US Constitution

Rhode Island’s role in the drafting and ratification of the US Constitution was unlike other states. Rhode Island was the only state not to send delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Then, when asked to convene a state convention to ratify the Constitution, Rhode Island instead sent the ratification question to individual towns asking them to vote. Eventually, due to secession threats from Providence, Newport, and Bristol, and fearing reprisals from the other 12 ratifying states, Rhode Island held a convention and ratified the Constitution in 1790.

There were several reasons for Rhode Island’s resistance including its concern that the Constitution gave too much power to the central government at the expense of the states. The Constitution would also have made the state’s practice of printing paper money illegal. The issue best remembered today, however, is that in its original form, the Constitution did not explicitly protect religious freedom, a core Rhode Island principle introduced by Roger Williams and protected in its Royal Charter.

You can learn more about Rhode Island’s ratification of the Constitution from our interactive timeline.

William Ellery
William Ellery

Primary Source Documents

Click on the thumbnails below to zoom in and explore these documents.

  • Votes of Rhode Island cities and towns on passage of the US Constitution, 1788
    Votes of Rhode Island cities and towns on passage of the US Constitution, 1788

    This is a cumulative tally of the votes in favor and against ratification of the Constitution. Some Rhode Islanders boycotted the vote which explains the very low numbers in Newport and Providence.

    Read a transcript.

  • Declaration of Rights, 1790. Page 1
    Declaration of Rights, 1790

    This Declaration of Rights was drafted by delegates to the convention held to ratify the US Constitution.

    Read a transcript.

  • Published Declaration of Rights and proposed amendments, 1790
    Published Declaration of Rights and proposed amendments, 1790

    This is the published version of Rhode Island’s Declaration of Rights – here called Bill of Rights - and proposed amendments to the US Constitution.

    Read a transcript.

Discussion Topics and Classroom Activities

4th grade and up
  • Imagine if every state had its own form of currency. How would that affect your life?

6th grade and up
  • Rhode Islanders disagreed with each other over the ratification of the Constitution. People in cities that relied on trade with other states wanted the Constitution to pass because having one currency would make inter-state trade easier. Farmers and others in the countryside didn’t care as much about interstate trade and didn’t want to give power to a central government. Write an argument from each point of view.

  • Think about an important issue in Rhode Island today. How do perspectives differ for those living in urban and more rural areas of the state?