Constitution Sunday: Reply to Wilson’s Speech: “Centinel” [Samuel Bryan] II

Reply to Wilson’s Speech: “Centinel” [Samuel Bryan] II

Freeman’s Journal (Philadelphia), October 24, 1787

Following are excerpts from Samuel Bryan’s article, published in response to James Wilson’s speech:

“Friends, countrymen, and fellow-citizens, As long as the liberty of the press continues unviolated, and the people have the right of expressing and publishing their sentiments upon every public measure, it is next to impossible to enslave a free nation. The state of society must be very corrupt and base indeed, when the people in possession of such a monitor as the press, can be induced to exchange the heavenborn blessings of liberty for the galling chains of despotism.—Men of an aspiring and tyrannical disposition, sensible of this truth, have ever been inimical to the press, and have considered the shackling of it, as the first step towards the accomplishment of their hateful domination, and the entire suppression of all liberty of public discussion, as necessary to its support.—For even a standing army, that grand engine of oppression, if it were as numerous as the abilities of any nation could maintain, would not be equal to the purposes of despotism over an enlightened people.”

“The abolition of that grand palladium of freedom, the liberty of the press, in the proposed plan of government, and the conduct of its authors, and patrons, is a striking exemplification of these observations. The reason assigned for the omission of a bill of rights, securing the liberty of the press, and other invaluable personal rights, is an insult on the understanding of the people.”

“Mr. Wilson has recourse to the most flimsey sophistry in his attempt to refute the charge that the new plan of general government will supersede and render powerless the state governments . . . He says that the existence of the proposed federal plan depends on the existence of the State governments, as who are also to nominate the electors who chuse the President of the United States; and that hence all fears of the several States being melted down into one empire, are groundless and imaginary.—But who is so dull as not to comprehend, that the semblance and forms of an ancient establishment, may remain, after the reality is gone.—Augustus, by the aid of a great army, assumed despotic power, and notwithstanding this, we find even under Tiberius, Caligula and Nero, princes who disgraced human nature by their excesses, the shadows of the ancient constitution held up to amuse the people. The senate sat as formerly; consuls, tribunes of the people, censors and other offices were annually chosen as before, and the forms of republican government continued. Yet all this was in appearance only.—Every senatus consultum was dictated by him or his ministers, and every Roman found himself constrained to submit in all things to the despot.”

“[T]he laws of Congress are to be ‘the supreme law of the land, any thing in the Constitutions or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding;’ and consequently, would be paramount to all State authorities. The lust of power is so universal, that a speculative unascertained rule of construction would be a poor security for the liberties of the people.”

“Such a body as the intended Congress, unless particularly inhibited and restrained, must grasp at omnipotence, and before long swallow up the Legislative, the Executive, and the Judicial powers of the several States.”

“The jurisdiction of the federal courts goes, likewise, to the laws to be created by treaties, made by the President and Senate, (a species of legislation) with other nations; ‘to all cases affecting foreign ministers and consuls; to controversies wherein the United States shall be a party; to controversies between citizens of different states,’ as when an inhabitant of New-York has a demand on an inhabitant of New-Jersey.—This last is a very invidious jurisdiction, implying an improper distrust of the impartiality and justice of the tribunals of the states. It will include all legal debates between foreigners in Britain, or elsewhere, and the people of this country . . . . This jurisdiction goes also to controversies between any state and its citizens; which, though probably not intended, may hereafter be set up as a ground to divest the states, severally, of the trials of criminals; inasmuch as every charge of felony or misdemeanour, is a controversy between the state and a citizen of the same: that is to say, the state is plaintiff and the party accused is defendant in the prosecution. In all doubts about jurisprudence, as was observed before, the paramount courts of Congress will decide, and the judges of the state, being sub graviore lege, under the paramount law, must acquiesce.”

“From the foregoing illustration of the powers proposed to be devolved to Congress, it is evidence, that the general government would necessarily annihilate the particular governments, and that the security of the personal rights of the people by the state constitutions is superseded and destroyed; hence results the necessity of such security being provided by a bill of rights to be inserted in the new plan of federal government. What excuse can we then make for the omission of this grand palladium, this barrier between liberty and oppression. For universal experience demonstrates the necessity of the most express declarations and restrictions, to protect the rights and liberties of mankind, from the silent, powerful and ever active conspiracy of those who govern.”

“My fellow citizens, such false detestable patriots in every nation, have led their blind confiding country, shouting their applauses, into the jaws of despotism and ruin. May the wisdom and virtue of the people of America, save them from the usual fate of nations.”

Samuel Bryan’s response to James Wilson’s speech captures the extent of distrust of the then-newly-proposed government in the Constitution. That distrust is best captured in Bryan’s statement that those who govern are continually engaged in a “silent, powerful” conspiracy to deprive the people of their rights and liberties. Bryan’s distrust hones in on more specific elements of the Constitution, however. He observed that the freedom of the press must be implemented through a bill of rights, and other rights must be included.

Bryan also concluded, through comparison to Ancient Rome, that the states could easily be rendered superfluous under the proposed Constitution. This is a curious comparison, however. It must be noted that Ancient Rome, on some level, embraced tyranny and despotism in a way that Americans may not realize. For example, it was not uncommon in the Roman Republic for a dictator to assume power for years at a time, to weather a crisis, and then to relinquish that dictatorship after the crisis had subsided. The noble relinquishment of that dictatorial power is what wrote Cincinnatus into history. Americans’ only engagement with such an absolute power was the British Crown, which had notable differences from Ancient Rome and the American colonies.

Regardless, Bryan’s analysis of James Wilson’s speech deserves attention for another reason: no matter what assurances are given and accommodations made, there will always be some discontent. Unanimity, particularly in formulating the structure of government, is not a realistic possibility. Bryan’s distrust and insistence in changing the Constitution, however, captures the spirit that led to the adoption of the Bill of Rights and expanding of protections for the people, and for that, Americans can be thankful.

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