CHAPTER 6 | Document 17

Robert Whitehill, Pennsylvania Ratifying Convention

28 Nov. 1787McMaster 257--59

It will be proper, perhaps, to review the origin of this business. It was certainly, Mr. President, acknowledged on all hands, that an additional share of power for federal purposes ought to be delegated to Congress; and with a view to enquire how far it was necessary to strengthen and enlarge the jurisdiction of that body, the late convention was appointed under the authority, and by legislative acts of the several states. But how, Sir, did the convention act upon this occasion? Did they pursue the authority which was given to them? By the State of Pennsylvania that authority was strictly defined in the following words:

"And the said Thomas Mifflin, Robert Morris, George Clymer, Jared Ingersoll, Thomas Fitzsimons, James Wilson and Gouverneur Morris, Esqrs., or any four of them, are hereby constituted and appointed deputies from this state, with powers to meet such deputies as may be appointed and authorized by the other states to assemble in the said convention at the city aforesaid, and to join with them in devising, deliberating on and discussing all such alterations and further provisions as may be necessary to render the federal constitution fully adequate to the exigencies of the union; and in reporting such act or acts for that purpose to the United States in Congress assembled, as when agreed to by them, and duly confirmed by the several states, will effectually provide for the same."

Thus, Sir, it appears that no other power was given to the delegates from this state (and I believe the power given by the other states was of the same nature and extent) than to increase in a certain degree the strength and energy of Congress; but it never was in the contemplation of any man that they were authorized to dissolve the present union, to abrogate the state sovereignties, and to establish one comprehensive government, novel in its structure, and in its probable operation oppressive and despotic. Can it then be said that the late convention did not assume powers to which they had no legal title? On the contrary, Sir, it is clear that they set aside the laws under which they were appointed, and under which alone they could derive any legitimate authority, they arrogantly exercised any powers that they found convenient to their object, and in the end they have overthrown that government which they were called upon to amend, in order to introduce one of their own fabrication.

True it is, Mr. President, that if the people intended to engage in one comprehensive system of continental government, the power to frame that system must have been conferred by them; for the legislatures of the states are sworn to preserve the independence of their respective constitutions, and therefore they could not, consistently with their most sacred obligations, authorize an act which sacrificed the individual to the aggregate sovereignty of the states. But it appears from the origin and nature of the commission under which the late convention assembled, that a more perfect confederation was the only object submitted to their wisdom, and not, as it is attempted by this plan, the total destruction of the government of Pennsylvania, and of every other state. So far, Sir, the interference of the legislatures was proper and efficient; but the moment the convention went beyond that object, they ceased to act under any legitimate authority, for the assemblies could give them none, and it cannot be pretended that they were called together by the people; for, till the preamble was produced, it never was understood that the people at large had been consulted upon the occasion, or that otherwise than through their representatives in the several states, they had given a sanction to the proceedings of that body. If, indeed, the federal convention, finding that the old system was incapable of repair, had represented the incurable defects to Congress, and advised that the original and inherent power of the people might be called into exercise for the institution of a new government, then, Sir, the subject would have come fairly into view, and we should have known upon what principles we proceeded. At present we find a convention appointed by one authority, but acting under the arbitrary assumption of another; and instead of transacting the business which was assigned to them, behold! they have produced a work of supererogation, after a mysterious labor of three months.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 1, Chapter 6, Document 17
The University of Chicago Press

McMaster, John Bach, and Stone, Frederick D., eds. Pennsylvania and the Federal Constitution, 1787--1788. Lancaster: Published for the Subscribers by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1888.

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