Alexander Hamilton - Ron Chernow (2005)
Chapter 12. AUGUST AND RESPECTABLE ASSEMBLY
After the Revolution, New York experienced a brief flush of prosperity that faded and then vanished in 1785, snuffed out by swelling debt, scarce money, and dwindling trade. Falling prices hurt indebted farmers, forcing them to repay loans with dearer money. As a Bank of New York director, Hamilton worried that defaulting debtors would also feign poverty and ruin their creditors. He later said of the deteriorating business climate, “confidence in pecuniary transactions had been destroyed and the springs of industry had been proportionably relaxed.”1
In the coming months, Hamilton fell prey to lurid visions that the have-nots would rise up and dispossess the haves. Men of property would be held hostage by armies of the indebted and unemployed. Sensing a crisis on the horizon, he told one member of the Livingston family that “those who are concerned for the security of property or the prosperity of government” must “endeavour to put men in the legislature whose principles are not of the levelling kind.”2 Despite his reservations about this rambunctious new democracy, Hamilton was not yet prepared to run for the legislature. When he came upon his name on a list of potential candidates for the state assembly published by The New-York Packet in April 1785, he hurriedly asked the publisher to strike his name from consideration “at the present juncture.”3 Reluctant to foreclose options, Hamilton did not rule out serving at a more auspicious time.
For Hamilton, the major threat to the state could now be summed up in three words: Governor George Clinton. As wartime governor, Clinton had emerged from the Revolution with unmatched popularity and had been reelected three times. He was a short, thickset man with broad shoulders and a protruding paunch. His coarse features—shaggy brows, unkempt hair, and fleshy jowls—gave him the brawny air of a fishmonger or stevedore. Everything about him suggested bullheaded persistence. For most of Hamilton’s career, George Clinton was an immovable presence in New York, a craggy, forbidding mountain that loomed over the political landscape. If uncouth in appearance, he was a wily politician who clung tenaciously to power. Destined to serve seven terms as governor and two as vice president, Clinton represented what would become a staple of American political folklore: the local populist boss, not overly punctilious or savory yet embraced warmly by the masses as one of their own. As his biographer John Kaminski put it, “George Clinton’s friends considered him a man of the people; his enemies saw him as a demagogue.”4
The son of Scotch-Irish immigrants, George Clinton started out as a country lawyer from Ulster County and a rabble-rouser in the New York Assembly, followed by a period in the Continental Congress. As a brigadier general, he defended the Hudson Highlands during the war. He became the indomitable champion of the local yeomen, who saw him as a bulwark against the patrician families that had ruled colonial New York: the Livingstons, Schuylers, Rensselaers, and other Hudson River potentates. Theodore Roosevelt later observed, with the knowing eye of a veteran politician, that Clinton knew how to capitalize on the “cold, suspicious temper of small country freeholders” with their “narrow” jealousies.5 Yet for all his aura of republican simplicity, Clinton was not the salt of the earth. He owned eight slaves and put together a fortune in office. If he lived frugally, it was less from lack of money than from notoriously miserly habits. During most of his time in office, this poohbah of the people sported the pretentious title “His Excellency George Clinton, Esquire, the Governor-General and Commander-in-Chief of all the militia, and Admiral of the Navy of the State of New-York.”6
Hamilton and Clinton did not begin at loggerheads. Though Clinton was sixteen years older, he and Hamilton had kept up a friendly wartime correspondence and agreed on the need to bolster Congress. Hamilton applauded Washington’s choice of Clinton to command American forces in the Hudson Valley. But when Hamilton married Eliza Schuyler, he inherited Clinton’s special nemesis as his father-in-law. By 1782, while Hamilton still lauded Clinton as a “man of integrity,” he had come to believe that Clinton pandered to popular prejudice “especially when a new election approaches.”7 As the decade progressed, Hamilton’s critique of Clinton grew more venomous. He found the governor rude and petulant, his frank manner a cloak for infinite calculation. Clinton was “circumspect and guarded” and seldom acted “without premeditation or design.”8
Alexander Hamilton was haunted by George Clinton for reasons that transcended his political style. Hamilton’s besetting fear was that American democracy would be spoiled by demagogues who would mouth populist shibboleths to conceal their despotism. George Clinton, Thomas Jefferson, and Aaron Burr all came to incarnate that dread for Hamilton. Clinton also disapproved of banks, regarding them as devices to enrich speculators and divert money from hardworking farmers. Hamilton was further chagrined by Clinton’s punitive postwar stance toward the Loyalists. One Tory chronicler said of Clinton: “He tried, condemned, imprisoned, and punished the Loyalists most unmercifully. They were by his orders tarred and feathered, carted, whipped, fined, banished, and in short, every kind of cruelty, death not excepted, was practised by this emissary of rebellion.”9
Hamilton might have tolerated such flaws had it not been for one unforgivable sin: Clinton favored New York to the detriment of national unity. Clinton was well aware of Hamilton’s ardent nationalist orientation. In time, he praised Hamilton as “a great man, a great lawyer, a man of integrity, very ambitious,” but “anxious to effect that ruinous measure, a consolidation of the states.”10 Much of Hamilton’s cynicism about state politics can be traced to his growing disenchantment with George Clinton. At the governor’s urging, New York State imposed a stiff duty on British goods entering from the West Indies, a tax that infuriated city merchants and shippers alike. Many of these imports ended up in neighboring New Jersey and Connecticut, but New York kept all of the taxes. New York also laid an “import” tariff on farm produce from New Jersey and lumber from Connecticut. Addicted to this financial racket and unwilling to share the booty, Governor Clinton had opposed the 5 percent federal tax on imports proposed by the Confederation Congress and supported by Hamilton.
So grave were the interstate tensions over trade that Nathaniel Gorham, named president of Congress in 1786, feared that clashes between New York and its neighbors might degenerate into civil war. Similarly acrimonious trade disputes erupted between other states with major seaports and neighbors who imported goods through them. The states were arrogating a right that properly belonged to a central government: the right to formulate trade policy. This persuaded Hamilton that unless a new federal government with a monopoly on customs revenues was established, disunion would surely ensue. As individual states developed interests in their own taxes, they would be less and less likely to sacrifice for the common good.
In April 1786, amid a worsening economic crisis, Hamilton agreed that the time had come to act and was elected to a one-year term in the New York Assembly. Later on, he told a Scottish relative that he had been involved in a lucrative legal practice “when the derangement of our public affairs by the feebleness of the general confederation drew me again reluctantly into public life.”11 His zeal for reform signaled anything but reluctance. He was seized with a crusading sense of purpose and had a momentous, long-term plan to enact. Hamilton told Troup he had stood for election because he planned to “render the next session” of the Assembly “subservient to the change he meditated” in the structure of the national government.12 Indeed, his election to the Assembly was a preliminary step in an extended sequence of events that led straight to the Constitutional Convention.
