The Cantankerous Mr. Maclay


James Madison, leader of the House, lamented to Thomas Jefferson in Paris, “We are in a wilderness, without a single footstep to guide us.” Every policy decision the Congress and the President made was a first, with no precedent to follow. They had to put together three executive departments, a federal judiciary system, a foreign service, a banking system. Immigration and naturalization laws, revenue bills, tariff acts, a militia act, had to be written and passed. There was need for a whole new range of governmental interpretation and procedure, of nomenclature, protocol, and etiquette. How much should the President be paid? The Vice President? Supreme Court justices? Ambassadors? Should senators and representatives receive the same pay? How should the President be addressed? With what ceremony should he be received on visits to the Congress? How was one member to address another on the floor? How were the two houses to communicate with each other? Should unfinished business be carried over from one session to another, or should it originate anew with each session? Should there be a standing army? How large? What was to be done about the public debt? The arrears due the soldiers of the Revolution? About the public lands in the West? About a bill of rights? Where should the Congress and the seat of national government be permanently established? What powers of removal did the President have? Was the President above the power of due legal process other than impeachment?How should the Constitution be interpreted with respect to impeachment?

To these problems Maclay brought the skills of a lawyer, frontier surveyor, soldier, Indian commissioner, large landowner, county judge, state senator, and member of the supreme executive council of Pennsylvania. He was a muscular ScotchIrishman six feet three inches tall, fifty-five years old, the parent, with Mary Harris of Harrisburg, of six girls and a two-year-old son. He had marched on Fort Duquesne as a lieutenant under General Forbes, fought with Colonel Bouquet at Ligonier and Bushy Run, and served in the Revolution as his state’s assistant commissary of purchases. He had laid out the towns of Sunbury and Maclaysburg (later renamed Harrisburg) and at twenty-three journeyed to London to consult with Thomas Penn on land matters. He could quote Horace in correct Latin, and his interest in scientific discovery led him to calculate the age of the earth by measuring the extent and rate of attrition of the rock channel at Niagara Falls (answer: 55,440 years).

President Washington hoped that he could preside impartially over an administration, a government, that was above the selfish interests of regionalism and the rancors of party spirit. Senator Maclay was under no such illusion. He was from the first a partisan opponent of a strong central government and of almost everything else that Adams, Hamilton, Morris, and the “court party” stood for, as to both economic policies and political principles. He admired and defended the Articles of Confederation. He was a passionate advocate of states’ rights, republican plainness, and agrarian simplicity. He knew that he represented a state that held the balance of power between two conflicting regional forces. On May 6, 1789, he wrote: I have been a bird alone. I have had to bear the chilling cold of the North and the intemperate warmth of the South, neither of which is favorable to the Middle State from which I come. Lee and [Ralph] Izard, hot as the burning sands of Carolina, hate us. Adams with all his frigid friends, cool and wary, bear us no good-will. I could not find a confidant in one of them, or say to my heart, “Here is the man I can trust.” … I mean to act as if I were immortal, and yet I wish to give satisfaction and content to the State that sent me here.

Most especially Maclay wished to give satisfaction and content to the farmers, artisans, and small tradesmen west of and free from the Philadelphia influence. He devoted much space in his journal to two positive programs. One was to hold up the tariff on cordage, cables, and hemp, of which Pennsylvania’s middle counties were a chief supplier, at sixty cents per hundredweight. (“I was up four times in all,” he wrote. “We carried it, however, at sixty.”) The other was to place the federal capital on the Susquehanna at Harrisburg, on a hundred acres he would donate, in an area that a recent inhabitant had described as a dense swamp whose edges were so beset with tangled briers that “the place was almost impenetrable to the dogs.”

Four days after he took office as Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton was asked by his chief clerk how he was to maintain the ledgers of the United States. Six days later the Congress charged Hamilton with preparing a report on the ways and means of supporting the credit of the government. This request resulted in four great state papers that helped to convert the Constitution from a plan to a workable program and laid the base for the country’s economic growth. Maclay saw in these measures only that the federal government was being strengthened at the expense of states’ rights, that Hamilton’s “manufacturing spirit” was favored over agriculture, and that those investors and speculators who owned depreciated public securities would be enriched by the proposed federal assumption and consolidation of the public debt—a staggering $75 million—at face value with 6 per cent back interest.