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title:“Alexander J. Dallas' Notes of the Pennsylvania Ratification Convention”
date written:1787-11-30

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last updated:Jan. 22, 2013, 8:05 a.m. UTC
retrieved:Jan. 20, 2018, 2:51 a.m. UTC

"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. 429-33. Print.

Alexander J. Dallas' Notes of the Pennsylvania Ratification Convention (November 30, 1787)

THOMAS HARTLEY: It has been uniformly admitted, sir, by every man who has written or spoken upon the subject, that the existing Confederation of the states is inadequate to the duties of a general government. The lives, the liberties, and the property of the citizens are no longer protected and secured; so that necessity compels us to seek beneath another system, some safety for our most invaluable rights and possessions. It is, then, the opinion of many wise and good men, that the Constitution presented by the late Federal Convention will in a great measure afford the relief which is required by the wants and weakness of our present situation; but, on the other hand, it has been represented an instrument to undermine the sovereignty of the states and destroy the liberties of the people. It is the peculiar duty of this Convention to investigate the truth of those opinions and to adopt or reject the proposed Constitution, according to the result of that investigation. For my part, I freely acknowledge, Mr. President, that, impressed with a strong sense of the public calamities, I regard the system before us as the only prospect which promises to relieve the distresses of the people and to advance the national honor and interests of America. I shall therefore offer such arguments in opposition to the objections raised by the honorable delegates from Cumberland and Fayette, as have served to establish my judgment, and will, I hope, communicate some information to the judgments of the worthy members who shall favor me with a candid attention.1 The first objection is, that the proposed system is not coupled with a bill of rights, and therefore, it is said, there is no security for the liberties of the people. This objection, sir, has been ably refuted by the honorable members from the city and will admit of little more animadversion than has already been bestowed upon it in the course of their arguments. It is agreed, however, that the situation of a British subject and that of an American citizen in the year 1776 were essentially different; but it does not appear to be accurately understood in what manner the people of England became enslaved before the reign of King John. Previously to the Norman Conquest, that nation certainly enjoyed the greatest portion of civil liberty then known in the world. But when William, accompanied by a train of courtiers and dependents, seized upon the Crown, the liberties of the vanquished were totally disregarded and forgotten, while titles, honors, and estates were distributed with a liberal hand among his needy and avaricious followers.2 The lives and fortunes of the ancient inhabitants became, thus, subject to the will of the usurper, and no stipulations were made to protect and secure them from the most wanton violations. Hence, sir, arose the successful struggles in the reign of John, and to this source may be traced the subsequent exertions of the people for the recovery of their liberties, when Charles endeavored totally to destroy, and the Prince of Orange at the celebrated era of the British Revolution was invited to support them upon the principles declared in the Bill of Rights. Some authors, indeed, have argued that the liberties of the people were derived from the prince, but how they came into his hands is a mystery which has not been disclosed. Even on that principle, however, it has occasionally been found necessary to make laws for the security of the subject, a necessity that has produced the writ of habeas corpus, which affords an easy and immediate redress for the unjust imprisonment of the person, and the trial by jury, which is the fundamental security for every enjoyment that is valuable in the contemplation of a freeman. These advantages have not been obtained by the influence of a bill of rights, which, after all, we find is an instrument that derives its validity only from the sanction and ratification of the prince. How different then is our situation from the circumstances of the British nation? As soon as the independence of America was declared in the year 1776, from that instant all our natural rights were restored to us, and we were at liberty to adopt any form of government to which our views or our interests might incline us. This truth, expressly recognized by the act, declaring our independence, naturally produced another maxim, that whatever portion of those natural rights we did not transfer to the government was still reserved and retained by the people; for, if no power was delegated to the government, no right was resigned by the people; and if a part only of our national rights was delegated, is it not absurd to assert that we have relinquished the whole? Where then is the necessity of a formal declaration that those rights are still retained, of the resignation of which no evidence can possibly be produced? Some articles indeed, from their preeminence in the scale of political security, deserve to be particularly specified, and these have not been omitted in the system before us. The definition of treason, the writ of habeas corpus, and the trial by jury in criminal cases are here expressly provided for; and in going thus far, solid foundation has been laid. The ingenuity of the gentlemen who are inimical to the proposed Constitution may serve to detect an error, but can it furnish a remedy? They have told us that a bill of rights ought to have been annexed; but, while some are for this point, and others for that, is it not evidently impracticable to frame an instrument which will be satisfactory to the wishes of everyman, who thinks himself competent to propose and obviate objections. Sir, it is enough for me that the great cardinal points of a free government are here secured without the useless enumeration