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Iconic Pillars Illustration -- Celebrating Massachusetts’ Ratification and the Process of Erecting the “great federal superstructure”
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This newspaper is replete with Constitution-related content, including minutes from the debates of Massachusetts’ State Ratifying Convention – everything from discourse on standing armies to Fisher Ames’ hearkening back to 1775 with, “WE MUST UNITE OR DIE”; a poem to Washington on his birthday; a fictional dialogue, The Federal Anti-Federalist, Returned to His Neighbours; a rare example of one of Benjamin Russell’s famed ‘Pillars’ illustration series; and a great deal of reporting on the popular reception of the news of ratification, expressed in particular by an enormous parade and surrounding celebrations.

[CONSTITUTION]. Newspaper. Massachusetts Centinel, February 13, 1788 (Volume VIII, pp. 171-174). Boston: Benjamin Russell. 4 pp., 9⅝ x 14⅞ in.

Inventory #24836.99       Price: $3,600

The Massachusetts Centinel employed the Federal Pillars political imagery to announce the ratification of the Constitution by successive states. In this issue, the Centinel announces the pending ratification by New Hampshire.

This day the Convention of the State of New Hampshire, meet at Exeter, for the purpose of erecting another PILLAR, to support the great Federal Superstructure; by ratifying the proposed Constitution.

On February 6, 1788, Massachusetts ratified the United States Constitution by a vote of 187 to 168, the sixth and largest state to do so. Two days later, the people of Boston engaged in a grand procession, led by the “Mechanicks” and Tradesmen of Boston, “to express their approbation of the conduct of the Gentlemen who represented this town, in the late Convention” (p3/c2). A sampling of the groups of marchers, most of whom carried implements and tools of their professions festooned for the occasion, as detailed here (p4,c1-2):

73 Blacksmiths; 43 Shipwrights; 75 Rope-makers with part of a rope-walk on a sled and martial music; 30 Mast-makers; 36 Sail-makers; 34 Ship-joiners; 30 Block-makers (pulley makers); 6 Mathematical Instrument Makers (makers of navigation equipment, etc.); 53 Coopers; 20 Boat-builders; 6 Pewterers; 40 Bakers, 50 Shoe-makers; 56 Taylors; 26 Hatters; 20 Ship-builders; 136 Carpenters; 70 Masons; 30 Wheelwrights; 15 Printers; as well as a dozen other tradegroups such Bookbinders; Goldsmiths and Jewelers, Saddlers, Tobacconists, Tanners, Curriers, Leather-dressers, Cabinetmakers, Carvers, Painters, Tinsmiths, Coppersmiths, and 250 of the “principal merchants in the town.” Toward the middle of this assemblage, thirteen horses pulled the ship “FEDERAL CONSTITUTION” manned by a crew of thirteen. A subtext of much of this was an emphasis on domestic manufactures as well as a celebration of Boston’s power and potential in maritime trade.

At this event, “WE THE PEOPLE” of Boston “in GRAND PROCESSION MOVING” passed an ordinance to rename Long Lane as Federal Street, in commemoration of the site where the convention had sat. The ordinance concluded, “GIVEN under our auspices…the FIRST YEAR of OUR real, political, federal existence…GOD SPEED THE CONSTITUTION!” (p1/c1).

That night, a long boat called “the Old Confederation,” which had been exhibited during the parade, was drawn to the Common and condemned “as unfit for any further service.” The boat was immediately burned “in presence of an applauding concourse of citizens” (p3/c2).

On February 12, the twelve delegates who represented Boston in the ratifying convention, including John Hancock and Samuel Adams, responded to the procession in a letter to “the Committee of Tradesmen of the Town of Boston.”


We endeavoured that our conduct in the late Convention, should be governed by the magnitude of our subject:—And after the most mature deliberation, we severally decided according to the best light of our understandings, and the dictates of our consciences.

We are happy to find that our decisions have so fully corresponded with the sentiments and wishes of our constituents.

And here we cannot help expressing our magnanimity of those gentlemen who could not agree with the majority. We promise ourselves, that the declarations which they so generously made to use their influence in support of the proposed government, will have a very extensive and happy effect.

Historical Background

On December 26, 1787, Benjamin Russell of The Massachusetts Centinel used the metaphor of pillars in “a great federal superstructure” to describe the ratification of the Constitution by three states. On January 16, 1788, he began to illustrate this metaphor with erect pillars representing the ratifying states.

The Massachusetts Centinel’s enthusiasm was premature. Although the Convention in New Hampshire began meeting on February 13, 1788, it adjourned on February 22 without ratification. New Hampshire did not ratify the Constitution until June 21. In the meantime, both Maryland and South Carolina ratified, making New Hampshire the ninth and decisive state to ratify. With New Hampshire’s ratification, the necessary two-thirds of the states had ratified the document, making it the supreme law of the United States. Virginia ratified four days after New Hampshire, and New York the following month. North Carolina ratified the Constitution in November 1789, and Rhode Island in May 1790.

Additional Content

This issue of The Massachusetts Centinel also includes additional proceedings of the state ratifying convention (p1/c1-p2/c3); and news that the New York Assembly and Senate had voted for a convention to consider the Constitution (p3/c1).

The Massachusetts Centinel (1784-1790) began as The Massachusetts Centinel, and the Republican Journal in March 1784 as a semiweekly newspaper in Boston. The publishers were William Warden (1761-1786) and Benjamin Russell (1761-1845). In October, they shortened the title to The Massachusetts Centinel. After Warden’s death, Russell continued to publish the newspaper for the next forty years under different titles, including Columbian Centinel (1790-1799), Columbian Centinel & Massachusetts Federalist (1799-1804), and Columbian Centinel (1804-1840).

Variations of this illustration appeared in The Massachusetts Centinel on:

  • January 16, 1788: Georgia as a fifth pillar[1] (VIII:139)
  • January 30, 1788: prediction of Massachusetts as sixth pillar (VIII:155)
  • February 9, 1788: Massachusetts as sixth pillar (VIII:168)
  • February 13, 1788: prediction of New Hampshire as seventh pillar (VIII:173)
  • February 27, 1788: prediction of New Hampshire as seventh pillar (VIII:189)
  • May 7, 1788: Maryland as seventh pillar (IX:61)
  • June 11, 1788: South Carolina as eighth pillar (IX:101)
  • June 25, 1788: New Hampshire as ninth “and sufficient” pillar (IX:117) (misprinted as 118)
  • July 5, 1788: Virginia as tenth pillar (IX:129)
  • August 2, 1788: New York as eleventh pillar (IX:160)

Very similar forms of the illustration also appeared in the Independent Chronicle and Universal Advertiser (Boston) on:

  • June 12, 1788: South Carolina as eighth pillar
  • June 26, 1788: New Hampshire as ninth pillar

[1] Georgia ratified the constitution on January 2, followed by Connecticut on January 9, but word of Georgia’s action did not reach Boston until later. The illustrations placed Georgia in the proper chronological order as the fourth pillar.

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