Constitution Sunday: Reply to Wilson’s Speech: “An Officer of the Late Continental Army”

Reply to Wilson’s Speech: “An Officer of the Late Continental Army”

Independent Gazetteer (Philadelphia), November 6, 1787

Following are excerpts from an article with an unknown author, published in response to James Wilson’s speech:

“That of the senate is so small that it renders its extensive powers extremely dangerous: it is to consist only of 26 members, two-thirds of whom must concur to conclude any treaty of alliance with foreign powers: Now we will suppose that five of them are absent, sick, dead, or unable to attend, twenty-one will remain, and eight of these (one-third, and one over) may prevent the conclusion of any treaty, even the most favorable to America. Here will be a fine field for the intrigues and even the bribery and corruption of European powers.”

“Rotation, that noble prerogative of liberty, is entirely excluded from the new system of government, and great men may and probably will be continued in office during their lives.”

“Annual elections are abolished, and the people are not to re-assume their rights until the expiration of twofour, and six years.”

“Now then my fellow-citizens, my brethren, my friends; if the sacred flame of liberty be not extinguished in your breasts, if you have any regard for the happiness of yourselves, and your posterity, let me entreat you, earnestly entreat you by all that is dear and sacred to freemen, to consider well before you take an awful step which may involve in its consequences the ruin of millions yet unborn—You are on the brink of a dreadful precipice;—in the name therefore of holy liberty, for which I have fought and for which we have all suffered, I call upon you to make a solemn pause before you proceed. One step more, and perhaps the scene of freedom is closed forever in America. Let not a set of aspiring despots, who make us slaves and tell us ’tis our charter, wrest from you those invaluable blessings, for which the most illustrious sons of America have bled and died—but exert yourselves, like men, like freemen and like Americans, to transmit unimpaired to your latest posterity those rights, those liberties, which have ever been so dear to you, and which it is yet in your power to preserve.”

This Antifederalist writing, perhaps authored by William Findley, touches on two criticisms of the proposed Constitution worth noting: the exclusivity of the Senate and the nature of elections in America.

First, the Senate was specifically designed to be a more aristocratic political body than any of the others created in the Constitution, and the author, perhaps fundamentally disagreeing with it being such an aristocratic body, seemed to only see the dangers of having few members. The Antifederalist principles would not permit the creation of a such a blatantly elite political body, inevitably focusing governmental power in one place. Nonetheless, the Senate would remain unchanged from when the author critiqued it.

Second, the nature of elections troubled the Antifederalist author. The author, in line with many Antifederalists, called for annual elections of all elected offices. Perhaps this is overly idealistic, given the length of political campaigns in modern times. Further, the author points out that there is no rotation of political offices mandated in the Constitution. Of course, this would change in the Twentieth Century for the office of the President, with the adoption of the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

To finish his remarks, the author invokes his military service in the Revolutionary War. He begs the reader to not relinquish his or her freedom that was so fiercely fought for in the war, as the Constitution would inevitably push America into the abyss, doomed to fail.

This rhetoric ought to be remembered. It is tempting to conclude that politics in general has become more negative and that arguments have become so filled with hyperbole and demagoguery in recent times. None of these attributes are new to politics. This author’s response to James Wilson’s speech best captures that fact, as it is clear that as long as there are arguments about the course America is charting (which there always must be, if America has any hope of survival), there will be arguments with positive and negative tones.

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