Constitution Sunday: James Wilson’s Opening Address

Pennsylvania Ratifying Convention. November 20 through December 15, 1787. James Wilson’s Opening Address.

November 24, 1787

At the convention in Pennsylvania called for ratifying the draft Constitution, one of the foremost students of history and articulate Americans of his time, James Wilson, delivered the opening address. Just as every great storyteller knows to do, he provided the context for the moment: whereas most governments are created as “the result of force, fraud, or accident,” America “now presents the first instance of a people assembled to weigh deliberately and calmly, and to decide leisurely and peacably, upon the form of government by which they will bind themselves and their posterity.” Past governments, whether that of the Swiss Cantons, the United Kingdom’s monarchy, the United Netherlands, or the ancients—the Achaean and Lycian leagues, the Greeks, the Romans—provided examples for the three forms of government: “Monarchical, Aristocratical, and Democratical.”

For Wilson, each form of government had its clear advantages and disadvantages. A monarchy had “strength, dispatch, and unity” but “expence, tyranny, and war”; an aristocracy benefited from “experienced, and the wisdom resulting from education” but was beset by “disention of the governors, and the oppression of the people”; and a democracy had its “liberty, caution, industry, fidelity, and an opportunity of bringing forward the talents and abilities of the citizens, without regard to birth or fortune” but also had “disention and imbecility, for the assent of many being required, their exertions will be feeble, and their councils too soon discovered.” Those governments, such as the United Kingdom’s, that blended elements of a democracy with a monarchy or aristocracy were more likely to succeed, in Wilson’s eyes, but the key element was that there be power “from which there is no appeal—and which is therefore called absolute, supreme, and uncontroulable” power; and that power must be held by the people of the country. To Wilson, this was “the great panacea of human politics” as it empowered the people to “correct and amend” the errors in government and to “likewise totally to change and reject its form.” With that power, Americans could “never be wretched beyond retrieve, unless they are wanting to themselves.”

The draft Constitution’s merit rested in its synthesizing of the best elements of each form of government. Rather than a House of Lords—filled with members who had power by virtue of little more than being born into a certain family—there would be a Senate that would be designed to capture the educated and influential members of American society. Rather than an almighty despot (which Wilson pointed out that many supposed was the only option for ruling a vast territory such as the Russian Empire), the role of American President would be one of restraint and modesty—at least initially. Then there was the issue of the states and the federal government: whereas collections of states, such as the United Netherlands and the Germanic Body, had “governments and jurisdictions so different in nature and extent, the general purpose and operation of their union so indefinite and uncertain,” the United States, said Wilson, would be different. The Constitution painted the broad strokes for what state governments and the federal government may or may not do, and Wilson held hope that “there will be found such harmony, and in the practice such mutual confidence between the national and individual governments, that every sentiment of jealousy and apprehension will be effectually destroyed.”

Above all, at the heart of the Constitution’s success, for Wilson, was how it distributed power: “But when we take an extensive and accurate view of the streams of power that appear through this great and comprehensive plan, when we contemplate the variety of their directions, the force and dignity of their currents, when we behold them intersecting, embracing, and surrounding the vast possessions and interests of the Continent, and when we see them distributing on all hands, beauty, energy and riches, still, however numerous and wide their courses, however diversified and remote the blessings they diffuse, we shall be able to trace them all to one great and noble source, THE PEOPLE.”

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