How Rhode Island gave us the Constitution

Rhode Island was the only state that absolutely refused to have any part of the Constitutional Convention.  It had been the first colony to declare its independence from Great Britain on May 4, 1776.  After that had been achieved in the War of Independence,  it clung tenaciously to its sovereignty, and was the last state to reluctantly ratify the Constitution.

The abuse by Rhode Island of its sovereignty under the Articles of Confederation was a warning of what lay ahead, if no national government was formed.  It could only end in warfare between the sovereign states.

Until 1842, Rhode Island’s government was a product of its colonial charter of 1663.  That charter restricted suffrage to property owners, and half the male population could not vote.  Further, those without land were prevented from filing civil suits, unless an endorsement was given by a property owner.  The charter also apportioned the state legislature, giving the rural areas vastly greater power than the populous urban parts of the state.

After the War of Independence Rhode Island was the leader in the slave trade, much to the annoyance of Virginia.  It refused to cooperate with the other states in establishing fair trade relations with Great Britain, seeking special advantages for itself.   The Rhode Island legislature was a law unto itself, and refused to submit to the courts.  At the time of the Convention it was ruled by extreme radicals in contempt of the rule of law.  If Rhode Island was a harbinger of things to come, what lay ahead was ruin.

In the next to last speech made on the last day of the Convention, Pinkney of South Carolina made the point explicitly.  After listing his objections to the Constitution, he explained his vote in favor of it.  Madison reports his rationale: “But apprehending the danger of a general confusion, and an ultimate decision by the sword, he should give the plan his support.”

The Constitution was a product of hope, but also of fear.  Fear of what Rhode Island had become.  Fear of civil war.

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