New York was the toughest nut for the Federalists to crack. For here was one state where not only was the population overwhelmingly opposed to the Constitution, but the opposition was also in firm and determined control of the state government and the state political machinery. Here was a powerful governor, George Clinton, who would not, like Hancock and Randolph in the other critical states, yield to a sellout under pressure. Clinton had been a highly popular governor since the formation of the state, had a strong political machinery based on the mass of upstate yeomanry, and was determined to organize and defeat the Constitution.
Still, their final organization was sluggish. It was only in February 1788 that the Albany Antifederalists, guided by Clinton, formed a committee to organize the election campaign. The committee, including John Lansing and Jeremiah Van Rensselaer, organized the sending of articles to the press and joined in confidence with other committees in the state. The general headquarters for the Antifederalist campaign was in New York City, in the Federal Republican Committee; chairman was the veteran General John Lamb, leader of the New York radicals since the days of the Sons of Liberty, and other leaders in the committee were merchants Marinus Willett and Melancton Smith. The committee organized and distributed articles within the state but also to Antifederalists in other states. Clubs and committees of correspondence were set up in the backcountry, and poll-watchers mobilized for the election. But strangely, critically important attempts to coordinate the campaign with Antifederalist efforts in other states were delayed until May when it was already too late. The lack of coordination prevented the Antifederalists of different states from hammering out an agreement on what prior constitutional amendments they should insist upon.
As usual, moreover, the Federalists dominated the press, particularly in heavily Federalist New York City. While the Federals were characteristically energetic in their press propaganda, the Antifederalists countered in force as early as October 1787. But soon, behind-the-scenes Federalist pressure was able to close almost all the papers except the New York Journal to Antifederalist writings. However, Antifederalist material was still being published in the upstate press. The Federalists, highly concentrated in New York City and enjoying a cohesive leadership, needed no formal organization. Through pressure they were able to flood the New York press with their literature. Seeing their weakness upstate, they were able in March to form a Federal committee in the town of Albany, a stronghold of nationalist sentiment upstate.
The public pre-election debate was waged furiously in the press and in pamphlets from in and out of the state, although by this time the newspaper press was beginning to outweigh in importance the pamphlet, which had been dominant before and during the Revolution. On the one side were the liberty-minded Clintonian Antifederalists, and on the other were the centralizing Hamiltonian Federalists. The Antifederalists put their libertarian-democratic case staunchly: the rich and well-born few were trying to create a strong government in order to tax and mulct the poorer and productive many for their own power and profit. Thus, one newspaper poet wrote:
But LIBERTY, keep thou Columbia free,
Nor let man use us as we use the bee;
Let not base DRONES upon our honey thrive
And suffocate the maker in his HIVE.
“Sidney,” who believed that the Articles of Confederation were sufficient for New York’s needs, warned of the people too quickly giving up their liberties, for “being once lost, [they] are not to be recovered, but with disquiet and disorder.” “Brutus Junior” wrote in the New York Journal that the framers of the Constitution had “high aristocratic ideas and the most sovereign contempt of the common people,” and were “strongly disposed in favor of monarchy”; they were proficient at intrigue and greedy for power and its privileges.
Governor Clinton himself, purportedly writing as “Cato,” pressed a similar Antifederal theme: the Constitution would create a consolidated government at the expense of the localist states. But perhaps the most incisive survey of the libertarian Antifederal case came in a letter to the governor from his brilliant young nephew and future secretary DeWitt Clinton:
From the insolence of great men, from the tyranny of the rich—from the unfeeling rapacity of the excise-man and Tax-gatherer—from the misery of despotism—from the expense of supporting standing armies, navies, placemen, sinecures, federal cities, Senators, Presidents and a long train of et ceteras Good Lord deliver us.
