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title:“Centinel XVI”
date written:1788-2-26

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last updated:Jan. 22, 2013, 8:36 a.m. UTC
retrieved:Nov. 25, 2017, 5:56 a.m. UTC

"Centinel XVI." Philadelphia Independent Gazetteer 1788-02-26 : . Rpt. in The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution. Vol. 16. Ed. Gaspare J. Saladino and John P. Kaminski. Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 1986. 217-20. Print.
Manuscripts Division, Library of Congress

Centinel XVI (February 26, 1788)

Fellow-Citizens, The new constitution instead of being the panecea or cure of every grievance so delusively represented by its advocates will be found upon examination like Pandora's box, replete with every evil. The most specious clauses of this system of ambition and iniquity contain latent mischief, and premedated villainy. By section 9th of the 1st article, "No ex post facto law shall be passed." This sounds very well upon a superficial consideration, and I dare say has been read by most people with approbation. Government undoubtedly ought to avoid retrospective laws as far as may be, as they are generally injurious and fraudulent: Yet there are occasions when such laws are not only just but highly requisite. An ex post facto law is a law made after the fact, so that the Congress under the new constitution are precluded from all controul over transactions prior to its establishment. This prohibition would skreen the numerous public defaulters, as no measure could be constitutionally taken to compel them to render an account and restore the public money; the unaccounted millions lying in their hands would become their private property. Hitherto these characters from their great weight and numbers have had the influence to prevent an investigation of their accounts, but if this constitution be established, they may set the public at defiance, as they would be completely exonerated of all demands of the United States against them. This is not a strained construction of this section, but the proper evident meaning of the words, which not even the ingenuity, or sophistry of the Caledonian, can disguise from the meanest capacity. However if this matter admitted of any doubt, it would be removed by the following consideration, viz. that the new constitution is founded upon a dissolution of the present articles of confederation and is an original compact between those states, or rather those individuals who accede to it; consequently all contracts, debts and engagements in favor or against the United States, under the old government, are cancelled unless they are provided for in the new constitution. The framers of this constitution appear to have been aware of such consequence by stipulating in article 6th, that all debts contracted, and engagements entered into before the adoption of this constitution shall be valid against the United States under the new constitution, but there is no provision that the debts, &c. due to the United States, shall be valid or recoverable. This is a striking omission, and must have been designed, as debts of the latter description would naturally occur and claim equal attention with the former. This article implied, cancels all debts due to the United States prior to the establishment of the new constitution. If equal provision had been made for the debts due to the United States, as against the United States, the ex post facto clause would not have so pernicious an operation.
The immaculate convention, that is said to have possessed the fullness of patriotism, wisdom and virtue, contained a number of the principal public defaulters; and these were the most influential members, and chiefly instrumental in the framing of the new constitution: There were several of this description in the deputation from the state of Pennsylvania, who have long standing and immense accounts to settle, and MILLIONS perhaps to refund. The late Financier alone, in the capacity of chairman of the commercial committee of Congress, early in the late war, was entrusted with millions of public money, which to this day remain unaccounted for, nor has he settled his accounts as Financier. The others may also find it a convenient method to balance accounts with the public; they are sufficiently known and therefore need not be designated-This will account for the zealous attachment of such characters to the new constitution and their dread of investigation and discussion. It may be said that the new Congress would rather break through the constitution than suffer the public to be defrauded of so much treasure, when the burthens and distresses of the people are so very great; but this is not to be expected from the characters of which that Congress would in all probability be composed, if we may judge from the predominant influence and interest these defaulters now possess in many of the states. Besides, should Congress be disposed to violate the fundamental articles of the constitution for the sake of public justice, they would be prevented in so doing by their oaths,(a) but even if this should not prove an obstacle, if it can be supposed that any set of men would perjure themselves for the public good, and combat an host of enemies on such terms, still it would be of no avail, as there is a further barrier interposed between the public and these defaulters, namely, the supreme court of the union, whose province it would be to determine the constitutionality of any law that may be controverted; and supposing no bribery or corrupt influence practised on the bench of judges, it would be their sworn duty to refuse their sanction to laws made in the face and contrary to the letter and spirit of the constitution, as any law to compel the settlement of accounts and payment of monies depending and due under the old confederation would be. The 1st section of 3d article gives the supreme court cognizance of not only the laws, but of all cases arising under the constitution, which empowers this tribunal to decide upon the construction of the constitution itself in the last resort. This is so extraordinary, so unprecedented an authority, that the intention in vesting of it must have been to put it out of the power of Congress, even by breaking through the constitution, to compel these defaulters to restore the public treasure.
In the present circumstances these sections of the new constitution would be also productive of great injustice between the respective states; the delinquent states would be exonerated from all existing demands against them on account of the great arrearages of former requisitions, as they could not be constitutionally compelled to discharge them. And as the majority of the states are in this predicament, and have an equal voice in the senate, it would be their interest, and in their power by not only the constitution, but by a superiority of votes to prevent the levying of such arrearages; besides, the constitution, moreover, declares, that all taxes, &c. shall be uniform throughout the United States; which is an additional obstacle against noticing them.
The state of Pennsylvania in such case, would have no credit for her extraordinary exertions and punctuality heretofore; but would be taxed equally with those states which, for years past, have not contributed any thing to the common expences of the union; indeed, some of the states have paid nothing since the revolution.
Philadelphia, 23d February, 1788.
(a) Article VI. "The senators and representatives before mentioned and the members of the several state legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several states, shall be bound by oath to support this constitution." Were ever public defaulters so effectually skreened! Not only the administrators of the general government, but also of the state governments, are prevented by oath from doing justice to the public; and the legislature of Pennsylvania could not without perjury insist upon the delinquent states discharging their arrears.

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