Pennsylvania and the Federal Constitution 1787-1788: Chapter I
Pennsylvania and the Federal Constitution, 1787-1788
Edited by John Bach McMaster and Frederick D. Stone
CHAPTER I. THE STRUGGLE OVER THE CONSTITUTION
The constitution of the United States, as is well known, was framed during the summer of 1787, by a convention of delegates from twelve States. The convention sat in the old State House at Philadelphia, and after a stormy session of four months, ended its labors on September 17th, 1787. On the afternoon of that day, the constitution duly signed by thirty-nine of the members, some resolutions, and a letter from Washington, were ordered to be sent to Congress, to be by it transmitted to the States.
While these things were taking place in a lower room of the State House, the Legislature of Pennsylvania was in session in a room above, and to it, on the morning of September 18th, the constitution was read. Copies were then given to the press, and the next day the people of Philadelphia were reading the new plan in the “Packet,” the “Journal,” and the “Gazetteer.” For a few days nothing but praise was heard. But, before a week was gone, a writer made bold to attack it in the “Freeman’s Journal;” answers were made to him in the “Gazetteer;” more attacks followed, the community was split into two great parties, the names Federal and Antifederal were formally assumed, and a struggle, the most interesting in the early history of the constitution, was commenced.
The new frame of government meanwhile had been presented to Congress, and there, too, had been strongly opposed. Led on by Melanchthon Smith, the New York delegates opposed it to a man. William Grayson, of Virginia, denounced it as too weak. Richard Henry Lee hated it for being too strong, and with him went Nathan Dane, of Massachusetts. To submit such a document to Congress, they held, was absurd. Congress could give it no countenance whatever.
The proposed constitution was a plan for a new government; a new government could not be set up till the old had been pulled down, and to pull down the old was out of the power of Congress. They were reminded that Congress had sanctioned the meeting of the convention, and told that, if Congress could approve the convention, it could approve the work the convention did. But they would not be convinced, and on September 26th, Lee moved a bill of rights and a long list of amendments. He would have no Vice-President, a council of state to be joined with the President in making appointments, more representatives, and more than a majority to pass an act for the regulation of commerce. His bill and his amendments were not considered, and the next day Lee came forward with a new resolution. This was, that the acts of the convention should be sent to the executives of the States, to be by them laid before their legislatures. Instantly a member from Delaware moved to add the words: “In order to be by them submitted to conventions of delegates to be chosen agreeably to the said resolutions of the convention.” The question was taken, and of the twelve States on the floor, all were for the motion save New York, and all save New York and Virginia were so unanimously. It was then moved to urge the legislatures to call state conventions with all the speed they could; but Congress rose, and the matter went over to the next day.
It was now quite clear that neither party could have its own way. The Federalists wished to send the new plan to the States by the undivided vote of Congress. But this they could not do while the New York delegates held out. Lee and his followers wished to send it, if sent at all, without one word of approval. But this they could not do unless the Federalists were willing. When, therefore, Congress again assembled at noon on the 28th, each party gave up something. The Federalists agreed to withhold all words of approval. The Antifederalists agree to unanimity. The amendments offered by Lee on the 26th, and the vote on the 27th, were then expunged from the journal, and the constitution, the resolutions of the convention, and the letter of Washington, were formaIIy sent to the States.
William Bingham of Pennsylvania at once sent off an ex-press to Philadelphia with the news. But the rider had not crossed the ferry to Paulus Hook when the Legislature of Pennsylvania began to act. The Assembly had resolved to adjourn sine die on Saturday, September 29th. But the Federalists had determined that before adjournment a state convention to consider the constitution should be called. When, therefore, the day drew near, and no word of approval came from Congress, they took the matter into their own hands, and on Friday morning George Clymer rose in his place, and moved that a state convention of deputies be called, that they meet at Philadelphia, and that they be chosen in the same manner and on the same day as the members of the next General Assembly. Mr. Whitehill, who sat for Cumberland, objected, moved to put off consideration of the matter till afternoon, and provoked a long and bitter debate. The people, it was said, in the State at large knew nothing about the new plan. To inform them before election would be impossible. The matter should be left to the next Assembly. Congress besides had taken no action, and till Congress did, no State could act: the articles of confederation forbade them; they must keep on federal ground. The motion again was unparliamentary. The custom of the Assembly had always been, when important business was to be brought on, to give notice beforehand, have the matter made the order of the day, and have the bill read three times. To now bring on business so important by surprise, and hurry it through without debate, was clearly to serve some bad end.
Such argument, however, could not bring over a single Federalist, and the first of the resolutions, 1 that calling the convention to meet at Philadelphia, was carried by a vote of forty-three to nineteen. The Assembly then adjourned till four in the afternoon.
Not a few of the minority lodged in the house of Major Boyd, on Sixth street, and there it is likely a plan was laid that came very near being successful. The Assembly consisted of sixty-nine members. Forty-six made a quorum. If, therefore, nineteen kept away there would be no quorum, and if there was no quorum the house would be forced to adjourn with the day for the election of delegates unfixed, and the manner of choosing the members unsettled. It was accordingly arranged that not one of the nineteen should go to the afternoon session, and not one did.
At four o’clock the Assembly met, with the Speaker and every federal member in his place. But all told, they counted only forty-four, and the business could not go on. After waiting a while and no more coming in, the Speaker sent out the sergeant-at-arms to summon the absentees. None would obey, and the house was forced to adjourn to 9 o’clock on Saturday morning.