The road leading to the Constitutional Convention was a long, circuitous one. It began at Mount Vernon in 1785 when commissioners from Maryland and Virginia resolved a heated dispute over navigation of the Potomac River. Virginia hoped this might serve as a pattern for settling other interstate disputes and in early 1786 called for a convention at Annapolis “for the purpose of framing such regulations of trade as may be judged necessary to promote the general interest.”13 The tutelary spirit, James Madison, was no less despondent than Hamilton about the trade and border disputes riling the states. In March 1786, Madison wrote to Jefferson, then the American minister in Paris, about “the present anarchy of our commerce” and described the way the predominant seaport states were fleecing their neighbors.14 Appalled by selfish laws issuing from state legislatures, Madison warned Jefferson that they had become “so frequent and so flagrant as to alarm the most steadfast friends of republicanism.”15
In May 1786, the New York legislature named six commissioners to the Annapolis conference; in the end, only Hamilton and his friend Egbert Benson, the state attorney general, attended. This seemingly minor appointment was to have the most far-reaching ramifications for Hamilton. If he had missed Annapolis, he might not have attended the Constitutional Convention or ended up as the editorial impresario of The Federalist Papers. Robert Troup later claimed that Hamilton knew that Annapolis would serve as the prelude to bigger things and had no interest in “a commercial convention otherwise than as a stepping stone to a general convention to form a general constitution.”16Whether through luck, premeditation, or a knack for making things happen, Hamilton continued to demonstrate his unique flair for materializing at every major turning point in the early history of the republic.
On September 1, Hamilton set out for Annapolis, paying his own way. After his nomadic youth and wartime roaming, Hamilton had retained little wanderlust and now traversed scenery he had last viewed as a soldier. Ailing during the journey, he was relieved to arrive at Annapolis one week later. Eliza had recently given birth to their third child, Alexander, and Hamilton sorely missed his growing family. The moment he arrived in Maryland, he dashed off an affectionate note to Eliza, suffused with melancholy:
Happy, however, I cannot be, absent from you and my darling little ones. I feel that nothing can ever compensate for the loss of the enjoyments I leave at home or can ever put my heart at tolerable ease…. In reality, my attachments to home disqualify me for either business or pleasure abroad and the prospect of a detention here for eight or ten days, perhaps a fortnight, fills me with an anxiety which will best be conceived by my Betsey’s own impatience…. Think of me with as much tenderness as I do of you and we cannot fail to be always happy.17
Clearly, the love between Alexander and Eliza had not cooled in the time since courtship and matrimony had tamed the libidinous young man into something of a homebody.
By choosing the relatively secluded town of Annapolis, Madison explained, the conference organizers had purposely bypassed the main commercial towns and congressional precincts to guard against any accusations that the commissioners were in the thrall of outside parties. They stayed at George Mann’s City Tavern, a large, hundred-bed hostelry, and held working sessions in the old senate chamber at the State House. The turnout was meager—only twelve delegates showed up from five states—yet the paltry attendance proved a blessing, weeding out potential foes of a more centralized government. The intimacy of this group of nationalists allowed the talks to range far beyond commercial disputes to a richer, more trenchant critique of the crumbling Articles of Confederation.
Arriving at Annapolis several days before Hamilton, Madison approached the meeting with his matchless, professorial thoroughness. Jefferson had shipped him a “literary cargo” of treatises on politics and history, and his mind was already stuffed with precedents about republics and confederations. Hamilton probably had not seen his friend since their congressional days, Madison having studied law and served in the Virginia Assembly in the interim. He must have been pleased to renew ties with the small, bookish, balding man with the deep-set eyes and beetle brows. Though we know few details of the Annapolis sessions, it seems certain that Hamilton and Madison commenced the joint philosophical inquiries that yielded The Federalist Papers two years later. At this point, they were kindred spirits in their common distaste for the parochial tendencies of the states.
The Annapolis attendees soon agreed that the commercial disputes among the states were symptomatic of underlying flaws in the political framework, and they arrived at a breathtaking conclusion: they would urge the states to send delegates to a convention in Philadelphia the following May to amend the Articles of Confederation. Evidently, Hamilton wrote a hot-blooded first draft of this appeal, an indictment so scorching that Virginia governor Edmund Randolph asked him to tone it down. Hamilton flared up in righteous disagreement, and Madison had to take him aside and urge a tactical retreat. “You had better yield to this man,” Madison cautioned, “for otherwise all Virginia will be against you.”18 Hamilton cooled off and consented.
In its final version, Hamilton’s communiqué explained that the commissioners had ventured beyond their original commercial mandate because “the power of regulating trade is of such comprehensive extent” that fixing the problem required corresponding adjustments in other parts of the political system. Upon closer examination, the defects of the present system had been found “greater and more numerous” than previously imagined.19 The Annapolis address, with its conception of the political system as a finely crafted mechanism, composed of subtly interrelated parts, had a distinctly Hamiltonian ring. It reflected his penchant for systemic solutions, his sense of the fine interconnectedness of things.
Madison and Hamilton had diametrically opposite experiences when their home states pondered the Annapolis resolution. The Virginia legislature gave it enthusiastic approval and tapped George Washington to head its delegation to the Constitutional Convention. By contrast, Governor George Clinton immediately played the spoilsport. He expressed “a strong dislike” for the idea, denied the need for reform, and affirmed “that the confederation as it stood was equal to the purposes of the Union.”20 For the next two years, George Clinton obstructed reform, even though many members of his own legislature welcomed the Annapolis appeal.
In 1776, John Adams had predicted accurately that “the most intricate, the most important, the most dangerous and delicate business” of the postwar years would be the creation of a central government.21 Hamilton was now fully committed to that task, and after Annapolis he was strategically poised to pursue it. Paying homage to Hamilton’s campaign for a closer union, Catherine Drinker Bowen later wrote in her classic account of the Constitutional Convention, “Among those who began early to work for reform three names stand out: Washington, Madison and Hamilton. And of the three, evidence points to Hamilton as the most potent single influence toward calling the Convention of ’87.”22 Madison’s admirers might respectfully beg to differ.
Money problems pervaded all others under the Articles of Confederation. America was virtually bankrupt as the federal government and state governments found it impossible to retire the gargantuan debt inherited from the Revolution. On European securities exchanges, investors expressed skepticism about America’s survival by trading its securities at a small fraction of their face values. “The fate of America was suspended by a hair,” Gouverneur Morris was to say.23
Many Americans were as debt-burdened as their legislatures. Even as the Annapolis conference unfolded, rural turmoil erupted in western Massachusetts as thousands of indebted farmers, struggling with soaring taxes and foreclosures on their lands, grabbed staves and pitchforks, shut down courthouses, and thwarted land seizures by force. As Hamilton had feared, after eight years of war violent protest against authority had become habitual. The farmers’ uprising was dubbed Shays’s Rebellion after one of its leaders, Daniel Shays, a former militia captain and suddenly a folk hero. At moments, it looked like a reprise of the American Revolution, now reenacted as a civil war. The rebels donned their old Continental Army uniforms and wore sprigs of hemlock in their hats in the spirit of ’76. By February 1787, the state militia had quashed the disorder, but its influence lingered when Massachusetts passed debt-relief legislation. Many creditors and property owners were disturbed by the mounting power of state governments and dismayed by the impotent federal government, which had sold off its last warship and let its army shrink to an insignificant force of seven hundred soldiers.
