Ratification, celebration, fortification, condemnation, procreation.
For the Constitution to take effect, nine of thirteen states had to ratify it. By late May 1788, eight states had done so: Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, and South Carolina. Rhode Island had voted against the Constitution. New Hampshire had adjourned its convention in February, in the face of strong opposition to the Constitution. Its second convention, along with Virginia’s and New York’s conventions, were scheduled for June 1788.
On May 28, 1788, volume 2 of the Federalist Papers appeared. It included Hamilton’s essays 78-85, which had not previously been published. Beginning June 14, these latest essays appeared in newspapers, just in time to influence discussions at New York State’s convention.
The Federalist Papers, brilliant as they now seem, had failed to persuade a majority of the residents of New York State to support the Constitution. In Manhattan, businessmen and workers were convinced that a strong federal union would benefit them. Upstate, not so much. Of the delegates sent to Poughkeepsie for the ratification convention, 46 were opposed to the Constitution, and only 19 in favor.
Hamilton’s most frequent correspondent at this period was James Madison, one of his Federalist Papers co-authors, who was a delegate to the ratification convention in the enormously important state of Virginia. Hamilton wrote five letters to Madison in June and another four in July. (Search the Founders Archive for the complete list.) The letters are a reminder, if you need one, that Hamilton and Madison worked together for common goals for many years. On 6/8/1788, nine days before the convention met in Poughkeepsie, Hamilton wrote to Madison:
The leaders of the party hostile to the constitution are equally hostile to the Union. They are however afraid to reject the constitution at once because that step would bring matters to a crisis between this state and the states which had adopted the Constitution and between the parties in the state. … They therefore resolve upon a long adjournment as the safest and most artful course to effect their final purpose. …
For my own part the more I can penetrate the views of the Antifœderal party in this state, the more I dread the consequences of the non adoption of the Constitution by any of the other states, the more I fear an eventual disunion and civil war. God grant that Virginia may accede. Her example will have a vast influence on our politics. New Hampshire, all accounts give us to expect, will be an assenting state. …
In a former letter I requested you to communicate to me by express the event of any decisive question in favour of the constitution authorising changes of horses &c with an assurance to the person sent that he will be liberally paid for his diligence. (More here)
New York Governor George Clinton had violently opposed the Constitution even while it was being written in 1787. Clinton, the leader of the Antifederalists, was elected chairman of the convention: not an auspicious start.
In the debates that began on June 17, 1788, Hamilton was the most vocal Federalist. Fellow delegate James Kent described him at work:
As Hamilton had been a leading member of the National Convention and a leading writer of The Federalist, his mind had become familiar with the principles of Federal government and with every topic of debate, and it was prompt, ardent, energetic, and overflowing with an exuberance of argument and illustration …
He generally spoke with much animation and energy and with considerable gesture. His language was clear, nervous, and classical. His investigations penetrated to the foundation and reason of every doctrine and principle which he examined, and he brought to the debate a mind filled with all the learning and precedents applicable to the subject. He never omitted to meet, examine, and discover the strength or weakness, the truth or falsehood of every proposition with which he had to contend. His candor was magnanimous and rose to a level with his abilities. His temper was spirited but courteous, amiable and generous, and he frequently made pathetic and powerful appeals to the moral sense and patriotism, the fears and hopes of the assembly, in order to give them a deep sense of the difficulties of the crisis and prepare their minds for the reception of the Constitution. — Memoirs and Letters of James Kent, L.L.D. (1898), pp. 305-6 (in the Appendix: “Chancellor Kent’s Memories of Alexander Hamilton”)
Two days later after the New York meeting convened, Hamilton reported to Madison:
There is every appearance that a full discussion will take place, which will keep us together at least a fortnight. It is not easy to conjecture what will be the result. Our adversaries greatly outnumber us. The leaders gave indications of a pretty desperate disposition in private conversations previous to the meeting; but I imagine the minor partisans have their scruples and an air of moderation is now assumed. So far the thing is not to be despaired of. A happy issue with you must have considerable influence upon us. (6/19/1788, more here)
The delegates discussed at length every aspect of the Constitution, from the executive’s term to the powers reserved to the states, from the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court to the location of the capital, from taxes to treaties.
