<Debate and Ratification
An Officer of the Late Continental Army

An Officer of the Late Continental Army

November 6, 1787

Friends, Countrymen, Brethren, and Fellow Citizens: The important day is drawing near when you are to elect delegates to represent you in a convention, on the result of whose deliberations will depend, in a great measure, your future happiness.

This convention is to determine whether or not the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania shall adopt the plan of government proposed by the late Convention of delegates from the different states, which sat in this city.
With a heart full of anxiety for the preservation of your dearest rights, I presume to address you on this important occasion. In the name of sacred liberty, dearer to us than our property and our lives, I request your most earnest attention.

The proposed plan of continental government is now fully known to you. You have read it, I trust, with the attention it deserves. You have heard the objections that have been made to it. You have heard the answers to these objections.

If you have attended to the whole with candor and unbiased minds, as becomes men that are possessed and deserving of freedom, you must have been alarmed at the result of your observations. Notwithstanding the splendor of names which has attended the publication of the new Constitution, notwithstanding the sophistry and vain reasoning that have been urged to support its principles; alas! you must at least have concluded that great men are not always infallible, and that patriotism itself may be led into essential errors.

The objections that have been made to the new Constitution are these:

  1. 1. It is not merely (as it ought to be) a CONFEDERATION of STATES, but a GOVERNMENT of INDIVIDUALS.
  2. 2. The powers of Congress extend to the lives, the liberties and the propertyof every citizen.
  3. 3. The sovereignty of the different states is ipso factodestroyed in its most essential parts.
  4. 4. What remains of it will only tend to create violent dissensions between the state governments and the Congress, and terminate in the ruin of the one or the other.
  5. 5. The consequence must therefore be, either that the Union of the states will be destroyed by a violent struggle or that their sovereignty will be swallowed up by silent encroachments into a universal aristocracy; because it is clear, that if two different sovereign powers have a coequal command over the pursesof the citizens, they will struggle for the spoils, and the weakest will be in the end obliged to yield to the efforts of the strongest.
  6. 6. Congress being possessed of these immense powers, the liberties of the states and of the people are not secured by a bill or DECLARATION of RIGHTS.
  7. 7. The sovereignty of the states is not expressly reserved, the form only, and not the SUBSTANCE of their government, is guaranteed’ to them by express words.
  8. 8. TRIAL BY JURY, that sacred bulwark of liberty, is ABOLISHED IN CIVIL CASES, and Mr. [ James] W[ilson], one of the Convention, has told you, that not being able to agree as to the FORM of establishing this point, they have left you deprived of the SUBSTANCE. Here are his own words: “The subject was involved in difficulties. The Convention found the task TOO DIFFICULT for them, and left the business as it stands.
  9. 9. THE LIBERTY OF THE PRESS is not secured, and the powers of Congress are fully adequate to its destruction, as they are to have the trial of libels, or pretended libels against the United States, and may by a cursed abominable STAMP ACT (as the Bowdoin administration has done in Massachusetts) preclude you effectually from all means of information. Mr. W[ilson] has given you no answer to these arguments.
  10. 10. Congress have the power of keeping up a STANDING ARMY in time of peace, and Mr. W [ilson] has told you THAT IT WAS NECESSARY.
  11. 11. The LEGISLATIVE and EXECUTIVE powers are not kept separate as every one of the American constitutions declares they ought to be; but they are mixed in a manner entirely novel and unknown, even to the constitution of Great Britain; because,
  12. 12. In England the king only has a nominal negative over the proceedings of the legislature, which he has NEVER DARED TO EXERCISE since the days of King William, whereas by the new Constitution, both the President General and the Senate, TWO EXECUTIVE BRANCHES OF GOVERNMENT, have that negative and are intended to support each other in the exercise of it.
  13. 13. The representation of the lower house is too small, consisting only of 65 members.
  14. 14. That of the Senate is so small that it renders its extensive powers extremely dangerous. It is to consist only of 26 members, two-thirds of whom must concur to conclude any treaty or alliance with foreign powers. Now we will suppose that five of them are absent, sick, dead, or unable to attend; twenty-one will remain, and eight of these (one-third, and one over) may prevent the conclusion of any treaty, even the most favorable to America. Here will be a fine field for the intrigues and even the bribery and corruptionof European powers.
  15. 15. The most important branches of the EXECUTIVE DEPARTMENT are to be put into the hands of a single magistrate, who will be in fact an ELECTIVE KING. The MILITARY, the land and naval forces are to be entirely at his disposal, and therefore:
  16. 16. Should the Senate,, by the intrigues of foreign powers, become devoted to foreign influence, as was the case of late in Sweden, the people will be obliged, as the Swedes have been, to seek their refuge in the arms of the monarchor PRESIDENT GENERAL.
  17. 17. ROTATION, that noble prerogative of liberty, is entirely excluded from the new system of government, and great men may and probably will be continued in office during their lives.
  18. 18. ANNUAL ELECTIONS are abolished, and the people are not to reassume their rights until the expiration of two, four and sixyears.
  19. 19. Congress are to have the power of fixing the time, place and mannerof holding elections, so as to keep them forever subjected to their influence.
  20. 20. The importation of slaves is not to be prohibited until the year 1808, and SLAVERY will probably resume its empire in Pennsylvania.
  21. 21. The MILITIA is to be under the immediate command of Congress, and men conscientiously scrupulous of bearing armsmay be compelled to perform military duty.
  22. 22. The new government will be EXPENSIVE beyond any we have ever experienced, the judicial department alone, with its concomitant train of judges, justices, chancellors, clerks, sheriffs, coroners, escheators, state attornies and solicitors, constables, etc.in every state and in every county in each state, will be a burden beyond the utmost abilities of the people to bear, and upon the whole.
  23. 23. A government partaking of MONARCHY and aristocracy will be fully and firmly established, and liberty will be but a name to adorn the shorthistoric page of the halcyon days of America.These, my countrymen, are the objections that have been made to the new proposed system of government; and if you read the system itself with attention, you will find them all to be founded in truth. But what have you been told in answer?I pass over the sophistry of Mr. W[ilson], in his equivocal speech at the State House. His pretended arguments have been echoed and reechoed by every retailer of politics, and victoriously refuted by several patriotic pens. Indeed if you read this famous speech in a cool dispassionate moment, you will find it to contain no more than a train of pitiful sophistry and evasions, unworthy of the man who spoke them. I have taken notice of some of them in stating the objections, and they must, I am sure, have excited your pity and indignation. Mr. W [ilson] is a man of sense, learning and exten—sive information; unfortunately for him he has never sought the more solid fame of patriotism. During the late war he narrowly escaped the effects of popular rage, and the people seldom arm themselves against a citizen in vain. The whole tenor of his political conduct has always been strongly tainted with the spirit of high aristocracy;West or Peale, or the pen of a Valerius.And yet that speech, weak and insidious as it is, is the only attempt that has been made to support by argument that political monster THE PROPOSED CONSTITUTION. I have sought in vain amidst the immense heap of trash that has been published on the subject, an argument worthy of refutation, and I have not been able to find it. If you can bear the disgust which the reading of those pieces must naturally occasion, and which I have felt in the highest degree, read them, my fellow citizens, and say whether they contain the least shadow of logical reasoning. Say (laying your hands upon your hearts) whether there is anything in them that can impress unfeigned conviction upon your unprejudiced minds.