Meanwhile, the rider sent on by Mr. Bingham came spurring into town with the resolution of Congress submitting the constitution to the States. This, when the Speaker had taken the chair on Saturday, was read to the house. Hoping that the opposition of the minority would now be removed, the sergeant-at-arms and the assistant clerk were dispatched to hunt up the malcontents, show them the resolution, and summon them to attend. The two officers went first to Major Boyd’s, where were James M’Calmont, who sat for Franklin, and Jacob Miley, from Dauphin. They were shown the resolution, and stoutly said they would not go. The people, however, decided that they should; broke into their lodgings, seized them, dragged them through the streets to the State House, and thrust them into the assembly room, with clothes torn and faces white with rage. The quorum was now complete.
When the roll had been called and a petition praying for a convention presented and read, Mr. M’Calmont rose, complained of his treatment, and asked to be excused. Some debate followed, in the course of which the rules touching the matter were read. It then appeared that every member who did not answer at roll-call was to be fined 2S. 6d. But when a quorum could not be formed without him, a fine of 5s. was to be imposed. Thereupon Mr. M’Calmont rose, and, taking some silver from his pocket, said, “Well, sir, here is your to let me go.” The gallery broke into a laugh, the Speaker refused the money, and the debate went on till the vote was about to be taken, when Mr. M’Calmont left his seat and made for the door. Instantly the gallery cried out, “Stop him.” The crowd about the door did so; Mr. M’Calmont returned to his seat; the house refused to excuse him, and appointed the first Tuesday in November for the election of delegates.
While these things were happening in the Assembly, the minority were busy preparing an address to the people, which sixteen of the nineteen signed.
The objections of these men were ten in number. The new plan was offensive because it was too costly, because it was to be a government of three branches, because it would ruin state governments or reduce them to corporations, because power of taxation was vested in Congress, because liberty of the press was not assured, because trial by jury was abolished in civil cases, and because the federal judiciary was so formed as to destroy the judiciary of the States. There ought to have been rotation in office, in place of which representatives were to be chosen for two years and senators for six. There ought to have been a declaration of rights, and provision against a standing army. They were at once answered in verse, in squibs, in mock protests, in serious and carefully drawn replies. One such reply cane from six of the majority. Another, the longest and the most elaborate of all, was written by Pelatiah Webster. Webster was born at Lebanon, Connecticut, in 1725, and seems to have possessed the traditional versatility of the New England people. At twenty-one he was graduated from Yale college, studied theology, and for two years preached in the town of Greenwich. Wearying of this he turned business man, and went to Philadelphia in 1755. Either the profits were small or the business not to his taste, for in 1763 he accepted the place of second English master in the Germantown academy, on a salary of one hundred pounds, proclamation money, a year. This he gave tip in 1766, after which time nothing is known concerning him till, in 1776, he published an essay in favor of taxation for the purpose of redeeming the continental bills of credit. The British in 1778 threw him into jail, where he staid six months. As soon as he was free he once more took up the study of continental finance, and began a series of seven essays on “Free Trade and Finance,” of which the first appeared in 1779 and the last in 1785. “A Dissertation on the Political Union and Constitution of the Thirteen United States of North America,” one of the early efforts towards a more perfect union, appeared in 1783. In 1795 Webster died.
But an answer more decisive than that of Mr. Webster was made by the people at the polls, when the day came for choosing the members of the new Assembly and Council. Then Robert Whitehill, who signed the address as one of the sixteen, and had, in return, been put up for a seat in the Council, was thrown out by the voters of Cumberland county. Samuel Dale, whose name likewise appeared at the foot of the address, and Frederick Antis, who, having voted for the convention in the memorable morning session, went out with the nineteen in the afternoon, each met a like fate in Northumberland.
The election, however, to which the factions looked forward with most concern was that of delegates to the convention. Four weeks were to come and go before this took place, and during these weeks the Antifederalists were all activity. A friend was early found in Eleazer Oswald, who then owned the “Independent Gazetteer, or Chronicle of Freedom,” and a champion in the unknown author of the letters of “Centinel.”
Who “Centinel” was cannot be known. His letters in their day were ascribed to Oswald, to George Bryan, to almost every Antifederalist of note. But it seems not unlikely that the writer was Samuel Bryan. 2 Be this as it may, the letters deserve the same rank in the list of pieces opposing the constitution, that has been given to the “Federalist” in the list of pieces supporting the constitution.
Eleazer Oswald was a native of Great Britian, and came to this country just at the outbreak of the Revolutionary war. Young, romantic, deeply impressed with the rights of man, he instantly took the part of the colonies, joined their army and fought for them during half the war. He was with Ethen Allen when Ticonderoga was taken, marched with Benedict Arnold to the siege of Quebec, led the forlorn hope on the day Montgomery fell, and took part under Washington in the battle of Monmouth. Of war he now seems to have had enough, for he resigned his commission in 1778, went to Philadelphia, and there, after casting about for something to do, turned tavern keeper and printer, re-opened the London Coffee House, and began the publication of the “Independent Gazetteer.” Like most Whigs, he firmly believed the articles of confederation needed to be improved; but the constitution he considered no improvement at all, pronounced it monarchical, and made his paper the receptacle of the fiercest attacks on the new plan and its supporters. It was to the “Gazetteer” that Columbus and Gouvero, Toni Peep and Bye-Stander contributed their squibs, that “Philadelphiensis” sent his observations, and that “Centinel” contributed his twenty-four letters.
