[NOTE: In part one, we saw that Georgia played a small, but still significant, part in the creation of the Federal Constitution of 1787, especially in the role of the state’s delegation in helping to establish the famous “Connecticut Compromise,” which dictated that the Senate should feature equal representation for each state, while the House should base representation on population in each state. We now look at the aftermath of the Philadelphia Convention, especially at the process of ratification in Georgia, and its sequel.]
After the Philadelphia Convention adjourned, William Pierce and William Few returned to Congress and were present when that body voted to send the proposed Constitution to the states. In late September, Pierce wrote to Virginia’s St. George Tucker, giving his general impressions of the Convention and its handiwork. He explained that, while he had been in New York on important business when the Convention delegates signed the finished document, he certainly would have signed it had he been present.
Pierce sailed for Savannah carrying a copy of the new frame of government with him. He arrived on October 10, and three days later the proposed Constitution was published in the state press. Within a week, a special session of the Assembly, which was meeting to consider the Indian troubles many Georgians blamed on the Confederation Congress, took time out to call for election of a ratifying convention in December.
Surviving evidence suggests that “public debate” in Georgia over the wisdom of ratifying the new Constitution was extremely one-sided. Only one opponent of the proposed frame of government evidently took his case to the people through the press. This writer, who called himself “A Georgian,” asserted that the powers granted the central government in the proposed Constitution were too strong, and he protested the absence of a bill of rights. Supporters of the Constitution confined themselves to heaping abuse on “A Georgian.” “Demosthenes Minor,” for instance, contended that, if the Constitution were not speedily adopted, “we shall be shamed in history, cursed by posterity, the scoff of nations, and the jest of fools.” (“A Georgian,” GG, November 15; “Demosthenes Minor,” ibid..) One of these writers even argued that opposition to ratification amounted to “toryism,” which he defined as a desire to destroy the institutions won on the battlefield at the cost of the “blood of all real Georgians, as well as all other Whig Americans.” (Quote from “A Farmer,” ibid., November 29; see also, “Demosthenes Minor, November 22, December 6; “A Citizen,” and “A Georgian,” both ibid., December 6, 1787.)
Likewise, only a single private letter has been found that advised against the complete adoption of the Constitution. On December 17, 1787, General Lachlan McIntosh of Revolutionary War fame wrote to his good friend, John Wereat, who had been elected to the state ratifying convention and would later be chosen the convention’s president. McIntosh suggested that the Constitution be ratified, but with the proviso that another convention be called in twenty years to consider amending the nation’s frame of government. McIntosh realized that the southern states would be in a minority in the new government, and he hoped to protect southern interests, specifically the region’s “peculiar institution” of slavery, from attack by the majority, which he believed to be anti-slavery.
The Georgia ratifying convention opened on Friday, December 28, 1787, in Augusta, with twenty-four delegates in attendance from ten of the state’s eleven counties. The attendees reviewed the Constitution on Saturday. At the end of the session, Joseph Habersham, a member from Chatham County, wrote to his wife that the document would “[probably be sp]eedily adopted by this state, as it seems to have a good many friends in the convention.” Indeed it did, for, when the delegates reconvened on Monday morning, December 31, they ratified the Constitution without a single dissenting vote. Over and above its intrinsic significance, this action by the Georgia ratifying convention was noteworthy for the fact that men of differing social, economic, and political positions demonstrated the ability to work together on a matter of common concern, a rare and wonderful sight in the annals of the state.
Two days later, the formal approval and signing of the ratification document by the delegates took place. As the last delegate signed his name, two field pieces positioned opposite the state house fired thirteen shots in salute. On January 5, 1788, the convention met for the last time, agreed to send a letter to the Confederation Congress announcing Georgia’s ratification of the proposed Constitution, and ordered its journal published. Convention president John Wereat carried the ratification document with him to New York City, where he personally presented it to the Congress on May 5, 1788.
