Alexander Hamilton - Ron Chernow (2005)
Chapter 13. PUBLIUS
For all its gore and mayhem, the American Revolution had unified the thirteen states, binding them into a hopeful, if still restive, nation. The aftermath of the Constitutional Convention, by contrast, turned ugly and divisive, polarizing the populace. Four days after Hamilton affixed his signature to the Constitution, The Daily Advertiser gave New Yorkers their first glimpse of it, and many blanched in amazement. This charter went far beyond Congress’s instructions to rework the Articles of Confederation: it brought forth a brand-new government. The old confederation had simply gone up in smoke. Marinus Willett, once a stalwart of the Sons of Liberty and now New York’s sheriff, echoed the consternation among Governor Clinton’s entourage when he lambasted the new Constitution as “a monster with open mouth and monstrous teeth ready to devour all before it.”1
Amid great uproar and incessant debate, the country began to divide into two groups. Those in favor of the new dispensation and a dominant central government were called, somewhat illogically, federalists—a name ordinarily applied to supporters of a loose confederation. Opponents of the Constitution, who feared encroachments on state prerogatives, were now termed antifederalists. The two sides projected competing nightmares of what would happen if the other side prevailed. The federalists evoked disunion, civil war, and foreign intrigue, along with flagrant repudiation of debt and assaults on property. The antifederalists talked darkly of despotism and a monarchy, the ascendancy of the rich, and the outright abolition of the states. If both sides trafficked in hyperbole, we must remember how much was at stake. The Revolution had focused on independence from Britain and sidestepped the question of what sort of society America ought to be—a question that could no longer be postponed. Did the Revolution herald a new social order, or would it perpetuate something closer to the status quo ante? And didn’t the new Constitution, by fostering a dominant central government, imitate the British model against which the colonists had rebelled? The brevity and generality of the Constitution made it susceptible to many interpretations. One could imagine almost anything about a government that existed only on paper. Paranoid thinking seems to be a legacy of all revolutions, with purists searching for signs of heresy, and the American experience was no exception.
Given the well-organized opposition in large states such as Virginia and New York, it seemed likely that it would be an uphill battle to get the Constitution ratified. As often incredulous citizens studied the document in taverns and coffeehouses, many rejected it at first blush. The convention’s secrecy encouraged suspicions of a wicked cabal at work. Patrick Henry, for one, railed against “the tyranny of Philadelphia” and compared the new charter to “the tyranny of George III.”2 Objections to the Constitution ranged from the noble (insistence upon a bill of rights or the mandatory rotation of presidents) to the base (a desire to protect local politicians or preserve slavery from an intrusive federal government). The tariff issue held special force in New York, where state customs revenues made other taxes unnecessary. Under the new Constitution, customs collection would become a federal monopoly. By the fall of 1787, the debate over the new dispensation obsessed New Yorkers. In the words of one newspaper, “The rage of the season is…Jack, what are you, boy, federal or antifederal.”3
The rancor ushered in a golden age of literary assassination in American politics. No etiquette had yet evolved to define the legitimate boundaries of dissent. Poison-pen artists on both sides wrote vitriolic essays that were overtly partisan, often paid scant heed to accuracy, and sought a visceral impact. The inflamed rhetoric once directed against Britain was now turned inward against domestic adversaries.
The Clintonians were still smarting over Hamilton’s midsummer invective against the governor. Their animosity was further riled in early September when a newspaper scribe called “Rough Carver” ridiculed Clinton as the “thick-skulled and double-hearted chief” of those “who will coolly oppose everything which does not bear the marks of self.”4 For several weeks, a violent press battle raged between federalists and antifederalists. The Clintonian response to “Rough Carver” appeared under “A Republican” and took deadly aim at Hamilton and the “lordly faction” that wanted to “establish a system more favorable to their aristocratic views.”5 This led to a federalist rebuttal by “Aristides” that sketched a heroic portrait of Hamilton as a sublime human being “impelled from pure principles,” who had sounded “a noble and patriotic alarm” against the dangers of the Articles of Confederation.6
Never one to dodge controversy, Hamilton admitted that he had written the anonymous summer attack on Clinton. But then, far from laying the feud to rest, he renewed the offensive. For Hamilton, Clinton epitomized the flaws of the old confederation, and he denounced “the pernicious intrigues of a man high in office to preserve power and emolument to himself at the expense of the union, the peace, and the happiness of America.”7 Hamilton presented himself as a paragon of virtue—a tactic that later came back to haunt him. Writing of himself in the third person, he issued this challenge to his opponents: “Mr. Hamilton can, however, defy all their malevolent ingenuity to produce a single instance of his conduct, public or private, inconsistent with the strict rules of integrity and honor.”8
George Clinton responded to Hamilton’s declaration of war on two levels. The governor almost certainly authored seven essays signed “Cato” that set forth reasoned objections to the Constitution. “Cato” wanted a stronger Congress, more members in the House of Representatives, and a weak president restricted to one term. Then a pair of newspaper articles styled “Inspector” showed just how vicious the calumny against Hamilton would be. Hamilton was portrayed as the uppity “Tom S**t” (Tom Shit) and introduced as a “mustee”—the offspring of a white person and a quadroon. This was the first time that Hamilton’s opponents tried to denigrate him with charges of mixed racial ancestry. Tom Shit is mocked for his “Creolian” writing. In a soliloquy, Tom, a conceited upstart and British lackey, says, “My dear masters, I am indeed leading a very hard life in your service…. Consider the great sacrifices I have made for you. By birth a subject of his Danish Majesty, I quitted my native soil in the torrid zone and called myself a North American for your sakes.” Tom is accused of having sent his “Phocion” essays, defending persecuted Tories, straight from the king’s printer in England. After castigating Hamilton as a treacherous foreigner, the author refers to Washington as Hamilton’s “immaculate daddy,” a snide reference to Hamilton’s illegitimacy.9 Thus began the baseless mythology, which persists to this day, that Hamilton was Washington’s “natural” child.
“Inspector” seemed to know all about Hamilton’s notorious June 18 speech at the convention, but the secret nature of the deliberations made it impossible to print anything directly. So, in the next installment, he concocted an allegory in which a “Mrs. Columbia” asks Tom Shit how best to run her plantation. Tom replies that the plantation superintendent should be installed for life instead of for four-year terms. The author concludes, “Such strides [Tom] had already made in emerging from obscurity that he conceived nothing was beyond the reach of his good fortune.”10 Evidently, Clintonians thought the time had come to chop Hamilton down to size by jeering at his foreign birth, his supposed racial identity, his illegitimacy, and his putative links to the British Crown—attacks that set a pattern for the rest of Hamilton’s career. Since critics found it hard to defeat him on intellectual grounds, they stooped to personal attacks.
In late September, Hamilton jotted down some unpublished reflections on the Constitution. He was guardedly hopeful that it would be ratified as men of property closed ranks to stop “the depredations which the democratic spirit is apt to make on property.” He thought it would also be supported by creditors eager to see government debt repaid. On the other hand, it would be resisted by state politicians who feared a decrease in their power and citizens who dreaded new taxes. If the Constitution was not ratified, Hamilton expected a “dismemberment of the Union and monarchies in different portions of it” or else several republican confederacies. If civil war came, he foresaw a possible reversion to colonial status: “A reunion with Great Britain, from universal disgust at a state of commotion, is not impossible, though not much to be feared. [Presumably, Hamilton meant that it was not likely.] The most plausible shape of such a business would be the establishment of a son of the present [British] monarchy in the supreme government of this country with a family compact.”11
Impelled by such fears, Hamilton flung himself into defending the Constitution. Throughout his career, he operated in the realm of the possible, taking the world as it was, not as he wished it to be, and he often inveighed against a dogmatic insistence upon perfection. Being a lawyer may have eased his transition from arch skeptic to supreme admirer of the Constitution, for he had the attorney’s ability to make the best case for an imperfect client. He was not alone in making this transition: all the delegates at Philadelphia had adopted the final document in a spirit of compromise. They approached it as a collective work and championed it as the best available solution. What Jefferson said of George Washington could easily have applied to Hamilton: “He has often declared to me that he considered our new constitution as an experiment on the practicability of republic government…[and] that he was determined the experiment should have a fair trial and would lose the last drop of his blood in support of it…. I do believe that General Washington had not a firm confidence in the durability of our government.”12 Hamilton was no less hopeful, no less committed, and certainly no less skeptical.
