The Need for a Bill of Rights

When the Constitution of the United States went to the states for approval in 1787, many delegates to the state ratifying conventions criticized the document because it had increased the powers of the federal government, but contained no guarantee of fundamental rights and freedoms for citizens. Vocal advocates of a federal bill of rights included John Smilie, a delegate to the Pennsylvania convention. In the following remarks, Smilie responded to James Wilson, another influential Pennsylvania delegate who favored ratification of the Constitution without a guarantee of rights. The Constitution went into effect in 1788 after nine states had ratified it, but ten amendments that formed a Bill of Rights were eventually ratified and added to the document in 1791.
On the Need for a Bill of Rights
November 28, 1787

Mr. Smilie: I expected … that the honorable gentleman would have proceeded to a full and explicit investigation of the proposed system, and that he would have made some attempts to prove that it was calculated to promote the happiness, power, and general interests of the United States. I am sorry that I have been mistaken in this expectation, for surely the gentleman's talents and opportunities would have enabled him to furnish considerable information upon this important subject; but I shall proceed to make a few remarks upon those words in the preamble of this plan, which he has considered of so super-excellent a quality. Compare them, Sir, with the language used in forming the [Pennsylvania] state constitution and however superior they may be to the terms of the great charter of England [the Magna Carta], still, in common candor, they must yield to the more sterling expressions employed in this act. Let these speak for themselves [He quotes from the Pennsylvania Declaration of Rights of 1776.]:

'That all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain natural, inherent and unalienable rights, amongst which are, the enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.

'That the people of this state have the sole, exclusive and inherent right of governing and regulating the internal police of the same.

'That all power being originally inherent in, and consequently derived from the people; therefore all officers of government, whether legislative or executive, are their trustees and servants, and at all times accountable to them.

'That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection and security of the people, nation or community; and not for the particular emolument or advantage of any single man, family, or set of men, who are a part only of that community: And that the community hath an indubitable, unalienable and indefeasible right to reform, alter or abolish government in such manner as shall be by that community judged most conducive to the public weal.'

But the gentleman takes pride in the superiority of this short preamble when compared with magna charta;—why, Sir, I hope the rights of men are better understood at this day, than at the framing of that deed, and we must be convinced that civil liberty is capable of still greater improvement and extension, than is known even in its present cultivated state. True, Sir, the supreme authority naturally rests in the people, but does it follow, that therefore a declaration of rights would be superfluous? Because the people have a right to alter and abolish government, can it therefore be inferred that every step taken to secure that right would be superfluous and nugatory? The truth is, that unless some criterion is established by which it could be easily and constitutionally ascertained how far our governors may proceed, and by which it might appear when they transgress their jurisdiction, this idea of altering and abolishing government is a mere sound without substance. Let us recur to the memorable declaration of the 4th of July, 1776. Here it is said:

'When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

'We hold these truths to be self evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.'

Now, Sir, if in the proposed plan, the gentleman can shew any similar security for the civil rights of the people I shall certainly be relieved from a weight of objection to its adoption, and I sincerely hope, that as he has gone so far, he will proceed to communicate some of the reasons (and undoubtedly they must have been powerful ones,) which induced the late federal convention to omit a bill of rights, so essential in the opinion of many citizens to a perfect form of government.

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