On September 17, 1789 thirty nine people placed their signatures on a document that would lead to the establishment of our system of government once it was ratified. There were more people who, at one point or another, attended the convention that produced the Constitution, but in the end they could only get 39 people to sign it. Now I want you to think about something for a minute. In the year the Constitution was written the population of these States united was in the vicinity of about 3.9 million people; and only 39 of them had a hand in writing the document that would establish our system of government. That’s what, 0.001% of the people deciding for the rest what kind of government this country would have?
Oh, silly me, they only proposed this system, it was the people who actually adopted it through the State Ratification Assemblies, right? I wouldn’t be so sure about that if I were you. At the time the ratifying conventions were being held the population of Virginia was around 747,000 people, yet only 168 delegates participated in that State’s ratification assembly; or roughly 0.022% of the people. New York sent 57 delegates to their ratifying assembly out of a population of 340,120; or roughly 0.0l6% of the people.
Across the board, less than 1% of the people living in any of the 13 States had a hand in ratifying the Constitution; and Rhode Island refused to ratify it until well after the government had been up and running for awhile; but it is Pennsylvania that I would like to take a few moments discussing.
In the year 1787 there were roughly 434,000 people living in Pennsylvania, and they sent 55 people to their State Ratifying Assembly; or 0.012% of the total population. Pennsylvania was in a unique position as a State, as the convention that produced the Constitution was located within their borders; meaning they would be the first to read the completed document.
You may not be aware of this, but prior to the establishment of Washington D.C. as the fixed location for the seat of government, the actual location where Congress met was not fixed to any one city. From 1781 to the middle of 1783 it was located in Philadelphia, but then it relocated to New Jersey and then to Maryland all in the course of one year. Then in 1784 it again relocated to New York, where it remained until the Constitution was ratified. This is important for numerous reasons; the most important being the rules regarding how changes to the Articles of Confederation were supposed to be made.
Before I get into that though I want to ask you if you’re familiar with the passage in the Constitution that states, “This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land…” That’s found in Article VI of the Constitution and is known as the Supremacy Clause.
Well I bet you didn’t know that the Articles of Confederation also had a supremacy clause, of sorts, “And the Articles of this Confederation shall be inviolably observed by every State…” That’s found in Article XIII of the Articles of Confederation and it basically means that every State shall abide by the laws established by the Articles of Confederation. These Articles of Confederation were, in essence, the supreme law of the land; the existing constitution.
So any changes made to these Articles of Confederation had to be made in compliance to the rules set down within that document stating how they should be altered or amended. These rules are also found in Article XVIII, and they state, “…nor shall any alteration at any time hereafter be made in any of them; unless such alteration be agreed to in a Congress of the United States, and be afterwards confirmed by the legislatures of every State.” That was the law as it stood in 1787. Let me repeat that, THAT WAS THE LAW!!!
So along came Jimmy Madison and a few other select scoundrels who said that the government established by the Articles of Confederation was not energetic enough; meaning it did not have the kind of power they felt governments should have. What they did is they convinced the States to send delegates to a convention, to be held in Philadelphia, to discuss possible ways to amend the Articles of Confederation so that the government would be able to meet the needs of the country and give their government due efficacy.
That is the premise the States were told this convention would serve, but as soon as the delegates convened the doors were locked, those inside were sworn to secrecy, and then Jimmy Madison and his cohorts unveiled their plan; abolish the Articles of Confederation and replace them with a new document that they would write. Not only did they conspire to abolish the existing form of government, they had the sheer audacity to tell the existing government the manner in which their new plan must be adopted; which of course violated existing law – Article XVIII of the Articles of Confederation.
What a swell bunch of guys these framers were! If they are what people consider honorable, I’d hate to see what they consider dishonorable!
Now this is where Pennsylvania comes into the picture. It may come as a surprise to some people, but back in 1787 there was no internet, there were no fax machines or telephones. Hell, they didn’t even have cars; so all news had to travel by horseback or by ship from Point A to Point B. As I already stated, the seat of the existing government in 1787 was located in New York; approximately 95 miles from Philadelphia. The walking speed of a horse is around 4 miles per hour. At a trot a horse can travel somewhere between 11-15 mph. At a full gallop they can move about 25-30 mph.
At a full gallop the fastest a horse could have gotten to New York with copies of the Constitution would have been 3 hours after copies had been made for distribution. Then of course Congress would have to read and debate it, which they did, before they decided what to do with it.
In any case, the dastardly deed had been done, a constitution had been written which would, if ratified, abolish the existing government and replace it with one that was created by less than half a percent of the people living in this country at the time. Not only had they violated the trust of the States who had sent them to Philadelphia, they told those who had sent them the manner in which their new system would be put into effect; by conventions of the people; which I’ve already proven was not actually the case; only a small percentage of the people participated in ratifying the Constitution.
