Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Ratification of the United States Consti­tution came about quickly in Pennsylva­nia. In less than three months the state was able to call a ratifying convention, conduct a special election, assemble delegates in Philadelphia and, ultimately, ratify the proposed frame of government. At a time when travel between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh could consume as much as two difficult weeks, the speed with which the state fulfilled the requirements of ratification was just short of astounding. Only Delaware, a much smaller state with a far more concentrated population, was able to approve the proposed Constitution more rapidly. Even so, Delaware ratified only a few days before Penn­sylvania. In light of the state’s rapid response it would seem that most Pennsylvanians solidly supported the Consti­tution. Such was not the case. Although the state’s path of ratification was short, it, nev­ertheless, was not particularly smooth.

Franklin officially delivered a copy of the proposed Consti­tution to the state assembly on September 18, 1787, ending a long, and al times, difficult summer of work building a national government. During the four months that the Con­stitutional Convention met, Franklin and his fellow Penn­sylvania delegates labored assiduously. One of the state’s delegates, James Wilson, es­tablished himself as second to only James Madison, the Con­stitution’s primary architect, in understanding the complex­ities of creating a national government. Another Pennsyl­vanian, Gouverneur Morris, had been the most active con­vention delegate, contributing significantly to many debates. Morris is also credited with having written the final draft of the Constitution. Franklin, although not as active as either Wilson or Morris, proposed several important compro­mises that allayed serious dissension among the delegates. These three, as weU as the remaining five Pennsylva­nia delegates, were pleased with their work and fully sup­ported the document which Franklin delivered to the state assembly that September morning two centuries ago.

Not everyone shared the Pennsylvania delegation’s enthusiasm for the new Con­stitution. Throughout the summer of 1787, a number of Pennsylvanians became alarmed by rumors seeping out of the State House where the Constitutional Convention was meeting. In July, several representatives of the state assembly warned they would oppose any revisions to the Articles of Confederation, the nation’s frame of government, that might limit the authority of the state. They believe a national government with powers greater than those of the states would jeopardize the precious liberty won dur­ing the bitter American Revo­lution.

George Bryan, one of the state’s more vociferous advo­cates of the Articles, charged the government being devised by the Constitutional Conven­tion was “the most daring attempt to establish a despotic aristocracy among freemen that the world has ever wit­nessed.” William Findley, an outspoken assemblyman from Westmoreland County, warned that because the Pennsylvania delegates to the Convention reflected only the interests of landowners and the Philadel­phia aristocracy, citizens of the western counties would be denied an equal voice in a new government. He argued that the Convention had been given only the authority to reform the Articles. A new frame of government would be more than he or Bryan could tolerate.

After reading the Constitu­tion into its journals, the as­sembly adjourned until September 24. During the six day hiatus, two factions for the impending struggle over ratifi­cation became alarmingly obvious. Supporters of the new government, calling themselves Federalists, and opponents of the Constitution, labeled Antifederalists, began to lay strategy for the ap­proaching debate.

By September 24, the day the Assembly reconvened, the Federalists were ready to pur­sue a speedy ratification. Their cause was aided by numerous letters of support from neigh­borhood committees endors­ing the new government. Plans were made to print copies of the Constitution in both English and German for distribution throughout the state. Meanwhile, opponents of the imminent ratification balked at the Federalist haste, arguing it would be impossible to adequately inform Pennsyl­vanians so that they could carefully assess the proposed government before the end of the year.

The issue exploded on September 28, the day before the assembly was to adjourn for the annual October elec­tions. George Clymer intro­duced a resolution calling for a state ratifying convention to be held some time in October. The resolution also requested that delegates to such a con­vention be elected during the next month’s elections.

Antifederalists in the state assembly were not enthused by Clymer’s proposal. After a morning of debate the assem­bly members could only agree that a ratifying convention should be held. A time for the convention and procedures for selecting representatives were left unsettled . Although a bit disappointed, Federalists expected to resolve the matter following a lunch recess. Nineteen Antifederalists boy­cotted the afternoon session, however, thus denying the assembly a quorum and pre­venting a vote upon the rest of Clymer’s resolution. Any further decisions about a rati­fying convention would have to wait, perhaps even until the following spring, unless Fed­eralists could do something quickly.

