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.”

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The Two Scales and the Hand that Holds it

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Benjamin Lincoln. By: John Singer Sargent.

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 ConstitutionSee Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 576.

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A Compound of Aristocracy and Monarchy

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Etching of Jonathan Jackson. By: Max Rosenthal.

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

Guarding Against an Evil

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Benjamin Franklin. By: Joseph Siffred Duplessis.

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.

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The Nobility of the Founding Fathers

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The “Committee of Five,” composed of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston, presenting the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration of Independence. By: John Trumbull.

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.

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Shaping the Contours of the Revolution

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The Copley Family. By: John Singleton Copley, one of the most prominent early American painters of middle-class, ordinary life.

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.

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