Stripped of all bitterness, the arguments of the two parties may be briefly stated. The new plan, said the Antifederalists, is not only a confederation of States, which it ought to be; but a government over individuals, which it ought not to be. Not only may Congress overawe the States, but it can go down and lay hold on the life, liberty and property of the meanest citizen in the laud. Where powers so extensive are bestowed on a government, the limits of the powers and the rights of the people ought to be clearly defined. Does the constitution do this? Far from it. No safeguards whatever are provided. There is no bill of rights, while trial by jury, that great bulwark of liberty, is carefully done away with in civil cases. Liberty of the press is not secured. Religious toleration is not provided for. There are to be general search warrants, excise laws, a standing army which the constitution does not forbid being quartered on the people. This is serious. For, by one article the “constitution and the laws made in pursuance thereof,” are to be “the supreme law of the land.” They are, moreover, to be binding on the judges of each State, anything in the constitution or laws of that State to the contrary notwithstanding. Now, the state constitutions provide for liberty of the press, of speech, and of worship. The constitution of the United States does not. A law by Congress abolishing any of these would therefore be in pursuance of the constitution, would be “the supreme law of the land,” and would be binding on every state judge in the union.
By another article Congress is to have power to lay taxes, imposts and duties. But so have the States power to lay taxes. How long will it be before all taxation is in the hands of Congress? For, is it not clear that when two powers are given equal command over the purses of the people, they will fight for the spoils? And is it not clear that the weaker will be found to yield to the stronger? And will not Congress be stronger? State sovereignty, so carefully preserved in the articles, is well nigh destroyed in the constitution. The people, not the States, are to be represented in the house, and there every delegate is to vote as a man. Lest the people should derive any benefit from this change, annual elections and rotation in office are to be swept away. A republican form of government is indeed guaranteed, but whoever will take the pains to look will see that it is the form, and not the substance. Innumerable acts of sovereignty are to be taken from the States. They can coin no money, nor regulate their trade, nor derive one shilling from impost duty.
Indeed, there was hardly a provision in the whole constitution of which the Antifederalists could approve. The number of representatives was too small. The Senate was too aristocratic. The jurisdiction of the supreme court was too extensive. The President had powers which, when joined with those of the Senate, were utterly incompatible with liberty.
To strictures such as these a number of replies were made by the Federalists. Some were sarcastic or foolish, and intended merely to provoke a laugh. Some were temperate, and well considered, and of such the best were the speech of James Wilson at the State House, and the essays of “A Federalist,” and ” Plain Truth.”
The occasion of Mr. Wilson’s speech was a public meeting in the State House yard, to nominate delegates to the next General Assembly. As it was well known that the business of the meeting would bring a great crowd, the Federalists induced Mr. Wilson to make an address by way of answer to the many charges the Antifederalists had brought against the constitution.
He began by calling on his hearers to recollect that the constitutions of the States were very different instruments from the constitution proposed for the United States. When the people set up their state governments, they gave to their legislatures every right and every power which they did not expressly withhold. But in giving powers to the federal government this principle had been reversed, and the authority of Congress would be determined not by tacit implication, but by positive grant expressed in the constitution. In the case of the state governments, every power not expressly reserved was given. In the case of the proposed federal government, every power not expressly given was reserved.
This distinction being recognized, the objection of those who wished for a bill of rights was answered. A bill of rights was prefixed to the constitution of Pennsylvania, because in such an instrument the reserved powers must be specified, and this specification was done in the bill of rights. No bill of rights had been added to the proposed constitution of the United States, because it was not necessary to sum up the reserved powers, because no power was given unless expressly given, and the collection of express powers was the constitution.
Another objection was that trial by jury in civil cases would be abolished. This was a mistake. The business of the convention that framed the constitution was not local, but general. Its duty was not to meet the views and usages of any one State, but the views and usages of thirteen States. These usages were not common. When, therefore, the federal convention was considering the matter of jury trial, the members found themselves beset with difficulties on every hand. Cases open to a jury in one State were not open to a jury in another. Nowhere were admiralty cases, and such as came up in courts of equity, sent to a panel of twelve. To lay down a general rule was therefore impossible, and the convention wisely gave up the task, and left the matter as it stood, feeling sure no danger could arise.
The charge that the constitution would destroy the state governments was, Mr. Wilson held, refuted by the constitution itself. Was not the President to be chosen by electors? and was not the manner of choosing the electors to be deter-mined by the legislatures of the States? Were not the senators to be elected by the state legislatures? Were not the qualifications of an elector of representatives to be the same as “the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the state legislature?” Did it not follow then that if the legislatures were destroyed no President could be chosen, no senators elected, no representatives voted for?
Mr. Wilson then went on to refute the charges of “a standing army in time of peace,” and of “the baleful aristocracy in the United States Senate.” He ended his speech with the statement that the men who opposed the constitution did so from personal, not patriotic motives. They were, he said, placemen, tax collectors and excisemen, who, should the new plan go into effect, would be turned out of office by the abolition, or transfer to the federal government of the places they held under the State. 3
The speech was hailed by the Federalists as final, and provoked the Antifederalists to make innumerable replies. “Centinel” devoted a whole letter to answering it. From New York came a series of long letters in reply. “A Democratic Federalist” labored hard to refute him.
