Three weeks after the Constitutional Convention adjourned, the single most important speech in the yearlong ratification debate was delivered by James Wilson. A Philadelphia lawyer and immigrant from Scotland, Wilson had signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and, at the age of forty-four, was the most frequent speaker in the Constitutional Convention in which he signed the Constitution on 17 September 1787.
At the urging of “many gentlemen,” Wilson became the first delegate to the Constitutional Convention to defend the Constitution publicly in a lengthy speech delivered before “a very great concourse of people” in the state house yard in Philadelphia on Saturday evening, 6 October 1787, at a meeting called to nominate Philadelphia’s assemblymen for the upcoming state elections in November. The speech, in which Wilson declared that the Constitution was “the best form of government which has ever been offered to the world,” was printed in an extra edition of the Pennsylvania Herald on 9 October and reprinted in thirty-five newspapers throughout the country, in broadsides, and in pamphlet anthologies. The most important part of the speech appeared early when Wilson defended the lack of a bill of rights in the Constitution stipulating that bills of rights were not needed in republics in which the people elected their leaders, but were essential in monarchies in guaranteeing the rights of the people.
Wilson’s theory of reserved powers became the primary Federalist explanation for the lack of a bill of rights in the Constitution. It also became the foundation for the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution.
Wilson asserted that there was an enormous difference between the drafting of a state constitution and the constitution for a federal republic. When people drafted state constitutions, “they invested their representatives with every right and authority which they did not in explicit terms reserve; and therefore upon every question, respecting the jurisdiction of the house of assembly, if the frame of government is silent, the jurisdiction is efficient and complete.” In drafting a federal constitution, however, things were totally different. According to Wilson, “the congressional authority is to be collected, not from tacit implication, but from the positive grant expressed in the instrument of union. Hence it is evident, that in the former case every thing which is not reserved is given, but in the latter the reverse of the proposition prevails, and every thing which is not given, is reserved.” As an example, Wilson argued that Congress could not violate the freedom of the press because it had not been given any powers over the press. Consequently “it would have been superfluous and absurd” to include a federal bill of rights with the Constitution. Furthermore Wilson suggested that a bill of rights “might have been construed to imply that some degree of power was given, since we undertook to define its extent.”
Wilson’s theory of reserved powers became the primary Federalist explanation for the lack of a bill of rights in the Constitution. It also became the foundation for the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution. Wilson would expand upon this argument in speeches delivered in the Pennsylvania ratifying convention in November and December 1787 maintaining that any right omitted from a bill of rights could be considered as being surrendered. This argument was rejected by the Ninth Amendment to the Constitution. In 1789, Wilson was appointed an associate justice of the Supreme Court by President George Washington serving on the court until his death in 1798.