Shays’s Rebellion thrust to the fore economic issues—the very issues in which Hamilton specialized—as did an extremist movement in Rhode Island that beat the drum for abolishing debt and dividing wealth equally. The Massachusetts uprising shocked many who wondered just how far the rebels would go. “Good God!” Washington proclaimed of the rebellion, aghast that some protesters regarded America’s land “to be the common property of all.”24 James Madison confessed to similar trepidation about the rebels to his father: “They profess to aim only at a reform of the constitution and of certain abuses in the public administration, but an abolition of debts public and private and a new division of property are strongly suspected in contemplation.”25 Where Madison thought a weak republic would only invite disorder, Jefferson reacted to the turmoil with aplomb. “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing,” he told Madison loftily from Paris, “and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”26 To Colonel William Smith, Jefferson sent his famous reassurance: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”27 While Hamilton feared that disorder would feed on itself, the more hopeful and complacent Jefferson thought that periodic excesses would correct themselves.
Ordinarily a veritable Niagara of opinion, Hamilton was initially mute about Shays’s Rebellion. He kept silent because he sympathized with the farmers’ grievances, however much he despised their methods. Hamilton wanted the federal government to take over state debts left from the war. Instead, Massachusetts, by trying to settle its own debt, had crushed the farmers with onerous taxes. “The insurrection was in a great degree the offspring of this pressure,” he later wrote.28 In Federalist number 6, he argued that “if Shays had not been a desperate debtor, it is much to be doubted whether Massachusetts would have been plunged into a civil war.”29 The rural uprising vindicated his sense that the federal government had to distribute the tax burden equitably across the states.
Many Americans wondered whether the fragile confederation could withstand the accumulating strains between rich and poor, creditors and debtors. In February 1787, Hamilton made a heroic stand in the New York Assembly to arrest the country’s deteriorating finances, supporting the 5 percent import tax proposed by Congress. Hamilton was not sanguine about defeating the Clintonians, with their popular catchphrases about states’ rights. Assemblyman Samuel Jones said of Hamilton’s campaign, “He told me during the session that the citizens expected it of him and he thought he ought not to disappoint them, otherwise he did not think he should bring the question again before the Assembly.”30 Hamilton delivered a marathon speech of one hour and twenty minutes that unfurled a grim panorama of America under the confederation. He lashed out at Congress’s reliance upon thirteen states for effectively voluntary payments and noted that some stingy states paid a fraction of their quotas or nothing at all. With the federal treasury empty, no surplus remained to service debt or establish American credit abroad. Domestic creditors might show patience, but foreign creditors would not. “They have power to enforce their demands,” Hamilton warned, “and sooner or later they may be expected to do it.”31 Hamilton thought the warnings of inordinate federal power misplaced: “If these states are not united under a federal government, they will infallibly have wars with each other and their divisions will subject them to all the mischiefs of foreign influence and intrigue.”32
Hamilton’s masterly exposition met with stony stares from the Clintonians, who responded in insulting fashion. They demanded a vote on the issue without bothering to rebut Hamilton’s speech. The federal tax was soundly defeated, as Hamilton had expected. His sustained eloquence left him bent over with exhaustion, though he was quickly buoyed by acclaim from supporters and recuperated sufficiently to attend the theater. “Hamilton went to the play after his famous speech in the House in favor of the impost,” Margaret Livingston told her son, Chancellor Robert R. Livingston, “and when he came in he was called the great man. Some say he is talked of for G[overnor].”33
During his Assembly tenure that spring, Hamilton voted on two measures that suggested ambivalent feelings about his childhood. Oddly enough, he supported a bill making it impossible for people divorced due to adultery to remarry. Such a draconian statute in the Danish West Indies had prevented Hamilton’s parents from legitimizing his birth. If this vote suggests some latent hostility toward his mother, another vote betokens tenderness for her. The Assembly was debating a bill that aimed to deter mothers of illegitimate children from killing them at birth. One controversial clause stipulated that if the child died, the unwed mother had to produce a witness who could corroborate that the child had been stillborn or died from natural causes. It bothered Hamilton that the mother would have to admit openly that she had given birth to an illegitimate child. One newspaper account showed Hamilton’s empathy:
Mr. Hamilton observed that the clause was neither politic or just. He wished it obliterated from the bill. To show the propriety of this, he expatiated feelingly on the delicate situation it placed an unfortunate woman in…. From the concealment of the loss of honor, her punishment might be mitigated and the misfortune end here. She might reform and be again admitted into virtuous society. The operation of this law compelled her to publish her shame to the world. It was to be expected therefore that she would prefer the danger of punishment from concealment to the avowal of her guilt.34
When Samuel Jones supported the measure, Hamilton refuted him “in terms of great cogency” and convinced the Assembly to side with him.35 That Hamilton argued so strenuously for this measure hints at surviving hobgoblins from the Caribbean that still hovered uneasily in his mind.
Soon after Hamilton was trounced on the impost measure, he introduced a motion in the Assembly to send five delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. The general expectation was that the convention would simply tinker with the Articles of Confederation, not overhaul its basic machinery. Hamilton envisaged something far more audacious, hoping that a robust union would result. Two days later, the Clintonians boxed him into a corner by slashing the delegate count to three. Since Hamilton had been New York’s chief catalyst for the convention, the Clintonians couldn’t very well deny him a place; instead, they flanked him with two opponents of federal power who would smother his influence. Albany mayor John Lansing, Jr., was a prosperous landowner, and Robert Yates a pretentious judge on the New York Supreme Court. Both were vocal foes of efforts to endow Congress with independent taxing powers. They were a tightly knit pair for other reasons. The two men were related by marriage and the younger Lansing had clerked in Yates’s law office as a teenager. So instead of leading a united delegation, Hamilton was demoted to being a minority delegate from a dissenting state.
Hamilton arrived in Philadelphia on May 18, 1787, and joined other delegates at the Indian Queen Tavern on Fourth Street. Madison had arrived days earlier to brace for battle, confiding to Washington his fears that the team of Lansing and Yates would be a fatal “clog” on their friend Hamilton.36 Like other delegates, Madison had a sense of high drama, believing the document about to be drawn up would “decide forever the fate of republican government.”37 Lacking a quorum, the meeting did not convene officially for another week: against a patter of steady rain, Washington was then unanimously elected president of the convention. Hamilton had helped to coax the reluctant general from his Mount Vernon retreat and convince him to attend. At the end of the Revolution, Washington had been no less perturbed than Hamilton by the weak central government and worried that “local or state politics will interfere too much with that more liberal and extensive plan of government which wisdom and foresight…would dictate.”38 Though Washington was taciturn at the convention, his preference for a more effective central government was well known.
