Log In Register

Source & Citation Info

title:“Alexander J. Dallas' Notes of the Pennsylvania Ratification Convention”
authors:Anonymous
date written:1787-11-28

permanent link
to this version:
http://consource.org/document/alexander-j-dallas-notes-of-the-pennsylvania-ratification-convention-1787-11-28-5/20130122080806/
last updated:Jan. 22, 2013, 8:08 a.m. UTC
retrieved:July 17, 2018, 2:52 p.m. UTC

transcription
citation:
"Alexander J. Dallas' Notes of the Pennsylvania Ratification Convention." The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution. Vol. 2. Ed. Merrill Jensen. Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 1976. 415-20. Print.

Alexander J. Dallas' Notes of the Pennsylvania Ratification Convention (November 28, 1787)

Having thus, Mr. President, recapitulated the powers delegated by 1the proposed Constitution, it appears to me that they are necessary to the objects of the Union, and therefore entitled to our confirmation. Nor am I, sir, impressed with the opinion, which has given so much pain to the worthy gentlemen in the opposition, that the powers are so vaguely expressed, so indefinite and extensive in their nature that they may hereafter be stretched to every act of legislation, and construed to imply something beyond what is here specified. To evince that the powers enumerated in this Article are all the powers given to the proposed Congress, we need only refer to the clause in the section which I have just discussed that grants to that body a right of exclusive jurisdiction in any district of ten miles, which shall hereafter, with the consent of the inhabitants, become the seat of federal government. Does not this clearly prove, sir, that their right of exclusive jurisdiction is restricted to that district, and that with respect to the United States at large, their jurisdiction must be measured by the powers actually contained in the instrument before us? For, no proposition can, surely, be more clear than this, that in every grant, whatever is not mentioned must, from the nature of the thing, be considered as excluded.2 But, sir, we are repeatedly told that, however specious the enumeration may be, yet by the sixth Article, a general authority is given to the acts of the proposed government which renders its powers supreme and unlimited. Let us attend to this assertion and compare it with the Article referred to. There it is said, Mr. President, that "this constitution, and the laws of the United States, which shall be made in pursuance thereof, and all treaties made, or which shall be made under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, any thing in the constitution or laws of any state, to the contrary notwithstanding. Now, sir, what does this prove? The meaning which appears to be plain and well expressed is simply this, that Congress have the power of making laws upon any subject over which the proposed plan gives them a jurisdiction, and that those laws, thus made in pursuance of the Constitution, shall be binding upon the states. With respect to treaties, I believe there is no nation in the world in which they are not considered as the supreme law of the land, and, consequently, obligatory upon all judges and magistrates. They are a common concern, and obedience to them ought to be a common duty. As indeed, the interest of all the states must be uniformly in the contemplation of Congress, why should not that body be authorized to legislate for all? I earnestly hope, sir, that the statutes of the federal government will last till they become the common law of the land, as excellent and as much valued as that which we have hitherto fondly denominated the birthright of an American.3 Such, Mr. President, are the objects to which the powers of the proposed government extend. Nor is it entirely left to this evident principle, that nothing more is given than is expressed, to circumscribe the federal authority. For, in the ninth section of the first Article, we find the powers so qualified that not a doubt can remain. In the first clause of that section, there is a provision made for an event which must gratify the feelings of every friend to humanity. The abolition of slavery is put within the reach of the federal government; and when we con-sider the situation and circumstances of the Southern States, everyman of candor will find more reason to rejoice that the power should be given at all, than to regret that its exercise should be postponedfor twenty years.4 Though Congress will have power to declare war, it is here stipulated that "the privilege of the writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion, the public safety may require it"; and men will not be exposed to have their actions construed into crimes by subsequent and retrospective laws, for it is expressly declared that "no bill of attainder or ex post facto law shall be passed."5 Though Congress will have the power to lay duties and taxes, yet, "no capitation or other direct tax shall be laid, unless in proportion to the census or actual enumeration of the states, nor can any tax or duty be laid on articles of exportation."This wise regulation, sir, has been successfully practiced by England and Ireland; while the commerce of Spain by a different conduct has been weakened and destroyed. The next restriction on the powers of Congress respects the appropriation of the public funds. "For no money shall be drawn from the treasury, but in consequence of appropriations - made by law; and a regular statement and account of the receipts and expenditures of all public money shall be published from time to time." What greater security could be required or given upon this important subject? First, the money must be appropriated by law, then drawn for according to that appropriation, and lastly, from time to time, an account of the receipts and expenditures must be submitted to the people, who will thus be enabled to judge of the conduct of their rulers and, if they see cause to object to the use or the excess of the sums raised, they may express their wishes or disapprobation to the legislature in petitions or remonstrances, which, if just and reasonable, cannot fail to be effectual. Thus, sir, if any power is given, you cannot in my opinion give less-for less would be inadequate to the great objects of the government, and would neither enable Congress to pay the debts or provide for the common defense of the Union.6 The last restriction mentioned prohibits Congress "from granting titles of nobility, and the officers of the pro-posed government from accepting without the consent of Congress, any present, emolument, office