Others, who could not answer, began to call names. “An officer of the late Continental army” described the speech as a “train of pitiful sophistries, unworthy of the man who uttered them.” One bitter lampooner nicknamed him “James de Caledonia.” Another vilified him as “Jimmy.” A third summed up his objections to the constitution with the remark that such a haughty aristocrat as Mr. Wilson having approved the new plan, was the best reason in the world why the people should reject it.
This, it was said, might possibly be so, if Mr. Wilson were the only signer of the constitution. But he was not. His was but one name in a long list of great names. Had it not been signed by a Washington, and did there live a villain so black-hearted as to assert that the American Fabius was now seeking to destroy the liberties he had done so much to secure? Had not Franklin signed it, and did any one suppose that he would close a long and splendid career by recommending to his countrymen an infamous constitution? Had it not been signed by a Morris and a Sherman? The Antifederalists admitted that it had, but warned the people not to be blinded by the glamour of great names. Were there not names, as great as any at the foot of the constitution, to be seen at the foot of the articles of confederation articles now declared to be thoroughly bad? Nay, had not some of the very men who put their hands to the one, put their hands to the other? Had not Roger Sherman, and Robert Morris, and Gouverneur Morris, recommended the confederation? What, then, was the value of these boasted great names ? If these patriots had erred once, what was to hinder them from erring twice? “Centinel” went so far as to make some remarks on Washington and Franklin, which the Federalists interpreted to mean that Washington was a fool from nature and Franklin a fool from old age. The abuse of the “great names” once begun, no one was spared. The whole list of signers was gone through with. Robert Morris was “Bobby the Cofferer,” and was said to be for the constitution because he hoped the new government, would wipe out the debts he owed the old. Thomas Mifflin was “Tommy the Quartermaster General,” and gave his support because his accounts were 400,000 dollars short. Gouverneur Morris was “Gouvero the cunning man.” Few was sneered at as a bricklayer. Telfair was accused of having been a Tory. Baldwin was twitted with having once been steward of Princeton college, which was false. To the convention was given the nickname of the dark conclave.
The hatred was most bitter, however, toward the eight who signed for Pennsylvania. Indeed, so loud was the outcry against them, that when the time came to nominate delegates to the state convention, it was thought best that James Wilson should be the only one put up. The precaution was unnecessary, for in Philadelphia the Federalists carried everything.
Election day was the sixth of November. Five delegates were to be chosen from the city of Philadelphia, and when the polls were closed at the State House, it appeared that the Antifederalists had suffered a crushing defeat. The name standing highest on the federal ticket received twelve hundred and fifteen votes, and the name that stood lowest, eleven hundred and fifty-seven votes. For Pettit, who headed the antifederal ticket, one hundred and fifty votes were cast, while Irvine, who stood at the bottom, was given one hundred and thirty-two. Franklin, it is true, ran far ahead of Pettit; but he was in no sense an Antifederalist, and was well known to have little sympathy for the party that used his name. He had not been nominated by the Federalists, partly, as was explained, because he was old and feeble, but chiefly because he was still president of the commonwealth, and it was not thought fit that any officer of the State should sit in the convention. The Antifederalists accordingly used his great name in the hope of drawing votes. But the ruse was detected, and though some votes were drawn, they were for him and not for the ticket. He received two hundred and thirty-five.
The Federalists were greatly elated over their victory, and after midnight on election day a score or so of tipsy revellers went to the house of Major Boyd, where lived John Smilie, John Baird, Abraham Smith, James M’Calmont, James McLean, John Piper and William Findley, members of the legislature and noted Antifederalists, every one of them. Four had signed the address of the sixteen dissenting assemblymen. All had strongly opposed the calling of a state convention; all were detested by the mob which gathered before the house, broke the door, flung stones through the windows, and went off reviling the inmates by name. Enraged at the insult, they complained to the legislature. The Assembly asked the “Executive Council” to offer a reward. The council did so, and Franklin promptly issued a proclamation offering three hundred dollars for the capture and punishment of the offenders. The proclamation was mere matter of form. No search was made, no rioter was arrested, and the delegates chosen to the convention met at the State House on Wednesday, the twenty-first of November, when sixty of the sixty-nine members were present.
The sixty who, on that day, answered to their names, made up a body as characteristic of the State as has ever been gathered. Scarcely a sect, or creed, or nationality in the commonwealth, but had at least one representative on the floor of the convention. Some were Moravians; some were Lutherans; some Episcopalians; some Quakers; most were Presbyterians. Some were of German descent. The ancestors of others had but a generation or two before come over from Scotland or England, or Ireland, or that part of Ireland made famous by the Scotch. One had satin the “Council of Censors.” Three had been members of Assembly. Eleven had been judges, or justices of the peace. As many more had been Revolutionary officers. Scarce one but had taken some part in the struggle for Independence. One had received subscriptions to the continental loan. Others had served on committees of observation, or had been members of the “Flying Camp.” One had served with Washington and Braddock. Another had been turned out of meeting for taking arms in the good cause. Five in time acquired national fame. From the city of Philadelphia came Benjamin Rush, and James Wilson, and Thomas M’Kean. Chester sent Anthony Wayne. From Luzerne came Timothy Pickering, postmaster general, secretary of war, and secretary of state under Washington, secretary of state under Adams, senator from Massachusetts, and to the day of his death the bitterest, the most implacable of Federalists.
