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

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retrieved:Dec. 11, 2023, 3:28 p.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. 411-15. Print.

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

Thomas McKean: The first objection offered, Mr. President, to the adoption of the proposed system arises from the omission of a bill of rights; and the gentlemen in the opposition have gone (contrary, I think to their former wishes, which were to discuss the plan minutely section after section) from the immediate objects of the first Article into an investigation of the whole system. However, as they have taken this wide and extensive path, I shall, though reluctantly, pursue them. I1t appears then, sir, that there are but seven nations in the world which have incorporated bill or declaration of rights into their system of government. The ancients were unacquainted with any instrument of that kind, and, till the recent establishment of the thirteen United States, the moderns, except Great Britain and Poland (if the Pacta Conventa of that kingdom may be so considered) have not recognized its utility. Hence, sir, if any argument is to be drawn from the example of other countries, we find that far the greatest number, and those most eminent for their power and wisdom, have not deemed a declaration of rights in any degree essential to the institution of government or the preservation of civil liberty. But, sir, it has already been incontrovertibly shown that on the present occasion a bill of rights was totally unnecessary, and that it might be accompanied with some in conveniency and danger if there was any defect in the attempt to enumerate the privileges of the people. This system proposes a union of thirteen sovereign and independent states in order to give dignity and energy to the transaction of their common concerns. It would be idle, therefore, to countenance the idea that any other powers were delegated to the general government than those specified in the Constitution itself, which, as I have before observed, amounts in fact to a bill of rights a declaration of the people in what manner they choose to be governed.2 I am happy, Mr. President, to find that no objection has been taken to the forms and structure of the proposed system, to the two branches of legislation, the unity of the executive power, and the qualified negative upon laws which is vested in the President. Objections on this subject, indeed, might easily have been answered since it is evident without the distribution of powers here made, the legislature would naturally have absorbed the authority of every other department, but particularly of the executive. It has, I am persuaded, been satisfactorily proved by my honorable colleague, that the suggestions which represent this system as being expressly calculated to annihilate the sovereignty and independence of the states are groundless and delusive; for he made it evident that the existence of the states is a thing without which the federal functions cannot be organized and supplied, and therefore, the dissolution of the individual and general governments must be concurrent if the state legislatures fail, the Congress of the United States must likewise be at an end, inasmuch as the annihilation of that power which is alone competent to elect must be followed by the annihilation of the body which is the object of its election. But it is argued that the power of changing the time and place of elections transfers to Congress an authority which ought exclusively to reside in the respective states, and which will eventuallye3nable that body to act independent of the several governments. In this respect, sir, it must be remembered that in the first instance the states are authorized to regulate the time, place, and proceedings of elections, and while they act with propriety there can be little reason to suppose Congress will officiously interfere. But, if, as it has been suggested by the honorable member from the city an inconvenient situation should be appointed for holding the election, or if the time and manner should be made inconsistent with the principles of a pure and constitutional election, can it be doubted that the federal government ought to be enabled to make the necessary reform in a business so essential to its own preservation and prosperity? If, for instance, the states should direct the suffrage of their citizens to be delivered viva voce, is it not necessary that the Congress should be authorized to change that mode, so injurious to the freedom of election, into the mode by ballot, so happily calculated to preserve the suffrages of the citizens from bias and influence? This was one object, I am persuaded, which weighed with the late Convention in framing this clause; and we farther collect their solicitude to prevent, as much as possible, an undue influence of wealth and talents in the important choice of Representatives from that regulation which expressly declares that the day of election shall be the same throughout the United States. By this means it is evident that the influence which is naturally acquired by extraordinary talents, activity, and, wealth will be restricted in its operation, and the great men of one district deprived of all opportunity to interfere in the elections of another. Reviewing then, sir, the objections to the power given to the proposed government for superintending the time , place, and manner of choosing its members, they seem to be the offspring of fancy, unsupported by real or probable argument, while the power itself is proved to be a wise and rational subject of delegation. It is next said, Mr. President, and it is reasoned upon as a fact, that the Congress will enjoy over the thirteen states, an uncontrolled power of legislation in all cases whatsoever; and it is repeated, again and again, in one common phrase, that the future governors may do what they please with the purses of the people, for there is neither restriction nor reservation in