Washington appointed Hamilton, George Wythe, and Charles Pinckney to a small committee that drew up rules and procedures for the convention. To free himself from the domination of Lansing and Yates, Hamilton wanted the votes of individual members recorded. Instead, the convention chose to proceed on a one-state, one-vote basis, which meant that Hamilton’s vote would likely be nullified by his two fellow delegates. The committee prevailed in its general preference for secrecy. Preliminary votes were not recorded. To encourage candor, the committee also decided that “nothing spoken in the House be printed, or otherwise published, or communicated without leave.”39Journalists and curious spectators were forbidden to attend, sentries were stationed at doors, and delegates, sworn to secrecy, remained tight-lipped to outsiders. The delegates even adjourned to the second floor of the State House to ensure confidentiality. During a sultry Philadelphia summer, in the face of thick swarms of tormenting flies, the blinds were often drawn and the windows shut to guarantee privacy. Even Madison’s copious notes of the convention were not published until decades later.
Why such undemocratic rules for a conclave crafting a new charter? Many delegates believed they were enlightened, independent citizens, concerned for the commonweal, not members of those detestable things called factions. “Had the deliberations been open while going on, the clamours of faction would have prevented any satisfactory result,” said Hamilton. “Had they been afterwards disclosed, much food would have been afforded to inflammatory declamation.”40 The closed-door proceedings yielded inspired, uninhibited debate and brought forth one of the most luminous documents in history. At the same time, this secrecy made the convention’s inner workings the stuff of baleful legend, with unfortunate repercussions for Hamilton’s later career.
The venue for the convention was the gunmetal-gray East Room of the redbrick State House, where the Declaration of Independence had been signed. It had the proper dignity and simplicity for these right-minded republicans. Delegates sat in Windsor chairs, arranged in fan-shaped rows in front of Washington’s high-backed wooden chair, and jotted notes on tables covered with green baize. The tall windows were partly obscured by drooping green drapes. The room provided an intimate setting for these deliberations. Unlike orators in an amphitheater, the delegates met in a space cozy enough to enable speakers to make eye contact with every delegate and talk in a normal conversational voice.
Seated front-row center was James Madison, who staked out this pivotal spot to take minutes. “In this favorable position for hearing all that passed…I was not absent a single day, nor more than a casual fraction of an hour in any day, so that I could not have lost a single speech, unless a very short one.”41 One observer said that the diminutive Virginian, bent over his notes, had “a calm expression, a penetrating blue eye, and looked like a thinking man.”42
Major William Pierce of Georgia filed the fullest portrait of Hamilton, finding him impressive, if a little too self-consciously the strutting young genius. “He is about 33 years old, of small stature, and lean,” Pierce observed. “His manners are tinctured with stiffness and sometimes with a degree of vanity that is highly disagreeable.” Hamilton’s voice lacked the resonance of a great orator’s, but he was eloquent and able and plumbed subjects to their roots: “When he comes forward, he comes highly charged with interesting matter. There is no skimming over the surface of a subject with him. He must sink to the bottom to see what foundation it rests on.” Pierce captured Hamilton’s mercurial personality, ponderous one moment, facetious the next. His “language is not always equal, sometimes didactic like Bolingbroke’s, at others light and tripping like [Laurence] Stern[e]’s.”43
Who were these solons rhapsodized by Benjamin Franklin as “the most august and respectable assembly he was ever in in his life”?44 The fifty-five delegates representing twelve states—the renegade Rhode Island boycotted the convention—scarcely constituted a cross section of America. They were white, educated males and mostly affluent property owners. A majority were lawyers and hence sensitive to precedent. Princeton graduates (nine) trumped Yale (four) and Harvard (three) by a goodly margin. They averaged forty-two years of age, meaning that Hamilton, thirty-two, and Madison, thirty-six, were relatively young. As a foreign-born delegate, Hamilton wasn’t alone, since nearly a dozen others had been born or educated abroad. Many delegates shared Hamilton’s preoccupation with public debt. The majority owned public securities, the values of which would be affected dramatically by decisions taken here. During the next few months, Hamilton’s attendance was spotty, but this wasn’t atypical. Many delegates shuttled back to their home states on business, and only about thirty of the fifty-five delegates were present much of the time.
The convention gave Hamilton a fleeting brush with the one founder otherwise absent from his story: eighty-one-year-old Benjamin Franklin. The ancient Philadelphian, with his mostly bald head, lank strands of side hair, and double chin, was bedeviled by gout and excruciating kidney stones. He often discoursed to Hamilton and other delegates under the canopy of a mulberry tree in his courtyard, sometimes with his fond grandson Benjamin Franklin Bache looking on. Legend has it that when the enfeebled Franklin first came to the convention, he was borne aloft on a sedan chair, toted by four convicts conscripted from the Walnut Street jail. Nevertheless, with exemplary dedication, he showed up for every session of the four-month convention, sometimes asking others to deliver statements for him. Hamilton’s first act in Philadelphia paid homage to Franklin. The sage had opposed salaries for executive-branch officers, hoping such a measure would produce civic-minded leaders, not government officials feeding at the public trough. Others thought this would exclude all but the idle rich from holding office. Hamilton seconded Franklin’s quixotic motion, likely from veneration for the man. Madison commented that the idea was “treated with great respect, but rather for the author of it than from any apparent conviction of its expediency or practicability.”45
In theory, the convention had a mandate only to revise the Articles of Confederation. Any delegates who took this circumscribed mission at face value were soon rudely disabused. On May 30, Edmund Randolph presented a plan, formulated chiefly by Madison, that sought to scuttle the articles altogether and create a strong central government. This “Virginia Plan” made a clean break with the past and contained the basic design of the future U.S. government. It provided for a bicameral legislature, with both houses based on proportional representation. (As the most populous state, Virginia had a vested interest in this approach.) It concentrated extra power in the executive branch by calling for a one-person executive (i.e., a president) with a seven-year term, rather than the council favored by radicals. To heighten the separation of powers, it envisioned a national judiciary, crowned by a supreme tribunal. The Virginia Plan left little doubt that while the states would retain some sovereignty, they would be subservient to the federal government.
After Randolph’s presentation, Hamilton confronted delegates with the core question of whether the new government should muddle on as a confederation or form a true nation. They should debate “whether the United States were susceptible to one government” or whether each state needed “a separate existence connected only by leagues.”46 Hamilton saw the vital importance of the national government possessing ultimate sovereignty. The positive reaction to his statement revealed that the delegates were ready to embark on vigorous reform, and the convention agreed overwhelmingly that “a national government ought to be established consisting of a supreme legislative, executive and judiciary.”47 Robert Yates at once exposed the irreparable split in the New York delegation by voting against Hamilton’s motion. Had John Lansing, Jr., arrived by this time, he would surely have done likewise.