By early October 1787, Hamilton conceived an ambitious writing project to help elect federalist delegates to the New York Ratifying Convention: a comprehensive explication of the entire document, written by New Yorkers for a New York audience. In early October 1787, James Kent encountered Hamilton at a dinner party at the Schuyler mansion in Albany, where Hamilton was attending the fall session of the state supreme court. Philip Schuyler expatiated on the need for a national revenue system while Hamilton listened quietly. “Mr. Hamilton appeared to be careless and desultory in his remarks,” Kent recalled, “and it occurred to me afterwards…that he was deeply meditating the plan of the immortal work of The Federalist.”13
Tradition claims that Hamilton wrote the first installment of the masterpiece known as The Federalist Papers in the cabin of a Hudson River sloop as he and Eliza returned to New York from Albany. Eliza recalled going upriver, not down, and said Hamilton laid out the contours of the project as they sailed: “My beloved husband wrote the outline of his papers in The Federalist on board of one of the North River sloops while on his way to Albany, a journey…which in those days usually occupied a week. Public business so filled up his time that he was compelled to do much of his studying and writing while traveling.”14 Whether he was sailing downriver or upriver, it is pleasant to picture Hamilton scratching out his plan as the tall, single-masted schooner slipped past the Hudson Highlands and the Palisades. This first essay appeared in The Independent Journal on October 27, 1787.
Hamilton supervised the entire Federalist project. He dreamed up the idea, enlisted the participants, wrote the overwhelming bulk of the essays, and oversaw the publication. For his first collaborator, he recruited John Jay, a tall, thin, balding man with a pale, melancholy face and a wary look in his deep-set gray eyes. Jay always looked austere, almost gaunt, in paintings, though he could show delightful flashes of wit. Descended from Huguenots, the son of a wealthy merchant, Jay had been the major draftsman of the New York State Constitution. Along with Franklin and Adams, he had negotiated the treaty that ended the Revolution and was a longtime secretary of foreign affairs under the Articles of Confederation. With his first-rate mind and unquestioned integrity, he was a superb choice to collaborate on the project.
Hamilton and Jay invited in three other authors. Madison wrote, “The undertaking was proposed by Alexander Hamilton to James Madison with a request to join him and Mr. Jay in carrying it into effect. William Duer was also included in the original plan and wrote two or more papers, which, though intelligent and sprightly, were not continued, nor did they make a part of the printed collection.”15 Hamilton courted Gouverneur Morris, who said he was “warmly pressed by Hamilton to assist in writing the Federalist” but was too harried by business to consent.16 That Hamilton approached Morris and Madison shows that he wanted the anonymous essays to profit from detailed knowledge of the convention’s inner workings. He always believed that the framers’ intentions were important, though not decisive. He said the Constitution “must speak for itself. Yet to candid minds, the [contemporary] explanations of it by men who had had a perfect opportunity of knowing the views of its framers must operate as a weighty collateral reason for believing the construction agreeing with this explanation to be right, rather than the opposite one.”17
Each author was assigned an area corresponding to his expertise. Jay naturally handled foreign relations. Madison, versed in the history of republics and confederacies, covered much of that ground. As author of the Virginia Plan, he also undertook to explain the general anatomy of the new government. Hamilton took those branches of government most congenial to him: the executive, the judiciary, and some sections on the Senate. Previewing things to come, he also covered military matters and taxation.
The Federalist essays first appeared in newspapers. The authors had to camouflage their identities behind a pseudonym, lest they be accused of betraying the confidentiality of the convention. At first, Hamilton planned to publish the pieces under the rubric of a “Citizen of New York” but changed it when James Madison of Virginia was recruited to the project. He then selected the pen name “Publius,” which he had first used in 1778 when he berated Samuel Chase for wartime profiteering. It was an apposite choice: Publius Valerius had toppled the last Roman king and set up the republican foundations of government. Hamilton rushed a copy to Mount Vernon without identifying himself as its author. “For the remaining numbers of Publius,” Washington responded, “I shall acknowledge yourself obliged, as I am persuaded the subject will be well handled by the author.”18 Jay wrote the next four numbers, then had to drop out because of a severe bout of rheumatism. In the final tally, The Federalist Papers ran to eighty-five essays, with fifty-one attributed to Hamilton, twenty-nine to Madison, and only five to Jay. Since Hamilton had not reckoned on Jay’s illness and had expected to include Morris and Duer, he could never have anticipated that he and Madison would write so much in seven months—some 175,000 words in all—or that The Federalist would essentially settle down to a two-man enterprise. Thanks to the cooperation of Hamilton and Madison, New York emerged as the main arena of intellectual combat over the new plan of government.
The project’s magnitude mushroomed tremendously from its origins, as indicated by Archibald McLean, the Hanover Square printer who published the bound version and felt beleaguered by the project. “When I engaged to do the work,” he groused to Robert Troup, “it was to consist of twenty numbers, or at the most twenty-five.”19 Instead of one projected volume of two hundred pages, McLean complained, The Federalist ended up running to two volumes of about six hundred pages. To worsen matters, the luckless printer was stuck with several hundred unsold copies and grumbled that he didn’t clear five pounds on the whole deal. For Archibald McLean, The Federalist Papers were a dreadful flop, an unfortunate publishing venture best forgotten.
To safeguard his anonymity, Hamilton sent the early essays to the newspapers via Robert Troup. If Hamilton was out of town, he sometimes sent them to Eliza, who may have then relayed them along to Troup. Later, as it became an open secret in New York political circles that Hamilton was the chief author, newspaper publisher Samuel Loudon went straight to Hamilton’s office for fresh copy. Many people knew that Hamilton, Madison, and Jay were the authors, but the trio proclaimed their authorship to only a chosen few and then mostly after the first bound volume was published in March 1788. Madison furnished Jefferson with the relevant names in code, while Hamilton sent Washington the book version and observed, “I presume you have understood that the writers…are chiefly Mr. Madison and myself, with some aid from Mr. Jay.”20 More sensitive was the question of who wrote what. Hamilton and Madison forged a pact that they would reveal this only by mutual agreement, initiating two centuries of scholarly disputation over the authorship of approximately fifteen of the essays. True to their pledge, Hamilton and Madison remained coy on the subject.
The Federalist has been extolled as both a literary and political masterpiece. Theodore Roosevelt commented “that it is on the whole the greatest book” dealing with practical politics.21 Its achievement is the more astonishing for having been written under such fierce deadline pressure. The first of the staggered series of ratifying conventions was scheduled to start in late November, and this allowed Hamilton and Madison little opportunity for fresh research or reflection. They agreed to deliver four essays per week (that is, two apiece) at roughly three-day intervals, leaving little time for revision. The essays then appeared in four of the five New York newspapers. The constantly looming deadlines meant that the authors had to draw on information, ideas, and citations already stored in their minds or notes. Luckily, they had both been in training for several years. Madison explained to Jefferson, “Though [the publication is] carried on in concert, the writers are not mutually answerable for all the ideas of each other, there being seldom time for even a perusal of the pieces by any but the writer before they are wanted at the press, and sometimes hardly by the writer himself.”22 So excruciating was the schedule, Madison said, that often “whilst the printer was putting into type parts of a number, the following parts were under the pen and to be furnished in time for the press.”23 Very often, Hamilton and Madison first read each other’s contributions in print.
