Business Of The Highest Magnitude


Fitzsimons was stern. He declared that he was a true friend to good order and decorum, but that he believed the gentleman’s complaint was not to be redressed by the House of Assembly. The member himself had trespassed, Fitzsimons said; McCalmont had perhaps offered the greatest indignity to the legislature of Pennsylvania that could be offered. He had tendered a pittance, a fine of five shillings, in order to be permitted to destroy the business, if not the good government, of the state. The member was now present, Fitzsimons said, and should stay, not only on constitutional grounds, but from the law of nature that would not suffer any body to destroy its own existence prematurely.

Robinson: “Suppose the House determine that he shall not leave, and yet he should attempt to withdraw. Certainly you will not lock your doors.”

Fitzsimons: “Yes, Sir, if no other method could retain him.”

A moment later McCalmont rose and made a dash for the door. The crowd yelled, “Stop him!” and those about the door barred his way. McCalmont returned to his seat.

The Speaker put the question: “Shall Mr. McCalmont have leave of absence?” It was voted “almost unanimously in the negative.”

Brackenridge then moved that the delegates to the state convention be elected on the first Tuesday in November. McCalmont objected that this was much too early and moved the last Tuesday in December. His motion failed. He moved the third Tuesday in December, then the second Tuesday, with the same result. He moved that the site of the convention be moved from Philadelphia to Carlisle, but he was not upheld. He moved that the change be made to Lancaster and was enthusiastically supported by the member from Lancaster. Fifteen members voted for Lancaster in a defeated motion.

The formal resolution was now put: That the election of delegates be held on November 6, 1787, and that the convention meet in the State House in Philadelphia on the third Tuesday in November. It was passed by a vote of 44 to 2. The Federalists had won their victory. The Assembly adjourned. McCalmont and Miley were released.

In the campaign that followed for election of delegates, Democrats and Federalists attacked one another with arguments and invective and sometimes with clubs, stones, and fists.

October 5, 1787: The first of twenty-four letters of “Centinel” (sentinel of the people’s liberties) appeared in the Gazetteer . These papers, running through the next fourteen months, still of undetermined authorship, were the Democratic counterpart of the eighty-five papers ( The Federalist ) produced by “Publius” in New York. Centinel attacked Publius on many points and brilliantly set forth the Democratic case against the Constitution, the “harpies of power,” and “the wealthy and ambitious, who in every community think they have a right to lord it over their fellow creatures.” The treatment accorded McCalmont and Miley, Centinel said, showed what would happen to free citizens under the Federalist Constitution.

October 6: At a public meeting in the State House yard, James Wilson cogently answered the Democratic arguments point by point, and in so doing assumed the role of the country’s most effective proponent of the Constitution in debate. His speech was widely distributed, reprinted, copied, and quoted. The Democrats attacked it as a “train of pitiful sophistries and evasions,” compared Wilson (unfavorably) with Tiberius, Caligula, and Nero, and charged that he was “strongly tainted with the spirit of high aristocracy .”

November 6: The Federalists scored an overwhelming victory in the election of delegates, losing only the six western counties. Their majority was 2 to i, or 46 convention votes to 23. Elated at their victory, several dozen Federalists gathered on election night before Major Boyd’s, reviled the “damned rascals” housed therein, flung stones through the newly repaired windows, and broke the door with large rocks.

November 21: The convention convened in the State House. The delegates spent the first week arguing about procedure. James Wilson distinguished himself with five powerful, if somewhat florid, speeches. Robert Whitehill, the Democrat from Cumberland County, submitted fifteen proposed amendments to the Constitution as a bill of rights. They were ignored. On a number of occasions the members were close to physical assault on one another.

December 7: Delaware ratified the Constitution, won over by the compromise that gave the small states equal representation in the Senate (the Constitution’s only irrevocable article). John Smilie of Fayette County, who with Whitehill and Findley was leading the fight against ratification in the Pennsylvania convention, sneered that Delaware had “reaped the honor of having first surrendered the liberties of the people.”