Undaunted by the apparent delay tactic, the assembly unanimously voted to direct the sergeant-at-arms to find the recalcitrant representatives and instruct them to return immediately to the session. The sergeant-at-arms failed. He located several of the miss­ing members, but they refused to return, claiming that they had not yet decided upon the morning’s resolution. With no other options available, the assembly – still lacking a quorum – adjourned until the following morning.

When the Assembly con­vened the next morning the nineteen were still absent. Federalists realized that, un­less a quorum could be at­tained immediately, a ratifying convention would be delayed until spring. The assembly­men again ordered the sergeant-at-arms to find ab­sent representatives and direct them to attend the session. No longer willing to be as courte­ous as they had been the pre­vious afternoon, the assemblymen ordered the sergeant-at-arms, aided by a clerk, to collect at least two absentees however they could and bring them back.

A short time later the sergeant-at-arms and clerk returned with two of the ab­sent members: James M’Cal­mont, representing Franklin County, and Jacob Miley from Dauphin County. The clerk reported that he and the sergeant-at-arms had gone to the boarding house where M’Calmont and Miley were staying and requested that they return to the assembly session immediately. Both refused. The clerk and sergeant-at-arms then went on to search for other missing assemblymen. Meanwhile, a small mob broke into M’Cal­mont and Miley’s boarding house, seized the two repre­sentatives and carried them through the streets of Phila­delphia, finally depositing them at the State House Once inside, the two – despite their protests – were not permitted to leave until the day’s pro­ceedings were completed.

With this quorum, the assembly could proceed with scheduling a ratifying conven­tion. Following a brief discus­sion, a special election was set for the first Tuesday in No­vember. The delegates elected were then to assemble in Phil­adelphia two weeks later and decide whether Pennsylvania should ratify the Constitution Throughout the deliberations James M’Calmont, still fuming about his forced attendance, tried to delay the special elec­tion or at least have the Con­vention moved to Lancaster, a city more accessible to west­erners. But M’Calmont’s pro­posals fell on deaf ears. With its business completed the assembly adjourned until later in the year.

The events of the assem­bly’s final session alarmed those opposing ratification and heightened fears of a conspiracy to limit the voice of state voters. A broadside pub­lished a few days after the assembly’s ajournement listed the Antifederalists’ grievances and explained why they had boycotted the final session. Most importantly, they argued that by preventing a quorum they were conscientiously fulfilling an obligation to their constituency. The ramifica­tions of the proposed Consti­tution, as well as the expense of maintaining a broad na­tional government, warranted “minute examination and mature consideration” by each voter in the state. A ratifying convention in November barely left enough time for the voters to learn about the pro­posed government, let alone read and analyze the docu­ment.

In October, Samuel Bryan set the tone for subsequent attacks upon the proposed Constitution. In a series of essays published in the Independent Gazetteer and signed simply “Centinal,” Bryan outlined his objections to the Constitution. Most impor­tantly, he feared that the new national government would supercede and ultimately eliminate the powers of the state – and it was the state that guaranteed freedom to Penn­sylvanians. Bryan offered much evidence to support his conclusion He argued that with the extensive legislative and judicial powers bestowed upon the national govern­ment, as well as the power to tax, the proposed government would undoubtedly absorb state governments. The “grand engine of oppression,” a standing army in times of peace, further confirmed Bry­an’s conclusion. Because of the size of the new government, local concerns and needs would be ignored. Likewise, checks upon elected officials of the national government would be limited because of the infrequency of elections and the size of the constitu­ency. For all these reasons the proposed Constitution would destroy democracy and en­courage the growth of aristoc­racy, monarchy and despotism. Bryan alerted readers that “all the blessing of liberty and the dear privleges of freeman are now at stake.”

