The final article of the Constitution, setting forth the procedure for ratifying the document, has been invoked once in our history, and once only; it will never be invoked again.

Thus it has existed in obscurity for 200 years, overshadowed by the active provisions that are said to make the great charter a "living" constitution.

But adoption of Article VII -- which was still being debated in the last days of the Constitutional Convention two centuries ago this week -- was one of the most important acts of the convention, for it would ultimately breathe life into the four long months of work of the summer of 1787 and give legitimacy to the Constitution for ages to come.

Had the framers done it any other way, there might never have been a Constitution; had there been one, it likely would not have lasted anywhere near as long.

The wording itself was dry and procedural: "The Ratification of the Conventions of nine States, shall be sufficient for the Establishment of this Constitution . . . . " But it was arguably the most radical, the most rebellious act of the summer -- for it violated the existing charter of government, the Articles of Confederation, rejecting once and for all the established channel of change and creating a new one.

Like so much of the Constitution, the seed of Article VII germinated in the fertile mind of James Madison, the shrewd political genius from Virginia. Long before the convention began, as he studied what he called the "vices" of the existing government under the Articles of Confederation, he perceived that the problem was less what the Articles said than the method by which that charter had come into being between 1781 and 1783.

Instead of being approved by the people, or by conventions elected by the people, the Articles had been written by members of the Continental Congress and ratified only by the individual state legislatures.

In Madison's view, this was one reason state governments and state courts felt they could ignore the Articles of Confederation -- and acts of the Congress created by the Articles.

Many could and did argue that their own constitutions had a higher standing because they had been ratified by conventions elected by the people -- the highest authority.

"Whenever a law of a state happens to be repugnant to an act of Congress," Madison wrote in his analysis in April 1787, "it will be at least questionable whether the latter must not prevail; and as the question must be decided by the Tribunals of the State, they will be most likely to lean on the side of the State."

In addition, because of the form of adoption, the Articles could be dismissed as merely an agreement among 13 state legislatures, a treaty or compact rather than a constitution -- a union of states, rather than a "union of people," as Madison explained while trying to persuade the convention not to make the same mistake.

The legal difference was crucial, he said: A breach of a treaty by one party to it frees the other parties from obligations under that treaty. Thus, a constitution so approved would be liable to instability. States might disregard it whenever they could claim some other state had disregarded it.

"In the case of a union of people under one constitution," Madison said, "the nature of the pact has always been understood to exclude such an interpretation." States are not at liberty to ignore obligations undertaken by the higher authority of the people themselves.

Further, he said, a law violating a treaty might nevertheless be upheld by judges in some circumstances. But "a law violating a constitution established by the people themselves, would be considered by the judges as null and void."

"The difference between a system founded on the legislatures only, and one founded on the people," said Madison, is "the true difference between a league or treaty and a Constitution."

As he developed his plan of government for the United States in the spring of 1787, Madison made the ratification procedure -- state conventions elected by the people -- a critical component.

When Madison and his allies spoke of ratification by the people, they did not have in mind a direct popular vote or plebiscite, which was much too extreme for that era. What they proposed was that the constitution be "laid before" the Congress for its perusal, then sent to the states, where the people would elect delegates to ratifying conventions. When nine states ratified, the constitution would take effect.

No decision captures the story of the convention -- that serendipitous convergence of high-sounding theory with old-fashioned expedience -- quite so well as this one, for the ratification process favored by Madison and his allies on philosophical and legal grounds happened to be the only method that might secure approval of the constitution.

The alternative, a unanimous vote by the existing Congress and the state legislatures, probably would have doomed the document. No one expected the state legislatures to gladly cede so much of their power to a new government, as the proposed constitution required; nor could the Congress be expected to happily sign its own death warrant.

A handful of convention opponents -- most of whom happened also to be critics of the constitution itself -- argued indisputably that the method violated the instructions of most of the states that sent delegations to the convention and, more important, the unmistakable mandate of the Articles of Confederation, which, after all, were still the charter of government.

The Articles said that no changes in the form of government could be made without the unanimous approval of the Congress and of the state legislatures.

Elbridge Gerry, for one, called it "indecent" and "pernicious" to dissolve "in so slight a manner, the solemn obligations of the Articles of Confederation."

In response, those favoring the Madison approach did not deny that it violated the Articles. That wasn't the point, they said. The point, as James Wilson of Pennsylvania said, was that it would "be worse than folly" to expect the constitution to survive in the Congress and in the state legislatures. Obeying the mandate of the Articles, he said, would throw "insuperable obstacles in the way of its {the new constitution's} success."

"Everything will go into confusion," said Rufus King of Massachusetts, "and all our labor be lost."

By its decision approving Article VII -- casting off the established rules of government -- the Constitutional Convention of 1787 formally declared the old order dead.