On the Federalist side, Hamilton led the charge against Clinton and responded to “Cato” with “Caesar,” a response mostly full of ad hominems and even a thinly veiled threat: it would be best for New York and the country as a whole “that [Washington] should be induced to accept of the presidency of the new government, than that he should be solicited again to accept command of an army.” But by far the lengthiest and most authoritative statement for the Right came in a ten-month series of articles by “Publius,” in the New York Independent Journal. The articles were written until August 1788 and were published in book form as The Federalist. The Federalist, coauthored by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison (with a few articles by John Jay), is a remarkable document. Remarkable not for its influence or success at the time, which was negligible, for the essays were too high-toned to influence public sentiment. Nor were they remarkable as a comprehensive and accurate presentation of the nationalist position. The essays contained in The Federalist were designed not for the ages—not as an explanation of nationalist views—but as a propaganda document to allay the fears and lull the suspicions of the Antifederal forces. Consequently, these field marshals of the Federalist campaign were concerned to make the Constitution look like a mixed concoction of checks-and-balances and popular representation, when they really desired, and believed that they had, a political system of overriding national power. What is remarkable is the fact that historians and conservative political theorists have seized upon and canonized these campaign pieces as fountains of quasi-divine political wisdom, as hallowed texts to be revered, even as somehow a vital part of American constitutional law.
Thus, Hamilton, in Federalist No. 32, mendaciously tried to assure the public that the new government was only a “partial” rather than an “entire” consolidation, and that the states really retained most of their previous sovereignty. And in No. 9, Hamilton did his best to confuse and blur the issue by dismissing any real distinction between “confederacy” and “consolidation.” Madison, too, in No. 39, exhorted his readers that the Constitution established a mixture of “federal” and “national” government; in No. 45, trying to head off a bill of rights, he spread the myth that reserved powers under the Constitution ineluctably belong to the states. Characteristic, also, of Madison’s discourses is his self-contradictory plea in No. 40 that: (a) the framers of the Constitution did not exceed their legal powers, and (b) even if they did, it was a good and proper thing.
The later-famed No. 10, written by Madison, is an elaboration of his argument at the Constitutional Convention that a large republic, or a government powerful over a large area, will protect liberty far more than a small republic, or government powerful over a small area. Madison claimed that the greater diversity of interests over a large area will make it more difficult for a majority of the interests to combine and oppress a minority. It is difficult to see, however, why such a combination should be difficult. Suppose the Antifederalist argument: a larger republic, precisely by including under it a greater diversity of interests, will be bound, however it acts, to oppress some minority interests. The smaller the scope of government, and therefore the more homogenous its citizens, the less likely will there be oppressed communities, and the more likely will each interest have its own government. But the main fallacy in Madison’s argument is that it is part and parcel of the antidemocratic Federalist doctrine that the danger of despotic government comes, not from the government, but from among the ranks (i.e., the majority) of the public. The fallacy of this by now should be evident. Even if a majority approves an act of tyranny, it almost never initiates or elaborates or executes such action; rather they are almost always passive tools in the hands of the oligarchy of rulers and their allied favorites of the state apparatus. On such a view of the political process, a view implicit in the Antifederal doctrine, the smaller the size and scope of a governmental unit, the better, for the closer to the people, the less oligarchic, the more susceptible to vigilance and check, the easier to put down.
We might also note a neglected recurring theme in The Federalist: the need for the Constitution in order to promulgate an aggressive foreign policy on all sides, to make America into what Patrick Henry brilliantly saw as a great “empire.” Thus, the appeal to charisma, vainglory, and national greed of Hamilton’s No. 15:
We may indeed with propriety be said to have reached almost the last stage of national humiliation. There is scarcely anything that can wound the pride or degrade the character of an independent nation which we do not experience. …
Have we valuable territories and important posts in the possession of a foreign power [England] which, by express stipulations, ought long since to have been surrendered? These are still retained to the prejudice of our interests, not less than of our rights. Are we in a condition to resent or to repel the aggression? We have neither troops, nor treasury, nor [national] government. … Are we even in a condition to remonstrate with dignity? … Are we entitled by nature and compact to a free participation in the navigation of the Mississippi? Spain excludes us from it. Is public credit an indispensable resource in time of public danger? We seem to have abandoned its cause.
Upon receiving the Constitution from Congress, Governor Clinton made what later turned out to be a grave tactical error. It was an understandable error, for throughout the country, the Federalist tactic was to rush the Constitution through, while the Antifederalists tried to delay as much as possible. Clinton therefore adopted the tactic of delay, postponing the convention as much as possible. He also hoped to be able to avoid a battle by having the Constitution fall in the other states first; a case of let-George-do-it that backfired very badly. But another consideration was that neither Clinton nor the Federalists foresaw the depth of New Yorker antagonism toward the Constitution. Both sides expected a close fight; the existing legislature itself was closely divided, and the Federalists were optimistic about the outcome of an election.
