The History of New York State
Book XII, Chapter 2, Part 2

Editor, Dr. James Sullivan

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Pam

 

 The Tory Menace--The military situation was brightening. The surrender of Burgoyne occurred on the very next day after Kingston had been burned, Sir Henry Clinton's efforts thus coming to naught. But there was still much of grave import perplexing the republican leaders in New York State. "Of all the colonies," wrote William Jay, #5 "New York was probably the least unanimous in the assertion and defense of the principles of the Revolution." Tories seemed to be everywhere, some openly loyal to the Crown and others working in secret against their own State--or Province, as they chose to think of it. At least one county, by formal vote, had declared itself neutral.

Such a situation could not be tolerated. Stern measures were necessary; and it seemed that in Governor Clinton the State possessed the man to direct such measures. Early in his career he had declared that he would "rather roast in hell to all eternity than be dependent upon Great Britain or show mercy to a damned Tory." The members of the Council of Safety were just as keenly aware of the dangers and difficulties that arose from this Tory opposition. They felt that the Legislature should be convened as soon as possible to deal with this and other grave matters of State. On November 21 they sent a committee to confer with the Governor as to the advisability "of putting an end to the sessions of the Council, either by calling the Legislature of this State or a convention thereof." Clinton was then at New Windsor, and, to suit his convenience, it was decided that the Legislature should convene at Poughkeepsie, then a town of 1,500 to 2,000 inhabitants. On December 15, 1777, proclamation was issued, convening the legislature at Poughkeepsie on January 5 following. The Committee of Safety met daily in this place from December 22 to January 7, when it handed back its authority to the legislature, which at that time was sitting as a convention. A quorum of both houses was not secured until January 24, but on January 15 the legislature resumed the session which had been interrupted at Kingston. They met in the Van Kleeck mansion, which had been used as a tavern. The Legislature was in session at Poughkeepsie until April 4, and reconvened at the same place on June 22, 1778. Adjournment, sine die, was, however, taken on June 30, 1778. #6 Thereafter, until 1797, the venue of meetings of the Legislature altered, somewhat irregularly, between Poughkeepsie, Albany, Kingston, and New York City. The second half of the Twentieth Session opened on January 3, 1797, at Albany, which city has ever since been the Legislative center.

No laws were passed in the 1777 session at Kingston. The first statute of the State of New York bears the date of February 6, 1778. It was the act of ratification of "the proposed Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union between the United States of America." By this measure the delegates of New York were authorized to sign the Articles, with the reservation, however, that ratification and signature would not become valid until the last of the thirteen States had subscribed to the Articles. #7 The other major legislations enacted at the first session at Poughkeepsie, I 1778, were: Chapter XII, on March 16, providing for the more complete organization of the State departments; Chapter XVI, on March 27, designating the third Tuesday of April as the general election day; #8 Chapter XVII, on March 28, the necessary finance bill; #9 Chapter XXVI, on April 1, providing for a State Treasurer; chapter XXXIII, on April 3, a general militia law. It is interesting to note that the Council of Revision vetoed the election and finance bills, but that both were promptly repassed over their veto.

The patriots of New York State had up to this time been classed as of one Party. It is true that some were conservative and others radical; and that class distinctions were at times unpleasantly evident; but, in differentiating between the two political classes of the new York populace, the patriots were all generally looked upon as Whigs, and those who adhered to the Crown were known as loyalists. They were, of course, the detested Tories. It was in devising ways of overcoming the Tory menace that the patriots of republican New York gradually divided into two political parties. The constitution called for swearing of an oath of allegiance to the State; and the vigorous enforcement of this requirement caused many of the country gentry, who were Crown adherents, to seek refuge in Canada, in England, or at least within the British lines in New York. Others were compelled to give bond that they would remain within certain prescribed limits. Governor Clinton undoubtedly advocated the strongest measures of repression, with heavy fines, long imprisonments, summary banishments, and in many cases coats of tar and feathers. In the first period of revolutionary excitement there were not sufficient jails in New York State to hold all the imprisoned Tories, not even when churches were turned into jails. As the war progressed and feelings became more sensitive in the mourning of loved ones, and the pinch of wartime poverty, Republicans demanded the forfeiture and sale of the estates of person who had adhered to the enemy."

