“Rogue Island”: The last state to ratify the Constitution

Today’s post comes from Samantha Payne, intern in the Center for Legislative Archives in Washington, DC. 

In 1781, Rhode Island began acquiring nicknames.

American newspapers called it “the perverse sister.” “An evil genius.” The “Quintessence of Villainy.” The name “Rogue Island” stuck all the way to 1787, when the Constitutional Convention began and the small state refused to send delegates. Although this press war started because Rhode Island vetoed an act passed by Congress under the Articles of Confederation, it lasted for nearly 10 years.

George Washington’s letter notifying Congress that Rhode Island had ratified the Constitution, June 1, 1790. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

George Washington’s letter notifying Congress that Rhode Island had ratified the Constitution, June 1, 1790. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

On May 29, 1790, “the rogue’s” persistent efforts to defy the national government finally failed, and it became the last state to ratify the Constitution, more than a year after it went into effect.

Ironically, Rhode Island played a key role in advancing the Constitution it strongly opposed. In 1786, an electoral revolution took place in Rhode Island that swept the populist Country Party into power. Infuriated by the prospect of a national tax, this faction opposed the expansion of the national government and favored an inflationary monetary policy.

In a single month, the legislature printed 100,000 pounds worth of paper currency. The resulting rampant inflation made Rhode Island—for many Americans—a dark symbol of what ailed the Confederation. Opponents of state-issued paper currency called for a new Constitution that would ban it. At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, no state was more reviled than Rhode Island—the only no-show.

Between September of 1787 and January of 1790, Rhode Island’s legislature rejected 11 attempts to ratify the Constitution.

The First Congress met for the first time in March of 1789, and that September the Governor of Rhode Island wrote to Congress, explaining why the people of his state still had “not separated themselves from the principles” of the old Confederation. He explained that they wanted “further checks and securities” limiting federal power, before “they could adopt it.”

An Act to Restrict Trade with Rhode Island, May, 18 1790 (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

An Act to Restrict Trade with Rhode Island, May 18, 1790. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

By 1790, Congress was losing patience. The Governor had asked that the United States not treat Rhode Island as a foreign nation. Spurred on by petitions from Rhode Island merchants who became “zealous advocates” for the new Constitution, and feared the consequences of import taxes on their businesses, Congress granted an exemption until January.

In January, Rhode Island lobbyists persuaded Congress to postpone the deadline again, this time so the state could hold a ratifying convention in March.

When this convention adjourned without a vote, Congress took action. On May 18, 1790, the Senate passed a bill to prohibit commercial intercourse with Rhode Island.

In the House, Rhode Island’s lone defender was John Page of Virginia, who compared the bill to the Boston Port Act, an embargo enforced by the British prior to the American Revolution.

Threatened and divided, Rhode Island finally ratified the Constitution on May 29, 1790, by a vote of 34 to 32.

Still hoping to limit federal power, the state attached a list of 18 human rights and 21 amendments with its ratification, requesting a ban on poll taxes, the draft, the importation of slaves, and curiously, for Congress not to “interfere with any one of the States in the redemption of paper money.”

One newspaper reported that when Rhode Island joined “the Great American Family,” bells rang across the town of Newport.

Three months later, in August of 1790, “Rogue Island’s” only representative in Congress arrived—fashionably late.

The Center for Legislative Archives is marking the 225th anniversary of the First Congress by sharing documents on Tumblr and Twitter; use #Congress225 to see all the postings.

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