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Last of the thirteen original states to ratify the U.S. Constitution, Rhode Island was admitted to the Union May 29, 1790. The Rhode Island State Constitution in current use was adopted in 1986.
Rhode Island is known to school children outside of the Ocean State only for its size. One should not be deceived by its diminutive size and think it inconsequential in the nation’s history. Space does not permit a complete history of the state, but an overview of its involvement during the ratification of the U.S. Constitution is enough to justify it as being a power player in our nation’s politics.
Around 1781 Rhode Island began carrying the moniker of “Rogue Island” for its opposition to commonly accepted measures in the Second Continental Congress. Under the Articles of Confederation unanimity of the former colonies was required for the Confederation to take action. Rhode Island was known for casting the lone dissenting vote in many circumstances that prevented action from being taken.
Although, as the first colony to renounce allegiance to King George III on May 4, 1776—two months before the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress—the other former colonies should not have been surprised that a state willing to lead the way in throwing off the yoke of its colonial oppressors would be willing to go against popular sentiment during and after the fight for independence.
The rebellious streak was put on full display as it once again lived up to its moniker as Rogue Island when it was the only state to boycott the Philadelphia Convention in the summer of 1787. The product of that convention was the U.S. Constitution that still governs us today. Rhode Island was so opposed to overturning the Articles of Confederation, or any move that may threaten state sovereignty, that it simply refused to take part. However, Rhode Island had—at least somewhat—overvalued its importance to the process.
Article VII of the U.S. Constitution stipulates that only 9 out of 13 states were required for ratification. On June 21, 1788 New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify thus putting the new constitution into effect. However, three of the largest and most powerful states—Virginia, New York and North Carolina—had not yet ratified which meant the nation was still not solidified. But with Virginia ratifying on June 25 and New York on July 26 of 1788, the first Congress convened on March 4, 1789 nearly seven months before North Carolina ratified and more than a year before tiny Rhode Island would be the final state to ratify. Once a Bill of Rights was proposed it would not be long before North Carolina would agree to enter the Union as its primary opposition was based on a lack of clearly defined rights in the Constitution. Rhode Island, on the other hand, had a broad base of opposition.
Rhode Island was not motivated by a single group or ideology. It wanted guarantees that it would have control over its own monetary policy. It had pursued inflationary policy during and after the war that entailed printing money to pay off its war debts. It feared that under a national structure its currency would be devalued and the state would be saddled with excessive war debts thus hobbling its economic and social well-being.
The fear of losing control over its monetary policy was consistent with its general concern for the growth of national power. Furthermore, the large Quaker population was appalled by the allowance of the importation of slaves within the new Constitution, even if it was for a limited time.
Eventually, however, the commercial interests of the state won out when the Senate passed a bill prohibiting trade between the member states of the Union and Rhode Island. The mercantilists in Providence and Newport were able to sustain a winning coalition in May of 1790 to ratify the constitution by a narrow margin of 34-32. This was its twelfth attempt at ratification with the first attempt losing soundly by a vote of 10-1.
By the time Rhode Island had ratified, the Bill of Rights had already been voted out of Congress and sent to the states for ratification with nine states ratifying before Rhode Island was seated in the House of Representatives. Therefore, Rhode Island’s lists of eighteen human rights and twenty-one suggested amendments cannot be said to have had a profound effect over our understanding of the original Bill of Rights even though it was not until the eleventh state, Virginia, on December 15, 1791, ratified that the Bill of Rights became part of the Constitution.
What the history of Rhode Island reminds us is that the states that formed the Union understood themselves to be acting on behalf of their citizens and the state government. It was thirteen individual states who formed the Union and not the people of those states. The Union did not transform the people into a single-collective, but rather the people were citizens of their states and the states acted on behalf of their citizens at the national forum. This may seem radical in light of how most people view themselves today, but at the time they would have thought our modern construction as radical and a severe departure from the Spirit of 1776 that rebelled against a distant, centralized governing body that limited self-rule. The Spirit of 1776 also saw the former colonies declaring themselves independent individually rather than as a collective. The actions of the colonies preceded the collective Declaration of Independence. A righteous act of independence had begun with Rhode Island and the nation solidified only when it became the last of the original thirteen to join the union.
Kyle Scott, PhD, MBA serves on the Board of Trustees for the Lone Star College System and teaches political science at the University of Houston and is an affiliated scholar with the Baylor College of Medicine’s Center for Health Policy and Medical Ethics. Kyle has authored over 70 op-eds, dozens of academic articles and five books, the most recent of which is The Limits of Politics: Making the Case for Literature in Political Analysis. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter: @kanthonyscott
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