When a Representative or Senator goes to Washington and doesn’t do what he or she was elected to do, the responses from the constituents are generally predictable. Some will call and gently remind the official of the promises made before the election. Others will call and be somewhat less gentle. A few traditionalists will write a letter, while more techno-savvy voters will go to the representative’s website and send an email. But even more than that, a good many of that Congressperson’s supporters will begin reassessing their votes, and many will start looking for alternatives.
That’s just the way things work. We want our elected officials to hold true to their word.
William Symmes wasn’t elected to go to Washington, because Washington, D.C. didn’t yet exist. But he had been sent to Boston as one of 355 delegates that gathered to debate ratification of the U.S. Constitution in Massachusetts. Hailing from Andover, this up-and-coming lawyer didn’t have a laundry list of agenda items or a lot of goals to accomplish. He had been given just one task by his constituents: oppose ratification of the Constitution.
And that he had done, along with a majority of the delegates present. The month of January was filled with back-and-forth debate. But you already know that…we talked about it earlier this week. And you also know that, as January ended, the opposition to ratification had begun to weaken in the face of a well-organized, and well-spoken, group of pro-ratification delegates.
A real difference maker was the Conciliatory Proposition, a list of amendments that would be made to Congress. These addressed many of the concerns that the Antifederalists had, thereby undercutting many of their arguments. But even after Governor Hancock officially presented the document to the assembly, there was still deadlock and debate.
That deadlock lasted until February 5, 1788. It was then that William Symmes “defected” from his constituents. He had become convinced that ratification was the right solution, and stood up to say that his conscience was clear. He hoped his constituents would agree with him. Other Antifederalists followed. They still had reservations, but believed they were making the right long-term decision. The debate continued throughout the day, but it now looked as though ratification was inevitable, and the vote of 187-168 confirmed it.
Once the matter was decided, the delegates came together to work for unity. Members of the opposition vowed to work to get citizens to live in peace under the new Constitution. It’s something I wish we saw more of today…once a decision is make, everyone works together to make things work. No whispers, no sour grapes, no back-biting. Wouldn’t that be refreshing?
And William Symmes? Well, things didn’t go so well for him. His neighbors reacted so strongly to his decision (to the brink of violence) that the lawyer was forced to leave Andover. He would not return. But for Massachusetts, the matter of the Constitution had been settled. She would be admitted to the Union the next day as the new nation’s 6th State.