On June 21, Hamilton made two hefty speeches, one on representation, one on corruption. I am always looking for the ideas that drove Hamilton long-term, and these speeches have several.
Number 1: Government has to be designed for the way men are, not some abstract idea of what men ought to be. You might interpret this as pragmatism, but it seems to me that he’s attacking ivory-tower theories (“curious speculations”), not principles in general.
In my reasonings on the subject of government, I rely more on the interests and the opinions of men, than on any speculative parchment provisions whatever. I have found, that Constitutions are more or less excellent, as they are more or less agreeable to the natural operation of things: I am therefore disposed not to dwell long on curious speculations, or pay much attention to modes and forms; but to adopt a system, whose principles have been sanctioned by experience; adapt it to the real state of our country; and depend on probable reasonings for its operation and result. (First speech of 6/21/1788, more here)
Number 2: Democracy is not a desirable form of government.
It has been observed by an honorable gentleman, that a pure democracy, if it were practicable, would be the most perfect government. Experience has proved, that no position in politics is more false than this. The ancient democracies, in which the people themselves deliberated, never possessed one feature of good government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure deformity: When they assembled, the field of debate presented an ungovernable mob, not only incapable of deliberation, but prepared for every enormity. In these assemblies, the enemies of the people brought forward their plans of ambition systematically. They were opposed by their enemies of another party; and it became a matter of contingency, whether the people subjected themselves to be led blindly by one tyrant or by another. (First speech of 6/21/1788, more here)
Number 3: When it comes to running the government, all men are not equally well fitted. (I disagree with him a bit here: I wouldn’t lump all the wealthy and all the poor together. The difference in virtue comes from thinking … although you’re more likely to become wealthy if you think than if you don’t.)
It is a harsh doctrine [that my opponent has suggested], that men grow wicked in proportion as they improve and enlighten their minds. Experience has by no means justified us in the supposition, that there is more virtue in one class of men than in another. Look through the rich and the poor of the community; the learned and the ignorant. Where does virtue predominate? The difference indeed consists, not in the quantity but kind of vices, which are incident to the various classes; and here the advantage of character belongs to the wealthy. Their vices are probably more favorable to the prosperity of the state, than those of the indigent; and partake less of moral depravity.
And Number 4: The Constitution is designed to allow the people to control their government – and that is the best defense of their liberties.
After all, Sir, we must submit to this idea, that the true principle of a republic is, that the people should choose whom they please to govern them. Representation is imperfect, in proportion as the current of popular favour is checked. This great source of free government, popular election, should be perfectly pure, and the most unbounded liberty allowed. Where this principle is adhered to; where, in the organization of the government, the legislative, executive and judicial branches are rendered distinct; where again the legislative is divided into separate houses, and the operations of each are controuled by various checks and balances, and above all, by the vigilance and weight of the state governments; to talk of tyranny, and the subversion of our liberties, is to speak the language of enthusiasm. (First speech of 6/21/1788, more here)
On June 21, the same day that Hamilton delivered that speech on representation and another lengthy speech on corruption, he wrote again to Madison.
The only good information I can give you is that we [in New York] shall be sometime together and take the chance of events. The object of the party at present is undoubtedly conditional amendments. …
I believe the adoption by New Hampshire is certain.
A Hamilton (More here)
The Antifederalists had proposed conditional ratification: if the federal government did not adopt New York’s proposed amendments within a specified time, New York had the option of withdrawing from the union.
On June 21, 1788, New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the Constitution, and the new plan of government went into effect.
Hamilton and the other delegates at Poughkeepsie learned of New Hampshire’s ratification on June 24. Their debates immediately shifted from the principles of government that were represented (or not represented) in the Constitution, to New York’s status if it failed to ratify the Constitution. Hamilton wrote to Madison on June 25:
Our chance of success here is infinitely slender, and none at all if you [in Virginia] go wrong. The leaders of the Antifederalists finding their part seems somewhat squeamish about rejection, are obliged at present to recur to the project of conditional amendments. …
A Hamilton (6/25/1788, more here)
By July 2, Hamilton was frustrated, but thought he saw a small change in the Antifederalist delegates.