When this feeling was at its height, the Confiscation Act of 1779 was passed. It was then that the schism among patriots was most evident, some sincere Republicans feeling that a more moderate policy toward Loyalists would be more advantageous, eventually, to the State. Many of the most desirable citizens had either been banished or had fled from New York. They would be needed, after peace came. The extreme Whigs on the contrary, felt that the State would be better without those who were disloyal to her when she most needed loyal sons.

The Moderates were supported by an important political body, for just as the Council for Revision had, in 1778, vetoed the election bill, because it showed extreme partisan bias, being aimed to prevent Tories from taking any part in State government, #10 so did the Council disapprove of the Confiscation Act, "because it forfeited the real property belonging on July 9, 1776, to inhabitants or subjects of Great Britain, a proceeding repugnant to justice, inviting reprisals and capable of much abuse." Unlike the election measure of 1778, the confiscation Act was not reenacted over the Council's veto. This demonstrated that the strength of the Moderates in the Legislature was increasing.

State Sovereignty--This division of patriots became more pronounced in 1781, when there came into the politics of New York another and more fundamental issue. New York by this time had become comparatively sure of its independence of the British King and government. Whether she could remain independent of the central republican government that she had helped to set up was a more doubtful proposition then before her. The independent sovereignty of the State of New York--independent not only of the central government, but also of the other States that made up the National confederation--seemed to be a matter of the utmost importance to New York. Some of the leaders were not very apprehensive, but others emphatically protested against encroachment by the National government upon the sovereign rights of the State. It is, therefore, somewhat surprising to learn that in 1781 a legislative grant was made to congress of such import duties as accrued at the port of new York, these to be levied and collected by Federal officers. Governor Clinton viewed the act with foreboding when passed, and, when the National coffers began to receive appreciable aid from this revenue, he became more outspoken in opposing the method of its surrender. Clinton was not alone in declaring that these revenues should belong to the State of New York, even though the imports of other States came to her ports. Very many New Yorkers were of the same mind. They thought New York was independent of all other States and should remain so. True, the Articles of confederation bound all to the central government, but this, in the opinion of Clinton and his followers, was merely a defensive alliance, "for mutual protection, and not for their support." While New York State would willingly bear her just share of the cost of adequately maintaining the Federal Government, they preferred that such contribution should be by direct grant. They did not like the thought of Federal officials entering her departments and helping themselves.

So thinking, the New York Legislature substituted for the law of 1781 the act of March, 1783, which granted the duties to congress, but provided for their collections by officers of the State. Congress countered, in April, 1783, by recommending all Sates to grant the Federal Government full privilege and freedom for twenty-five years. The National treasury was so helplessly embarrassed at the time that Congress represented such privilege to be "indispensably necessary to the public credit and to the punctual and honorable discharge of public debts." However, the National government did not object to the customs duties being collected by State agents, provided they were "amenable to and removable by Congress." New York did not like this plan, but was willing to empower Congress to prosecute State collectors in State courts for neglect of duty. Congress insisted upon a uniform system, and pointed out that New York was the only state that had not adopted their recommendations, in this respect.

To discerning New Yorkers, this argument was not convincing. Except that the plan affected the sovereign rights of all States alike, the case of New York was different. No other State was asked to sacrifice so much. By the treaty of peace, New York had become the port of entry for the whole region east of the Delaware river, "and into its coffers poured a revenue so marvellous as to excite hopes of a prospective wealth which a century, remarkable as was its productiveness, did little more than realize." #11 If any State could sand alone, New York could. It was this realization, perhaps, that developed new York's opposition, in general, to the Federal government, and her reluctant adoption of the customs recommendations of Congress.

