Pennsylvania Attempts to De-certify Ratification of Constitution

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An Attempt to De-Certify the Ratification of Constitution
Pennsylvania, 2 January–29 March 1788

           During the Revolutionary era, Pennsylvania was arguably the most politically divided state in the Union. This political divisiveness primarily centered around maintaining or replacing the state’s extremely democratic constitution of 1776. Not surprisingly, Pennsylvanians were also divided over the newly proposed federal Constitution in 1787 as Pennsylvania became the first state to call a convention to consider the ratification of the Constitution, to hold elections for the convention, and to convene. Pennsylvania’s Convention ratified the Constitution on 12 December 1787 after arbitrarily refusing to consider any amendments, not even allowing the customary dissent of the minority to appear on the Convention Journals. When the vote was about to be taken in the Convention, Federalist Benjamin Rush wished for “conciliation and unanimity,” but fellow Federalist Stephen Chambers was less gracious saying “that it was an event which he neither expected nor wished for.” Consequently, the Convention minority published its dissent privately in newspapers, broadsides, and pamphlets which circulated widely throughout the country.

Unlike other states, where opposition to the Constitution subsided after their conventions ratified, Pennsylvania’s opposition to the Constitution intensified, culminating in a petition campaign to the Assembly seeking to de-certify the Convention’s ratification. It was said that western Pennsylvania was especially opposed to the Constitution, with ninety percent willing to risk “their lives & property” in opposing the Constitution “as they were the British in their late deighns.” It was said that Federalists traveling in western Pennsylvania would be prudent “to make their Wills before they leve Home.” Several reports from Washington County, in the southwestern corner of the state, indicated that the opposition had moderated, but a later report told a different story with “a battle” between Federalists and Antifederalists culminating in the death of eight men. It was said that “all the people in that County were engaged in the quarrel on the one Side or the other.”

John Nicholson by Charles Willson Peale, Art Institute of Chicago.

John Nicholson, comptroller general of Pennsylvania, inaugurated a petition campaign, requesting the Assembly to censure Pennsylvania’s delegates to the Constitutional Convention for exceeding their authority, to de-certify the state Convention’s ratification, and to instruct the state’s delegates in the Confederation Congress to oppose the Constitution. Nicholson drafted the petition in late December 1787 or early January 1788, and sent copies to Antifederalist leaders in at least nine counties. It is possible that the petition was circulated as a printed broadside, but no copy has been found. The petition was printed in the Carlisle Gazette on 30 January and in the Philadelphia Independent Gazetteer on 19 February. Only one manuscript copy, signed by 156 people in Franklin County, has been located (shown here).

It was reported that Federalists in the township of Stepping Stone in Huntingdon County seized the signed petitions and “publicly” tore them apart, provoking “a number of people of the town to place effigies of Judge John Cannon and Benjamin Elliot, the county’s only delegate to the state Convention, “upon the backs of old scabby ponies.” Thinking the protest wounded the dignity of the court, Judge Cannon, sitting on the bench at the time, ordered the apprehension of “the effigy-men,” who were imprisoned. “Immediately the county took the alarm, assembled, and liberated the sons of liberty, so unjustly confined; who passed down the jail steps, under loud huzzas and repeated acclamations of joy from a large concourse of people; who soon after retired from the town declaring their intention to duck the junto if they repeated their insults.” (Philadelphia Freeman’s Journal, 19 March 1788)

Franklin County, Pennsylvania, petition to de-certify the state Convention’s ratification of the Constitution (page 1 of 2).
Franklin County, Pennsylvania, petition to de-certify the state Convention’s ratification of the Constitution (page 2 of 2).

Between 17 and 29 March the Assembly received petitions signed by 6,004 people from the counties of Northampton (230), Dauphin (600), Bedford (450), Franklin (1,884), Cumberland (2,321), and Westmoreland (519). One assemblyman reported that nine dozen petitions had been received. In addition, at least seven other petitions were signed in Northumberland County but did not reach the Assembly in time for them to be “tabled” with the other petitions before the Assembly adjourned on 29 March.

Lancaster County was so strongly Federalist that opponents of the Constitution decided not to circulate the petition. Only one petition opposing the de-certifying campaign has been located. Signed by thirty-one men in Wayne Township, Cumberland County, this petition was presented to the Assembly on 1 March. The Wayne Township petitioners stated that the Antifederalist petitions were incorrectly “founded on the absurd supposition that the Representatives in Congress must have an interest different from and contrary to that of their constituents.” Any legislative opposition to the Convention’s ratification “would in our humble opinion be a deviation from the line of their conduct, a wanton usurpation of undelegated power and a flagrant violation of the liberty of their constituents.” The Antifederalist petitioners were accused of proceeding “from a desire of authorizing the disorder and confusion now spreading through the state.” The Antifederalist instigators of the petitions should be “treated with that indignation and contempt justly due to the traitors of their country.” A brief piece in the Pennsylvania Gazette, 26 March 1788, denigrated the Antifederalist petitions, saying “They can do the Constitution no injury, for they are not signed by one-twentieth part of the people of the state.”

