Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

Foreign Affairs and the Ratification of the U.S. Constitution in Massachusetts

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

Foreign Affairs and the Ratification of the U.S. Constitution in Massachusetts

Article excerpt

Abstract: This article examines the role of foreign policy in the heated debates that took place in Massachusetts newspapers and at its state ratification convention. In Massachusetts, the Constitution was endorsed by only a slight majority: 187-168 or 52.7 percent in favor. With 355 delegates, the convention was the largest in the nation and among the most impassioned. Tensions ran high. Conflicting interests and ideologies deeply divided the delegates. In contrast, the total count from all thirteen state conventions reveah that nationally 67 percent voted in favor of ratification (1,171 of the 1,748 delegates). Indeed, in three states the vote was unanimous: Delaware, New Jersey, and Georgia.

Massachusetts had a unique set of foreign policy interests connected both to the sea and to its forge frontier possession in Maine, which bordered the remaining British colonies in Canada. Federalists connected these focal commercial and security concerns to foreign policy issues in order to argue in favor of the strong national government. In contrast, Antifederalists downplayed the alleged commercial and security dangers posed by foreign nations. Antifederalists argued instead that the powers that would be granted to a national government to conduct foreign policy, particularly the powers to raise an army and make treaties, created even greater potential threats to domestic liberty.

Previous scholarly focus on how these debates phyed out at the national level has obscured the importance of local and state-level debates around ratification. Because the constitution was ratified in thirteen local conventions, the foreign policy issues were as much local as national. Dr. Robert W. Smith has written extensively about these debates. His htest book, Amid a Warring World: American Foreign Relations, 1775-1815, is forthcoming from Potomac Press.

Since its founding, Massachusetts has played a significant role in the wider world. From Puritanism to abolitionism and beyond, the state has stood at the center of the political movements that shaped the broader Atlantic. The Commonwealth's companies, whether involved in fishing, shipping, manufacturing, or biotechnology, have long shaped the global economy. The contest over the ratification of the United States Constitution was a critical moment in which citizens debated Massachusetts' place in the wider world. Supporters of ratification attempted to connect local commercial and security interests to national foreign policy concerns.

Historian Frederick Marks observed that foreign policy was the Federalists' best issue, and they made it the centerpiece of their campaign in favor of ratifying the Constitution. The Antifederalists, on the other hand, downplayed foreign dangers, relying instead on the argument that the powers granted to the national government to conduct foreign policy, particularly the powers to raise an army and make treaties, threatened domestic liberty. Historians readily acknowledge the role of foreign policy in the national debates over the Constitution.1 However, a focus on the national level obscures the importance of local debates.

There was no national vote on the Constitution. It was ratified in thirteen separate state conventions. In a sense, each state had its own foreign policy; the absence of a strong central government led each state to protect its own interests and treat others states as essentially foreign powers. The larger states naturally tended to have a more defined set of external interests. Thus, the foreign policy issues raised in the heated ratification debates were as much local as national ones, and proponents always had to consider local interests. In each state, the foreign policy debate over the Constitution proceeded on two tracks: the broader national issues and the specific local interests.

These debates in Massachusetts afford an opportunity to examine foreign affairs on both tracks. Massachusetts Federalists, in public and private, echoed the sentiments of their fellows throughout the nation; in their view, the weakness of the Articles of Confederation led to the loss of national reputation, the loss of credit, the loss of trade, and imminent danger from Great Britain and Spain. …

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