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October 1787

October 26, 2020 - 4 minute read

Pennsylvania Packet

On September 29, the last day of the annual meeting of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, a motion was approved to set the first Tuesday in November for the election of delegates to a State convention to consider ratification of the proposed federal Constitution, but only after two opponents of the measure were physically dragged to the Assembly meeting room to assure a quorum. Their vehement opposition to the Constitution was exceeded only by the process used to bring it forward so soon after the Constitutional Convention had adjourned.

Later that day, sixteen dissenting members of the Assembly, all having refused to attend the session, issued a written statement in the form of a broadside which circulated widely throughout Pennsylvania and soon found its way to other States. Called “The Address of the Seceding Assemblymen,” it began by charging that the Constitutional Convention had exceeded its authority by going beyond “revising and amending the present Articles of Confederation.” Moreover, as they had “lamented at the time, a majority of our legislature appointed men…who were all citizens of Philadelphia.” None of them represented the landed interests of Pennsylvania and almost all of them were of the same political party, namely the party that opposed the current Pennsylvania constitution.

The letter reiterated their demand to defer making any decisions about the Constitution or a State ratifying convention. After all, the Assembly had not received “official” information from Congress about how to proceed.  Any action by the Assembly would be presumptuous and precipitous.  Besides, such an important matter required “the most minute examination and mature consideration;” yet “without any previous notice” a resolution had been proposed recommending calling for a State ratifying convention and electing delegates for the same.

Because “the annual [Assembly] election was so near…it ought to be taken up by the next house,” the letter continued. With the election less than two weeks away, why not wait to consider how to proceed until after the election and let the people decide, an argument to be made more than 230 years later by opponents of a Supreme Court nominee. 

As the dissidents reminded their readers, in the Assembly “no bill, however trifling, was passed without three readings, and without this formality, which gave the members time and opportunity to think on the subject; that the rules were adhered to so strictly that even the building of a bridge, or the laying out of a road, could not be determined without this form. But this, the most important of all matters, was to be done by surprise and…designed to preclude you from having it your power to deliberate on the subject.”

The letter proceeded to detail the dissenters’ deliberate decision to absent themselves from the meeting of the Assembly to prevent a quorum as well as the manner in which they had been forcibly made to attend, asserting they had been “seized by a number of citizens,” their lodgings “violently broken open, their clothes torn, and after much abuse, forcibly dragged through the streets of Philadelphia to the State House and there detained by force.” 

The letter concluded with the admonition for Pennsylvanians to “think for themselves” and to consider the consequences of the their decisions: the expenses of a new national government; the likely annihilation of State governments; imposition of more taxes; threats to freedom of the press and jury trials in civil cases; and much more. 

On October 8, the Pennsylvania Packet published a response, authored by six members of the Assembly, including two who had also represented Pennsylvania at the Constitutional Convention, Thomas Fitzsimons and George Clymer. They replied to the two points on which they asserted the previous letter from the dissenters had rested: “the irregularity” of the process and “the unfitness of the deputies” appointed to the Convention – that is, all being from Philadelphia and none representing the “landed interests of the state”

Providing a brief chronology of events, the article noted the Assembly had actually passed a resolution calling for a convention (December 1786) two months before Congress passed its resolution calling for a convention (February 28). Two of the most vociferous dissenters had been participants. Later, the only action the Assembly took was to select delegates. It had acted before and “independently of Congress” and was not bound by Congress. 

The letter then provided the number of votes received by each of the twelve persons nominated as delegates, indicating that “it appears from the votes to have been a general agreement” for most of them. There was only one nominee from the “landed interests”, and he received only two votes. In fact, several of the current dissenters said at the time that “the choice should be confined to the city of Philadelphia and its neighborhood as it would not be convenient for persons living at a distance to attend a convention.” In fact, William Findley, the one who received two votes, had actually stated that “a seat there would not suit him, which, perhaps, may account for the fewness of his votes.” 

Finally, the letter disputed the allegations of mistreatment of the dissenters. True, they were brought to the Assembly hall, but “suffered no such treatment” as they alleged. “On the contrary,” they continued, “the House showed a wonderful good temper on so provoking an occasion” and “as much as lay in their feeble means, attempting to dissolve the government  under which they live.”

The battle over the Constitution was joined. Pennsylvanians were deeply divided, and the new federal Constitution would be a major battlefield between advocates for an energetic national government and defenders of state supremacy. Two years ago, the Republicans (soon to be called Federalists) held less than a third of the seats in the Assembly. By 1787, they were, and remain, the majority party in the Assembly, but the October elections could go either way. In the end, when the votes were counted, the Federalists actually increased their strength, preparing the way for November 6, when the people will elect delegates to a state convention called expressly to consider ratification of the Constitution.

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