If you, like me, are a fan of The Jerk with Steve Martin, that title might bring a smile. Hopefully you recall how excited “Johnson, Naven R.” was to get the phone book because his name would be in it and “things are going to start happening to me now.” It may not have been that kind of enthusiasm that greeted the new U.S. Constitution 230 years ago, but it should have. Consider how close we were to not having one at all!
Each state legislature called special conventions to debate it, and mind you it was a close race in several states. In Massachusetts, it was 187-168. In New Hampshire it was 57-47. According to itself, the Constitution would become the law of the land once 9 of the 13 states ratified, but some big votes were still to come. In Virginia — one state where, if they didn’t ratify, who knows where we’d be — the vote was 89-79. In yet another make or break state, New York’s vote was 30-27!! 30 to 27 people!! That just blows my mind.
Why was it so close? Well there were a lot of people that didn’t like it, frankly. The Anti-Federalists weren’t happy with the lack of a Bill of Rights. Some thought that the Constitutional Convention didn’t reflect the nation as a whole. Still others believed that power was too centralized in the new document. They wrote many letters, pamphlets, and newspaper articles.
So why didn’t they prevail? Because they weren’t as organized, in part. The Anti-Federalists had a lot of good points in their opposition, but that’s the problem. They had A LOT of good points. The Federalists had a unified voice — vote for this document. They rallied around brilliant defenders whose arguments in writing have come to be known as the Federalist Papers. So they won — but just barely!
I saw this same level of organization play out in the recent Oklahoma City election for the general obligation bonds, MAPs extension, and sales tax increase. The YES group had a unified message, simple to understand — vote YES on all 15 items. The no side had a few signs out that just said “no taxes,” but nothing about the vote. Those signs could have been put out for anything! They might have had some valid points about why to not support the propositions, but they didn’t have the organization to show it.
I am personally grateful that the Federalists had such great organization because I think our Constitution is worthy of support. Take a moment today, or at least on Sept. 17 when we actually celebrate Constitution Day, and read one Federalist Paper. Likely it’ll be one by Alexander Hamilton, but marvel at how hard people fought then for your freedoms today, and realize things really did start happening for the United States at that moment.