Constitution Sunday: Reply to Wilson’s Speech: “Cincinnatus” [Arthur Lee] I

Reply to Wilson’s Speech: “Cincinnatus” [Arthur Lee] I

New York Journal, November 1, 1787

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

“Your first attempt is to apologize for so very obvious a defect as—the omission of a declaration of rights. This apology consists in a very ingenious discovery; that in the state constitutions, whatever is not reserved is given; but in the congressional constitution, whatever is not given, is reserved. This has more the quaintness of a conundrum, than the dignity of an argument. The conventions that made the state and the general constitutions, sprang from the same source, were delegated for the same purpose—that is, for framing rules by which we should be governed, and ascertaining those powers which it was necessary to vest in our rulers. Where then is this distinction to be found, but in your assumption? Is it in the powers given to the members of convention? no—Is it in the constitution? not a word of it:—And yet on this play of words, this dictum of yours, this distinction without a difference, you would persuade us to rest our most essential rights. I trust, however, that the good sense of this free people cannot be so easily imposed on by professional figments. The confederation, in its very outset, declares—that what is not expressly given, is reserved. This constitution makes no such reservation. The presumption therefore is, that the framers of the proposed constitution, did not mean to subject it to the same exception.”

“But you choose to shew our fellow citizens, nothing but what would flatter and mislead them. You exhibited, that by a rush-light only, which, to dissipate its darkness, required the full force of the meridian sun. When the people are fully apprized of the chains you have prepared for them, if they choose to put them on, you have nothing to answer for. If they choose to be tenants at will of their liberties, by the new constitution; instead of having their freehold in them, secured by a declaration of rights; I can only lament it. There was a time, when our fellow citizens were told, in the words of Sir Edward Coke—For a man to be tenant at will of his liberty, I can never agree to it—Etiam si Dominus non sit molestus, tamen miserremum est, posse, se vebit—Though a despot may not act tyrannically; yet it is dreadful to think, that if he will, he may. Perhaps you may also remember, Sir, that our fellow citizens were then warned against those—’smooth words, with which the most dreadful designs may be glossed over.’ You have given us a lively comment on your own text. You have varnished over the iron trap that is prepared, and bated with some illustrious names, to catch the liberties of the people.”

Arthur Lee’s Antifederalist response to James Wilson’s speech captures the spirit underlying both the Ninth Amendment and Tenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

The Ninth Amendment states: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

The Tenth Amendment states: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”

These amendments were intended to protect the people, and the states, against any tyranny that may arise on the federal level. In making his argument against the proposed Constitution, Lee looks to the various state constitutions and the spirit of those state constitutions to say that there must be an express reservation of rights and that James Wilson’s words, or any other Federalist’s words for that matter, should not be sufficient to satisfy concerns about the Constitution’s meaning.

This insistence was rooted in the prevention of tyranny, a common theme for Antifederalists and for Americans generally. However, Lee’s skepticism and lack of trust is quite clear as he invoked Sir Edward Coke to imply that James Wilson’s smooth words masked an evil that must be revealed. Lee’s eloquent and illustrious language undoubtedly gave credibility to the Antifederalists and helped move Americans toward adoption of the Ninth and Tenth Amendments.

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