; in one instance, 92 percent of the delegates voted against ratification. A force of 1,000 Country Party supporters descended on Providence on July 4, 1788, to break up celebrations of New Hampshire‘s ratification, and armed confrontation was averted only after organizers agreed that the celebrations would commemorate only Independence Day and not New Hampshire’s ratification.
On May 18, 1790, the United States Senate passed a bill that would ban all trade with Rhode Island if enacted, effectively isolating the diminutive state from the Union. The Rhode Island General Assembly capitulated 11 days later and ratified the Constitution, before the proposed embargo could be acted on by the United States House of Representatives. However, the General Assembly’s ratification included a lengthy list of caveats, including that “the powers of government may be reassumed by the people whensoever it shall become necessary.” The ratification also contained a list of proposed amendments to the Constitution that Rhode Island wished to see taken up, such as abolition of the slave trade.
Rhode Island Congressman Benjamin Bourne took his seat that year on August 31.
Ratification of constitutional amendments
Rhode Island took 101 years to call a vote on ratification of the 17th amendment, which began the direct election of senators. The measure came into force in 1913, but the Rhode Island General Assembly did not take up debate on it until 2013, finally passing it the following year.
Rhode Island earlier rejected the 16th amendment establishing a federal income tax, which came into force in 1913 despite its opposition.
Rhode Island did not ratify the 18th Amendment, which prohibited the manufacture, sale and transportation of alcohol.
- Rhode Island Ratification of the U.S. Constitution: A List of the Yays and Nays from the Respective Towns, Rhode Island State Archives
- Rhode Island Ratification, Center for the Study of the American Constitution at the University of Wisconsin–Madison
- Articles of Confederation
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- Fayetteville Convention
- Rhode Island ratification
- Drafting and ratification timeline
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