or title of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state."7 The section which follows these qualifications of the powers of Congress prescribes some necessary limits to the powers of the several states; among which, I find with particular satisfaction, it is declared that "no state shall emit bills of credit, or make any thing but gold and silver coin a tender in payment of debts." By this means, sir, some security will be offered for the discharge of honest contracts and an end put to the pernicious speculation upon paper emissions-a medium which has undermined the morals and relaxed the industry of the people, and from which one half of the controversies in our courts of justice has arisen.8 Upon the whole, Mr. President, I must repeat, that I perceive nothing in this system which can alarm or intimidate the sincerest friend to the liberties of his country. The powers given to the government are necessary to its existence and to the political happiness of the people- while the objections which are offered, arise from an evident perversion of its principles and the presumption of a meaning which neither the framers of the system nor the system itself ever meant. True it is, sir, that a form more pleasing and more beneficial to the State of Pennsylvania might be devised; but let it be remembered, that this truth likewise applies to each of our sister states, whose separate interests - have been proportionally sacrificed to the general welfare. And after all, Mr. President, though a good system is certainly a blessing, yet the wealth, the prosperity, and the freedom of the people must ultimately depend upon the administration of the best government. The wisdom, probity, and patriotism of the rulers will ever be the criterion of public prosperity; and hence it is, that despotism, if well administered, is the best form of government invented by human ingenuity. We have seen nations prosperous and happy under monarchies, aristocracies, and governments compounded these, and to what can we ascribe their felicity but the wise and prudent con- duct of those who exercise the powers of government? For experience will demonstrate that the most perfect system may be so perverted as to produce poverty and misery, and the most despotic so executed as to disseminate affluence and happiness among the people.9 But, sir, perfection is not to be expected in the business of this life; and it is so ordered by the wisdom of Providence that as our stay in this world seldom exceeds three score and ten years, we may not become too reluctant to part with its enjoyments, but by reflecting upon the imperfections of the present, learn in time to prepare for the perfections of a future state. Let us then, Mr. President, be content to accept this system as the best which can be obtained. Everyman may think and many a man has said, that he could make it better; but, sir, as I observed on a former occasion with respect to religion, this is nothing more than opinion, and every person being attached to his own, it will be difficult indeed to make any number of men correspond in the same objects of amendment.10 The excellent letter which accompanies - the proposed system will furnish a useful lesson upon this occasion. It deserves to be read with attention and considered with candor. Allow me therefore, sir, to close the trouble which I have given you in discussing the merits of the plan with a perusal of this letter-in the second paragraph of which the reason is assigned for deviating from a single body for the federal government.
"In CONVENTION.
"SIR,
"We have now the honor to submit to the consideration of the United States in Congress assembled, that constitution which has appeared - to us the most adviseable.
"The friends of our country have long seen and desired, that the power of making war, peace and treaties, that of levying money and regulating commerce, and the correspondent executive and judicial authorities should be fully and effectually vested in the general government of the union: but the impropriety delegating such extensive trust to one body of men is evident-Hence results the necessity of a different organization.
"It is obviously impracticable in the federal government of these states, to secure all rights of independent sovereignty to each, and yet provide for the interest and safety all-Individuals entering into society, must give up a share of liberty to preserve the rest. The magnitude of the sacrifice must depend as well on situation and circumstance, as on the object to be obtained. It is at all times difficult to draw with precision the line between those rights which must be surrendered and those which may be reserved; and on the present occasion this difficulty was encreased by a difference among the several states as to their situation, extent, habits and particular interests. In all our deliberations on this subject we kept steadily in our view, that which appears to us the greatest interest of every true American, the consolidation of our union, in which is involved our prosperity, felicity, safety, perhaps our national existence. This important consideration, seriously and deeply impressed on our minds, led each state in the convention to be less rigid on points of inferior magnitude, than might have been otherwise expected, and thus the constitution, which we now present, is the result of a spirit of amity, and of that mutual deference and concession which the peculiarity of our political situation rendered indispensible.
"That it will meet the full and entire approbation of every state,11 is not perhaps to be expected; but each will doubtless consider, that had her interests been alone consulted, the consequences might have been particularly disagreeable or injurious to others: that it is liable to as few exceptions as could reasonably have been expected, we hope and believe: that it may promote the lasting welfare of that country so dear to us all, and secure her freedom and happiness, is our most ardent wish.-With great respect, we have the honour to be, sir, Your Excellency's most obedient humble servants, GEORGE WASHINGTON, President.
By unanimous Order of the CONVENTION."
I confess, sir, that reading this letter and examining the work to which it refers, though there are some points that I might wish had been otherwise, yet, upon the whole, I am struck with wonder and admiration, that this Constitution should have been rendered so unexceptionable as it is, and that so many men, the representatives of states differing essentially in their views and interests, should have concurred in presenting it to their country.