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.”
Benjamin Lincoln wrote a series of articles in the Boston Magazine and Independent Chronicle that would touch on many of the same subjects as John Adams in his Defence of the Constitution. See Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 576.
The Federalists, in overseeing the creation of the modern political system, culminating in the Constitution, had inadvertently changed not only the structure of government but also the trajectory of American politics.
Looking to the state governments’ creation of their respective senates, as explained in The Birth of the Senate, the creation of the Senate in the Constitution was a given, when the Constitutional Convention began. See Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 553.
In the 1780s, Americans, like John Dickinson, observed that “[p]eople once respected their governors, their senators, their judges and their clergy; they reposed confidence in them; their laws were obeyed, and the states were happy in tranquility.” Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, Ford, ed., Pamphlets, 188. The authority of the government was declining. Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 507. Read more
Americans’ political beliefs were rapidly changing as the American Revolution progressed into the early years of the Republic. In fact, those beliefs were “constantly in flux, continually adapting and adjusting to ever-shifting political and social circumstances.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 438.
Much of the progress that America experienced during the Revolution happened as a result of the Founding Fathers’ contradictory actions. The Founding Fathers, predominantly privileged, in some ways paid the price of the Revolution in the most noble way.
The political discourse in the years of the American Revolution parallels with the discourse of today. Just as commentators and analysts opine about trends in society, pamphleteers did the same in the Revolutionary years.
For example, pamphleteers believed that American society during the American Revolution was unique, as there was a perception that “wealth does not obtain the same degree of influence here, which it does in old countries.” John F. Roche, Joseph Reed: A Moderate in the American Revolution (N.Y. 1957), 187.