James Wilson’s 4th of July Address – The U.S. Constitution Online – USConstitution.net

James Wilson’s 4th of July Address

James Wilson came to America from Scotland in 1765 and quickly learned the
law and began to practice in Pennsylvania. By the time of the Revolution, he
was well-known and trusted, and was elected to represent Pennsylvania in the
Continental Congress. After the Revolution, he increased his personal wealth
and worked in several public and private jobs. He was selected to represent
Pennsylvania at the Constitutional Convention
and was very vocal in the deliberations. He was a strong Federalist and lead
the effort to ratification in Pennsylvania.

On July 4, 1788, Wilson gave a speech to a group assembled to celebrate
Independence Day and the ratification of the Constitution. The Constitution he
had helped draft was just barely formally ratified – New Hampshire, the ninth
state to do so, had ratified less than two weeks earlier, and Virginia, one of
the “do or die” states, had ratified just four days after New Hampshire. He
was obviously proud of what he had helped craft, and just as proud that the
states had accepted the invitation to a “more perfect union.”

In the address, Wilson contrasted the forming and ratification of the
Constitution with other classic examples of democracy, which he mocked as being
virtuous in reputation only. He went on to laud the benefits of agriculture,
commerce, and industry, which he said could only flourish with good government.
He also warned that tyranny and licentiousness could replace liberty if the
people are not diligent. He reminded the people that their voices, however
insignificant they seemed, were essential for continued liberty, both in the
form of the vote, service to country, and the defense of liberty. He stressed
the vote, though, as the great basis for liberty under the Constitution, for
even when officials were not directly elected by the people, they were elected
by those the people elected.

Wilson’s speech was published in the Pennsylvania Gazette on July 9,
1788. Some spellings have been updated to contemporary English usage.
Footnotes are interspersed to explain unusual concepts or usages.

My Friends and Fellow Citizens, your candid and generous indulgence I may
well bespeak, for many reasons. I shall mention but one. While I express it, I
feel it, in all its force. My abilities are unequal – abilities far superior to
mine would be unequal – to the occasion, on which I have the honor of being
called to address you.

A people, free and enlightened, establishing and Ratifying a system of
government, which they have previously considered, examined and approved!

This is the spectacle, which we are assembled to celebrate; and it is the
most dignified one that has yet appeared on our globe. Numerous and splendid
have been the triumphs of conquerors. From what causes have they originated? Of
what consequences have they been productive?

They have generally begun in ambition. They have generally ended in tyranny.
But nothing tyrannical can participate of dignity; and to Freedom’s eye,
Sesostris [1] himself appears contemptible,
even when he treads on the necks of Kings.

The Senators of Rome, seated in their curule chairs [2], and surrounded with all their official lustre,
were an object much more respectable; and we view, without displeasure, the
admiration of those untutored savages, who considered them as so many gods upon
earth. But who were those Senators? They were only a part of a society. They
were vested with only inferior powers.

What is the object exhibited to our contemplation? A whole people exercising
its first and greatest power – performing an act of sovereignty, original and

The scene before us is unexampled as well as magnificent. The greatest part
of governments have been the deformed offspring of force and fear. With these
we deign not comparison.

But there have been others who have formed bold pretensions to higher
regard. You have heard of Sparta, of Athens and of Rome. You have heard of
their admired constitutions, and of their high prized freedom. In fancied right
of these, they conceived themselves to be elevated above the rest of the human
race, whom they marked with the degrading title of Barbarians. But did they, in
all their pomp and pride of liberty, ever furnish to the astonished world an
exhibition similar to that, which we now contemplate?

Were their constitutions framed by those, who were appointed, for that
purpose, by the people? After they were framed, were they submitted to the
consideration of the people? Had the people an opportunity of expressing their
sentiments concerning them? Were they to stand or fall by the people’s
approving or rejecting vote?

To all these questions attentive and impartial history obliges us to answer
in the negative. The people were either unfit to be trusted; or their lawgivers
were too ambitious to trust them.

The far-framed establishment of Lycurgus [3]
was introduced by deception and fraud. Under the specious pretence of
consulting the oracle concerning his laws, he prevailed on the Spartans to make
a temporary experiment of them during his absence, and to swear that they would
suffer no alteration of them till his return. Taking a disingenuous advantage
of their scrupulous regard for their oaths, he prevented his return by a
voluntary death; and in this manner endeavoured to secure a proud immortality
to his system.

Even Solon [4] – the mild and moderating
Solon – far from considering himself as employed only to propose such
regulations as he should think best calculated for promoting the happiness of
the commonwealth, made and promulgated his laws with all the haughty airs of
absolute power. On more occasions than one, we find him boasting, with much
self complacency, of his extreme forbearance and condescension, because he did
not establish a despotism in his own favor, and because he did not reduce his
equals to the humiliating condition of his slaves.

