Constitutional FAQ Answer #148 – The U.S. Constitution Online – USConstitution.net

Constitutional FAQ Answer #148

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Q148. “In class today, we learned that the
Constitution had to be ratified by nine state conventions. Why conventions and
not votes by the people and why not by the state legislatures?”

A. There are good reasons why the Framers specified, in Article 7, that the Constitution was to be ratified
by conventions rather than directly by referenda or by the legislatures.

The Framers wanted the Constitution to be legitimate. It changed things
pretty drastically from the Articles of Confederation. The only way the felt
it could be truly legitimate was if the people agreed with it. The
legislatures of the states were chosen by the people of the states, and you
might think they would be a good way to ensure the people were heard. But the
Framers knew that state legislatures were, well, political. They had more on
their plates than this new constitution. Would the debate about ratification
compete with debates about taxation or criminal law or land rights? To keep
the debate on the document only, the debate had to be kept out of the
legislatures. Additionally, the new constitution was going to restrict the
powers of the states drastically, and some legislatures might be dead-set
against the Constitution from the beginning for that very reason.

Direct vote by people might have been an attractive alternative except for a
few issues. First, aside from the town meeting model used in a few New England
states, the entire body of the people never voted on anything in those days. It
is rare even today — few states have a referendum model today, California
being a notable exception. So there was no real precedent for the entire
populace to vote. Second, the Framers felt that the Constitution would best be
received if it was well-debated. In the days before mass media, it would be
hard for a reasonable debate to take place (some would argue in the days
of mass media, it is still hard to have reasonable debate). In a
convention, with manageable numbers of members, debate would be much easier.
Lastly, the issue of slavery was a sticking point. Would the Framers specify
the slaves could vote? Or freedmen? Or beyond the issue of slavery, landless
persons or even (gasp) women? By specifying conventions, each state’s own rules
for delegates and electors would be in place.

Conventions, then, were the best of both worlds. They represented the
people but did not include the unmanageable mass of the entire populace and
avoided sticky issues of eligibility.

Last Modified: 16 Aug 2010

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