The History of New York State
Book XI, Chapter 3, Part 1

Editor, Dr. James Sullivan

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Pam

 

POLITICS IN NEW YORK STATE
Federal Period to 1800

Federal Constitution Ratified--To become effective, the Constitution of the United States would require the assent of nine of the thirteen States--a result had to achieve, thought many well-informed public men. At best, the local legislatures were still local in perspective, and some of the larger States like Virginia, New York, and Massachusetts, had been at all times suspicious of a central government. The draft of the Constitution was submitted to New York on September 28, 1787. Immediately discussions began--not only in the Legislature. The average citizen was then perhaps more interested in politics than any later generation has been. Politics was the universal study. True, in most cases, it was merely local politics that interested, but such was the studious trend of the average patriot. It was an age in which light reading had little place. Newspaper editors carefully preserved their few columns for the more serious items of news. An observing Frenchman, the Comte de Segur, who traveled through the colonies at that time, found to his surprise that the average former colonist was a well-read man--at least, in one class of reading. "Even the servants read the newspapers," remarked one observer. "Yes, and understand them, too," added another. "All classes of the community talked politics, in season, and out of season." "A brief perusal of the 'Centinel' or the 'Gazette' will show the modern reader that out ancestors read with avidity essays, constitutional arguments, histories of trade, summaries of English and colonial legislation." #1 Yet, withal, the ignorance of the average ex-colonist of the affairs of other colonies was colossal. "Outside of trade, the American cared only for politics; outside of the local politics of his own community, he understood little, though ready to discuss anything with anybody." #2

It was just this common characteristic that brought Hamilton into such openly expressed condemnation; and the very characteristic hunger for political literature eventually enabled Hamilton to win the fight to secure the ratification of the Constitution. When the draft of the Constitution became known in New York, riots even occurred. It became the sole topic of discussion--in the tavern, in the highways and byways, in home, church, anywhere, everywhere. It was denounced as the "triple-headed monster," and declared to be "as deep and wicked a conspiracy as ever was invent in the darkest ages against the liberties of a free people." This enormity seemed to all for the rallying once again of the citizens' bodies of early revolutionary times--for organizing Committees of Correspondence and units of the Sons of Liberty. The opposition--which, it is said, numbered four-seventh of the community--did actually form such a society and begin to correspond with leading radicals of other States. This political party came to be known as Federal Republicans, and my be looked upon as the "first political part to be regularly organized in the State." #3 The time was exciting. Rising passions were parting friends, were leading them to blows. "All the old alarm about liberty was now revived, and all the elements of anarchy and repudiation which had been growing so strong for twenty years were arrayed in hostility." #4

Political lines were now clearly drawn. In New York State Clinton headed on party, and Hamilton the other. In all the thirteen colonies, no man was so bitterly opposed to the Constitution as Clinton, it is said. It is doubtful whether any man in all the thirteen ex-colonies had such effective part as Hamilton in bringing public opinion to favor the Constitution. The Governor followed the old lines of political strategy, but Hamilton, with younger, clearer vision, saw a much more promising medium. In that contemplative age, Hamilton could reach the people better by pamphleting then by any other method. Literature, which in these days of cinema, radio and "best seller" would not be even read by one out of fifty voters, or if read would not be assimilated by one in a hundred, was sure of both welcome and study in the average patriot's home. Hamilton knew that, at bottom, the average patriot was both profound and lofty, that the average reader was more impressible by grand sentiments than by selfish hard facts; and he resolved to sir again in them the noble sentiments that had been slumbering since they had risked their lives to secure liberty for their posterity. Hence it happened that Hamilton, and Jay, and Madison took up their pens and wrote he serious political essays which have ever since been a text-book in our colleges--the best interpreter of the Constitution itself. Hamilton wrote sixty-three of the eighty-five celebrated papers which go under the name of "the Federalist." Jay and Madison wrote the others. All were clear, logical and matter-of-fact, but, at the same time, were inspiring, ennobling. Hamilton's were especially so. They were effective. They moulded the opinions of the thinking citizens of the day just as surely as they were destined to mould the opinions of the greatest American statesmen in later days. In genius and ability, the "Federalist" papers have been paced besides Montesquieu's "Spirit of Laws." These Hamilton-Hay-Madison papers were published in a leading New York paper which had a wide circulation. They had more effect in New York and neighboring States than any other effort; indeed, its is doubtful whether the Constitution would have ever become valid by ratification, had it not been for these literary efforts of Hamilton, Jay, and Madison. They won not only New York, but other States as well.

