Front Page Titles (by Subject) Speech Delivered, on 19th January, 1790, in the Convention of Pennsylvania, Assembled for the Purpose of Reviewing, Altering, and Amending the Constitution of the State. - Collected Works of James Wilson, vol. 1
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Speech Delivered, on 19th January, 1790, in the Convention of Pennsylvania, Assembled for the Purpose of Reviewing, Altering, and Amending the Constitution of the State. - James Wilson, Collected Works of James Wilson, vol. 1 
Collected Works of James Wilson, edited by Kermit L. Hall and Mark David Hall, with an Introduction by Kermit L. Hall, and a Bibliographical Essay by Mark David Hall, collected by Maynard Garrison (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2007). Vol. 1.
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Speech Delivered, on 19th January, 1790, in the Convention of Pennsylvania, Assembled for the Purpose of Reviewing, Altering, and Amending the Constitution of the State.
on a motion that
“No member of congress from this state, nor any person holding or exercising any office of trust or profit under the United States, shall, at the same time, hold and exercise any office whatever in this state.”
It has frequently been my lot to plead the cause of others; sometimes of individuals, sometimes of publick bodies, oftener than once of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. It is now my lot to be under the hard necessity of pleading my own. That commonwealth, whose cause I have pleaded—and pleaded successfully—that commonwealth, in whose service I have laboured faithfully—I defy even my enemies to refute the assertion—though, to myself, very unprofitably—that commonwealth, which I have served in times of safety and in times of danger, through good report, and through bad report—that commonwealth, sir, if the present motion shall be adopted, is about to strip me of the most valuable rights of citizenship. And this is to be done without any offence or cause of forfeiture on my part; unless to have been highly honoured by the president and senate of the United States is, in her consideration, now become a crime, and to have accepted of the high honour is, in her eye, become a cause of forfeiture.
Well, then, may I say, that I am now to plead my own cause. All the citizen is roused within me; and I dissemble neither my feelings nor my interest: for both my interest and my feelings as a citizen of Pennsylvania assure me, in a manner which I cannot mistake, but which, at the same time, I cannot express, that this cause is personally my own. As such, therefore, I shall openly and directly consider and plead it. I am afraid, however, that I shall acquit myself but awkwardly: the task is new and unfamiliar: the path before me I have not hitherto trod. But a ray of consolation darts upon me. Though the cause is personally, it is not exclusively my own. I plead the cause likewise of some of the most distinguished citizens of Pennsylvania: I plead what will soon be the cause of others of her citizens equally distinguished: I plead what will continue, in future ages, to be the cause of her best, and those who ought to be her most favoured sons: I plead, sir, the cause of Pennsylvania herself: for Pennsylvania herself will certainly suffer, if she shall be deprived of the services of such of her citizens, as shall be best qualified for serving her. To deprive her of the services of such citizens is the evident tendency, the evident object, and the evident principle of the present motion: for such will be the citizens selected for the offices of the United States.
But here, sir, I must beg not to be misunderstood. When I speak of the principle and object and tendency of the motion, I mean not to apply those expressions to the principles, the views, or the wishes of its honourable mover. Between the first and the last there may be, and, I think, there probably is, a very considerable difference. In suggesting this, I pay not, to his principles, a compliment at the expense of his understanding; for to the most enlightened mind it is no disparagement to suppose, that, at first sight, it does not perceive all the distant bearings and relations and dependencies, which a motion, especially one so extensive as this, may, on investigation, be found to have.
The motion is in these words: “No member of congress from this state, nor any person holding or exercising any office of trust or profit under the United States, shall, at the same time, hold and exercise any office whatever in this state.” It embraces all this broad and comprehensive position—every person, who is employed or trusted by the United States, ought, for that reason, to be incapacitated from being employed or trusted by the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, one of those states who compose the union. This position, your adoption of the motion will establish in its fullest force and extent. It will become a part, not merely of the law, but of the constitution of the land; and will be a binding and perpetual rule for the future conduct of this commonwealth. This, sir, and nothing short of this, is the true and necessary import of the question before you.
It is not, that some offices under the United States may, in point of propriety, or in point of policy, in the nature of their exercise, or in the place where they are exercised, be inconsistent with some offices under Pennsylvania. This, I will readily admit, may be the case under those different governments. It has been admitted to be the case in an instance already agreed to without opposition—I mean that of the governour. This may often be the case with regard to different offices even under the same government. Of this there are many examples in the system before you. They have encountered no disapprobation from me or any other member.
