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title:“Alexander J. Dallas' Notes of the Pennsylvania Ratification Convention”
date written:1787-11-27

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last updated:Jan. 22, 2013, 8:14 a.m. UTC
retrieved:May 21, 2022, 9:42 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. 374-80. Print.

Alexander J. Dallas' Notes of the Pennsylvania Ratification Convention (November 27, 1787)

JAMES WILSON: I am equally opposed, Mr. President, to the amendment and to the original motion. I do not wish, however, in any degree to suppress what may be spoken or done in this Convention. On the contrary, I wish our proceedings may be fully known and perfectly understood by our constituents; and, to extend the scale, by all our fellow citizens of the United States. But we ought to pause and consider well before we communicate all this information at the public expense, for as the motion has been opened and explained, under the influence of that rule, our Minutes may be increased to an immense volume, and yet we have just determined that 3000 copies of them shall be printed.5 I certainly, sir (as well as every other member), will have a right to enter my sentiments and arguments in the manner most satisfactory to myself, and therefore, not only what I may hereafter say, but what I have already said, in order to preserve connection and system in the reasoning, must be admitted. The press is undoubtedly free, but is it necessary to that freedom, that every man's tenets on government should be printed at the public cost? Sir, we are here, as upon many other occasions, referred to the constitution of Pennsylvania; but the privilege indulged in this respect is, in my opinion, one of its exceptionable parts, and the instances of its abuse alluded to by my honorable colleague must excite the indignation of every friend to propriety and decency. Look at the Journals of the legislature of Pennsylvania and you will find altercations there which are adapted to the meridian of Billingsgate. In short, sir, the idea of a protest is not to be found in any other representative body, not even in that of the British House of Commons; and if we must seek a lesson from other constitutions, we might, with great propriety, advert to the one before us by which one-fifth of the members are enabled to call for the yeas and nays, but in no case is it permitted to record the reasons of a vote. Shall we then employ the whole winter in carrying on a paper war at the expense of the state, in spreading clamor and dissension, not only among our own citizens, but throughout the United States? My voice, sir, never shall concur in rendering this room the center from which so many streams of bitterness shall flow. Let the opponents of the proposed plan write as much as they please, let them print when they will, but I trust we shall not agree to indulge them at the expense of those who have sent us hither for a very different purpose.
JOHN SMILIE: It appears, Mr. President, that on this question the gentlemen are divided among themselves.
THOMAS McKEAN: No, sir, there shall be no division. I thought the measure totally improper and only proposed the amendment in compliment to the members who urged the general motion. I now withdraw my amendment and leave the question upon its original ground.
JOHN SMILIE: I am sorry, sir, that the honorable member should so suddenly have retracted his amendment, for it was more satisfactory to me than the original motion which I wish still to be narrowed down to the final question, as, indeed, I do not perceive how it can operate on any other subject, and it will then answer every purpose to which it can be applied without leaving room for the objection on account of the extraordinary expense. It will, indeed, appear exceedingly strange upon this important subject, that we should be denied an opportunity of declaring the reasons that influence our votes-while we are responsible, it is our duty, and while we are bound, it is our right. Nor is it liberal or reasonable to presume that any harm can ensue from this privilege; for the apprehensions which are expressed, lest faction and clamor should be excited among the people, are highly unbecoming the citizens of a free government. An excellent author has observed that slavery succeeds sleep, and the moment parties and political contentions subside among the people, from that moment liberty is at an end. I admit, sir, that if the ferment rises to an extreme it is an evil; but as it originates from a blessing, those who wish to preserve their freedom must bear with its inconveniences. But what is the evil so much dreaded? We are told that protests in past times have been a dishonor and a discredit. But to whom have they been such? Certainly to those who wrote them, and so, if anything unworthy should appear in the protests upon your Journals, the authors alone will be liable to the infamy and odium of their productions. But let us suppose, on the other hand, what I believe to be the real ground of opposition, that the protests should produce a change in the minds of the people and incline them to new measures. Is this an event proper either to be evaded or suppressed? I take it, sir, that even after this Convention shall have agreed to ratify the proposed plan, if the people on better information and maturer deliberation should think it a bad and improper form of government, they will still have a right to assemble another body to consult upon other measures and either in the whole, or in part, to abrogate this federal work so ratified. If this is true, and that it is true a worthy member of the late Convention [James Wilson] admits when he says, the people have at all times a power to alter and abolish government, what cause is there to fear the operation of a protest? The reasons may easily be given in public newspapers, which circulate more widely and more expeditiously than our Journals, and from whatever source the information is derived, as the people have the power, they may, and I believe they will, exercise it, notwithstanding the determinations of this body. The allusion to the conduct of the British Commons will not apply, for they are in no instance called upon to enter their yeas and nays; and after all, it appears to me to be congenial with the spirit of a free government, and if the one before us is free, it will be congenial with the principles of the proposed Constitution that where men are bound by a solemn and recorded vote, their reasons should accompany their assent or dissent, and be together transmitted to posterity.