Madison was aided by his convention notes and crib sheets from his preparatory reading. Without these scholarly crutches, he confessed, “the performance must have borne a very different aspect.”24 For Hamilton, it was a period of madcap activity. He was stuck with his law practice and had to squeeze the essays into breaks in his schedule, as if they were a minor sideline. Robert Troup noted of Hamilton’s haste in writing The Federalist: “All the numbers written by [Hamilton] were composed under the greatest possible pressure of business, for [he] always had a vast deal of law business to engage his attention.” Troup remembered seeing Samuel Loudon “in [Hamilton’s] study, waiting to take numbers of The Federalist as they came fresh from” his pen “in order to publish them in the next paper.”25 During one prodigious burst after Madison returned to Virginia, Hamilton churned out twenty-one straight essays in a two-month period. On two occasions, he published five essays in a single week and published six in one spectacular week when writing on taxation.
Hamilton’s mind always worked with preternatural speed. His collected papers are so stupefying in length that it is hard to believe that one man created them in fewer than five decades. Words were his chief weapons, and his account books are crammed with purchases for thousands of quills, parchments, penknives, slate pencils, reams of foolscap, and wax. His papers show that, Mozart-like, he could transpose complex thoughts onto paper with few revisions. At other times, he tinkered with the prose but generally did not alter the logical progression of his thought. He wrote with the speed of a beautifully organized mind that digested ideas thoroughly, slotted them into appropriate pigeonholes, then regurgitated them at will.
To understand Hamiliton’s productivity, it is important to note that virtually all of his important work was journalism, prompted by topical issues and written in the midst of controversy. He never wrote as a solitary philosopher for the ages. His friend Nathaniel Pendleton remarked, “His eloquence…seemed to require opposition to give it its full force.”26 But his topical writing has endured because he plumbed the timeless principles behind contemporary events. Whether in legal briefs or sustained polemics, he wanted to convince people through appeals to their reason. He had an incomparable capacity for work and a metabolism that thrived on conflict. His stupendous output came from the interplay of superhuman stamina and intellect and a fair degree of repetition.
Hamilton developed ingenious ways to wring words from himself. One method was to walk the floor as he formed sentences in his head. William Sullivan left an excellent vignette of Hamilton’s intense method of composition.
One who knew his habits of study said of him that when he had a serious object to accomplish, his practice was to reflect on it previously. And when he had gone through this labor, he retired to sleep, without regard to the hour of the night, and, having slept six or seven hours, he rose and having taken strong coffee, seated himself at his table, where he would remain six, seven, or eight hours. And the product of his rapid pen required little correction for the press.27
Since Hamilton’s abiding literary sin was prolixity, the time and length constraints imposed by The Federalist may have given a salutary concision to his writing.
For all his charisma, Alexander Hamilton was essentially an intellectual loner who took perverse pride in standing against the crowd. All the more remarkable that his greatest literary triumph came in close collaboration with Madison and Jay. After leaving the convention in Philadelphia, Madison had returned to his lodgings at 19 Maiden Lane in Manhattan, where he resided with other Virginia delegates to the now almost moribund Confederation Congress. Later anointed “the Father of the Constitution,” Madison had many reservations about the document, especially the equal representation of states in the Senate, and was content at first to let others take up the cudgels in its defense. He also thought it proper that others should assess the convention’s work. But by late October, he was so upset by the grotesque distortions of the Constitution and the furor whipped up by the New York press that he agreed to work with Hamilton on The Federalist.28
Americans often wonder how this moment could have spawned such extraordinary men as Hamilton and Madison. Part of the answer is that the Revolution produced an insatiable need for thinkers who could generate ideas and wordsmiths who could lucidly expound them. The immediate utility of ideas was an incalculable tonic for the founding generation. The fate of the democratic experiment depended upon political intellectuals who might have been marginalized at other periods.
At this crossroads, Hamilton and Madison must have seemed an odd pair in the New York streets: Hamilton, thirty-two, the peacock, wearing bright colors and chattering gaily, and Madison, thirty-six, the crow in habitual black with a quiet, more reflective manner. When French journalist J. P. Brissot de Warville met them that year, it was the older Madison who resembled a pallid young scholar while Hamilton seemed older and more worldly. “This republican seems to be no more than thirty-three years old,” the Frenchman wrote of Madison. “When I saw him, he looked tired, perhaps as a result of the immense labor to which he had devoted himself recently. His expression was that of a stern censor, his conversation disclosed a man of learning, and his countenance was that of a person conscious of his talents and of his duties.”29 Of Hamilton: “Mr. Hamilton is Mr. Madison’s worthy rival as well as his collaborator. He looks thirty-eight or forty years old, is not tall, and has a resolute, frank, soldierly appearance…. [H]e has distinguished himself by his eloquence and by the soundness of his reasoning.”30
Hamilton and Madison came to symbolize opposite ends of the political spectrum. At the time of the Federalist essays, however, they were so close in style and outlook that scholars find it hard to sort out their separate contributions. In general, Madison’s style was dense and professorial, Hamilton’s more graceful and flowing, yet they had a similar flair for startling epigrams and piercing insights. At this stage, Madison often sounded “Hamiltonian” and vice versa. Later identified as a “strict constructionist” of the Constitution, Madison set forth the doctrine of implied powers that Hamilton later used to expand the powers of the federal government. It was Madison who wrote in Federalist number 44, “No axiom is more clearly established in law or in reason than that wherever the end is required, the means are authorized.”31 At this juncture, they could make common cause on the need to fortify the federal government and curb rampant state abuses.
Both Hamilton and Madison were rational men who assumed that people often acted irrationally because of ambition and avarice. Madison wrote, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”32 The two shared a grim vision of the human condition, even if Hamilton’s had the blacker tinge. They both wanted to erect barriers against irrational popular impulses and tyrannical minorities and majorities. To this end, they thought that public opinion should be distilled by skeptical, sober-minded representatives. Despite Hamilton’s reputation as the elitist, the starting point of Madison’s most famous essay, Federalist number 10, is that people possess different natural endowments, leading to an unequal distribution of property and conflicts of classes and interests. In a big, heterogeneous country, Madison argued, these conflicting interests would neutralize one another, checking abuses of power. “Let ambition counteract ambition,” he wrote in Federalist number 51.33
If Madison displays a broader knowledge of theory and history in The Federalist, Hamilton betrays wider knowledge of the world. With his itinerant background, he brought commercial, military, and political expertise to bear. This was especially true in discussions of political economy, in which he outshone Madison. Madison showed more interest in constitutional curbs against tyrannical encroachments, whereas Hamilton lauded spurs to action. In sections of The Federalist dealing with the executive and judicial branches, Hamilton pressed his case for vigor and energy in government, a hobbyhorse he was to ride for the rest of his career. At the same time, he was always careful to reconcile the need for order with the thirst for liberty. Bernard Bailyn has written that “the Constitution, in creating a strong central government, The Federalist argued, did not betray the Revolution, with its radical hopes for greater political freedom than had been known before. Quite the contrary, it fulfilled those radical aspirations, by creating the power necessary to guarantee both the nation’s survival and the preservation of the people and the states’ rights.”34
Let us pause to survey The Federalist, with special attention to Hamilton’s contributions, for these essays testify to the extraordinary breadth of his thinking. As author of the opening salvo, Hamilton began with a flourish, addressing the series “To the People of the State of New York. After an unequivocal experience of the inefficacy of the subsisting Federal Government, you are called upon to deliberate on a new Constitution for the United States of America.” The main question was whether good governments could be created “from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”35 One can almost see Hamilton declaiming as he announced that the outcome of the ratifying conventions would determine “the fate of an empire” and that rejection would be a “general misfortune of mankind.”36
Hamilton questioned the motives of the Constitution’s opponents and censured the two types who had populated his political nightmares: state politicians (read: George Clinton) who feared an erosion of their power, and demagogues who fed off popular confusion while proclaiming popular rights (Jefferson later took this starring role). Hamilton warned that “a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people than under the forbidding appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government.”37 Having set the stage, Hamilton outlined the general plan of the future essays but did not specify their number.