Clinton had the majority of the people behind him, but he, nevertheless, began to realize that the strength of the opposition party was becoming more and more appreciable. In August, 1786, Congress recommended to Governor Clinton that he call a special session of the New York legislature to consider the Federal recommendations. Clinton would not do so; and when the regular session opened in January, 1787G the governor, in his address, referred to the question in only a non-committal way, "as something deserving of attention." The State was still loyal to Clinton and, notwithstanding considerable opposition, the House, in April, 1787, enacted a new customs law which still echoed the Clinton theory. Although the whole of the revenue would reach Federal coffers, by grant, New York would preserve its own independent sovereignty by collecting the impost herself. Congress demurred, and New York continued to be of controversial mind; so the question remained undecided until the State adopted the Constitution of the United States.

Alexander Hamilton--The opposition to Clinton was increasing all the while, and Governor had to recognize that it was as stubborn as it was persistent. Eventually, he had to recognize that the center of this opposing faction was a young man who was advancing as rapidly in politics as he had been in military activities during the Revolution. Alexander Hamilton was not of major age at the time of the first election in New York State, and his name, therefore, is not encountered in the committees and conventions that set the principles of State government in the former province. At that time, Hamilton was closer to the National forces than to the State. As secretary, aide and confidant of General Washington, the young man was giving valuable service to the American cause, and, so, was no doubt drawn more and more into the habit of applying broad National arguments to questions of State government. Maybe, the magnetic influence of Washington was the factor that held Hamilton's thoughts in National, rather than in State, channels. He loved and admired his commander-on-chief, and the latter esteemed his aide. This mutual respect drew them into closer and longer military association, perhaps, than would otherwise have been the case, for, in truth, Hamilton was not a soldier, even though, at Yorktown, he commanded a corps with such effectiveness, such utter disregard for his own life, that Washington could not withhold his own opinion. "Few cases have exhibited greater proofs of intrepidity, coolness, and firmness," he said. Hamilton was by nature more inclined to the study of government than of arms. As an undergraduate, in 1774, he had voiced somewhat radical theories, but as the war progressed he had more than once made recommendations that were broad and moderate as well as logical and sound. After Yorktown, he had taken up the study of law in Albany, and in the summer of 1782, had been admitted to practice. Setting in New York City for law practice, Hamilton very soon came into notice. It cannot be said that he came into favorable popular notice, for he directly opposed the popular sentiment by defending the rights of Tories. He pitied them, and his great heart impelled him to rush to their defence. They sorely needed a board-minded defender. Consternation among the Loyalists was extreme after the signing of peace. Thousands had taken refuge behind the British lines in New York City. Many of these were churchmen, clergymen of the Church of England. Very many of the Loyalists were formerly men of substantial means, leading colonists, drawn mostly from the cultured class. But all were obnoxious to the average patriot, and they dreaded to remain in New York after the British troops evacuated the city. Clinton was so bitter, the populace so incensed, and the future so ominous that most of the Loyalists preferred to depart with, or before, the British, in November, 1783. Carleton, the British commander, estimated that 100,000 emigrated. They were not all former New Yorkers, but a considerable number of them were. It was futile for moderate citizens to point out that the banishment of these capable Loyalists must inevitably impoverish the State, inasmuch as the prosperity of a State depends largely upon the productiveness of its people. No argument could remove the taint, no consideration halt the ultra Whigs, to change their determination to drive the traitorous element of our country.

Such was the attitude of the majority of the patriots of New York in 1782, when Hamilton entered the courts and defended Tories. To so flout the impassioned will of the people called for courage as well as strength of conviction. He must point his little ship into the teeth of the gale of popular resentment. Hamilton was not alone, of course; there were other very able leaders of the conservative faction. Jay's patriotism advocated tolerance in dealing with Tories. They were, as he in truth saw, men of strong conviction, as honest and courageous, as sincere in heart, in clinging to what they believed to be right, as patriots were in fighting for principles which they held dear. In the face of a desperate and angry State government, the Loyalists had held unflinchingly to their British allegiance; and, when peace and calmer feelings prevailed, they could serve the State just as successfully as they had the Province. But Whigs of Clinton's type would not concede this.

