My Fellow-Citizens, The present time will probably form a new epoch in the annals of America. This important, this awful crisis bids fair to be the theme of our posterity for many generations. We are now publicly summoned to determine whether we and our children are to be freemen or slaves; whether the liberty, which we have so recently purchased with the blood of thousands of our fellow countrymen, is to terminate in a blessing or a curse.
The establishment of a new government is a matter of such immense magnitude, that any other human transaction is small indeed when compared to it. Great circumspection is therefore necessary on this interesting occasion: the temporal, and in some measure the eternal happiness of millions of souls is involved in this important work: I say even in some measure our eternal happiness is concerned; for, that a good or a bad government naturally influences religion and morality, is a principle indisputably confirmed by fact. Under a free and patriotic government, the bulk of the people will necessarily be virtuous: but under a tyrannical and unjust one, the greater part of the people will as necessarily be wicked: the complexion of the governing is ever the colour of the governed.
Every freeman possessed of the smallest portion of patriotism and general philanthropy, ought, at this critical juncture, to think seriously, to deliberate coolly, and to determine cautiously. All that is dear to him, nay all that constitutes life itself happy or miserable, is at this very moment about to be unalterably fixed: the rivet of tyranny may now be clenched, that will bind forever the freedom of America in the indissoluble chains of cursed slavery. In the adoption of the new constitution in its present form, we will lose more than all that we have fought for, and gained in a glorious and successful war of seven years; yea, and still more than this, our very character of citizens and freemen will be changed to that of subjects and slaves. In this act the bright orb of glorious liberty will go down under the horizon of cruel oppression, never never to illuminate our western hemisphere again! How much better, that she had never cast a ray upon Columbia, than thus to blaze for a moment, and then to vanish forever!
In regard to religious liberty, the cruelty of the new government will probably be felt sooner in Pennsylvania than in any state in the union. The number of religious denominations in this state, who are principled against fighting or bearing arms, will be greatly distressed indeed.1
In the new constitution there is no declaration in their favour; but on the contrary, the Congress and President are to have an absolute power over the standing army, navy, and militia; and the president, or rather emperor, is to be commander in chief2
Now, I think, that it will appear plain, that no exemption whatever from militia duty, shall be allowed to any set of men, however conscientiously scrupulous they may be against bearing arms. Indeed, from the nature and qualifications of the president, we may justly infer, that such an idea is altogether preposterous: he is by profession a military man, and possibly an old soldier; now, such a man, from his natural temper, necessarily despises those who have a conscientious aversion to a military profession, which is probably the very thing in which he principally piques himself. Only men of his own kind will be esteemed by him; his fellow soldier he will conceive to be his true friend, and the only character worthy of his notice and confidence.
Since, in the new constitution no provision is made for securing to these peaceable citizens their religious liberties, it follows then by implication, that no such provision was intended. Their influence in the state of Pennsylvania is fully sufficient to save them from suffering very materially on this account; but in the great vortex of the whole continent, it can have no weight. How can we expect that a special law will be made by the new Congress merely on their account; and yet it will be absolutely necessary that such a law shall be made, before this privilege is secured to them? Can any man rationally suppose that the president will give his assent to a law in favor of the men whom he heartily despises; a law also, that in its operation must curtail his own dignity and splender, by reducing the number of his military? No certainly. There is not probably military man on earth that could bear the thought. So that such a supposition is absurd.
The friends of this scheme of government may possibly attempt to say, that this religious liberty is sufficiently secured by the constitution of the state. But I say not; for, this is a case in which the United States are a party, and every case of this kind, according to the new plan, must be determined by the supreme law of the land;3
that is, by the Congress and president, who are to have the sole direction of the militia.4
This will be a matter then, in which a particular state can have no concern.
