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ART. XI.—CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM. An Act to provide for calling a Convention, with Limited Powers.
Passed April 141h, 1835. Pamphlet Laws of Pennsylvania; 1834–35: p. 270.
The benefits and injuries resulting from political establishments are so constantly and vividly portrayed in the condition of mankind, that attempts to change their organisation, form fruitful themes for comment and reflection. In every path of life government is felt; over every pursuit of man it exercises a control; and every right that is dear to him is, directly or indirectly, affected either by its beneficent, parental care, or by the blighting influence of its despotic power. Whilst governments are undoubtedly indebted to the character of the communities in which they originate, for many of their most prominent features, it is equally true, that they exercise a strong influence on society, and are, in themselves, prominent causes of its vigorous growth or premature decay. Governments radically bad cannot be too soon subverted, unless the certainty of anarchy renders despotic power a more desirable condition.
Frequent changes in governments which are substantially good, are always detrimental to the state. Their nature, the purposes for which they are designed, and the immense interests involved in their successful operation, render durability one of their most valuable properties. To subvert them, through mere capriciousness, or to alter even their less essential attributes from a mere love of novelty, will inflict a blow upon society, the pernicious effects of which may survive the memory of their assailants. History traces their career and perpetuates the records of their existence. Their establishment or subversion may be the cause of exultation or of sorrow for centuries. Hence the gratitude of mankind to the founders of free governments, and the execration which has been bequeathed, from generation to generation, on all who have participated in their overthrow.
A system, theoretically defective, may operate beneficially on a people, to whom custom has endeared it; whilst one apparently of a superior formation may be highly oppressive to those who are unused to its burthens, and incapable of conforming to its most admirable regulations. It is therefore not merely important that a government should be excellent in itself, but it must be adapted to the condition, and congenial to the habits, of the people. Difficulties which prevail when a new system is introduced, are often obviated by custom.Changes in government have been accomplished in this coun
try, without the disorganisation of society which is produced in other nations. The first to found governments by the peaceable exercise of the popular will, and by the deliberative wisdom of the representatives of the people, in conventions organised for that purpose, the Anericans have exercised a power of self-government which, if judiciously directed, must conduce to their welfare. Indiscretion may essentially impair the bright prospect before them. Success has inspired confidence in their capacity, and the danger that threatens them is that they may be deluded by the love of experiments, and disturb the permanency of their prosperous condition. Systems so fleeting as to be affected by every breath of popular displeasure, must fail to acquire the confidence of the people. There is no form of government that stands more in need of the strong support derived from habitual respect and veneration than the republican. It is a substitute for military power in other political systems. If a republic be not sustained by the affections of the people, its stronghold is shaken. It is apparent that with changes constantly in view, untried expedients will captivate the hearts of the people, and sap the foundation of the most valuable institutions. The states have heretofore found ample protection in the stability and wisdom of the Federal Constitution. Under its broad and sheltering panoply, they have been secure from violent and perilous commotions, and the formation of state constitutions has been attended with but little apparent evil. What may have been the local benefits resulting from them, it is impossible to determine without a close scrutiny into the peculiar condition of each community, and a careful observation of their practical operation in each particular case. The danger of encouraging a spirit of innovation should be carefully avoided, as one of the most formidable which can assail a republic. The facility with which constitutions are made in this country should be attended with a corresponding watchfulness, lest, in the desire after fancied improvements, the foundation of our free institutions should be undermined and destroyed.
Whilst, however, frequent changes should be avoided, and fluctuations firmly resisted, necessary alterations should not be too long retarded, nor a resistance to expedient modifications persisted in, by which revolutions and other disasters are produced. There is a wise medium between the spirit of innovation, by which governments are rendered unsteady and deprived of the stability essential to their operation, and a foolish adherence to error, merely on account of its antiquity or from a fear of change. To avoid these evils, every constitution should contain a provision, regulating the manner in which it should be altered. By rendering the rash or indiscreet use of this power difficult, and by investing it with an imposing solemnity, changes may be effected in parts of the system without subverting the whole of it, and without materially affecting the stability of the government. The greater number of revolutions proceed from the growth of abuses, until they become no longer tolerable, when the impulse which produces resistance, being uncontrollable, involves the nation in anarchy and sanguinary commotions. In this country abuses can hardly be carried so far as to require revolutions for their redress. Familiar with self-government, the people exercise the power which they possess, of remodeling their constitutions. The constitution yields to the popular will, which renders it of vital importance that a mode should be fixed, by which public opinion can be deliberately formed and its expression distinctly understood.
