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title:“Alexander J. Dallas' Notes of the Pennsylvania Ratification Convention”
date written:1787-11-24

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last updated:Jan. 22, 2013, 7:56 a.m. UTC
retrieved:Dec. 11, 2023, 8:00 p.m. UTC

"Alexander J. Dallas' Notes of the Pennsylvania Ratification Convention." The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution. Vol. 2. Ed. Gaspare J. Saladino and John P. Kaminski. Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 1976. 333-37. Print.

Alexander J. Dallas' Notes of the Pennsylvania Ratification Convention (November 24, 1787)

THOMAS McKEAN: Mr. President, there will perhaps be some difficulty in ascertaining the proper mode of proceeding to obtain adecision upon the important and interesting subject before us. We arecertainly without precedent to guide us; but the utility of the forms observed by other public bodies will be an inducement to adhere to them, where a variation of circumstances does not render a variation ofthe mode essentially necessary. As far, therefore, as the rules of the legislature of Pennsylvania will apply to the constitution and business of this body, I shall recommend their adoption, but I perceive that ina very great degree we shall be obliged, for conveniency and propriety, to resort to new regulations, arising from the singularity of the subject offered to our consideration. For the present, however, I shall move you sir, that we come to the following resolution: "Resolved, That this Convention do adopt and ratify the Constitution of federal government as agreed upon by the Federal Convention at Philadelphia onthe 17th day of September, 1787." This measure, Mr. President, is not intended to introduce an instantaneous decision of so important a question, but merely to bring the object of our meeting fully and fairly into discussion. It is not my wish that it should be determined this day, nor do I apprehend it will be necessary that it should be determined this day week; but it is merely preparatory to another motion with which I shall hereafter trouble you, and which, in my opinion, will bring on that regular and satisfactory investigation of the separate parts of the proposed Constitution, which will finally enable us to determine upon the whole.
Wilson: As soon as Mr. M'Kean's motion had been read from the table, Mr. Wilson rose, and, in a long and elaborate speech, delineatedthe general principles upon which the Federal Constitution has been founded. The difficulties which the late Convention had to encounter were pointed out, in the extent of the country, its population, andindependent establishments, the various and contending habits, prejudices, and interests of the people, and the want of an applicable example in any of the ancient or modern institutions of governments. The republics of former times, as well as the existing confederations of the Swiss cantons, the United Netherlands, and the Germanic body, were shown to be incapable of furnishing precedent, and the three simple species of governments, the monarchical, aristocratical, anddemocratical, were accurately reviewed to demonstrate that did not singly afford a rule adequate to the exigencies and dominion of the continent. Mr. Wilson then entered into a disquisition of the natureand properties of civil society, civil liberty, and civil government, and, closing this part of his speech with a definition of what, for thefirst time, he designated by the term of "federal liberty," he observedthat the same principles which applied in resigning a portion of thenatural rights of individuals to form society would apply in resigning portion of the civil liberty of each state to form a federal republic; because in both cases the good of the whole must be preferred to apart, and, in truth, more liberty is gained by associating, than islost by the natural rights which it absorbs.1 Having ably discriminated between the advantages and disadvantages of every known species of government, Mr. Wilson observed that it was the objectof the Convention to form such a system as would admit the one butexclude the other, and therefore a federal republic naturally presenteditself to their approbation. The result of their opinions lying for thediscussion of the Convention, it would certainly be asked, afterinvestigating other governments, of what description is the proposedplan? To which Mr. Wilson answered, in its principles, it is surelydemocratical; for, however wide and various the firearms of powermayappear, they may all be traced to one source, the people.
JOHN SMILIE: When Mr. Wilson had concluded, Mr. Smilie rose and entered into a severe animadversion upon the nature of the motion offered by Mr. M'Kean, which however, he observed, was consistent with the system of precipitancy that had uniformly prevailed in respect to the important subject before the Convention. He observed that we were repeatedly told of the peculiar advantages which we enjoy in being able deliberately and peaceably to decide upon a government for ourselves and our posterity, but we find every measure that is proposed leads to defeat those advantages and to preclude allargument and deliberation in a case confessedly of the highest consequence to the happiness of a great portion of the globe. What, continued he, can be the object of the motion? Is it to bring on a hasty and total adoption of the Constitution? Let it be remembered that the Federal Convention consumed four months in framing it, and shall we not employ a few days in deciding upon it? If it is that noble, that perfect system, we have been told it is, why interfere with the fullest investigation of its principles, since, in that case, the better they are understood, the more they will be approved. The most common business of a legislative body is treated with greater delicacy, being submitted to repeated discussion upon different days, and are we on a point of such magnitude to determine without information, to agree in toto to so complicated system before we have weighedand examined its constituent parts? No, sir, it is our duty to go coolly and circumstantially into the consideration of this business, and by comparing it, at least, with the circumstances and exigencies of our country, ask with firmness, "Is such a sacrifice of civil liberty necessary to the national honor and happiness of America?" For my part, I think otherwise, though, at the same time I am sensible of the expediency of giving additional strength and energy to the federal head. But we are not so situated as to be obliged to accept any terms, and if this plan is such as we ought not to accept, I hope this Convention will have candor and fortitude enough to reject it.
THOMAS McKEAN followed Mr. Smilie and remarked that the object of his motion was declared when it was proposed. It was not to preclude, but to promote a free and ample discussion of the federal plan. But as to the precedents which are pointed out from the legislature of Pennsylvania to guide our proceedings, if they were always right, which I do not think they are, still no parallel can be drawn between the nature of their business and ours, consequently their rules cannot apply. We do not come here to legislate; we have no right to inquire into the power of the late Convention or to alter and amend their work; the sole question before us is, whether we will ratify and confirm, or, upon due consideration reject, in the whole, the system of federal government that is submitted to us. But because this is the only question which we can decide, does it follow that we are not minutely to investigate its principles in every section and sentence? No sir, that will be our duty before we conclusively say whether we will ratify or reject; but precedents in point of proceeding cannot be drawn from any part of the world, for we are the first people who have ever peaceably assembled upon so great and interesting an occasion.
ROBERT WHITEHILL stated that, in his opinion, the object of the motion had been misunderstood by the member from Fayette, which was undoubtedly intended to bring the subject fairly before the Convention. Indeed I cannot perceive how we can decide upon the whole without having first considered every part, and in order to do that with conveniency and effect, I presume a motion to go into a committee of the whole Convention, which I mean to propose, will be adopted. Notwithstanding the arrangements, there may be reasonable objections urged against the proposed plan, and if it is found that it conveys to the federal government rights and liberties which the people ought never to surrender, I hope no speculative argument will seduce us into a confirmation, which bind ourselves and our posterity forever.

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