Select Page

James Wilson’s State House Yard Speech: A Primer

On October 6, 1787, eminent Pennsylvanian James Wilson delivered his famous “State House Yard Speech” in support of the Constitution in Philadelphia.

On the dawn of the first true test for the Constitution’s palatability, Wilson sought out to explain how the Constitution should be understood in the eyes of those who drafted the document that same summer. In addition, he intended to preemptively answer some of the fiercest critics of the model, and refute some of the most common themes of opposition expected to come up against it.

By that time, Wilson was an extremely well-known lawyer in Philadelphia. During the imperial crisis with Britain, he wrote a well-regarded pamphlet that backed the standard patriot notion that Parliament lacked the legal authority to intervene in the internal matters of the colonies. By 1776, he had become an advocate for colonial independence within a delegation in the Continental Congress that was wholly divided on the issue. As part of the Confederation Congress, he worked to solidify an alliance with France, and made a fortune on land speculation.

In the runup to Wilson’s speech, those who opposed the Constitution – often deemed Anti-Federalists – made central to their opposition the critique that the document lacked a bill of rights. Such an addendum, they argued, was necessary to impose explicit prohibitions on the powers of the general government.

George Mason, brilliant Virginian statesman and writer of the Virginia Constitution of 1776, left Philadelphia “in an exceeding ill humor indeed,” according to his peer James Madison, largely because of his failure to convince fellow delegates that a bill of rights was a non-negotiable requirement.

“Brutus,” a persuasive enemy of the Constitution in New York, condemned the framework on the basis that a “grand security to the rights of the people is not to be found” in the document. While in France, disreputable Thomas Jefferson wrote that “a bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular, and what no just government should refuse.”

To these charges, Wilson answered that a bill of rights – in the context of the system proposed – was unnecessary and redundant. It “would have been superfluous and absurd,” Wilson professed, to have stipulated with a federal body of our own creation, that we should enjoy those privileges of which we are not divested, either by the intention or the act that has brought the body into existence.” In other words, the proposed Constitution only allowed the general government to exercise the powers enumerated. To restrict it from exercising powers it was never granted in the first place – through a bill of rights – was counterintuitive.

To the assertion that the Constitution gave the general government powers which were not explicitly stated, Wilson countered that “everything which is not given is reserved.” The document did not grant powers by “tacit implication,” he insisted, “but from the positive grant expressed in the instrument of the union.”

Therefore, all powers granted were explicit in the Constitution’s text, and those that were undocumented remained under the jurisdiction of the localities. This guarantee – though implicit at the time – was eventually made explicit in 1791 by way of the Tenth Amendment.

Responding to Brutus’ implication that the Constitution would homogenize the state governments into a national entity, Wilson responded that “the existing union of the States, and even this projected system is nothing more than a formal act of incorporation.” Contrary to this claim, he noted that the entire constitutional system depended on the primacy of the states.

For instance, the state governments were necessary to amend the document, select Senators to fill the upper house, and determine the qualifications for voting for members of the House of Representatives. The supposition “that the annihilation of the separate governments will result from their union” was accordingly “absurd,” Wilson insisted.

Concluding the speech, Wilson reminded listeners that the Constitution featured an amendment process that would right aspects deemed to be widespread wrongs. “If there are errors, it should be remembered, that the seeds of reformation are sown in the work itself,” he stated. The amendment process, which required three-fourths of the states to ratify, was far less a hurdle to overcome than the alteration mechanism in the Articles of Confederation – which required all 12 states to assent to each change.

Ultimately, Pennsylvania ratified the Constitution in mid-December assuming many of the explanations Wilson provided. Even more consequentially, the themes he invoked in the State House Yard Speech were adopted by leading Federalists in the other states, and clearly influenced the ratification proceedings throughout the states.

Edmund Randolph claimed that the general government would endeavor to violate the constitution for exercising any power “not expressly delegated therein,” an idea implied by Wilson’s assertion that all powers granted were explicit. Likewise, James Iredell declared in North Carolina that the “powers of the government are particularly enumerated and defined: they can claim no others but such as are so enumerated.” Echoing Wilson’s argument that the states were integral to the federal system, Oliver Wolcott of Connecticut declared that the states “are the pillars which uphold the general system.” These declarations – which unambiguously laid the foundation for ratification in the states – followed a logical pattern that originated with and flowed from Wilson’s oratory.

Though The Federalist is often cited – by academics and federal judges – as the definitive commentary on the federal Constitution, the series played only a minor role in securing ratification. The State House Yard Speech, on the other hand, framed the way in which friends of the Constitution explained the instrument and answered their many critics. In this way, Wilson’s narrative had a much more tangible effect on ratification.

Ironically, all of this came to pass despite the fact that Wilson was one of the most notorious arch-nationalists of his time. During the Philadelphia Convention that drafted the Constitution, he favored a national referendum to elect the president, giving the executive an absolute veto over any law passed by Congress, adding the power to tax exports, permitting everlasting inferior federal courts that could not be dissolved by the legislature, and even bestowing upon Congress the power to enact “mercantile monopolies” and charter corporations.

Despite his own ideological proclivities, Wilson articulated the plain truth – that the Constitution was a federal model based on enumerated powers rather than general authority. The framework divided powers not only between federal branches, but also between local and central authorities. Rather than divesting general grants of power, provisions within the apparatus were to be the only ones exercised in the first place. Those that ratified, then, did so on the basis of these assurances rather than accepting the trepidations of the document’s skeptics at face value.

This post has been republished with permission from a publicly-available RSS feed found on Tenth Amendment Center. The views expressed by the original author(s) do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of The Libertarian Hub, its owners or administrators. Any images included in the original article belong to and are the sole responsibility of the original author/website. The Libertarian Hub makes no claims of ownership of any imported photos/images and shall not be held liable for any unintended copyright infringement. Submit a DCMA takedown request.

-> Click Here to Read the Original Article <-

About The Author

Tenth Amendment Center

The Tenth Amendment Center works to preserve and protect Tenth Amendment freedoms through information and education. The center serves as a forum for the study and exploration of state and individual sovereignty issues, focusing primarily on the decentralization of federal government power. Visit

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Bringing together a variety of news and information from some of today’s most important libertarian thought leaders. All feeds are checked and refreshed every hour and pages auto-refresh every 15 minutes. External images are deleted after 30 days.

Time since last refresh: 0 second

Publish Your Own Article

Follow The Libertarian Hub


Support Our Work

Support the Libertarian Hub by tipping with Bitcoin!

Send BTC:
Weekly Newsletter SignupTop 5 Stories of the Week

Subscribe to our newsletter to receive a weekly email report of the top five most popular articles on the Libertarian Hub!