Energetic Government

[Volume 1, Page 302]

CHAPTER 9 | Document 2

Pelatiah Webster, Remarks on the Address of Sixteen Members of the Assembly of Pennsylvania

12 Oct. 1787McMaster 103--6

Upon the whole matter, I think the sixteen members have employed an address-writer of great dexterity, who has given us a strong sample of ingenious malignity and ill-nature--a master-piece of high coloring in the scare-crow way; in his account of the conduct of the sixteen members, by an unexpected openness and candor, he avows facts which he certainly cannot expect to justify, or even hope that their constituents will patronize or even approve; but he seems to lose all candor when he deals in sentiments; when he comes to point out the nature and operation of the new constitution, he appears to mistake the spirit and true principles of it very much; or which is worse, takes pleasure in showing it in the worst light he can paint it in. I however agree with him in this, that this is the time for consideration and minute examination: and I think the great subject, when viewed seriously, without passion or prejudice, will bear and brighten under the severest examination of the rational inquirer. If the provisions of the law or constitution do not exceed the occasions, if the remedies are not extended beyond the mischiefs, the government cannot be justly charged with severity; on the other hand, if the provisions are not adequate to the occasions, and the remedies not equal to the mischiefs, the government must be too lax, and not sufficiently operative to give the necessary security to the subject; to form a right judgment, we must compare these two things well together, and not suffer our minds to dwell on one of them alone, without considering them in connexion with the other; by this means we shall easily see that the one makes the other necessary.

Were we to view only the gaols and dungeons, the gallows and pillories, the chains and wheel-barrows, of any state, we might be induced to think the government severe; but when we turn our attention to the murders and parricides, and robberies and burglaries, the piracies and thefts, which merit these punishments, our idea of cruelty vanishes at once, and we admire the justice, and perhaps [Volume 1, Page 303] clemency, of that government which before shocked us as too severe. So when we fix our attention only on the superlative authority and energetic force vested in congress and our federal executive powers by the new constitution, we may at first sight be induced to think that we yield more of the sovereignty of the states and of personal liberty, than is requisite to maintain the federal government; but when on the other hand we consider with full survey the vast supports which the union requires, and the immense consequence of that union to us all, we shall probably soon be convinced that the powers aforesaid, extensive as they are, are not greater than is necessary for our benefit; for, 1. No laws of any state, which do not carry in them a force which extends to their effectual and final execution, can afford a certain and sufficient security to the subject; for, 2. Laws of any kind, which fail of execution, are worse than none, because they weaken the government, expose it to contempt, destroy the confidence of all men, both subjects and strangers, in it, and disappoint all men who have confided in it; in fine, our union can never be supported without definite and effectual laws which are coextensive with their occasions, and which are supported by authorities and powers which can give them execution with energy; if admitting such powers into our constitution can be called a sacrifice, it is a sacrifice to safety, and the only question is whether our union or federal government is worth this sacrifice. Our union, I say, under the protection of which every individual rests secure against foreign and domestic insult and oppression; but without it we can have no security against invasions, insults, and oppressions of foreign powers, or against the inroads and wars of one state on another, or even against insurrections and rebellions arising within particular states, by which our wealth and strength, as well as ease, comfort and safety, will be devoured and destroyed by enemies growing out of our own bowels. It is our union alone which can give us respectability abroad in the eyes of foreign nations; and secure to us all the advantages both of trade and safety, which can be derived from treaties with them.

The Thirteen States all united and well cemented together, are a strong, rich and formidable body, not of stationary, maturated power, but increasing every day in riches, strength, and numbers; thus circumstanced, we can demand the attention and respect of all foreign nations, but they will give us both in exact proportion to the solidity of our union. For if they observe our union to be lax, from insufficient principles of cement in our constitution, or mutinies and insurrections of our own people (which are the direct consequence of an insufficient cement of union); I say, when foreign nations see either of these, they will immediately abate of their attention and respect to us and confidence in us.

And, as it appears to me, that the new constitution does not vest congress with more or greater powers than are necessary to support this important union, I wish it may be admitted in the most cordial and unanimous manner by all the states.

It is a human composition, and may have errors which future experience will enable us to discover and correct; but I think it is pretty plain, if it has faults, that the address-writer of the sixteen members has not been able to find them; for he has all along either hunted down phantoms of error, that have no real existence, or which is worse, tarnished real excellencies into blemishes.

I have dwelt the longer on these remarks on this writer, because I observe that all the scribblers in our papers against the new constitution, have taken their cue principally from him, all their lucubrations contain little more than his ideas dressed out in a great variety of forms; one of which colors so high as to make the new constitution strongly resemble the Turkish government (vide Gazetteer of the 10th instant), which, I think, comes about as near the truth as any of the rest, and brings to my mind a sentiment in polemical divinity, which I have somewhere read, that there were once great disputes and different opinions among divines about the mark which was set on Cain, when one of them very gravely thought it was a horn fully grown out on his forehead. It is probable he could not think of a worse mark than that.

On the whole matter there is no end of the extravagancies of the human fancy, which are commonly dictated by poignant feelings, disordered passions, or affecting interests; but I could wish my fellow-citizens, in the matter of vast importance before us, would divest themselves of bias, passion, and little personal or local interests, and consider the great subject with that dignity of reason and independence of sentiment, which national interests ever require. I have here given my sentiments with the most unbiased freedom, and hope they will be received with the most candid attention and unbiased discussion, by the states in which I live, and in which I expect to leave my children.

I will conclude with one observation, which I take to be very capital, viz: that the distresses and oppressions both of nations and individuals often arise from the powers of government being too limited in their principle, too indeterminate in their definition, or too lax in their execution, and of course the safety of the citizens depends much on full and definite powers of government, and an effectual execution of them.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 1, Chapter 9, Document 2
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.