Federalist response to Bry­an’s charges came quickly The day after “Centinal’s” accusa­tions, James Wilson, one of the state’s foremost propo­nents of the Constitution, addressed an eager crowd gathered at the State House. Wilson succinctly refuted the issues raised by opponents of the Constitution, arguing that the proposed federal govern­ment and existing state gov­ernments were essentially different and did not compete for powers. In fact, because of the role state governments would play in sleeting con­gressmen, the federal govern­ment could not survive without strong state governments. He believed objections to a standing army were short­sighted, as all modern nations needed to project an image of strength at all times; other­wise, they would be con­stantly preyed upon. If the national government was to pay for a defensive force as well as satisfy national debts, the new government would need the power to tax. The alternative was to have each state raise revenues to pay the nation’s debts, again an unten­able solution. The Constitu­tion would not threaten individual rights and Liberties but, instead, defend them with a second layer of govern­ment. Rather than encourag­ing aristocracy, monarchy and despotism, the Constitution’s system of checks and balances guaranteed democracy. It has been called “the best form of government which has ever been offered to the world.”

In the weeks that followed, a war of words was waged in Pennsylvania’s newspapers. Federalists controlled most of the state’s journals, but Anti­federalists were able to get several major editorials pub­lished. The Antifederalists assaults were a mixture of philosophical statements and personal attacks on the integ­rity of the state’s delegates who had helped write the document. James Wilson be­came the favorite target for opponents for the proposed government. His political conduct and “spirit of high aristocracy” seemed to typify Federalist attitudes. The most biting charges came from William Findley. In one edito­rial Findley listed twenty-three failings of the new govern­ment. As in other Antifederal­ists pieces, Findley’s primary argument was that a bill of rights was needed before the Constitution could be ratified. Otherwise “the enormous power of the new Constitu­tion” would eventually crush individual rights and liberties.

Federalist editorialists were not as active as their Antifed­eralist counterparts. Instead, Federalists relied on shorter accounts from local supporters. A typical report an­nounced that “enthusiastic zeal for the Constitution pre­vails in Pennsylvania.” There were only a few Philadelphi­ans who opposed the Consti­tution and they were “headed by several interested placemen whose offices diminish when­ever the federal government takes place.” In another ac­count Germans east of the Susquehanna were said to be strongly in favor of the new frame of government. Federal­ist editorials retraced the argu­ments first made by James Wilson in his speech at the State House. Less philosophi­cal than the Antifederalists, the Constitution’s proponents portrayed a growing swell of popular support for the new frame of government.

The election of delegates of the state ratifying convention was held on November 6, 1787. As expected, the majority – perhaps as large as two-thirds of those delegates elected-supported the Con­stitution, making the state’s adoption of the new frame of government an almost cer­tainty. Although the minority, Antifederalists had some rea­sons to celebrate the election; they were able to elect several of their principal leaders, including Robert Whitehill from Cumberland County and William Findley. It was also reported that more votes were cast for Antifederalists candi­dates then for Federalists.

Generally peaceful, the election was not without inci­dent. At midnight on election night in Philadelphia, “a large company of disorderly and evil minded persons” attacked the boardinghouse where several Antifederalist leaders were staying. After hurling stones at the house and taunt­ing Antifederalist leaders, the troublemakers escaped into the night. A few days later the state’s Supreme Executive Council offered a three hun­dred dollar reward for the capture of the rioters, but none were apprehended. One writer claimed the rioters were British sailors hired by Feder­alists to create a disturbance. Others blamed James Wilson for instigating the event.

Called to order on Novem­ber 21, the ratifying conven­tion became a continuation of the two-month old debate between Federalists and Anti­federalists. After haggling over procedural questions, the Convention spent three weeks examining the Constitution­ – article by article. Throughout the process Antifederalists complained, as they had since mid-September, that the new government would be too expensive, would virtually annihilate state governments, and would create a ruling aristocracy. The absence of a bill of rights particularly threatening to Antifederalists. John Smilie. a delegate from Fayette County, warned that without a bill of rights “there is no security for our rights in this Constitution.” William Findley went further and urged that the proposed plan of government not be ratified until a bill of rights was in­cluded as part of the Constitu­tion.

As they had since Septem­ber, Federalists attempted to rebut their opponents’ charges. Taking a more philo­sophical tact than they had in the earlier debates, Federalists contended that the United States would not achieve do­mestic stability or prosperity until the Constitution was adopted. Likewise, interna­tional respect would be impos­sible without the new form of government. In countering the call for a bill of rights, Federal­ists argued that in essence the entire Constitution was a bill of rights. Further, since the federal government would be given only those powers ex­plicitly listed in the Constitu­tion, the new government would not limit individual rights. For instance, the press could not be regulated by the federal government because nowhere in the Constitution was the federal government given such authority. Thus, a bill of rights was superfluous. Despite these arguments, Federalists, while able to parry all other Antifederalists thrusts, were not able to quiet the call for a bill of rights.

