Business Of The Highest Magnitude


The more zealous Pennsylvania Democrats pounded hard on those objections and added several others of their own. For one thing, none of the eight Pennsylvania delegates to the Convention had been Democrats, and none had come from the six counties beyond the western mountains, where, among Scotch-Irish and German immigrant farmer-frontiersmen, the chief opposition to the Constitution lay. For another, the Democrats would lose jobs, power, and their control over the Pennsylvania militia. For a third, they would probably see the repeal of their ultrademocratic (and unworkable) state constitution. Without having bothered with the formality of a popular vote, they had imposed this constitution on the state in the turmoil of 1776, and they held it to be a model for other states and nations to follow. (Much of it was written by James Cannon, a mathematics professor at the College of Philadelphia who seems to have been somewhat ahead of his time. He tried but failed to include an article reading, “That an enormous proportion of property vested in a few individuals is dangerous to the rights, and destructive of the common happiness, of mankind; and therefore every free state hath a right by its laws to discourage the possession of such property.”)

In New York, the Continental Congress had been unable to muster a quorum of seven states throughout the summer, but on Thursday, September 20, attendance picked up and the members took under consideration the new frame of government that had been placed before them. The assent of nine of the thirteen states was required for approval.

Pennsylvania’s Federalist congressmen, under the leadership of William Bingham, a wealthy Philadelphia merchant and banker, pushed hard through a week-long debate to forward the Constitution with an affirmative and unanimous endorsement. Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, leading a strong minority, spoke of “essential alterations” and of the need to call another constitutional convention. He moved that a bill of rights and a long list of amendments be added, and he proposed a resolution stating that the new plan of government be submitted to the existing state legislatures rather than to state conventions assembled solely for that purpose. The minority then offered to forward the plan to the states for consideration, but with the warning that the Convention had acted improperly in producing it and with a reprimand to the delegates. The two sides worked for a suitable compromise.

Back in Philadelphia, without waiting for formal word from the Continental Congress, Democrats and Federalists prepared for a mighty struggle in the House of Assembly. The Democratic minority planned a delaying action. The House had resolved to adjourn sine die on Saturday, September 29. Delay would carry the issue over to a new Assembly to be elected five weeks later. Democrats might win a majority in that body and thus have the votes to defeat a call for a state convention—if the Congress really did send the Constitution forward. Or they might elect a majority of anti-Constitution delegates in the convention—if one had to be called. Defeat of the Constitution in Pennsylvania, or delay in calling a state convention, would strengthen the anti-Constitution forces in the twelve other states.

The Federalists not only wanted the Constitution to be ratified in Pennsylvania; they also wanted their state to be the first to act. That would strengthen the movement in the other states. It would take advantage of the early wave of sentiment in favor of the Constitution and give the western farmers less time to find fault with it. It would allow the Democratic leaders the least opportunity to return to their inland counties and organize the opposition. And early ratification would give Pennsylvania a leg up on placing the new seat of government near Philadelphia, where it obviously belonged.

The Federalists drew up a plan designed to take their opponents by surprise. They would make a motion for a state convention on Friday morning, one day before adjournment, and attempt to rush it through before the Democrats could recover. The procedure was irregular, perhaps, since the Congress had not yet asked for a convention, but the issue was vital and the cause was just.

William Bingham arranged to send news from New York by dispatch riders who would change horses at frequent posts along the ninety-mile route.

On Friday morning, September 28, every Federalist member was in his seat. After the House attended to some routine business, George Clymer, merchant of Philadelphia, signer of the Declaration of Independence and one of the framers of the new federal Constitution, rose in place. The members, he said suavely, could not have forgotten a business of the highest magnitude that had been recommended to their attention by the federal Convention. He was persuaded that they would readily concur in taking the necessary measures, and therefore he had prepared a resolution to that end.

His resolution was promptly seconded by Gerardus Wynkoop, who sat for Bucks County.

Robert Whitehill, member from Cumberland County, one of the authors of the ultrademocratic Pennsylvania constitution, rose to object. The members, he said, ought to have time to consider the subject. He moved, therefore, to postpone consideration until the afternoon session.