Four States has accepted the Constitution and three others were considering it by January, 1788, when the new York Legislature convened. Notwithstanding the political turmoil of the last few months, Governor Clinton, in his address, almost ignored the subject of ratification. He was shrewd, an able politician, and hoped that time would be with him. If nine States should ratify the federal constitution before New York acted the Union would be an accomplished fact. New York then might remain unpledged, until the future showed the federal union to be a success. Clinton preferred that New York should remain an independent State until that time--and forever in case the experiment should fail.

However, Egbert Benson, a member from Dutchess County, moved a resolution to call a State convention to consider the federal constitution. The struggle was keen State Legislature. Accordingly, sixty-one delegates met in convention in the courthouse in Poughkeepsie on June 17, 1788. The fight was by no means won. Indeed, the federalists saw a great struggle ahead, for two-thirds of the assembled delegates were aligned with Clinton. As Governor, he came naturally into presiding office in the convention, and although this office hampered him in debate, Clinton was the most powerful factor of the negative faction. The active debating leader of the opposition of Melancthon Smith, but others of prominent notice on that side included Robert Yates, Samuel Jones, and John Lansing, Jr. The protagonists were, of course, led by Hamilton, but other brilliant and determined publicists at his wide included John Jay, Robert R. Livingston, James Duane, Richard Morris, John Sloss Hobart, and Richard Harrison.

The outstanding figure of the convention was Hamilton, whose eloquence was so impressive "that at times there was not a dry eye in the Assembly" #5 His logic also made mental arguments, so stirring his appeals that many of the delegates were, momentarily, ashamed of their selfish localism. Patriotism to the Nation became inseparable from loyalty to the State in the minds of many delegates who had entered the convention seeing only State sovereignty. Hamilton converted even Melancthon smith, who had been his most troublesome opponent during the first month of the deliberations. He showed that even in the most material matters the State could not live if the Union failed. The Great Federalist, who later made the stabilization of the Nation's finances his especial care, the miracle-worker who "touched the dead corpse of the public credit and it sprang to its feet," now seemed as deeply concerned over the public debt of the State. Solvency to Hamilton was as precious as liberty; in fact insolvency could lead only to dependency, destroying liberty. Yet, at that very moment, when it was very generally thought that the independence fought for had been finally won, insolvency was gravely threatening the liberty of both State and Nation. New York could not escape the fate of the Nation which was being dashed by a cruel surf of worthless currency emissions upon the jagged rocks of bankruptcy. Hamilton knew that the sun could not shine upon them through dark clouds. Everyone knew it, but could not realize it.

The heroic platitudes of pre-Revolutionary days would not appease creditors. The more heroic sacrifices of the dark days of war would not suffice. A bankrupt can enjoy no credit; he also loses his self-respect. Worse still, others lose respect for him. Confidence could not come by repudiation; neither could prosperity. Hard ash comes by hard sacrifice in genuine industry. He product of the currency presses could do no more than bury the shirker deeper Confidence in others cannot be instilled by the shirker whose evasions lower his self-respect. Addressing the delegates, Hamilton said; "It is a fact that should strike us with shame, that we are obliged to borrow money in order to pay the interest of our debt. It is a fact that these debts are accumulating every day by compound interest." The financial requirements of the Nation were properly the liabilities of the States and to seek to shirk this responsibly was not only dishonorable; it was suicidal.