For many delegates, a separation of federal powers was one thing, a sharp diminution of state power quite another. Small states trembled at the thought of a bicameral legislature with both houses chosen by proportional representation. On June 15, William Paterson of New Jersey furnished the convention with a notably divergent vision. Instead of razing the old structure to erect a brand-new government, Paterson wanted to “correct” the Articles of Confederation and retain basic state sovereignty; instead of two houses of Congress, the New Jersey Plan envisioned one chamber, with each state casting one vote. It also retained the voluntary system of “requisitions” that had hobbled the country’s finances. In place of a president, the plan contemplated an executive council that could be removed by a majority of the state governors. For obvious reasons, many large states gravitated toward the Virginia Plan, while smaller states coalesced around the New Jersey Plan.
Though a delegate from the fifth largest state, John Lansing expressed warm admiration for the New Jersey Plan, since it “sustains the sovereignty of the respective states.” He chided the Virginia Plan: “The states willl never sacrifice their essential rights to a national government.”48 So visceral was Lansing’s revulsion against Madison’s plan that he said that if New York had suspected a new national government would be contemplated, it would never have sent delegates to Philadelphia. Lansing’s speech confirmed Hamilton’s minority status in his delegation, reducing his influence on the convention floor.
For those who knew Hamilton, his generally passive behavior during the first three weeks was mystifying. He had never been known to hug the sidelines. As the convention split over the Virginia and New Jersey plans, Hamilton stayed conspicuously aloof from both camps. Robert Yates noted on June 15, “Col. Hamilton cannot say he is in sentiment with either plan.”49 Madison recorded Hamilton as saying that he had been self-effacing partly because he did not wish to dissent from those “whose superior abilities, age, and experience rendered him unwilling to bring forward ideas dissimilar to theirs” and partly owing to the split in his delegation.50
It was predictable that when the wordy Hamilton broke silence, he would do so at epic length. Faced with a deadlock between large and small states, he decided to broach a more radical plan. On Monday morning, June 18, the thirty-two-year-old prodigy rose first on the convention floor and in the stifling, poorly ventilated room he spoke and spoke and spoke. Before the day was through, he had given a six-hour speech (no break for lunch) that was brilliant, courageous, and, in retrospect, completely daft. He admitted to the assembly that he would adumbrate a plan that did not reflect popular opinion. “My situation is disagreeable,” he admitted, “but it would be criminal not to come forward on a question of such magnitude.”51 He said people were tiring in their enthusiasm for “democracy,” by which he meant direct representation or even mob rule, as opposed to public opinion filtered through educated representatives. “And what even is the Virginia Plan,” he asked, “but democracy checked by democracy, or pork with a little change of the sauce?”52 Of all the founders, Hamilton probably had the gravest doubts about the wisdom of the masses and wanted elected leaders who would guide them. This was the great paradox of his career: his optimistic view of America’s potential coexisted with an essentially pessimistic view of human nature. His faith in Americans never quite matched his faith in America itself.
It was typical of Hamilton’s egotism, expansive imagination, and supernormal intellect that he refused to settle for refinements on somebody else’s plan. His mind had minted an entire program for a new government, not just scattered aspects of it. In future years, he reminded critics that the deliberations had been kept secret precisely so that delegates could provoke debate and voice controversial ideas without fear of reprisals. Instead, his speech acquired diabolical status in the rumor mills of the early republic, providing gloating opponents with damning proof of his supposed political apostasy.
Though we have no written transcript of the speech, the sometimes conflicting notes left by Hamilton, Madison, Yates, Lansing, and Rufus King agree in most essentials. Ever since his September 1780 letter to James Duane, Hamilton had toyed with creating a new hybrid form of government that would have the continuity of a monarchy combined with the liberties of a republic, guarding against both anarchy and tyranny. He now suggested a president and Senate that would be elected but would then serve for life on “good behavior.” Hamilton’s chief executive differed from a hereditary monarch because he would be elected and, if he misbehaved, subject to recall. “It will be objected probably that such an executive will be an elective monarch and will give birth to the tumults which characterize that form of gov[ernmen]t,” Madison scribbled as Hamilton declaimed. “He w[oul]d reply that monarch is an indefinite term. It marks not either the degree or duration of power.”53 It scarcely helped Hamilton’s historical reputation that in his personal notes he observed of this monarch, “He ought to be hereditary and to have so much power that it will not be his interest to risk much to acquire more.”54 Hamilton edited this from his talk, however, and never openly advocated a hereditary monarchy, as evidenced by Madison’s reference to an “elective monarch.” And nowhere else in Hamilton’s vast body of work does he support a hereditary executive. Even here, in his most extreme statement, he called for a chief executive subject to ultimate legislative control. However atrociously misguided the idea was, it fell short of proposing a real monarchy, in which a king has permanent, autonomous, hereditary powers that supersede those of all other branches of government.
While Hamilton’s Senate would be chosen for life by electors, his House of Representatives, by contrast, was exceedingly democratic, chosen directly by universal male suffrage every three years. Thus, the aristocratic element would be represented by the Senate, the common folk by the House. As prosperity widened income differentials in future years, Hamilton feared that the Senate and House might try to impose their wills on each other: “Give all power to the many, they will oppress the few. Give all power to the few, they will oppress the many.”55 The system needed an impartial arbiter to transcend class warfare and regional interests, and here Hamilton muddied the waters by using the dreaded word monarch: “This check is a monarch…. There ought to be a principle in government capable of resisting the popular current.”56 Fearing aristocrats as well as commoners, Hamilton wanted to restrain abusive majorities and minorities. “Demagogues are not always inconsiderable persons,” he responded to one Madison speech. “Patricians were frequently demagogues.”57 To curb further abuse, Hamilton recommended a Supreme Court that would consist of twelve judges holding lifetime offices on good behavior. In this manner, each branch would maintain a salutary distance from popular passions. The House of Representatives would be the striking exception. Hamilton concluded, “The principle chiefly intended to be established is this—that there must be a permanent will.”58
No less inflammatory to some listeners was Hamilton’s assessment of the former mother country. “In his private opinion,” Madison recorded, “he had no scruple in declaring…that the British Gov[ernmen]t was the best in the world and that he doubted much whether anything short of it would do in America.”59 For future conspiracy theorists, this admission clinched the case: Hamilton was a dangerous traitor, ready to sell America back into bondage to Britain. In fact, admiration for the British political system was still widespread. At one point, Pierce Butler of South Carolina remarked that the delegates were “constantly running away with the idea of the excellence of the British parliament and with or without reason copying from them.”60 But Hamilton’s detractors were to interpret his view as one of uniquely servile adoration for the British system, with a desire to import it to America.
