The Cantankerous Mr. Maclay


The representatives, following James Madison’s leadership, killed the idea of any extraordinary title for the President. Maclay congratulated himself: “I have, by plowing with the heifer of the other House, completely defeated them.” Speaker Frederick Muhlenberg, pleased with the victory, playfully called Maclay “Your Highness of the Senate”; Ralph Izard conferred on Adams the title “His Rotundity.” Other elevated ideas also died with the defeat. The sergeant at arms was not called Usher of the Black Rod , as Adams proposed. Americans were spared the sight of their Presidents seated, when visiting the Congress, on a throne with a canopy.

When John Adams appeared in the Senate on May 21, he had laid aside his sword. On May 25 the members, after some weighty discussion on the matter, decided that Bishop William Linn, chaplain of the Senate, might be addressed as Right Reverend .

Maclay now believed that the Vice President, among others, treated him with disrespect and “studied inattention” when he was speaking, on one occasion “snuffling up his nose, kicking his heels, or talking and sniggering with Otis the whole time I was up.” His feelings, as expressed in his journal, seem almost paranoid: May 2, 1789—He is not well furnished with small talk more than myself and has a very silly kind of laugh. I have often looked with the utmost attention at him to see if his aspect, air, etc. could inspire me with an opinion of his being a man of genius; but … no; the thing seems impossible. May 11—He takes on him to school the members from the chair. … Instead of that sedate, easy air which I would have him possess, he will look on one side, then on the other, then down on the knees of his breeches, then dimple his visage with the most silly kind of half smile which I can not well express in English. The ScotchIrish have a word that hits it exactly— smudging . God forgive me for the vile thought, but I can not help thinking of a monkey just put into breeches when I saw him betray such evident marks of self-conceit. June 22—His pride, obstinacy, and folly are equal to his vanity, and, although it is a common observation that fools are the tools of knaves … yet John Adams has served to illustrate two points at least with me, viz., that a fool is the most unmanageable of all brutes, and that flattery is the most irksome of all service. September 18—Ye gods, with what indignation do I review the late attempt of some creatures among us to revive the vile machinery [of royalty and nobility]. O Adams, Adams, what a wretch art thou! March 2, 1790—Our Vice President goes every day [to the House of Representatives], and the members spend their time in lampooning him before his face. June 8—John Adams has neither judgment, firmness of mind, nor respectability of deportment to fill the chair of such an assembly.

Maclay had no daily contact with Hamilton, and he has little to say on the Secretary’s character other than to record the rumors and gossip that he was speculating in government securities (“Nobody can prove these things, but everybody knows them”) and that he was stealing Treasury funds to do it (“What a damnable villain!”). He writes himself a note: “Get, if I can, The Federalist without buying it. It is not worth it. … Some one else will give it to me. It certainly was instrumental in procuring the adoption of the Constitution.” His motive is one of curiosity and amusement, to see how far off the mark its conjectures and explanations were. At a party he finds that Hamilton has “a very boyish, giddy manner, and ScotchIrish people could well call him a ‘skite.” ” He feels that the Report on Public Credit will damn Hamilton’s character as a minister forever, and, “with less prudence than integrity,” he attacks it the moment it appears. Hamilton and his supporters, he decides after judicious thought, are activated by interest, while he and Hamilton’s other opponents are governed by principle.

Maclay was chairman of a committee to investigate a bill, supported by Hamilton, to give Major General Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustus, Baron von Steuben, seven thousand dollars in arrears in pay and two thousand dollars in annual pension. “Many of our sharpest conflicts and most bloody engagements,” he wrote indignantly, “had terminated

fortunately before we ever heard of the baron. … I really never saw so villainous an attempt to rob the public. … There never was so vile and barefaced a business as this. It is well known that all he [Steuben] would get would immediately sink into the hands of Hamilton.” When he called on Hamilton to ask for the papers covering the case, Hamilton, in the first episode of a classic continuing American confrontation, “refused me in pretty stiff terms; he could not answer for it, to open any gentleman’s papers.” He would bring “unexceptional characters” with him, Maclay replied, including the Speaker of the House. The papers he wanted “belonged to the public and to no private gentleman whatever.” It would not do for the Secretary to refuse information to a committee of Congress.