So while a horse was galloping away towards New York with copies of the Constitution, copies of it were already being read by the people of Pennsylvania; or at least the State Legislature; and this is where it gets truly interesting. While I think it would have been a good idea to allow the constitution to be read and discussed by the people of Pennsylvania; the calling forth for a ratifying convention before Congress had even submitted their recommendations to the States is something I don’t agree with; but it is what they did.
Congress was supposed to read the proposed constitution then submit it to the States with the recommendation that State Ratifying Conventions be called to debate the document. But that took time; 11 days in fact. Some of the members of Congress wanted to send it off to the States with the unanimous support of Congress. Others wanted to amend it and then send the amended version off to the States. Others wanted to propose amendments and then send the original text and the proposed amendments off to the States. Finally, the Congress sent the Constitution, as is, to the States without any formal endorsement of it.
The failure of Congress to come out in stronger terms of either support or opposition to the proposed plan suited those who participated in its creation well; as stated by George Washington himself, “I thank you for your letter of the 30th Ult. It came by the last Post. I am better pleased that the proceedings of the Convention is handed from Congress by a unanimous vote (feeble as it is) than if it had appeared under stronger marks of approbation without it. This apparent unanimity will have its effect. Not every one has opportunities to peep behind the curtain; and as the multitude often judge from externals, the appearance of unanimity in that body, on this occasn, will be of great importance.”
Gee, sounds like good ole George did not have too high of an opinion of the intellect of those who were about to decide the fate of the Constitution, did he?
In any case, while the Congress was debating what to do with this plan, the Pennsylvania State Legislature was also debating over holding a ratifying convention before they had gotten word from Congress. There were some in Pennsylvania who, if they could have, would have ratified the Constitution on the spot; without even reading it probably. There were others who were in favor of the plan, but thought they should wait until they had received instructions from Congress. Then there was a small minority who opposed the plan outright.
It’s entirely possible that Pennsylvania wanted to be the first to ratify the document so that they would be given consideration when it came time to fix a location for the permanent seat of this new government; however tiny little Delaware beat them to the punch by 5 days. In any case, while the Pennsylvania State Legislature was ready to issue the call for a State Ratifying Assembly, certain members of the Legislature did not return after mid day break; leaving them 2 people short of a quorum; meaning they could not pass any measures or resolutions.
Throughout the proceedings the crowd inside the hall where the legislature was holding session had been hostile towards those expressing any desire for delay; and when they lacked the numbers to conduct business the sergeant-at-arms was dispatched to located the missing miscreants. Eventually two of the members were found, and drug forcibly back to the chamber so that a resolution calling for a State Ratifying Assembly could be called for and delegates chosen to attend it.
I’ve already mentioned how many delegates Pennsylvania sent to their State Ratifying Convention, fifty-five, but I did not mention the fact that most of them lived in or near the city of Philadelphia. Not only were the farmers to the west not represented in the body that would decide whether or not to implement this new form of government, they probably weren’t even aware that a new form of government had been proposed.
The same could probably be said about most of the States; with those attending the Ratification Assemblies coming from the major metropolitan centers whose interests were far removed from the rural farmers and businessmen. So much for the whole We the people do ordain and establish this constitution, right? I don’t want to spend any time delving into the professions of those who drafted the Constitution, and those who attended the various State Ratifying Conventions, but for the most part they were not representative of the people this new system of government would have power over.
In any case, Pennsylvania became the second State to ratify the Constitution, doing so on December 12, 1787; with very little opposition debate being allowed. The way opponents to the Constitution, and those who called for waiting for Congress to deliver their instructions before proceeding to call for a State Ratifying Convention, backfired on those who supported a quick ratification.
You see, those who had been treated badly, had their voices silenced or ignored, got together and wrote a document that made its way to the other States; causing them to take a more serious look at why opposition to the proposed system was systematically silenced and ignored. That document is The Dissent of the Minority of the Convention of Pennsylvania; a good read if you are inclined to read such things. This document, along with those who had attended the Constitutional Convention but refused to sign it; along with those who had left the convention early because they did not like what they were witnessing, led to a war of words in the press; and if you want to read some good political commentary I suggest you find and read the essays written by both the Federalist and Anti-Federalist authors. Who knows, you may actually learn something.
Nevertheless, on June 8, 1788 New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the constitution; meeting the requirement that 3/4 of the 13 State’s ratify it before the government could take effect. We’ve lived under that system ever since and regardless of what your thoughts on it are, the history of how it came into existence has been forgotten, lied about, or not taught at all in our public schools.
