- Historic Sites
The Cantankerous Mr. Maclay
October 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 6
William Maclay, elected by the Pennsylvania Legislature to the Senate of the United States, left his farm near Harrisburg early in March, 1789, and journeyed to New York to attend the first session of the First Congress. He took board and lodging for two dollars a week at a Mr. Vandolsom’s near the Bear Market, and for the next month he waited for the two houses to form a quorum, meeting informally each morning with other members at Federal Hall on Wall Street. To his friend Benjamin Rush he wrote on March 9: “I never felt greater mortification in my life to be so long here with the eyes of all the world on us and to do nothing is terrible.”
On Thursday, April 23, the day of General Washington’s arrival in the city, the Senate met for the first time in formal session, Vice President John Adams presiding. The members, most of them Federalists, resolved in a rule of procedure to conduct their business in “inviolable secrecy.” The next day William Maclay began to keep a private daily journal. Except for the barest of official minutes his is the sole record of what went on behind the Senate’s closed and guarded doors during the next two years. It is a choice bit of irony that the Federalists, by withholding information from the electorate, caused the record of Senate proceedings to be written by the most radical Antifederalist, a man who may be said to have been the godfather of the Jeffersonian or Democratic-Republican Party. Maclay believed that he was serving with “a set of vipers,” that his political opponents “cared for nothing else but… the creation of a new monarchy in America,” and that the new Constitution would probably “turn out the vilest of all traps that was ever set to ensnare the freedom of an unsuspecting people.”
The twenty-two senators (North Carolina and Rhode Island had not yet ratified the Constitution) met daily in the Senate chamber on the second floor, occasionally spending their time in “chatting parties” around the fireplace or the stove. Maclay resolved to speak at least once each day, “more in consequence of a kind of determination … than from any fondness of the subject.” As a member he attended meetings of the Judiciary Committee and of a joint committee on the papers of the old Congress. He accompanied the other Pennsylvanians to pay his respects to General Washington, resolving as he did so to “keep myself out of his power.” He dressed in his best clothes to attend the Inauguration, observing that the President looked “agitated and embarrassed. … He trembled, and several times could scarce make out to read, though it must be supposed he had often read it before … which left rather an ungainly impression.” He was the President’s guest in the Presidential box at a performance of Sheridan’s School for Scandal , which he thought was “an indecent representation before ladies of character and virtue.” He welcomed the arrival of Senator Robert Morris, leader of the Pennsylvania delegation, and reported to him on the events of the eighteen days he had missed. When the senators divided themselves into three groups and drew lots to determine who should vacate their seats at the end of two, four, or six years, Maclay drew the two-year term. He was sworn in by Vice President Adams.
Maclay later claimed that he had travelled to New York “expecting every man to act the part of a god; that the most delicate honor, the most exalted wisdom, the most refined generosity, was to govern every act and be seen in every deed.” If he really did so, he became disillusioned in a remarkably short time. In the first entry in his journal he found cause to suspect the integrity of Virginia’s Richard Henry Lee. In the second he discovered that the secretary of the Senate, Samuel A. Otis, was grossly incompetent; in the third that Pennsylvania’s George Clymer was peevish and fretting; in the fourth that Charles Carroll of Carrollton lacked firmness; on May 10, 1789, that Philadelphia Congressman Thomas Fitzsimmons had delayed a tariff bill in committee until several of his Indiamen had arrived in home port, thus avoiding the payment of duty. (In such a conflict of interest, he wrote, “you will always find the merchant uppermost.”) By May 11 he was looking at John Adams in the chair with “surprise mingled with contempt.” On June 28 he longed to return to home and family. And yet I stay here wrangling vile politics in a contentious Senate, where there is no harmony of soul, no wish to communicate a happy sensation; where all is snipsnap and contradiction short; where it is a source of joy to place the speech of a fellow-Senator in a distorted or ridiculous point of view; where you may search the whole Union and can not say that you can find the man of your heart!
He visited the other legislative body but found no encouragement. I was told there was warmth in the House of Representatives on the Quaker memorial, and went in. The House have certainly greatly debased their dignity, using base, invective, indecorous language; three or four up at a time, manifesting signs of passion, the most disorderly wanderings in their speeches, telling stories, private anecdotes, etc. I know not what may come of it, but there seems to be a general discontent among the members, and many of them do not hesitate to declare that the Union must fall to pieces at the rate we go on. Indeed, many seem to wish it.
