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The Cantankerous Mr. Maclay
October 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 6
There is, in fact, scarcely one person in the journal for whom Maclay expresses sustained liking, admiration, or respect. Robert Morris, whom he had greeted joyfully as “one in whom I can confide,” turns out to be “certainly the greatest blackguard … I ever heard open a mouth.” James Madison, mocked with the title “His Littleness,” has a pride that seems to repel all communication, and he compromises a point of essential liberty “in order to pay court to the President whom, I am told, he already affects to govern.” Massachusetts’ Elbridge Gerry is “a tedious and most disagreeable speaker.” South Carolina’s Pierce Butler arrives late in New York and at once replaces Richard Lee as “the worst of men.” General Arthur St. Clair is “tediously talkative and dwelt much on fooleries of Scottish antiquities, and, what was worse, showed ill nature when he was laughed at.” Connecticut’s Oliver Ellsworth is “the most conceited man in the world.” New Jersey’s William Paterson is “a most despicable character.” New York’s Rufus King is “detestable—a perfect canvas for the devil to paint on; a groundwork void of every virtue.” Senator Philip Schuyler, General Schuyler, Hamilton’s fatherin-law, is a wretch who is “slovenly in dress” and “seems the prototype of covetousness,” with no “passion, property, or affection but the love of money and the concomitant character of a miser.” He is “completely sickened at the uncandid and ungentlemanly conduct” of Ralph Izard. No public character he has ever met appears to be more disgusting than Thomas MifHin, governor of Pennsylvania. Gouverneur Morris is acting in England “in a strange kind of capacity, half envoy, half pimp.” Dr. William Smith, Episcopal clergyman, provost of the College of Philadelphia, is “certainly a vile character.” He doubts the rumor that Delaware’s John Vining has sold his vote to Hamilton on the financial program for one thousand guineas, “for he might get it for a tenth part of the sum.”
Out of the saturation of invective in the journal one can identify the passions and ideas that were operating to produce a bill of rights and give life and three decades of dominance to a new popular party. For all his absurd charges, unrealized predictions, and limited vision, Maclay reveals a genuine if groping concern for basic individual rights. “High-handed measures,” he writes, “are at no time justifiable. … Never will I consent to straining the Constitution, nor never will I consent to the exercise of a doubtful power. We come here the servants, not the lords, of our constituents.” He fights, unsuccessfully, against the war on the Wabash Indians, undertaken “without the shadow of authority from Congress.” He opposes, unsuccessfully, the implication given to a military bill that the Congress has nothing to do with federal troops other than to pay them, no reason to know what the President does with them, and no right to interfere with his orders as commander in chief. He fights, unsuccessfully, for a national policy based on Pennsylvania’s liberal immigration and naturalization laws. He fights, successfully, against a clause in a bill that would require a defendant, on oath, to disclose his knowledge of a case in which he was being tried. He could not accept in silence, he says, a clause that carried such inquisitorial powers with it. Extorting evidence from any person is a species of torture and is inconsistent with the spirit of freedom. Happily the country is now free of this. But here is an attempt to exercise a tyranny of the same kind over the mind. The conscience is to be put on the rack. He considers forcing oaths or evidence from men as being equally tyrannical as extorting evidence by torture. That will give rise either to excusable lies or to willful perjury. By the bill of rights of the state he has the honor to represent, “ no person could be compelled to give evidence against himself .” To deny this shield would give offense to his constituents.
When President Washington and General Henry Knox presided over a session of the Senate called to discuss a proposed treaty with the southern Indians, Maclay stood up and complained that he saw “no chance of a fair investigation of subjects while the President of the United States sat there, with his Secretary of War, to support his opinions and overawe the timid and neutral part of the Senate.” The best way to conduct such business was to turn over all the papers to the appropriate committee of the Congress. The President declared angrily, “This defeats every purpose of my coming here,” and after a long pause withdrew “with a discontented air. Had it been any other man … I would have said, with sullen dignity.” (No President ever again tried that experiment.)
After the reading of a bill to organize one of the public departments Maclay begged leave of the chair to submit some general observations: If the virtues of the present Chief Magistrate are brought forward as a reason for vesting him with extraordinary powers, no nation ever trod more dangerous ground. His virtues will depart with him, but the powers which you give him will remain, and if not properly guarded will be abused by future Presidents if they are men.