of privileges under the popular appellation of a bill of rights. The second objection which I have been able to collect from the arguments of the honorable members in opposition is this, that annual elections are not recognized and established by this Constitution. I confess, Mr. President, the business of elections is a very important object in the institution of a free government; but I am of opinion that their frequency must always depend upon the circumstances of the country. In a small territory, an annual election is proper and convenient, but in a jurisdiction extending1500 miles, through various climates, even if practicable, it would bean idle and burthensome arrangement. If, for instance, a delegate to the Congress were obliged to travel 7or 800 miles to Georgia or Carolina, he could scarcely have entered upon the duties of his appointment before the year would be past and his authority annulled. Let us look at the nations in Europe, and by way of illustration let us suppose particularly that it was necessary in Denmark to meet in Copenhagen, the seat of government, from districts at the distance of seven hundred miles, would it not be proper to extend the period of service, in proportion to the time required for collecting the scattered members of the body politic? In England, indeed, a compact and cultivated country, through which the communication is never interrupted, an annual election might be productive of great advantages, and could be attended with few inconveniencies; but, as I have already represented, the case must here be essentially different.I3f then, this objection is answered, so likewise must be the objection which has been next offered, that the appropriation of public monies for the maintenance of a military force may be for a period of two years, whereas in England it is only for one; since the same reasons which made it necessary to deviate from annual elections, must render it necessary to extend those appropriations.4 The power granted to levy taxes is another subject for opposition; and, at first view, indeed, it may naturally excite some astonishment. But, Mr. President, it is necessary that those who are authorized to contract debts upon the public faith should likewise be invested with the means for discharging those debts. We have fatally experienced that recommendations are incompetent to that object, for what part of our foreign obligations have they hitherto been able to discharge? Let us, however, suppose, that by the operation of federal recommendations, it is possible to accomplish the payment of our existing debts—where is the faith so credulous that will advance us another shilling upon the same security?B5ut on the other hand, establish a power which can discharge its engagement, and you insure the confidence and friendship of the world. The power of taxation is then, a great and important trust; but we lodge it with our own representatives, and as long as we continue virtuous we shall be safe, for they will not dare to abuse it. We now come, sir, to the objection which seems to spread the greatest alarm, and in support of which much labor and ingenuity have been displayed. That the rights now proposed by the states will in some degree be abridged by the adoption of the proposed system has never been denied; but it is only in that degree which is necessary and proper to promote the great purposes of the Union. A portion of our natural rights are given up, in order to constitute society; and so it is here, a portion of the rights belonging to the states individually is resigned, in order to constitute an efficient confederation. But, Mr. President, I do not know any instance in ancient history exactly similar to the situation of this country. The allusion which was made by the honorable member from Fayette to the Roman annals is incapable of a just application to the subject in discussion; for the senate, at the period to which he has referred, was not created by election, but appointed by the mandate of the prince. The power of life and death was exclusively possessed by the emperor, and the senate had no authority but what he pleased to bestow. In modern history there is indeed one event which seems to be in point. When the union was about to be formed between Scotland and England, in the reign of Queen Anne, wise men of all descriptions opposed the transaction, and, particularly, it was the subject of clamor among the clergy of every denomination. Lord Peterborough compared it to Nebuchadnezzar's image of iron and clay; and then, as it is now, the annihilation of the inferior power was warmly predicted by the wise men of the north. But, sir, those fears and prognostications have been dissipated and disappointed by the event, and every liberal Scotchman will acknowledge he has gained by the bargain. Let it now be remarked that though Scotland sends only forty-five members to the British Parliament, yet its judiciary and religious establishments being secured to them by the union, it has never been alleged that the superintending power has in any degree intruded upon those rights or infringed the general tenor of the compact. Here then is an instance of a kingdom preserved, even where the law is made and proceeds from a different and distant country. With respect to the German confederation, if anything can thence be drawn, it is an inference contrary to the doctrine contended on the part of the opposition. There, sir, a number of deputies meet in general diet and make certain laws which are to pervade the Germanic body. But has this general head subverted the independence and liberties of its constituent members? No, for, on the reverse, we find the House of Austria, a single branch, has become superior to the whole, except the king of Prussia, who is likewise formidable, but it is in his power and influence over the general system. Upon the whole, Mr. President, I sincerely think that the opinions of the worthy gentlemen are mistaken, and that their fears are vain and extravagant; for it is necessary that something should be done, and this plan, waiving any compliment to its excellence, is, at least, an eligible one.6

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