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

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last updated:Jan. 22, 2013, 8:02 a.m. UTC
retrieved:Dec. 6, 2023, 11:47 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. 395-98. Print.

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

True it is, Mr. President, that if the people intended to engage in one comprehensive system of continental government, the power to frame that system must have been conferred by them, for the legislatures of the states are sworn to preserve the independence of their respective constitutions, and, therefore, they could not consistently with their most sacred obligations, authorize an act which sacrificed the individual to the aggregate sovereignty of the states. But it appears from the origin and nature of the commission under which the late Convention assembled, that a more perfect confederation was the only object submitted to their wisdom, and not, as it is attempted by this plan, the total destruction of the government of Pennsylvania, and of every other state. So far, sir, the interference of the legislatures was proper and efficient; but the moment the Convention went beyond that object, they ceased to act under any legitimate authority; for, the assemblies could give them none, and it cannot be pretended that they were called together by the people; for till the Preamble was produced, it never was understood that the people at large had been consulted upon the occasion, or that otherwise than through their representatives in the several states, they had given a sanction to the proceedings of that body. If, indeed, the Federal Convention, finding that the old system was incapable of repair, had represented the incurable defects to Congress, and advised that the original and inherent power of the people might be called into exercise for the institution of a new government, then, sir, the subject would have come fairly into view, and we should have known upon what principles we proceeded. At present we find a Convention appointed by one authority, but acting under the arbitrary assumption of another, and instead of transacting the business which was assigned to them, behold they have produced a work of supererogation, after a mysterious labor of three months. Let us, however, sir, attend for a moment to the Constitution, and here we shall find in a single line, sufficient matter for weeks of debate, and which it will puzzle any one member to investigate and define. But, besides the powers enumerated, we find in this Constitution an authority is given to make all laws that are necessary to carry it effectually into operation, and what laws are necessary is a consideration left for Congress to decide.1 In constituting the representative body, the interposition of the Congress is, likewise, made conclusive; for, with the power of regulating the place and manner of elections, it is easy to perceive that the returns will always be so managed as to answer their purpose.2 It is strange to mark, however, what a sudden and striking revolution has taken place in the political sentiments of America, for, sir, in the opening of our struggle with Great Britain, it was often insisted that annual parliaments were necessary to secure the liberties of the people, and yet it is here proposed to establish a House of Representatives which shall continue for two, a Senate for six, and a President for four years! What is there in this plan indeed, which can even assure us that the several departments shall continue no longer in office? Do we not know that an English Parliament elected for three years, by a vote of their own body, extended their existence to seven, and with this example, Congress possessing competent share of power may easily be tempted to exercise it. The advantages of annual elections are not at this day to be taught, and when every other security was withheld, I should still have thought there was some safety in the government had this been left. The seats of Congress being held for so short a period, and by a tenure so precarious as popular elections, there could be no inducement to invade the liberties of the people, nor time enough to accomplish the schemes of ambition and tyranny. But when the period is protracted, an object is presented worthy of contention, and the duration of the office affords an opportunity for perpetuating the influence by which it was originally obtained.3 Another power, designed to be vested in the new government, is the superlative power of taxation, which may be carried to an inconceivable excess, swallowing up every object of taxation, and consequently plundering the several states of every means to support their governments and to administer their laws. Then, sir, can it longer be doubted that this is a system of consolidation? That government which possesses all the powers of raising and maintaining armies, of regulating and commanding the militia, and of laying imposts and taxes of every kind must be supreme and will (whether in twenty or in one year, it signifies little to the event) naturally absorb every subordinate jurisdiction.I4t is in vain, sir, to flatter ourselves that the forms of popular elections will be the means of self-preservation, and that the officers of the proposed government will uniformly act for the happiness of the people, for why should we run a risk which we may easily avoid?5 The giving such extensive and undefined power is a radical wrong, that cannot be justified by any subsequent merit in the exercise; for in framing a new system, it is our duty rather to indulge a jealousy of the human character, than an expectation of unprecedented