Business Of The Highest Magnitude


Dr. Benjamin Rush believed the hand of God must have been involved in the noble work. John Adams, writing from Grosvenor Square, London, called it the greatest single effort of national deliberation, and perhaps the greatest exertion of human understanding, the world had ever seen. A great many people, however, held a contrary view, and in the fall of 1787 their opposition made it seem likely that the proposed Constitution of the United States would not be forwarded to the states by the Continental Congress, or, if forwarded, would not be ratified by the American people.

Opposition was especially intense in Pennsylvania, the only state with a well-developed, statewide two-party system. The Pennsylvania Democrats (Antifederalists) were efficiently organized; they controlled the state militia and the mobs in most cities; and they were led by a group of uncompromising idealogues who were determined that their state would not ratify the new Constitution. Both the Democrats and the pro-Constitution Federalists knew that Pennsylvania was the pivotal state and that the fight there would be an influential and perhaps decisive factor in the larger national contest. The struggle that ensued has not often been equalled in this country for bitterness, violence, vehemence of debate, or political high comedy.

The Constitutional Convention completed its work on September 17, after sixteen weeks of almost daily sessions. The engrossed Constitution, signed by thirty-nine delegates from twelve states, was sent forthwith to the Congress in New York City. With it went a covering letter from General George Washington, written, it is thought, by Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania. A resolution of the Convention asked the Congress to submit the Constitution for ratification, not, as expected, to the state legislatures, but to a convention of delegates popularly chosen in each state, and convened solely for that purpose.

The next day Benjamin Franklin led the Pennsylvania delegation to the second floor of the State House in Philadelphia to appear before the Pennsylvania House of Assembly. General Thomas Mifflin, Speaker and one of the delegates, read the Constitution aloud. When he finished, the citizens standing in the rear of the chamber broke into applause. On Wednesday the Constitution was printed in full in the Packet , the Journal , and the Independent Gazetteer or Chronicle of Freedom , and thereafter in others of the country’s eighty-odd newspapers. It was distributed in Pennsylvania as a pamphlet, with five hundred copies in the German language for the benefit of the state’s large German-speaking population.

The first public response seemed to be favorable, but the Democrats were bursting with protest. Speaking “for the present and future ages—the cause of liberty and mankind,” they went to work with handbills and pamphlets, with squibs and speeches, with articles and letters in the papers, in meetings and in exchanges in the boarding houses and taverns. To Democrats the new Constitution was the product of “as deep and wicked a conspiracy as ever was invented in the darkest ages against the liberties of a free people,” and it “would surely result in a monarchy or a tyrannical aristocracy,” and perhaps in civil war. They voiced these major objections:

1. Congress had instructed the Convention delegates to recommend possible amendments to the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union. Instead, meeting behind locked doors in a “dark conclave,” they had willfully written a plan for an entirely new form of government.

2. Their Constitution would annihilate the present confederation of coequal states, where the sovereign power should properly reside, and substitute for it a consolidated national government. The authority of the states would be grievously curbed if not obliterated. The ability of the new Congress to impose internal taxes and duties at its pleasure would undercut the taxing powers of the individual state legislatures.

3. Unprotected by their state governments, the citizens would be at the mercy of the central government. There was no bill of rights; liberty of the press, habeas corpus, and religious toleration were not assured; trial by jury was abolished in civil cases; and there was no prohibition of a standing army in time of peace.

4. The government of three branches, this “tripleheaded monster,” was unworkable. The President was too powerful, the Vice President “a needless and dangerous officer,” the Senate too aristocratical, the House too small to represent the people, the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court too extensive. The country was too large to be ruled under the principles of liberty by a consolidated government.

5. The whole proposition was extravagant and would bankrupt the nation.