On the Anniversary of Pennsylvania Ratifying the Constitution, A Note On Why It’s So Important to Study the Fierce Debates over the Constitution in 1787-1788.

On December 12, 1787, Pennsylvania becomes the second state to ratify the United States Constitution. The state voted in favor of ratification by a vote of 46 to 23, and did so after enduring a serious Anti-Federalist challenge to ratification.


It’s important to not only make note of this historic anniversary for Pennsylvania and for the nation, but also to take pause and understand the fact that on September 17, 1787, the Constitution was nothing more than a proposal. “We the People,” in state ratifying conventions, decided whether or not “to ordain and establish the Constitution of the United States.”

As the late historian Pauline Maier wrote in her masterful tome “Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution: 1787 – 1788,”
Debate over the Constitution raged in newspapers, taverns, coffeehouses, and over dinner tables as well as in the Confederation Congress, state legislatures, and state ratifying conventions. People who never left their home towns and were little known except to their neighbors studied the document, knew it well, and on some memorable occasions made their views known. What the people and the convention delegates they chose decided had everything to do with making the United States in what George Washington called a ‘respectable nation.’
Pennsylvania was not the only state with significant opposition to the Constitution. I encourage folks interested in history and the Constitution to explore the other records of the other state ratifying conventions, as well, or pick up Pauline Maier’s excellent book on the topic.
In 1796, James Madison said,
…whatever veneration might be entertained for the body of men who formed our constitution, the sense of that body could never be regarded as the oracular guide in . . . expounding the constitution. As the instrument came from them, it was nothing more than a draught of a plan, nothing but a dead letter, util life and validity were breathed into it, by the voice of the people, speaking through the several state conventions. If we were to look therefore, for the meaning of the instrument, beyond the face of the instrument, we must look for it not in the general convention, which proposed, but in the states conventions, which accepted and ratified the constitution.
I hope citizens will heed Madison’s words and study not only on the Constitutional Convention records, but also the records of the state ratifying conventions, which are available, in part, in the ConSource digital library, but also through the masterful work of the historians and editors (including ConSource Board member John Kaminski) at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who continue to complete work on the Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution.
A good place to start this course of study is in Pennsylvania – where 21 of the 23 members of the ratifying convention who voted against ratification outlined their grievances in “The Address and Reasons of Dissent of the Minority of the Convention of the State of Pennsylvania to their Constituents.” In their dissent, they raised the following objections –
[1] The proposed plan had not many hours issued forth from the womb of suspicious secrecy, until such as were prepared for the purpose, were carrying about petitions for people to sign, signifying their approbation of the system, and requesting the legislature to call a convention.
[2] The election for members of the convention was held at so early a period and the want of information was so great, that some of us did not know of it until after it was over, and we have reason to believe that great numbers of the people of Pennsylvania have not yet had an opportunity of sufficiently examining the proposed constitution.- We apprehend that no change can take place that will affect the internal government or constitution of this commonwealth, unless a majority of the people should evidence a wish for such a change; but on examining the number of votes given for members of the present state convention, we find that of upwards of seventy thousand freemen who are intitled to vote in Pennsylvania, the whole convention has been elected by about thirteen thousand voters, and though two thirds of the members of the convention have thought proper to ratify the proposed constitution, yet those two thirds were elected by the votes of only six thousand and eight hundred freemen.
[3] We were prohibited by an express vote of the convention, from taking any question on the separate articles of the plan, and reduced to the necessity of adopting or rejecting in toto.-
The Dissent goes on to list the changes they’d make to the federal constitution –
We offered our objections to the convention, and opposed those parts of the plan, which, in our opinion, would be injurious to you, in the best manner we were able; and closed our arguments by offering the following propositions to the convention.
1. The right of conscience shall be held inviolable; and neither the legislative, executive nor judicial powers of the United States shall have authority to alter, abrogate, or infringe any part of the constitution of the several states, which provide for the preservation of liberty in matters of religion.
2. That in controversies respecting property, and in suits between man and man, trial by jury shall remain as heretofore, as well in the federal courts, as in those of the several states.
3. That in all capital and criminal prosecutions, a man has a right to demand the cause and nature of his accusation, as well in the federal courts, as in those of the several states; to be heard by himself and his counsel; to be confronted with the accusers and witnesses; to call for evidence in his favor, and a speedy trial by an impartial jury of his vicinage, without whose unanimous consent, he cannot be found guilty, nor can he be compelled to give evidence against himself; and that no man be deprived of his liberty, except by the law of the land or the judgment of his peers.
4. That excessive bail ought not to be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel nor unusual punishments inflicted.
5. That warrants unsupported by evidence, whereby any officer or messenger may be commanded or required to search suspected places, or to seize any person or persons, his or their property, not particularly described, are grievous and oppressive, and shall not be granted either by the magistrates of the federal government or others.
6. That the people have a right to the freedom of speech, of writing and publishing their sentiments,therefore, the freedom of the press shall not be restrained by any law of the United States.
7. That the people have a right to bear arms for the defence of themselves and their own state, or the United States, or for the purpose of killing game; and no law shall be passed for disarming the people or any of them, unless for crimes committed, or real danger of public injury from individuals;10 and as standing armies in the time of peace are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be kept up: and that the military shall be kept under strict subordination to and be governed by the civil powers.
8. The inhabitants of the several states shall have liberty to fowl and hunt in seasonable times, on the lands they hold, and on all other lands in the United States not inclosed, and in like manner to fish in all navigable waters, and others not private property, without being restrained therein by any laws to be passed by the legislature of the United States.
9. That no law shall be passed to restrain the legislatures of the several states from enacting laws for imposing taxes, except imposts and duties on goods imported or exported, and that no taxes, except imposts and duties upon goods imported and exported, and postage on letters shall be levied by the authority of Congress.
10. That the house of representatives be properly increased in number; that elections shall remain free; that the several states shall have power to regulate the elections for senators and representatives, without being controuled either directly or indirectly by any interference on the part of the Congress; and that elections of representatives be annual.
11. That the power organizing, arming and disciplining the militia (the manner of disciplining the militia to be prescribed by Congress) remain with the individual states, and that Congress shall not have authority to call or march any of the militia out of their own state, without the consent of such state, and for such length of time only as such state shall agree.
That the sovereignty, freedom and independency of the several states shall be retained, and every power, jurisdiction and right which is not by this constitution expressly delegated to the United States in Congress assembled.
12. That the legislative, executive, and judicial powers be kept separate; and to this end that a constitutional council be appointed, to advise and assist the president, who shall be responsible for the advice they give, hereby the senators would be relieved from almost constant attendance; and also that the judges be made completely independent.
13. That no treaty which shall be directly opposed to the existing laws of the United States in Congress assembled, shall be valid until such laws shall be repealed, or made conformable to such treaty; neither shall any treaties be valid which are in contradiction to the constitution of the United States, or the constitutions of the several states.
14. That the judiciary power of the United States shall be confined to cases affecting ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls; to cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction; to controversies to which the United States shall be a party; to controversies between two or more states- between a state and citizens of different states- between citizens claiming lands under grants of different states; and between a state or the citizens thereof and foreign states, and in criminal cases, to such only as are expressly enumerated in the constitution, & that the United States in Congress assembled, shall not have power to enact laws, which shall alter the laws of descents and distribution of the effects of deceased persons, the titles of lands or goods, or the regulation of contracts in the individual states.
In the end, although there was serious dissent in Pennsylvania, the state ratifying convention voted in favor of ratification.