Unfortunately, the constitution of Pennsylvania contains no provision for its alteration, by which amendments can be made in the parts requiring then, without throwing the whole instrument open to discussion. Had such a regulation existed, the precise points for consideration would be presented to our view, and we should not have been in our present situation, without the means of ascertaining to what extent attempts will be made to remodel the system. Great dissatisfaction has for many years existed with regard to some of its powers, but in the determination to submit it to a convention, the various opinions have become so mingled and confounded, that it would be impracticable, if it were requisite, to ascertain the motives which have swayed the people in their decision. Some are in favour of a convention in hopes of procuring one alteration, some another, so that it is the union of opinions, adverse upon all subjects except the desire of a change, that has, finally, after the exertions of many years, produced the present result. It ought, however, to be remarked, that for a long time an opinion has prevailed, perhaps among a large majority of the people, that the patronage of the executive is too extensive, and it is probable that nothing has prevented an alteration of the constitution in that respect, but the well founded apprehension, that advantage would be taken of the opportunity, to subvert some valuable regulations which it contains. Its revision has undoubtedly been procrastinated by the want of a proper mode of making amendments. The period has at length arrived, when all who desire a change, although essentially differing as to what it shall be, have united their strength. After an existence of forty-five years, the constitution of Pennsylvania is to be laid in the political workshop, to be remodeled by the artificers who may chance to be selected for that purpose. The convention will be unshackled by any supposed expression VOL. XIX.-NO. 37.
of public opinion, upon the nature of the amendments to be proposed. If the right were claimed to instruct the members, the difficulty of ascertaining the sentiments of the people in any other manner than by their consent or refusal to sanction the proceedings of the convention, in the manner pointed out by act of assembly, would prevent its operation. The delegates will, it is hoped, approach the subject with the calmness and deliberation which its importance demands. Any attempt to connect it with party controversies must have a pernicious effect. Deeply affecting the welfare of the whole commonwealth, and of generations to come, local and temporary feelings and interests should yield to more extensive considerations and nobler views.
The act of assembly of the 14th of April, 1835, provides for “ascertaining the sense of the citizens of this commonwealth, on the expediency of calling a convention of delegates, to be elected by the people, with authority to submit amendments of the state constitution to a vote of the people, for their ratification or rejection, and with no other or greater powers whatsoever.” The people at the last election decided in favour of calling the convention. Although the powers of the convention are said to be limited, yet it is apparent that they are in no other manner restricted, than by the reservation of the right to the people of rejecting the amendments which may be proposed. This certainly is an important provision, and one which, although not entirely satisfactory, may guard against much mischief. The convention will no doubt see the propriety of providing a mode by which amendments can in future be made, without giving the wide scope for cavil which is now possessed. This, as was before suggested, can advantageously be done by designating, in the act of assenibly submitting to the people the question whether a convention shall be called, the sections of the constitution to be proposed for consideration. Clauses in the constitution relating to the whole or a part of the executive powers, the organisation of the judiciary, the official tenure, the organisation of either the senate or house of representatives, the election or duration in office of justices of the peace, the pardoning power, or any other branches of the constitution, might be designated by the assembly as fit subjects for the consideration of a convention. . The sense of the people might thus be obtained, whether a convention should be asseinbled to consider the expediency of revising any part of the constitution, without placing the whole in jeopardy. The concurrence of two thirds of each branch of the legislature should be required to the passage of any law, designed to throw the constitution or any part of it open to investigation. If the difficulty of obtaining two thirds be alleged, it should be taken into consideration, that the subject is one of vast importance, and that no attempt to change the fundamental law, solemnly ratified, should be encouraged, without a very decided expression of public opinion on the expediency of submitting it to the people for examination.
The present plan of submitting the amendments to the people for their confirmation, may guard against violent and improbable abuses of their power by the convention, but it does not essentially aid in producing a satisfactory result. The people must accept or reject the amendments as they are presented to them. It will be then too late for modification. The popularity of a part may secure the adoption of the whole, even when the wisdom of such a course may be questionable. Besides, in the consideration of them, other subjects may be involved, calculated to inflame or delude the public mind. Party spirit, that bane of republics, may exercise a powerful sway in wielding the right of suffrage. It is therefore important, on all future occasions, to secure the right of amendment in such a manner that the constitution may be shielded from improper innovations, and the objectionable parts of it alone be presented to the consideration of the people. This can readily be done, without declaring in advance what the amendment should be, or, by forestalling public opinion, restrict the convention from the fullest enquiry, or the most extensive opportunity of framing such clauses to be afterwards submitted to the people, as their wisdom may ascertain to be correct. Our present contests are of a peaceful character. But it is impossible to determine what will be the condition of the community a very few years hence. The growth of the state in wealth and population is immensely rapid. The convention will be conscious that the constitution, as amended by them, will probably control millions of people. Before another convention shall be assembled, the population will have advanced with gigantic strides. It is therefore of vast importance, that in all that is now done, reference should not merely be had to the existing condition of affairs, but, looking through the vista of time, ample provision should be made for futurity. It is certainly practicable to frame a system of government which will be as well adapted to a population of ten as of two millions. But contingencies cannot be anticipated; man is capricious. Those who come after us may not concur with us in opinion. Alterations may be desired, either from the new light which experience may shed upon the system, or from those mutations in human affairs, which alter the condition and sentiments of men, and require a corresponding change in the powers of government. We know not how many civil commotions may be averted by prescribing a salutary rule with