Philadelphia Freeman’s Journal, 2 January 17881

A correspondent informs us, that from the general temper of the farmers and the complexion of the Assembly, it is almost certain that we will have another convention in a legal constitutional manner called in this state, for amending the proposed Constitution, and annexing a bill of rights thereto. We may expect a power of petitions will be laid before the Assembly (at their sitting next month) for this purpose. What a pleasure, adds he, must it give to every friend to order and good government that we have so easy a method of accommodating such an important business to the satisfaction of all classes of citizens, and thereby prevent much disorder, confusion, and anarchy.


Petition to De-certify Pa.’s Ratification of the Constitution, January 17882

To the Honorable the Representatives of the Freemen
of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in General Assembly Met.

            The petition of the subscribers, freemen and inhabitants of the county of ______, most respectfully showeth, That your petitioners are desirous that order and good government should prevail, and that the constitution of this state should not be violated or subverted.

That as the members of your honorable body are all sworn or affirmed to do no act or thing prejudicial or injurious to the constitution or government of this state as established by the convention [of 1776], they look up to you as the guardians of the rights and liberties therein secured to your petitioners, and pray that they may be protected therein.

That your petitioners are much alarmed at an instrument called a Constitution for the United States of America; framed by a Convention which had been appointed by several of the states, “solely to revise the Articles of the Confederation, and report such alterations and provisions therein as should when agreed to in Congress, And confirmed by the several states, render the Federal Constitution Adequate to the exigencies of government, and the preservation of the Union”3 inasmuch as the liberties, lives and property of your petitioners are not secured thereby.

That the powers therein proposed to be granted to the government of the United States are too great, and that the proposed distribution of those powers are dangerous and inimical to liberty and equality amongst the people.

That they esteem frequent elections and rotation in offices as the greatest bulwark of freedom.

That they conceive standing armies in times of peace are not only expensive but dangerous to liberty, and that a well-organized militia will be the proper security for our defense.

That the liberty of the press, that palladium of freedom, should not be insecure or in danger.

That the rights of conscience should be secured to all men, that no man should be molested for his religion, and that none should be compelled contrary to their principles and inclination to hear or support the clergy of any one religion.

That the right of trial by jury should be secured both in civil and criminal cases.

That the government as proposed would be burthensome, expensive, and oppressive, and that your petitioners are averse from paying taxes to support a numerous train of offices erected thereby, which would be not only unnecessary but dangerous to our liberties.

That your petitioners conceive the majority of the deputies of the General Convention, who have been appointed by this state, have exceeded the powers with which they were delegated, that their conduct is reprehensible, and that they should be brought to account for the same as the precedent is highly dangerous and subversive of all government.

That your petitioners observe this proposed Constitution hath not been approved by the Congress of the United States as directed by the Articles of the Confederation; and your petitioners desire that it may not be confirmed by the legislature of this state, nor adopted in the said United States, and that the delegates of Congress from this state be instructed for that purpose.

Richard Bard to John Nicholson, Franklin County, Pa., 1 February 17884

I lately received a Letter from Coll: [Abraham] Smith5 which I would suppos was directed to me by you, I found it contained a Petition to the Assembly respecting the late proposed constitution. I have coppyed it and has sent coppyes thereof to the several Townships in the County. The Coppy that I drew off for the Township [Mercersburg] in which I live will be sighnd by the people in general very willingly. If I was to judge of Franklin County by the Township in which I live I think there will be at [least] ten persons that will sighn the petition for one that will refuse to do it. By a Letter that I lately received from my Brothr at Bedford I am informed that Peopele in general in that County are sighning the petitions that were sent to them—I think it would be well done if some Gentlemen would send petitions to the different Countyes with particular Instructions to particular Persons to take the care of them.

I have frequent opertunity to hear what the people beyond the Allegany Mountain thinks of the new Constitution. They are enraged at it, and even in york county where all the members in the late Convention voted for [sd?] constitution there are great numbers of the people much dissatisfyd I am very confident that on the West side of the Susquehanna in this state there is at least nine out of every ten that would at the risk of their lives & property be as willing to oppose the new constitution as they were the British in their late desighns—There is some of your neighbors in Philadelphia which if they should have any occastion to travel toward the Westenen end of this state I think that it would be prudent in them to make their Wills before they leve Home

P.S: Sir please to excuse this hurried piece—

  1. By 31 January this item was reprinted in eight newspapers in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New York, four of which were Antifederalist.
  2. MS, Nicholson Papers, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg. This undated document in John Nicholson’s handwriting was endorsed “Copy of A Petition Agt The Proceedings of the Convention.”
  3. See the Confederation Congress’ resolution of 21 February 1787, calling the Constitutional Convention, CDR, 187.
  4. RC, Nicholson Papers, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg. This letter is endorsed: “Letter from Richard Beard Esqr. Recd Feby 6th 1788—.” Bard had represented Franklin County in the state Convention, where he voted against ratification.
  5. Colonel Smith, one of the seceding assemblymen in September 1787, was elected to represent Franklin County in the Supreme Executive Council on 9 October 1787.