From the proceedings of the convention, respecting liberty of conscience, foreign politicians might be led to draw a strange conclusion, viz. that the majority of that assembly were either men of no religion, or all of one religion; such a conclusion naturally follows their silence on that subject; they must either have been indifferent about religion, or determined to compel the whole continent to conform to their own. For my own part, I really think, that their conduct in this instance is inexplicable: it is impossible to divine what might have been their intentions.
To illustrate this —defect in the new constitution, by a familiar instance: we shall suppose that the negroes of Georgia, or some of the southern states, prompted by the love of sacred liberty, shall attempt to free themselves from cruel slavery, by a noble appeal to arms. In this case the Congress may order the militia of Pennsylvania to march off to quell this insurrection: now on such an occasion, what must the condition of that Pennsylvanian be, who, besides being conscientiously scrupulous against bearing arms, on any account whatever, has, over and above, made the manumission of slavery, a part of his religious creed? Miserable must be the state of such a man's mind indeed! More to be pitied is he, than the wretches against whom he is compelled to fight! The foregoing supposition is by no means an unnatural one; and truly, if the new constitution be adopted, I have little doubt, but the thing itself will some time or other be realized.5
I shall by way of digression add one sentiment, namely, that I should have no objection, that the slaves in the United States would free themselves to-morrow from their present thraldom, provided no lives be lost on this occasion; and with this proviso, I sincerely pray, that God may grant them success in their first attempt. Freedom is the birth-right of every man; and who is he that hath dared to rob his fellow men of this glorious privilege, with whom God will not enter into judgment?
Before I dismiss this subject, I cannot help taking notice of the inconsistency of some Pennsylvanians, in respect to this new government. The very men, who should oppose it with all their influence, seem to be the most zealous for establishing it
. Strange indeed! that the professed enemies of negro and every other species of slavery, should themselves join in the adoption of a constitution whose very basis is despotism and slavery, a constitution that militates so far against freedom, that even their own religious liberty may probably be destroyed by it.6
Alas! what frail, what inconsistent beings we are! To the catalogue of human weaknesses and mistakes, this is one to be added.
Ah! my countrymen, our situation is critical indeed! Let us make a solemn pause then! The eyes of the world are upon us; the patriots and friends of America, in Europe, are now anxiously concerned, lest the whirlwind of tyranny should raze from its tender root the hallowed plant of Columbian liberty.
Before we confirm this new constitution, let us ask ourselves this question-For what did we withdraw our allegiance from Great Britain; was it because the yoke of George the third was not sufficiently galling, that we cast it off at the expence of so much blood and treasure, in order to accommodate ourselves with one of our own construction more intolerable? or, was it because the tyrant was three thousand miles off, that we revolted, in order to appoint one at home, who should correct us with scorpions instead of whips? If this were your design, I congratulate you on your success; hesitate not a moment then in the adoption of the new constitution: It is a perfect model, and answers your intentions completely. It certainly is capable of carrying tyranny and despotism to their ne plus ultra, no second revolution will be necessary, no further attempt need be made on this head; for this government will answer the end proposed to all intents and purposes.
Are these groundless conjectures, mere declamations unsupported by evidence, or affirmations without proof? No truly-Read the Old Whig, read the Centinels, read Brutus, Cincinnatus, &c. and then say, if you can, that these things are not real. Perhaps better arguments were never advanced in the demonstration of any truth, than these writers have given to illustrate this matter; whilst the writers on the opposite side have not been able to refute them in a single instance.
I shall close this essay with one observation, viz. that should this despotic scheme of government be overthrown, (which God grant) to what cause then are we to attribute this glorious triumph? The answer is obvious-to that palladium of liberty, that inestimable privilege of freemen, that scourge of tyranny, the freedom of the press; < and to the honor of Philadelphia, let it be remembered, that her Independent Gazetteer, her Freeman's Journal, &c. were the first heralds that sounded the alarm, and that engaged in this noble struggle, which, I trust, will terminate in favor of liberty, and in this victory a whole continent will be freed from bondage.>