Federal v. Consolidated Government

CHAPTER 8 | Document 18

James Wilson, Pennsylvania Ratifying Convention

1--11 Dec. 1787McMaster 301--3, 322--25, 389--91

[1 Dec.]

The secret is now disclosed, and it is discovered to be a dread that the boasted state sovereignties will, under this system, be disrobed of part of their power. Before I go into the examination of this point, let me ask one important question: Upon what principle is it contended that the sovereign power resides in the state governments? The honorable gentleman has said truly, that there can be no subordinate sovereignty. Now if there can not, my position is, that the sovereignty resides in the people. They have not parted with it; they have only dispensed such portions of power as were conceived necessary for the public welfare. This constitution stands upon this broad principle. I know very well, Sir, that the people have hitherto been shut out of the federal government, but it is not meant that they should any longer be dispossessed of their rights. In order to recognize this leading principle, the proposed system sets out with a declaration that its existence depends upon the supreme authority of the people alone. We have heard much about a consolidated government. I wish the honorable gentleman would condescend to give us a definition of what he meant by it. I think this the more necessary, because I apprehend that the term, in the numerous times it has been used, has not always been used in the same sense. It may be said, and I believe it has been said, that a consolidated government is such as will absorb and destroy the governments of the several States. If it is taken in this view, the plan before us is not a consolidated government, as I showed on a former day, and may, if necessary, show further on some future occasion. On the other hand, if it is meant that the general government will take from the state governments their power in some particulars, it is confessed and evident that this will be its operation and effect.

When the principle is once settled that the people are the source of authority, the consequence is that they may take from the subordinate governments powers with which they have hitherto trusted them, and place those powers in the general government, if it is thought that there they will be productive of more good. They can distribute one portion of power to the more contracted circle called State governments: they can also furnish another proportion to the government of the United States. Who will undertake to say as a state officer that the people may not give to the general government what powers and for what purposes they please? how comes it, Sir, that these State governments dictate to their superiors?--to the majesty of the people? When I say the majesty of the people, I mean the thing, and not a mere compliment to them. The honorable gentleman went a step further and said that the State governments were kept out of this government altogether. The truth is, and it is a leading principle in this system, that not the States only but the people also shall be here represented. And if this is a crime, I confess the general government is chargeable with it; but I have no idea that a safe system of power in the government, sufficient to manage the general interest of the United States, could be drawn from any other source or rested in any other authority than that of the people at large, and I consider this authority as the rock on which this structure will stand. If this principle is unfounded, the system must fall. If honorable gentlemen, before they undertake to oppose this principle, will show that the people have parted with their power to the State governments, then I confess I cannot support this constitution.

[4 Dec.]

It is repeated, with confidence, "that this is not a federal government, but a complete one, with legislative, executive and judicial powers: it is a consolidating government." I have already mentioned the misuse of the term; I wish the gentleman would indulge us with his definition of the word. If, when he says it is a consolidation, he means so far as relates to the general objects of the union--so far it was intended to be a consolidation, and on such a consolidation, perhaps, our very existence, as a nation, depends. If, on the other hand (as something which has been said seems to indicate) he (Mr. Findley) means that it will absorb the governments of the individual States, so far is this position from being admitted, that it is unanswerably controverted. The existence of the State government, is one of the most prominent features of this system. With regard to those purposes which are allowed to be for the general welfare of the union, I think it no objection to this plan, that we are told it is a complete government. I think it no objection, that it is alleged the government will possess legislative, executive and judicial powers. Should it have only legislative authority? We have had examples enough of such a government, to deter us from continuing it. Shall Congress any longer continue to make requisitions from the several States, to be treated sometimes with silent, and sometimes with declared contempt? For what purpose give the power to make laws, unless they are to be executed? and if they are to be executed, the executive and judicial powers will necessarily be engaged in the business.

Do we wish a return of those insurrections and tumults to which a sister State was lately exposed? or a government of such insufficiency as the present is found to be? Let me, Sir, mention one circumstance in the recollection of every honorable gentleman who hears me. To the determination of Congress are submitted all disputes between States, concerning boundary, jurisdiction, or right of soil. In consequence of this power, after much altercation, expense of time, and considerable expense of money, this State was successful enough to obtain a decree in her favor, in a difference then subsisting between her and Connecticut; but what was the consequence? the Congress had no power to carry the decree into execution. Hence the distraction and animosity, which have ever since prevailed, and still continue in that part of the country. Ought the government then to remain any longer incomplete? I hope not; no person can be so insensible to the lessons of experience as to desire it.

It is brought as an objection "that there will be a rivalship between the State governments and the general government; on each side endeavors will be made to increase power."

Let us examine a little into this subject. The gentlemen tell you, Sir, that they expect the States will not possess any power. But I think there is reason to draw a different conclusion. Under this system their respectability and power will increase with that of the general government. I believe their happiness and security will increase in a still greater proportion. Let us attend a moment to the situation of this country: it is a maxim of every government, and it ought to be a maxim with us, that the increase of numbers increases the dignity, the security, and the respectability of all governments; it is the first command given by the Deity to man, increase and multiply; this applies with peculiar force to this country, the smaller part of whose territory is yet inhabited. We are representatives, Sir, not merely of the present age, but of future times; nor merely of the territory along the sea coast, but of regions immensely extended westward. We should fill, as fast as possible, this extensive country, with men who shall live happy, free and secure. To accomplish this great end ought to be the leading view of all our patriots and statesmen. But how is it to be accomplished, but by establishing peace and harmony among ourselves, and dignity and respectability among foreign nations? By these means, we may draw numbers from the other side of the Atlantic, in addition to the natural sources of population. Can either of these objects be attained without a protecting head? When we examine history, we shall find an important fact, and almost the only fact, which will apply to all confederacies.