There is an epilogue to this story, if you’re interested in hearing it. No matter how Pennsylvania acted during its ratification of the Constitution there was always going to be opposition to it, but it was due to their impatience and the underhanded tactics which caused many to take a step or two back and give the document a much closer examination than they would have had its supporters in Pennsylvania not acted like total ass’s. The epilogue comes when, once this government was put into operation, Pennsylvania was the first state to learn the extent of the powers held by the government they were so anxious to institute.
I don’t think people realize that the Constitution is merely the framework for a system of government, and that it took awhile for this government to get up and running once the Constitution was ratified. For instance, one of the first things the Congress did was to flesh out the Judiciary by passing the Judiciary Act of 1789; which basically re-wrote the third article of the Constitution; something in and of itself that was unconstitutional, for Congress cannot amend the Constitution. Be that as it may, by this act the government proved right out of the starting gates that it intended to do things that its opponents had feared it would; one of which was to subvert the power of the State Courts.
There were many concerns opponents to the Constitution had, among them being the degree to which this new system of government could impose taxes. The taxing power of Congress is found in the first clause of Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, “The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States.”
Now when discussing taxes we must discuss the different forms they may take. First of all there are two categories taxes fall under; direct or indirect taxes. A direct tax gets its name due to the fact that the entity, or individual upon whom the tax falls is responsible for paying it. Income taxes, property taxes and poll taxes fall under the heading of direct taxes, and prior to the 16th Amendment they had to be apportioned; meaning spread out equally and determined by the population of the States. This requirement is found in Article 1, Section II, Clause 3, “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers.”
So how that would work is that if there were 100 people living in country and the government needed $1,000 in tax revenue, each person would owe $10 in taxes; there was no graduated income tax as we know today; that changed in 1913 with the 16th Amendment; which gave government direct access to the money you earn from your labor.
An indirect tax, on the other hand, is a tax that, although it is paid by you it is collected by a third party and submitted to the taxing entity; government. Sales taxes are a good example of indirect taxes; you pay them when you purchase your groceries, but the store you bought those groceries from is responsible for sending the taxes they collect to the government.
Another form of indirect taxes is excise taxes. If you’ve ever flown internationally you’ll recall how there was a duty free store located somewhere inside the airport in the international concourse, and that once you began your descent into your final destination you were given customs forms so you could declare your duty free goods. They call those items duty free goods because, along with various sales taxes there is no excise tax imposed upon them.
The opponents to the Constitution feared the extent of the taxing power given to this new system of government; fearing it could reach into our homes and lay a tax upon almost everything we did, consumed, or produced.
To calm the fears of those who feared the extensive taxing power given this government those who supported the Constitution had to make promises that these powers would be used sparingly, and the manner in which they might be implemented. Alexander Hamilton laid out the Federalist, [those who supported ratification of the Constitution], position in Federalist No. 12; and I’d like to share a few things he said with you.
-It is evident from the state of the country, from the habits of the people, from the experience we have had on the point itself, that it is impracticable to raise any very considerable sums by direct taxation. Now think about that, Hamilton is saying that it is impracticable to raise any considerable sum through direct taxation, yet last year alone the government raised $2.7 TRILLION from income, and other forms of direct taxation. Another promise not kept by the Federalists.
Now comes the part of Federalist 12 that will eventually tie into why Pennsylvania was the first state to realize the full extent of what they had done by ratifying the Constitution. Another passage from Hamilton’s essay states, “In so opulent a nation as that of Britain, where direct taxes from superior wealth must be much more tolerable, and, from the vigor of the government, much more practicable, than in America, far the greatest part of the national revenue is derived from taxes of the indirect kind, from imposts, and from excises. Duties on imported articles form a large branch of this latter description.
In America, it is evident that we must a long time depend for the means of revenue chiefly on such duties. In most parts of it, excises must be confined within a narrow compass. The genius of the people will ill brook the inquisitive and peremptory spirit of excise laws. The pockets of the farmers, on the other hand, will reluctantly yield but scanty supplies, in the unwelcome shape of impositions on their houses and lands; and personal property is too precarious and invisible a fund to be laid hold of in any other way than by the inperceptible agency of taxes on consumption.” (My emphasis)
Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s move on with some of the other things our government did once it got up and running. One of the things Alexander Hamilton, as Secretary of the Treasury, pushed for was for the federal government to assume the debts of the States that had been incurred during the American Revolution; which in some instances was still a rather substantial amount.
Now Hamilton couldn’t just say, “Hey States, hand your debt over to us, we’ll pay them for you”, he needed Congress to pass a law which would authorize government to assume those debts. This idea did not sit well with some; particularly Virginia, which had nearly paid off its war debts. To appease the opponents of this plan of federal assumption of State debts, a compromise was reached; primarily between Hamilton, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, where the final location of the capitol would be located closer to the South, and not up in New York or say, Pennsylvania as that State had hoped. Years later Jefferson would bemoan his decision to agree to this compromise, stating, “…all the errors of my political life this has occasioned me the deepest regret.”
