By John F. Di Leo -
Reflections on the anniversary of New York’s ratification of the Constitution of the United States
On July 26, 1788, the New York State Ratifying Convention voted – by a slim margin of 30 to 27 – to ratify the Constitution of the United States, essentially re-joining the nation that was now in the process of being reorganized. The people of New York City celebrated with the greatest parade of the era, marching through Manhattan Island to cheering crowds. The old New York establishment may have disliked the new Constitution, but the people of America’s fast-growing metropolis certainly saw its potential.
It had been a long, hard road, uphill all the way, as thirteen colonies joined to overthrow the yoke of the British crown, struggled through an impoverished federation, and finally found their way to a revolutionary form of government that would both secure personal liberty and enable economic prosperity. One could argue that the road began far away, years before, in the tiny Caribbean island of Nevis.
Alexander Hamilton was born on January 11 – most likely in 1757 (though historians who don’t believe that anyone could possibly have been THAT precocious often claim it just had to be 1755; it just had to, had to, don’t you see???) – on the tiny island of Nevis. His decent but incompetent Scottish father and his perennially unlucky French mother raised him and his brother in penury, and when his mother died of a fever, leaving the boys essentially orphaned (their father had disappeared years before), their meager possessions – a few books, some linens, a spoon or two – could fit on a laundry list.
But while his brother James was apprenticed to a carpenter, Alexander was lucky enough to be apprenticed to a commercial trading partnership, Beekman and Cruger, on the island of St. Croix. He flourished in their employ, from roughly age eleven to sixteen, and by his early teens was running the business for months himself, while the owners were on business trips in Europe. His managers, along with the leading lights of St. Croix, recognized that the precocious young man was too good for tiny little St. Croix, so they pooled their resources and sent him to New York for a proper education.
From this point onward, young Alexander Hamilton was ahead of every curve.
- As a student at King’s College (now Columbia), he joined the libertarian fervor of the era, battling the prominent loyalists Samuel Seabury and Myles Cooper in the newspapers under pseudonyms. He was 17.
- He formed an artillery battery himself with which to join the war, by cleverly stealing a store of guns from the British in August 1775, right under their noses. He was 18.
- He served in a number of battles as an artillery man, using his mathematical mind to gain skill at cannonfire with minimal practice (the patriots were perennially low on gunpowder; so low they could not drill with live ammo – a critical step in the development of any soldier – for most of the war)… until he was invited to join the staff of General George Washington, with whom he remained for four years, including such key service as leading half the troops at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781. The other half at Yorktown was led by the Marquis de Lafayette. Both young heroes were 24 on the day of that 1781 victory.
Hamilton went on to serve in the Continental Congress, to train and work as a lawyer, and later, to become the nation’s first –and still the nation’s best – Secretary of the Treasury. He essentially founded our second political party, the Federalists (the first was the anti-Washingtonians, originally called the Republicans, founded by Jefferson and Madison during the Washington administration). Hamilton wrote the first major study guide for law students on this hemisphere; he collaborated with Baron von Steuben to write the first Army code; his lengthy and detailed reports to the President during his term as Secretary are legendary. And his work for the cause of emancipation, both during and after the Revolution, as cofounder of the New York Manumission Society, truly “put his money where his mouth is,” in terms of his commitment to the freedom philosophy.
Early Signs of Trouble
Throughout the War of Independence, America suffered both from expected and unexpected financial troubles. While the difficulty of funding an indigenous war against the greatest military power on earth was obvious, the reluctance or outright refusal of many states to contribute, even when they could, was shocking. Some states intentionally postponed payments until money depreciated more, to make it cheaper; others insisted that other states pay, proposing all sorts of cost splits that served only to cheat our valiant servicemen, their families and heirs, and the vendors who had manufactured and sold provisions on credit… and to infuriate the foreign powers that had loaned us money throughout the war.
Even during the War itself, Hamilton developed a correspondence with political leaders both in and out of Congress, to attempt to solve the financial problems that plagued the Glorious Cause. His exchanges with Congressional financiers Robert Morris and Gouverneur Morris during that time, and with other allies both during and after the war, established his reputation as the most thoughtful economic mind in the country.
By the mid-1780’s, when the 1783 peace treaty was a year, two years, three years behind them, but the nation was still not one step closer to paying what it owed, Hamilton sounded a trumpet for states to convene for a special convention to address the economic crisis. This Annapolis Convention convened in fall of 1786, and accomplished little directly, but served to identify the key problems our nation faced:
- That the Articles of Confederation only established a national government that could assume debts that it had no way to pay,
- That the Articles of Confederation left the individual member states free to poach commerce from each other through tariff wars and even, at points, individual action on foreign policy,
- That the national government was so ineffectual under the Articles that it was worse than no government at all – its currency became an international joke, its treaties and borders were disrespected, its future was universally in doubt.
So Alexander Hamilton, with allies new and old, organized a call for a newer and stronger convention to address the flaws in the Articles of Confederation. This Constitutional Convention took place in Philadelphia, from May through September of 1787, setting out to fix the flaws in our government, and to create a new format that would enable a free America to endure and thrive.