They have all fallen to pieces, and have not absorbed the subordinate governments.

In order to keep republics together they must have a strong binding force, which must be either external or internal. The situation of this country shows, that no foreign force can press us together; the bonds of our union ought therefore to be indissolubly strong.

The power of the States, I apprehend, will increase with the population, and the happiness of their inhabitants. Unless we can establish a character abroad, we shall be unhappy from foreign restraints, or internal violence. These reasons, I think, prove sufficiently the necessity of having a federal head. Under it the advantages enjoyed by the whole union would be participated by every State. I wish honorable gentlemen would think not only of themselves, not only of the present age, but of others, and of future times.

It has been said, "that the State governments will not be able to make head against the general government;" but it might be said with more propriety, that the general government will not be able to maintain the powers given it against the encroachments and combined attacks of the State governments. They possess some particular advantages, from which the general government is restrained. By this system, there is a provision made in the constitution, that no senator or representative shall be appointed to any civil office under the authority of the United States, which shall have been created, or the emoluments whereof shall have been increased, during the time for which he was elected; and no person holding any office under the United States can be a member of either house; but there is no similar security against State influence, as a representative may enjoy places and even sinecures under the State governments. On which side is the door most open to corruption? If a person in the legislature is to be influenced by an office, the general government can give him none unless he vacate his seat. When the influence of office comes from the State government, he can retain his seat and salary too. But it is added, under this head, "that State governments will lose the attachment of the people, by losing the power of conferring advantages, and that the people will not be at the expense of keeping them up." Perhaps the State governments have already become so expensive as to alarm the gentlemen on that head. I am told that the civil list of this State amounted to £40,000, in one year. Under the proposed government, I think it would be possible to obtain in Pennsylvania every advantage we now possess, with a civil list that shall not exceed one-third of that sum.

How differently the same thing is talked of, if it be a favorite or otherwise! When advantages to an officer are to be derived from the general government, we hear them mentioned by the name of bribery, but when we are told of the State governments losing the power of conferring advantages, by the disposal of offices, it is said they will lose the attachment of the people. What is in one instance corruption and bribery, is in another the power of conferring advantages.

We are informed that "the State elections will be ill attended, and that the State governments will become mere boards of electors." Those who have a due regard for their country, will discharge their duty, and attend; but those who are brought only from interest or persuasion had better stay away; the public will not suffer any disadvantage from their absence. But the honest citizen, who knows the value of the privilege, will undoubtedly attend, to secure the man of his choice. The power and business of the State legislatures relates to the great objects of life, liberty and property; the same are also objects of the general government.

Certainly the citizens of America will be as tenacious in the one instance as in the other. They will be interested, and I hope will exert themselves, to secure their rights not only from being injured by the State governments, but also from being injured by the general government.

[11 Dec.]

We are next told, by the honorable gentlemen in opposition (as indeed we have been from the beginning of the debates in this convention, to the conclusion of their speeches yesterday) that this is a consolidated government, and will abolish the State governments. Definitions of a consolidated government have been called for; the gentlemen gave us what they termed definitions, but it does not seem, to me at least, that they have as yet expressed clear ideas upon that subject. I will endeavor to state their different ideas upon this point.

The gentlemen from Westmoreland (Mr. Findley) when speaking on this subject, says, that he means by a consolidation, that government which puts the thirteen States into one.

The honorable gentleman from Fayette (Mr. Smilie) gives you this definition: "What I mean by a consolidated government, is one that will transfer the sovereignty from the State governments to the general government."

The honorable member from Cumberland (Mr. Whitehill) instead of giving you a definition, sir, tells you again, that "it is consolidated government, and we have proved it so."

These, I think, sir, are the different descriptions given us of a consolidated government. As to the first, that it is a consolidated government, that puts the thirteen United States into one; if it is meant, that the general government will destroy the governments of the States, I will admit that such a government would not suit the people of America: It would be improper for this country, because it could not be proportioned to its extent on the principles of freedom. But that description does not apply to the system before you. This, instead of placing the State governments in jeopardy, is founded on their existence. On this principle, its organization depends; it must stand or fall, as the State governments are secured or ruined. Therefore, though this may be a very proper description of a consolidating government, yet it must be disregarded as inapplicable to the proposed constitution. It is not treated with decency, when such insinuations are offered against it.

The honorable gentleman (Mr. Smilie) tells you, that a consolidating government "is one that will transfer the sovereignty from the State governments to the general government." Under this system, the sovereignty is not in the possession of the State governments, therefore it cannot be transferred from them to the general government. So that in no point of view of this definition, can we discover that it applies to the present system.

In the exercise of its powers will be insured the exercise of their powers to the State government; it will insure peace and stability to them; their strength will increase with its strength, their growth will extend with its growth.

Indeed, narrow minds, and some such there are in every government--narrow minds, and intriguing spirits--will be active in sowing dissentions and promoting discord between them. But those whose understandings and whose hearts are good enough to pursue the general welfare, will find, that what is the interest of the whole, must, on the great scale, be the interest of every part. It will be the duty of a State, as of an individual, to sacrifice her own convenience to the general good of the Union.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 1, Chapter 8, Document 18
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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