In the next four essays, John Jay showed how weak and vulnerable the confederation had been in foreign affairs. Then Hamilton devoted four essays to the pernicious domestic consequences that would ensue if the Articles of Confederation endured and states continued to bicker with one another. With his penchant for disaster scenarios, Hamilton cited dire precedents from ancient Greece to Shays’s Rebellion. In Federalist number 6, he mocked as wishful thinking the notion that democratic republics would necessarily be peaceful: “Are not popular assemblies frequently subject to the impulses of rage, resentment, jealousy, avarice, and of other irregular and violent propensities?” This prophet of global trade also dismissed the pipe dream that commerce invariably unites nations: “Has commerce hitherto done anything more than change the objects of war? Is not the love of wealth as domineering and enterprising a passion as that of power or glory?”38 Hamilton disputed that America would be an Eden governed by a special providence: “Is it not time to awake from the deceitful dream of a golden age and to adopt as a practical maxim for the direction of our political conduct that we, as well as the other inhabitants of the globe, are yet remote from the happy empire of perfect wisdom and perfect virtue?”
Starting with Federalist number 7, Hamilton reviewed the numberless things that states could squabble about without a strong union. The lack of fortifications and standing armies would only exacerbate wars among the states, tempting bigger states to behave in predatory fashion toward smaller ones. The resulting chaos would lead to the very despotic militarism that antifederalists feared, for in such a situation “the people are brought to consider the soldiery not only as their protectors, but as their superiors.”39 While conceding that republics had produced disorders in the past, Hamilton noted that progress in the “science of politics” had fostered principles that would prevent most abuses: the division of powers among departments, legislative checks and balances, an independent judiciary, and representation by elected legislators.40 When Jay fell ill, Madison brilliantly leaped into the void with his celebrated Federalist number 10, the most influential of all the essays, in which he took issue with Montesquieu’s theory that democracy could survive only in small states. Standing this argument on its head, Madison showed that in a more extensive republic, interest groups would counterbalance one another and avert tyrannical majorities.
In Federalist numbers 11–13, Hamilton displayed his practical, administrative bent as he explained the advantages of the new union for commerce as well as government revenues and expenses. He revealed America’s commercial destiny as he prophesied that envious European states would try to clip the wings “by which we might soar to a dangerous greatness.”41 With a powerful union, America would strike better commercial bargains and create a respectable navy. He offered an expansive view of prosperous American merchants, farmers, artisans, and manufacturers, all working together. In a sudden flash of economic foresight, he anticipated twentieth-century monetary theory: “The ability of a country to pay taxes must always be proportioned, in a great degree, to the quantity of money in circulation and to the celerity [what economists now call velocity] with which it circulates.”42 Blessed with a potent union, the government would collect customs duties with greater efficiency, since it would not have to stop contraband among the states and need only patrol the Atlantic seaboard. Americans would likewise save money by having a single country rather than the separate confederacies that might stem from disunion. All this was a further rebuttal to Montesquieu’s view that large republics could never survive.
In Federalist numbers 15–22, Hamilton and then Madison skewered the anarchic state of the confederation. Pride and honor always loomed large in Hamilton’s value system, both personal and political, and he mourned the national degradation and loss of dignity after the Revolution. The United States had become a pariah country, sneered at by foreign states: “We have neither troops nor treasury nor government.”43 Land and property values had plummeted, money had grown scarce, public credit had been destroyed—all because the central government lacked power. And it lacked that power because it had to rely for revenue upon the states, who competed to provide the least money to it.
Only if the federal government could deal directly with its citizens and not fear obstruction from the states could it be a true government. In number 17, Hamilton disagreed that national officials would be able to impose their wills on the states. State governments would always have superior claims on people’s affections, and abuses of power would therefore more likely occur on the local level. Here Hamilton had planned a tour d’horizon of ancient and modern confederacies, showing how they tended to fall apart. When he learned that Madison had already undertaken this work, Hamilton handed him his notes for Federalist numbers 18–20. The resulting somewhat pedantic essays by Madison ended on a defensive note: “I make no apology for having dwelt so long on the contemplation of these federal precedents. Experience is the oracle of truth and where its responses are unequivocal, they ought to be conclusive and sacred.”44
To round out his searching critique of the Articles of Confederation, Hamilton devoted two more essays to the central government’s impotence in enforcing the law. Recalling Shays’s Rebellion, he inquired, “Who can determine what might have been the issue of [Massachusetts’s] late convulsions if the malcontents had been headed by a Caesar or a Cromwell?” (This and numerous other pejorative references to Caesar belie Jefferson’s canard that Hamilton revered the Roman dictator.) He endorsed the need for federal regulation of commerce and allayed fears that the central government would levy oppressive customs fees: “If duties are too high, they lessen the consumption—the collection is eluded and the product to the treasury is not so great as when they are confined within proper and moderate bounds.”45 He also decried the confederation’s lack of a federal judiciary: “Laws are a dead letter without courts to expound and define their true meaning and operation.”46 In typically categorical fashion, Hamilton ended by dismissing the Articles of Confederation as an abomination, “one of the most execrable forms of government that human infatuation ever contrived.”47
In the next fourteen numbers (23–36), Hamilton undertook a point-by-point defense of the Constitution, making the case that an energetic government would require peacetime armies and taxation—both associated with British rule and hence anathema to radical populists. The new country would be so large, he contended, that only a mighty central government could govern it. To gain the requisite strength, that government would need the option of raising armies instead of relying on the much romanticized state militias: “War, like most other things, is a science to be acquired and perfected by diligence, by perseverance, by time, and by practice.”48 While others maintained that a wide ocean insulated America from European threats, Hamilton saw a country enmeshed in a shrinking world: “The improvements in the art of navigation have…rendered distant nations in a great measure neighbours.”49 Economic and military strength went hand in hand: “If we mean to be a commercial people…we must endeavour as soon as possible to have a navy.”50 As to fears that the federal government would amass excessive power, Hamilton again reassured readers that “the general government will at all times stand ready to check the usurpations of the state governments and these will have the same disposition towards the general government.”51 Similarly, state militias would check potential abuses of any national army, safeguarding the balance of power between the federal and state governments.
Approaching the knotty subject of revenues in number 30, Hamilton described the power of taxation as “an indispensable ingredient in every constitution.”52 Without it, the confederation government “has gradually dwindled into a state of decay, approaching nearly to annihilation.”53 Not only would taxes underwrite operating expenses, but they would enable the country to pay off its debt, restore its credit, and raise large loans in wartime. From his reading of history, Hamilton concluded a few essays later that war was an inescapable fact of life: “the fiery and destructive passions of war reign in the human breast with much more powerful sway than the mild and beneficent sentiments of peace.”54
Broaching the vital doctrine of implied powers in numbers 30–34, Hamilton asserted that in politics “the means ought to be proportioned to the end…. [T]here ought to be no limitation of a power destined to effect a purpose.”55He wanted the Constitution to be a flexible document: “There ought to be a capacity to provide for future contingencies.”56 Making another critical distinction, Hamilton denied that the federal government would retain an exclusive taxing power. States would have concurrent power to tax their citizens because the Constitution “aims only at a partial Union or consolidation.”57 The sole exception would be the federal monopoly of customs duties, then the principal source of revenue and the leading source of existing tensions and inequities among the states.