You can explore the full debates in the Pennsylvania ratifying convention in the ConSource digital library here.

The Pennsylvania Form of Ratification reads

In the Name of the People of Pennsylvania. Be it Known unto all Men that We the Delegates of the People of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in general Convention assembled Have assented to, and ratifyed, and by these presents Do in the Name and by the authority of the same people, and for ourselves, assent to, and ratify the foregoing Constitution for the United States of America. Done in Convention at Philadelphia the twelfth day of December in the year of our Lord one Thousand seven hundred and eighty seven and of the Independence of the United States of America the twelfth. In Witness whereof we have hereunto subscribed our Names.
Frederick Augustus Muhlenberg President George Latimer Benjn Rush Hilary Baker James Wilson Thomas M’Kean W Macpherson John Hunn George Gray Samuel Ashmead Enoch Edwards Henry Wynkoop John Barclay Thos. Yardley Abraham Stout Thomas Bull Anthony Wayne William Gibbons Richard Downing Thomas Cheyney John Hannum Stephen Chambers Robert Coleman Sebastian Graff John Hubley Jasper Yeates Heny Slagle Thomas Campbell Thomas Hartley David Grier John Black Benjamin Pedan John Arndt Stephen Balliet Joseph Horsfield David Deshler William Wilson John Boyd Tho Scott John Nevill Jno Allison Jonathan Roberts John Richards James Morris Timothy Pickering Benjn Elliot Attest James Campbell Secretary

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