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.”
A Cumberland County Mutual Improvement Society Addresses the Pennsylvania Minority
Carlisle Gazette, (Pennsylvania), January 2, 1788
One of the most frequent dooming political predictions that Americans—of any political persuasion—tend to make is that the end of the Republic, and therefore the end of liberty, has come. This prediction even goes back to the debate of the Constitution in 1788, which a minority in the State Convention of Pennsylvania opposed. The prediction persists because the circumstances under which a republic ends are amorphous as the Cumberland County Mutual Improvement Society’s makes clear in its address supporting the minority at the State Convention:
“The history of mankind is pregnant with frequent, bloody, and almost imperceptible transitions from freedom to slavery. Rome, after she had been long distracted by the fury of the patrician and plebeian parties, at length found herself reduced to the most abject slavery under a Nero, a Caligula, &c. The successive convulsions, which happened at Rome, were the immediate consequence of the aspiring ambition of a few great men, and the very organization and construction of the government itself.”
“Publius,” The Federalist XXII [Alexander Hamilton]
New-York Packet, December 14, 1787
A well-functioning democracy must be capable of recognizing and dealing with the friction that occurs between the minority and the majority on any given issue. As Alexander Hamilton wrote, in the Federalist XXII, the difference between a vote requiring a simple majority versus a vote requiring a two-thirds majority is one that—the latter—empowers a small, vocal minority to obtain significant power over two-thirds of the body. Furthermore, it enables foreign powers—who may be seeking to “perplex our councils and embarrass our exertions”—to sway the policymaking of our country by using that method to encourage factions to block legislation that may be harmful to that foreign power but beneficial to us. Read more
“Publius,” The Federalist XVI [Alexander Hamilton]
New-York Packet, December 4, 1787
When any union or confederacy of states or provinces decide to form a nation, it does so with its citizens knowing that members may “alarm the apprehensions, inflame the passions, and conciliate the good will even” in those states that were not “chargeable with any violation, or omission of duty” but had influence to be obtained. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist XVI, when there are associates not found “at home, recourse would be had to the aid of foreign powers, who would seldom be disinclined to encouraging the dissentions of a confederacy, from the firm Union of which they had so much to fear.” The consequences of such an event are substantial: “When the sword is once drawn, the passions of men observe no bounds of moderation. The suggestions of wounded pride, the instigations of irritated resentment, would be apt to carry the States, against which the arms of the Union were exerted to any extremes necessary to revenge the affront, or to avoid the disgrace of submission. The first war of this kind would probably terminate in a dissolution of the Union.” Read more
With the draft Constitution having been published for consideration by the residents of each state in 1787 came questions about whether and how the federal government would effectuate its responsibilities given the vast land that the states and territories had already comprised—which James Madison found to be framed by the Atlantic Ocean and the Mississippi River. Madison, in The Federalist XIV, articulated the reasoning behind the Constitution’s model for government, and at the heart of that reasoning was that this new form of government was not going to be a pure democracy of yore but rather a modern republic: “The true distinction” between a democracy and a republic is “that in a democracy, the people meet and exercise the government in person; in a republic they assemble and administer it by their representatives and agents. A democracy consequently will be confined to a small spot. A republic may be extended over a large region.” Read more
At the heart of a healthy democracy is the power for people or their representatives to create, modify, or repeal the laws for those laws inevitably govern nearly all aspects of life. The New York Journal published an article that dissected fair representation in the proposed Constitution:
“The object of every free government is the public good, and all lesser interests yield to it. That of every tyrannical government, is the happiness and aggrandisement of one, or a few, and to this the public felicity, and every other interest must submit. Read more
Following are excerpts from an anonymous article published in the New York Journal:
“To the Citizens of the State of New-York.
In my last number I endeavored to prove that the language of the article relative to the establishment of the executive of this new government was vague and inexplicit, that the great powers of the President Read more
In 1833, a French engineer, Michel Chevalier, arrived in America and was fascinated by the infrastructure that surrounded him. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 241.
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.