Library of Congress

Teachers

The Library of Congress > Teachers > Classroom Materials > Presentations and Activities > Timeline
Timeline Home Page
home
The New Nation
The United States Constitution
Debates in the Convention of the State of Pennsylvania

After the final draft of the Constitution of the United States was completed, it was carried to each of the thirteen states for discussion and debate. The framers of the Constitution had stipulated that nine state conventions had to approve the constitution before it could go into effect. The following excerpt is taken from the constitutional debate held in the state of Pennsylvania. The excerpt focuses on whether the Constitution needed to include a bill of rights, which it did not. Mr. Wilson had been a delegate to the Constitutional Convention from Pennsylvania. What does Wilson mean when he refers to "enumeration of power"? Why does Wilson argue against the inclusion of a bill of rights in the Constitution? According to Wilson, how did the newly written Constitution guarantee the rights of the people?

View more of this document from A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation, 1774-1873. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.


Wednesday , October 28, 1787, A. M.--Mr. WILSON. This will be a proper time for making an observation or two on what may be called, the preamble to this Constitution. I had occasion, on a former day, to mention that the leading principle in the politics, and that which pervades the American constitutions, is, that the supreme power resides in the people. This Constitution, Mr. President, opens with a solemn and practical recognition of that principle:--"We, the people of the United States , in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, &c., do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." It is announced in their name--it receives its political existence from their authority: they ordain and establish. What is the necessary consequence? Those who ordain and establish have the power, if they think proper, to repeal and annul. A proper attention to this principle may perhaps, give ease to the minds of some who have heard much concerning the necessity of a bill of rights. . . .

I am called upon to give a reason why the Convention omitted to add a bill of rights to the work before you. I confess, sir, I did think that, in point of propriety, the honorable gentleman ought first to have furnished some reasons to show such an addition to be necessary; it is natural to prove the affirmative of a proposition; and, if he had established the propriety of this addition, he might then have asked why it was not made.

I cannot say, Mr. President, what were the reasons of every member of that Convention for not adding a bill of rights . I believe the truth is, that such an idea never entered the mind of many of them. I do not recollect to have heard the subject mentioned till within about three days of the time of our rising; and even then, there was no direct motion offered for any thing of the kind. I may be mistaken in this; but as far as my memory serves me, I believe it was the case. A proposition to adopt a measure that would have supposed that we were throwing into the general government every power not expressly reserved by the people, would have been spurned at, in that house, with the greatest indignation. Even in a single government, if the powers of the people rest on the same establishment as is expressed in this Constitution, a bill of rights is by no means a necessary measure. In a government possessed of enumerated powers, such a measure would he not only unnecessary, but preposterous and dangerous. Whence comes this notion, that in the United States there is no security without a bill of rights ?. In all societies, there are many powers and rights which cannot be particularly enumerated. A bill of rights annexed to a constitution is an enumeration of the powers reserved. If we attempt an enumeration, every thing that is not enumerated is presumed to be given. The consequence is, that an imperfect enumeration would throw all implied power into the scale of the government, and the rights of the people would be rendered incomplete. On the other hand, an imperfect enumeration of the powers of government reserves all implied power to the people; and by that means the constitution becomes incomplete. But of the two, it is much safer to run the risk on the side of the constitution; for an omission in the enumeration of the powers of government is neither so dangerous nor important as an omission in the enumeration of the rights of the people. . . .

To every suggestion concerning a bill of rights , the citizens of the United States may always say, We reserve the right to do what we please. . . .

Tuesday, December 4, 1787, A. M.--Mr. WILSON. . . .There are two kinds of government--that where general power is intended to be given to the legislature, and that where the powers are particularly enumerated. In the last case, the implied result is, that nothing more is intended to be given than what is so enumerated, unless it results from the nature of the government itself. On the other hand, when general legislative powers are given, then the people part with their authority, and, on the gentleman's principle of government, retain nothing. But in a government like the proposed one, there can be no necessity for a bill of rights ; for, on my principle, the people never part with their power. Enumerate all the rights of men! I am sure, sir, that no gentleman in the late Convention would have attempted such a thing. I believe the honorable speakers in opposition on this floor were members of the assembly which appointed delegates to that Convention; if it had been thought proper to have sent them into that body, how luminous would the dark conclave have been!--so the gentleman has been pleased to denominate that body. Aristocrats as they were, they pretended not to define the rights of those who sent them there. We ask, repeatedly, What harm could the addition of a bill of rights do? If it can do no good, I think that a sufficient reason to refuse having any thing to do with it. But to whom are we to report this bill of rights , if we should adopt it? Have we authority from those who sent us here to make One?
top of page


View more of this document from A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation, 1774-1873. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.