New York showed its wealth of wisdom in ratifying the Constitution and becoming the 11th state in a fledgling nation. While the Empire State’s ratification was not required under the new Constitution for there to be a United States, had the vote gone the other way, the United States may have been for naught before they began.
Eleventh of the thirteen original states to ratify the U.S. Constitution, New York was admitted to the Union on July 26, 1788, one month and a day after Virginia became the 10th state and is known as “The Empire State” (apparently based on its wealth and resources). The current New York State Constitution was adopted in 1894, but its first was adopted on April 20, 1777.
New York sent only three delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia: Alexander Hamilton, John Lansing, Jr., and Robert Yates. Only Hamilton signed the Constitution in September 1787. Like Virginia, New York was a large, well-populated, wealth state, and was important to the future of the nation. At the time, New York was the fifth largest state by population but already an immensely important commercial participant. After extended debate, New York ratified by a slim three vote margin, 30-27, becoming the 11th state admitted to the Union. Upon ratification, New York sent a long, detailed ratification message, with a declaration of rights and suggested changes and modifications to the Constitution, but with approval based on an understanding “that the amendments which shall have been proposed to the said Constitution will receive an early and mature consideration.” At the New York Convention, the Anti-Federalists were led by Governor George Clinton, and the Federalists by Hamilton. Anti-Federalists wanted a Bill of Rights and wanted states to prevail over federal encroachments feared by the new Constitution. When the New York Convention convened, Anti-Federalists had an overwhelming majority.
The New York Convention convened in mid-June 1788, and began debating, with a close eye on developments in Virginia. If Virginia had rejected the U.S. Constitution, New York might have done the same. Hamilton asked Madison to send message to New York informing the Empire State of the vote in Virginia. That dispatch arrived in Poughkeepsie, New York on July 2, 1788. That letter turned the two-thirds Anti-Federalist convention into a narrow margin of ratification, with the request and recommendation that a number of amendments be made to the Constitution. New York made such amendment recommendations similar to those of Virginia. In an unusual move, the New York Convention sent a circular letter to the states that called for a second general convention to consider such amendments.
John Jay, who wrote a handful of The Federalist Papers, but would have written more except for his illness, was influential at the New York Convention. While he did not attend the Constitutional Convention, Jay would become an important national leader of the infant nation, appointed by President George Washington in 1789 as the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. He would not remain in that position long, returning to New York to become Governor. Jay also helped to negotiate peace with England and, in 1794, was appointed special envoy to seek peace with Great Britain. Jay’s Treaty, as it became known, brought temporary peace.
The New York Constitution
Immediately following the Declaration of Independence, a Convention assembled in White Plains, New York on July 10, 1776. Due to the Revolutionary War and George Washington and the Continental Army’s crushing defeats in New York and New Jersey, the convention adjourned and reconvened over the next nine months, culminating in its adoption on April 20, 1777. The primary drafters of this original New York Constitution were John Jay, Robert Livingston, and Gouverneur Morris. The new constitution had a bicameral legislature and a strong executive branch.
In New York, slavery was permitted and legal until 1827. The New York Constitution has had several constitutional conventions, with the current New York Constitution having been ratified at the New York state election in 1894 in three parts. While nine Constitutional Conventions have been held in New York State, the state has had only four de novo constitutions: 1777, 1821, 1846, and 1894.
Like the 10th state, Virginia, while New York’s ratification was not required under the new Constitution for there to be a United States, had the vote gone the other way, the United States may have been for naught before they began. The Empire State showed its wealth of wisdom in ratifying the Constitution and becoming the 11th state in a fledgling nation. Had New York insisted on its voluminous amendments to the draft U.S. Constitution or that a Bill of Rights be passed with any ratification, and four votes had gone the other way, we might well have never moved to fifty states. Thankfully, we will never know. But New York was extremely influential in the Bill of Rights being considered, including the powerful 10th Amendment, which provides: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” With the 9th Amendment, the intent was to limit the powers of the federal government.
Republished with gracious permission from Constituting America (April 2019).
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Editor’s note: The featured image is a lithograph of a bird’s-eye view of New York with Battery Park in the foreground and the Brooklyn Bridge on the right (1874) by George Schlegel, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.