Ratification of the United States Constitution by Rhode Island

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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 that occurred only after the United States threatened a trade embargo against Rhode Island for non-compliance.


The signing of the United States Constitution in 1787; no representatives from Rhode Island are shown in this painting, as the state refused to send a delegation.

Rhode Island early acquired a reputation for opposition to closer union with the other former British colonies that had formed the United States of America.[1][2] Its veto of an act of the Congress of the Confederation earned it a number of deprecatory nicknames, including "Rogue Island" and "the Perverse Sister".[1]

One provision of the Articles of Confederation stated that an amendment to the Articles could only be made with the approval of all of 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 United States Congress called a convention to propose amendments in order to deal with this and other perceived shortcomings in the Articles, but Rhode Island refused to participate, and the convention instead set about drafting a new Constitution.[1][2] Rhode Island was the only state to not participate in its proceedings.[2]

Ratification of the Constitution[edit]

By April 1, 1789, the new constitution had entered into force after the required nine states had completed their ratification processes. The First United States Congress had already convened, and the Congress had already passed twelve proposed amendments, but Rhode Island still had not ratified the new Constitution and continued to effectively operate outside the new governmental structure.[2]

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 toward the comparatively lengthy terms for members of Congress. (The lower house of the Rhode Island General Assembly was elected twice a year, and the upper house annually.) The large Quaker population was offended by provisions on the slave trade, while federalists' scorn for the state's "excess of democracy" made its residents see the Constitution as a threat. The handful of federalist supporters was chiefly to be found among the mercantile classes of Providence and Newport.[3]

Nearly a dozen conventions failed that had been called in Rhode Island to ratify the constitution, often by wide margins; in one instance, 92 percent voted against ratification. Opposition to the proposed constitution was greatest in rural areas; an attempt in Providence to celebrate New Hampshire's ratification on July 4, 1788 was broken up by a thousand-man force of Country Party supporters that descended on the capital to prevent the observances from going forward. Armed confrontation and possible civil war were averted only after organizers agreed to ensure that the celebrations would only commemorate Independence Day and not New Hampshire's ratification.[1][2][4][5]

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 outside world. Rhode Island capitulated eleven days later and ratified the constitution, before the proposed embargo could be acted on by the United States House of Representatives.[1][6] However, Rhode Island'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.[1][6][7][8]

Rhode Island's first congressman Benjamin Bourne took his seat that year on August 31.[9]

The Rhode Island General Assembly took 101 years to ratify the U.S. constitution's 17th amendment.

Ratification of constitutional amendments[edit]

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 the matter until 2013, ultimately passing it the following year.[10][11]

Rhode Island earlier rejected the 16th amendment establishing a federal income tax, which came into force in 1913 despite its opposition.[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Samantha Payne. ""Rogue Island": The last state to ratify the Constitution". archives.gov. National Archives and Records Administration. Retrieved May 18, 2015.
  2. ^ a b c d e Glass, Andrew (May 29, 2014). "Rhode Island ratifies Constitution, May 29, 1790". Politico. Retrieved November 23, 2016.
  3. ^ Pauline Maier, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788, pp. 223–25. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2011, ISBN 978-0684-8685-54.
  4. ^ Nesi, Ted (December 23, 2010). "Rhode Islanders were not feelin' the Constitution". WPRI-TV. Archived from the original on November 24, 2016. Retrieved November 23, 2016.
  5. ^ Staples, William R. (1843). The Town of Providence, From Its First Settlement, to the Organization of the City Government, in June, 1832. Providence, RI: Knowles and Vose. pp. 332–335. Retrieved July 7, 2014.
  6. ^ a b "Ratification of the Constitution by the State of Rhode Island; May 29, 1790". yale.edu. Yale University. Retrieved November 23, 2016.
  7. ^ Barnett, Randy (2013). Restoring the Lost Constitution: The Presumption of Liberty. Princeton University Press. pp. 69–71. ISBN 140084813X.
  8. ^ Johnson, Calvin (2005). Righteous Anger at the Wicked States: The Meaning of the Founders' Constitution. Cambridge University Press. pp. 153–154. ISBN 1139445022.
  9. ^ "Rhode Island's Ratification of the Constitution". house.gov. U.S. House of Representatives. Retrieved November 23, 2016.
  10. ^ "R.I. House finally Ratifies 17th U.S. Constitutional Amendment: direct election of U.S. senators". Rhode Island Public Radio. June 5, 2014. Retrieved November 23, 2016.
  11. ^ "A century later, Rhode Island lawmakers consider ratifying 17th Amendment to the Constitution". Providence Journal. June 9, 2013. Retrieved November 23, 2016.
  12. ^ Greenblatt, Alan (February 23, 2013). "Failure To Ratify: During Amendment Battles, Some States Opt To Watch". National Public Radio. Retrieved November 23, 2016.

External links[edit]