On July 19, both knees swollen with rheumatism, he decided to return home on a three-week leave of absence for his health, agreeing with the other Pennsylvanians before he left that “disappointment with respect to public measures and constant vexation had perhaps aggravated” his ailment.
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.
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.
In August he was surprised to receive an invitation to dine with the President. He accepted, feeling secure in his knowledge that “all the dinners he can now give or ever could will make no difference in my conduct.” The result was a vignette indelibly engraved in the history of the time. Senate adjourned early. At a little after four I called on Mr. [Richard] Bassett of the Delaware State. We went to the President’s to dinner. … It was a great dinner, and the best of the kind I ever was at. The room, however, was disagreeably warm. First was the soup; fish roasted and boiled; meats, gammon, fowls, etc. This was the dinner. The middle of the table was garnished in the usual tasty way, with small images, flowers (artificial), etc. The dessert was, first apple-pies, pudding, etc.; then iced creams, jellies, etc.; then watermelons … apples, peaches, nuts. It was the most solemn dinner ever I sat at. Not a health drank; scarce a word said until the cloth was taken away. Then the President, filling a glass of wine, with great formality drank to the health of every individual by name round the table. Everybody imitated him, charged glasses, and such a buzz of “health, sir,” and “health, madam,” and “thank you, sir,” and “thank you, madam,” never had I heard before. Indeed, I had liked to have been thrown out in the hurry; but I got a little wine in my glass, and passed the ceremony. The ladies sat a good while, and the bottles passed about; but there was a dead silence almost. Mrs. Washington at last withdrew with the ladies. I expected the men would now begin, but the same stillness remained. The President told of a New England clergyman who had lost a hat and wig in passing a river called the Brunks. He smiled, and everybody else laughed. He now and then said a sentence or two on some common subject, and what he said was not amiss. Mr. Jay tried to make a laugh by mentioning the circumstance of the Duchess of Devonshire leaving no stone unturned to carry Fox’s election. There was a Mr. Smith, who mentioned how Homer described Aeneas leaving his wife and carrying his father out of flaming Troy. He had heard somebody (I suppose) witty on the occasion; but if he had ever read it he would have said Virgil . The President kept a fork in his hand, when the cloth was taken away, I thought for the purpose of picking nuts. He ate no nuts, however, but played with the fork, striking on the edge of the table with it. We did not sit long after the ladies retired. The President rose, went upstairs to drink coffee; the company followed. I took my hat and came home.
He dined with the President five more times. On January 14, 1790: It was a great dinner—all in the taste of high life. I considered it as a part of my duty as a Senator to submit to it, and am glad it is over. The President is a cold, formal man; but I must declare that he treated me with great attention. I was the first person with whom he drank a glass of wine. I was often spoken to by him. Yet he knows how rigid a republican I am. I can not think that he considers it worth while to soften me. It is not worth his while. I am not an object if he should gain me, and I trust he cannot do it by any improper means.
On March 4: It was a dinner of dignity. All the Senators were present, and the Vice President. I looked often around the company to find the happiest faces. … The President seemed to bear in his countenance a settled aspect of melancholy. No cheering ray of convivial sunshine broke through the cloudy gloom of settled seriousness. At every interval of eating or drinking he played on the table with a fork or knife, like a drumstick. Next to him, on his right, sat Bonny Johnny Adams, ever and anon mantling his visage with the most unmeaning simper that ever dimpled the face of folly.
Maclay devoted much space in his journal to John Adams. He gives a mocking, merciless characterization that has perplexed biographers and corresponds only in part with what is known of Adams from his other contemporaries and from his writings. Maclay had admired Adams before he met him. But from the first of the session to its end Maclay detested and opposed him.
The friction began when the Vice President, fresh from the Court of St. James’s, wearing a sword while he presided over the Senate, moved that a committee be appointed to recommend what titles should be given to officials of government. Antagonism was heightened when he proposed that the resolution be sent to the Honorable Speaker of the House. (The messenger was to make one bow to the chair on entering the door of the House, another on delivering it at the table into the hands of the Speaker, and two more as he departed.) Antagonism was compounded when to add to the weight and authority of government Adams persistently raised questions of ceremony and pageantry. The Senate’s first three weeks were occupied almost solely by what Maclay called “this idolatrous business.”
