Today in 1787, James Wilson made his famous “State House Yard Speech” in support of the Constitution in Philadelphia. Pennsylvania was the first true test for the ratification struggle, and Wilson was asked to explain what the Constitution did and respond to some of the criticisms raised against it.
There was open hostility toward the Constitution because it lacked a bill of rights, which would have the purpose of listing areas in which the government could never venture. James Wilson opposed a bill of rights because he believed it would be unnecessary and redundant. Wilson said: “for it would have been superfluous and absurd to have stipulated with a federal body of our own creation, that we should enjoy those privileges of which we are not divested, either by the intention or the act that has brought the body into existence.”
In other words, since the general government isn’t given the power under the proposed Constitution to violate such liberties, it would be unnecessary to add a bill of rights.
To the accusation that the Constitution gave the general government powers which were not explicitly stated, Wilson responded to such an assertion by noting that “everything which is not given is reserved.” Wilson said that power in the Constitution is not granted by “tacit implication, but from the positive grant expressed in the instrument of the union.” Therefore, it had to be written in the Constitution to be an actual legitimate power. This understanding was made explicit by proponents of the Constitution well before the 10th Amendment reiterated those observations.
Responding to the implication Brutus made that the Constitution would eradicate the state governments, Wilson said that “the existing union of the States, and even this projected system is nothing more than a formal act of incorporation.”
Wilson’s speech remains one of the most underappreciated instances of support for the Constitution, and his narrative was adopted by the other leading Federalists and utilized in their own states. From its earliest days, its most vocal supporters insisted that the general government would become one of specific, enumerated powers.