Constitution Sunday: Robert Whitehill at the Pennsylvania Convention

Pennsylvania Ratifying Convention.

November 30, 1787.

At the Pennsylvania Convention, Robert Whitehill rose to speak about the proposed Constitution including—and perhaps especially—its biggest flaw. To Whitehill, despite the fact that the country’s learned people devised the Constitution, “the defect is in the system itself,—there lies the evil which. no argument can palliate, no sophistry can disguise.” The Constitution, as it was written, “must eventually annihilate the independent sovereignty of the several states” given the power that the Constitution allotted to the federal government.

Whitehill argued that the first article of the Constitution alone—that which delineates the responsibilities of Congress—”comprises the grants of powers so superlative in their nature, and so unlimited in their extent, that without the aid of any other branch of the system, a foundation rests upon this article alone, for the extension of the federal jurisdiction to the most extravagant degree of arbitrary sway.” Empowering the federal Congress to such an extent had the effect of robbing “the people of their liberties” as the powers that Congress was to possess would be too great for the people to “counteract or resist.” It would begin with elections: because Congress had the power to “make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this constitution in this government of the United States, or in any department or office thereof,” it would bring powers into its execution that Congress “should provide for its election in such manner as will prevent the federal business from being frustrated, by the listless or refractory disposition of the states, individually.”

Power in Congress would be held by the Senators and Representatives of its two chambers, and neither would be restricted by a limitation on the number of terms he or she may serve. Because federal elections “will always be adapted to the objects of the Congress, or its leading demagogues; and as that body will ultimately declare what shall constitute the qualification of its members, all the boasted advantages of representation must terminate in idle form and expensive parade.” To Whitehill, “what was necessary to the safety and energy of the government, some attention ought surely to have been paid to the safety and freedom of the people.” The responsibility was on his generation: “it is our duty to take care that the foundation of this system is so laid, that the superstructure, which is to be reared by other hands, may not cast a gloom upon the temple of freedom, the recent purchase of our toil and treasure.” Because the draft Constitution would have the effect “of annihilating the constitutions of the several states, and, consequently, the liberties of the people,” Whitehill wanted to ensure that his constituents, himself, and his posterity did not suffer; and thus, he wanted to “exert every talent with which Heaven has endowed me, to counteract the measures that have been taken for” the Constitution’s adoption.

He perceived that he was not alone in believing that the architects of the Constitution had constructed a system that would “absorb and abolish the individual sovereignty of the states,” and he did not blame the architects: he hesitated to “impute to them an intention corresponding with the principles and operation of their own work.” But the system would lead to the “dissolution of our state constitutions” and “produce the ruin of civil liberty,” and given those results, he was “satisfied to judge of the tree by its fruit” and oppose the ratification of the Constitution.

Leave a Reply