The Fight for Ratification
After that marvelous summer of 1787, when the greatest minds in America came together to thoughtfully draft a new form of government, the time came for the sales pitch. Conceiving the masterpiece was one thing; convincing the states to adopt it was quite another.
Some states knew going in that the Articles of Convention needed an overhaul; such states happily ratified the replacement document in no time flat.
But other states had an establishment which, partially from wise caution, but also partially from jealous recognition of their strong current position, did their part to hamstring the process from the beginning, and then to fight it at the end as well.
Such states included the powerhouses of New York and Virginia. New York was then led by Governor Clinton, who hamstrung the New York delegation by appointing two hostile colleagues to serve along with Hamilton, so that he would lose his own state’s vote in every battle at the convention. Virginia was led by Patrick Henry, an undeniable hero of liberty, but one who succumbed to the old belief that, the larger the geographical footprint, the less possible it would be to secure liberty. And this new America had a large geographical footprint indeed.
Virginia and New York were therefore expected all along to be the greatest challenges of the Constitutional ratification process, but they were also essential, since a United States without either of these two key states as members could hardly be considered to be the United States originally envisioned.
So, James Madison took the helm in Virginia, and delivered a victory on June 26, 1788. Alexander Hamilton similarly led the battle in New York’s convention at Poughkeepsie – where it was largely a geographical battle (NYC was for it, upstate NY was largely against) – and he won the day a month later, by a slim margin, on July 26.
The Federalist Papers
Hamilton knew that the battle would be one of principle over fear, as the Constitution’s detractors were generally good libertarians too (remember, in the Founding era, virtually everyone was a libertarian), but they needed to be convinced that the new document would secure the rights we fought a war to win, not jeopardize those very rights.
Both sides wanted the same thing: a very, very limited government… strong protections from tyrants and from tyrannical elites… a stable currency… a strong, growing economy… security in the rule of law.
The federalists – those who favored the new Constitution – just needed to somehow show the Constitution’s detractors that its supporters wanted the same thing they did, and that the Constitution was indeed designed to guarantee those very results.
Early on, therefore, Colonel Hamilton recruited two allies – John Jay and James Madison – and the three of them wrote the brilliant “anonymous” letters – signed by Publius – that are now known worldwide as The Federalist Papers.
At first glance, they were just “letters to the editor,” no more, no less, but as time went by and more installments appeared, it became clear that they were much, much more. The Federalist Papers were a thoughtfully organized set of treatises on governance, communicating both the vision of the Revolution and the way in which this Constitution would champion and safeguard that very vision.
Diplomat and jurist John Jay wrote five articles concentrating on the judiciary, and Hamilton wrote the majority of the others (likely 51 or 52 of them), while Madison wrote the remainder (about 27 or 28). While they were intended specifically for the ratification battle in New York, they were quickly forwarded around the colonies, and figured in the ratification debates of at least several other states. Compendiums of Federalist papers were published in bunches as soon as there were enough to gather into anthologies.
There can be no doubt that The Federalist – as the full collection is properly known – remains the key document on American practical libertarian thought to this very day. Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence; Paine wrote Common Sense. Many others wrote brilliant speeches, letters and pamphlets that won and galvanized American public opinion during the Revolutionary era. But only the Federalist serves as the quintessential combination of philosophy and pragmatic governance.
- Jurists have relied on them for 225 years as the clearest contemporary statement of the Original Intent of the Framers.
- Journalism professors have used them as the perfect example of a letter-to-the-editor (in an era when standards for such things were higher than they are today), and political science professors have used them as the annotated guide to the Constitution itself.
- And politicians – the honorable ones – have used the Federalist as their beacon, a constant reminder of what officials are elected to do, and of the need to be ever subservient to their oath of office to support and defend the Constitution.
While not everything was known at the time – it was popular for such articles to be unsigned in those days – as the months went by, it became an open secret that Hamilton was among the authors.
When the final vote was taken, and the cause of the Philadelphia draft finally won the day at Poughkeepsie, all America – and especially all New York – knew who deserved the credit, most of all.
There was a parade down the streets of New York, with bands playing, thousands cheering, and a huge float in the shape of a mighty battleship, representing the Ship of State.
And to christen that symbolic mighty ship on July 26, 1788 – as a nod to the great man who made it possible – the parade organizers named their ship The Hamilton.
Copyright 2014 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based Customs broker and trade compliance trainer, who has recognized Colonel Hamilton as a hero since his own youth in the import/export business. A former area chairman in the Maine Township GOP and former county chairman of the Milwaukee County GOP, Di Leo has now been a recovering politician for seventeen years.
A hat tip is warranted to the many wonderful biographers and historians who have taught us so much about Colonel Hamilton and his times... particularly Richard Brookhiser, Ron Chernow, Forrest MacDonald, and David O. Stewart. Pick up their terrific books about Hamilton and the Constitution, for a deeper and more thorough read!
Permission is hereby granted to forward freely, provided it is uncut and the byline and IR URL are included. Follow John F. Di Leo on LinkedIn or Facebook, or on Twitter at @johnfdileo.