Of the proceedings of the convention no full and satisfactory record is known to exist. For our knowledge of what was said and done we are indebted to the journal kept by the secretary of the convention, to the report of a few speeches taken down in shorthand by Thomas Lloyd, to the reports and summaries of the debates that appeared in the newspapers, and to the notes jotted down by Wilson and intended to be used by him as the subjects of replies and speeches. The minutes are exceedingly meagre; but from them it appears that Thomas Lloyd applied to the convention for the place of assistant clerk. Lloyd was a shorthand writer of considerable note, and, when the convention refused his request, determined to report the debates and print them on his own account. His advertisement promised that the debates should be accurately taken in shorthand, and published in one volume octavo at the rate of one dollar the hundred pages. These fine promises, however, were never fulfilled. Only one thin volume ever came out, and that contains merely the speeches of Wilson and a few of those of Thomas M’Kean. The reason is not far to seek. He was bought up by the Federalists, and, in order to satisfy the public, was suffered to publish one volume containing nothing but speeches made by the two federal leaders.
That the debates were thus suppressed may be considered as reasonably well-established. When the convention began its work, the “Packet” and the “Gazetteer,” the “Journal” and the “Gazette” printed short summaries of each day’s doings. The “Herald,” however, published long and full reports, now known to have been the work of Alexander James Dallas. Mr. Dallas was then a young man, and was employed by William Spotswood to edit his two publications, the “Pennsylvania Herald” and the “Columbian Magazine.” So good were his reports that all the newspapers copied them, till January 6, 1788, having reached the debate of November 30th, they suddenly stopped. No word of explanation was offered by the “Herald;” but “Centinel” declares they were stopped by the efforts of the Federalists, a charge which gains much likelihood from the facts that in February, 1788, the “Herald” ceased to be published and that the Federalists withdrew their subscriptions from every publication that warmly supported the Antifederal cause. 4
From the first it was plain that in the convention the burden of debate would fall upon the Antifederalists, and by them the lead was gladly given to Whitehill, Findley and Smilie, who came from the counties of Cumberland, Westmoreland and Fayette. The Federalists looked up for leadership to Wilson and M’Kean. Indeed, it was M’Kean who, when a speaker had been chosen, and the rules approved, opened the business of the convention by moving that the constitution be adopted as the federal convention had framed it. Wilson supported him in a long and characteristic oration. Smilie attacked him in a speech which made up in bitterness what it lacked in length. Others followed, and a whole week was spent in debating motions to take up the constitution article by article in convention; to take it tip by articles and sections in committee of the whole; to give each member the right when the yeas and nays were called to enter the reasons of his vote on the journals. The first alone prevailed. On each the vote was twenty-four to forty-four; nor did it, on any question that came before the convention at any time, materially change. Never did the majority have more than forty-six. Never did the minority have less than twenty-three.
These questions settled, Mr. Wilson took up the preamble, and opened a long debate on the kind of government pro-posed to be set up. Findley and Smilie and Whitehill declared that it would be a consolidation, and not a confederation of the States, and gave reasons for this belief. It would be a consolidated government because in the preamble were the words “We the People,” and not “We the States,” which showed it to be a compact between individuals forming a society, and not between sovereign States forming a government; because in Congress the votes were cast by individuals, and not by States; because the taxing power of the federal body would destroy state sovereignties, as two independent and sovereign taxing powers could not exist in one community; because Congress could regulate elections; because the judiciary was co-extensive with the legislative power; because congressmen were to be paid out of the national, and not out of the state treasury; because there was no bill of rights, no annual elections, and power to make all laws necessary to put the constitution into effect. Under such a plan it was simply impossible for a confederation to exist. The moment it went into operation, that moment state sovereignty was ended. Stripped of every lucrative source of taxation, deprived of innumerable rights and powers, the States would sink to mere corporations doing such things as the laws and treaties of Congress would permit.
To this one ardent Federalist made reply that he hoped they would sink to mere corporations. Plurality of sovereignty was in politics what plurality of gods was in religion. It was the idolatry, the heathenism of government. But the duty of defending the constitution fell chiefly to Mr. Wilson, and the arguments of Mr. Wilson were more forcible and direct. Those, he said, who opposed the new plan did so on the ground that the sovereign power was in the States as governments. Those who supported the constitution, on the other hand, did so because they believed that sovereignty was in the people; that the people had not, meant not, and ought not to part with it to any government on earth; that, having it in their own hands, the people could delegate it in such quantity, to such bodies, and on such terms, and under such limitations, as they saw fit. This doctrine was far from new. Indeed, the people had boldly asserted it in that grand passage of the Declaration of Independence which says: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed of their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that, whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.” On this broad basis independence was asserted and on this basis the people had acted ever since. Exercising the rights there affirmed, they had first set up state governments, and then a government of confederated States, which, again using their old rights, they now proposed to supplant by a new government “laying its foundation on such principles, organizing its powers in such form as to them” seemed fitting. That the world might know by whose act this was done, a preamble had been added to the new plan distinctly stating that ” We, the People,” the people in whose hands is all sovereignty, the people who, under God, alone have the right to pull down and set up governments, do ordain, and establish the constitution. To say then, that the new plan is one for a consolidated, and not a confederated government, because it comes from “We, the People” and not from “We, the States,” was to talk nonsense. The words were there to express two great truths, that all governments are created by the people, and for the people, and that this particular form of government had been so formed.
