Commentary: Delaware delegation aligned for a constitutional first

By Dr. Larry Koch

Dec. 7 is Delaware Day. A teacher I know in our state once asked her class, “Why does Delaware call itself the ‘First State’?” No one in her class knew the answer. Even if they had known that we were the first state to ratify the Constitution on Dec. 7, 1787, they probably would not know why that was particularly significant for the state and the nation.

It may sound almost paradoxical, but in many ways, our nation’s Constitution was born out of an almost “unconstitutional” procedure. A committee was established to suggest potential changes in the Articles of Confederation, a document that all 13 states agreed should govern our country. That was the charge, but that is not what the delegates voted to do. Instead, behind closed doors, they argued that the Articles were totally inadequate for the nation’s needs and proposed an entirely new format of governance: the U.S. Constitution.

Even today, many people don’t appreciate the uniqueness of the Constitution, our foundation document. Checks and balances, a format that permitted amendments and updating that balanced local control with national authority, all came out of argument and compromise. The fear among many was that it was unworkable and that the executive would not easily be constrained, and it would result in a monarchy, in fact, not in name.

Today, virtually all sides in the political dialogue voice their fidelity to this document, but back then, the original proposal split the country and the revolutionary generation. George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and others supported the Constitution, while other patriot stalwarts, like Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams, adamantly opposed it and felt in the end it would eviscerate any semblance to local control.

The question of its adoption was ultimately left up to the states, and motives of support and opposition were aired in a unique way, especially for that time: inter- and intrastate national discussion. For example, under the Articles, power tilted decidedly toward the states. Local control was a battle cry during the Revolution and was perhaps the leading fear of the opposition. While virtually everyone knew the Articles needed revision, its replacement was untried and experimental. It was understandable that all the states were split on the issue. All except one.

Delaware was not the first state to call for a vote on ratifying the new Constitution — but it was the first to pass it. All 30 delegates, representing the three counties, voted unanimously for the new form of constitutional government.

How did that come about? In Delaware, the concept of a new Constitution united both those who championed local control and their national-minded opponents. John Dickinson and others might have been states’ rights enthusiasts but feared that only a strong national government could prevent Delaware’s independence being subverted by its large, more prosperous neighbor states. Nationalist enthusiasts, such as George Read — who, if he had his druthers, would have abolished all states in favor of a strong central government — also supported the Constitution, believing a federal government would more likely protect Delaware’s long coasts.

The fact that the vote was early and unanimous and was supported by the well-respected statesman John Dickinson, who was credited with writing the Articles but preferred the Constitution, undoubtably was a telling blow in favor of the new form of government. There were many more votes across the nation, and the cause had its ups and downs, but Delaware provided the first blow and the momentum.

What would have happened if the Constitution failed? The weak Articles, providing for no national outlook, probably could not have kept the country together. Issues of accepting new states, providing leadership in conflict or preventing prosperous, heavily populated states from absorbing smaller neighbors would have been more challenging. We might have ended up being a divided, squabbling region, beset with constant wars and competition.

Delaware’s revolutionary heroes, such as Caesar Rodney, John Dickinson and George Read, didn’t always see eye to eye, but they were all friends, whether they agreed with each other all the time or not. Delaware was and, hopefully, will remain a state where sometimes competing interests can, in the end, work together for the good of all. This was a gift we gave right from the beginning, to ourselves and, ultimately, to the nation we helped to create Dec. 7.

Dr. Larry Koch is a retired educator who lives in Magnolia.