- Historic Sites
The Cantankerous Mr. Maclay
October 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 6
William Maclay, elected by the Pennsylvania Legislature to the Senate of the United States, left his farm near Harrisburg early in March, 1789, and journeyed to New York to attend the first session of the First Congress. He took board and lodging for two dollars a week at a Mr. Vandolsom’s near the Bear Market, and for the next month he waited for the two houses to form a quorum, meeting informally each morning with other members at Federal Hall on Wall Street. To his friend Benjamin Rush he wrote on March 9: “I never felt greater mortification in my life to be so long here with the eyes of all the world on us and to do nothing is terrible.”
On Thursday, April 23, the day of General Washington’s arrival in the city, the Senate met for the first time in formal session, Vice President John Adams presiding. The members, most of them Federalists, resolved in a rule of procedure to conduct their business in “inviolable secrecy.” The next day William Maclay began to keep a private daily journal. Except for the barest of official minutes his is the sole record of what went on behind the Senate’s closed and guarded doors during the next two years. It is a choice bit of irony that the Federalists, by withholding information from the electorate, caused the record of Senate proceedings to be written by the most radical Antifederalist, a man who may be said to have been the godfather of the Jeffersonian or Democratic-Republican Party. Maclay believed that he was serving with “a set of vipers,” that his political opponents “cared for nothing else but… the creation of a new monarchy in America,” and that the new Constitution would probably “turn out the vilest of all traps that was ever set to ensnare the freedom of an unsuspecting people.”
The twenty-two senators (North Carolina and Rhode Island had not yet ratified the Constitution) met daily in the Senate chamber on the second floor, occasionally spending their time in “chatting parties” around the fireplace or the stove. Maclay resolved to speak at least once each day, “more in consequence of a kind of determination … than from any fondness of the subject.” As a member he attended meetings of the Judiciary Committee and of a joint committee on the papers of the old Congress. He accompanied the other Pennsylvanians to pay his respects to General Washington, resolving as he did so to “keep myself out of his power.” He dressed in his best clothes to attend the Inauguration, observing that the President looked “agitated and embarrassed. … He trembled, and several times could scarce make out to read, though it must be supposed he had often read it before … which left rather an ungainly impression.” He was the President’s guest in the Presidential box at a performance of Sheridan’s School for Scandal , which he thought was “an indecent representation before ladies of character and virtue.” He welcomed the arrival of Senator Robert Morris, leader of the Pennsylvania delegation, and reported to him on the events of the eighteen days he had missed. When the senators divided themselves into three groups and drew lots to determine who should vacate their seats at the end of two, four, or six years, Maclay drew the two-year term. He was sworn in by Vice President Adams.
Maclay later claimed that he had travelled to New York “expecting every man to act the part of a god; that the most delicate honor, the most exalted wisdom, the most refined generosity, was to govern every act and be seen in every deed.” If he really did so, he became disillusioned in a remarkably short time. In the first entry in his journal he found cause to suspect the integrity of Virginia’s Richard Henry Lee. In the second he discovered that the secretary of the Senate, Samuel A. Otis, was grossly incompetent; in the third that Pennsylvania’s George Clymer was peevish and fretting; in the fourth that Charles Carroll of Carrollton lacked firmness; on May 10, 1789, that Philadelphia Congressman Thomas Fitzsimmons had delayed a tariff bill in committee until several of his Indiamen had arrived in home port, thus avoiding the payment of duty. (In such a conflict of interest, he wrote, “you will always find the merchant uppermost.”) By May 11 he was looking at John Adams in the chair with “surprise mingled with contempt.” On June 28 he longed to return to home and family. And yet I stay here wrangling vile politics in a contentious Senate, where there is no harmony of soul, no wish to communicate a happy sensation; where all is snipsnap and contradiction short; where it is a source of joy to place the speech of a fellow-Senator in a distorted or ridiculous point of view; where you may search the whole Union and can not say that you can find the man of your heart!
He visited the other legislative body but found no encouragement. I was told there was warmth in the House of Representatives on the Quaker memorial, and went in. The House have certainly greatly debased their dignity, using base, invective, indecorous language; three or four up at a time, manifesting signs of passion, the most disorderly wanderings in their speeches, telling stories, private anecdotes, etc. I know not what may come of it, but there seems to be a general discontent among the members, and many of them do not hesitate to declare that the Union must fall to pieces at the rate we go on. Indeed, many seem to wish it.
On July 19, both knees swollen with rheumatism, he decided to return home on a three-week leave of absence for his health, agreeing with the other Pennsylvanians before he left that “disappointment with respect to public measures and constant vexation had perhaps aggravated” his ailment.