the Constitution which they will be appointed to administer. Sir, there is not a power given in the Article before us that is not in its expression, clear, plain, and accurate, and in its nature proper and absolutely necessary to the great objects of the Union. To support this assertion, permit me to recapitulate the contents of the Article immediately before us. First, then, it is declared that "the Congress shall have power to lay, and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common4 defence and general welfare of the United States." Thus, sir, as it is not the object of this government merely to make laws for correcting wicked and unruly men, but to protect the citizens of an extensive empire from exterior force and injury, it was necessary that powers should be given adequate to the discharge of so important a duty. But the gentlemen exclaim that here lies the source of excessive taxation, and that the people will be plundered and oppressed. What is there, however, that should render it a more dangerous trust in the hands of the general than of a particular government?5 For, is it not as much in the power of the state legislatures at this day to do all this mischief, as it will be hereafter in the power of Congress? The truth is, sir, that the great restraint upon excessive taxation arises from this consideration, that the same act by which a representative imposes a tax upon his constituents extends to himself and all his connections, friends, and acquaintances, so that he never will attempt to lay a greater burthen upon the people than he is convinced is necessary for the public service and easy to be borne. Besides this natural security, which applies equally to the individual and the general government of the states, the people will, from time to time, have it in their power to remove those persons who have promoted any measure that tends to injure and oppress them. In short, sir, it seems that the honorable members are so afraid the Congress will do some mischief that they are determined to deny them the power to do any good. But we must divest ourselves of this extravagant jealousy, and remember that it is necessary to repose some degree of confidence in the administration of a government from which we expect the revival of commerce, the encouragement of arts, and the general happiness of the people. To whose judgment, indeed, could be so properly referred the determination of what is necessary to accomplish those important objects, as the judgment of a Congress elected, either directly or indirectly, by all the citizens of the United States? For if the people discharge their duty to themselves, the persons that compose that body will be the wisest and best men amongst us; the wisest to discover the means of common defense and general welfare, and the best to carry those means into execution without guile, injustice, or oppression. But is it not remarkable, Mr. President, that the power of raising money which is thought dangerous in the proposed system is, in fact, possessed by the present Congress, though a single house without checks and without responsibility. Let us now pr6oceed, sir, to the succeeding detail of the powers of the proposed government. That Congress shall have the power to borrow money on the credit of the United States is not objected to, nor are the powers to regulate trade, to establish general rule naturalization, and to enact uniform laws on the subject of bankruptcies.7 The power to coin money and regulate its value must be esteemed highly advantageous to the states, for hitherto its fluctuation has been productive of great confusion and fraudulent finesse. But when this power has established certain medium throughout the United States, we shall know the extent and operation of our contracts, in what manner we are to pay, or to be paid; no illicit practice will expose property to a sudden and capricious depreciation, and the traveler will not be embarrassed with the different estimates of the same coin in the different districts through which he passes.8 The punishment of forgery and the establishment of post offices and post roads are subjects confessedly proper to be comprehended within the federal jurisdiction, and the power of securing to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their writings and discoveries could only with effect be exercised by the Congress.9 For, sir, the laws of the respective states could only operate within their respective boundaries, and therefore, a work which had cost the author his whole life to complete, when published in one state, however it might there be secured, could easily be carried into another state in which a republication would be accompanied with neither penalty nor punishment—a circumstance manifestly injurious to the author in particular, and to the cause of science in general. The next powers enumerated are those for constituting tribunals inferior to the Supreme Court, for defining and punishing piracies and offenses against the law of nations, and for declaring war, to which no objection has been made, and, I am persuaded, none can be made with reason and propriety.10 But, sir, the power to raise and support armies has occasioned infinite opposition and has been clothed in all the terrors which a jealous and heated imagination could conceive. Is it not necessary however, Mr. President, that some power should exist capable of collecting and directing the national strength against foreign force, Indian depredations, or domestic insurrection? If that power is necessary, where could it otherwise reside, what other body is competent to carry it effectually into operation? For my part, sir, I can perceive that the power is absolutely necessary to support the sovereignty and preserve the peace of the Union, and, therefore, I will not idly argue against its use from the possible abuse, an argument, which, as it applies to every other power as well as that under our immediate consideration, would supersede all the attributes of government and defeat every purpose of society.11