Gradually, however, Hamilton and others changed public opinion. They seemed even to change Clinton's, though not so much on the question of Tories as on that of supporting the Federal government. From about 1780 Hamilton had been a factor of some weight in legislative matters in New York. He did not have a seat in the New York Assembly until 1787, but in the mater of the impost duties at the port of New York, his arguments in favor of the Federal government's right to benefit in this way, and to have all cooperation possible from New York and allied Commonwealths in the strengthening of the National organization, caused Clinton more trouble than perhaps he cared to admit. At times, the Governor, in the face of this growing sentiment, had to exercise the tactfulness of a politician, although in the actual legislation it is clear that there was little harmony between Hamilton and himself. Hamilton may not have been as thoroughly democratic inspirit as Clinton, but once, in deprecating extreme measures such as Clinton advocated against Tories, he adroitly appropriated principle with which even the most ardent Democrat was in accord. "Nothing is more common," he observed, "than for a free people in times of heat and violence to gratify momentary passions by letting in principles and precedents which afterwards prove fatal to themselves. If the legislature can disfranchise at pleasure, it may soon confine all the votes to a small number of partisans, and establish an aristocracy or an oligarchy; if it may banish at discretion, without hearing or trial, no man can be safe. The name of liberty applied to such a government would be a mockery of common sense." #12 But, however much the New York Republicans were in accord with such principles, it was long before they could bring themselves to apply true democratic liberty to the attainted Tories.

Hamilton's task of harmonizing the relationship of the Nation to the State seemed at first to be easier, for it brought him the support of Clinton. The latter addressed the Fourth Session of the State legislature in 1780, pointing out that the "embarrassments on the prosecution of the war" were mainly to be attributed to a defect in the power "in those who ought to exercise a supreme direction." He echoed Hamilton's plea for a stronger central government, but the war was not then over, and Clinton may have thought only of military power. He was more ambiguous in his utterances after peace had come. New York then seemed to have an almost paramount place among the commonwealths. He had not disapproved of the action of the State legislature of New York, in 1782, in instructing its representative--Alexander Hamilton--in the National Congress to advocate the holding of a general convention of the States "to revise the National Constitution." Furthermore, Clinton's address #13 on January 21, 1784, seemed to mean that the cordially approved Washington's appeal for a stronger federal government, Clinton said:

Viewing the blessings we now enjoy as effects flowing from our union, you cannot but be attentive to every measure which has a tendency to cement it, and to give that energy to our national councils which maybe necessary to the general welfare.

At the same time, when these measures threatened to, in any way, encroach upon the sovereign rights of New York, Clinton's actions showed that he was out of harmony with both Hamilton and the National body. In 1786, congress called a convention of States, to consider matters pertaining to National trade. Commissioners from New York, New jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Virginia, assembled at Annapolis. Hamilton and Egbert Benson represented New York State, and Hamilton wrote the address which declared the Federal government 'to be inefficient, and proposed a convention o revise the Articles of Confederation." These resolutions were adopted. They were identical, inspirit, with those which the New York Legislature had unanimously favored in 1782; yet, when these resolutions were referred back to them by the Annapolis Convention of 1786, the State legislature, must to the surprise of Hamilton, flatly rejected them. The Governor's influence was seen. Although good for the Nation, any plan that tended to weaken the authority of New York State would be opposed by Clinton. As Hamilton summed up the opposition, "it meant disinclination to taxation, fear of the enforcement of debts, democratic jealousy of important officials, and the influence of foreign powers." #14

