It was late 1787. The Revolutionary War had ended four years earlier, and the Declaration of Independence was more than a decade old. But the fledgling country’s federal laws were relatively toothless, and the states still bickered among themselves.
On Dec. 7, 1787, a delegation of men filed into the Golden Fleece Tavern in Dover to decide that Delaware would be the first state to approve the new United States Constitution.
Now, 231 years later, the state celebrates Delaware Day as the day the tiny state officially started the new union.
“One of the great things about this country is the constitution on which our democracy is built … It’s the most enduring constitution in the world, the longest-lasting constitution, most copied constitution in the history of the world,” U.S. Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) told Coast Guard members this week at the Indian River Inlet station. “The real secret to our success and durability is the constitution.”
Although “the constitution is really just words on paper,” Carper said it’s made true by the service of people. “For that we are grateful.”
Of course, the 13 colonies had famously declared independence from Great Britain in 1776. By 1781, the Articles of Confederation were adopted as the nation’s first constitution, “but the Articles gave so much political power to the individual states that the national government was rendered unimportant,” according to the Delaware Department of State.
The Confederation Congress didn’t have the enforcement powers for its laws or funding requests. It couldn’t regulate commerce or print money. Meanwhile, “the states’ disputes over territory, war pensions, taxation and trade threatened to tear the young country apart,” according to the U.S. Archives.
Finally, in 1787, a Constitutional Convention was called in Philadelphia. Intending to fix the Articles, the delegates instead decided to rewrite the rules that summer. The Continental Congress adopted the U.S. Constitution on Sept. 17, 1787, but it needed to be ratified by nine of the 13 states, through unique delegations from each state (and not the state legislatures that might wish to retain their power).
Delaware’s three counties elected 10 delegates apiece in November, and the 30 men met in December to decide Delaware’s opinion on the matter. After a week at Battell’s Tavern in Dover (historically known as the Golden Fleece Tavern), the delegates unanimously voted on Dec. 7, 1787, to ratify the United States Constitution. (As a fine bookend to the Constitutional story, Delaware also approved the Bill of Rights at the tavern in January of 1790, since the state house was still under construction.)
Although the U.S. Archives calls ratification “a nail-biter,” the necessary nine states had agreed within six months.
“I think it turned out pretty well,” Carper joked.
He also quoted the Preamble to the Constitution: “‘We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union…’ … We weren’t perfect then. We aren’t perfect now. The idea is to aim high.”
The actual ratification document is just a few sentences on paper, signed by the 30 men: “We, the deputies of the people of the Delaware state, in Convention met, … fully, freely, and entirely approve of, assent to, ratify, and confirm, the said Constitution.”
Delaware’s five signers to the Constitution were Richard Bassett, Gunning Bedford Jr., Jacob Broom, John Dickinson and George Read.
Delaware Day is not a major holiday, nor was it intended to be. State and U.S. flags will be flown. Civic groups will celebrate the history. The Delaware Public Archives will honor winners of its annual fourth-grade poster contest, emphasizing both creativity and historical accuracy.
In 1933, more than 6,000 men, women and children signed petitions requesting that the Delaware General Assembly establish a special day commemorating Delaware’s ratification of the federal Constitution. The Georgetown Rotary Club’s E. Paul Burkholder led the charge, circulating petitions throughout the state, stating, “whereas Delawareans are rightfully proud of the fact that their State is known as the first State of the Union.”
The General Assembly and Gov. C. Douglass Buck agreed. “Thus, Delaware — the ‘State That Started a Nation’ — will honor its forefathers on December 7 of every year for their wise decision,” according to the Delaware Department of State.
By Laura Walter