Ratification Debates: A New York Case Study

Historical Background

The Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 was full of conflict and compromise. Yet as the convention drew to a close, some of the biggest debates were just beginning. According to the Constitution, nine of the thirteen states needed to ratify the document before it could go into effect (although most acknowledged that without the support of all the states, the government would struggle with legitimacy). It would take almost three years for all thirteen states to ratify the Constitution. Some states ratified quickly, with little debate. But some of the most powerful states including Massachusetts, Virginia, and New York, became battlegrounds between those who supported ratification of the Constitution, the Federalists, and those who opposed it, the Anti-Federalists. New York was the last of those states to ratify the Constitution with a close vote of 30 in favor and 27 against. New York delegates joined in the call for a Bill of Rights to be added to the Constitution as a condition for ratification.

This lesson is designed to impress upon students that the Constitution, a document so revered today, was hotly debated at its inception. The lesson also asks students to consider what may have shaped the differing viewpoints on the Constitution. This particular case study is set in New York, but the activity could be set in any of the states that had a strong debate over ratification.


  1. Students will analyze primary documents in order to identify differing views on the ratification of the Constitution.
  2. Students will apply their understanding of these viewpoints as they develop profiles for fictional characters.
  3. Students will debate ratification from various positions in a town hall forum.
  4. Students will be able to explain why New Yorkers (and Americans in general) disagreed on ratification of the Constitution.



Activity 1: Motivation

  1. In groups, pairs or individually, have students examine a chart or map listing each of the states, when they ratified the Constitution, and how many votes were cast for and against ratification. Ask students to list:
    1. General Observations
    2. Observations about your state’s Ratification Vote
    3. Questions raised by the information
  2. Debrief: As a class, chart students’ observations and questions. Give students a couple of minutes to brainstorm theories on why New York was one of the last states to ratify the Constitution and why the vote was so close. Add theories to the chart.

Activity 2: Understanding the Viewpoints

  1. Mini-Lecture or reading on the ratification process.

    1. Review of Constitutionial Convention

    2. Rules for Ratification

    3. Groups that form – Federalists & Anti-Federalists

    4. Methods of arguing positions – Federalist Papers and other anonymous writings published in newspapers, debates at ratification conferences, etc.

    Carol Berkin’s A Brilliant Solution has a great overview of the ratification process with details on each states ratification battle.

  2. Give students (in pairs or groups) a packet of primary documents on ratification of the Constitution representing a variety of viewpoints. For each document have students:

    1. Identify the source – Who is the author? What do you know about the author?

    2. Read each document excerpt carefully, looking up unfamiliar vocabulary.

    3. Identify the viewpoint – What is the author’s position on the Constitution (Federalist/ Anti-Federalist)? What are the author’s main arguments?

    4. Brainstorm: What other Americans would be most likely to agree with this author’s position?

    Note: Choose a range of document excerpts based on time available and reading level of students. Teachers may want to give different groups different sets of documents. For more of a challenge, the link below each document will take the students to the full text.

  3. Debrief: As a class, chart the documents as Federalist or Anti-Federalist. Then have students discuss the arguments used in the documents on each side with the rest of the class.

Activity 3: Town Hall Meeting on Ratification

Scenario: New York State’s ratifying convention is set to take place next month (summer of 1788). A local delegate is holding a town hall meeting to hear the views of his constituency before he votes.

Each group of students will take on an identity and prepare the character’s position on the ratification of the Constitution. At the town hall meeting, each group will work together and argue his/her position in an effort to persuade the delegate.

  1. Assign each group one of the following identities. For homework, research the lives of real Americans with the same identity during the 1780s, focusing on their role in society, their political and economic power, what their business priorities may be and what struggles they may be facing.

    • Owner of a large shipping company

    • Large land owner

    • Farmer with a small farm

    • Shopkeeper

    • Sailor working on ships out of New York Harbor

    • Enslaved African day laborer in New York City

  2. In groups, have students formulate their character’s position on the Constitution.

    1. Share research and write up a brief profile for your character.

    2. Review your notes on arguments for and against the ratification of the Constitution.

    3. As a group, decide what position you think your character would take. List at least two reasons for your decision.

    4. Extension Option: In order for students to get a sense of other perspectives that will be presented during the town hall meeting, have all the students, or a representative from each group, mingle in character for 5 to 10 minutes discussing their views on the Constitution. Then have students return to groups and share their perspectives.

  3. Prepare for the Town Hall Meeting: Each group’s goal is to convince the delegate (the teacher or an outside guest) to vote for or against ratification.

    1. As a group, write down at least three arguments for or against ratification of the Constitution. Be sure to base your responses both on the primary documents AND the logical perspective of your character.

    2. Brainstorm opposing arguments and discuss how your group will respond.

    3. Select group members to deliver the opening and closing statements and to present the group’s arguments.

  4. Town Hall Meeting

    1. Arrange the room so groups can see one another. Give each group a placard with their character’s identity.

    2. Meeting protocol:

      • Opening Statements: Each group has 2 minutes to introduce themselves and their position on ratification of the Constitution.

      • Presentation of Arguments: The Delegate opens the floor for arguments. Groups should take turns raising their arguments for ratification. After 5 minutes, the delegate can open the floor for those opposed to ratification.

      • Open Debate: Give students the last 5 to 10 minutes to debate one another over the issue of ratification. The delegate may call up to two people arguing the same position before he/she needs to call on someone arguing the opposing position.

      • Closing statements: Each group has 1 minute to reiterate their position and try to sway the delegate one last time.

    3. Give students 5 minutes to respond individually in writing to the following: If you were the delegate, after hearing the arguments of your constituents, which way would you vote at the ratification convention? Note: Students no longer need to argue the position they argued during the Town Hall Meeting.

    4. Have the class vote. If time, ask several students to explain their votes.

  5. Debrief Discussion: Why do you think ratification of the Constitution was so controversial in New York? Revisit and evaluate theories from the first activity.

Extension Activity: Essay

To better assess students’ understanding of the different arguments about ratification of the Constitution, have students write a 5-paragraph essay on one of the following topics:

  1. Recommend a position on ratification (again, not necessarily based on the position they argued in class).
  2. Why do you think ratification of the Constitution was so controversial in New York?