Article VII of the Constitution laid out how the document would take effect as the primary law for the United States of America:
“The Ratification of the Conventions of nine States, shall be sufficient for the Establishment of this Constitution between the States so ratifying the Same."
Amendments to the Constitution fall under Article V, which requires an amendment to be ratified by three-fourths of the states to take effect.
The Origins of the Constitution
Many think of the Constitution as the original bedrock of American law. And in many ways, it is. But, it was not the first form of government to exist in the United States. In 1777, the Continental Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation. It established a “league of friendship" between 13 independent sovereign states. The federal government had very little power under the Articles of Confederation, which proved problematic within just a few years of the Revolutionary War.
By 1787, the new nation's economy was on the brink of collapse. Inflation soared as the states fought over territory and trade, and the Confederation Congress lacked the power and resources to intervene. Alexander Hamilton proposed holding a conference to revise the Articles of Confederation. Congress agreed and invited representatives from all 13 states to convene in Philadelphia on May 25, 1787, for the Constitutional Convention.
The delegates (often called the Framers of the Constitution) initially intended to amend the Articles of Confederation, keeping most government power with the states. But by mid-June, they decided it was time to start over.
On September 17, 1787, after spending a long, hot summer working on a plan for a new form of government, the delegates signed the new United States Constitution. But their job wasn't quite done. To keep the federal government from having too much power, the delegates agreed that the Constitution would only take effect if nine of the thirteen states ratified it.
When Was the U.S. Constitution Ratified?
The Constitution officially took effect in 1788, but the road to ratification in all thirteen states took several years.
Delaware was the first state to ratify the Constitution on December 7, 1787. Connecticut, Georgia, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania soon joined as well. However, several states opposed a Constitution lacking a bill of rights. In early 1788, legislatures in these holdout states agreed to ratify the Constitution if Congress promised to immediately propose amendments that would protect freedom of speech, religion, and the press. Following this compromise, Massachusetts, Maryland, and South Carolina joined the ratification states.
On June 21, 1788, New Hampshire became the pivotal ninth state to ratify the Constitution. The new government took over on March 4, 1789. Later that year, Virginia and New York also ratified the Constitution. North Carolina agreed to ratification after the First Congress of the United States adopted the Bill of Rights, written by James Madison.
Rhode Island refused to ratify the Constitution for several years, as it opposed the idea of the federal government controlling the nation's currency and disagreed with the Convention's compromise on slavery. But when the federal government threatened to cut off trade with the state, Rhode Island caved. On May 29, 1790, Rhode Island narrowly voted to ratify, making it the last of the original 13 colonies to adopt the Constitution.
The Constitution of the United States is now the oldest operating constitution in the world.