When the Senate declined to address the Speaker as honorable , Maclay observed, “I think our Vice President may go and dream about titles, for none will he get.” When Adams raised the question of how he should conduct himself at the President’s Inauguration, Maclay recorded it: “Gentlemen, I feel great difficulty how to act. I am possessed of two separate powers; the one in esse and the other in posse . I am Vice President. In this I am nothing, but I may be everything. But I am president also of the Senate. When the President comes into the Senate, what shall 1 be? I can not be [president] then. No, gentlemen, I can not. … 1 wish gentlemen to think what I shall be.” Here, as if oppressed with a sense of his distressed situation, he threw himself back in his chair. A solemn silence ensued. God forgive me, for it was involuntary, but the profane muscles of my face were in tune for laughter in spite of my indisposition. [Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut] thumbed over the sheet Constitution and turned it for some time. At length he rose and addressed the Chair with the utmost gravity: “Mr. President, I have looked over the Constitution (pause), and I find, sir, it is evident and clear, sir, that wherever the Senate are to be, there, sir, you must be at the head of them. But further, sir (here he looked aghast, as if some tremendous gulf had yawned before him), I shall not pretend to say.”
In the Senate chamber following the Inauguration, Adams referred to the President’s inaugural address as his most gracious speech , and he included the phrase in the next day’s minutes. When no one else protested, Maclay rose: “Mr. President, we have lately had a hard struggle for our liberty against kingly authority. The minds of men are still heated: everything related to that species of government is odious to the people. The words prefixed to the President’s speech are the same that are usually placed before the speech of his Britannic Majesty. I know they will give offense. I consider them as improper. I therefore move that they be struck out, and that it stand simple address or speech, as may be judged most suitable.”
Adams expressed the greatest surprise that anything should be objected to simply because it was taken from the practice of that government under which Americans had formerly lived so long and so happily. He was, he said, in favor of a dignified and respectable government. He was one of the first in the Revolution, but “if he could have thought of this, he never would have drawn his sword. ” Maclay, “painful as it was … to contend with the chair,” declared that the enemies of the Constitution would consider the phrase “as the first step of the ladder in the ascent to royalty.” After further debate the members voted to erase the phrase most gracious speech .
The debate on choice of a title for the President raged for several days. Maclay led the fight against any title other than that named in the Constitution: President of the United States of America . Adams observed that the heads of fire companies and cricket clubs were called president . Lee, chairman of the Committee on Titles, read a long list of the identifying names of all the princes and potentates of the world. Suggestions were made, among them excellency, his most benign highness, high mightiness, elective majesty , and elective highness . Maclay protested that elective highness sounded very much like electoral highness and would have “a most ungrateful sound to many thousands of industrious citizens who had fled from German oppression”— a reference to the German princes formerly entitled to elect the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.
On May 9 the committee produced the recommended result of its labors: His Highness the President of the United States of America and Protector of the Rights of the Same . Adams spoke for forty minutes from the chair and said among other things: “Suppose the President to have [made] the appointment of Mr. Jefferson at the court of France. Mr. Jefferson is, in virtue of that appointment, the most illustrious, the most powerful, and what not. But the President must be himself something that includes all the dignities of the diplomatic corps and something greater still. What will the common people of foreign countries, what will the sailors and the soldiers say, ‘George Washington, President of the United States’? They will despise him to all eternity . This is all nonsense to the philosopher, but so is all government whatever.”
Maclay went through his arguments once again. He read the clause in the Constitution against granting or receiving titles of nobility. The Constitution had designated the title of the Chief Magistrate, he said, and the Senate had no power to alter it. To do so would cause a rupture with the other house. “As to what the common people, soldiers and sailors of foreign countries may think of us, I do not think it imports us much. Perhaps the less they think, or have occasion to think of us, the better.”
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.
Hamilton agreed that if there was a committee vote demanding the papers, he would produce them. Maclay: “I told him any member of Congress had a right to any papers in any office whatever; that as chairman of the committee I had promised to procure what papers were necessary. I deemed this necessary, and of course called for it.” Hamilton asked for a half hour to consider the matter and said he would write Maclay a note. “I parted with him, telling him I should expect to hear from him in half an hour. He said I should. This was before twelve.”