The movement for devising a more satisfactory central government could not, however, be stayed. It was vital and imperatively necessary for all States. The political chaos of the post-war years could not continue without disaster to all. There existed, in fact, hardly any central government. Congress was "merely a board of delegates, whose decisions were disregarded, representing a league of States, not an independent authority." There was no Chief Executive, no court of National judges, no defined Legislature. "If one state came into collision with another, there was no tribunal to settle the difficulty." There was no supervision of industries, the Nation had no commercial treaties to foster trade. If opposed by the States, the central government could not act in matters of army, navy, tariffs, revenue, postal service, regulations of commerce, and other governmental acts that should properly be its responsibility. The situation was not appreciably better in 1786 than it had been when the war ended. Then, as Dr. Lord sums up the situation, #15 there was "no central power, no constitution, no government, with poverty, agricultural distress, and uncertainty, and the prostration of all business; no National credit, no National eclat--a mass of rude, unconnected and anarchic forces threatening to engulf us in worse evils than those from which we had fled."

There was difficult work still ahead for Hamilton and others who would place America first. Patriotism at that time did not, inmost men, extend beyond State limits. The average former-colonist who took active part in public affairs was a politician rather than statesman. He would curry favor and snatch at opportunity in his own constituency, but saw only disadvantage to himself in thinking Nationally. On the other hand, a man of Hamilton's type could merge his personal ambitions in the good of his country, could bring broad perspective to bear on questions which the politician could not see beyond the limits of his own locality. Of course, all State legislators were not narrow, but very many clung tenaciously to their local prejudices, thereby continuing provincial jealousies which should have been swept away by the common union of colonies during Revolutionary days. However, the fired passions of wartime could not forever retain heat. The resentments of the early postwar years were gradually losing their smarting edge. The average citizen was gradually becoming more moderate and logical, even though local politicians were vehemently prodding them with selfish ideas of States rights. More and more of the thinking men were realizing that the National problem must be faced broadly.

As a member, Alexander Hamilton made his fist appearance in the State Legislature in 1787. He did not sway the House appreciably, for although the Legislature, which in the previous year had rejected the Annapolis convention resolutions, now passed a joint resolution instructing the New York representative in Congress to urge that another National convention be held, the local politicians had suffered no change of heart. Their jealous care of the State would continue. State interests must be paramount. They would authorize the delegates from New York to consider only a revision of the Articles of Confederation. They did not want to merge New York State in a United States.

The Governor would not willingly sacrifice to the nation any New York State right. He was willing that Hamilton should be one of the New York delegate, for he had confidence in the other two delegates, Robert Yates and John Lansing, Jr., they, he knew, were of his mind; were ardent supports of States rights, and would oppose any suggestion to place State sovereignty in subservience to National interests. That all three delegates had been explicitly commissioned "for the sole purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation: must, of course, have been as obvious to Hamilton as to the other delegates; nevertheless, Clinton can hardly have had any doubt as to the attitude Hamilton would take. Ever since 1782, when, in a memorable case, Hamilton, a fledgling lawyer, had grappled with the question "whether the authority of Congress and the law of Nations, or the law of a State Legislature, should have the ascendancy." and had so brilliantly presented the case for the Federal government that even a State court had had to concede his point, Hamilton had not wavered. Although a loyal New Yorker, he was first of all an American, and Clinton probably knew that, in the National convention, Hamilton would steer a course of his own, would follow his own convictions, despite any instructions of Governor or Legislature. Knowing this, and knowing that the Governor could have prevented the naming of Hamilton, it is not easy to explain why Clinton permitted him to be commissioned. Maybe, the Governor felt that Hamilton, so young in statecraft--or to be truer, so young a statesman--would have little power among the great, shrewd, experienced men of acknowledged political prestige who would gather from all States. Perhaps, Clinton thinking in majorities, as is the way of the politicians, rested easy in the surety that Hamilton's fellow-delegates from New York would undeviatingly follow the course the Governor, himself, had charted. They did so, of course. As the convention records show, when the so-called Jersey plan was rejected in favor of the Virginia plan--which favored a National government, with an executive legislature and judiciary of its own--Yates and Lansing looked up it was so flagrant a violation of their instructions that they withdrew from the convention and refused to sign the Constitution.