At moments, it seems clear that while scribbling The Federalist, Hamilton was daydreaming about becoming treasury secretary. In number 35 he wrote, “There is no part of the administration of government that requires extensive information and a thorough knowledge of the principles of political economy so much as the business of taxation.”58 In the following essay, he inserted a statement with a patently autobiographical ring: “There are strong minds in every walk of life that will rise superior to the disadvantages of situation and will command the tribute due to their merit, not only from the classes to which they particularly belong, but from the society in general. The door ought to be equally open to all.”59 At the same time, Hamilton thought that a Congress composed mostly of landowners, merchants, and professionals could legislate effectively for the masses.
On January 11, 1788, Madison began to cover the general structure of the new union in a string of twenty essays, starting with number 37. Hamilton, now back in Albany, may have pitched in on the final ten. Until this point, Hamilton had scarcely said anything in The Federalist that he had not said repeatedly since his earliest wartime letters or in his “Continentalist” essays. Only as he touched upon such topics as elections in the later essays did he diverge from his own preferred beliefs, and even then he surrounded new positions with old arguments. Those who criticize Hamilton for having engaged in a propaganda exercise in The Federalist must reckon with the tremendous continuity that connects the Federalist essays to both his earlier and later writings.
As Madison reviewed the “compound character” of the federalist system in number 37, subtle but fateful differences with Hamilton began to emerge—differences that were to be enlarged over time. In number 41, Madison expressed reservations about standing armies and the onerous taxes needed to sustain them and was cynical about the corruption of the British Parliament. (In other places, however, he sounded like even more of a raging Anglophile than Hamilton.) Madison faulted the Articles of Confederation for their vague language and savored the Constitution’s precision, which he hoped would circumscribe federal powers. Hamilton, in contrast, capitalized on what he saw as the document’s general and elastic language to expand government power.
By numbers 59–61, Hamilton, returned to New York from Albany, took up the subject of congressional elections and regulations. Though identified with northern mercantile interests, Hamilton emphasized that in an agricultural society “the cultivators of land…must upon the whole preponderate in the government.”60 In Federalist number 60, he offered a vision of a House of Representatives dominated by landholders but also marked by diversity. Hamilton was careful to stress that, for the foreseeable future, manufacturing would play an auxiliary role in a predominantly agricultural society.
The five essays (62–66) on the Senate embody the The Federalist’s most collaborative section, with Madison handling the first two, Jay reappearing to take number 64, and Hamilton winding up the two concluding numbers. In number 62, Madison stated frankly that the balance struck between proportional representation in the House and equal representation in the Senate had come from political compromise, not ideal theory. In the next essay, he defended the small, elite Senate against charges that it would grow into “a tyrannical aristocracy” and sounded Hamiltonian when he stated that “liberty may be endangered by the abuses of liberty as well as by the abuses of power…. [T]he former rather than the latter is apparently mostto be apprehended by the United States.”61 With this parting shot, Madison went back to Virginia in March to defend the Constitution in his home state. Once Jay wrote number 64 on the treaty powers of the Senate, Hamilton singlehandedly penned the next twenty-one essays (65–85), handling parts of the Senate as well as the entire commentary on the executive and judicial branches.
In his superb account of Senate impeachment powers in number 65, Hamilton visualized, with exceptional prescience, the problems that would occur when passions inflamed the country and partisanship split the Senate over an accused federal official. Since the impeached president or federal judge would remain liable to prosecution if removed from office, Hamilton showed the Constitution’s wisdom in having the chief justice alone preside over the trial instead of the entire Supreme Court. The Senate would benefit from the chief justice’s judicial knowledge while keeping the high court free for any future decisions related to the case. Acknowledging imperfections in the impeachment process, Hamilton stressed that the Constitution had produced the best compromise available: “If mankind were to resolve to agree in no institution of government until every part of it had been adjusted to the most exact standard of perfection, society would soon become a general scene of anarchy and the world a desert.”62
In turning to the executive branch (67–77), Hamilton wrote about the part of government in which he had the keenest interest and which he considered the engine of the entire machinery. As he phrased it in number 70, “Energy in the executive is a leading character in the defintion of good government.”63 He mocked exaggerated fears of the powers bestowed on the president and said that in some respects he would have fewer powers than New York’s governor. Hamilton drew freely on statements he had made at the Constitutional Convention to distinguish his “elective monarch” from a king. The British king, he pointed out, was hereditary, could not be removed by impeachment, had an absolute veto over the laws of both houses, and could dissolve Parliament, declare war, make treaties, confer titles of nobility, and bestow church offices. It clearly exasperated Hamilton that critics were drawing facile comparisons between the American president and the British king.
In his essays on the need for executive-branch vigor, Hamilton continually invoked the king of England as an example of what should be avoided, especially the monarch’s lack of accountability. Every president “ought to be personally responsible for his behaviour in office.”64 In number 71, Hamilton presented his theory of presidents as leaders who should act for the popular good, even if the people were sometimes deluded about their interests. Hamilton made the argument that the separate branches of government were not intended only to curb one another but to afford independence to one another: “To what purpose separate the executive or the judiciary from the legislative if both the executive and the judiciary are so constituted as to be at the absolute devotion of the legislative?”65
Deviating from his convention speech, Hamilton now touted the merits of a four-year term for the president, who could run for additional terms. This would give occupants of the office an incentive to perform well and “secure to the government the advantage of permanency in a wise system of administration.”66 In reviewing presidential powers (73–77), Hamilton praised the presidential veto as a way to contain the legislature and offset popular fads. Where populists worried that the executive branch might overwhelm the legislature, Hamilton had a contrary fear of excessive legislative power. In number 74, he made a moving appeal for the presidential power to issue pardons: “Humanity and good policy conspire to dictate that the benign prerogative for pardoning should be as little as possible fettered or embarrassed. The criminal code of every country partakes so much of necessary severity that without an easy access to exceptions in favor of unfortunate guilt, justice would wear a countenance too sanguinary and cruel.”67 In this passage, he sounded reminiscent of the young Colonel Hamilton who pleaded with General Washington to show mercy for Major John André.
Notwithstanding his preference for a strong president, Hamilton applauded many checks on presidential power. To protect the country from a president corrupted by foreign ministries, Hamilton approved the provision requiring presidents to obtain two-thirds approval of the Senate to enact treaties. In a similar vein, he approved the presidential power to appoint ambassadors and Supreme Court judges, subject to Senate confirmation, which would check “a spirit of favoritism in the President.”68 In The Federalist Papers, Hamilton was as quick to applaud checks on powers as those powers themselves, as he continued his lifelong effort to balance freedom and order. In the final analysis, he thought that the federal government, not the states, would be the best guarantee of individual liberty.
In the last eight essays of The Federalist (78–85), written for the conclusion of the second bound volume, Hamilton dedicated the first six to the judiciary. Throughout his career, he showed special solicitude for an independent judiciary, which he thought the most important guardian of minority rights but also the weakest of the three branches of government: “It commands neither the press nor the sword. It has scarcely any patronage.”69 He was especially intent that the federal judiciary check any legislative abuses. In number 78, Hamilton introduced an essential concept, never made explicit in the Constitution: that the Supreme Court should be able to review and overturn legislation as unconstitutional. At Philadelphia, delegates had concentrated on the question of state versus federal courts, not whether courts could invalidate legislation. Here, Hamilton bluntly affirmed that “no legislative act…contrary to the constitution can be valid,” laying the intellectual groundwork for the doctrine of judicial review later promulgated by Supreme Court justice John Marshall.70 When Hamilton wrote these words, state judges had taken only the first tentative steps in nullifying laws passed by their assemblies.