Our arguments confound, but do not convince. Some of the leaders however appear to me to be convinced by circumstances and to be desirous of a retreat. This does not apply to the Chief, who wishes to establish Clintonism on the basis of Antifœderalism.
I remain Affecty Yrs
A Hamilton (More here)
Virginia ratified the Constitution on June 25. Hamilton heard the news on July 2:
I felicitate you sincerely on the event in Virginia; but my satisfaction will be allayed, if I discover too much facility in the business of amendment-making. I fear the system will be wounded in some of its vital parts by too general a concurrence in some very injudicious recommendations. …
We have good reason to believe that our opponents are not agreed, and this affords some ground of hope. …
A Hamilton (7/8/1788, more here)
On July 17, Hamilton mentioned to the delegates at Poughkeepsie that New York City and the southern part of the state might secede if New York State did not ratify the Constitution. Governor Clinton responded wrathfully, “I conceive that many of the observations that were thrown out by the Honble. Gntm. were highly indiscreet and improper – I wish they may never be repeated out of these walls.”
On July 22, Hamilton wrote to Madison, both frustrated and cautiously optimistic:
We are debating on amendments without having decided what is to be done with them. There is so great a diversity in the views of our opponents that it is impossible to predict any thing. Upon the whole however our fears diminish.
A. Hamilton (More here)
Who remembers your name?
Meanwhile, down south in Manhattan, supporters of the Constitution had planned a parade for July 4. They postponed it several times in hopes that the New York State would vote to ratify. On July 23, impatient, they held the parade anyway. The order of march for some five thousand men and boys, representing more than sixty trades and professions, was printed in a broadside.
The floats and banners carried in the Grand Federal Procession predicted that happiness and prosperity would follow the ratification of the Constitution. Blacksmiths hammered an anchor and chanted,
Forge me strong, finish me neat,
I soon shall moor a Federal fleet.
The pewterers’ banner – the only one that survived – is at the New-York Historical Society. (I could get lost for days in the astounding collections of the N-YHS.)
The ship joiners’ banner proclaimed,
This Federal Ship will our commerce revive
And merchants and shipwrights and joiners will thrive.
The “Federal Ship” was a scaled-down, 27-foot model of a 32-gun frigate, pulled by a team of ten horses. Its name, according to the Order of Procession (7th Division) was the “Federal Ship Hamilton.” Cannon salutes were fired. Near the end of the parade, the ship received a new pilot, to represent symbolically the change from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution.
I have read thousands of pages by Hamilton, and thousands more about him. Nowhere did I see evidence that he longed for the adulation of the masses. People who publish lengthy essays relying on evidence and logic can generally expect only the quiet appreciation of thinking minds.
Still, to see thousands of New Yorkers cheering him for exactly the right reason – his championship of the Constitution … That would have been a heart-thumping thrill for Hamilton.
But he didn’t see it. Hamilton was still in Poughkeepsie, because the convention hadn’t yet ratified the Constitution. I really hope that when he returned home soon afterwards, he at least got to admire the Federal Ship Hamilton.
New York ratified the Constitution on July 26, 1788, by a vote of 30 to 27 – a closer vote than in any other state. Per the demands of Clinton and the Antifederalists, ratification included conditions: 25 items in a Bill of Rights and 31 amendments. New York State quietly let those demands lapse.
They are asking me to lead
Hamilton wrote to Washington in August 1788, two weeks after ratification:
I have delivered to Mr Madison to be forwarded to you a sett of the papers under the signature of Publius, neatly enough bound, to be honored with a place in your library. I presume you have understood that the writers of these Papers are chiefly Mr Madison & myself with some aid from Mr Jay.
I take it for granted, Sir, you have concluded to comply with what will no doubt be the general call of your country in relation to the new government. You will permit me to say that it is indispensable you should lend yourself to its first operations—It is to little purpose to have introduced a system, if the weightiest influence is not given to its firm establishment, in the outset. (8/13/1788, more here; the underlined words are in italics in the original)
Washington replied in a letter of August 28 with a compliment on the Federalist Papers (could anyone else’s opinion have mattered so much to Hamilton?) and a cautious answer about the presidency. I would really like to know who else was asking Washington to lead at this time … but there are limits to the minutes in a week, you know.
