Preservation Virginia Blog


The Old Dominion’s Fight for Ratification

By Ben Lovelace, John Marshall House Interpreter

Traveling the short distance from his home in the Court End of Richmond to the Constitutional Convention in June 1788, the future Chief Justice John Marshall arrived in new shoes, silk stockings, linen shirts, a coat, and a hat. Anyone who knew him, knew that John Marshall notoriously placed little stock in his outward appearance. Marshall also purchased additional alcohol, meat, and cheese in the expectation of hosting some of his Convention colleagues in his home. Despite the fresh attire obtained for the occasion, John Marshall’s new clothing did little to assuage his mindful awareness that soon he would argue against men like Patrick Henry–generally believed to be one of the greatest orators to ever live—over the future of democratic government in the new nation.

Despite a majority Anti-Federalist county and state, Henrico County elected John Marshall to serve as a delegate at the ratification convention. Nationwide, prominent Federalists, such as John Jay, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton, placed their sights on Constitutional ratification in Virginia, expecting that the decision of the Old Dominion would determine the fate of the nation. Ahead of Virginia’s ratification convention, only eight of the nine states needed to vote in the affirmative in order to put into effect the system of government the Constitution posed. Marshall, Jay, Madison, Hamilton, and others understood that Virginia, should it choose to ratify, would be the ninth state. However, New Hampshire beat Virginia in their vote to ratify on June 21, 1788 just 4 days before Virginia. Those in favor of the Constitution, such as John Marshall, recognized that they faced an uphill climb in achieving ratification in the state. Patrick Henry described the political landscape in Virginia during the summer of 1788 as “4/5 of our Inhabitants are opposed to the new Scheme of Government.”

Following the election of delegates for the convention, Virginians sent 85 Federalists, 80 Anti-Federalists, and 3 neutral delegates to vote on the Constitution. Despite the two major parties holding the entirety of the seats, the delegates descending upon Richmond, did not view ratification as a party-line issue. Men like Edmund Pendleton and Edmund Randolph favored ratification first and the addition of amendments afterwards. George Mason and James Monroe headed a group that believed the Constitution could only be ratified if it was amended before its validity was voted on. Thomas Jefferson, who was in Paris at the time of the convention, described himself as “nearly a Neutral.” And of course, Patrick Henry led a group that vehemently opposed the form of government the Constitution proposed. Despite there being a myriad of ideas surrounding the Constitution, Virginia’s delegates organized into two ideological camps:  those who felt ratification was the only necessary step to safeguarding the Union, and those who felt that the Constitution would fail in adequately safeguarding the individual liberties of white Americans.

Exerting a great “influence of character,” 33-year old John Marshall helped advance Constitutional ratification in Virginia. One of Marshall’s most important arguments during the Constitutional Convention were those in defense of an independent judiciary. The Anti-Federalists, particularly George Mason, saw the judiciary system proposed in the Constitution as a potential extension of a tyrannical government. Thomas Jefferson likewise came to view the judiciary as a “despotic branch”. Marshall however, stated that “If they were to make a law not warranted by any of the powers enumerated it would be considered by the Judges as an infringement of the Constitution which they are to guard. They would not consider such a law as coming under their Jurisdiction. They would declare it void.” Essentially, Marshall presented the Judiciary as the very opposite of what the Anti-Federalists feared, a defender of the Constitution and individual liberties. Ultimately, the Virginia delegation voted 89 to 79, making Virginia the tenth state to ratify the U.S. Constitution, a document John Marshall held above all else for the rest of his life.