When he finished, Hamilton received a polite smattering of applause. Perhaps the delegates were glad to escape the heat and head for their lodgings. Gouverneur Morris extolled Hamilton’s speech as “the most able and impressive he had ever heard.”61 William Samuel Johnson of Connecticut said that Hamilton’s speech “has been praised by everybody [but]…supported by none.”62 Years later, John Quincy Adams lauded the plan as one “of great ability” and even better in theory than the one adopted, however misplaced in an American setting.63
How had Hamilton blundered into this speech? That Hamilton had an abiding fear of mob rule did not distinguish him from most delegates. What did distinguish him was that his fears had triumphed so completely over his hopes. He was so busy clamping checks and balances on potentially fickle citizens that he did not stop to consider the potential of the electorate. Hamilton often seemed a man suspended between two worlds. He never supported a nobility, hereditary titles, or the other trappings of aristocracy. He never again uttered a kind word for monarchy. Still, he wondered whether republican government could withstand popular frenzy and instill the deep respect for law and authority that obtained in monarchical systems and that would safeguard liberties. Too often, his political vision harked back to a past in which well-bred elites made decisions for less-educated citizens. This contradicted the advanced economic thinking expressed in his vision of a fluid, meritocratic elite, open to talented outsiders such as himself.
Incorrigibly honest, Hamilton must have felt duty bound to provide an alternative to the Virginia and New Jersey plans, which he thought certain to fail. He must have believed that, if no consensus was reached, his speech would be dusted off and its merits belatedly better appreciated. Until then, he would rely on the secrecy of the proceedings. Hamilton wasn’t the only delegate who offered harebrained ideas. At one point, Hugh Williamson of North Carolina claimed that it was “pretty certain that we should at some time or other have a king.”64 Four states even voted for Hamilton’s proposal of a president serving “during good behavior,” most notably the Virginia delegation that included James Madison, George Mason, and Edmund Randolph. When later taunted by the Jeffersonians, Hamilton was pleased to remind them that Madison, too, had favored such a president. If he was a monarchist, so was Madison. Madison also insisted upon giving the federal government a veto over state laws “as the King of Great Britain heretofore had.”65 Benjamin Franklin wanted a unicameral legislature and an executive council in lieu of a president. He also opposed a presidential veto on legislation, thinking it would lead to executive corruption “till it ends in monarchy.”66 John Dickinson wanted state legislatures to have the power to impeach the president. Elbridge Gerry wanted a three-man “presidency,” with each member representing a different section of America. Though not a delegate, John Adams thought hereditary rule inevitable and prophesied, “Our ship must ultimately land on that shore.”67
For the great majority of delegates, Hamilton’s speech was just a daylong respite from the fierce infighting at hand. The next morning, nobody even took time to refute Hamilton. Madison feared that Hamilton’s speech would alienate small states at a critical moment. In fact, Madison’s Virginia Plan may have profited from Hamilton’s speech because it now seemed moderate by comparison. (Some scholars have argued that this was the true intent of Hamilton’s speech.) When Madison rose to speak, he made no reference to Hamilton’s oratory and consigned it to temporary oblivion. Instead, he mercilessly dissected the New Jersey Plan.
Though Hamilton’s plan was doomed, its effects were to linger long after the delegates had dispersed. Till the end of his days, opponents dredged up the speech, as if it embodied the real Hamilton, the secret Hamilton, as if he had blurted out the truth in a moment of weakness. In fact, nobody fought harder or more effectively for the new Constitution than Hamilton, who never wavered in his resolution to support it. The June 18 speech was to prove one of three flagrant errors in his career. In each case, he was brave, detailed, and forthright on a controversial subject, as if laboring under some compulsion to express his inmost thoughts. Each time, he was spectacularly wrongheaded and indiscreet, yet convinced he was right. Only one thing was certain: this verbose, headstrong, loose-tongued man made poor material for the conspirator conjured up by his enemies.
After his controversial speech, Hamilton lapsed into temporary silence as the large and small states squared off in a tense deadlock. It seemed the divided convention might collapse. When Franklin suggested on June 28 that each session start with a prayer for heavenly help, Hamilton countered that this might foster a public impression that “embarrassments and dissensions within the convention had suggested this measure.”68 According to legend, Hamilton also rebutted Franklin with the jest that the convention didn’t need “foreign aid.”69 The Lord did not seem much in evidence at this point in the convention. One story, perhaps apocryphal, claims that when Hamilton was asked why the framers omitted the word God from the Constitution, he replied, “We forgot.” One is tempted to reply that Alexander Hamilton never forgot anything important.
On June 29, Hamilton mustered the will to speak again, voicing grave anxiety over the stalemated convention: “It is a miracle that we [are] now here exercising our tranquil and free deliberations on the subject. It would be madness to trust to future miracles.”70 Hamilton seized the chance to enunciate his first major statement on foreign policy, noting that great nations follow their interests and contesting the chimerical view that America should concentrate on domestic tranquillity while disregarding its interests abroad: “No governm[en]t could give us tranquillity and happiness at home, which did not possess sufficient stability and strength to make us respectable abroad.”71He also combated the fantasy that the Atlantic Ocean would protect America from future conflicts. With these fighting words, Hamilton splashed a cold dose of realism on the sentimental isolationism of the time.
After delivering these thoughts, Hamilton packed up and returned to New York the next day to attend to personal business. He was “seriously and deeply distressed” by the convention, he wrote to Washington. As he traveled back through New Jersey, he gathered impressions that reinforced his conviction that only tough, fearless measures could stem the country’s chaos. “I fear that we shall let slip the golden opportunity of rescuing the American empire from disunion, anarchy, and misery,” he informed Washington.72
The warring New York delegation shortly fell apart. By July 6, Robert Yates and John Lansing, Jr., had expressed their disgust with the convention by also leaving Philadelphia. Members had come and gone before, but the two New York delegates were the first to depart irrevocably on principle. Washington, aggrieved, wrote to Hamilton: “I almost despair of seeing a favourable issue to…the Convention and do therefore repent having had any agency in the business.” He inveighed against “narrow-minded politicians…under the influence of local views,” who would selfishly block “a strong and energetic government” under the guise of protecting the people. Washington did not seem fazed by Hamilton’s June 18 speech. “I am sorry you went away,” he assured him. “I wish you were back.”73
On July 16, the thick gloom finally lifted at Philadelphia when delegates agreed to a grand bargain, the so-called Connecticut Compromise, proposed by Roger Sherman of Connecticut and others. The major conflicts at the convention had perhaps hinged less on the question of federal versus state power than on how federal representation was apportioned among the states. The delegates solved this baffling riddle by deciding that all states would enjoy equal representation in the Senate (a sop to small states) while representation in the House of Representatives would be proportionate to each state’s population (a sop to large states). This broke the deadlock, though the Senate’s composition introduced a lasting political bias in American life in favor of smaller states.
