By S.D. Plissken | September 17, 2018
Today is Constitution Day. Happy Constitution Day!
On September 17, 1787, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention met for the last time to sign the document they had created. We encourage all Americans to observe this important day in our nation’s history by attending local events in your area. Celebrate Constitution Day through activities, learning, parades and demonstrations of our Love for the United State of America and the Blessings of Freedom Our Founding Fathers secured for us (Constitutionday.org, 2018).
Did you know that Milton voted against the U.S. Constitution in 1788? Yes, it did. Milton and Farmington were then the Northeast and Northwest parishes of Rochester. And Rochester voted against the proposed U.S. Constitution.
The United States were bound together loosely under the Articles of Confederation from 1778 onwards. By 1787, they were beset by monetary collapse, unrest, and even rebellion. Congress called for a convention in February 1787, to be held in Philadelphia, PA, for the “sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.” The convention opened on May 14, 1787, but could not assemble a quorum until May 25, 1787.
Shay’s Rebellion (1786-87) and other issues convinced a number of convention delegates that a stronger central government was needed. So, the convention wandered off its “sole and express” purpose and produced a complete replacement for the Articles, rather than a revision. (Some historians have described it as a “coup”). Some delegates left in disgust. Others voted against the replacement, but lost to the majority that voted in its favor. That vote took place on September 17, 1787 – now remembered as Constitution Day – and the convention adjourned.
Then began the great debate. Those in favor of the proposed replacement constitution were known as Federalists, while those opposed were known as Anti-Federalists. Much was said on either side and that debate was carried in local newspaper articles (and, as we have noted elsewhere, that which was said was said largely under pseudonyms). Newspapers of that time frequently copied (or “shared”) each other’s articles, so, through that mechanism, the various arguments were very widely seen.
The Constitution is considered now to have been almost divinely inspired. Its creators have been beatified as “the Founding Fathers.” Whatever possessed Rochester (and Milton and Farmington) to vote against it?
Rochester had 2,857 inhabitants (in 1790). It was the 25th largest city or town in the United States. That Rochester count broke down to 730 males aged 16 years or over, 740 males aged under 16 years, 1,386 females, and 1 slave. (The census enumerator (Joseph Hait) had to correct his original spelling of Rogester to Rochester. Oops).
(The last of Rochester’s six double-columned pages has the Milton names; there were about 345 people on that page. No slave. (Editor’s note: This 1790 view of Milton deserves further study)).
But Rochester was an inland city. (Dover is the head of navigation for the Cocheco River). It might have been the 25th largest city or town in the United States, but it was situated inland.
Most New Hampshire people lived inland, and they didn’t expect to benefit from maritime commerce. They didn’t like coastal merchants, either. They opposed the Federalists, because they feared a central government would concentrate power and destroy democracy.
After the Philadelphia convention adjourned and the debate had been joined, Delaware voted (30 (100%) to 0 (0%)) first to ratify on December 7, 1787, followed by Pennsylvania (46 (66.7%) to 23 (33.3%)) on December 12, New Jersey (38 (100%) to 0 (0%)) on December 18, Georgia (26 (100%) to 0 (0%)) on January 2, 1788, and Connecticut (128 (76.2%) to 40 (23.8%)) on January 9, 1788. Those were the easy ones.
Federalist NH Governor John Sullivan knew that the U.S. Constitution was unlikely to pass in New Hampshire. So, he engaged in a little jiggery-pokery. He recalled the state legislature to meet at the capital (then Exeter) in January 1788, when travel was difficult, especially so for delegates from the inland districts of the west and north. That favored the Federalists. That Federalist-packed legislature called for an early convention, in February 1788, while the weather would still be in their favor.
Meanwhile, Massachusetts voted (187 (52.7%) to 168 (47.3%)) sixth to ratify on February 6, 1788.
Despite the weather, strong Anti-Federalist opposition did arise at New Hampshire’s February convention. Many inland towns had bound their delegates in advance to a “no” vote. “Whipping” their votes – browbeating and logrolling – could not work. Elsewhere, New York’s governor came out in opposition. Opposition was building also in Pennsylvania and Virginia. That sustained the NH Anti-Federalist opposition. The Federalists adjourned the convention until June, in order to allow delegates to consult their towns again. They also jiggered the rules to allow state representatives and other Federalist officials to stand as delegates – sort of Super Delegates. And maybe the votes of other states would solve the problem in the meantime.
While they were out, Maryland voted seventh (63 (85.1%) to 11 (14.9%)) to ratify on April 28, 1788, and South Carolina voted eighth (149 (67.1%) to 73 (32.9%)) on May 23, 1788.
New Hampshire’s reconvened convention began to assemble at Concord’s Old North Meeting House on Wednesday, June 18, 1788. Only 90 of the expected delegates had arrived by that first day, 107 arrived by the second day, and 108 by the third day. Five more delegates were expected, but most of them (4-1) were known to be “no” votes. So, the convention voted to ratify without them on Saturday, June 21, 1788. It was not a landslide – 57 voted in favor (54.8%) and 47 voted against (45.2%). (Had they waited for the missing delegates, the result would have been the same, but with a narrower margin: 58 (53.2%) to 51 (46.8%)).
New Hampshire, being the ninth state to ratify, tipped the balance. The U.S. Constitution would go into effect.
After New Hampshire, Virginia voted (89 (53%) to 79 (47%)) to ratify on June 25, 1788, followed by New York (30 (52.6%) to 27 (47.4%)), North Carolina (194 (71.6%) to 77 (28.4%)), and, finally, Rhode Island brought up the rear (34 (51.5%) to 32 (48.5%)).
Vermont’s status remained nebulous. Both New York and New Hampshire claimed it. It was a sort of no-man’s land, outside of the new dispensation. (Persecuted Shay’s rebels found refuge there). It gained admission as the 14th state on March 4, 1791.
Ms. Muriel Bristol contributed to this article.
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