To ratify a document is to approve of its content and to confirm its principles. This is a formal act.

The United States Constitution, in Article VII, provided the procedure to be followed by the states. “The ratification of the conventions of nine states, shall be sufficient for the establishment of this constitution between the states so ratifying the same.”

The Constitution
By Jan. 9, 1788, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia and Connecticut had ratified the new Constitution written in 1787. Nine states had to accept the Constitution before it could become the principle document uniting the states. So important were protecting the rights of individuals, and so intense was the debate between Federalists and anti-Federalists, the additional four votes needed for ratification would not be cast without the promise of amendments guaranteeing individual rights.

In newspapers, pamphlets, public meetings and public houses, ratification was debated. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, under the pen name of “Publius,” wrote 85 essays beginning in 1787. These discussions of the Constitution originally appeared in New York newspapers, but were collected into the two-volume The Federalist. This is a primary source for the thinking of the Founding Fathers.

The debates of the Massachusetts legislators were recorded. They provide a detailed record that the recommendation for a bill of rights was needed for the Constitution to be ratified in the Bay Colony.

On June 21, 1788, New Hampshire became the mandated ninth state needed to ratify the Constitution. The Congress of the Confederation in 1788 determined the first session of the First Congress should convene March 4, 1789, in New York City.

In the large states of Virginia and New York, the debates were even more bitter and divisive. When the State of Virginia ratified the Constitution of the United States on June 26, 1788, delegates included in their ratification document a list of amendments for a “Declaration or Bill of Rights.” One month later, New York ratified the Constitution.

On May 29, 1790, Rhode Island was the last of the 13 colonies to ratify the Constitution of the United States. The vote was 34 for ratification, 32 against ratification.

The Bill of Rights
Article V of the Constitution of the United States provided for amendments to the Constitution.

The first Congress, under pressure from James Madison, presented to the states amendments to the Constitution. Ratified by 11 states in 1791, the Bill of Rights was the result of more than a century of experience with rights in America and many centuries before that in England. Three of the original colonies (Massachusetts, Georgia and Connecticut) did not ratify the first 10 amendments until 1939, 150 years after the first Congress proposed them to the states.

The Ratification of the Constitution
A lesson with primary sources provided by the National Archives and Records Administration. Includes transcripts of the debates over ratification.