Hamilton revered great judges and in the next essay pondered how the most highly qualified people could be recruited and retained by the courts. He argued for adequate salaries and against both age limits and the power to remove judges, except by impeachment. He then outlined the scope of the courts’ jurisdiction and the separate bailiwicks of the Supreme Court and the appellate courts. In number 82, Hamilton tackled the vexed issue of how powers would be divided between state and federal courts, insisting that, in the last analysis, judicial power must rest with the federal courts. Though a believer in trial by jury, he dissented in the next essay from the fanciful idea that juries were universally applicable in civil as well as criminal cases. He was particularly alarmed at the prospect that juries would sit in cases involving foreign relations, where their ignorance of the law of nations might “afford occasions of reprisal and war” from the countries affected.71
Many foes of the Constitution were demanding a bill of rights as a precondition for ratification. In number 84, Hamilton said this would be superfluous and even potentially hazardous: “For why declare that things shall not be done which there is no power to do? Why, for instance, should it be said that the liberty of the press shall not be restrained when no power is given by which restrictions may be imposed?”72 He also thought the Constitution had already guaranteed many rights ranging from habeas corpus to trial by jury. Where Hamilton often seems oracular in The Federalist, he was frightfully wide of the mark when it came to a bill of rights, one of his real failures of vision. We should note that in Federalist number 84, he supported with enthusiasm the Constitution’s ban on titles of nobility: “This may truly be denominated the cornerstone of republican government, for so long as they are excluded, there can never be serious danger that the government will be any other than that of the people.”73
In the final essay, number 85, Hamilton reminded readers that the Constitution was not a perfect document and cited Hume that only time and experience could guide political enterprises to completion. It would be folly to imagine that the framers could attain instant perfection. The final lines of The Federalist throbbed with high hopes but were also tinged with darkness. On a promising note, Hamilton said, “A nation without a national government is, in my view, an awful spectacle. The establishment of a constitution in [a] time of profound peace by the voluntary consent of a whole people is a prodigy, to the completion of which I look forward with trembling anxiety.”74 If Hamilton had ended on this uplifting note, he would not have been Hamilton. So he closed instead with the ominous warning that “I know that powerful individuals in this and in other states are enemies to a general national government in every possible shape.”75 Thus ended the most persuasive defense of the Constitution ever written. By the year 2000, it had been quoted no fewer than 291 times in Supreme Court opinions, with the frequency of citations rising with the years.
As the excruciating demands of The Federalist rendered Hamilton’s life even more sedentary than usual, he was a prisoner of his desk. He had no relief from his labors or time for diversion. Reelected to Congress by the New York legislature on January 22, 1788, he didn’t even have a chance to present his credentials until February 25. That spring, swept up in a political whirlwind, he apologized to Gouverneur Morris for having been incommunicado, saying, “The truth is that I have been so overwhelmed in avocations of one kind or another that I have scarcely had a moment to spare to a friend.”76 Amid his manifold labors, Hamilton kept a careful eye on the pregnant Eliza, who gave birth to their fourth child, James Alexander, on April 14. Eliza spent the summer with her family in Albany, attended by an unexpected visitor: Ann Venton Mitchell.
The Federalist is so renowned as the foremost exposition of the Constitution that it is easy to forget its original aim: ratification in Hamilton’s home state. Printed in only a dozen papers outside of New York, its larger influence was spotty. In places where it did appear, the verbal avalanche of Hamilton, Madison, and Jay overwhelmed hapless readers. In mid-December, one embattled antifederalist in Philadelphia bewailed the never-ending onslaught of words: “Publius has already written 26 numbers, as much as would jade the brains of any poor sinner…so that in decency he should now rest on his arms and let the people draw their breath for a little.”77 Another antifederalist complained that Publius had “endeavored to force conviction by a torrent of misplaced words.”78 Supporters, however, had a bottomless appetite for the essays, and the authors’ names began to leak out. When Edward Carrington of Virginia sent the first bound volume to Jefferson in Paris, he added, with suspiciously precise guesswork: “They are written, it is supposed, by Messrs. Madison, Jay and Hamilton.”79
The Philadelphia convention had decided that the Constitution would take effect once it was ratified by nine state conventions. Hamilton had given the rationale for state conventions in Federalist number 22: “The fabric of American empire ought to rest on the solid basis of the consent of the people.”80 Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey approved the document in December 1787, Georgia and Connecticut in January, and Massachusetts by a slim majority in early February. The Federalist produced its greatest impact in the later stages of the ratification battle, especially after the first bound volume appeared on March 22. When New York selected convention delegates that April, Hamilton was among them. James Kent recalled that at one nomination meeting “the volumes were there circulated to the best of our judgments…. Col. Hamilton was very soon and very generally understood to be the sole or principal author.”81 Madison sent hundreds of copies to Virginia delegates, including John Marshall. The Federalist’s influence was to be especially critical in New York and Virginia, two large states indispensable to the union’s long-term viability.
The state conventions were cunningly staggered so that a bandwagon effect might be created in favor of approval. This made the later gatherings scenes of high drama, as the tally of ratifying states approached the magic number nine. Though The Federalist was originally intended to sway delegate selection in New York, it failed in that intent. When the results were tabulated, the outlook appeared pretty ghastly for Hamilton and the federalists: they had attained a mere nineteen delegates in New York City and environs versus forty-six for an upstate antifederalist slate headed by Governor Clinton. For all the intellectual firepower marshaled in The Federalist, New York had a highly intelligent, well-oiled opposition to the Constitution.
By late May, Maryland and South Carolina had given their blessings to the Constitution, bringing the total of ratifying states to eight, just one shy of the number needed, but victory in some of the remaining states seemed questionable. North Carolina and Rhode Island both scorned the scheme, while New Hampshire vacillated. So the battle for the Constitution seemed to boil down to the contests in Virginia and New York, whose conventions began in June.
Fortunately for supporters, the second volume of The Federalist was published on May 28 and contained the eight new essays by Hamilton. These bonus essays appeared in the newspapers between June 14 and August 16, with a new one cropping up every few days as the New York delegates began to deliberate. Hamilton and Madison vowed to stay in touch as their respective conventions progressed. Because Virginia’s started two weeks earlier, Hamilton had instructed Madison to relay to him immediately any favorable news, since passage in Virginia might prod reluctant New Yorkers to follow suit. “It will be of vast importance that an exact communication should be kept up between us at that period,” Hamilton told Madison. “And the moment any decisive question is taken, if favourable, I request you to dispatch an express to me with pointed orders to make all possible diligence by changing horses & c.”82 In the same anxious tone, Hamilton arranged for swift riders to race from New Hampshire to New York with any encouraging news. In both cases, Hamilton promised to defray the expenses.
For all the high-toned language of The Federalist, Hamilton knew that the New York convention would come down to bare-knuckled politics. A prominent antifederalist had already warned him that “rather than to adopt the Constitution, I would risk a government of Jew, Turk or infidel.”83 Hamilton knew that such zealotry would not be amenable to persuasion, especially with George Clinton at the delegation’s head. “As Clinton is truly the leader of his party and inflexibly obstinate, I count little on overcoming opposition by reason,” Hamilton confided to Madison. “Our only chances will be the previous ratification by nine states, which may shake the firmness of his followers.”84
Though eight states had already ratified, the final leg of the journey was anything but smooth. “The plot thickens fast,” George Washington told the marquis de Lafayette in late May. “A few short weeks will determine the political fate of America.”85 As Hamilton gloomily surveyed the scene, he feared that New York might stall for another year before deciding whether to join the union, and he reiterated to Madison his perpetual fears of “an eventual disunion and civil war.”86
Unlike upstate farmers, New York City merchants heartily supported the Constitution and gave a festive send-off to federalist delegates when they departed for the Poughkeepsie convention on June 14. Crowds waved, and thirteen cannon roared at the Battery as a delegation led by Mayor James Duane embarked on a Hudson River sloop for the seventy-five-mile journey upriver. This illustrious group included Hamilton, Jay, and Robert R. Livingston, and it made up in intelligence what it lacked in numbers. As the one person in Poughkeepsie who had signed the Constitution, Hamilton was to enjoy special prestige, but he knew it would be a tough, protracted struggle against George Clinton’s fearsome political machine.