Many times during the four months of the convention Clinton must have regretted that he had permitted Hamilton to become a delegate, for in this supreme effort the young New York lawyer rose to heights of statesmanship which surprised even his most intimate friends. Hamilton did not enter the convention politically unknown and emerge as the peerless American statesman. He had long since "won his spurs." His record was a distinguished one, but he was not the most distinguished delegate, nor the most popular. His aristocratic sympathies, and his respect for the British constitution, chilled many acquaintanceships that might have ripened into admiring friendships, for most men saw the elements of greatness in him. T the close of the convention, many would have frankly admitted that Hamilton was 'probably the ablest man of the convention, the most original and creative in his genius, the most comprehensive and far-seeing in his views--a man who inspired confidence and respect for his integrity and patriotism, combining intellectual with moral force." #16 Guizot, the great French statesman and historian, judging Hamilton by his work in this convent, asserted that "he must ever be classed among the men who have best understood the vital principles and elemental conditions of government; and that there is not in the Constitution of the United States an element of order, or force, or duration which he did not powerfully contribute to secure." Yates and Lansing remained faithful to their instructions and their State, but Hamilton was in the forefront with those who made the American Constitution. He did not carry all his points. For instance, he favored continuing a president and Senate during good behavior--to all intents for life; and he would give the Federal government power to appoint Governors of State, and also the right to veto State legislation. In the compromises that were made, there is no doubt that the efforts of Hamilton, his logic, and eloquence, helped to light, or keep lit, in the delegates the spirit of patriotism in Nationalism, making then see that National unity with harmony were vital paramount considerations. The ablest debater in the convention was Hamilton. Early in the deliberations, he impressed members with his idea of liberty. Liberty, he said, was found "neither in the rule of a few aristocrats, now in extreme democracy." Democracies had proved more short-lived then aristocracies, as illustrated in Greece, Rome and England. Demagogues came in with extreme democracies. Government controlled by unlettered men would be narrow, blind, crude. To endure, a government must be both just and enlightened. To place suffrage in the hands of illiterate men would be "a dangerous experiment." Government, in other words, should be directed by men of experience, be they aristocratic or democratic. The local demagogue must have no power. States, even, must give way when the wise men of the country decide upon a course which they, in their experience, know to be best for the Nation.

These were Hamilton's views, fearlessly and convincingly stated in that convention which held so many men of democratic principles. These views were not mere political platitudes; they were Hamilton's rules of conduct. Had he failed to support Madison's plan, after it had become clear that the convention would not go all the way to his, Hamilton might be classed with demagogues, himself. Possibly, he did not think, with Winthrop, that the adopted Constitution, with its checks and balances, was "like one of those rocking-stones reared by the Druids, which he finger of a child may vibrate to its center, yet which the might of an army cannot move from its place"; indeed, Hamilton saw many flaws, or at least weaknesses in it, but he nevertheless cordially supported Madison's plan, and his part in the great achievement was well recognized by the convention. Although Hamilton could not cast New York's vote, inasmuch as a majority of the State's representatives had withdrawn, he was privileged to sign the immortal instrument which laid the bases of our national government; and he did not hesitate to do so.

He was, of course, well aware that he would thereby incur local disfavor;; yet, the glorious satisfaction of contributing to the completion of the National structure was all that counted with Hamilton for the moment. When he returned to New York, however, he had to face positive popular disfavor. Clinton did not now veil his words. He openly declared "that no good was to be expected from the . . . . deliberations of this body; hat the country would be thrown into confusion by the measure." He accused Hamilton of disloyalty; accused him to his face, in fact; and in many other ways tried to discredit the young and brilliant Constitution-maker.

Hamilton cared little for himself, but he felt that the New York Governor's activities might place the National scheme in grave peril. Certainly, a majority of the people of the State condemned Hamilton, because of his convention record. "You will find yourself in a hornets' nest," dolefully remarked a friend,. Richard Morris; and this animosity, of course, could not be interpreted otherwise than as opposition to the proposed Constitution.

 

The History of New York State, Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc., 1927

This book is owned by Pam Rietsch and is a part of the Mardos Memorial Library

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

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