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The New Nation
The United States Constitution
Dissent of the Minority in the Convention of the State of Pennsylvania

On the day the ratification vote was taken in Pennsylvania, a group of individuals opposed to the document as written spoke out against ratification. Some of the arguments for rejecting the document appear below. On what three principles did the dissenters find fault with the document? Although the Constitution was ratified in Pennsylvania, do you think that history in any way proved the dissenters' points valid?

View the entire document from which this excerpt came, from Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention, 1774-1789. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.

. . .WE DISSENT, First, Because it is the opinion of the most celebrated writers on government, and confirmed by uniform experience, that very extensive territory cannot be governed on the principles of freedom, otherwise than by a confederation of republics, possessing all the powers of internal government; but united in the management of their general, and foreign concerns.

If any doubt could have been entertained of the truth of the foregoing principle, it has been fully removed by the concession of Mr. Wilson, one of the majority on this question, and who was one of the deputies in the late general convention. In justice to him, we will give his own words; they are as follows, viz. "The extent of country for which the new constitution was required; produced another difficulty in the business of the federal convention. It is the opinion of some celebrated writers, that to a small territory, the democratical; to a middling territory (as Montesquieu has termed it) the monarchical; and to an extensive territory, the despotic form of government, is best adapted. Regarding then the wide and almost unbounded jurisdiction of the United States, at first view, the hand of despotism seemed necessary to controul, connect, and protect it; and hence the chief embarrassment role. For, we knew that, although our constituents would chearfully submit to the legislative restraints of a free government, they would spurn at every attempt to shackle them with despotic power."--And again in another part of his speech he continues.--" Is it probable that the dissolution of the state governments, and the establishment of one consolidated empire would be eligible in its nature, and satisfactory to the people in its administration? I think not, as I have given reasons to shew that so extensive a territory could not be governed, connected, and preserved, but by the supremacy of despotic power. All the exertions of the most potent emperors of Rome were not capable of keeping that empire together, which in extent was far inferior to the dominion of America."

We dissent, secondly, because the powers vested in Congress by this constitution, must necessarily annihilate and absorb the legislative, executive, and judicial powers of the several states, and produce from their ruins one consolidated government, which from the nature of things will be an iron handed despotism, as nothing short of the supremacy of despotic sway could connect and govern these United States under one government.

As the truth of this position is of such decisive importance, it ought to be fully investigated, and if it is founded to be clearly ascertained; for, should demonstrated, that the powers vested by this constitution in Congress, will have such an effect, as necessarily to produce one consolidated government, the question then will be reduced to this short issue, viz. whether satiated with the blessings of liberty; whether repenting of the folly of so recently asserting their unalienable rights, against foreign despots, at the expence of so much blood and treasure, and such painful and arduous struggles, the people of America are now willing to resign every privilege of freemen, and submit to the domination of an absolute government, that will embrace all America in one chain of despotism; or whether they will with virtuous indignation, spurn at the shackles prepared for them, and confirm their liberties by a conduct becoming freemen.

That the new government will not be a confederacy of states, as it ought, but one consolidated government, founded upon the destruction of the several governments of the states, we shall now shew. . . .

3. We dissent, Thirdly, Because if it were practicable to govern so extensive a territory as these United States, includes, on the plan of a consolidated government, consistent with the principles of liberty and the happiness of the people, yet the construction of this constitution is not calculated to attain the object, for independent of the nature of the case, it would of itself, necessarily, produce a despotism, and that not by the usual gradations, but with the celerity that has hitherto only attended revolutions affected by the sword.

To establish the truth of this position, a cursory investigation of the principles and form of this constitution will suffice

The first consideration that this review suggests, is the omission of a BILL OF RIGHTS, ascertaining and fundamentally establishing those unalienable and personal rights of men, without the full, free and secure enjoyment of which there can be no liberty, and over which it is not necessary for a good government to have the controul. The principal of which are the rights of conscience, personal liberty by the clear and unequivocal establishment of the writ of habeas corpus, jury trial in criminal and civil cases, by an impartial jury of the vicinage or county, with the common law proceedings, for the safety of the accused in criminal prosecutions; and the liberty of the press, that scourge of tyrants, and the grand bulwark of every other liberty and privilege: the stipulations heretofore made in favour of them in the state constitutions, are entirely superceded by this constitution. . . .

We have not noticed the smaller, nor many of the considerable blemishes, but have confined our objections to the great and essential defects; the main pillars of the constitution; which we have shewn to be inconsistent with the liberty and happiness of the people, as its establishment will annihilate the state governments, and produce one consolidated government that will eventually and speedily issue in the supremacy of despotism

In this investigation, we have not confined our view to the interests or welfare of this state, in preference to the others. We have over looked all local circumstances--we have considered this subject on the broad scale of the general good; we have asserted the cause of the present and future ages; the cause of liberty and mankind.
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View the entire document from which this excerpt came, from Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention, 1774-1789. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.