Attacking him point by point for a month, Melancthon Smith faced Hamilton. Smith emphasized the wealth and potentialities of New York. He protested against the surrender of her natural resources to establish the Union. New York could stand alone. At all events, too much was asked of her. To join the Union would cost New York far more than it would any other State.

The debate went on, with ratification seemingly no neared on July 11, than it had been in the first days. Many amendments were offered, one to the effect that no President of the United States should have a third term of office. Delay after delay occurred, and all the eloquence and logic of the protagonists seemed but to add to the delay. Clinton seemed to be so strongly entrenched that nothing could dislodge him.

The Federalists in convention were becoming impatient. Hope was fading, enthusiasm flagging. Indeed, they, in common with Federalist in other States, were becoming alarmed over the protracted deliberations. Throughout the country, Federalists were looking toward New York, longing for decisive action. Even if won, they recognized that the Union could function only with difficulty without New York, which, geographically, cut the other United States in twain. So situated, the future would be precarious, disunion would be more than a possibly, civil war even might result. With these thoughts before them, Hamilton and his supports were not now disinclined to gain even a conditional ratification. So, on July 11, Jay moved that "the Constitution be ratified, and that whatever amendments might be deemed expedient, should be recommended." The opposition, however, tabled this motion; they deprecated unseemly hate on such a vital issue.

Other forces, however, were moving; events which were to set the anti-Federalists of the new York convention thinking more profoundly than a dozen Hamiltons could have prodded them into. A courier arrived from New Hampshire bearing the news that the ninth State has ratified the Constitution. Regardless of New York, therefore, the fight was over. The Constitution was valid. The Union had entity, even without New York.

Knowing the Clinton strategy, the reader might suppose that Clinton was delighted with this disposition of the matter. He may have been, had not another spectre loomed ominously before him about the same time. He, who ha few weeks before had been so confident that New York could stand alone, now found that the independent house he had been building had somewhat weak foundations. New from Virginia that Patrick Henry had been defeated and a threat from the southern counties of his own State brought to Clinton the uneasy thought that New York State might soon become quite an unimportant political unit, instead of the powerful independent State he has supposed she always could be. Suppose New York City and the southern counties, in their desire to join the Union, should secede even from their own State, what would remain of the great State of which he had been Governor for more than a decade? Little but wild, sparsely-settled territory. There were then not half a dozen settlers in the little lakeside hamlet which was to become Buffalo. Albany was almost a frontier post. Vermont has shown the way to secession, and though this northerly part of New York was remote and comparatively unimportant, the lesson was there. If the rich and populous southern counties should follow the Vermont example, the great commonwealth of which Clinton had been the head since its birth would shrink into comparative insignificance. This thought disturbed the Governor. The conversion of Melancthon Smith to the Federalist side a few days later jolted him even more roughly. Clinton's political house was fast losing its strong pillars. Prompt pinning, by compromise, was necessary, lest, during this constitutional storm, it collapse together. His house might be made strong again, after the storm ha subsided. So, finally, on July 28, upon the advice of Governor Clinton, enough of the anti-Federalists voted for conditional ratification to carry Jay's motion, which was changed to read; "that the Constitution be ratified in full confidence that the amendments proposed by this convention will be adopted." In confidence was milder than provided; the words could be differently construed. The Federalists might take the ratification by new York to be unconditional, and the anti-Federalists might find consolation in the belief that in the words in confidence New York still had a way out of the Union, in case of need. So the great convention upon which so much depended, came to an end. Clinton refused to vote. Three others also failed to vote, but of the remaining fifty-seven delegates, thirty voted for ratification.

