Celia Cohen on Delaware Day: Grapevine

Delaware Day: The state became the first to ratify the Constitution 225 years ago. Should we celebrate?

Remember Delaware Day? When people elsewhere are remembering Pearl Harbor, people here are remembering Dec. 7 as the day in 1787 when the First State became the First State.
Pearl Harbor started the nation into World War II, but Delaware Day started the nation.

Remembrance-wise, Delaware is used to being overshadowed. It is like that famous tax cut co-authored by Bill Roth, the Republican senator from Delaware, and Jack Kemp, the Republican congressman from New York. Everywhere but Delaware, it is called “Kemp-Roth,” but here it is called “Roth-Kemp.”

Kemp was awarded the top billing, even though he was the congressman and Roth was the senator. This is what happens when the one guy is known for being a star quarterback and the other guy is known for campaigning with a Saint Bernard.

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Not to mention Kemp came from a big state and had really great hair, and Roth came from a small state and had, well, the less said about the toupee, the better.

This is a big year for Delaware Day. It is 225 years since the state became the first to ratify the Constitution.

In a country as competitive as this one, big is good, but first is better. It meant bragging rights for all time. It also gave Delaware something else to lord over Rhode Island, the only state that is smaller.

Poor Rhode Island. It did not come out of the early days of the Republic with much of a reputation. As a matter of fact, as Professor Pauline Maier wrote in “Ratification,” her book about the adoption of the Constitution, in the rest of the original 13 states Rhode Island was known as “Rogue Island.”

Not only did “Rogue Island” refuse to send any delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, it held out on joining the country.

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Rhode Island was so distrustful of federal power that the government was up and running by the time it came around in 1790. Even by then, it took a congressional threat to cut off trade before Rhode Island agreed to ratify.

Delaware could not wait to ratify. It knew a great deal when it saw one.

The littlest states won the biggest concession possible when the Constitutional Convention voted in favor of the “Great Compromise,” giving equal representation to the states in the Senate.

Equal to New York. Equal to Pennsylvania. Equal to Virginia. Still equal, after all these years, to Texas and California.

Delaware’s ratification was quick and unanimous when the three counties sent delegates to Mrs. Battell’s Tavern on The Green in Dover to consider the new Constitution.

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“The overwhelming issue was parity in the Senate,” says Carol Hoffecker, the Delaware historian. “Having wrested this agreement, Delaware would not want to have lost the opportunity to secure as much power in the federal government as it could hope to get. Hence the speed of ratification.”

One state down, eight to go. Nine united states constituted the magic number to form the United States and get on with the election of a president and a Congress.

Ratification was no sure thing then. Funny, ratification would be no sure thing today.

The old objections have returned. They are voiced most clearly by the Tea Party.

So wait. It means that, “We the People,” as the Tea Partiers like to call themselves, would have been the ones not so sure that “We the People” ought to ordain and establish the Constitution?

“That’s correct. It has made for a fascinating constitutional conversation, as we re-litigate week after week after week, 1787,” says Chris Coons, the Democratic senator and double graduate of Yale law school and Yale divinity school. “I thought we tried the Articles of Confederation. There are a couple of senators who serve with me who are not so sure about this federal government thing.”

Coons had an early inkling he might be falling through the constitutional looking glass. It came to him while he was debating Christine O’Donnell, the Tea Party Republican, at Widener law school during the Senate campaign in 2010, and she challenged, “Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?”

(Pssst. Bill of Rights. First Amendment. Pass it on.)

The Tea Party naturally evokes the Boston Tea Party, although the Colonial one protested that taxation without representation was tyranny, and the modern one does not seem to care much for taxation even with representation, not with a name that is an acronym for “Taxed Enough Already?”

It sounds like the ratification debate all over again. Giving the Congress the power to tax was one of the main sticking points, as Professor Maier noted, even though without it the country was finding itself regarded as an international laughingstock and deadbeat, constrained as it was under the Articles of Confederation to borrow money or pay its debts.

Who would have thought the argument would come full circle with the standoff in the summer of 2011 about raising the debt limit?

“They literally believed the best path forward for the United States was to have our sovereign debt downgraded, so the federal government could borrow no more,” says Coons. “No more federal highways, no more federal student loans, no more federal programs to hire the local police officers …  1786.”

Even the wisdom of forming “a more perfect Union” in perpetuity has had its critics. Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, once fired up a Tea Party rally by declaring his state had the right to secede because it was once an independent republic. Not that it would. But it could.

Never mind the Civil War was supposed to have settled that one.

Not that revisiting these constitutional debates is all bad. Thomas Jefferson went so far as to write, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

Armed rebellion might be a little much, but to refresh the tree of liberty with a vigorous constitutional debate? That sounds about right.

So have at it. This is as good a way as any to remember Delaware Day.   

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