Creating the Fourth Branch of Government: The Role of the Press in Pennsylvania's Constitutional Debates

The views expressed in this article are the author's and not necessarily those of the Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State, or the United States Government.

When the meeting of the Pennsylvania State Assembly received the Federal Constitution in September 1787, the idyllic excitement that had emanated from the Federal Convention shattered. The leaders of Pennsylvania—the first state to witness a large and heated public deliberation over the Federal proposal—quickly turned to the press to gain public support. Historians have typically acknowledged Pennsylvania as a leader in the ratification debates, setting the blueprint for state campaigns to come. Historian George Graham summarized the dominant historiographical argument when he wrote, "In practical terms, Pennsylvania was the heart of the new nation both socially and economically. In symbolic terms, it was its political center. During the ratification process, this symbolic status proved to be in many ways the most significant."1 While correct in identifying the state's leadership role, Pennsylvania's most significant contribution came through its use of the press.

Pennsylvanians had long argued over many of the issues addressed in the Constitution, including representation, taxation and others. However, by its very nature, the Constitution raised the stakes of t hese debates and further polarized the citizenry. Each faction then relied upon the press to spread and court public support. George Washington confirmed the influence of the press when he commented to an associate that "[ratification] will depend … on literary abilities and the recommendation of it by good pens."2 Pennsylvania's ratification debates reveal the transformation of early American political life from one primarily dictated by personal reputation and influence to one controlled by print.

The debate over whether and when to call the state convention elections revealed the public awareness that the state's political leaders held. The people and the press remained at the center of arguments both for and against calling immediate elections. Robert Whitehall, an Antifederalist representing Northumberland County (in Western Pennsylvania), argued against the immediate call for elections—pleading for more time for the sake of citizens in his part of the state. Federalists responded to Mr. Whitehall and his associates by assuring them that the people had plenty of opportunity to be exposed to and reasonably analyze the Constitution. Placing the argument in national perspective, one Federalist noted, "The influence which this state may acquire by decision will be lost, and many of the advantages lessened by an unnecessary delay."3 Image and perception drove the arguments and the attitudes of the debate.

Federalists and Antifederalists also reminded the public of the distinction of the Federal Convention delegates. As the Pennsylvania Gazette noted, the Federal Convention represented an "august" assemblage.4 Federalists mythologized the Convention's leaders in an attempt to win public support. The Federalists reportedly praised the leaders in the press and argued that these men contained such unmatched virtue and wisdom in government that their recommendations could, and should, be trusted. Assemblyman Daniel Clymer, arguing in favor of calling ratification elections, argued, "had the late Convention not been composed of gentlemen of liberal sentiments, patriotism, and integrity, it might never have been perfected."5 The statement thundered Federalist approval of the Constitution—the character of the gentlemen equaled the creation of a "perfected" government. The Pennsylvania Gazette and the Pennsylvania Packet's editors encouraged this mythologizing by reporting on a trip George Washington took to Valley Forge during a recess of the Federal Convention. "How great," an editor wrote, "… must be the satisfaction of our late worthy Commander in Chief, to be called upon a second time, by the suffrages of three millions of people, to save his sinking country?"6 Three million people had not voted to send the General to Philadelphia, but the epic tale of dramatic liberation would surely enshrine (in the minds of the public) the pro-Constitution politicians as the saviors of the land.

Federalist leaders used Benjamin Franklin's reputation as another arsenal in the battle for public support. Going against the wishes of such an "august statesman" would be insanity, they argued. In his opening remarks to the Pennsylvania Assembly, Assemblyman Clymer urged his companions, "Remember how strong the language of the venerable Franklin [was], when he addressed you to enforce this recommendation."7 Franklin and his associate delegates used this "strong language" when they delivered the Federal Constitution to the State Assembly. Franklin introduced the document as one that would "produce happy effects to this commonwealth, as well as to every other of the United States." His carefully worded introduction only advanced Federalist tactics connecting the sagacity and respect of the founders with the necessity of ratification.8

Further, when Convention elections commenced, the Philadelphia Herald proudly reported that Franklin had been nominated as a delegate and noted that his "worth as a patriot and his wisdom as a politician entitle him to that distinction and as he enjoys the unbounded confidence of his fellow citizens it is hoped that no personal consideration will induce him to waive this important service, at so critical a juncture." The editors of the paper propagated the mythologizing of Franklin by reminding the public that such a worthy man could not err in his recommendation of the new system of government. This announcement appeared that same day in the Evening Chronicle and two days later in two other Pennsylvania papers—the Independent Gazetteer and the Pennsylvania Packet. Presses from surrounding states reprinted the announcement fourteen times by the 4th of December (a full month later),9 ensuring that Franklin's aura loomed large over the ratification debates. As a hero of the Revolution, the Federalists sought to utilize his name as credit to purchase the votes of the undecided.

