Tomorrow, December 7th, Delaware will commemorate the 226th anniversary of Delaware becoming the First State-the day Delaware was first in the new nation to ratify the US Constitution.
For this year’s blog post we ask: What was political life in Delaware back then? Delaware’s first constitution was created in 1776, but like the Articles of Confederation along with it, many Delawareans thought the new state’s constitution was too heavily weighted towards the legislative branch (the articles the legislative branch was composed of elected representatives from the states).
The General Assembly was the only governing body during the 1780s. They worked on laws ranging from improving the economy and transportation, adopting laws to enable bridges to be built and milldams to be erected along the state;s waterways, even to preventing pigs from wandering the streets of Delaware’s new towns. Some other laws include a 1785 law passed to eliminate local fairs where alcohol was being served. The next year they passed a law to eliminate “idleness” which meant no racing, cock fighting (roosters, just so it’s clear), or shooting matches. All of these new laws were due to the new found religious feeling among Delaware’s various Protestant denominations.
Despite Delaware’s being a border state during the Civil War, in the 1780s there was a movement towards abolition. In 1787 the General Assembly reversed a 179 law which treated the theft of Black people and horses as equal, and passed a law to prevent Black people, both slave and free, from being sold out of state, and then they banned the fitting of slave ships in Delaware.
In 1786 Delaware was asked to send a delegation to a governmetn convention in Annapolis. Since many states did not send delegates, those who attended decided to postpone the convention to the following year, and hold it in Philadelphia instead. This was the Constitutional Convention.
Delaware’s delegates: George Read, John Dickinson, Richard Bassett, Jacob Broom, and Gunning Bedford Jr.
Delaware was one of the states who pushed for equal representation in the new US government, which is why every state gets two senators regardless of size. The House was apportioned by population, which the larger states wanted. Believing this was fair, Delaware’s delegation sent the new US Constitution to Delaware’s General Assembly, presented to the body on October 24. But, there was a problem.
There was a contested election in Sussex County over an election to the General Assembly. Armed Tories were harrassing voters, physically and non physically. The House decided to remove this obstacle to ratifying the state’s Constitution, and on November 7, 1787, they adopted a resolution to hold an election for delegates to attend a state-wide convention in Dover to consider ratifying the Federal Constitution. Three and a half weeks later delegates met at the Golden Fleece Tavern owned by Elizabeth Battell in Dover to discuss (with lots of alcohol and food) whether to adopt the new Constitution.
During this time the General Assembly, not all of whose members were invited to the Golden Fleece Tavern held their official business in a tavern owned by a rival inkeeper to Ms. Battell, named John Freeman.
Five days later the delegates came out and announced that indeed, Delaware would ratify the new Constitution. This made Delaware the first state to do so.
We can glean from Delaware’s politics in the 1780s that being a small state made getting people to conventions more easy, which probably helped Delaware become the First State. A decision to not hold up the deliberation of the US Constitution because of a disputed election in Sussex County in hindsight appears to have worked. Given how strong Tory sentiment was in Sussex County, they may not have been able to push through otherwise.
Tomorrow, remember Delaware Day, and if you are in Dover you can participate in festivities!