The Senate adjourned at one. Maclay sat a half hour longer waiting for the note, but it did not come. He went directly to the Treasury office. “After being admitted into the sanctum sanctorum I told his Holiness that he had been good enough to promise me a note which was not come to my hands. … He said the papers I wanted were here. I said, ‘What, here in the office?’ He said yes.”
Hamilton then rose, left the room, kept Maclay waiting for a considerable time, and returned with a young aide named Kuhn. The papers, he said, were in the private desk of Mr. Hillegas, a Treasury employee. The desk was locked and bound around with tape. Mr. Hillegas had the only key, and he was in Philadelphia. Maclay expressed surprise that public papers belonging to the Treasury should be locked in a private desk. Hamilton “affected to believe” that Maclay was censuring his conduct. Maclay repeated that the situation seemed very strange. “I suppose, then,” he said, “I must write to Mr. Hillegas for to send over the key before I could see the papers.” Hamilton replied that he could not get them otherwise. “By way, I believe, of getting me out of the room [he] told me to come and see the desk. I walked into the room of the Assistant Secretary, and he there showed me the desk as he said contained the warrants. … A schoolboy should be whipped for such pitiful evasions.” Baron Steuben got his pay and pension thirteen days later.
Maclay became increasingly bitter as he saw Hamilton and his “gladiators” push his revenue and financial measures through the Congress: I can not see that I can do any further good here, and I think I had better go home. Everything, even to the naming of a committee, is prearranged by Hamilton and his group of speculators. I can not even find a single member to condole in sincerity with me over the political calamities of my country. Let me deliver myself from the society of such men, for I verily believe the sun never shone on a more abandoned composition of political characters.
The President, he wrote, “has become, in the hands of Hamilton, the dishclout of every dirty speculation, as his name goes to wipe away blame and silence all murmuring.” And in the ultimate burst of rage: “Republicans are borne down by fashion and a fear of being charged with a want of respect to General Washington. If there is treason in the wish I retract it, but would to God this same General Washington were in heaven! We would not then have him brought forward as the constant cover to every unconstitutional and irrepublican act.”
Jefferson arrived in Norfolk in November, 1789, but delayed four months before starting to New York to assume his post as Secretary of State. Maclay first met him on May 24, 1790, at a session of the Committee on Foreign Affairs. He was not favorably impressed with the man whose political views he was foreshadowing, but his description is a superb piece of reporting: Jefferson is a slender man; has rather the air of stiffness in his manner; his clothes seem too small for him; he sits in a lounging manner, on one hip commonly, and with one of his shoulders elevated much above the other; his face has a sunny aspect; his whole figure has a loose, shackling air. He had a rambling, vacant look, and nothing of that firm, collected deportment which I expected would dignify the presence of a secretary or minister. I looked for gravity, but a laxity of manner seemed shed about him. He spoke almost without ceasing. But even his discourse partook of his personal demeanor. It was loose and rambling, and yet he scattered information wherever he went, and some even brilliant sentiments sparkled from him. The information which he gave us respecting foreign ministers, etc., was all high-spiced. He had been long enough abroad to catch the tone of European folly. He gave us a sentiment which seemed rather to savor of quaintness: “It is better to take the highest of the lowest than the lowest of the highest.” Translation: “It is better to appoint a chargé with a handsome salary than a minister plenipotentiary with a small one.”
In February 1791: “Mr. Jefferson with more than Parisian politeness waited on me at my chamber this morning. He talked politics, mostly the French difference and the whale-fishery; but he touched the Potomac, too, as much as to say, ‘There, oh, [place the capital] there.’” When Jefferson made a deal with Hamilton to support his financial program in return for Hamilton’s agreement to place the capital near Georgetown on the Potomac, Maclay felt that Jefferson betrayed him on two key issues.
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.