Again: the position, in the motion before you, is not, that it would be inconsistent or improper for the same person to hold, in any case, more offices than one. No, sir: this motion may be adopted, and yet one person may have twenty different offices accumulated upon him under this very constitution. For the position is not, “that no person, holding any one office, shall, at the same time, hold any other office, under this state:” but the position is, “that every person, holding an office under the United States, should be excluded from every office whatsoever in this state.” For this reason, sir, all the numerous observations, which we heard on Saturday, from the honourable mover, concerning the profuse and improvident donations of offices, which the people, in a fit of fondness, might heap on the head of a popular favourite, however they might suit other purposes, were evidently beside the purpose of the motion. The motion, though adopted, will not prevent, nor is it calculated to prevent, such thoughtless and injudicious accumulations.
I have always flattered myself, that the constitution of the United States would be a bond of union, and not a principle of inveterate alienage, far less of hostility, between the several states; certainly and more particularly, between each of them and the United States. “A more perfect union” is declared to be one end of that constitution. That constitution, I believe, was intended to be the centre of attraction for that “more perfect union.” Shall we convert that constitution, as far as it can depend on Pennsylvania—fortunately for the union, we can convert it no farther—into a principle of repulsion? If that is the design of this committee; if that is an object, for the accomplishment of which our constituents sent us here; the motion before you is well fitted for fulfilling that design; it is well fitted for accomplishing that object. Under the operation of this motion, if the government of the United States shall hereafter distinguish a citizen of Pennsylvania with an “office of profit or trust;” that government must become, however reluctantly, the repulsive agent in destroying the better half of his right of citizenship; and, consequently, of diminishing, by the better half, his political connexion with this commonwealth.
This, sir, is no inflated or exaggerated representation of the matter: the account is strictly and severely true. The right of citizenship consists in these two things: 1. A right to elect. 2. A right to be elected into office. Of the two, the last is certainly not the least valuable or important. Of the last I shall be deprived by your adoption of the motion before you. I call for the principles and reasons of deprivation. I demand, sir—for I have a right to demand—from the justice of this committee, that those principles and reasons be clearly shown and incontestably proved, before the sentence of deprivation be passed against me. I think I heard, on Saturday, an opinion mentioned as being decidedly formed. I trust that the expression was used inadvertently: I trust that the honourable members of this committee will hear, and weigh, and consider, before they decide.
Believe me, sir, the principle, more than any foreseen consequence, of disfranchisement wounds and alarms me. We are told in history, that a person, whose inclination had never led him beyond the gates of Rome, sickened and died, when Augustus, in a wanton trick of his absolute power, confined him within those very limits, beyond which he had never previously wished to go. ’Tis one thing, sir, to be without an office: ’tis a very different thing to be disqualified from holding an office, and to wander about like a person attainted and cut off from the community. The first is often the effect of choice; the last never is; it is the result of dire necessity. The idea of disqualification is a most mortifying idea, when applied by one to himself: it is a most insulting idea, when applied to him by others. And can you think, sir, that I would wish to become or continue the constant mark of mortification or insult? No, sir; I can, at least, comfort myself, that I will not be reduced to this situation. The motion of the honourable gentleman is not armed—fortunately it cannot be armed—with the sting of the edict of Augustus: it may prompt me to go; but it cannot compel me to stay. I can cross the Delaware. In New Jersey, I shall be received as a citizen—a full citizen—of the state; and, at the same time, may hold a dignified and important office under the United States. What I say concerning New Jersey, I may say concerning New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. For none of those states, so far as I know or have been informed, view honourable employments under the national government through the inverted speculum of the motion, which presents them as causes of disqualification and disfranchisement. Nay, sir, I believe I can go to Rhode Island, and be received there as more than a half citizen, if I choose it; for I have not heard, that that state, antifederal as it is, has passed an act of incapacity against the officers of the United States.
But we are told, that the commonwealth of Virginia has observed a different conduct; and has exhibited an example, which we are now solicited to imitate. I wish, sir, to know if this favourite example forms a part of the constitution of Virginia. If it does not—and I presume it does not—I wish to see the law that has produced it: I wish to examine that law: I wish to know the reason of that law: I wish to know the time when, and the occasion on which, that law was made: I wish to know the temper and the national principles of the legislature, which made that law. I have been informed, how correctly I will not undertake to vouch, that an antifederal leader in Virginia, foiled by the convention of that commonwealth in his opposition to the national government, introduced into the legislature, and succeeded in fixing some stigma, as far as that legislature could fix a stigma, upon the federal characters of that state. Perhaps, sir, my information is correct; and this law may be the very thing. Perhaps, sir, it may have been the production of the convulsive throes of an antifederal fit. If so—and I think the conjecture a probable one—so soon as the fit shall be over—and, I hope, it will be over soon, if it is not over already—Virginia will remove its effects by considerately repealing the law, which it had precipitately occasioned.
But shall we, sir, suffer ourselves to become infected with the transient, though violent disorder of a neighbouring state? Shall we do more, sir?—shall we inoculate this disorder to become a perpetual and incurable poison in the very vitals of our constitution? I confess I did not expect to see the symptoms of this distemper reappear so soon in Pennsylvania, after all the successful efforts that have been made to expel them from her borders.