Left in limbo by Yates and Lansing, Hamilton drifted back and forth between New York and Philadelphia that summer. “Yates and Lansing never voted in one single instance with Hamilton, who was so much mortified at it that he went home,” George Mason told Thomas Jefferson. “When the season for courts came on, Yates, a judge, and Lansing, a lawyer, went to attend their courts. Then Hamilton returned.”74 With Yates and Lansing gone, Hamilton still could not vote because each state needed a minimum of two delegates present, so he became a nonvoting convention member. Yet he no longer had to appease delegates from his own state. Hamilton behaved civilly toward Yates and Lansing, telling them that “for the sake of propriety and public opinion” he would gladly accompany them back to Philadelphia.75 Needless to say, neither ever took him up on the offer.
Having repudiated the convention, Yates and Lansing no longer felt bound by its gag rule and briefed Governor Clinton on what was being meditated in Philadelphia. “We must candidly confess that we should have been equally opposed to any system…which had in object the consolidation of the United States into one government.”76 Perceiving a threat to his power, Clinton stated publicly that the most likely effect of any new charter would be that “the country would be thrown into confusion by the measure,” Hamilton recalled. Irate at this violation of the convention’s confidentiality, Hamilton said that Clinton had not given the Philadelphia meeting a fair chance and had “clearly betrayed an intention to excite prejudices beforehand against whatever plan should be proposed by the Convention.”77
Hamilton was spoiling for a fight as New York resounded with rumors about the events in Philadelphia. When a story appeared that delegates were colluding to bring the duke of York, George III’s second son, from Britain to head an American monarchy, Hamilton traced this absurdity to a letter sent “to one James Reynolds of this city”—the first reference he ever made to the man whose wife would someday be his fatal enchantress.78 On July 21, Hamilton took dead aim at Governor Clinton in New York’s Daily Advertiser. In an unsigned article, he accused Clinton of poisoning the electorate’s mind against the ongoing work in Philadelphia, contending that “such conduct in a man high in office argues greater attachment to his own power than to the public good and furnishes strong reason to suspect a dangerous predetermination to oppose whatever may tend to diminish the former, however it may promote the latter.”79 As so often in his career, Hamilton’s assault on New York’s most powerful man—the opening salvo in his protracted campaign to win New York’s approval of the Constitution—seemed brave and foolhardy in equal measure.
In attacking Clinton, Hamilton went straight for the jugular. The Clintonians hit back hard, spreading smears about Hamilton. While Hamilton had chastised Clinton’s character to illustrate the abuses of self-serving governors, his adversaries vilified his personal reputation. They knew that Hamilton enjoyed Washington’s all-important patronage and tried to soil that association in the public’s mind. In a piece signed “Inspector,” one Clinton henchman wrote, “I have also known an upstart attorney palm himself upon a great and good man for a youth of extraordinary genius and under the shadow of such a patronage make himself at once known and respected…. [H]e was at length found to be a superficial, self-conceited coxcomb and was of course turned off and disregarded by his patron.”80
Hamilton was deeply offended. This man born without honor was exceedingly sensitive to any slights to his political honor. As an outsider on the American scene, he did not believe that he could allow such slander to go unanswered, so he appealed to Washington to correct the distortion: “This, I confess, hurts my feelings, and if it obtains credit will require a contradiction,” he told the general.81 Friendly toward both Hamilton and Clinton, Washington was reluctant to take sides but confirmed to Hamilton that the charges against him were “entirely unfounded.” He had no reason, he said, to believe that Hamilton had taken a single step to finagle an appointment to his military family. As for the confrontation that led to Hamilton’s departure, “Your quitting [was] altogether the effect of your own choice.”82 Through the years, Hamilton was to exhaust himself in efforts to refute lies that grew up around him like choking vines. No matter how hard he tried to hack away at these myths, they continued to sprout deadly new shoots. These myths were perhaps the inevitable reaction to a man so brilliant, so outspoken, and so sure of himself.
Before returning to Philadelphia, Hamilton averted a duel between an English merchant friend, John Auldjo, and Major William Pierce, who happened to be a Georgia delegate to the Constitutional Convention. In a letter to Pierce’s second, Hamilton pleaded for forgiveness of Auldjo’s rude behavior in a business dispute and observed that “extremities ought then only to ensue when, after a fair experiment, accommodation has been found impracticable.”83 As was often the case, the prospect of a duel concentrated the minds of both parties, enabling them to reach a settlement without resort to bloodshed.
On August 6, the Philadelphia convention reconvened to begin the arduous task of refining the Constitution. Hamilton, back by August 13, dove into a debate that passionately engaged him: immigration. He opposed any attempt to restrict membership in Congress to native-born Americans or to stipulate a residency period before immigrants could qualify for it. He told the assembly that “the advantage of encouraging foreigners is obvious…. Persons in Europe of moderate fortunes will be fond of coming here, where they will be on a level with the first citizens. I move that the section be so altered as to require merely citizenship and inhabitancy.”84 This position again contradicts the image of Hamilton as indifferent to the plight of ordinary people. He was overruled: representatives would have a seven-year residency requirement, senators nine, the president fourteen. It has been speculated that Hamilton slipped a clause into the Constitution allowing him to become eligible for the presidency. The final document stated that the president had to be at least thirty-five and either native-born “or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution.” Since Hamilton was away from Philadelphia when a committee formulated this proposal, it seems unlikely that he had any influence upon it.
As Madison conceded, the specter of slavery haunted the convention, and he argued that “the states were divided into different interests not by their difference of size, but principally from their having or not having slaves…. [The conflict] did not lie between the large and small states. It lay between the northern and southern.”85 For many southerners, the slavery issue allowed no room for concessions, and they supported the Virginia Plan in exchange for protecting their peculiar institution. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina stated baldly, “South Carolina and Georgia cannot do without slaves.”86 The issue was so explosive that the word slavery did not appear in the Constitution, replaced by the euphemism of people “held to service or labor.”
Slaveholding states wondered how their human property would be counted for congressional-apportionment purposes. Northern states finally agreed that five slaves would be counted as equivalent to three free whites, the infamous “federal ratio” that survived for another eighty years. The formula richly rewarded the southern states, artificially inflating their House seats and electoral votes and helping to explain why four of the first five presidents hailed from Virginia. This gross inequity was to play no small part in the eventual triumph of Jeffersonian Republicans over Hamiltonian Federalists. In exchange, southern states agreed that the importation of slaves might cease after 1808, feeding an illusory hope that slavery might someday just fade away. Without the federal ratio, Hamilton glumly concluded, “no union could possibly have been formed.”87 Indeed, the whole superstructure erected in Philadelphia rested on that unstable, undemocratic foundation.
