Dr. William Smith
William Smith. By: Gilbert Stuart. 1801-02.

In Pennsylvania, extraordinary events were transpiring that would shape how people expressed their will. William Smith (“Cato”) and a group of individuals, led by James Cannon (“Cassandra”) in 1776, debated the issue of how institutions should reflect the people’s will, given the Radical Political Experiment unfolding in Pennsylvania.

Smith, reflecting the conservative Whig view, propounded the theory that the Pennsylvania Assembly was “vested with the authority of the people” and the members “can meet when they please, and sit as long as they judge necessary.” Phila. Pa. Packet, Mar. 18, 25, 1776; see also Force, ed., American Archives, 4th Ser., V, 125-27, 443-46. He continued by stating that other states did not enjoy the “perfection in their civil constitutions” like Pennsylvania had and had “been driven into the measure of conventions,” which did not have the legal standing of the legislatures. Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 334 quoting Phila. Pa. Packet, Mar. 18, 25, 1776.

Smith believed that the conventions only wounded “the majesty of the people . . . in the persons of their legal Representatives.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 334 quoting Phila. Pa. Packet, Mar. 18, 25, 1776. Smith concluded that America “had more than enough of ‘Committees and Conventions.'” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 334 quoting Phila. Pa. Packet, Mar. 18, 25, 1776. He believed that the people’s liberties “can nowhere be so safe as in the hands of your Representatives in Assembly.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 334 quoting Phila. Pa. Packet, Mar. 18, 25, 1776.

James Cannon had an entirely different perspective and shot back that Smith’s view was bound to lead to “reconcile us to the colonists’ former dependence on Great Britain.” Phila. Pa. Packet, Apr. 8, Mar. 25, 1776. Cannon insisted that such a system would place too much reliance on the governors of the states to prevent the legislatures from taking actions adverse to the people. See id.

As explained in Unalterable Constitutions and A Tradition of Extra-Legislative Action, Americans were taking to conventions to both express their views and change their respective state constitutions.

The debates between Cannon and Smith in Pennsylvania, and between and amongst all Americans about the various issues in American government, were refining American political theory. Political discourse was rampant and many individuals were sure that they were on the right side of the debate, creating a vigor and verve in the debates surrounding the formation of American governmental institutions. The interactions of people with the branches of government and with each other were being constructed before Americans’ very eyes.

These early developments would lead to a refinement of what a legislature should be, what a governor should be, what the people should be capable of doing, what a convention should be, among many other facets of American political life. Fostering an environment for those debates to occur, and embracing those difficult conversations, ensured that Americans would form a better tailored, more effective government.

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