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title:“Alexander J. Dallas' Notes of the Pennsylvania Ratification Convention”
date written:1787-11-30

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last updated:Jan. 22, 2013, 8:17 a.m. UTC
retrieved:Dec. 3, 2023, 8:13 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. 433-39. Print.

Alexander J. Dallas' Notes of the Pennsylvania Ratification Convention (November 30, 1787)

BENJAMIN RUSH: I believe, Mr. President, that of all the treaties which have ever been made, William Penn's was the only one, which was contracted without parchment; and I believe, likewise, it is the only one that has ever been faithfully adhered to. As it has happened with treaties, so, sir, has it happened with bills of rights, for never yet has one been made which has not, at some period or other, been broken. The celebrated Magna Charta of England was broken over and over again, and these infractions gave birth to the Petition of Rights. If, indeed, the government of that country has not been violated for the last hundred years, as some writers have said, it is not owing to charters or declarations of rights, but to the balance which has been introduced and established in the legislative body. The constitution of Pennsylvania, Mr. President, is guarded by an oath; which everyman employed in the administration of the public business is compelled to take; and yet, sir, examine the proceedings of the Council of Censors and you will find innumerable instances of the violation of that constitution, committed equally by its friends andenemies. In truth then, there is no security but in a pure and adequate representation; the checks and all the other desiderata of government are nothing but political error without it, and with it, liberty can never be endangered. While the Honorable Convention, who framed this system, were employed in their work, there are many gentlemen who can bear testimony that my only anxiety was upon the subject representation; and when I beheld a legislature constituted of three branches, and in so excellent a manner, either directly or indirectly elected by the people and amenable to them, I confess, sir, that here I cheerfully reposed all my hopes and confidence of safety. Civilians having taught us, Mr. President, that occupancy was the origin of property, I think, it may likewise be considered as the origin of liberty; and as we enjoy all our natural rights from a preoccupany, antecedent to the social state, in entering into that state, whence shall they be said to be derived? Would it not be absurd to frame a formal declaration that our natural rights are acquired from ourselves, and would it not be a more ridiculous solecism to say, that they are the gift of those rulers whom we have created, and who are invested by us with every power they possess? Sir, I consider it as an honor to the late Convention that this system has not been disgraced with a bill of rights; though I mean not to blame or reflect upon those states which have encumbered their constitutions with that idle and superfluous instrument. One would imagine however, from the arguments of the opposition that this government was immediately to be administered by foreigners, strangers to our habits and opinions, and unconnected with our interests and prosperity. These apprehensions, sir, might have been excused while we were contending with Great Britain; but, at this time, they are applicable to all governments, as well as that under consideration; and the arguments of the honorable members are, indeed, better calculated for an Indian council fire than the meridian of this refined and enlightened Convention.1 Yeates: The objections hitherto offered to this system, Mr. President, may, I think, be reduced to these general heads: first, that there is no bill of rights, and secondly, that the effect of the proposed government will be a consolidation, and not a confederation of the states. Upon the first head, it appears to me, that great misapprehension has arisen, from considering the situation of Great Britain to be parallel to the situation of this country, whereas the difference is so essential that a bill of rights, which was there both useful and necessary, becomes here at once useless and unnecessary. In England power (by what means it signifies little) was established paramount to that of the people, and the only way which they had to secure the remnant of their liberties was, on every opportunity, to stipulate with that power for the uninterrupted enjoyment of certain enumerated privileges. But our case is widely different, and we find that, upon the opinion of this difference, seven of the thirteen United States have not added a bill of rights to their respective constitutions. Nothing, indeed, seems more clear to my judgment than this, that in our circumstances, every power which is not expressly given is, in fact, reserved. But it is asked, as some rights are here expressly provided for, why should not more? In truth, however, the writ of habeas corpus and the trial by jury in criminal cases cannot be considered as a bill of rights, but merely as a reservation on the part of the people and a restriction on the part of their rulers; and I agree with those gentlemen who conceive that a bill of rights, according to the ideas of the opposition, would be accompanied with considerable difficulty and danger; for, it might be argued at a future day by the persons then in power-you undertook to enumerate the rights which you meant to reserve, the pretension which you now make is not comprised in that enumeration, and, consequently, our jurisdiction is not circumscribed.2