It seems that I ought to be incapacitated from enjoying the confidence of this state, while I hold an office under the United States. And yet I may hold one office in this state, and not be incapacitated from holding twenty or thirty more. And yet I may hold an office under New Jersey, and not be incapacitated. I may hold an office under any other, and even under every other state in the Union, and not be incapacitated. I may hold an office under France, under any other state in Europe, under any other state in the world, and not be incapacitated. I may have held an office under Great Britain, and, under that office, may have acted against the United States and against this state, during all the late war; I may still hold that very office, and not be incapacitated. But—the position occurs again—if I hold an office under the United States, I must be incapacitated from any trust under Pennsylvania.
Whence, sir?—in the name of wonder—whence this principle of hostility—this principle of hostility, operating solely and peculiarly—between this commonwealth and the United States? Let it be explained: let us know its origin: let us know its nature: let us know its extent: let us know its effects.
If this principle exists, and ought to be provided against; it is surprising that no such provision was made or recommended against it, by the general convention, formed of members from all the states in the Union—a convention, which, I believe, understood the interests of the Union and of all its parts. If it ought to be a part of our constitution that “no person, holding any office under the United States, shall, at the same time, hold any office in this state;” it ought to have been a part of the constitution of the United States, that “no person holding any office under Pennsylvania, or any other state in the Union, shall, at the same time, hold any office in the national government.” But no such part is to be found in that constitution. We may presume—I suggest it with deference—we may presume, that the whole knew the proper connexion between itself and its parts; and provided for the preservation, the strength, and the limits of that connexion, as well as one of the parts can know and provide for the preservation, the strength, and the limits of its connexion with the whole. But no such provision as this is made by those, who had the whole state of the Union before them: the inference is fair, that this provision is dictated, not by a general and comprehensive, but by a partial and contracted view of the subject.
Will the principle of this motion contribute to preserve or to strengthen the political connexion between the United States and the commonwealth of Pennsylvania? Will it not, on the other hand, contribute to weaken, to interrupt, or to dissolve it? The principle of this motion, sir, is a principle of political alienage: I go farther—it contains a declaration of political hostility by this commonwealth against the United States. It declares that this commonwealth ought not to trust or employ any person, whom the United States have thought worthy of trust or employment. On what foundation can such a declaration rest? It can have no reasonable foundation, unless the interests and views of the United States are, in their nature and tendency, hostile to the interests and views of this commonwealth. Let it be shown wherein this hostility of views and interests consists.
I have already admitted, that there are many instances, in which offices under different governments are incompatible in point of propriety, or in point of policy, in the nature of their exercise, or in the place where they are exercised. I have admitted also, that an accumulation of offices may be very improper under the same government. But it has appeared, that the principle, the tendency, and the object of this motion are not to prevent any incompatibilities or improprieties of these kinds.
On the other hand, there are many instances, in which different offices, not only under the same government, but even under different governments, may be held, not only with great propriety, but even with great advantage to the publick, by the same persons. Against the enjoyment of this publick advantage, the motion before you is levelled and directed.
And yet, sir, our own experience has attested its happy effects. During the late war, we reaped solid benefits from the exertions and talents of officers—in one instance, of a very distinguished officer—in the service of France. Would we have reaped those benefits, had France adopted, against the United States, the unfriendly principle, which is now recommended to a state, hitherto one of the most federal and one of the most affectionate in the Union? Suppose the sovereign of those officers to have declared to them in the spirit of this motion—“the moment you accept any office under the United States, you shall be disqualified, by that acceptance, from holding any office in my service,”—what would have been the consequence? The United States would have been deprived of their military skill and assistance. But, happily for us, the king of France was not actuated by the spirit of this motion: shall I risk the expression, that he was more federal?
On how many sudden and unforeseen emergencies may the services of a stated officer of the United States be useful, perhaps, in the opinion of the publick, necessary for this commonwealth! On how many sudden and unforeseen emergencies may the services of a stated officer of this commonwealth be useful, perhaps, in the opinion of the publick, necessary for the United States? Why, in both cases, should the door of mutual, useful, necessary, and patriotick exertion be constitutionally shut? For this motion will operate both ways. If the officers of the United States are to be considered as aliens with regard to their capacity of holding offices under this commonwealth: the officers of this commonwealth must be considered as aliens with regard to their capacity of holding offices under the United States.
When I say, sir, that, in both instances, they must be considered as aliens; I use an expression much too soft: for under both constitutions—that of the United States and that which we propose—aliens may be employed in many offices. This motion, if adopted, will, therefore, introduce, between the United States, and this state, as to offices, more than a state of alienage. I was justified in saying, that this motion contained a principle and declaration of political hostility, as to offices, between this commonwealth and the United States. Before the sentence of disfranchisement from office in Pennsylvania be passed, by the adoption of this motion, against the officers of the United States; I again demand that it be clearly shown wherein the principle of political hostility between the two governments consists.