Clinton had been too long in almost unchallenged power to be able to take this, his first serious defeat, calmly. That, with ratification, his own status had changed from that of "elected sovereign of an independent State" to that of administrator of only one of the political divisions of a Nation, over which a President was to have the supreme authority, was a thought that would hardly arouse enthusiasm in New York's Governor. Maybe this selfish thought did not come to Clinton; maybe loyalty to his State was the fundamental ever paramount in his mind. Clinton had been so great and useful to his State informer years that one ought not, perhaps, to analyze his actions too closely, in search for selfish motives. Nevertheless, the thought comes that Clinton's attitude on the vital question of the relationship of state to nation was narrow; and, as we can now see, after 150 years of the republic, his theories, if followed, could have been harmful to the State of New York, probably to the United States also. Clinton was a worthy patriot, a great New Yorker--so outstanding indeed that he, a generation later, was chosen as one of the two whose memory the national Congress wish to honor, and perpetuate by statue, as the most representative New Yorkers of the Revolutionary period. (The other was Robert R. Livingston, New York's first chancellor.) Of course by that time Hamilton's fame has become national, international in fact. While Clinton's greatness was known only by those who were well versed in State politics, Hamilton's short but brilliant career was known to men of all States; his tragic end was deplored throughout the thinking world. Clinton's focus had not extended far beyond New York State; he therefore never had much more then local fame. On the other hand, Hamilton's mind had revolved around the Nation. His discerning genius had been concentrated upon the affairs of the Nation, without which the State could not prosper. And his achievements had long since prompted a grateful nation to accord him enshrined place in the national Hall of Fame. His efforts in this initial Constitutional matter was not the cause. Hamilton's part in the building of the constitutional basis of the Nation was notable--possibly the most conspicuous--but the Constitution was the work of many men, where the financial system which saved the Nation was the work of one man, himself. Working along, "as Michael Angelo working on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel," Hamilton showed genius equally as high. "The fabled birth of Minerva from the brain of Jupiter was hardly more sudden than the financial system of the United States as it burst from the conception of Alexander Hamilton." With quick sure strokes he drew the lines of a stable Nation, sketching on a clean national canvas with creative genius so marked that Americans and foreign nations were infused with the confidence he himself felt, and soon marvelled at the picture he completed. Maybe, Clinton and Hamilton should not be compared, because, although both were contemporary New Yorkers, and both great, Hamilton, in creative genius, was incomparable. However, they were such conspicuous clashing figures in the early political history of the State that comparison can hardly be avoided. The true measure of these two may well be gauged by the extent of their fame.

The war between them did not end with the ratification of the Constitution of the United States. Clinton, the veteran, did not then feel that he must succumb to the superior genius of Hamilton. The war between them was indeed hardly out of its initial stage, and Clinton was too seasoned a campaigner to become chilled by the first frosts of his political winter. To be beaten by so young a campaigner as Hamilton irritated the old Governor, but, after all, this was his first serious rebuff, and he was by no means spent. True, Hamilton had beaten Clinton on several points in earlier years--in defense of loyalists; in granting Congress the sole power to regulate commerce; and in the participation of New York in federal conventions. These were just autumn warnings. They did not carry the hint of coming winter that was suggested to Clinton by the smarting cross-winds of the ratification convention.

In carrying through the final legalities in connection with the ratified federal constitution, it seems as if Governor Clinton was influenced more by his personal animosities than by political apprehensions. He was still the most popular man in the state, and the convention result did not seem likely to unseat him. No other reason than personal spleen, therefore, seems to explain the ungracious manner in which Clinton, as Governor, dealt with the formalities connected with the ratified instrument. He permitted almost three months to pass by before called a special session of the Legislature to take action upon it and the date he set for the session meant a further two month of delay. When the Legislature did convene, in December, Clinton, while acquiescing in what had been done, urged New York to insist upon the adoption by the federal government of the amendments proposed. In a later message, he "expressed regret that he could not have called the legislature together in time to have it provide for the popular election of Presidential Electors." Because of this tardiness, and of the time consumed by Senate and Assembly in wrangling over the manner of election, New York State was unable to have any part in the first election of a president of the United States. Further disagreement between the legislative houses of the State prevented New York from being represented in the first session of the Untied States Congress. By these unfortunate happenings, whether Clinton wished it to be so or not,

the Nation was slighted, and the inference was conveyed to other member-States that New York, place little value on the federal experiment, and would be glad to be rid of the tie.