ROBERT WHITEHILL: I do not think, Mr. President, that if there is any use in the proposed measure, the expense can be a sufficient reason to defeat it. The people ought to be informed. of the principles upon which we have acted, and they ought to know in the clearest manner what is the nature and tendency of the government with which we have bound them. The friends to the Constitution will be pleased to receive arguments in favor of their opinions; those against it will be pleased to show to the world that their opposition does not arise merely from caprice, and the people at large will acknowledge, with thanks, the resulting information upon a subject so important to themselves and their latest posterity. But it is said that there are other means for accomplishing the same end, and that the press is open to those who choose to use it. This surely does not meet the object of the motion. A public paper is of a transient and perishable nature, but the Journals of this house will be a permanent record for posterity, and if ever it becomes a question, upon what grounds we have acted, each man will have his vote justified by the same instrument that records it. But this comparative view cannot take place through the medium of a common newspaper. As, however, it seems the general disposition, I am willing to reduce the motion to the last question, and this at least, I hope will be acceded to. The expense cannot be so great as it is apprehended, and I really consider it essential to the discharge of the commission with which we are entrusted.
JAMES WILSON: It is one reason of my Opposition to this measure that its objects can be effected in another manner than by inserting them in our Journals, and therefore there is no pretense to load the public with an expense for diffusing what is called necessary information, but which in my opinion will terminate in the acrimony of party. But, sir, if there were no other cause of objection, if the thing were proper in itself, the enormous expense that it would occasion would be a conclusive ground for rejecting it. It is asked, however, what is there to fear? Sir, I repeat, that I have not the least dread at the most public and most general promulgation of what is done and spoken here. We know that the same things may as effectually, and, perhaps, more expeditiously, be disseminated through other channels, but let them not in their course, either involve the public in expense nor derive from our countenance a stamp of authenticity.
THOMAS HARTLEY: On consideration, I do not think it necessary, sir, to determine upon the motion at this time. It has been said on one hand, that there is no precedent but in the British House of Lords and in the legislature of Pennsylvania for the practice of protesting; and on the other hand, it is insisted upon from the example of Pennsylvania and the important nature of the subject in discussion. But, sir, it is certain that much misinformation and misrepresentation have at all times proceeded from public bodies. At present, therefore, I wish the question to be waived, otherwise I shall vote against it, although at a future period, when the reasons are produced, I may be disposed to concur.
ROBERT WHITEHILL: The gentleman's idea of a postponement amounts to this: if we like your reasons when we see them, we will permit you to enter them; if we do not, why we will withhold our consent. It is strange to observe how often members change their opinions on this subject. When I asked a general power to protest, it was said, we will not agree to that, but we think you ought to enjoy it on the last great question; then when we narrow our request to that point, even that is refused. Precedent, sir, cannot be adduced on this occasion, for similar situation never has occurred before in the history of the world, nor do we know of any body of men assembled with similar powers to investigate so interesting subject. The importance and singularity of the business must place it beyond any former rule.
ANTHONY WAYNE: As it is probable this subject may hereafter be considered in a different and more proper point of view, I am in favor of the postponement. In the interim the usual channels of expressing their disapprobation of this system are open to the opposition. It has already been tried; and I cannot consent that discord and discontent should be propagated through the state at the public expense; particularly every information may be given in another manner.
ROBERT WHITEHILL and JOHN SMILIE repeated some of the former arguments and concluded with observing that if the motion was negatived, their constituents would, at least, observe that they were anxious to show the grounds of their conduct which they were refused the opportunity of doing.
On taking the question, there appeared a very great majority against the motion.
Mr. McKean then rose and recommended candor and forbearance in the investigation of this important subject. He stated that a difference of opinion was natural to the human mind and was not only to be found in politics, but in religion. He then traced this difference through the various sects of the Christian faith and concluded by expressing his approbation of a legislature constituted by two branches. JAMES WILSON: Sir, I am against the postponement for two reasons- first, because I would not indulge a hope which it is not intended to gratify, and secondly, because I should wish as soon as possible to know the fate of the present motion, that every member may be prepared with his reasons, if it should be adopted, and not have them to look for, at the close of the business. But we are again asked, why suppress the species of information to be propagated by the proposed protests? I thought this question had already been answered satisfactorily when it was said that the public ought not to be loaded with so extraordinary an expense. In truth, sir, the newspapers will answer every proper purpose; and though it is said they are of a transient nature, yet if the reasons are good they will even in that mode be preserved, and if they are bad, I hope we shall not agree to perpetuate at the public cost what ought to be consigned immediately to oblivion. It is added that the expense will be small. Let us inquire then, what will be the consequence of this vote? The minority, dissatisfied with the event of this important business, will first wish to file their reasons, and it would be improper and unjust to deny them the necessary time to digest and arrange them in the best manner. These reasons cannot be answered till they appear, and though they may not possess real merit, they may be plausible and specious, therefore some time will be necessarily given to the majority for framing replication; and so on through an endless succession of assertion - and reply. For my part, I shall certainly expect to be allowed a sufficient time to state my reasons, not only those I have already delivered, but likewise those I may hereafter in the most accurate manner I can; but, as I am perhaps more accustomed to composition than other gentlemen, I shall not ask for that purpose more than two or three months. Shall we then, sir, indulge this procrastinating plan at the expense of 2 or 300 dollars a day, which is the daily expense of this meeting. I hope we shall have a greater regard for the interests of our constituents.

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