In any case, assumption of the State debt was part of the Funding Act of 1790, which was signed into law by George Washington when it reached his desk. At first glance that might seem pretty generous of ole Uncle Sam, lifting the weight of that massive debt off the State’s shoulders; but hang on a second. Sure, the States no longer had to worry about paying off the debt they had accrued during the revolution, but that debt was still there; it was just the federal government’s responsibility to pay now.
Even today I think that people believe that the government either has a whole orchard of trees where money is grown, or that it just fires up the printing presses and spits money out so that it can continue doing business. Well it doesn’t; the money it gets to conduct business is collected by forms of taxation, and since the government had just assumed a massive debt it would have to levy taxes to help towards paying it off.
One of the modes of taxation that was introduced by this government was an excise tax upon the manufacture of whiskey. This new tax was miniscule in comparison to the taxes paid by manufacturers today, but it was still a ‘new’ tax; one which had not been felt by the people prior to the ratification of the Constitution.
Now remember how I told you that those in Pennsylvania who attended the State Ratification Convention were primarily from the Philadelphia area; that the convention was not representative of those living in the remote western region of that State? Well this new tax on whiskey hit them the hardest. I can almost feel their anger; after all they had just recently fought a war due to taxation without representations, and here they were, being taxed by a government they felt was not representative of their wants or needs.
So they did the same thing patriots do when faced with such a predicament; they rebelled against this tax. Pennsylvanian whiskey distillers were not the only ones to protest against this new tax; it was protested against in Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia and Maryland protested against it. However, since Pennsylvania had been so gosh darned anxious to be among the first to ratify the Constitution, I’ll focus my writing upon what happened there.
One of the first things that happened was the Pennsylvania State Legislature passed a resolution condemning the tax. Then those in western Pennsylvania flat out refused to comply; resorting to assaulting those who came to collect the taxes owed. In a reenactment of the Boston Tea Party, tax protestors dressed as native American Indians broke into the home where a tax collector was residing, shot the place up, and the owner of the home was threatened with tar and feathering if he did not evict the tax collector from his home.
Tensions continued to rise, as those who opposed the tax destroyed the stills of those who willingly paid the tax. Then it turned into violence when armed tax protesters showed up at tax collector John Neville’s home and an hour long gunfight ensued; with people on both sides being killed.
While all this was happening Alexander Hamilton was urging Washington to call forth the militia to quell this rebellion; his justification was that it was authorized under the Militia Act of 1792. Washington did want to restore the federal authority, but was hesitant to use force…at first. So he sent commissioners to Pennsylvania in an effort to calm down the hostilities. But Hamilton did not want a peace negotiation, he wanted to teach these rebels a lesson; so behind Washington’s back he wrote a series of essays under the pseudonym of Tully which effectively threw gas onto an already volatile situation.
Eventually Washington was faced with the choice of letting the tax go unpaid, and the rebellion against federal authority having had a precedent set, or putting down this rebellion with military force. Washington, although Pennsylvania had not called for federal intervention, chose the latter option and personally led 15,000 troops into Pennsylvania to put down the Whiskey Rebellion.
It’s ironic that when the militia arrived they could only find 150 or so protestors; all of whom were arrested then later pardoned; making the whole thing a comedy, or a farce; choose for yourself which one. However it did set a precedent that would be followed later on in our country’s history and one which would have made strong nationalists like Hamilton happy; the authority of the federal government to use force to impose the laws and taxes it imposes.
Just to name of few of the instances where government has used such force, do you remember Waco? How about Ruby Ridge? Ever hear of the Bonus Protestors and how Dwight D. Eisenhower and George Patton burned them out in our nation’s capital? How about Kent State; where the National Guard opened fire upon unarmed college students, killing four and wounding nine others?
I could go on with plenty of examples of how the government created in 1787, and put into effect in 1789 has used force to impose its will upon the governed, but I think you get the picture. I just think it is ironic, or is it karma, that Pennsylvania was the first to feel this power; seeing as how they were so gosh darned anxious to see this government go into effect.
The Whiskey Rebellion; how it was caused and how it was handled, prove beyond a doubt that those who opposed the Constitution, and the government it outlined, were right to fear the powers being given to this new system of government. It’s a shame that we have not limited government to the few powers it was initially granted; rather we have begged for it to assume more power to keep us safe, provide us with benefits, or send our young fighting men off to die in some foreign land fighting imaginary enemies and monsters of our own creation.
Anyways, as news commentator Paul Harvey used to say, “Now you know the rest of the story.”