University of Wisconsin–Madison

The Petition Campaign for Legislative Rejection of Ratification – January–March 1788

John Nicholson, comptroller general of Pennsylvania, inaugurated a campaign against the ratification of the Constitution. Nicholson’s petition requested (1) that the Assembly censure the Pennsylvania delegates to the Constitutional Convention for exceeding their authority; (2) that ratification of the Constitution by the state Convention “not be confirmed”; and (3) that the Pennsylvania delegates in the Confederation Congress be instructed that the Constitution not be “adopted in the said United States.…” Nicholson drafted the petition in late December 1787 or early January 1788, since a copy reached Lancaster County by 14 January.

Nicholson sent copies to opponents of the Constitution in at least nine counties. It is possible that the petition was circulated as a printed broadside, but no copy has been found. The first printed version located is in the Carlisle Gazette on 30 January 1787.

Between 17 and 29 March petitions signed by 6,005 people in Northampton, Dauphin, Bedford, Franklin, Cumberland, and Westmoreland counties were presented to the Assembly. In addition, at least seven other petitions were signed in Northumberland County but evidently did not reach the Assembly in time for them to be “tabled” with the other petitions before the Assembly adjourned on 29 March. Petitions were signed in Huntingdon County but were destroyed by supporters of the Constitution. Only one petition opposing the petition campaign is recorded. It was signed by thirty-one men in Wayne Township, Cumberland County, and was presented to the Assembly on 1 March.

Opponents of the Constitution did not give up after the legislature adjourned. On 3 July, after news of ratification by the ninth and tenth states reached Carlisle, Cumberland County Antifederalists sent out a circular letter calling a convention to meet at Harrisburg in September to nominate candidates for the United States House of Representatives in the first federal elections and to draft amendments to the Constitution.