Clinton’s first act was to rebuff Congress’ request for a special session of the legislature to call a convention. The New York legislature met in mid-January 1788 and, at the end of the month, Egbert Benson, a lawyer from Dutchess County and a Federalist leader in the Assembly, moved to call a convention. At that point, Cornelius Schoonmaker from Ulster County included a creative resolution: that the legislature attach a preamble attacking the convention at Philadelphia for illegally exceeding its authorized power. The vote could scarcely have been closer, the Schoonmaker preamble losing by 27-25, and after that climactic vote the Assembly voted for the call to convention. But in the Senate there stood the indomitable radical Abraham Yates. Yates had previously attempted to block the Constitution, and here he would only redouble his efforts, arguing that the Philadelphia Convention was never authorized to write a new constitution. A member of the Schuyler family brusquely responded that this was old news. In fact, Yates never gave up even after the Constitution was ratified. Yates was the author in 1789 of the first (but unpublished) history of the drive for the Constitution in which he perceptively traced the nationalist movement from the time of the Revolutionary War and its method to organize a coup d’état:
The meeting at Philadelphia in 1787 for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation, got the name of a Convention (I believe before long that of a Conspiracy would have been more Significant), [and] paid no more regard to their orders and credentials than Caesar when he passed the Rubicon. Under an Injunction of Secrecy they carried on their works of Darkness until the Constitution passed their usurping hands.
Yates was surely on the mark when he wrote “they have turned a Convention into a Conspiracy, and under the Epithet Federal have destroyed the Confederation.” In the Senate, this veteran Clintonian led the Antifederalist attempt to defeat the call, but it passed the motion by another close vote of 11-8. A shift of two votes in the New York legislature could have defeated the Constitution. Elections were set for April and the convention at Poughkeepsie for June 17.
In calling the convention, the New York legislature did a unique and remarkable thing: they deemed that for this particular and momentous election all property requirements for voting would be waived and there would for the moment be universal manhood suffrage in New York State. This democratic move seems to have increased the total vote by almost one-third. There is no evidence that the outcome of the victory was changed to any significant extent. If the Clintonians had been more astute, they would have concentrated even more on correcting the apportionment to the state legislature. As in the other states, the delegates to the convention were apportioned in the same way as the legislature and the Antifederal counties were underrepresented, while the Federal counties overrepresented in the legislature and the convention.
The elections for the convention were an amazing and smashing victory for the Antifederalist forces, who swept the convention delegates by 46-19. The Federalists came only from New York City and its immediate environs, Kings, Richmond, and Westchester, four counties out of the state’s thirteen. The four Federal counties contained a population of 65,000, while the more Antifederal counties numbered 274,000. Thus, Federalist New York, Richmond, and Westchester, with 18 percent of the total state population, garnered 26 percent of Assembly delegates in 1790; the Antifederalist upstate counties, with 71 percent of the population, had only 57 percent of Assembly delegates (swing Long Island, with 11 percent of the population, had 17 percent of Assembly delegates). If the convention delegates had been apportioned according to population, there would have been a shift of six, making a split of 52-13 against the Constitution. If this proper apportionment had been in force, the Constitution might never have been ratified in New York, for it was actually ratified by only a razor thin three vote majority (New York City would have sent six delegates instead of nine, Albany County fifteen instead of seven).
The conflict was, once again, quite starkly, commerce-navigation versus inland. Commercial New York City was the stronghold of Federalism, and in rural upstate New York there existed ardent pockets of Federalism in the commercial Hudson River towns of Albany, Hudson, and Lansingburgh towns that were swamped by the surrounding rural population in the countywide voting. In the swing county of Albany, a Federalist victory in the city of Albany was swamped by an enormous Antifederal majority in the rest of the county, giving the Antifederals an overall county majority of 2:1. Of the swing counties near New York City, Westchester went heavily Federalist, while Suffolk and Queens, counties of small farmers but close to the sea and commerce, voted Antifederal by narrow margins. The differences in voting may be seen by comparing the heart of Antifederalism, Ulster, Clinton’s home county of small farmers, and New York City where all classes, merchant and mechanic alike, heavily and even fanatically favored the Constitution. In Ulster, the Antifederalist ticket amassed about 1,200 votes each, while the highest Federalist delegate received a whopping sixty-eight votes. In New York City, the Federals each averaged 2,700 votes, while Governor Clinton was the highest Antifederal candidate with only 134 votes!
