Debating the merits of the Constitution had all but ended on June 24 when George Wythe moved that Virginia ratify the Constitution and forward proposed amendments to the First Federal Congress for its consideration. The convention was now faced with deciding between Wythe’s motion or a substitute motion offered by Patrick Henry to require approval of amendments before ratification. In fact, Henry was prepared “to refer a declaration of rights, with certain amendments to the most exceptional part of the Constitution, to other States in the confederacy for their consideration, previous to its ratification.”
The clerk then read Henry’s resolution, including both the declaration and amendments. Henry rose and took the floor, once again renouncing what he believed to be the dangers inherent in the Constitution and walking the delegates through his proposed amendments. After lengthy discourses supporting Henry by William Grayson and John Dawson, James Madison spoke in opposition. Did Henry really believe that other States which had already ratified the Constitution would, “upon the demand of a single State, agree that they had acted wrong” and “tread back the steps which they have taken?” Madison asked? Incredulous at the mere thought, he proceeded to address the disastrous consequences of calling for States to reconsider their votes for ratification and the efficacy of Wythe’s motion to refer proposed amendments to the First Federal Congress. In fact, Madison had been wooing delegates whose opposition to ratification was weak and whose opinions might be changed by Madison’s pledge to support amendments in the new Congress.
On Wednesday morning, June 25, George Nicolas was the first to speak, announcing that “the friends of the Constitution wish to take up no more time, the matter now being fully discussed.” He moved that the clerk read Wythe’s motion “in order that the question might be put upon it.” That being done, John Tyler moved that Henry’s declaration and amendments also be read for the same purpose.
Unlike most of the floor debates which had heretofore been dominated by Henry and Madison and a small number of advocates on each side, including Edmund Randolph and William Grayson, on this day speeches tended to be short and offered by delegates who had frequently or never spoken before in convention. Nevertheless, Henry and Randolph were determined to have the last word.
Recognizing imminent defeat, Henry was conciliatory. “If I shall be in the minority,” he said, I shall have those painful sensations which arise from a conviction of being overpowered in a good cause. Yet I will be a peaceable citizen.” He vowed to continue to oppose the Constitution but “to remove the defects of that system in a constitutional way.” He would not “go to violence” but “patiently wait in expectation of seeing that government changed.”
For his part, Randolph asked for “one parting word,” in which he reminded his colleagues that he had refused to sign the Constitution when he represented Virginia at the Constitutional Convention. “I still have objections to the Constitution,” he declared, “and wished for a free inquiry into its merits.” But “the accession of eight States reduced our deliberations to the single question of Union or no Union.”
Henry’s motion, in the form of a substitute, was the first to be voted on. It failed by 80 votes in favor and 88 in the negative. Henry and Theodorick Bland requested the “ayes” and “noes” be recorded. It was over. The Constitutionalists had won. The vote on Wythe’s motion to ratify was then formally approved by 89 – 79. George Mason, seconded by Henry, asked that the “ayes” and “noes” be recorded. Of the fourteen Kentuckians, only three voted “no.”
The next day the convention approved “the form of ratification” to be transmitted to the Confederation Congress. On Friday it approved a bill of rights similar to Virginia’s 1776 Declaration of Rights as well as twenty proposed amendments to be considered by the First Congress. Virginia’s decision to recommend amendments gave added impetus to efforts already underway to amend the Constitution, particularly those insisting on a bill of rights. The flurry of letters between anti-Constitutionalists in New York, New Hampshire, and Virginia failed to secure the interstate cooperation proposed by New York’s John Lamb and endorsed by Governor George Clinton and Robert Yates, President of the New York ratifying convention.
That evening Madison wrote to George Washington, enclosing a copy of the ratification document (including the “yeas” and “nays”) and the recommended amendments. Noting that prior to the final vote Henry had said “he should submit as a quiet citizen” but “seize the first moment that offered for shaking off the yoke in a Constitutional way,” Madison suspected that Henry would attempt to undo the work by engaging two-thirds of the State legislatures or by electing a Congress “that will commit suicide on their own authority.”
Although Washington had remained aloof from debates in the state ratifying conventions, including the convention in his own State of Virginia, he had been kept informed by Federalists throughout the United States. While absent physically, his reputation and character endorsed him as the presumptive leader of the new nation once it was established. This fact was never lost on partisans on both sides of the ratification debate. Anti-Constitutionalist James Monroe wrote to Thomas Jefferson, confessing his “boundless confidence“ in Washington. “Be assured” he wrote, “his influence carried this government.”
William Grayson agreed. “I think that, were it not for one great character in America,” he declared, “so many men would not be for this government. We have one ray of hope. We do not fear while he lives; but we can only expect his fame to be immortal. We wish to know who, besides him, can concentrate the confidence and affections of all America.”