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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:Oct. 5, 2022, 5:57 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. 403-10. Print.

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

Wilson: I am willing, Mr. President, to agree with the honorable member who has just spoken, that if this system is not calculated to secure the liberties and happiness of the United States, it should not be adopted; but, on the contrary, if it provides an adequate security for the general liberties and happiness of the people, I presume, it ought not to be rejected.1 Before I comment upon the principles which have brought us to this issue, I beg leave to make one general remark. Liberty and happiness have, sir, a powerful enemy on each hand—on the one hand there is tyranny, on the other, there is licentiousness. To guard against the latter, it is necessary that adequate powers should be given to the government, and to protect us from the former, it is requisite that those powers should be properly distributed. Under this consideration, let us now regard the proposed system; and I freely confess that if its adoption will necessarily be followed by the annihilation of the state governments, the objection is of very great force and ought to be seriously weighed.2 The inference, however, appears rather unnatural that a government should be expressly calculated to produce the destruction of other governments, upon which its own existence must entirely depend; for, Mr. President, it is capable of demonstration that if the state governments fall, the general government must likewise be involved in one common ruin. Is it not evident, sir, when we particularly examine the structure of the proposed system that the operation of the federal legislature necessarily presupposes the existence of the legislatures of the several states? Can the Congress, the President, or even the judiciary department survive the dissolution of those powers in the separate governments, from which they essentially derive their origin, and on which they must forever depend for their renovation?3 No, sir! For, we find that the House of Representatives is to be composed of persons returned by the suffrage of freemen who are qualified to vote for the members of the most numerous branch of the state legislature, which legislature must necessarily exist, or the only criterion for supplying the popular department of the federal government will be extinct. The Senate, which is to be chosen by the several legislatures, cannot consequently be appointed unless those legislatures exist; which is likewise the case in respect to the President, as this office is to be filled by Electors nominated by the respective state legislatures. And lastly, the judges are to be commissioned by the President and Senate, who cannot appoint, unless they are themselves first appointed, and that, it appears, must depend upon the existence of the state legislatures. Thus, Mr. President, by a clear deduction, it is evident, that the existence and efficiency of the general government presupposes the existence and full operation of the separate governments; for, you can never prove a person to have been chosen, till you have proved that he was the choice of persons qualified to vote; you cannot prove any man to be entitled to elect a member of the House of Representatives, till you have proved that he is qualified to elect a member of the most numerous branch of the state legislature. But, sir, it has been intimated, that the design of the Federal Convention was to absorb the state governments. This would introduce a strange doctrine indeed, that one body should seek the destruction of another upon which its own preservation depends, or, that the creature should eat up and consume the creator. The truth is, sir, that the framers of this system were particularly anxious, and their work demonstrates their anxiety, to preserve the state governments unimpaired—it was their favorite object; and perhaps, however proper it might be in itself, it is more difficult to defend the plan on account of the excessive caution used in that respect, than from any other objection that has been offered here or elsewhere. Hence we have seen each state, without regard to their comparative importance, entitled to an equal representation in the Senate, and a clause has been introduced, which enables two-thirds of the state legislatures at any time to propose and effectuate alterations in the general system. But, Mr. President, though in the very structure of the plan, the concomitant duration of the state governments is always presupposed, yet their power is not the only one intended to be recognized and established. The power of the people, sir, is the great foundation of the proposed system, a power totally unknown in the present Confederation, but here, it mediately pervades every department, and is immediately exercised in the House of Representatives. I trust it is unnecessary to dwell longer upon this subject; for, when gentlemen assert that it was the intention of the Federal Convention to destroy the sovereignty of the states, they must conceive themselves better qualified to judge of the intention of that body than its own members, of whom not one I believe entertained so improper an idea. Intended it, sir! how was this information obtained? I trust we shall not admit these visionary interpretations, but wisely judge of the tree by its fruit. The only pretense of proof, indeed, has been taken from the work itself, from that section which empowers the Congress to alter the place and manner of election under which, it is said, the national government may be carried on after the state governments are totally eradicated. This, Mr. President, is not only a proper, but a necessary power, for every government should possess the means of self-preservation. We have seen that the states may alter or amend the proposed system if they should