As the perusal of the political papers under the signature of Publius has afforded me great satisfaction, I shall certainly consider them as claiming a most distinguished place in my library. I have read every performance which has been printed on one side and the other of the great question lately agitated (so far as I have been able to obtain them) and, without an unmeaning compliment, I will say that I have seen no other so well calculated (in my judgment) to produce conviction on an unbiassed mind, as the Production of your Triumvirate. When the transient circumstances & fugitive performances which attended this crisis shall have disappeared, that work will merit the notice of Posterity; because in it are candidly discussed the principles of freedom & the topics of government, which will be always interesting to mankind so long as they shall be connected in Civil Society.
On the delicate subject with which you conclude your letter, I can say nothing; because the event alluded to may never happen; and because, in case it should occur, it would be a point of prudence to defer forming one’s ultimate and irrevocable decision, so long as new data might be afforded for one to act with the greater wisdom & propriety. I would not wish to conceal my prevailing sentiment from you. For you know me well enough, my good Sir, to be persuaded that I am not guilty of affection, when I tell you, it is my great and sole desire to live and die, in peace and retirement, on my own farm. Were it even indispensable, a different line of conduct should be adopted; while you and some others who are acquainted with my heart would acquit, the world and Posterity might probably accuse me of inconsistency and ambition. Still I hope I shall always possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain (what I consider the most enviable of all titles) the character of an honest man, as well as prove (what I desire to be considered in reality) that I am, with great sincerity & esteem, Dear Sir Your friend and Most obedient Hble Ser⟨vt⟩
Go: Washington (More here; the underlined words are in italics in the original)
Hamilton replied in September, reminding Washington of his role in the Constitutional Convention and trying to assuage Washington’s concerns about his reputation.
I should be deeply pained my Dear Sir if your scruples in regard to a certain station should be matured into a resolution to decline it; though I am neither surprised at their existence nor can I but agree in opinion that the caution you observe in deferring an ultimate determination is prudent. I have however reflected maturely on the subject and have come to a conclusion, (in which I feel no hesitation) that every public and personal consideration will demand from you an acquiescence in what will certainly be the unanimous wish of your country. The absolute retreat which you meditated at the close of the late war was natural and proper. Had the government produced by the revolution gone on in a tolerable train, it would have been most adviseable to have persisted in that retreat. But I am clearly of opinion that the crisis which brought you again into public view left you no alternative but to comply—and I am equally clear in the opinion that you are by that act pledged to take a part in the execution of the government. I am not less convinced that the impression of this necessity of your filling the station in question is so universal that you run no risk of any uncandid imputation, by submitting to it. But even if this were not the case, a regard to your own reputation as well as to the public good, calls upon you in the strongest manner to run that risk.
It cannot be considered as a compliment to say that on your acceptance of the office of President the success of the new government in its commencement may materially depend. Your agency and influence will be not less important in preserving it from the future attacks of its enemies than they have been in recommending it in the first instance to the adoption of the people. (September, undated; more here)
Some assumed that Washington was merely pretending not to want the presidency. I don’t see that: he really seems concerned that it will damage his reputation, and Washington prizes nothing above his honor and reputation. Here’s his final letter to Hamilton on the subject of becoming president. I’m quoting it at length because the fact that Hamilton and Washington can have this sort of open discussion, despite the difference in their ages and ranks, helps explain why Washington named Hamilton his secretary of the Treasury less than a year later.
