Delaware became the first state to ratify the Constitution this week (Dec. 7) in 1787, earning it the sobriquet “First in Freedom.” Yet a look at why Delaware was so quick to join the new United States reveals that “First in Security” might be a more accurate motto.
Recall that during the Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787 the greatest argument was not — as is often supposed — between slave states and free states over slavery, but between big states and small states over representation in the Senate and House of Representatives. Big states such as Virginia wanted proportional representation in both branches of Congress — i.e., the larger your state’s population, the more senators and representatives you got. The smaller states, of which Delaware was decidedly one, wanted equal representation in both branches, fearing that they would be dominated by the big states if proportional representation prevailed.
The issue became so heated that the big states threatened to form their own union, thereby freezing out the small states, while the small states threatened to invite a foreign power, or powers, to become their protector — including England. This, needless to say, would have undone the entire aim of the Revolutionary War.
Enter what became known as the “Great Compromise,” in which the convention would split the difference. The House of Representatives would have proportional representation, while the Senate would give each state, regardless of size, two senators. While this appealed greatly to the small states, it was still an anathema to the large ones. To them it was as if, to use a modern analogy, Haiti and America had the same representation, and power, in the United Nations Security Council.
Alas for the big states, they were outnumbered by the small states, which meant that when it was time to vote on the Great Compromise, the small states prevailed. As a result, as we all know, the Constitution established that two senators from every state, regardless of size or population, would sit in the United States Senate. With this safeguard established, small states like Delaware saw great advantage in joining a larger body of states in a union that would protect them geographically, militarily and politically. Thus Delaware quickly and unanimously ratified the Constitution. Soon after, other smaller states like New Jersey and Georgia followed suit.
In hindsight, of course, this compromise has worked well, and relations between small and large states during the past 215 years have been very amicable. On the other hand, if you’re from a large state it might gall you to know that, even today, less than 1 million people live in Delaware. Chickens outnumber people in the state by about 75 to 1.