The convention was held at the Poughkeepsie courthouse, a two-story building with a cupola and gruesome dungeons below for prisoners. Governor Clinton was elected as the chairman. If dignified in mien, he was scarcely a neutral arbiter. In Federalist number 77, Hamilton had already blasted him for running “a despicable and dangerous system of personal influence.”87 Clinton feared that Hamilton wanted to obliterate the states, but he was confident he had sufficient votes to squash the Constitution in New York or encumber it with so many conditions as to make its acceptance impossible.
At the outset, Hamilton slipped a technical provision into the convention rules that was a tactical bonanza for the federalists: the Constitution had to be debated clause by clause before a general vote could be taken. It was a masterly stroke. Nobody could vie with Hamilton in close textual analysis, and this step-by-step approach would stall the proceedings, increasing the likelihood that riders from Virginia or New Hampshire would rush in with news that their state had ratified and force New York to follow suit.
Governor Clinton gathered several able antifederalist speakers, of whom the most adroit was Melancton Smith, who had a dry, plainspoken manner and an understated wit. He was a deceptively good debater who knew how to lure opponents into logical traps from which they found it hard to escape. Smith saw Hamilton as the cat’s-paw of an aristocratic clique and told the assembly that he “thanked his God that he was a plebeian.”88 He had tremendous respect for Hamilton’s abilities, however, even if he found him wordy and discursive. “Hamilton is the champion,” he admitted to a friend. “He speaks frequently, very long, and very vehemently. He has, like Publius, much to say not very applicable to the subject.”89
Hamilton’s performance at the convention was an exhilarating blend of stamina, passion, and oratorical pyrotechnics. It was a lonely battle—“Our adversaries greatly outnumber us,” he told Madison upon arriving—yet he showed unflagging courage as he stared down a large audience of hostile faces.90 He spoke twenty-six times, far more than any other federalist, and soldiered on for six exhausting weeks. He must have operated on severely depleted reserves of energy. Since late October 1787 he had written fifty-one Federalist essays while juggling the considerable demands of his law practice.
Hamilton was implacable in his resolve to win against long odds. When a friend asked him what message he should convey to New York supporters, Hamilton retorted, “Tell them the convention shall never rise until the Constitution is adopted.”91 For spectators jammed into the courthouse galleries, Hamilton made an indelible impression. James Kent attended every session, later telling Eliza that her husband had been “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 mind was “filled with all the learning and precedents required for the occasion,” enabling him to make numerous extemporaneous speeches.92 He seduced the listeners with hope and provoked them with fear, leading one spectator to comment that “Hamilton’s harangues combine the poignancy of vinegar with the smoothness of oil.”93
During the first days at Poughkeepsie, Hamilton was constantly on his feet, reaching for high-flown eloquence. He denied that federalists exaggerated the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation: “No, I believe these weaknesses to be real and pregnant with destruction. Yet, however weak our country may be, I hope we shall never sacrifice our liberties.” He then cleverly disarmed opponents: “If therefore, on a full and candid discussion, the proposed system [the Constitution] shall appear to have that tendency, for God’s sake, let us reject that!”94
On June 20, Hamilton made his first prolonged assault on opponents. Not relying on reason alone, he demonstrated how necessary it was for New York’s security that it join the new union: “Your capital is accessible by land and by sea is exposed to every daring invader. And on the northwest, you are open to the inroads of a powerful foreign nation.”95 Under the new central government, he insisted, the tax burden would be shared much more evenly than before. He also reassured New Yorkers that state power would keep federal power in check. Hamilton spoke himself into a state of exhaustion and suddenly cut short his speech. “Many other observations might be made on this subject,” he apologized, “but I cannot now pursue them, for I feel myself not a little exhausted. I beg leave therefore to waive for the present the further discussion of this question.”96
The next day, Hamilton, buoyed by a second wind, disputed that the proposed House of Representatives, with sixty-five members, would have too few delegates and would be dominated by the rich. In his view, representative bodies did not need to mirror exactly those they represented; men of substance, wisdom, and experience could care for the common good. If they came more often from the wealthier, better-educated portion of the community, so be it. Hamilton did not think the rich were paragons of virtue. They had as many vices as the poor, he noted, except that their “vices are probably more favorable to the prosperity of the state than those of the indigent and partake less of moral depravity.”97 As creditors, they would acquire a special stake in perpetuating the new government, and their power would always be circumscribed by popular opinion. In “the general course of things, the popular views and even prejudices will direct the action of the rulers.”98
That same day, Governor Clinton argued that the United States covered so vast a territory and possessed such a variety of peoples “that no general free government can suit” all the states.99 In rebuttal, Hamilton outlined his vision of American nationalism, showing that a true nation, with a unified culture, had been fused from the diverse groups and regions of the original colonies. In all essential matters, “from New Hampshire to Georgia, the people of America are as uniform in their interests and manners as those of any established in Europe.”100 A national interest and a national culture now existed beyond state concerns. This was an assertion pregnant with significance, for if Americans already constituted a new political culture, they needed a new order to certify that reality. And the Constitution bodied forth that order.
For antifederalists who had traded whispered stories of Hamilton’s infamous speech at the Constitutional Convention, he now sounded too reasonable, too plausible, as he spoke of the power of popular opinion. Clearly, he must be a brazen manipulator, a two-faced hypocrite, not someone making legitimate concessions for the sake of political compromise. “You would be surprised did you not know the man what an amazing republican Hamilton wishes to make himself be considered,” Charles Tillinghast told another antifederalist caustically. “But he is known.”101 The conviction that Hamilton must be dissembling became commonplace among his foes, who were bent upon unmasking the perfidious monarchist.
The proposed Senate was especially loathsome to Clintonians, who feared it would be an aristocratic conclave. They introduced an amendment allowing state legislatures to recall their senators. This idea touched a live wire in Hamilton, who saw the Senate as a check on fickle popular will and in need of political insulation. The proposal prompted him to make a speech on the dangers of maintaining a continuous revolutionary mentality in America. Hamilton believed that revolutions ended in tyranny because they glorified revolution as a permanent state of mind. A spirit of compromise and a concern with order were needed to balance the quest for liberty.
In the commencement of a revolution, which received its birth from the usurpations of tyranny, nothing was more natural than that the public mind should be influenced by an extreme spirit of jealousy…. The zeal for liberty became predominant and excessive. In forming our confederation, this passion alone seemed to actuate us and we appear to have had no other view than to secure ourselves from despotism. The object certainly was a valuable one and deserved our utmost attention. But, Sir, there is another object, equally important, and which our enthusiasm rendered us little capable of regarding. I mean a principle of strength and stability in the organization of our government and vigor in its operations.102
More than anyone else, Hamilton engineered the transition to a postwar political culture that valued sound and efficient government as the most reliable custodian of liberty. Calling such an effort “an object of all others the nearest and most dear to my own heart,” he said that its attainment was “the most important study which can interest mankind.”103
On the same day Hamilton said this, word arrived in Poughkeepsie that New Hampshire had become the ninth state to ratify the Constitution, meaning it would now be activated. This jolted the convention and abruptly transformed the debate from one about constitutional principles to the political expediency of New York’s joining the union. The state now risked political estrangement if it stayed aloof. Nevertheless, the Clintonians continued to load crippling conditions on the Constitution, and Hamilton saw they would yield only if Virginia ratified. “We eagerly wait for further intelligence from you,” he wrote urgently to Madison on June 27, “as our only chance of success depends on you.”104
The next morning, all the pent-up emotions in Poughkeepsie gave way to rage. It grated on Hamilton that the Clintonians would enter the new union only under duress, while it galled the Clintonians that the national tide was now running against them. Hamilton made a superb speech about the powers that would be reserved to the states under the Constitution, showing, for instance, how the federal government could not make laws affecting the punishment of certain crimes, such as murder and theft. This was too much for John Lansing, Jr., Hamilton’s fellow delegate at the Constitutional Convention, who accused him of saying one thing in Philadelphia and another in Poughkeepsie. In particular, he charged that Hamilton had argued earlier for abolishing the very states that he now held up as necessary foils to federal power.