Again and again Mr. Wilson called on the opposition to define what they meant by a consolidated government. Mr. Findley answered that it was a government “which put the thirteen States into one.” Mr. Smilie defined it as one that took the sovereignty from the state governments and gave it to a general government. Mr. Whitehill would give no definition at all. Taking up such as were given, Mr. Wilson declared that the States possessed no sovereignty, and that, therefore, none could be taken from them. They were governments of delegated powers, and nothing more. Some of these powers were, indeed, to be taken away, or recalled, by the sovereign people. But in every ease a power so transferred was a power that had been long and shamefully abused. They could issue no more paper money; make no more tender Iaws; no longer treat the just requisitions of Congress with contempt. Weary of seeing Congress enact laws which no one obeyed, pass judgments the States refused to heed, the people had given to the new government executive and judicial as well as legislative power. Weary of seeing the States taxing, and burdening, and ruining the commerce of each other, the people had recalled the delegated right to lay impost duties, and in the new plan had given it to Congress. The clamor raised about a bill of rights was pronounced idle. Were the States sovereign, doling out to the people such rights as the people could exact, the need of such a bill would indeed have been great. But they were not sovereign, they possessed no power not given. What reason was there then for the people to demand that they should be left secure in the enjoyment of their sovereign, undelegated powers?
From the character of the constitution as a whole the debate drifted off to the particular articles, and objection after objection was raised by the opposition. The Vice-President was a needless and dangerous officer. The Senate ought not to make treaties, nor try impeachments, nor have a share in he appointing power; nor its members be elected for so long a term as six years. Representation in the house was too small. The power of Congress was too great. It could borrow money, keep up a standing army, lay taxes, deprive electors of a fair choice of their representatives, call out the militia, and make all laws necessary to put these powers into execution. The President ought not to have the pardoning power. Trial by jury was not secure. It seemed, indeed, as if the whole plan of government was, in the opinion of the opposition, bad. This Mr. Findley protested was not the case. The opposition had no wish to reject it. A few amendments would remove every objection, and these Mr. Whitehill presented to the convention on the morning of the twelfth of December. They were fifteen in number, and are remarkable as containing the substance of the ten amendments afterwards added to the constitution. Similarity so marked can-not be accidental. There is much reason, therefore, to believe that when Madison, in 1789, drew up the amendments for the House of Representatives, he made use of those offered by the minority of the convention of Pennsylvania.
But the majority of the convention had no wish to use them, and, when the motion was made to adjourn to some future day, that the people might consider them, it was voted down by forty-six to twenty-three. By precisely the same vote, the constitution, just as it Caine from the body that framed it, was ratified a few minutes later. Without waiting to sign, the convention, joined by the President and Vice-President of the State, the constables, the sub-sheriffs, the high-sheriff, the judges, the members of council, and all the state dignitaries, both civil and military, went in procession the following day to the State House, and there read the ratification to a great gathering of the people. On Saturday the 15th of December the convention adjourned.
And now the minority published their address and reasons of dissent. It was not, they said, till the close of the late glorious contest that any fault was found with the articles of confederation. Then the wants which, during the war, had been supplied by the virtue and patriotism of the people, began to be apparent. Then it was felt on every hand that it would he well for the union to enlarge the powers of Congress, and suffer that body to regulate commerce, and lay and collect duties throughout the United States. With this in view, Virginia proposed and Congress urged a convention of deputies to revise and amend the articles of confederation, and make them suited to the needs of the union. So hastily and eagerly did the States comply, that their legislatures, without the slightest authority, without ever stopping to consult the people, appointed delegates, and the conclave met at Philadelphia. To it came a few men of character, some more noted for cunning than patriotism, and some who had always been enemies to the independence of America.
The doors were shut, secrecy was enjoined, and what then took place no man could tell. But it was well known that the sittings were far from harmonious. Some left the dark conclave before the instrument was framed. Some had the firmness to withhold their hands when it was framed. But it came forth in spite of them, and was not many hours old when the meaner tools of despotism were carrying petitions about for the people to sign, praying the legislature to call a convention to consider it. The convention was called by a legislature made up in part of members who had been dragged to their seats and kept there against their wills, and so early a day was set for the election of delegates that many a voter did not know of it till it was passed. Others keptaway from the polls because they were ignorant of the new plan; some because they disliked it, and some because they did not think the convention legally called. Of the seventy thousand freemen entitled to vote but thirteen thousand voted.
Having given a history of the two conventions, the addressers repeated the fifteen amendments they offered in convention, and summed up their reasons of dissent under three general heads. They dissented because so wide a domain could never be governed save by a confederation of republics having all the powers of internal government, but united in the management of their general and foreign concerns. They dissented because the powers vested in Congress would break down the sovereignty of the States, and put up on their ruins a consolidated government, an iron-handed despotism.” They dissented because there was no bill of rights securing trial by jury, habeas corpus, Iiberty of conscience, and freedom of the press. Twenty-one of the twenty-three minority signed the address.