When the convention met on June 17, the New York voters had elected forty-six delegates against nineteen for the Federals. Yet when the vote on the Constitution came on July 26, the voting was 30-27 in favor of ratifying. What happened in the interim? What induced this massive betrayal of the New York electorate? One critical factor was the grim news of the ratification in the supposedly Antifederal states of New Hampshire and Virginia, which came to New York in the middle of the convention. Now it was no longer a question, as it had been even as late as Virginia’s struggle, of blocking or adopting the Constitution: with ten states ratifying, the Constitution would clearly be put into effect by the other states. New York was facing a dilemma far more difficult than her predecessors: should she go in or stay out of the new and inevitable Union?
But the most important impetus for the massive change in votes stemmed from the contrasting traits of the opposing camps. On the one side, the fierce fanaticism of the great bulk of nationalists that would stop at nothing to achieve their ends; on the other, a soft spread of decay in outer sections of the Antifederal forces that made them susceptible to capitulation. The fanaticism of the Federalists was reflected in the decisive move of the New York convention—the force that caused the surrender of a timorous minority of the Antifederal forces. That force was the blackmail threat effectively employed in Virginia: if New York did not ratify, New York City and its environs would secede from the state and join the new Union. It was this ugly and fearsome threat that led the defecting minority to turn tail and surrender. The secession threat could not have been a credible one unless the whole city were solidly and enthusiastically behind it. No one would have paid attention to the muttered threats of a Jay or a Hamilton if they knew that these oligarchs had no great mass-backing on the issue. But the city, all of it, did back their leaders zealously and all the way. It was the fervent mass support of the artisans that gave the unity and the strength to the Federalist blackmail.
The mechanics (not only in New York City but in Boston, Philadelphia, Charleston, and other cities as well) were not laborers in the sense of proletarians, but petty bourgeois, i.e., small businessmen and apprentice businessmen. After the Revolution, especially in the postwar depression of 1780s, the often marginal small businessmen found themselves apt to be sub-marginal, unable to meet the competition of more efficient imports of British manufactured goods. And like inefficient businessmen everywhere, they turned from the free market to the state apparatus to acquire special privileges—in this case a protective tariff. It was the lure of a national tariff, and a privileged market at home and in the other states, that brought the artisans en masse into the Federalist camp. With the onset of the depression, merchants and mechanics, who had formerly organized among themselves, formed joint committees in all the large cities to press for federal regulation of trade (for the merchants) and a tariff against European imports (for the mechanics). Nationalist propagandists had demagogically fomented the view among formerly anti-Tory artisans that anyone who opposed tariffs on British imports must be under the influence of the former enemy. As a result, even before the election when the city people were already threatening secession, the corporal’s guard of the New York City Antifederalists were already beginning to cave under the tremendous pressure around them. Thus, on the eve of elections, Marinus Willett, a veteran radical who had always depended on his artisan constituency, was beginning to buckle: to think that the Constitution “might be right—since it appears to be the sense of a vast majority” [in New York City]. Indeed, of the old radical leaders of the Sons of Liberty in the city, only John Lamb remained staunchly anti-nationalist, and he was rewarded for his fidelity to the old radical cause by seeing his house threatened by a rioting mob.
Another important reason for the adamant demands of New York City was the strong possibility that it would be the capital of the new government. Already the existing headquarters for the Confederation Congress, if New York remained out of the Union, the city would be deprived of all of the subsidies, commerce, and privileges any government headquarters receives. For many New Yorkers, this was simply too much to give up.