The Convention’s debate about the Constitution ended on December 12. After defeat­ing one last Antifederalist attempt to add a bill of rights to the Constitution, Federalists called for a final vote on the proposed frame of govern­ment. With forty-six yeas to twenty-three nays, the Con­vention formally accepted the document and Pennsylvania became the second state to ratify the Constitution.

News that the Convention had ratified the Constitution brought various reactions throughout the state. In Phila­delphia the ratification procla­mation was greeted with a cannon salute, ringing church bells and a parade. Similar celebrations took place in other communities, but not everyone was pleased with the turn of events. The most threatening response erupted in Carlisle. Federalists led by James Wilson, a former resi­dent, gathered at the public square to celebrate the ratifica­tion. As the festivities began a band of armed opponents of the Constitution threatened the gathering. Words were exchanged and Wilson was shoved to the ground and beaten. A brief melee fol­lowed. The rioters spiked the cannon used to salute the Constitution and rolled it into a bonfire the celebrants had set. Although not typical, the Carlisle riot reflected the deep dissatisfaction of many Penn­sylvanians.

Fortunately, most Antifed­eralists protestors took a more dignified posture. In mid­-December, twenty-one Con­vention delegates who had opposed ratification drew up a document which detailed the ways that the new government would destroy state sover­eignty and deprive individual citizens of their rights and liberties. “Dissent of the Mi­nority of the Convention” summarized the many charges against the new government and gave formal sanction to the call for a bill of rights in the form of amendments to the Constitution. The “Dis­sent” also served as an exam­ple for Antifederalists in other states where ratification had not yet occurred.

The saga of Pennsylvania’s ratification finally ended in September 1788. Throughout the spring and summer of that year Antifederalists had con­tinued to press their demands for a bill of rights. The cam­paign reached a climax in September as Antifederalists from western Pennsylvania met in Harrisburg. Albeit a relatively tame gathering, the Harrisburg convention de­manded that a bill of rights be added to the Constitution. State Federalists, concerned that the Pennsylvania protest might block ratification in other states, endorsed the Antifederalists proposal. The compromise resolved most Antifederalists objections to ratification and brought the struggle over ratification in Pennsylvania to a close.

 

This article is the first in a special series of five major articles to commemorate the bicentennial of the United States Constitution.

 

For Further Reading

Bowen, Catherine. The Miracle at Philadelphia. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1986.

Farrand, Max, ed. The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787. New Haven: Yale Univer­sity Press, 1967.

Hyneman, Charles S. and Donald Lutz, eds. American Political Writings During the Founding Era, 1760-1805. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1983.

Jensen, Merrill, ed. The Docu­mentary History of the Ratifi­cation of the Constitution. Madison; State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1986.

Kelly, Alfred H., Winfred Harbi­son and Herman Belz. American Constitution: Its Origins and Development. New York: Nor­ton, 1983.

Kurland, Phillip B. and Ralph Lerner. eds. The Founders’ Con­stitution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

McDonald, Forrest. Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellec­tual Origins of the Constitu­tion. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1985.

McLaughlin, Andrew C. A Con­stitutional History of the United States. New York: N.P., 1935.

Rutland, Robert A. The Ordeal of the Constitution: The Anti­-Federalists and the Ratifica­tion Struggle of 1787-1788. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1983.

Wood, Gordon S. The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787. New York: Norton, 1942.

 

Paul E. Doutrich III currently serves as associate historian for the PHMC’s Bureau of Archives and History. A 1972 graduate of the University of Kentucky, He received his master of arts degree in 1978 from the Pennsylvania State University and his doctorate from the University of Kentucky in 1985. His articles have ap­peared in Pennsylvania History, Filson Club Quarterly and the Alabama Historian. He is the author of To Form a More Perfect Union: Pennsylvania and the Creation of the U.S. Constitution, published by the agency last year. In addition to his membership in numerous profes­sional organizations and associa­tions, he serves as editorial section chief for this publication and as a consultant for the Pittsburgh Playhouse Traveling Troupe.