An examination of this list reveals the fact that the little band of malcontents was made up of all the delegates from the counties of Cumberland, Berks, Westmoreland, Bedford, Dauphin, Fayette, half of those from Washington, half from Franklin, and John Whitehill, of Lancaster. The reason is plain. The constitution proposed for the United States was in many ways the direct opposite of the constitution of Pennsylvania. The legislature of Pennsylvania consisted of a single house. The legislature of the United States was to consist of two houses. The President of Pennsylvania was chosen by the Assembly. The President of the United States was chosen by special electors. The constitution of Pennsylvania had a bill of rights, provided for a body of censors to meet once each seven years to approve or disapprove the acts of the legislature; for a council to advise the President; for annual elections; for rotation in office, all of which were quite unknown to the proposed constitution for the United States. But the Pennsylvania constitution of 1776 was the work of the patriot party; of this party a very considerable number were Presbyterians; and the great Presbyterian counties were Cumberland, Westmoreland, Bedford, Dauphin and Fayette. In opposing the new plan these men simply opposed a system of government which, if adopted, would force them to undo a piece of work done with great labor, and beheld with great pride and satisfaction. Every man, therefore, who gave his vote for the ratification of the national constitution, pronounced his state constitution to be bad in form, and this its supporters were not prepared to do. By these men, the refusal of the convention to accept the amendments they offered was not regarded as ending the matter. They went back to the counties that sent them more determined than ever but failed to gain to their side the great body of Presbyterians.
Elsewhere the action of the convention was heartily approved. At Lancaster the delegates were received with bell ringing and discharge of cannon. At Easton the delegates from Northampton county held a meeting, and issued an address to their constituents giving nine reasons why they voted for ratification. The state of the union required a concentration of the powers of government for general purposes. The proposed constitution provided for such a concentration in the best form that could be agreed on. Under it commerce would be restored to its former prosperity, agriculture would flourish, taxes be cut down, manufactures and the arts would be recognized, and the public creditors duly paid. There would be no more bloody contests between neighboring States over boundaries and territories; no more paper money and tender laws; no more partial laws of any kind. The delegates from Northampton were sure their constituents could not fail to approve so good a plan of government, and in this belief they were not mistaken.
While these things were happening in Pennsylvania, the convention of New jersey met and ratified the constitution without one dissenting voice. Delaware had already done so, and these two with Pennsylvania made one-third of the number of States necessary to put the new plan into force. This continued success the Federalists of Carlisle determined should be duly celebrated, and chose the last Wednesday in December as the day, secured a cannon, and made a great pile of barrels for a bonfire on the public square; but no sooner were they assembled than a mob of Antifederalists attacked them, drove them from the ground, spiked the cannon, burned a copy of the constitution, and went off shouting “Damnation to the forty-six; long live the virtuous twenty-three.” On the morrow the Federalists, fully armed, again met and carried out their celebration. When they had finished, the Antifederalists in turn appeared and burned two effigies, labelled, “Thomas M’Kean, Chief Justice,” and “James Wilson, the Caledonian.” Twenty of the rioters were in time arrested, but were speedily set at liberty by men chosen for that purpose by the companies of militia.
Thus stirred up, the excitement spread over all the antifederal counties. The country beyond the mountains was wholly in the hands of the Antifederalists. While the legislature was in session in September, a petition against the state convention was passed round in the two counties of Franklin and Cumberland, and soon bore four thousand signatures. So overwhelming was the number of the Antifederalists that the few Federalists did not think it worth while to make any demonstration at all. In Fayette county, at a great county meeting, but two supporters of the constitution appeared; in Bedford county, in the mountains, the number was estimated at twenty; in Huntingdon county not above thirty; in Dauphin, in the middle country, less than one hundred; in Berks, where the taxable inhabitants were nearly five thou-sand, the number of active Federalists was put down at fifty. 5 Through all these counties associations and societies were formed for the purpose of opposing the constitution, and committees of correspondence appointed to secure unity of action. Such action was greatly needed, for their chances of success grew smaller and smaller every day. In January came news that Georgia had ratified unanimously, and hard upon this the news that Connecticut had accepted the constitution by a vote of more than three to one. February 6th the convention of Massachusetts approved the constitution by a majority of nineteen. This was most disheartening; for iii no State did the chances of the Antifederalists seem better than in Massachusetts. There was the home of Shays, and there the people had within a year risen up in armed resistance to the authority of the State.
Amazed and angry at their defeat in New England, the Antifederalists began to cast about them for the cause, and soon found it in the management of the post-office. As the law then stood, newspapers were not mailable. The post-masters could officially have nothing to do with them. Neither could the post-riders be forced to carry newspapers in their portmanteaux. For the convenience to the public, however, the postmaster had suffered the riders to carry the Gazetteer and Packet, bargain with the printers about the postage, and put the money thus received in their own pockets. For a like reason the postmasters in the great towns undertook to distribute the newspapers, and were given, as the price of their labor, a paper by each printer. The suppression of a batch of Gazetteers or Journals was therefore an easy matter, and a question merely of money on the one hand and honesty on the other. If the bribe were large enough, and the rider or the postmaster dishonest enough, the thing could be done. That it was done in this particular instance is doubtful. The charge of the Antifederalists rested on three counts. The first was that while the convention of Pennsylvania was in session, New York newspapers full of most important reading had been stopped, and held back for weeks. To refute this the Federalists drew up a paper stating that while the convention was sitting the newspapers had come as usual. Most of the Philadelphia printers signed it. But the printer of the Freeman’s Journal refused, and named seven consecutive numbers of Greenleaf s New York Journal which he stoutly maintained had not reached the city till the convention had risen. Some of these were most important, as they contained the essays of Brutus, Cato, and Cincinnatus. That containing the fifth number of the address of Cincinnatus to James Wilson was, he claimed, especially hateful to the Federalists, as it was full of information about the way in which “Bobby the Cofferer” had conducted the finances of the union. This paper was printed in the New York Journal of November twenty-ninth; but not a copy reached Philadelphia till December fifteenth, two days after the ratification of the constitution had been proclaimed from the State House.
