The Cantankerous Mr. Maclay


Robert Morris tells him he is “blamed for not going among the members and speaking to them, etc.” Muhlenberg is busy giving oyster suppers (to which Maclay is not invited), but he sends a Mr. Brown with identical advice: he should “go more among the members, etc.” Maclay considers that “a vile commerce,” but he knows he will offend Muhlenberg, a powerful man, if he does not. Following the talk with Brown he spends a bad night with the most distressing dreams he has ever had, which he attributes to “the vexation of yesterday”; but despite a bad headache he spends the next day calling on various members of the Pennsylvania Assembly.

The frontier Jacques has now become King Lear: My situation is a critical one. I must stand with open breast to receive the wound inflicted by my adversaries, while the smallest endeavors on my part, either to obtain favor or to remove misrepresentation, is called begging of votes by pretended though false friends. … Placed on an eminence, slander and defamation are the hooks applied to pull me down. It is natural to make some efforts to disengage one’s self from such grapplings, yet even the slightest endeavor of this kind is reprobated as an attempt to procure votes. … I have all the Secretary’s [Hamilton’s] gladiators upon me. I have already offended Knox and all his military arrangements; I have drowned Jefferson’s regards in the Potomac. Hamilton with his host of speculators is upon me, and they are not idle; the city hates me, and I have offended Morris, and my place must go. My peace of mind, however, shall not go, and like a dying man I will endeavor that my last moments be well spent.

And then the terminal cry of the wounded politician: What is the reason that I do not hear a single word from Harrisburg, not a word from Davey, not a word from Bob, not a word from the old man?

In the midst of this anguish Maclay is astonished to receive an invitation to dine with President Washington. He had felt that the President was neglecting him. He thought he observed a coolness toward him in one of the President’s aides—perhaps because of his indignation on learning that eight thousand dollars of public money had been spent to furnish and repair the President’s house. Now, on January 20: Sundry gentlemen met me at the door, and, though I rather declined, they pushed me forward. After I had made my bows and was inclining toward a vacant seat, the President, who rose to receive me, edged about on the sofa as he sat down, and said, “Here is room.” But I had put myself in motion for another vacant seat. A true courtier would have changed, but I am not one, and sat on the opposite settee or sofa with some New England men.

There is an even greater embarrassment at dinner: After my second plate had been taken away, the President offered to help me to part of a dish which stood before him. Was ever anything so unlucky? I had just before declined being helped to anything more, with some expression that denoted my having made up my dinner. Had, of course, for the sake of consistency, to thank him negatively, but when the dessert came, and he was distributing a pudding, he gave me a look of interrogation, and I returned the thanks positive. He soon after asked me to drink a glass of wine with him. This was readily accorded to, and, what was remarkable, I did not observe him drink with any other person during dinner.

Maclay is perplexed by the President’s marked attentions: He knows the weight of political odium under which I labor. He knows that my uniform opposition to funding systems … assumptions, high compensation, and expensive arrangements have drawn on me the resentment of all speculators, public creditors, expectants of office, and courtiers in the State. … He knows enough to satisfy him that I will be no Senator after the 3d of March.

He is forced to conclude that the President was simply being kind. It is, he admits, “at least one amiable trait in his character.” And he undertakes that night to “take a review of him as he really is.” Unhappily, in what is surely a minor tragedy of American letters, some friend or member of the family has torn and disposed of that page of the journal.

On March 3 Maclay attends the last session of the First Congress, held at night by candlelight to rush through unpassed legislation. He feels himself “of as little importance as I had ever done in my life.” He does not speak because his influence is gone. The President left the chair, and the members scampered downstairs. I stayed a moment to pack up my papers. [Tristram] Dalton alone came to me, and said he supposed we two would not see each other soon. We exchanged wishes for mutual welfare. As I left the Hall, I gave it a look with that kind of satisfaction which a man feels on leaving a place where he has been ill at ease, being fully satisfied that many a culprit has served two years at the wheelbarrow without feeling half the pain and mortification that I experienced in my honorable station.

The two houses of the Pennsylvania Legislature, operating under a new constitution, became deadlocked over the choice of Maclay’s successor, and for two years the state had only one member in the Senate. In February, 1793, Albert Gallatin was elected over William Maclay and two other candidates; but the Senate disqualified him on the ground that he had not been a citizen of the United States the required nine years. In 1794—the year the Senate opened its sessions to public scrutiny—James Ross, a Federalist, was elected to serve the three remaining years of the term. Maclay ran again for the Senate in 1802 but was defeated by his brother Samuel. He died in 1804, at age seventy.