The second general head respects the consolidation of the states; but I think, sir, candor will forbid us to impute that design to the late Convention when we review the principles and texture of their work. Does it not appear that the organization of the new government must originate with the states? Is not the whole system of federal representation dependent upon the individual governments? For, we find that those persons who are qualified to vote for the most numerous branch of the state legislatures are alone qualified to vote for delegates to the House of Representatives. The Senators are to be chosen immediately by the legislatures of the states; and those legislatures likewise are to prescribe the manner for the appointment of Electors who are to elect the President. Thus, sir, is the connection between the states in their separate and aggregate capacity preserved, and the existence of the federal government made necessarily dependent upon the existence and actual operation of its constituent members.3 Lest anything, indeed, should be wanting to assure us of the intention of the framers of this Constitution, to preserve the individual sovereignty and independence of the states inviolate, we find it expressly declared by the 4th section of the 4th Article, that "the United States shall guarantee to every state in this union, a republican form of government." constitutional security far superior to the fancied advantages of a bill of rights.4 It is urged, however, that all the security derived from this clause, and from the forms representation, may be defeated by the exercise of the power which is vested in Congress to change the times, places, and manner of election. Sir, let it be remembered that this power can only operate in a case of necessity, after the factious or listless disposition of a particular state has rendered an interference essential to the salvation of the general government.5 But is it fair, is it liberal, that every presumption should impute to Congress an abuse of the powers with which they are entrusted? We might surely on the ground of such extravagant apprehensions proscribe the use of fire and water -for fire may burn, and water may drown us. Is it, indeed, possible to define any power so accurately, that it shall reach the particular object for which it was given, and yet not be liable to perversion and abuse?6 I7f it is too much restrained it will certainly be incompetent; and, I am free to declare the opinion, that it is much better under a limited government to trust something to the discretion of the ruler, than to attempt so precise a definition of power as must defeat every salutary object which it is intended to produce. In what instance does it appear, after all, that the jurisdiction of the states will be abridged, except, indeed, in those respects from which the universal sense of mankind must forever exclude them. The general government will, and incontrovertibly should, be possessed of the power to superintend the general objects and interests of the country-the particular objects and interests of the states will still be subject to the power of the particular governments-and is this not a natural and necessary distribution of authority? What single state, for instance, is equal to the regulation of commerce? Have we not seen a sister republic by an obstinate refusal of the 5 percent impost, involve the whole Union in difficulties and disgrace? To that refusal, indeed, may be ascribed our present embarrassments, and the continuance of a heavy debt, which must otherwise have been long since discharged. But what are the particular restrictions which this system imposes upon the authority of the states? They are contained, sir, in the tenth section of the first Article; and I appeal, cheerfully, to the candor of everyman who hears me, whether they are not such as ought, for the sake of public honor and private honesty to be imposed. "No state shall enter into any treaty, alliance, or confederation, grant letters of marque and reprisal; coin money; emit bills of credit; make any thing but gold and silver coin a tender in payment of debts; pass any bill of attainder, expost facto law, or law impairing the obligation of contracts, or grant any title of nobility." These, sir, and some restraints in commercial affairs are the restrictions on the several states; we have little information from the fatal experience of past years, if we cannot perceive their propriety and rejoice in the anticipation of the beneficial consequences they must produce. What, Mr. President, has hitherto been the effect of tender laws, paper money, and iniquitous speculations these excrescences of a weak government naturally engendered? I wish not, sir, to afflict you with a painful recollection upon this subject; but it will be well to remember how much we have suffered, that we may properly estimate the hand which rescues us from poverty and disgrace. If virtue is the foundation of a republican government, has it not been fatally sapped by these means? The morals of the people have been almost sunk into depravity; and the government of laws has been almost superseded by a licentious anarchy. The day of reformation and happiness, however, rapidly approaches, and this system will be, at length, the glorious instrument of our political salvation. For, under the authority here given, our commerce will be rendered respectable among the nations of the world; the product of the impost will ease the weight of internal taxation; the land tax will be diminished; and the luxuries and conveniences of life bear a proportionate share in the public expenses. In short, sir, I perceive nothing in this system to terrify, but everything to flatter the hopes of a friend to his country, and I sincerely hope it will be adopted.8