Did Numa [5] submit his institutions to the
good sense and free investigation of Rome? They were received in precious
communications from the goddess Egeria [6],
with whose presence and regard he was supremely favored; and they were imposed
on the easy faith of the citizens as the dictates of an inspiration that was

Such, my fellow citizens, was the origin of the most splendid establishments
that have been hitherto known; and such were the arts, to which they owed their
introduction and success. What a flattering contrast arises from a retrospect
of the scenes which we now commemorate?

Delegates were appointed to deliberate and to propose. They met, and
performed their delegated trust. The result of their deliberations was laid
before the people. It was discussed and scrutinized in the fullest, freest and
severest manner – by speaking, by writing and by printing – by individuals and
by public bodies – by its friends and by its enemies.

What was the issue? Most favourable and most glorious to the system. In
state after state, at time after time, it was ratified – in some states
unanimously [7] – on the whole, by a large and
very respectable majority.

It would be improper now to examine its qualities. A decent respect for
those who have accepted of it will lead us to presume that it is worthy of
their acceptance. The deliberate ratifications, which have taken place, at once
recommend the system and the people by whom it has been ratified.

But why – methinks I hear some one say – why is so much exultation displayed
in celebrating this event? We are prepared to give the reasons of our joy. We
rejoice, because, under this constitution, we hope to see just government, and
to enjoy the blessings that walk in its train.

Let us begin with Peace – the mild and modest harbinger of felicity! How
seldom does the amiable wanderer choose, for her permanent residence, the
habitations of men! In their systems she sees too many arrangements, civil and
ecclesiastical, inconsistent with the calmness and benignity of her temper. In
the old world, how many millions of men do we behold, unprofitable to society,
burthensome to industry, the props of establishments that deserve not to be
supported, the causes of distrust in the times of peace – and the instruments
of destruction in the times of war? Why are they not employed in cultivating
useful arts, and in forwarding public improvements? Let us indulge the pleasing
expectation, that such will be the operation of government in the United

Why may we not hope that, disentangled from the intrigues and jealousies of
European politics, and unmolested with the alarm and solicitude, to which these
intrigues and jealousies give birth, our councils will be directed to the
encouragement, and our strength will be exerted in the cultivation of all the
arts of peace?

Of these, the first is Agriculture. This is true in all countries. In the
United States its truth is of peculiar importance. The subsistence of man, the
materials of manufactures, the articles of commerce – all spring originally
from the soil. On agriculture, therefore, the wealth of nations is founded.
Whether we consult the observations that reason will suggest, or attend to the
information that history will give, we shall, in each case, be satisfied of the
influence of government, good or bad, upon the state of agriculture.

In a government, whose maxims are those of oppression, property is insecure.
It is given, it is taken away, by caprice. Where there is no security for
property, there is no encouragement for industry. Without industry, the richer
the soil the more it abounds with weeds. The evidence of history warrants the
truth of these general remarks. Attend to Greece; and compare her agriculture
in ancient and in modern times. Then, smiling harvests bore testimony to the
bountiful boons of liberty. Now, the very earth languishes under
oppression [8].

View the Campania of Rome [9]. How
melancholy the prospect? Which ever way you turn your afflicted eyes, scenes of
desolation crowd before them. Waste and barrenness appear around you in all
their hideous forms. What is the reason? With double tyranny the land is
cursed. Open the classic page: you trace, in chaste description, the beautiful
reverse of every thing you have seen. Whence proceeds the difference? When that
description was made, the force of liberty pervaded the soil.

But is agriculture the only art, which feels the influence of government?
Over Manufactures and Commerce its power is equally prevalent. There the same
causes operate; and there they produce the same effects. The industrious
village, the busy city, the crowded port – all these are the gifts of liberty;
and without a good government liberty cannot exist. These are advantages, but
these are not all the advantages that result from a system of good government.
Agriculture, manufactures and commerce will ensure to us plenty, convenience
and elegance. But is there not something still wanting to finish the men? Are
internal virtues and accomplishments less estimable or less attracting than
external arts and ornaments? Is the operation of government less powerful upon
the former than upon the latter? By no means.

Upon this, as upon a preceding topic, reason and history will concur in
their information and advice. In a serene mind the sciences and the virtues
love to dwell. But can the mind of a man be serene, when the property, liberty
and subsistence of himself, and of those, for whom he feels more than he feels
for himself, depends on a tyrant’s nod? If the dispirited subject of oppression
can, with difficulty, exert his enfeebled faculties, so far as to provide, on
the incessant demands of nature, food just enough to lengthen out his wretched
existence; can it be expected that, in such a state, he will experience those
fine and vigorous movements of the soul, without the full and free exercise of
which science and virtue will never flourish?

