Access Type

Open Access Dissertation

Date of Award

January 2012

Degree Type


Degree Name




First Advisor

Matthew Seeger



This dissertation examines the ratification debates for the federal constitution in 1787-88. The goal of this project has been to examine the use of the rhetorical strategies of prudence and decorum as they are employed within the debates in Massachusetts, Virginia and New York.

In Massachusetts, classical notions of representation are challenged by the use of binding instructions given to delegates sent to the ratification debates. In addition, Massachusetts federalists had to overcome objections to the proposed constitution based on the system of representation, as well as the absence of a Bill of Rights. Federalists Challenged these views, and established a method of ratification that garnered the goodwill of the Massachusetts electorate, as well as creating a method for ratification in many other states that desired more clearly enumerated rights.

In Virginia, Federalist were faced with prospect of debating one of the most popular and respected revolutionaries in the newly independent country, Patrick Henry. While the federalists had the advantage of a constitutional architect, James Madison, to speak for them, as a rhetor, Madison was powerfully overmatched by Henry's rhetorical acumen. In order to overcome this disadvantage, Federalists positioned themselves in the position of the rational problem solvers, leaving Henry's fiery protests largely unanswered, while focusing on the immediate problems fo the struggling nation. In this way, while Henry was engaging, and memorable, Madison was by far the more decorous of the disputants.

Finally, in New York, the federalist found themselves outnumbered and, in many ways, powerfully outmatched by the overwhelming opposition of the upstate Antifederalists. To their advantage, federalists had the support of New York City, the most important New York constituency, and the overall ratification clock. In this debate, the federalist managed the necessity of preventing an adjournment, which might have doomed the entire project, while at the same time moving the discussion forward without creating undue enmity from the upstate opposition.

Throughout the debates federalists patiently explained, defined and redefined the contested terms of the constitution, thus creating through discourse, and energeting and effective form of government.