New Hampshire Gives Birth To The U.S. Constitution
by Robert Hanaford Smith, Sr. Weirs Times Contributing Writer
At a Convention of delegates representing the State of New Hampshire to consider the proposed Constitution of the United States a statement of ratification was issued on June 21, 1788, establishing that constitution as the law of the land. You are in error, though, if you think that, after the signing of the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain, that agreement on the adoption of a national constitution was a quick and easy endeavor. The citizens of New Hampshire had to debate and delay the issue before deciding.
Nine of the thirteen colonies had to vote for ratification before the constitution became the country’s legal document. Delaware began the process in December of 1787, and, after seven other states had voted to approve, attention was focused on the New Hampshire Convention. The Convention first gathered in February of 1788 after the first eight had agreed to the proposed constitution. Interestingly, the larger and important states of New York and Virginia had not yet voted in favor of the document. Along with Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, and South Carolina had, in some cases by small margins, voted in the affirmative.
George Barstow, in his History of New Hampshire, wrote “ At this crisis…all eyes were directed to New Hampshire, as the state upon whose decision the fate of the constitution seemed in a great measure to depend. Its assent, on one hand, would settle the question in its favor; and its dissent, on the other, in the then divided state of public opinion, might create a popular impulse against it, fatal to its final success.”
The convention assembled at Exeter and was made up by men who had distinguished themselves in previous difficult years in New Hampshire, thus gaining the respect of the people. General John Sullivan was chosen as President of the Convention.
John Pickering and Samuel Livermore are said to have been chief proponents of ratification, while Joshua Atherton of Amherst led the opponents efforts. There appears to be only one speech from the convention that has been preserved, and that was one against ratification because there was in the constitution a statement that allowed slaves to be brought into the country. Under the “ Powers forbidden to Congress, Section 9 (1) we read “ The migration or importation of such persons as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a tax or duty may be imposed on such importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each person.” There were several members who spoke supporting the clause in section 9, but , as we know from the preserved speech, of Mr. Atherton that he spoke in firm opposition. He argued that accepting the clause amounted to being “consenters to, and partakers in, the sin and guilt of this abominable traffic”. To illustrate his argument Atherton from Amherst presented a scenario of “manstealers”, as he labeled the slave traders, coming to our coast and capturing some or all of the inhabitants of Exeter. He pictured families being carried off together (or separately) and shipped to Africa or some other part of the world. He said “ A parent is sold to one, a son to another, and a daughter to a third! Brother is cleft from brother, sister from sister, and parents from their darling offspring! Broken with every distress that human nature can feel…they are dragged into the last stage of depression and slavery…”. This objection to ratification, along with some other concerns, caused some to ask that the Convention be adjourned until June, a suggestion which was approved.
There was apparently a more harmonious feeling when the convention met again in June, as, after four days, despite a movement for a second adjournment, a vote was taken and ratification of the Constitution was approved by a vote of 57 – 46. The New Hampshire Convention reported its action to Congress “…acknowledgeing with gratefull Hearts the goodness of the Supreme ruler of the Universe in affording the People of the United States in the Course of his Providence an Opportunity … of entering into a new Explicit and solemn contract…by assenting to & ratifying a new constitution, in Order to form a more perfect Union.” (Note: spelling, etc. theirs)
The Convention did add some suggested changes and additions that Congress could add to the Constitution to protect the rights of the people “…against an undue Administration of the Federal Government.” They included rights not explicitly reserved for the Federal Government be reserved to the States, limiting the Federal Government’s ability to tax, that no Merchant Company be given exclusive advantages, banning Federal titles of Nobility, that no standing Army be kept in times of peace except with the consent of 3/4th of the members of each branch of Congress, that “ Congress shall make no laws touching Religion, or to infringe the rights of Conscience”, and “ Congress shall never disarm any citizen unless such as are or have been in Actual Rebellion.”
The ratification notice was signed by John Sullivan, the President of the Convention, John Langdon, President of the State , by order of the Secretary of the Convention, John Calve, and Secretary of State, Joseph Pearson. According to historian Barstow the church in which the meetings were held was thronged with spectators and the celebration which followed the favorable outcome (to many) had only been exceeded by the reception of the Declaration of Independence.