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.”
“Your first attempt is to apologize for so very obvious a defect as—the omission of a declaration of rights. This apology consists in a very ingenious discovery; that in the state constitutions, whatever is not reserved is given; but in the congressional constitution, whatever is not given, is reserved. Read more
Thomas Paine described the Constitution as “not a thing in name only; but in fact . . . . It is the body of elements, to which you can refer, and quote article by article; and which contains . . . every thing that relates to the complete organization of a civil government, and the principles on which it shall act, and by which it shall be bound.” Paine, Rights of Man, Foner, ed., Writings of Paine, I, 278.
In the earliest years of the American Republic, individuals like James Madison, Samuel Williams, Charles Pinckney, and Samuel Langdon concluded that no country had created a better model for representative government than America’s. See Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 596.
The political theory that emerged from the Revolution and the debates surrounding the Constitution was not “a matter of deliberation as it was a matter of necessity.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 593.