In acknowledging the receipt of your candid and kind letter by the last Post; little more is incumbent upon me, than to thank you sincerely for the frankness with which you communicated your sentiments, and to assure you that the same manly tone of intercourse will always be more than barely wellcome, Indeed it will be highly acceptable to me. I am particularly glad, in the present instance; you have dealt thus freely and like a friend. Although I could not help observing from several publications and letters that my name had been sometimes spoken of, and that it was possible the Contingency which is the subject of your letter might happen; yet I thought it best to maintain a guarded silence and to lack the counsel of my best friends (which I certainly hold in the highest estimation) rather than to hazard an imputation unfriendly to the delicacy of my feelings. For, situated as I am, I could hardly bring the question into the slightest discussion, or ask an opinion even in the most confidential manner; without betraying, in my Judgment, some impropriety of conduct, or without feeling an apprehension that a premature display of anxiety, might be construed into a vainglorious desire of pushing myself into notice as a Candidate. Now, if I am not grossly deceived in myself, I should unfeignedly rejoice, in case the Electors, by giving their votes in favor of some other person, would save me from the dreaded Dilemma of being forced to accept or refuse. If that may not be—I am, in the next place, earnestly desi[r]ous of searching out the truth, and of knowing whether there does not exist a probability that the government would be just as happily and effectually carried into execution, without my aid, as with it. I am truly solicitous to obtain all the previous information which the circumstances will afford, and to determine (when the determination can with propriety be no longer postponed) according to the principles of right reason, and the dictates of a clear conscience; without too great a referrence to the unforeseen consequences, which may affect my person or reputation. Untill that period, I may fairly hold myself open to conviction—though I allow your sentiments to have weight in them; and I shall not pass by your arguments without giving them as dispassionate a consideration, as I can possibly bestow upon them.
In taking a survey of the subject in whatever point of light I have been able to place it; I will not surpress the acknowledgment, my Dr Sir that I have always felt a kind of gloom upon my mind, as often as I have been taught to expect, I might, and perhaps must ere long be called to make a decision. You will, I am well assured, believe the assertion (though I have little expectation it would gain credit from those who are less acquainted with me) that if I should receive the appointment and if I should be prevailed upon to accept it; the acceptance would be attended with more diffidence and reluctance than ever I experienced before in my life. It would be, however, with a fixed and sole determination of lending whatever assistance might be in my power to promote the public, weal, in hopes that at a convenient and an early period, my services might be dispensed with, and that I might be permitted once more to retire—to pass an unclouded evening, after the stormy day of life, in the bosom of domestic tranquility. … (10/3/1788, more here)
Doesn’t have a real job, anyway
And then there was the question of who would be vice president. Hamilton wrote to Theodore Sedgwick of Massachusetts on October 9, 1788:
The only hesitation in my mind with regard to Mr. Adams has arisen within a day or two; from a suggestion by a particular Gentleman that he is unfriendly in his sentiments to General Washington. Richard H Lee who will probably, as rumour now runs, come from Virginia is also in this state. The Lees and Adams’ have been in the the habit of uniting; and hence may spring up a Cabal very embarrassing to the Executive and of course to the administration of the Government. Consider this. Sound the reality of it and let me hear from you. (More here)
Chernow mentions in passing that Adams and the Lees were sympathetic to the Conway Cabal (1777-1778), which would certainly have put Hamilton off … on a quick search, I can’t confirm Adams’s sympathies there.
To Madison, Hamilton confided other fears about Adams’s behavior (11/23/1788):
On the whole I have concluded to support Adams; though I am not without apprehensions on the score we have conversed about. … As he is certainly a character of importance in the Eastern states, if he is not Vice President, one of two worse things will be likely to happen—Either he must be nominated to some important office for which he is less proper, or will become a malcontent and possibly expouse and give additional weight to the opposition to the Government. (More here)
By the end of January 1789, Hamilton had to guarantee Washington’s election, Federalists in several states should withhold a few electoral votes each from Adams. He explained the reasons to James Wilson of Pennsylvania:
A degree of anxiety about a matter of primary importance to the new government induces me to trouble you with this letter. I mean the election of the President. We all feel of how much moment it is that Washington should be the man; and I own I cannot think there is material room to doubt that this will be the unanimous sense. But as a failure in this object would be attended with the worst consequences I cannot help concluding that even possibilities should be guarded against.
Every body is aware of that defect in the constitution which renders it possible that the man intended for Vice President may in fact turn up President. Every body sees that unanimity in Adams as Vice President and a few votes insidiously witheld from Washington might substitute the former to the latter. And every body must perceive that there is something to fear from machinations of Antifœderal malignity. What in this situation is wise? (1/25/1789; more here)
On February 4, 1789, the 69 members of the first electoral college met. Every one of them submitted one of their two votes for Washington. John Adams received 34 of the remaining 69 votes. The other 35 were split among ten other candidates.