The second count was, that information which would surely have changed many votes in the conventions of Massachusetts and Connecticut was purposely held back. Since the new year came in, printers in the eastern States had not seen a newspaper published south of New York. No one in Boston, therefore, had read a line of the masterly address and reasons of dissent of the minority of the convention of Pennsylvania, or so much as knew that there had been a minority.
The third count was, that the address and reasons of dissent of the minority of the convention of Pennsylvania had been published in pamphlet form, and a copy sent through the post-office to the address of every printer in the United States; yet not a copy, so far as could be learned, had ever been received by the persons to whom it had been sent. The post-office was clearly the cause of this. It was in the hands of the “well born,” and these sous of power were determined that no newspaper should get out of the office in which it was dropped unless it contained fulsome praise of the new roof about to be put up to cover them and all the office-seekers of the continent. So much was made of this charge that the postmaster found it necessary to send out a circular in which he reminded the people that the post-office had nothing to do with the delivery of newspapers, and if they went astray the printers must look to the riders for redress, and not to him.
That the strictures of Cincinnatus could have changed a vote in the Pennsylvania convention, or the reasons of dissent have had any effect on the convention of Massachusetts, had both been promptly delivered, is not at all likely. Yet neither party ceased to strive to win supporters in the still doubtful States. The Federalists filled the columns of their newspapers with squibs and essays, and collected money to send hundreds of copies to New York, to Virginia, to Maryland, and even to South Carolina. Now it was the New Roof by Francis Hopkinson; now the letters of “Conciliator,” and a “Freeman,” a series of essays the Antifederalists declared could have been the work of no one but James Wilson. The Antifederalists seem to have made use chiefly of committees of correspondence, a piece of political machinery so effective in the early days of the Revolution.
Their efforts, however, were vain, and not a month went by but another pillar, as the phrase went, was added to the New Roof. Maryland ratified in April, and South Carolina in May. In June came New Hampshire, and Virginia, and the needed list of nine States was more than completed.
It was on the evening of the second of July that a post-rider brought to Philadelphia the news that Virginia, the tenth State, had accepted the new plan. The Federalists had already determined that the coming fourth of July should be a day of unusual rejoicing. But their zeal now burned more fiercely than ever, and it was resolved that besides the toasts and the speeches there should be a procession, and the finest procession the city had ever beheld.
Though the “New Roof” was now up and Pennsylvania under it, the Antifederalists were not disheartened. The societies, the committees and the associations in the western counties were as active as ever, and a call for a state convention at Harrisburg was soon passing about among them. September 3d was fixed as the day, and on that day thirty-three delegates, representing every county of the State save York and Montgomery, were present in the convention. Before they adjourned resolutions were adopted and an address prepared, urging the legislature to apply to Congress for a revision and amendment of the constitution by a new federal convention. With this their active opposition ended.
- Chap. II., p. 28. Return to text
- This statement is made on the authority of Mr. Paul Leicester Ford, who has kindly furnished the following information: “At the time of their publication, George Bryan, of Pennsylvania, was charged with the authorship of the letters of Centinel, and as such was the subject of many attacks from the Federalist newspapers; but his son, Samuel Bryan, writing to George Clinton, says: ‘I have not the honor of being personally known to your Excellency, but * * * I flatter myself that in the character of Centinel I have been honored with your approbation and esteem.’ It appears, however, from the Belknap Papers (II. 24, 35), that Eleazer Oswald, printer of the ‘Independent Gazetteer,’ was the author of some of the shorter squibs over that pseudonym.” Return to text
- Gouverneur Morris in a letter to Washington makes the same statement. There had, he wrote, been reason to “dread the cold and sour temper of the back counties, and still more the wicked industry of those who have long habituated themselves to live on the public, and cannot bear the idea of being removed from the power and profit of State government, which has been and still is the means of supporting themselves, their families and dependents, and (which perhaps is equally grateful) of depressing and humbling their political adversaries.” Return to text
- Benjamin Rush, himself a Federalist, asserts in a letter to Noah Webster (February 13, 1788): “From the impudent conduct of Mr. Dallas in misrepresenting the proceedings and speeches in the Pennsylvania convention, as well as from his deficiency of matter, the “Columbian Magazine,” of which he is editor, is in the decline.” For this extract we are again indebted to Mr. Paul Leicester Ford.
Complaints of the same kind are made by Mr. Oswald day after day in the “Gazetteer:” “The printer having most pressing calls for money, is again impelled to request that the subscribers to his newspaper be so kind as to discharge their respective balances. And those who have been so very liberal as to withdraw their subscriptions and support (and having NOT settled) because he chose, in the present great political controversy, to act with his usual impartiality, by publishing freely on both sides the question, are particularly requested to call and pay off their arrearages.
“He, however, for the present, chooses to suppress the ideas that occur to him on this occasion, and shall therefore only remind those high-flying tools, pigmies, and tiffanies of power and the prevailing party, those boatsed friends of freedom and liberty of the press, that ‘the tables’ may, in the course of human events, be again turned, and that ‘the race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong.” Return to text
- “Centinel,” Letter 18. Return to text