Hamilton’s upset over this tolerance of slavery may have been deeper than we know. There has always been some mystery as to his whereabouts after his August 13 statement on immigration. In fact, he had returned to New York for a meeting of the Manumission Society. Hamilton may have apprised members of the impending decision on slavery in Philadelphia, because they delivered a petition to the convention to “promote the attainment of the objects of this society.”88 After the slavery compromise in Philadelphia, Hamilton stepped up his involvement in the Manumission Society. The following year, even while pouring out fifty-one Federalist essays, serving in Congress, and campaigning to ratify the Constitution, he attended a meeting of the society that again protested the export of slaves from New York State and the “outrages committed in digging up and taking away the dead bodies of Negroes buried in the city.”89 Later in the year, Hamilton was appointed one of four counselors of the Manumission Society.
By September 6, Hamilton was back in Philadelphia, having made full peace with the new Constitution. Madison recorded Hamilton as telling delegates that “he had been restrained from entering into the discussion from his dislike of the scheme in general, but as he meant to support the plan…as better than nothing, he wished to offer a few remarks.”90 On September 8, Hamilton joined the Committee of Style and Arrangement, which would arrange the articles of the Constitution and polish its prose. The five-member committee, chaired by William Samuel Johnson, included Rufus King and James Madison but owed most of its success to Hamilton’s friend Gouverneur Morris. Thanks to a carriage accident, Morris, thirty-five, had a wooden leg and walked with a cane, accoutrements that only enhanced his whimsically flamboyant presence. Like Hamilton, the blue-blooded Morris dreaded mob rule and had favored a Senate made up solely of great property owners. He considered slavery a “nefarious institution” that would summon the “curse of heaven on the states where it prevailed.”91 Although he represented Pennsylvania at the convention, he had grown up on Morrisania, the family estate in New York. Tall and urbane, he was a stout patriot with a biting wit and a cavalier twinkle in his eyes. He spoke a record 173 times at the convention, leading William Pierce to marvel at how “he charms, captivates, and leads away the senses of all who hear him.”92
The polyglot Morris was a bon vivant who admitted that he had “naturally a taste for pleasure.”93 At King’s College, he had composed essays on “Wit and Beauty” and on “Love.” Like many flirtatious men who oozed charm, the “Tall Boy” was thought superficial, even decadent, by more austere observers. John Adams said he was a “man of wit and made pretty verses, but of a character très légère.”94 In a similarly deprecatory vein, John Jay once wrote of the randy Morris, “Gouverneur’s leg has been a tax on my heart. I am almost tempted to wish he had lost something else.”95 Morris’s peg leg did not seem to detract from his sexual appeal and may even have enhanced it.
Hamilton and Morris felt a mutual affinity, flavored with some hearty cynicism. Morris admired Hamilton’s intellect even as he reproved him for being “indiscreet, vain, and opinionated.”96 Repaying the compliment, Hamilton called Morris “a man of great genius, liable however to be occasionally influenced by his fancy, which sometimes outruns his discretion.”97 On another occasion, Hamilton branded Morris “a native of this country, but by genius an exotic.”98
There is a splendid, if unsubstantiated, story about Hamilton and Morris at the convention that rings true and conveys Morris’s ironic, self-assured style. Hamilton and Morris were discussing how Washington signaled to people that they should maintain a respectful distance and not behave too familiarly with him. Hamilton wagered Morris that he would not dare to accost Washington with a friendly slap on the back. Taking up the challenge, Morris found Washington standing by the fire-place in a drawing room and genially cuffed him on the shoulder: “My dear general, how happy I am to see you look so well.” Washington fixed Morris with such a frigid gaze that Morris was sorry that he had ever taken up Hamilton’s dare.99
As a member of the style committee, Hamilton showed that, for all his misgivings about the Constitution, he could be cooperative and play a serviceable part. The convention showed good judgment in choosing him, given his literary gifts and rapid pen. It is hard to believe that the Committee of Style and Arrangement took only four days to burnish syllables that were to be painstakingly explicated by future generations. The objective was to make the document short and flexible, its language specific enough to constrain abuses but general enough to allow room for growth. As its chief draftsman, Morris shrank the original twenty-three articles to seven and wrote the great preamble with its ringing opening, “We the People of the United States.” Paying tribute to Morris’s craftsmanship, Madison wrote, “The finish given to the style and arrangement fairly belongs to the pen of Mr. Morris.”100
On September 17, 1787, after almost four months of hard-fought battles, the convention ended when thirty-nine delegates from twelve states signed the Constitution. By scrapping the Articles of Confederation and placing the states under a powerful central government, it represented a monumental achievement. Since Lansing and Yates remained stubborn holdouts, Hamilton ended up as the lone New York delegate to sign the charter. (The names of the states preceding the signatures appear in his handwriting.) It must have been with both relief and joy that Washington entered in his diary that night, “Met in Convention, when the Constitution received the unanimous assent of 11 States and Colo. Hamilton’s from New York.”101 In the end, the headstrong Hamilton subordinated his ego to the common good. At the signing, he announced categorical support for the Constitution and appealed to the delegates for unanimous approval. Reported Madison:
Mr. Hamilton expressed his anxiety [i.e., eagerness] that every member should sign. A few characters of consequence, by opposing or even refusing to sign the Constitution, might do infinite mischief by kindling the latent sparks which lurk under an enthusiasm in favor of the Convention, which may soon subside. No man’s ideas were more remote from the plan than his were known to be. But is it possible to deliberate between anarchy and convulsion on one side and the chance of good to be expected from the plan on the other.102
After signing, the delegates adjourned to the City Tavern, which John Adams described as the “most genteel tavern in America,” for a farewell dinner.103 Behind the conviviality lurked unspoken fears, and Washington, for one, doubted that the new federal government would survive twenty years.
The delegates decided that the Constitution would take effect when nine state conventions approved it. For tactical and philosophical reasons, state legislatures were bypassed in favor of independent ratifying conventions. This would prevent state officials hostile to the new federal government from killing it off. Also, by having autonomous conventions approve the Constitution, the new republic would derive its legitimacy not from the statehouses but directly from the citizenry, enabling federal law to supersede state legislation.
With the possible exception of James Madison, nobody had exerted more influence than Hamilton in bringing about the convention or a greater influence afterward in securing passage of its sterling product. His behavior at the convention itself was another matter. It would long seem contradictory—and, to Jeffersonians, downright suspicious—that Hamilton could support a document that he had contested at such length. In fact, the Constitution represented a glorious compromise for every signer. This flexibility has always been honored as a sign of political maturity, whereas Hamilton’s concessions have often been given a conspiratorial twist. For the rest of his life, Hamilton remained utterly true to his pledge that he would do everything in his power to see the Constitution successfully implemented. He never wavered either in public or in private. And there was a great deal in the document that was compatible with ideas about government that he had expressed since 1780. His reservations had less to do with the powers of the new government than with the tenure of the people exercising them. In the end, nobody would do more than Alexander Hamilton to infuse life into this parchment and make it the working mandate of the American government.