[Volume 2, Page 3]

Document 8

James Wilson, Pennsylvania Ratifying Convention

11 Dec. 1787McMaster 384--85

This, Mr. President, is not a government founded upon compact; it is founded upon the power of the people. They express in their name and their authority, "We the People do ordain and establish," &c., from their ratification, and their ratification alone it is to take its constitutional authenticity; without that it is no more than tabula rasa.

I know very well all the common-place rant of State sovereignties, and that government is founded in original compact. If that position was examined, it will be found not to accede very well with the true principle of free government. It does not suit the language or genius of the system before us. I think it does not accord with experience, so far as I have been able to obtain information from history.

The greatest part of governments have been founded on conquest; perhaps a few early ones may have had their origin in paternal authority. Sometimes a family united, and that family afterwards extended itself into a community. But the greatest governments which have appeared on the face of the globe have been founded in conquest. The great empires of Assyria, Persia, Macedonia and Rome, were all of this kind. I know well that in Great Britain, since the revolution, it has become a principle that the constitution is founded in contract; but the form and time of that contract no writer has yet attempted to discover. It was, however, recognized at the time of the revolution, therefore is politically true. But we should act very imprudently to consider our liberties as placed on such foundation.

If we go a little further on this subject, I think we see that the doctrine of original compact cannot be supported consistently with the best principles of government. If we admit it, we exclude the idea of amendment; because a contract once entered into between the governor and governed becomes obligatory, and cannot be altered but by the mutual consent of both parties. The citizens of United America, I presume, do not wish to stand on that footing, with those to whom, from convenience, they please to delegate the exercise of the general powers necessary for sustaining and preserving the Union. They wish a principle established, by the operation of which the legislatures may feel the direct authority of the people. The people possessing that authority, will continue to exercise it by amending and improving their own work. This constitution [Volume 2, Page 4] may be found to have defects in it; amendments hence may become necessary; but the idea of a government founded on contract, destroys the means of improvement. We hear it every time the gentlemen are up, "Shall we violate the confederation, which directs every alteration that is thought necessary to be established by the State legislatures only?" Sir, those gentlemen must ascend to a higher source; the people fetter themselves by no contract. If your State legislatures have cramped themselves by compact, it was done without the authority of the people, who alone possess the supreme power.

I have already shown, that this system is not a compact or contract; the system itself tells you what it is; it is an ordinance and establishment of the people. I think that the force of the introduction to the work, must by this time have been felt. It is not an unmeaning flourish. The expressions declare, in a practical manner, the principle of this constitution. It is ordained and established by the people themselves; and we, who give our votes for it, are merely the proxies of our constituents. We sign it as their attorneys, and as to ourselves, we agree to it as individuals.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 2, Preamble, Document 8
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.