The Massachusetts Compromise

When the Constitution was signed in September of 1787 and sent to the Congress that then existed under the Articles of Confederation, Congress was instructed to send that Constitution to the states to be ratified … or not.  The message to the states was clear: Accept the Constitution or reject it, but don’t try to change it.

Several states, mostly small states, were quick to accept, in part because joining a larger union offered small states security, but also because, under the “Great Compromise” that occurred during the Constitutional Convention, every state, regardless of size and population, had equal representation in the Senate, which favored small states.  But the larger states had grave doubts, and even though Pennsylvania, a large state, quickly ratified, its pro-ratification Federalists essentially rammed the Constitution down their opponents’ throats, causing unrest and later violent dissent.

And then Massachusetts, another large and important state, took up the ratification question.  Would its citizens accept or reject the Constitution?

Naturally, Massachusetts’ Federalists wanted to accept and the Anti-Federalists to reject, but a separate faction in Massachusetts wanted to pursue a middle path.  This faction saw many glaring “deficiencies” in the proposed Constitution, including some — such as giving the new government the power to tax the people directly — that they considered dangerous. But they also knew that this Constitution fixed many of the serious problems that existed in the weak, powerless Congress under the Articles.

So they contemplated two courses of action — either insist that amendments that fixed the Constitution’s “deficiencies” be added to the Constitution as a condition of Massachusetts’ ratification, or ratify the Constitution unconditionally but suggest that the new Congress created by this Constitution quickly consider Massachusetts’ list of proposed amendments once that Congress was functioning.

Those who wanted “conditional ratification,” meaning only ratify if their amendments were previously accepted, believed that deciding to ratify first and ask for amendments later was akin to surrendering in war and then negotiating the armistice terms. In contrast, the “unconditional” camp believed that if Massachusetts demanded prior amendments — amendments neither seen by, nor agreed to, by the states that had previously ratified the Constitution — it would threaten to derail ratification and any chance for a stronger union.

And so the debate raged until this week (Feb. 6) in 1788 when, by the slightest of margins — 187 for and 168 against — Massachusetts voted to ratify the Constitution unconditionally but offer amendments for the first Congress to consider.  It was called “The Massachusetts Compromise,” and all but one state subsequently adopted its model.  Of all the compromises fashioned by our Founding Fathers, this little-known one may have been the compromise that actually saved the union and created our nation.