Look around you to the nations that now exist. View, in historic retrospect,
the nations that have heretofore existed. The collected result will be an
entire conviction of these all-interesting truths. Where tyranny reigns, there
is the country of ignorance and vice. Where good government prevails, there is
the country of science and virtue. Under a good government, therefore, we must
look for the accomplished man.

But shall we confine our views even here? While we wish to be accomplished
men and citizens, shall we wish to be nothing more? While we perform our duty,
and promote our happiness in this world; shall we bestow no regards upon the
next? Does no connection subsist between the two? From this connection flows
the most important of all the blessings of good government.

But here let us pause – unassisted reason can guide us no farther, she
directs us to that heaven – descended science, by which life and immortality
have been brought to light. May we not now say, that we have reason for our
joy? But while we cherish the delightful emotion, let us remember those things,
which are requisite to give it permanence and stability. Shall we lie supine,
and look, in listless languor, for those blessings and enjoyments, to which
exertion is inseparably attached? If we would be happy; we must be active. The
Constitution and our manners must mutually support and be supported. Even on
the Festivity, it will not be disagreeable or incongruous to review the virtues
and manners that both justify and adorn it.

Frugality and temperance first attract our attention. These simple but
powerful virtues are the sole foundation, on which a good government can rest
with security. They were the virtues which nursed and educated infant Rome, and
prepared her for all her greatness. But in the giddy hour of her prosperity,
she spurned from her the obscure instruments, by which it was procured; and in
their place substituted luxury and dissipation. The consequence was such as
might have been expected. She preserved, for some time, a gay and flourishing
appearance; but the internal health and soundness of her constitution were
gone. At last she fell, a victim to the poisonous draughts, which were
administered by her perfidious favorites. The fate of Rome, both in her rising
and in her falling state, will be the fate of every other nation that shall
follow both parts of her example [10].

Industry appears next among the virtues of a good citizen. Idleness is the
nurse of villains. The industrious alone constitute a nation’s strength. I will
not expatiate on this fruitful subject. Let one animating reflection suffice.
In a well constituted commonwealth, the industry of every citizen extends
beyond himself. A common interest pervades the society. Each gains from all,
and all gain from each.

It has often been observed that the sciences flourish all together. The
remark applies equally to the arts. Your patriot feelings attest the truth of
what I say, when, among the virtues necessary to merit and preserve the
advantages of a good government, I number a warm and uniform attachment to
liberty, and to the Constitution. The enemies of liberty are artful and
insidious. A counterfeit steals her dress, imitates her manner, forges her
signature, assumes her name. But the real name of the deceiver is
Licentiousness. Such is her effrontery, that she will charge liberty to her
face with imposture; and she will, with shameless front, insist that herself
alone is the genuine character, and that herself alone is entitled to the
respect, which the genuine character deserves. With the giddy and undiscerning,
on whom a deeper impression is made by dauntless impudence than by modest
merit, her pretensions are often successful. She receives the honors of
liberty, and liberty herself is treated as a traitor and an usurper.

Generally, however, this bold impostor acts only a secondary part. Though
she alone appear, upon the stage, her motions are regulated by dark ambition,
who sits concealed behind the curtain, and who knows that despotism his other
favorite, can always follow the success of licentiousness. Against these
enemies of liberty, who act in concert, though they appear on opposite sides,
the patriot citizen will keep a watchful guard. A good constitution is the
greatest blessing, which a society can enjoy. Need I infer, that it is the duty
of every citizen to use his best and most unremitting endeavours for preserving
it pure, healthful and vigorous? For the accomplishment of this great purpose,
the exertions of no one citizen are unimportant. Let no one, therefore,
harbour, for a moment, the mean idea, that he is and can be of no value to his
country. Let the contrary manly impression animate his soul. Every one can, at
many times, perform to the state, useful services; and he, who steadily pursues
the road of patriotism, has the most inviting prospect of being able, at some
times, to perform eminent ones.

Allow me to direct your attention, in a very particular manner, to a
momentous part, which, by this Constitution, every citizen will frequently be
called to act. All those in places of power and trust will be elected either
immediately by the people; or in such a manner that their appointment will
depend ultimately on such immediate election. All the derivative movements of
government must spring from the original movement of the people at large. If,
to this they give a sufficient force and a just direction, all the others will
be governed by its controlling power.