Antifederalists utilized "hero-ification" of the founders for their purposes as well. In an address to "their constituents," state leaders noted, "several of those who have signed [the Constitution] did not fully approve… viz., Governor Randolph and Colonel George Mason of Virginia, and Eldredge [sic] Gerry, Esquire of Massachusetts." Antifederalists noted that these were men "whose characters are very respectable."10 While each party realized the importance of reputation in winning public support, elite leaders came to believe elements of their own mythologizing. As the leaders of society, they believed it only right and necessary that the public trust their decisions—whether they be for or against the Constitution. Many elite leaders cited reputation in their arguments because they believed that character could make or break a leader.

Pennsylvania politicians applied epic prose to describe the public as well. In seeking to prove the legitimacy of the Federal Convention, Assemblyman Brackenridge wrote, "the first and every step was federal, inasmuch as it was sanctioned by the PEOPLE OF THE UNITED STATES."11 In a debate during the state convention, James Wilson recognized the "mythologized people" as the authority behind the convention and the Constitution. "We the People—it is announced in their name, it is clothed with their authority, from whom all power originated and ultimately belong." Rooting such an assertion in classical history, he announced, "Magna Charta is the grant of the king. This Constitution is the act of the people and what they have not expressly granted, they have retained."12 As evidenced by Wilson, Federalists in particular understood their mythologizing in classical terms. However, while Antifederalists believed in a more practical exercise of democracy, the Federalists preferred to keep the "authority of the people" ambiguously situated in epic prose.

Print stood as the central political tool utilized by both sides to form their arguments and their public. In The Other Founders, historian Saul Cornell argues that print was the only unifying factor among the diverse group known as "Antifederalists." While unifying the Antifederalists, more broadly, the press provided the stage on which American political theory evolved. "The publication of the Constitution in September 1787," Cornell argues, "inaugurated one of the most vigorous political campaigns in American history. In arguing over the merits of the new plan of government, Americans not only engaged in a lively inquiry into the meaning of constitutional government; they helped make constitutionalism a defining characteristic of American political culture."13 As constitutionalism became a defining topic of American political culture, the press became the defining medium through which its discussions proceeded.

Aside from setting the tone of future conventions by providing the "party lines" of both pro- and anti-ratification supporters, Pennsylvania provided the medium through which American politics evolved. The large amount of materials printed first in the state and then from Massachusetts to Georgia established a precedent of looking to newspapers for political information. Pennsylvania's press impressed upon the thirteen states a clear direction of discussion and provided them with strategies for gaining the necessary access and approval from the public. Through the ratification convention of Pennsylvania, the press was indirectly inaugurated as the fourth branch of government—the branch that accessed and sought control of public opinion. Men's minds and wallets became engaged in what they saw as a debate over the future of their liberties. In doing so, they formed American political culture into one dominated by the media—and the media in the 1780s was the press.


Footnotes:

1 George J. Graham, Jr., "PENNSYLVANIA: Representation and the Meaning of Republicanism;" in Michael Allen Gillespie and Michael Lienesch, eds., Ratifying the Constitution (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1989), 52-3, 57. Also see, Paul Doutrich, "Pennsylvania: From Revolution to Constitution, Pennsylvania's Path to Federalism," in Patrick T. Conley and John P. Kaminiski, eds., The Constitution and the States: The Role of the Original Thirteen in the Framing and Adoption of the Federal Constitution (Madison: Madison House Publishers, 1988), 37-53.

2 Quoted in Saul Cornell, The Other Founders: Anti-Federalism and the Dissenting Tradition in America, 1788-1828 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 20.

3 The Pennsylvania Assembly, 28 September 1787, Assembly Debates A.M.; Merrill Jensen, ed., The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution by the States: Pennsylvania (hereafter, DHRC), II, 81.

4 Pennsylvania Gazette, 22 August [1787]; DHRC, XIII, 189.

5 The Pennsylvania Assembly, 28 September 1788, Assembly Debates A.M.; DHRC, II, 77.

6Pennsylvania Gazette, 22 August [1787]; DHRC, XIII, 189-90.

7 The Pennsylvania Assembly, 28 September 1788, Assembly Debates A.M.; DHRC, II, 77.

8 The Pennsylvania Assembly, Tuesday 18 September 1787, Assembly Proceedings; DHRC, II, 60.

9Pennsylvania Herald, 3 November [1787]; DHRC, II, 226-227.

10 "The Address of the Seceding Assemblymen," 2 October [Philadelphia 1787], (Broadside, Rare Book Room, DLC); DHRC, II, 60. (Italics mine.)

11 The Pennsylvania Assembly, Friday, 28 September 1787, Assembly Proceedings, A.M.; DHRC, II, 93.

12 The Pennsylvania Convention, Wednesday 28 November 1787, Convention Debates, [Wayne's Notes, Cox Collection]; DHRC, II, 384.

13 Saul Cornell, The Other Founders, 19.

About the Author

Stephanie Hurter Williams is a historian in the Office of the Historian at the Department of State where she manages digital history initiatives. She is completing her dissertation on the impact of the press on the state ratification conventions of the 1770s and 80s.

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