Early Debate in Pennsylvania: James Wilson and “An Old Whig”

The "An Old Whig" Articles Nos. 1-8

Just as the ratification process began in Pennsylvania in October 1787, James Wilson gave a speech before a “raucous” crowd that helped offer his responses to various criticisms already made against the Constitution (Richard Beeman, Plain, Honest Men (2010), 379). These critiques were made by individuals like George Bryan and John Smilie, who published a series of eight articles signed by “An Old Whig” from October through to February 1788. The “Old Whig” articles offered the wide range of issues taken with the Constitution as it stood, namely the lack of a “bill of rights” and the fear for expanded powers in the national legislature. A comparison between the top seventy words used in Wilson’s speech and the second of the eight articles, a direct response to Wilson, explains the essential differences between Federalists and Antifederalists in terms of their rhetoric and arguments.

Speech by James Wilson to State House - October 6, 1787

Wilson’s speech on October 6th for a public audience in the Pennsylvania State Legislature was a “passionate but tightly reasoned defense” of the Constitution in its unaltered state (Beeman, 379). Wilson used the word “must” in favor of “may” and “federal” over “confederation,” which arguably indicated his desire to present the Constitution as a document imperative to the survival of the United States. While “state” and “states” appear often, the context of these words in the full text of the speech showed his prevailing arguments against state sovereignty (or a “confederation”). Wilson’s speech fits into the mission of Federalists to reassure the public that the Constitution provided “the best form of government…ever offered to the world.” Of course, not all people subscribed to this understanding of the Constitution, notably George Bryan and John Smilie.

"An Old Whig" Article No. 2

Each composing parts of the “An Old Whig” articles, Smilie and Bryan set out to push the Antifederalist concerns and ideals into a public forum. In the second article published on October 17th in the Independent Gazetteer the “Old Whig” responded to Wilson’s speech. He spoke most fervently about the powers invested in the proposed government. Words and phrases including “power,” “reserved,” “necessary,” and “bill of rights” appear often in the publication. Surprisingly, though they appear in the word cloud of all the articles, the words “state” or “sovereignty” are not central to this particular publication. The focus on Congress and fears that the Constitution provides “unlimited powers…never to be entrusted to any men or body of men.” The Antifederalists did not always directly push for state sovereignty, but they rather attempted to sour the perception of the Constitution. In addition, because the article responds directly to Wilson’s speech, these corresponding word clouds allow for a clear visual of how Federalists and Antifederalists pinned themselves against one another.

The word clouds comparing Wilson to the “Old Whig” do not merely improve the accessibility to the organization of the documents. Beeman notes that both Federalists and Antifederalists fought for a public forum in which to articulate and persuade in clear terms (380). These word clouds help pinpoint the rhetoric employed by an earnest Wilson and fearful Bryan and Smilie. Accordingly, the comparison offers a window through which one can analyze the much larger debate that occurred in other states. Though unfolding in environments far from identical, the general debate over the ratification of the Constitution can be sifted through by identifying key phrases and explaining how both groups persuaded the public.


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