Ever since 1913, when Charles A. Beard published his controversial book, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, arguing that the “Founding Fathers” were motivated less by patriotism in ratifying the Constitution than by their desire to protect their own economic interests, the task of explaining the ratification of the Constitution has become a veritable cottage industry among American historians. Without entering into this debate, it is still clear that there were several reasons for the strongly pro-Constitution sentiment in Georgia. The most important factor in the state’s prompt ratification was the general disgust felt towards the Confederation Congress over the question of Indian relations. As one modern writer has said, “The crux of the disagreement was that the state wanted to negotiate without interference from congressional agents, but once a treaty was signed, Georgia officials wanted federal assistance in enforcing its provisions. Not surprisingly, Congress rejected this role. . . .” (Jackson, Lachlan McIntosh, p.144) For nearly two years before the Philadelphia Convention, the state had faced the threat of war with the Creeks, and Georgia’s leaders knew that the state could not protect itself unaided. So, many Georgians hoped for a stronger central government as a bulwark against the Indians.
If the frontier hoped for protection against the Indians, Savannah and the coast wanted better trade regulations and an end to state-issued paper money. As Savannah merchant Joseph Clay informed a European correspondent in June 1788, “it is to the operation of the [federal] constitution, we look up to as a means to enable us to discharge all our Contracts with faithfullness [sic] & honour, & not only so, but to enable us to extend our Commercial views in all its [sic] branches.” (Clay, Telfair, & Co. to [A.F. Delaville?], June 20, 1788, Clay, Telfair, & Co. Letterbooks, III: 1787-1795, Georgia Historical Society, Savannah) Moreover, despite Lachlan McIntosh’s misgivings, Georgians who owned or hoped to own slaves apparently were reassured by the compromise that delayed congressional consideration of the foreign slave trade until 1808.
There are several other factors that could be cited with the aid of the historian’s most effective weapon, 20/20 hindsight, to explain Georgia’s overwhelming ratification of the new Federal Constitution. Instead, let me close with an evocative contemporary opinion that I discovered in the course of my research.
It seems that Georgia’s prompt, unanimous ratification of the Constitution raised hackles across the Savannah River in South Carolina, where her action was criticized as hasty. When word of this criticism reached Savannah, a resident of the port, probably the influential William O’Bryen, Sr., penned a reply to the Charleston Daily Advertiser over the signature of “A Georgia Backwoodsman.” The Georgian conveyed in a brief passage the feelings of one who was comparing the hopes of 1776 to what he perceived as the realities of 1788:
It ought to be considered, that the infantine situation of Georgia makes it more her interest to form a solid compact which will give health and vigour to the extremest parts of the political body than any other state. The imbecility of her situation requires the efficient hand of a powerful government, having grown more grey in political disquietude and calamity than her sister states, although she has only the constitutional strength of infancy to support her. They also feel that constant movement in the human mind of providing against future contingent misfortunes, and endeavouring to profit herself by the advantage of melancholy experience . . . . All men saw no alternative. . . . (Reprinted in Georgia Gazette, June 12, 1788, where it was attributed to “W.O____n.”)
Coleman, Kenneth, gen. ed. A History of Georgia.2nd ed. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1991.
________________. The American Revolution in Georgia, 1763-1789. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1958.
Farrand, Max. The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787. 4 vols. Paperback reprint. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1974.
Jackson, Harvey H. Lachlan McIntosh and the Politics of Revolutionary Georgia. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1979.
_________________. “The Road to the Constitution, 1783-1787: Georgia’s First Secession.” Atlanta Historical Bulletin 20 (Spring 1976): 43-52.
Lamplugh, George R. Politics on the Periphery: Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806. Newark, Del.: University of Delaware Press, 1986.
Phillips, Ulrich B. Georgia and State Rights. Reprint. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1984.
Saye, Albert Berry. A Constitutional History of Georgia, 1732-1945. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1948.
For those interested in reading more about Georgia History, here are links to my books on the subject:
Politics on the Periphery: Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)