Corruption’s such an old song
About two weeks after the presidential election, Hamilton dived into campaigning in another election: the one in April 1789 that would determine whether George Clinton would continue as governor.
Hamilton had been vocally disagreeing with Clinton at least since 1783, when New York State passed laws persecuting former loyalists. In early 1789, in a series of sixteen letters published under the initials “H.G.” (see here for the authorship and links to all the letters), Hamilton dissected Clinton’s early career, his war record, his laxity in calling the legislature so that New York would have representatives in the new Congress, and his rudeness to Congress while it sat in New York. As always, many of Hamilton’s points are still relevant to current politics.
- It may seem strange to some, that a man who had behaved well in one situation, should be so entirely defective or faulty in another. But when acquainted with human nature, and its history, on a large scale, will be sensible that there is nothing extraordinary in the thing. Many of those who have proved the worst scourges of society, have, in the commencement of their career, been its brightest ornaments. These fair beginnings, are sometimes the effect of premeditation, to pave the way to future mischief: at other times, they are the natural result of a mixed character placed in favorable circumstances. In all struggles for liberty, the leaders of the people have fallen under two principal discriminations: those who, to a conviction of the real usefulness of civil liberty, join a sincere attachment to the public good; and those who are of restless and turbulent spirits, impatient of constraint, averse to all power or superiority, which they do not themselves enjoy. With men of the latter description, the transition from demagogues to despots, is neither difficult nor uncommon. (Letter IV, 2/24/1789, more here)
- [Clinton] declared in the Convention, that he had always been a friend to the [federal] impost, but could not agree to the manner in which Congress proposed to exercise the power. This is plainly a subterfuge. He was a friend to an abstract something, which might be any thing or nothing, as he pleased; but he was an enemy to the thing proposed. … To oppose therefore the specific plan offered, and yet pretend to be a friend to the thing in the abstract, deserves no better name than that of hypocrisy. (Letter VII, 2/28/1789; more here)
- [Of Clinton’s behavior toward Congress:] Neglects and slights calculated to lessen the opinion of the importance of a thing and bring it into discredit, are often the most successful weapons by which it can be attacked. (Letter XII, 3/8/1789; more here)
Clinton won reelection in April 1789. In fact, he kept winning it until 1795, when he lost to John Jay. In 1801, when Jay retired to private life, Clinton became governor yet again – until 1804, when he became Jefferson’s vice president following Aaron Burr’s disgrace.
Look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now
By May 1789, Eliza and Alexander were raising four children in the bright new world that Hamilton had helped shape:
- Philip, seven years old (b. 1782)
- Angelica, almost five years old (b. 1784)
- Alexander, Jr., three years old (b. 1786)
- James Alexander, one year old (b. April 1788, just as his father was finishing the Federalist Papers)
- The proceedings of the New York ratification convention were published as The Debates and Proceedings of the State of New-York, Assembled at Poughkeepsie, on the 17th June, 1788, New York City: Francis Childs, 1788; the Poughkeepsie, 1905 reprint is available online. A summary of the discussions is here.
- On the New York’s Grand Federal Procession on 7/23/1788, see Burrows & Welcome, Gotham: A History of New York City, pp. 293-4. On p. 1244 they give a singularly annoying list of references for the Federal Ship Hamilton: author’s name and year of publication (none earlier than the mid-20th c.), no page numbers, no specifics about which details of their vivid description of the festivities derive from which sources. Duuuuuuuudes! I don’t care if you got a Pulitzer for the book: you shouldn’t have been so damn lazy about footnotes.
- I’ve started adding comments based on these blog posts to the Genius.com pages on the Hamilton Musical. Follow me @DianneDurante.
- The usual disclaimer: This is the fifty-eighth in a series of posts on Hamilton: An American Musical. My intro to this series is here. Other posts are available via the tag cloud at lower right. The ongoing “index” to these posts is my Kindle book, Alexander Hamilton: A Brief Biography. Bottom line: these are unofficial musings, and you do not need them to enjoy the musical or the soundtrack.
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