Constitution Sunday: James Wilson’s Summation and Final Rebuttal

Pennsylvania Ratifying Convention.

December 11, 1787

Before concluding the Pennsylvania Ratifying Convention, James Wilson delivered a closing argument for ratifying the draft Constitution and took on many of his adversaries’ best arguments while presenting the most compelling reasons for adopting the Constitution. To detractors of the Constitution, a most glaring flaw in the document was its creation of a relatively powerful federal government as compared to that existing under the Articles of Confederation. Some called for scrapping the draft Constitution and simply enlarging the powers of the present federal government to make it more effective yet still modest.

One such detractor, Mr. Smilie, argued that the system would “transfer the sovereignty from the state governments to the general government.” Nonsense, said Wilson. The sovereignty resided with the people, and the system on its own; it stood idle without the will of the people. While it is true that “narrow minds” and “intriguing spirits” would “be active in sowing dissentions and promoting discord between them,” each individual and each state would mostly “pursue the general welfare” of all and have a duty to “sacrifice her own convenience to the general good of the union.” For Wilson, the Constitution was the foundation for the state and federal governments; modifications and amendments would follow; but, said Wilson, “[l]et the experiment be made; let the system be fairly and candidly tried, before it is determined that it cannot be executed.”

The Constitutional system “itself tells you what it is; it is an ordinance and establishment of the people.” The Constitution states that the people ordain and establish the principles of their government, and those, like Wilson and other officials, “are merely the proxies of our constituents.” Those officials signed the Constitution as the people’s attorneys, “and as to ourselves, we agree to it as individuals.” It was a moment with gravity. “By adopting this system,” Wilson said, “We shall probably lay a foundation for erecting temples of liberty, in every part of the earth.” He continued:

“It has been thought by many, that on the success of the struggle America has made for freedom, will depend the exertions of the brave and enlightened of other nations.—The advantages resulting from this system, will not be confined to the United States, it will draw from Europe, many worthy characters, who pant for the enjoyment of freedom. It will induce princes, in order to preserve their subjects, to restore to them a portion of that liberty of which they have for many ages been deprived. It will be subservient to the great designs of providence, with regard to this globe; the multiplication of mankind, their improvement in knowledge, and their advancement in happiness.”

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