find it incompatible with their interest and independency; and the same reason justifies and requires that Congress should have an ultimate control over those elections upon which its purity and existence must depend. What would otherwise be the consequence? One or more states might refuse to make any regulations upon the subject, or, might make such regulations as would be highly inconvenient and absurd—if the election were appointed to be held at Pittsburgh, or, if a minority, tumultuously breaking up the legislatures, should defeat the disposition of the majority to appoint any place for that purpose. Shall Congress have no authority to counteract such notorious evils, but continue in absolute dependence upon the will of a refractory state? I say not, sir, that these are probable events, but as they are certainly possible, it was the duty of the late Convention to provide against the mischief and to secure to the general government a power, in the dernier resort, for the more perfect organization of its constituent parts. In short, sir, this system would be nugatory without the provision so much deprecated, as the national government must be laid prostrate before any state in the Union, whose measures might at any time be influenced by faction and caprice. These, therefore, are the reasons upon which it is founded, and in spite of every perversion, it will be found only to contain the natural maxims of self-preservation. I shall take a future opportunity to remark upon the other points of the speech delivered by the member from Cumberland and upon the general principles of the proposed Constitution. Thus I have thought it proper to remark, in this early stage of the debate, because I am sensible that the imputation of subverting the state governments, either as a principle or a consequence of the plan, must, if well founded, prove a very important objection.
JOHN SMILIE: I am happy, Mr. President, to find the argument placed upon the proper ground, and that the honorable member from the city [James Wilson] has so fully spoken on the question, whether this system proposes a consolidation or a confederation of the states as that is, in my humble opinion, the source of the greatest objection which can be made to its adoption. I agree likewise with him, sir, that it is, or ought to be, the object of all governments to fix upon the intermediate point between tyranny and licentiousness; and therefore, it will be one of the great objects of our inquiry to ascertain how far the proposed system deviates from that point of political happiness. For my part, I will readily confess that it appears to be well guarded against licentiousness, but I am apprehensive it has deviated a little on the left hand and rather invites, than guards against, the approaches of tyranny. I think however, Mr. President, it has been clearly argued that the proposed system does not directly abolish the governments of the several states because its organization, and, for some time perhaps, its operations, naturally presuppose their existence. But, sir, it is not said, nor is thought, that the words of this instrument expressly announce that the sovereignty of the several states, their independency, jurisdiction, and power are at once absorbed and annihilated by the general government. To this position, and to this alone, the arguments of the honorable gentlemen can effectually apply, and there they must undoubtedly hold as long as the forms of state government remain, or, at least, till a change takes place in the Federal Constitution. It is, however, upon other principles that the final destruction of the individual governments is asserted to be a necessary consequence of their association under this general form. For, sir, it is the silent but certain operation of the powers, and not the cautious, but artful tenor of the expressions contained in this system that can excite terror or generate oppression. The flattery of language was indeed necessary to disguise the baneful purpose, but it is like the dazzling polish bestowed upon an instrument of death; and the visionary prospect of a magnificent, yet popular government was the most specious mode of rendering the people accessory to the ruin of those systems which they have so recently and so ardently labored to establish. Hence, sir, we may trace that passage which has been pronounced by the honorable delegate to the late Convention with exultation and applause; but when it is declared that "We the people of the United States do ordain and establish this Constitution" is not the very foundation a proof of a consolidated government by the manifest subversion of the principle that constitutes a union of states, which are sovereign and independent except in the specific objects of confederation? These words have a plain and positive meaning which could not be misunderstood by those who employed them and therefore, sir, it is fair and reasonable to infer that it was in the contemplation of the framers of this system to absorb and abolish the efficient sovereignty and independent powers of the several states in order to invigorate and aggrandize the general government. The plan before us, then, explicitly proposes the formation of a new Constitution upon the original authority of the people and not an association of states upon the authority of their respective governments. On that ground, we perceive that it contains all the necessary parts of a complete system of government, the executive, legislative, and judicial establishments; and when two separate governments are at the same time in operation, over the same people, it will be difficult indeed to provide for each the means of safety and defense against the other, but if those means are not provided, it will be easily foreseen that the stronger must eventually subdue and annihilate the weaker institution. Let us then examine the force and influence of the new system and inquire whether the small remnant of power left to