On July 23 the fearsome massed ranks—nearly 4,000—of New York City artisans from over fifty trades marched down Broadway in celebration of New Hampshire’s—and therefore nine states’—adoption of the Constitution. Even though the convention had been closely located upstate at Poughkeepsie, news of the parade could not help but make the downstate secession threat most believable indeed. One after the other, the slogans and the shouts of the various trades went by, and each trade celebrated the special privilege and subsidy that it expected to get out of the new polity in the making. Thus, the Skinners, Breeches Makers, and Glovers: “Americans, encourage your manufactures!”; the Peruke Makers and Hairdressers: “May we succeed in our trade and the union protect us”; the Blacksmiths: “Forge me strong, finish me neat, I soon shall moor a Federal fleet”; and the Brush Makers: “May love and unity support our trade, And keep out those who would our rights invade.” Other floats celebrated Alexander Hamilton, especially because of his work as the field marshal of the Federal forces at the Poughkeepsie convention. When we consider that the number of marchers constituted virtually half of the adult male population in New York City, the mass power and intensity of that city was evident to all.
If the New York City artisans provided the push that spliced off a large number of Antifederal delegates, which jumped the fire? The voters had originally elected forty-six Antifederalists and nineteen Federalists; the final convention vote of 30-27 for the Constitution was achieved by the defection of nineteen men, twelve who voted for the Constitution and seven who abstained (in contrast, in the more cohesive Federalist bloc only one abstained and none shifted into opposition). Was there anything particularly significant about the eighteen turncoats? Firstly, of the nine delegates elected from Queens and Suffolk Counties on Long Island, fully eight were disloyal, all four from Queens and four out of five from Suffolk. This shift reflected the lack of firmness of the liberalism of counties of commercial farmers closely tied to the seacoast and to commercial New York City. Moreover, the Queens Antifederalist delegate Samuel Jones, a close personal friend of Clinton, had business interests in New York City; his reneging reflected a massive defection by the final vote of the whole crowd of beleaguered Antifederal merchants in the city. Thus, by the final vote, every delegate from the city and environs—New York City, Long Island, Staten Island, Westchester—supported the Constitution, with the exception of one absentee from Suffolk and the same county’s redoubtable jurist, Thomas Tredwell, who had the courage to vote no.
Of the other eleven turncoats, only three were scattered through the upstate counties (Orange, Montgomery, and Ulster), while the others were highly concentrated. Of the seven delegates from Albany County, three defected. At least two of these were merchants from the city of Albany. Most significant was the defection of Dutchess County; for of the seven delegates elected as Antifederalist, no less than five disobeyed their voters. Since a mere shift of two votes would have defeated the Constitution, the Dutchess betrayal takes on the aspect of the critical change in the convention picture.
The Dutchess shift takes on far more significance when we realize that one of the defectors was none other than Melancton Smith, veteran Clintonian, one of the governor’s two leaders at the convention (the other was John Lansing, who remained loyal to the end). The apostasy of Smith must have been the decisive blow in disheartening the staunch Antifederalists, including Governor Clinton, and the swinging over of his colleagues. Certainly the wholesale Dutchess defection stemmed from the powerful influence in the county of Melancton Smith.
Pursuing the problem more deeply, we find that Smith was only a former resident of Dutchess, and he was currently residing as a leading merchant in New York City. Indeed, he was one of the leaders of the unfortunate Lamb Committee, the bulk of whom were to go over to the enemy. Smith, then, was really a New York City man, though elected for Dutchess, and he was subject to all the urban pressure that subdued his colleagues.
It must never be thought that “upstate” New York was an ideological monolith. On the contrary, while the subsistence farmers were Antifederal, the giant quasi-feudal landlords of the Hudson Valley were almost uniformly Federalist, and where the landlords resided on their manorial states, they were usually able to dominate their tenants and control their voting. Thus, in Dutchess County, which went Antifederalist by a 2:1 majority—close to the average of the state—northwest Dutchess, the stronghold of Federalism in the county, was an area of large manorial estates dominated especially by the oligarchic Beekmans and Livingstons.
