Today in history, on Dec. 12, 1787, Pennsylvania became the second state to ratify the United States Constitution. The event was the culmination of a bitter fight in Philadelphia between delegates both for and against ratification in the state.
James Wilson, who had represented the state in the Philadelphia Convention, answered a number of written charges against the new framework in his famous “State House Yard Speech.” At this point, there were already rumblings of opposition to the document, as antagonists declared it would act to subvert state power and permit unspecific authority. Numerous others attacked the Constitution because it lacked a bill of rights, which would have the purpose of listing areas in which the government could never venture.
Wilson opposed a bill of rights because he believed it would be unnecessary and redundant. He claimed that “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.
This deduction was also in line with Alexander Hamilton’s reasoning in The Federalist #84. He wrote that under the proposed Constitution, “the people surrender nothing; and as they retain every thing they have no need of particular reservations.” Federalists generally agreed with the sentiments of Wilson and Hamilton, refusing to consider the bill of rights a necessity.
Wilson ventured to refute some of the common allegations about the Constitution, such as the fear that it would disallow citizens from receiving a trial by jury in civil cases. To this, Wilson responded:
“Let it be remembered then, that the business of the Federal Convention was not local, but general – not limited to the views and establishments of a single State, but co-extensive with the continent, and comprehending the views and establishments of thirteen independent sovereignties…The cases open to a trial by jury differed in the different States. It was therefore impracticable, on that ground, to have made a general rule.”
Here we have corroboration of the notion that the Constitution was a compact made by “thirteen independent sovereignties” that all had their own courts to try offenders. Wilson reiterated that “since there has never existed any federal system of jurisprudence, to which the declaration could relate.” As a result, it was unnecessary to write additional prose about civil cases.
To the accusation that the Constitution gave the general government powers which were not explicitly stated, Wilson responded by declaring 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, a power had to be enumerated in the Constitution to be a legitimately used by the general government. This understanding was made explicit by proponents of the Constitution well before the Tenth Amendment reiterated the same.
Responding to Brutus’ implication 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.” Therefore, the states were still sovereign, much like the Articles of Confederation acknowledged. To the claim that the Constitution allowed for a standing military presence in times of peace, Wilson assured naysayers that “every principle of policy must be subverted, and the government must declare war, before they are prepared to carry it on.”
Wilson also actively worked to refute the statements of “An Old Whig,” an opponent of the Constitution in Pennsylvania. An Old Whig warned his state not to adopt the new model because it would “totally annihilate, the separate governments of the several states.” As a result of the loss of state sovereignty, An Old Whig explained that the Constitution would give Congress the cause to “steadily pursue the acquisition of more and more power to themselves and their adherents.” The writer foresaw imminent doom: “The cause of liberty, if it be now forgotten, will be forgotten forever.”
Despite An Old Whig’s arguments, Wilson brought forth full repudiation of the allegations. Wilson’s words were particularly convincing in the minds of supporters, and there is evidence that he swayed some divergent minds in favor of the model. Wilson’s narrative certainly framed the understanding of the Constitution in Pennsylvania, and Federalists in other states adopted Wilson’s viewpoints and applied them in their own conventions.
Wilson’s arguments produced several responses, including those made by an opponent using the pseudonym “Centinel.” Centinel warned of a scenario that would unfold where the general government could regulate the individual liberty of the people. He wrote that the general government would “restrain the printers, and put them under regulation.” He pointed to Article VI of the Constitution to explain that every power would be subject to the power of Congress. Centinel also highlighted Article II of the Articles of Confederation as an underlying maxim, noting that the states retained their sovereignty, freedom, and independence. He warned that under the new Constitution, states would not be able to do so.
In the western counties of Pennsylvania, tides were strongly on the side of opposition to the Constitution. Despite the widespread hesitation, the Federalists worked to alter state districts to ensure a favorable outcome in the convention. The new districts operated to systematically destroy much of the dissent. This factor, combined with the dedication of prominent Pennsylvanians like Benjamin Franklin, James Wilson, Gouverneur Morris, and Robert Morris, there was enough political influence on the side of the Constitution to carry ratification.
Ultimately, the combined efforts of An Old Whig, Centinel, other oppositional writings, and opponents in the convention were not enough to thwart the model. Ultimately, the Constitution was approved in Pennsylvania by a margin of 46 to 23. Through this act, Pennsylvania became the second state to ratify, and Wilson’s speech, unlike The Federalist, was highly distributed outside of the state. Federalists in several states adopted its main points for their own circumstances, making it one of the most influential cases for ratification.
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