The Cantankerous Mr. Maclay


On a foreign-service bill for which forty thousand dollars were appropriated, Maclay wrote: “I consider the money as worse than wasted, for I know not a single thing that we have for a minister to do at a single court in Europe. Indeed, the less we have to do with them the better.” On the bill for a military establishment: “The first error seems to have been the appointing of a Secretary of War when we were at peace, and now we must find troops lest his office should run out of employment. … The next cry will be for an Admiralty.” On the judiciary bill: “It certainly is a vile law system, calculated for expense and with a design to draw by degrees all law business into the Federal courts. The Constitution is meant to swallow all the State Constitutions by degrees, and thus to swallow, by degrees, all the State judiciaries.” On the debate on Hamilton’s bank bill: “Such a scene of confused speeches followed as I have seldom heard before. Every one affected to understand the subject, and undervalue the capacities of those who differed from himself.” And on the Senate’s rule of inviolable secrecy: “I am now more fully convinced than ever before of the propriety of opening our doors. I am confident some gentlemen would have been ashamed to have seen their speeches of this day reflected in the newspapers of tomorrow.”

In addition to being politically at odds with most of his colleagues Maclay was socially ill at ease and selfconscious in the company that surrounded the new Congress— eastern merchants, financiers, lawyers, southern planters, “aristocrats.” He found Philadelphians the most unsociable of any people he had met, New Yorkers rude and inhospitable, and New Englanders “an unmixed people” without candor who “dwelt excessively on trivial distinctions and matters of mere form.” In a session of nearly six weeks, he told Rufus King, “I have passed the threshold of no citizen of New York.” His account of a call he made on a Pennsylvania woman living in the city may suggest a reason why: I had promised Mrs. Bell to go with her to the [Senate], and I called about ten for that purpose. Mrs. Bell, however, could not go this day, and I found her as finicking and fickle as the finest lady among them, with a bunch of bosom and bulk of cotton that never was warranted by any feminine appearance in nature. She had learned the New York walk to a tittle; bent forward at the middle, she walked as they all do, just as if some disagreeable disorder prevented them from standing erect.

Maclay was at his most awkward in his frequent contacts with George Washington. He wished to see him as “this first of men,” but he was torn by a preconceived suspicion that the President was dominated by people who “would place a crown on his head, that they may have the handling of its jewels.” These creatures, he said, “are aiming with all their force to establish a splendid court with all the pomp of majesty. Alas! poor Washington, if you are taken in this snare! … How will your glory fade!”

The President was uneasy as a public figure in a strange company that was given to adulation, and he longed for his pleasant life at Mount Vernon, but he dutifully resigned himself to act the part expected of the head of a government. Besieged with visitors at his home at all hours, he announced in the press that he would hold formal hour-long receptions on Tuesday and Friday afternoons. There any decently attired person might pay “visits of compliment.” Maclay let the President know that he considered such affairs offensive and worthy only of the levees held by an Eastern potentate, but he nevertheless agreed to attend the first reception “with sundry of our Pennsylvania friends.” He observed a few days later: Nothing is regarded or valued at such meetings but the qualifications that flow from the tailor, barber, or dancing master. To be clean shaved, shirted, and powdered, to make your bows with grace, and to be master of small chat on the weather, play, or newspaper anecdote of the day, are the highest qualifications necessary. Levees may be extremely useful in old countries … but here I think they … have a tendency to make men idle who should be better employed.