The same impression had not been conveyed by her conditional ratification of the Constitution, for, in justice to New York, it must be pointed out that other States also had submitted amendments when ratifying the Constitution. Two of New York's amendments were never accepted, but the others were not dissimilar to amendments suggested by other States. These, to all intents, constituted a Bill of Rights, and the federal government had to take notice of them. The first Congress, therefore, on September 25, 1789, resolved to submit ten amendments #6 of the Constitution to the members of the Union. This series of amendments was ratified by a sufficient number of States on, or before December 15, 1791, and so became part of the Constitution. #7 New York was the eleventh State to enter the Union, and the eighth to ratify the ten amendments.

The Federalists--Out of this Constitutional strife grew two distinct National political parties, Federalist and Anti-Federalist. In New York State, the latter party had a strong majority. Nevertheless, Hamilton and the other Federalist leaders were stimulated by the outcome of the convention. Notwithstanding that Clinton, at each triennial election since 1777, had been chosen Governor almost unchallenged, the Federalists were of the opinion that Clinton had lost ground in the Constitutional affray. Hamilton wished to carry the fight onto the governor's own heath. Clinton's right tot he Governorship should now be challenged.

To challenge the Governor would be easy; to defeat him hard. Recognizing this, the Federalist leaders had to travel along devious ways of political thought before they came to the way that promised success. Hamilton was the outstanding Federalist, but he was needed in the National Cabinet. In any event, even he did not thing the party could go on to success wit himself as standard-bearer. While Federalists recognized that the restrictive franchise, which gave only a limited class of freeholders the right to vote for a Governor, would favor them to an extent, inasmuch as many freeholders who had formerly supported Clinton would not now permit their opinion of him, "as a wise patriotic Governor," to outweigh their desire to see an out-and-out Federalist at the head of the State, the leaders did not think that sufficient votes could be won from Clinton in this way to defeat him. As the problem came nearer a solution, the Federalists, surprising as it may seem, were looking among the Anti-Federalist leaders for one around whom they also could rally. A coalition of Federalists with the moderate section of the Anti-Federalist seemed likely to augur well. Soon, some Federalists were persuading themselves that the Federalist cause might be safer on the hands of even a radical Anti-Federalist than in the care of a Governor of their own party.

All the Federalists did not follow this unusual line of reasoning. Especially in New York City, sentiment seemed to call for the nomination of Chief Justice Richard Morris for Governor. He typified the landed gentry of New York, "the dignified personages who supported knee breeches and silk stockings and displayed the delicate ruffles of a shirt under the folds of a rich velvet coat." Morris was of commanding presence and gentlemanly mien. His family had for generations been prominent in the province, and for generations had championed the cause of the people against the Crown. Chief Justice Morris, an enthusiastic supporter of the new Constitution, was a profound admirer of Hamilton. After listening for three house to Hamilton's speech at the Poughkeepsie convention, Morris had declared that it was; "the ablest argument and most patriotic address ever heard in the State of New York"; and now he was just as much influenced by Hamilton's arguments, even though they denied him the nomination. Hamilton's purpose was to defeat Clinton, and he pointed out that to support either Morris or Van Cortlandt would give opponents of the Constitution ground for asserting that the measure had had partisan motives and had not been actuated by a sincere "desire of relieving our country from the evils they experience from the heats of party." #8 Hamilton could never forsake National interests for partisan gain. Morris was just as unselfish in this instance, for he steeped aside, in favor of Judge Robert Yates.