the states can be adequate even to the trifling charge of its own preservation. Here, sir, we find the right of making laws for every purpose is in- vested in the future governors of America, and in this is included the uncontrolled jurisdiction over the purses of the people. The power of raising money is indeed the soul, the vital prop of legislation, without which legislation itself cannot for a moment exist It will, however, be remarked that the power of taxation, though extended to the general government, is not taken from the states individually. Yes, sir! But it will be remembered that the national government may take from the people just what they please, and if anything should afterwards remain, then indeed the exigencies of the state governments may be supplied from the scanty gleanings of the harvest. Permit me now, sir, to call your attention to the powers enumerated in the 8th section of the first Article, and particularly to that clause which authorizes the proposed Congress "to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defence and general welfare of the United States."4 With such powers, Mr. President, what cannot the future governors accomplish? It will be said, perhaps, that the treasure, thus accumulated, is raised and appropriated for the general welfare and the common defense of the states; but may not this pretext be easily perverted to other purposes since those very men who raise and appropriate the taxes are the only judges of what shall be deemed the general welfare and common defense of the national government? If then, Mr. President, they have unlimited power to drain the wealth of the people in every channel of taxation, whether by imposts on our commercial intercourse with foreign nations or by direct levies on the people, I repeat it, that this system must be too formidable for any single state, or even for a combination of the states, should an attempt be made to break and destroy the yoke of domination and tyranny which it will hereafter set up.5 If, indeed, the spirit of men, once inflamed with the knowledge of freedom, should occasionally blaze out in remonstrance, opposition, and force, these symptoms would naturally excite the jealousy of their rulers and tempt them to proceed in the career of usurpation till the total destruction of every principle of liberty should furnish a fit security for the exercise of arbitrary power. The money which has been raised from the people may then be effectually employed to keep them in a state of slavish subjection. The militia, regulated and commanded by the officers of the general government, will be warped from the patriotic nature of their institution, and a standing army, that most prevailing instrument of despotism, will be ever ready to enforce obedience to a government by which it is raised, supported, and enriched.6 If, under such circumstances, the several states should presume to assert their undelegated rights, I ask again, what balance remains with them to counteract the encroachment of so potent a superior? To assemble a military force would be impracticable for the general government, foreseeing the attempt would anticipate the means, by the exercise of its indefinite control over the purses of the people; and, in order to act upon the consciences as well as the persons of men, we find it is expressly stipulated that every officer of the state government shall be sworn to support the Constitution of the United States.7 Hence likewise, sir, I conclude that in every point of rivalship, in every contention for power on the one hand, and for freedom on the other, the event must be favorable to the views and pretensions of a government gifted with so decisive a preeminence. Let us, however, regard this subject in another light. What, Mr. President, will be the feelings and ideas of the people when by the operation of the proposed system they are exposed to such accumulated expense for the maintenance of the general government? Is it not easy to foresee that however the states may be disposed individually to preserve the parade of independence and sovereignty, the people themselves will become indifferent, and at last, averse to the continuance of an expensive form, from which they derive no advantage? For, sir, the attachment of citizens to their government and its laws is founded upon the benefits which they derive from them, and it will last no longer than the duration of the power to confer those benefits. When, therefore, the people of the respective states shall find their governments grown torpid and divested of themeans to promote their welfare and interests, they will not, sir, vainly idolize a shadow nor disburse their hardened wealth without the prospect of a compensation. The constitutions of the states having become weak and useless to every beneficial purpose will be suffered to dwindle and decay, and, thus if the governors of the Union are not too impatient for the accomplishment of unrivalled and absolute dominion, the destruction of state jurisdiction will be produced by its own insignificance. Having now, Mr. President, shown that eventually this system will establish a consolidated government, though the intention is not expressly avowed, I will take some notice of the honorable member's [James Wilson] principle culled from the mode of election which is here prescribed. Sir, we do not upon this occasion contend for forms which it is certain may exist long after the substance has forever perished. It is well remembered that the Roman senate continued to meet in all its ceremonies long after they had lost their power and the liberty of Rome had been sacrificed to the most horrid tyranny. Such, sir, must be the case with the state legislatures, which will necessarily degenerate into a mere name, or, at most, settle in a formal board of electors periodically assembled to exhibit the servile farce of filling up the federal representation.8

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