One of them only I shall take notice of, in which I find that argument is weakly attempted. This piece is signed “An American Citizen” and has appeared with great pomp in four succeeding numbers in several of our newspapers. But if you read it attentively, you will find that it does not tell us what the new Constitution IS, but what it IS NOT, and extols it on the sole ground that it does not contain ALL the principles of tyranny with which the European governments are disgraced.

But where argument entirely failed, nothing remained for the supporters of the new Constitution but to endeavor to inflame your passions. The attempt has been made and I am sorry to find not entirely without effect. The great names of WASHINGTON and FRANKLIN have been taken in vain and shockingly prostituted to effect the most infamous purposes. What! because our august chieftain has subscribed his name in his capacity of President of the Convention to the plan offered by them to the states, and because the venerable sage of Pennsylvania has testified by his signature that the majority of the delegates of this state assented to the same plan, will anyone infer from this that it has met with their entire approbation, and that they consider it as the masterpiece of human wisdom? I am apt to think the contrary, and I have good reasons to ground my opinion on.

In the first place we have found by the publication of Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, Esquire, one of the signing members of the Convention, who has expressed the most pointed disapprobation of many important parts of the new plan of government, that all the members whose names appear at the bottom of this instrument of tyranny have not concurred in its adoption.5 Many of them might conceive themselves bound by the opinion of the majority of their state, and leaving the people to their own judgment upon the form of government offered to them, might have conceived it impolitic by refusing to sign their names, to offer to the world the lamentable spectacle of the disunion of a body on the decisions of whom the people had rested all their hopes. We KNOW, and the long sitting of the Convention tells us, that (as it is endeavored to persuade us) concord and unanimity did not reign exclusively among them. The thick veil of secrecy with which their proceedings have been covered has left us entirely in the dark, as to the debates that took place, and the unaccountable SUPPRESSION OF THEIR JOURNALS, the highest insult that could be offered to the majesty of the people, shows clearly that the whole of the new plan was entirely the work of an aristocratic majority.

But let us suppose for a moment that the proposed government was the unanimous result of the deliberations of the Convention—must it on that account preclude an investigation of its merits? Are the people to be dictated to without appeal by any set of men, however great, however dignified? Freedom spurns at the idea and rejects it with disdain. We appeal to the collective wisdom of a great nation, we appeal to their general sense which is easily to be obtained through the channel of a multitude of free presses, from the opinions of thirty-nine men, who secluded from the rest of the world, without the possibility of conferring with the rest of their fellow citizens, have had no opportunity of rectifying the errors into which they may have been led by the most designing among them. We have seen names not less illustrious than those of the members of the late Convention subscribed to the present reprobated Articles of Confederation, and if those patriots have erred, there is no reason to suppose that a succeeding set should be more free from error. Nay the very men, who advocate so strongly the new plan of government, and support it with the infallibility of Doctor Franklin, affect to despise the present constitution of Pennsylvania, which was dictated and avowed by that venerable patriot. They are conscious that he does not entirely approve of the new plan, whose principles are so different from those he has established in our ever-glorious constitution, and there is no doubt that it is the reason that has induced them to leave his respected name out of the ticket for the approaching election.

Now then my fellow citizens, my brethren, my friends; if the sacred flame of liberty be not extinguished in your breasts, if you have any regard for the happiness of yourselves, and your posterity, let me entreat you, earnestly entreat you by all that is dear and sacred to freemen, to consider well before you take an awful step which may involve in its consequences the ruin of millions yet unborn. You are on the brink of a dreadful precipice; in the name therefore of holy liberty, for which I have fought and for which we have all suffered, I call upon you to make a solemn pause before you proceed. One step more, and perhaps the scene of freedom is closed forever in America. Let not a set of aspiring despots, who make us SLAVES and tell us tis our CHARTER, wrest from you those invaluable blessings, for which the most illustrious sons of America have bled and died; but exert yourselves, like men, like freemen and like Americans, to transmit unimpaired to your latest posterity those rights, those liberties, which have ever been so dear to you, and which it is yet in your power to preserve.