perfection. Let us, however, suppose, what will be allowed to be at least possible, that the powers of this government should be abused, and the liberties of the people infringed. Do any means of redress remain with the states or with the people at large to oppose and counteract the influence and oppression of the general government? Secret combinations, partial insurrections, sudden tumults may arise, but these, being easily defeated and subdued, will furnish a pretense for strengthening that power which they were intended to overthrow. A bill of rights, Mr. President, it has been said, would not only be unnecessary, but it would be dangerous, and for this special reason, that because it is not practicable to enumerate all the rights of the people, therefore it would be hazardous to secure such of the rights as we can enumerate! Truly, sir, I will agree that a bill of rights may be a dangerous instrument, but it is to the views and projects of the aspiring ruler, and not to the liberties of the citizen. Grant but this explicit criterion, and our governors will not venture to encroach–refuse it, and the people cannot venture to complain. From the formal language of Magna Carta we are next taught to consider a declaration of rights as superfluous; but, sir, will the situation and conduct of Great Britain furnish a case parallel to that of America? It surely will not be contended that we are about to receive our liberties as a grant or concession from any power on earth; so that if we learn anything from the English Charter, it is this, that the people having negligently lost or submissively resigned their rights into the hands of the Crown, they were glad to recover them upon any terms. Their anxiety to secure the grant by the strongest evidence will bean argument to prove, at least, the expediency of the measure, and the result of the whole is a lesson instructing us to do by an easy precaution, what will hereafter be an arduous and perhaps an insurmountable task. But even in Great Britain, whatever may be the courtesy of their expressions, the matter stands substantially on a different footing, for we know that the divine right of kings is there, as well as here, deemed an idle and chimerical tale. It is true the preamble to the Great Charter declares the liberties enumerated in that instrument to be the grant of the sovereign, but the hyperbolical language of the English law has likewise declared that "the king can do no wrong," and yet, from time to time, the people have discovered in themselves the natural source of power, and the monarchs have been made painfully responsible for their actions. Will it still be said that the state governments would be adequate to the task of correcting the usurpations of Congress? Let us not, however, give the weight of proof to the boldness of assertion; for, if the opposition is to succeed by force, we find both the purse and the sword are almost exclusively transferred to the general government, and if it is to succeed by legislative remonstrance, we shall find that expedient rendered nugatory by the law of Congress, which is to be the supreme law of the land. Thus, Mr. President, must the powers and sovereignty of the several states be eventually destroyed, and when, at last, it may be found expedient to abolish that connection, which, we are told, essentially exists between the federal and individual legislatures, the proposed Constitution is amply provided with the means in that clause which assumes the authority to alter or prescribe the place and manner of elections. I feel, Mr. President, the magnitude of the subject in which I am engaged, and although I am exhausted with what I have already advanced, I am conscious that the investigation is infinitely far from being complete. Upon the whole, therefore, I wish it to be seriously considered, whether we have a right to leave the liberties of the people to such future constructions and expositions as may possibly be made upon this system; particularly when its advocates, even at this day, confess that it would be dangerous to omit anything in the enumeration of a bill of rights, and according to their principle, the reservation of the habeas corpus and trial by jury in criminal cases may hereafter be construed to be the only privileges reserved by the people. I am not anxious, Mr. President, about forms; it is the substance which I wish to obtain; and therefore I acknowledge, if our liberties are secured by the frame of government itself the supplementary instrument of a declaration of rights may well be dispensed with. But, sir, we find no security there, except in the two instances referred to, and it will not, I hope, any longer be alleged that no security is requisite, since those exceptions prove a contrary sentiment to have been entertained by the very framers of the proposed Constitution.6 The question at present, sir, is, however, of a preliminary kind; does the plan now in discussion propose a consolidation of the states? And will a consolidated government be most likely to promote the interests and happiness of America? If it is satisfactorily demonstrated, that in its principles or in its operation, the dissolution of the state sovereignties is not a necessary consequence, I shall then be willing to accompany the gentlemen on the other side in weighing more particularly its merits and demerits. But my judgment, according to the information I now possess, leads me to anticipate the annihilation of the several state governments, an event never expected by the people, and which would, I fervently believe, destroy the civil liberties of America.

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