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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, 7:57 a.m. UTC
retrieved:Feb. 9, 2023, 3:35 a.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. 383-87. Print.

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

Wilson: Mr. President, I shall now beg leave to trouble you with a few observations upon the Preamble to the proposed Constitution. In delivering my sentiments on a former day, I had occasion to show that the supreme power of government was the inalienable and inherent right of the people, and the system before us opens with a practical declaration of that principle. Here, sir, it is expressly announced, "We the people of the United States do ordain, constitute, and establish," and those who can ordain and establish may certainly repeal or annul the work of government, which, in the hands of the people, is like clay in the hands of the potter and may be molded into any shape they please. This single sentence in the Preamble is tantamount to a volume and contains the essence of all the bills of rights that have been or can be devised; for it establishes, at once, that in the great article of government, the people have a right to do what they please. It is with pride, Mr. President, I remark the difference between the terms of this Constitution and the British Declaration of Rights or even their boasted Magna Charta. For, sir, from what source does Magna Charta derive the liberties of the people? The very words of that celebrated instrument declare them to be the gift or grant of the king; and under the influence of that doctrine, no wonder the people should then, and at subsequent periods, wish to obtain some evidence of their formal liberties by the concessions of petitions and bills of right. But here, sir, the fee simple of freedom and government is declared to be in the people, and it is an inheritance with which they will not part.1
JOHN SMILIE: I expected, Mr. President, that the honorable gentleman would have proceeded to a full and explicit investigation of the proposed system, and that he would have made some attempts to prove that it was calculated to promote the happiness, power, and general interests of the United States. I am sorry that I have been mistaken in this expectation, for surely the gentleman's talents and opportunities would have enabled him to furnish considerable information upon this important subject;2 but I shall proceed to make a few remarks upon those words in the Preamble of this plan, which he has considered of so super-excellent a quality. Compare them, sir, with the language used in forming the state constitution, and however superior they may be to the terms of the Great Charter of England, still, in common candor, they must yield to the more sterling expressions employed in this act. Let these speak for themselves.
"That all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain natural, inherent and unalienable rights, amongst which are, the enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.
"That the people of this state have the sole, exclusive and inherent right of governing and regulating the internal police of the same.
"That all power being originally inherent in, and consequently derived from the people; therefore all officers of government, whether legislative or executive, are their trustees and servants, and at all times accountable to them.
"That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection and security of the people, nation or community; and not for the particular emolument or advantage of any single man, family, or set of men, who are a part only of that community. And that the community hath an indubitable, unalienable and indefeasible right to reform, alter or abolish government in such manner as shall be by that community judged most conducive to the public weal."
But the gentleman takes pride in the superiority of this short Preamble when compared with Magna Charta. Why, sir, I hope the rights of men are better understood at this day than at the framing of that deed, and we must be convinced that civil liberty is capable of still greater improvement and extension than is known even in its present cultivated state. True, sir, the supreme authority naturally rests in the people, but does it follow that therefore a declaration of rights would be superfluous? Because the people have a right to alter and abolish government, can it therefore be inferred that every step taken to secure that right would be superfluous and nugatory? The truth is that unless some criterion is established by which it could be easily and constitutionally ascertained how far our governors may proceed, and by which it might appear when they transgress their jurisdiction, this idea of altering and abolishing government is a mere sound without substance. Let us recur to the memorable Declaration of the 4th of July 1776. Here it is said:
"When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
"We hold these truths to be self evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness."
Now, sir, if in the proposed plan, the gentleman can show any similar security for the civil rights of the people I shall certainly be relieved from a weight of objection to its adoption, and I sincerely hope, that as he has gone so far, he will proceed to communicate some of the reasons (and undoubtedly they must have been powerful ones) which induced the late Federal Convention to omit a bill of rights, so essential in the opinion of many citizens to a perfect form of government.
THOMAS McKEAN: I conceived, Mr. President, that we were at this time to confine our reasoning to the first Article, which relates to the legislative power composed of two branches and the partial negative of the President. Gentlemen, however, have taken a more extensive field and have employed themselves in animadverting upon what has been omitted and not upon what is contained in the proposed system. It is asked, sir, why a bill of rights was not annexed to the Constitution? The origin of bills of rights has been referred to, and we find that in England they proceed upon the principle that the supreme power is lodged in the king and not in the people, so that their liberties are not claimed as an inherent right, but as a grant from the sovereign.
The Great Charter rests on that footing and has been renewedand broken above 30 times. Then we find the Petition of Rights in the reign of Charles I and, lastly, the Declaration of Rights on the accession of the Prince of Orange to the British throne. The truth is, sir, that bills of rights are instruments of modern invention, unknown among the ancients, and unpracticed but by the British nation and the governments descended from them. For though it is said that Poland has a bill of rights, it must be remembered that the people have no participation in that government. Of the constitutions of the United States, there are but five out of the thirteen which have bills ." of rights. In short, though it can do no harm, I believe, yet it is an unnecessary instrument, for, in fact, the whole plan of government is nothing more than a bill of rights-a declaration of the people in what manner they choose to be governed. If, sir, the people should at any time desire to alter and abolish their government, I agree with my honorable colleague James Wilson] that it is in their power to do so, and I am happy to observe that the Constitution before us provides a regular mode for that event. At present my chief object is to call upon those who deem a bill of rights so essential to inform us if there are any other precedents than those I have alluded to, and if there is not, the sense of mankind and of nations will operate against the alleged necessity.

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