The Antifederal constituency were the independent yeomen of the remainder in the county, but their leadership was a small group of middling merchants intertwined in family and business connections who conducted their affairs in the commercial river town of Poughkeepsie. Both classes had been long allied in the great fight against feudal landlordism, and the confiscation of Tory estates during the Revolution had freed southern Dutchess and converted the region into a land of small and middling farmers who voted over the years for the liberal and Clintonian Antifederalists. In the campaign for delegates, one rank-and-file Antifederalist of the county, “One of Many,” already protested the overrepresentation of the “little overbearing precinct of Poughkeepsie” at the Antifederal convention, and the result of this malapportionment was the Antifederal nomination of Melancton Smith. Or, as the Antifederalist complained, “What is the plain English in the nomination of Mr. Smith of New York … Must we call in the assistance of strangers and New York merchants?” “One of Many” also gave an accurate prediction of Smith’s behavior as a delegate:
It is said (and we apprehend the information may be relied on) that Mr. Smith has grown cool on the question, and that he considers the adoption of the new Constitution by Massachusetts, as decisive for the continent, and that it would be as fruitless as it would be inexpedient for this State, even if there should be a majority against it, to stand out against the general sense and ardent feelings of America. If this be the case, we would oppose such a delegate even if he lived in this county.
Of the other four turncoats from Dutchess, Gibert Livingston was a Poughkeepsie merchant in partnership with Melancton Smith’s brother. He was also a member of the arch-conservative Livingston family and served as agent for a Livingston manor. To round out the picture, Gilbert Livingston was also the law partner of the high Federalist James Kent. The other Poughkeepsie defection was Zephaniah Platt, a partner of Smith in land speculation and father-in-law of Gilbert Livingston’s sister. It is true that Ezra Thompson, a fourth Dutchess defection, came from the rural northeastern part of the county, but it is also true that he was (a) a brother-in-law of Smith, and (b) father-in-law of Livingston’s daughter and law partner of Livingston himself. In contrast, the two delegates who remained faithful and Antifederal to the last, Jonathan Akin and Jacobus Swartwout, both came from the non-commercial small-farmer southern Dutchess, the great stronghold of Antifederalism among the electorate. Furthermore, both the Akin and Swartwout families had been highly involved in the Smith Dutchess tenant rebellion of 1766.
In the last analysis, the division in New York State over the Constitution was once again essentially one of the commercial interests: merchants and artisans of New York City, commercial cities and towns on the Hudson River, landed oligarchs along the Hudson Valley, and commercial middling farmers (e.g., Long Island, near Poughkeepsie). A corollary was that of the convention delegates in the final vote, all the merchants, more than two-thirds of the large landowners, almost all of the wealthy, and virtually every college graduate voted for the Constitution.
Desertion by Melancton Smith of a motion that he himself had instructed, for a bill of rights and other rectifying amendments conditional to ratification, defeated the plan by two votes. Thus, New York ratified the Constitution unconditionally on July 26, 30-27. Despite all of this—betrayals, secession threats, ratification in other states—it is admirable just how many New York Antifederalists fought until the bitter end: to push for conditional amendments, to argue that the new government not exercise certain powers until a new convention, to argue for an escape clause that would allow New York to secede, and to just barely lose the final vote. It was because of this determination that the Federalists had to pay a higher price than usual, for the convention unanimously agreed, not only on the usual corollary amendments, but also to send a circular letter to the other states urging them to ask Congress for a second constitutional convention to adopt the various amendments proposed by the states. To Madison, Washington, and the other Federal opponents of checks on the national government, this was chilling news indeed. Madison, seconded by Washington, was one of the bitter enemies of a bill of rights and was particularly extreme in his reaction: he believed that outright rejection would have been better because New York’s letter would encourage the other states that ratified to also press for amendments. For their part, the response of the Federalist New York City mob to the ratification was much less sophisticated. Their celebration took the form of ransacking the building of the great Antifederal organ, the New York Journal, and paying a visit to Governor Clinton’s home. Fortunately, Clinton arrived at his house three days after the incident.
The New York circular letter was sent out promptly at the end of July and helped inspire the abortive Harrisburg convention in Pennsylvania. The Antifederal Virginia legislature, led by the zealous Patrick Henry, responded by resolving that Congress immediately call a national convention to adopt restrictive amendments. There still seemed to be hope that the Constitution might be whittled down and restructured. At the end of October, the New York Antifederalists, led by the turncoats who presumably wanted to redeem themselves (e.g., Marinus Willett, Melancton Smith, and Samuel Jones) formed a society to secure a second federal convention.
This passage is excerpted from Murray N. Rothbard’s Conceived in Liberty, vol. 5, The New Republic: 1784–1791.