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Why today may not be the state of Virginia’s 226th birthday

June 25, 2014 by NCC Staff


On June 25, 1788, the former colony of Virginia voted to ratify the Constitution. But technically, today might not really mark the commonwealth’s 126th anniversary as a state, despite numerous claims on the Internet.

James Madison, who led the Virginia ratification debate

That’s because Virginia was already a state when it held its federal constitutional ratification convention in June 1788, and it was actually the first former colony, acting as a state, to ratify the Articles of Confederation in December 1777.

Virginia did become the 10th state to ratify the current U.S. Constitution, after a very contentious convention in Richmond that featured spirited debates led by James Madison (in favor of the new Constitution) and Patrick Henry (who opposed the Constitution as an anti-Federalist).

At the time, one of three states, Virginia, New Hampshire or New York, was needed to become the ninth state to ratify the Constitution. If all three states balked, the Constitution was likely doomed, at least in 1788.

Before the three state conventions, there was growing talk and an understanding that the First Congress under the new Constitution would consider a series of amendments after ratification that would address the anti-Federalists’ concerns about personal rights.

And unknown to the all-star slate of delegates at the Virginia convention, New Hampshire agreed to ratification just days before Virginia did, making the Constitution the law of the land.

The Virginia convention lasted more than three weeks. Arguing for the Constitution along with Madison were future Chief Justice John Marshall and Governor Edmund Randolph, who had refused to sign the Constitution in Philadelphia but had a change of heart.

Joining Henry on the anti-Federalist side were George Mason, another constitutional delegate who didn’t sign in Philadelphia, and future President James Monroe.

The first parts of the debate were dominated by Henry, who argued with Randolph. Henry then introduced a letter from fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson, who was in Paris. Henry said that Jefferson wanted a Bill of Rights attached to the Constitution. Madison and Marshall then took up the argument about the role of a judiciary branch.

Although the group was seen as deadlocked in early June, the vote was 89 to 79 in favor of ratification, on the condition that “subsequent amendments” were sent to the new Congress. The Virginia ratification document spelled out 20 rights and 20 amendments as guidelines.

In the First Congress, it would be Madison who would introduce the first draft of the Bill of Rights on June 8, 1789. And on December 15, 1791 it would be Virginia, voting as the 10th state to ratify the Bill of Rights, to make the 10 amendments part of the Constitution.

Earlier that year, Vermont would become the first territory to be admitted as a new state under the Constitution.

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