Guest Essayist: Daniel A. Cotter

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1 – Delaware – December 7, 1787

As the Constitutional Convention came to a close in Philadelphia, America’s founding representatives signed the United States Constitution on September 17, 1787. Then, the first of the thirteen original states to ratify and approve this document, this new U.S. Constitution, which replaced the Articles of Confederation, was Delaware, signing on December 7, 1787. This signing admitted  Delaware, known as “The First State,” to the United States on December 7, 1787, subject to at least nine other colonies joining in agreeing to the U.S. Constitution. The current Delaware State Constitution in use, which is the fourth constitution in Delaware,  was adopted in 1897, but its first was adopted on September 20, 1776.  The first constitution referred to the state as “The Delaware State.”

Constitutional Convention

Delaware  sent five delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia- Richard Bassett, Gunning Bedford, Jr., Jacob Broom, John Dickinson, and George Read.  Surprisingly, all five signed the Constitution in September 1787.  (Evidence is that Dickinson was not feeling well, and left the convention a day early, asking Read to sign his name to the document.)  Of the twelve colonies who signed the Constitution, only Pennsylvania had more signers than Delaware (eight).

The delegates were sent to Philadelphia with instructions that they were okay to offer amendments to the Articles of Confederation, but only “to render the Federal Constitution adequate to the Exigencies of the Union.”  These five delegates, who had attended the Annapolis Convention, were given instructions they could not change the one state, one vote framework for the Articles.

Dickinson has been credited with proposing a solution to address a proposal that the two houses of the Congress be represented according to population, offering that the Senate provide for every state to be equal and the state legislatures to pick the Senators.

Delaware was a very small state in area and in population.  They had no major economic center or product, and yet despite small size, their coast line was large.  The Delaware Ratifying Convention met on December 3, 1787 and, shortly after meeting, became the first state to ratify the Constitution, by a unanimous vote, 30-0, on December 7, 1787.  The only other states to vote unanimously to ratify the Constitution were New Jersey and Georgia.  Delaware beat Pennsylvania by five days in ratification.

Reports of the Delaware Ratifying Convention have been lost.  But by accounts, other than a petition to reject delegates who had been selected by Sussex, not much debate ensued.  Citizens of Delaware desired a stronger national government than the Articles provided. As part of the approvals, Delaware also recommended cession of land for the new Federal Capital to be located within its boundaries.  That last offer of course did not happen.

Of the five delegates who attended the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Dickinson was probably the most prominent.  Known as “Penman of the Revolution,” he wrote the Liberty Song in 1768.  In that same year and the next, he also wrote a series of papers known as Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, attacking British taxing policies.

In 1788, after Delaware ratified the Constitution, Dickinson wrote nine letters as Fabius, answering various Antifederalist arguments, in an effort to reinvigorate ratification progress in other states.

The Delaware Constitution

Immediately following the Declaration of Independence, the Delaware General Assembly met and approved the calling of a state constitutional convention.  The convention met in August 1776, naming Read President.  On September 20, 1776, the convention approved the new constitution and it became effective.  Delaware became the first state to have a convention write a constitution after the Declaration of Independence.  The constitution had a bicameral legislature, an executive with broad authority after consulting with the Privy Council, and a judicial branch that the Executive and General Assembly selected. The constitution prohibited the entry of anyone from Africa or other places for the purpose of holding the individuals in slavery.

The 1776 constitution was replaced by the Delaware Constitution of 1792, which remained in effect until 1831, when a convention approved a third state constitution. The current constitution, Delaware’s fourth, was adopted in 1897 and remains in effect.

Conclusion

Unlike some larger, more influential states, had Delaware for some reason not ratified the Constitution, there would still have been a United States.  However, its delegates contributed to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, including the proposal that eventually addressed small versus large state representation, and through its leadership in being the first state to ratify the Constitution and by a unanimous vote.

Dan Cotter is a partner at Latimer LeVay Fyock LLC and an adjunct professor at The John Marshall Law School, where he teaches SCOTUS Judicial Biographies. His book, “The Chief Justices,” (April 2019, Twelve Tables Press), is available now. He is also a past president of The Chicago Bar Association. The article contains his opinions and is not to be attributed to anyone else.

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