To speak without a metaphor; if the people, at their elections, take care to
choose none but representatives that are wise and good; their representatives
will take care, in their turn, to choose or appoint none but such as are wise
and good also. The remark applies to every succeeding election and appointment.
Thus the characters proper for public officers will be diffused from the
immediate elections of the people over the remotest parts of administration. Of
what immense consequence is it, then, that this primary duty should be
faithfully and skillfully discharged? On the faithful and skillful discharge of
it the public happiness or infelicity, under this and every other constitution,
must, in a very great measure, depend. For, believe me, no government, even the
best, can be happily administered by ignorant or vicious men.

You will forgive me, I am sure, for endeavouring to impress upon your minds,
in the strongest manner, the importance of this great duty. It is the first
concoction in politics; and if an error is committed here, it can never be
corrected in any subsequent process. The certain consequence must be disease.
Let no one say, that he is but a single citizen; and that his ticket will be
but one in the box. That one ticket may turn the election. In battle, every
soldier should consider the public safety as depending on his single arm. At an
election, every citizen should consider the public happiness as depending on
his single vote.

A progressive state is necessary to the happiness and perfection of Man.
Whatever attainments are already reached, attainments still higher should be
pursued. Let us, therefore, strive with noble emulation. Let us suppose we have
done nothing while any thing yet remains to be done. Let us, with fervent zeal,
press forward, and make unceasing advances in every thing that can support,
improve, refine or embellish Society.

To enter into particulars under each of these heads, and to dilate them
according to their importance, would be improper at this time. A few remarks on
the last of them will be congenial with the entertainments of this auspicious
day. If we give the slightest attention to nature, we shall discover that with
utility she is curious to blend ornament. Can we imitate a better pattern?
Public exhibitions have been the favorite amusements of some of the wisest and
most accomplished nations. Greece, in her most shining era, considered her
games as far from being the least respectable among her public establishments.
The shows of the Circus evince, that, on this subject, the sentiments of Greece
were fortified by those of Rome.

Public processions may be so planned and executed, as to join both the
properties of Nature’s rule. They may instruct and improve, while they
entertain and please. They may point out the elegance or usefulness of the
sciences and the arts. They may preserve the memory, and engrave the importance
of great political events. They may represent with peculiar felicity and force,
the operation and effects of great political truths. The picturesque and
splendid decorations around me furnish the most beautiful and most brilliant
proofs, that these remarks are far from being imaginary. The commencement of
our Government has been eminently glorious. Let us progress in every excellence
be proportionally great. It will – it must be so. What an enrapturing prospect
opens on the United States!

Placed Husbandry walks in front, attended by the venerable plough. Lowing
[11] herds adorn our valleys. Bleating flocks
spread over our hills. Verdant meadows, enameled pastures, yellow harvests,
bending orchards, rise in rapid succession from east to west.

Plenty, with her copious horn, sits easy-smiling, and in conscious
complacency, enjoys and presides over the scenes.

Commerce next advances, in all her splendid and embellished forms. The
rivers and lakes and seas are crowded with ships. Their shores are covered with
cities. The cities are filled with inhabitants.

The Arts, decked with elegance, yet with simplicity, appear in beautiful
variety, and well adjusted arrangement. Around them are diffused in rich
abundance, the necessaries, the decencies and the ornaments of life.

With heart felt contentment, Industry beholds his honest labors flourishing
and secure.

Peace walks serene and unalarmed over all the unmolested regions; while
Liberty, Virtue and Religion go hand in hand harmoniously, protecting,
enlivening and exalting all!

Happy Country! May Thy Happiness Be Perpetual!

1. Sesostris: Sesostris of Egypt, a legendary king,
conquerer of the entire known world, divided the world into districts and
imposed a great law.

2. Curule chairs: a chair used by a person of superior

3. Lycurgus: Lycurgus of Sparta, purported to have given
legal order to Sparta, including dividing power between the king, the people,
the legislature, and a judiciary or sorts.

4. Solon: Solon of Athens, writer of the first Athenian
constitution, which incorporated democratic principles for the first time.

5. Numa: Second king of Rome, known for rule during a
time of peace.

6. Egeria: A water nymph (lesser goddess), a companion
of Numa, who taught him how to be wise and just.

7. Unanimous conventions: The conventions of Delaware,
New Jersey, and Georgia ratified the Constitution by unanimous vote.

8. Greece: At the time of this speech, Greece was under
the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Greece fought for its independence in

9. Campania of Rome: Campania was known as Rome’s
breadbasket until the more fertile crops of Egypt usurped the title. Campania
fell to both the Goths and the Byzantines, which may be the two tyrannies that
Wilson refers to. It was also subject to the kingdom of Naples and the kingdom
of the Two Sicilies.

10. Rome: The frequent use of Rome as an example is
likely because of the contemporary publishing and popularity of the volumes of
Edward Gibbons’s The History of The Decline and Fall of the Roman

11. Low: An archaic equivalent of today’s “moo,” for
the guttural sound made by cattle.