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SPEECH OF JAMES WILSON,
ON THE EXPEDIENCY OP ADOPTING THE
DELIVERED IN THE CONVENTION OF PENNSYLVANIA,
NOVEMBER 26th, 1787.%
THE system proposed, by the late convention, for the government of the United States, is now before you. Of that convention I had the honor to be a member. As I am the only member of that body, who has the honor to be also a member of this, it may
Soon after the termination of the war of the revolution, it became apparent that the powers vested in the General Government, by the articles of Confederation, were inadequate, and that the unity which had existed among the states during the war, had resulted rather from the pressure of circumstances, than from any authority of the General Government.
So universal was the conviction that the public welfare required a Government of more extensive powers, that in May, 1787, a convention, composed of delegates from all the states in the union, with the exception of Rhode Island, assembled at Philadelphia, to take the subject into consideration. It continued its deliberations with closed doors until the 17th of the following September, when the Federal Constitution was promulgated. The convention resolved, 66 That the constitution be laid before the United States, in Congress assembled, and that it is the opinion of this convention that it should afterwards be submitted to a convention of delegates, chosen in each state by the people thereof, for their assent and ratification."
In conformity to the recommendation of the convention, Con. gress, on the 28th of the same month, passed a resolution directing that the constitution be submitted to conventions to be assembled in the several states.
In the conventions subsequently assembled, the expediency of adopting the constitution was discussed with great ability and eloquence. The wisdom, genius and patriotism of the nation, were here called into action, and their concentrated rays threw over the subject a flood of light which left none of its intricacies unrevealed.--COMPILER:
expected that I should prepare the way for the deliberations of this assembly, by unfolding the difficulties which the late convention were obliged to encounter; by pointing out the end which they proposed to accomplish; and by tracing the general principles which they have adopted for the accomplishment of that end.
To form a good system of government for a single city or state, however limited as to territory, or inconsiderable as to numbers, has been thought to require the strongest efforts of human genius. With what conscious diffidence, then, must the members of the convention have revolved in their minds the immense undertaking which was before them. Their views could not be confined to a small or a single community, but were expanded to a great number of states; several of which contain an extent of territory, and resources of population, equal to those of some of the most respectable kingdoms on the other side of the Atlantic. Nor were even these the only objects to be comprehended within their deliberations. Numerous states yet unformed, myriads of the human race, who will inhabit regions hitherto uncultivated, were to be affected by the result of their proceedings. It was necessary, therefore, to form their calculations on a scale commensurate to a large portion of the globe.
For my own part, I have been often lost in astonishment at the vastness of the prospect before us. To open the navigation of a single river was lately thought, in Europe, an enterprise adequate to imperial glory. But could the commercial scenes of the Scheldt be compared with those that, under a good government, will be exhibited on the Hudson, the Delaware, the Potomac, and the numerous other rivers, that water and are intended to enrich the dominions of the United States ?
The difficulty of the business was equal to its magnitude. No small share of wisdom and address is re. quisite to combine and reconcile the jarring interests, that prevail, or seem to prevail, in a single community.
The United States contain already thirteen governments mutually independent. Those governments present to the Atlantic a front of fifteen hundred miles in extent. Their soil, their climates, their productions, their dimensions, their numbers, are different. In many instances, a difference and even an opposition subsists among their interests; and a difference and even an opposition is imagined to subsist in many
An apparent interest produces the same attachment as a real one; and is often pursued with no less perseverance and vigor. When all these circumstances are seen and attentively considered, will any member of this honorable body be surprised, that such a diversity of things produced a proportioned diversity of sentiment? Will he be surprised that such a diversity of sentiment rendered a spirit of mutual forbearance and conciliation indispensably necessary to the success of the great work? And will he be surprised that mutual concessions and sacrifices were the consequences of mutual forbearance and conciliation? When the springs of opposition were so numerous and strong, and poured forth their waters in courses so varying, need we be surprised that the stream formed by their conjunction was impelled in a direction somewhat different from that, which each of them would have taken separately?
I have reason to think that a difficulty arose in the minds of some members of the convention from another consideration—their ideas of the temper and disposition of the people, for whom the constitution is proposed. The citizens of the United States, however different in some other respects, are well known to agree in one strongly marked feature of their character-a warm and keen sense of freedom and independence. This sense has been heightened by the glorious result of their late struggle against all the efforts of one of the most powerful nations of Europe. It was apprehended, I believe, by some, that a people
so high spirited would ill brook the restraints of an efficient govern
ment. I confess that this consideration did not influence my conduct. I knew my constituents to be high spirited; but I knew them also to possess sound
I knew that, in the event, they would be best pleased with that system of government, which would best promote their freedom and happiness. I have often revolved this subject in my mind. I have supposed one of my constituents to ask me, why I gave such a vote on a particular question? I have always thought it would be a satisfactory answer to saybecause I judged, upon the best consideration I could give, that such a vote was right. I have thought that it would be but a very poor compliment to my constituents to say, that in my opinion, such a vote would have been proper, but that I supposed a contrary one would be more agreeable to those who sent me to the convention. I could not, even in idea, expose myself to such a retort as, upon the last answer, might have been justly made to me. Pray, sir, what reasons have you
for supposing that a right vote would displease your constituents? Is this the proper return for the high confidence they have placed in you? If they have given cause for such a surmise, it was by choosing a representative, who could entertain such an opinion of them. I was under no apprehension, that the good people of this state would behold with displeasure the brightness of the rays of delegated power, when it only proved the superior splendor of the luminary, of which those rays were only the reflection.
A very important difficulty arose from comparing the extent of the country to be governed, with the kind of government which it would be proper to establish in it. It has been an opinion, countenanced by high authority, “ that the natural property of small states
is to be governed as a republic; of middling ones, to be subject to a monarch; and of large empires, to be swayed by a despotic prince; and that the consequence is, that, in order to preserve the principles of the established government, the state must be support
ed in the extent it has acquired; and that the spirit of the state will alter in proportion as it extends or contracts its limits."* This opinion seems to be supported, rather than contradicted, by the history of the governments in the old world. Here then the difficulty appeared in full view. On one hand, the United States contain an immense extent of territory, and, according to the foregoing opinion, a despotic government is best adapted to that extent. On the other hand, it was well known, that, however the citizens of the United States might, with pleasure, submit to the legitimate restraints - of a republican constitution, they would reject, with indignation, the fetters of despotism. What then was to be done? The idea of a confede-, rate republic presented itself. This kind of constitution has been thought to have all the internal advantages of a republican, together with the external force of a monarchical government.”+ Its description is, a convention, by which several states agree to become members of a larger one, which they intend to establish. It is a kind of assemblage of societies, that constitute a new one, capable of increasing by means of farther association.”† The expanding quality of such a government is peculiarly fitted for the United States, the greatest part of whose territory is yet uncultivated.
But while this form of government enabled us to surmount the difficulty last mentioned, it conducted us to another, of which I am now to take notice. It left us almost without precedent or guide ; and, consequently, without the benefit of that instruction, which, in many cases, may be derived from the constitution, and history, and experience of other nations. Several associations have frequently been called by the name of confederate states, which have not, in
* Mont. Sp. L. b. 8. c. 20.