I think it has been suggested, that unless the principle of this motion be introduced into the constitution, the government of the United States may acquire, in Pennsylvania, an influence dangerous to her counsels, dangerous to her interests, and dangerous even to her existence. That government, it was supposed, might, by appointing to its offices the officers of this state, attach them to the measures, the interests, and the counsels of the United States, in opposition to the measures, the interests, and the counsels of Pennsylvania. Like the motion, this reasoning in support of it is founded on an implied principle of hostility between the two governments. Before the committee subscribe to the reasoning, they will require that the principle of hostility be shown.
But let us, for a moment, suppose it to exist: let us suppose that the measures, and interests, and counsels of the United States are in diametrical and inveterate opposition to those of Pennsylvania: let us suppose, that, in order to promote those adverse interests, to establish those adverse counsels, and to carry into effect those adverse measures, the president and senate of the United States should call to their aid, and associate in their designs, the officers of Pennsylvania; would it be politick or wise in Pennsylvania to cooperate, in the most effectual manner, with the president and senate for the accomplishment of their plans? Could she do this more effectually by any means, than by detaching from her all the officers of the state, whom the president and senate would wish to attach to them? Could she detach them from her more effectually by any means, than by disfranchising them from their offices, and by treating them as aliens, nay, worse than aliens? Could she do this more effectually by any means, than by cutting asunder the strongest ties of political connexion and political affection between her and them?
I believe, sir, you may hear, from some states, a series of reasoning, very opposite to that before mentioned: you may hear a train of reflection to the following purpose: What! shall we part with the interests, with the affections, and with the services of our citizens, because they are called into the service of the United States? No. Let us retain their interests; for their interests will be ours: let us retain their affections; for these, at least, may remain with us: let us retain their services, as far as they shall be compatible—and, in many instances, they will be compatible—with their superiour duty to the United States.
Whether this train of reflection and reasoning be just and strong, I shall not pretend to determine. I shall only observe, that, as far as I know, the conduct of every state in the union has been consonant to it, excepting only that of the commonwealth of Virginia—and shall I, after some time, be obliged to make the cruel addition—and excepting likewise that of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania?
’Tis possible, sir, though I will not allow it to be probable, that this cruel addition must be made. ’Tis possible, though, again, I will not allow it to be probable, that Pennsylvania may become as infamous for her antifederal, as she has hitherto been renowned for her federal principles. ’Tis possible, though, still, I will not allow it to be probable, that she may hereafter be as much dishonoured by the littleness, as she has heretofore been admired for the liberality, of her politicks. Her counsels may take an inverted and diminishing turn. Those, sir, who cannot shine in a spacious sphere, will wish to draw some notice in a contracted one. Those, who cannot be distinguished by acting a part in an enlarged system, will endeavour to distinguish themselves by acting as the little but principal puppets in a narrow and separated scene. Into such hands, sir, it is possible—though I once more enter my protest against the probability of the event,—that Pennsylvania, for her sins, may fall.
If this very improbable, but very possible event should take place; then, indeed, the cruel addition, which I have already mentioned, must be made. Yet even then, this cruel circumstance would carry with it, in some degree, its own alleviation. In such a circumstance, the pangs of separation from Pennsylvania would become less severe. Even in such a circumstance, I hope one consolation might be constitutionally allowed me. On my way to the government of the United States, I might turn and look back from the opposite shore of the Delaware; and though Pennsylvania should reject my faithful services, she might permit me, with a fluttering heart and faultering tongue, to wish her well.
But, sir, I will not pursue the consideration of an event so irreconcilable with the present genius and principles of Pennsylvania. Is she jealous, because her sons are received into the arms of the United States? No, sir. Was she to open her lips upon this occasion, we should hear the following, or some such as the following, accents: “Though I cheerfully resign you to the service of the Union, in which my own service is, to many important purposes, included; yet I renounce not your affections; nor do I abdicate my well founded claim to your duty. You may still be of use to me; and I retain my right to the exertions of your usefulness, whenever I shall call upon you on a proper occasion. In the mean time, employ your utmost efforts for the interest of the United States: by doing this, you will essentially promote mine; and you will be likewise better prepared, and better disposed for serving me, whenever I shall particularly require your service.” Such would be the language, such would be the sentiments, of our venerable political parent. Such, sir, without personification, and without an allegory, I believe to be literally and strictly the language and sentiments of a great majority of the people of this commonwealth. This language and these sentiments are in direct contradiction to the language and principles of the motion before you. To which will this committee pay the greatest regard?