This accusation produced a vivid confrontation. New York’s entire delegation from the Constitutional Convention—Hamilton, Lansing, and Yates—dropped all show of decorum and began to denounce each other heatedly. The Daily Advertiser reported that Hamilton described “Mr. Lansing’s insinuation as improper, unbecoming, and uncandid. Mr. Lansing rose and with much spirit resented the imputation. He made an appeal to Judge Yates, who had taken notes in the Federal Convention for a proof of Mr. Hamilton’s expressions.” Hamilton must have been flabbergasted: Lansing was inviting Yates to breach the solemn oath of silence taken at Philadelphia. On cue, Robert Yates flashed his notes and quoted Hamilton as having stated in Philadelphia that to stop the states from encroaching on the federal government, “they should be reduced to a smaller scale and be invested with only corporate power.”105 At this point, Hamilton turned furiously on Yates and cross-examined him in prosecutorial style. He asked point-blank: Did Yates not remember Hamilton saying that the states were useful and necessary? Did he not remember him saying that the chief judges of the states ought to join with the chief justice of the Supreme Court in a court of impeachments? Yates assented reluctantly.
Governor Clinton, realizing that he had to stop the quarreling, adjourned the session. All of New York gossiped about the highly personalized altercation. One member of Judge Yates’s family reported that both Lansing and Hamilton “got extremely warm—insomuch that Lansing was charged by the other with want of candor and indecency.”106 Still another observer noted that bickering between Lansing and Hamilton had shaded over from spirited repartee to such personal insults that a duel might follow: “Personal reflections were thrown out by Mr. Lansing against Mr. Hamilton, which were productive of serious disputation. It will be well if it does not terminate seriously.”107Two days later, the convention still seethed about the matter.
As Hamilton tangled with Lansing, neither knew that Virginia had on June 25 become the tenth state to ratify the Constitution. Like their New York counterparts, antifederalists there posed as plucky populists, even though their ranks included many rich slaveholders. Patrick Henry, the leading antifederalist, warned delegates who supported the Constitution, “They’ll free your niggers.”108 George Washington noted the hypocrisy of the many slaveholding antifederalists: “It is a little strange that the men of large property in the South should be more afraid that the Constitution will produce an aristocracy or a monarchy than the genuine, democratical people of the East.”109
Shortly after noon on July 2, a rider rode up to the Poughkeepsie courthouse and handed the doorkeeper a dispatch for Hamilton. Soon an excited murmur arose that drowned out the voice of George Clinton. Hamilton read aloud a letter from Madison with the dramatic announcement of Virginia’s approval. It must have been a deeply moving moment for Hamilton, the climax of his partnership with Madison. Joyous federalists spilled out of the building and circled the courthouse in celebration, accompanied by a fife and drum. If New York did not ratify the Constitution, it would now be stranded and excluded from the newly formed union, lumped together with the outcast states of North Carolina and Rhode Island.
But the sparring now only intensified. At a Fourth of July parade in Albany, a riot broke out when a copy of the Constitution was publicly burned and federalist and antifederalist contingents collided, leaving one dead and eighteen wounded. Suddenly on the defensive, Clinton’s forces tried to defeat the Constitution by demanding a bill of rights and other amendments. Hamilton thought this a tactical maneuver, and on July 12 he spoke at length in favor of unconditional adoption. In what one newspaper called “a most argumentative and impassioned address,” Hamilton insisted that the convention lacked authority to make recommendations and gravely intoned that the delegates should “weigh well what they were about to do before they decided on a subject so infinitely important.”110
Thus, in mid-July, the two sides remained unalterably apart. The point is worth stressing, since some historians have minimized Hamilton’s bravura performance at Poughkeepsie by claiming that only approval by Virginia and New Hampshire tipped the scales in New York. Emotions, however, remained venomous even after ten states ratified the Constitution, and Governor Clinton still thought civil war possible. One member of the French diplomatic legation, Victor du Pont, wrote to Samuel du Pont de Nemours that if the Constitution faltered in New York, outraged federalists might pounce on Clinton and his retinue when they returned home and “smear them with tar, roll them in feathers, and finally walk them through the streets.”111 On July 17, Hamilton predicted that New York City might secede from the state if the Constitution was turned down; Clinton chided him from his chair for his “highly indiscreet and improper” warning.112 Working himself up into a grand state of pathos, Hamilton summoned the ghosts of “departed patriots” and living heroes and with his words wrung tears from onlookers.113
Days later, Melancton Smith finally broke the deadlock when he endorsed the Constitution if Congress would promise to consider some amendments. Paying indirect tribute to Hamilton, Smith credited “the reasonings of gentlemen” on the other side for his changed vote.114 On July 26, Smith and a dozen other antifederalists switched their votes to favor the Constitution, producing a wafer-thin majority. The final vote of thirty to twenty-seven was the smallest victory margin at any state convention and portended future political troubles for Hamilton. Governor Clinton would not budge but tolerated followers who changed their votes. Anticipating New York’s approval, a huge rally had taken place in New York City three days earlier to express boisterous enthusiasm for the new government. It started at eight in the morning in light rain as five thousand representatives of sixty trades—from wig makers to bricklayers, florists to cabinetmakers—marched down Broadway amid a profusion of brightly colored floats and banners. The Constitution might be denounced as a rich man’s plot upstate, but the city’s artisans were now stouthearted federalists and crafted displays to illustrate the benefits that would flow from union. The bakers hoisted aloft a ten-foot “federal loaf,” brewers pulled a three-hundred-gallon cask of ale, and coopers hauled barrels built with thirteen staves. Many of Hamilton’s friends joined the crowd. Robert Troup marched alongside lawyers and judges, brandishing the new Constitution. Nicholas Cruger, his old employer from St. Croix, donned a farmer’s costume and escorted a plow drawn by six oxen.
The parade apotheosized the hero of the hour, the man who had snatched victory from the antifederalist majority. So exuberant was the lionization of Alexander Hamilton that admirers wanted to rechristen the city “Hamiltoniana.” It was one of the few times in his life that Hamilton basked in the warmth of public adulation. Sail makers waved a flag depicting a laurel-wreathed Hamilton bearing the Constitution while an allegorical figure representing Fame blew a trumpet in the air. This paled before the grandest tribute of all to Hamilton. Gliding down Broadway, pulled by ten horses, was a miniature frigate, twenty-seven feet long, baptized the “Federal Ship Hamilton.” The model ship rose above all other floats “with flowing sheets and full sails[,]…the canvas waves dashing against her sides” and concealing the carriage wheels moving the ship, noted one observer.115 The cart men fluttered banners that proclaimed, “Behold the federal ship of fame / The Hamilton we call her name; / To every craft she gives employ; / Sure cartmen have their share of joy.”116 When the Hamilton arrived near the Battery, it was received by congressmen standing outside Bayard’s Tavern. To represent the transition from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution, the ship changed pilots amid a deafening cannonade. The parade marked the zenith of the federalist alliance with city artisans. Hamilton had never courted the masses, and never again was he to enjoy their favor to this extent. Riding high on the crest of the new Constitution, Hamilton and the federalists held undisputed sway in the city.