Those who were not aware of Hamilton's motives might well have opened their eyes in surprise at this development, for although Judge Yates was generally esteemed, his political records indicated that he was one of the most stubborn Anti-Federalists. In everything he showed it. "He dressed like one and he talked like one." No man had seemed to echo Clinton's political party more clearly than he. In the Philadelphia convention of 1787, Yates has looked up the proposed Constitution as an affront to New York; had refused to sing it, and with Lansing had withdrawn from the convention. Again, in the Poughkeepsie convention, he had bitterly opposed ratification. "What Hamilton proposed Yates opposed; what Clinton advocated, Yates approved." Loyal to New York to the last, Yates voted against ratification. In all his history, this characteristic stand out. In Revolutionary years, he had been a most stubborn patriot, prepared to defend the interests of New York against all enemies, British or American.

The people did not realize that Robert Yates was first of all a judge. Law ruled his actions, justice his decisions. His impartiality was evident when, during the heat of the Clinton campaign to stamp out Toryism, Yates refused to convict men suspected of disloyalty, without proof. Even in the face of a legislative threat of impeachment, Yates has persisted in this attitude, thus manifesting sincerity as well as strength of character. When, with ratification, the Constitution of the United States had become the law of the Nation, approved by his own State as well as by others, Yates had made it clear that, in his judicial capacity, he would honor it. Indeed, in charging a grand jury, he said that "it would be little short of treason against the Republic to disobey it." #9 "Let me exhort you, gentlemen," ha said to the grand jury, "not only in your capacity as grand jurors, but in your more durable and equally respectable character as citizens, to preserve inviolate this charter of our National rights and safety, a charter second only indignity and importance to the Declaration of our Independence."

So the eyes of the great Federalist rested upon Robert Yates with unwavering confidence, and the coalition was effected. It is said, or rather, in the subsequent electioneering campaign which was marked by extreme bitterness, it was asserted by friends of Clinton, that Yates, upon the suggestion of Hamilton, he made this charge to the grand jury merely "to strengthen himself with the Federalists." Had Yates wished to gain their favor, however, it is quite obvious that he might have done so with effectiveness in the earlier conventions. So this aspersion may be dismissed. Hamilton w as a good judge of character. Yates at least was more consistent than Melancthon Smith, for although the latter had brought defeat to the Clinton party, by stepping over to the Federalist side in the last days of the convention which brought ratification, he was now again supporting Clinton. His explanation was that "men, not principles are involved.' Hamilton thought the reverse. The safeguarding of National principle came even before party. With the Federal experiment just in its first stumbling days, there was need of sympathetic governors and legislatures. If with Yates and the coalition, he could shake the Clinton grip of the Legislature and so prevent further manifestations of indifference to the National government--such as undoubtedly had been inferred by the failure of the last Legislature to send presidential electors and U. S. Senators--he would encourage the central government and stimulate National morale in his own and other States. this was Hamilton's unselfish purpose.

The coalition embraced many capable men. The shrewd Jay was perhaps Hamilton's chief counsellor, but Robert E. Livingston, New York's first chancellor, leader of the Livingston clan, was perhaps more powerful. He was still young, as bold and skillful in campaigning as he was scholarly and learned as a jurist. With Schuyler and Jay, he led the aristocrats of the State--at least, those politically active. A man of different type, but a distinct political factor, was William Duer. A generation older than Hamilton, Duer was at one time looked upon as "the most useful man in America." He was a pillar of strength to Federalism. Hamilton recognized his ability by making him his Assistant Secretary of the Treasury.

Aaron Burr--Another interesting development of the coalition was that which brought about the only instance of political association of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. As a matter of fact, Burr came into it more of our personal regard for the candidate. It appears that when Burr had south admission to the bar after reading law for only one year Judge Yates, to make this possible, had suspended the rule which required three years of legal study for admission. Yates, in suspending the rule, had taken heed of Burr's term as a soldier. This circumstance cemented a lasting friendship between the two--one of the few friendships Burr, the "grace, silent, strange sort of animal," as he described himself, ever made. Among the older active supports of Yates, in the gubernatorial campaign, was James Duane, a man of strong personality and noble character. He had been the first mayor of New York City, under State government, and for ten years has been on the Continental Congress.

 

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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