In a debate lasting intermittently over several months on the executive powers of the Presidency, Maclay developed the thesis at length that the Senate had the power to check and regulate the proceedings of the President. “The approbation of the Senate,” he said, “was certainly meant to guard against the mistakes of the President in his appointments to office.” It shared the right with the President to remove principal officers of the government. The depriving power should be the same as the appointing power. But was this a point left at large by the Constitution? Certainly otherwise. Five or six times in our short Constitution is the trial by impeachment mentioned. … No part of the Constitution is so fully guarded as or more clearly expressed than this part of it. And most justly, too, for every good Government guards the reputation of her citizens as well as their life and property. Every turning out of office is attended with reproach, and the person so turned out is stigmatized with infamy. By means of impeachment a fair hearing and trial are secured to the party.
Oliver Ellsworth rose to declare that removal of principal officers lay entirely with the President. He carefully avoided the subject of impeachment. He absolutely used the following expressions with regard to the President: “ It is a sacrilege to touch a hair of his head, and we may as well lay the President’s head on the block and strike it off with one blow. ” … Mr. Lee rose. He spoke long and pointedly against the clause. He repeated many of my arguments, but always was polite enough to acknowledge the mention I had made of them.
In an informal discussion held before a later session took up, Adams and Ellsworth argued that “the President, personally, was not subject to any process whatever; could have no action whatever brought against him; was above the power of all judges, justices, etc. For what, said they, would you put it in the power of a common justice to exercise any authority over him and stop the whole machine of Government? I said that, although President, he is not above the laws. Both of them declared you could only impeach him, and no other process whatever lay against him.” I put the case: “Suppose the President committed murder in the street. Impeach him? But you can only remove him from office on impeachment. Why, when he is no longer President you can indict him. But in the meantime he runs away. But I will put up another case. Suppose he continues his murders daily, and neither House is sitting to impeach him. Oh, the people would rise and restrain him. Very well, you will allow the mob to do what legal justice must abstain from.” Mr. Adams said I was arguing from cases nearly impossible.
Maclay lamented that by opposing “glaring folly and the basest selfishness in almost every public transaction” he was sacrificing his “every chance of being popular and every grain of [his] influence in the Senate.” He felt that he had raised a host of enemies about him, “with calumny and detraction in every corner.” He had been of little service and had “sacrificed both health and domestic happiness at the shrine of [his] country.” He concluded therefore that it would be as “absurd for me to wish a continuance in Congress as to desire to walk among briers and thorns rather than on the beaten road. … I will go to meet nature, love, affection, and sincerity in the embrace of my wife and dear children.”
The First Congress left New York in July, 1790, and on December i began its third and final session in Philadelphia, from which the Continental Congress seven years earlier had been driven by a mob of mutinous soldiers. It now seemed certain that Maclay would be passed over and would leave office on March 4. He is filled with “shame and contrition” when he reviews his journal and finds the subject of his re-election has engaged so much of his thought. The human heart really is a strange machine. I certainly have severely felt the inconvenience of being from home these two years past, and my judgment plainly tells me that I am wrong in having submitted to it. Further, I can not help knowing that my re-election, with no friends and many enemies, is impossible; and yet, under all these circumstances, the man who expresses favorable wishes is by far the most acceptable to me.
He calls to take tea with Thomas Fitzsimmons and his family; Fitzsimmons pointedly avoids the subject of his re-election and does not go to the door with him when he leaves, “as much as to say, I want no private communication.” The next day he stops at Boyd’s Tavern, “the place where all the plots are laid against me,” and there comes upon three state political leaders. Two of them are not friendly. He feels he is “as among a den of thieves. I need never cross this threshold again. Advances to them are idle.” He goes to the State House to meet with a Senate committee, “but they let me sit an hour without attending me.” John Dickinson comes in and takes him to one side. “‘You have,’ said he, ‘enemies in this place. I dined yesterday with the Governor. He is your enemy. He said you will be hard run and mentioned [John] Smilie as being your competitor.’ I thanked him for the communication.” From Virginia’s Alexander White I had much information of the malignant whispers, innuendoes, and malevolent remarks made respecting me. It was painful, and I could not refrain demanding of him what or whether any charge was made against me. No, no; nothing in particular, but everybody says: “The people don’t like you; the people won’t hear of your reelection.” Who are they that say so? “The leading members of the Assembly, officers of the Land-Office, citizens of Philadelphia, and others.”
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.
An inhabitant of Harrisburg, a collegian home for summer vacation, remembered that he used to watch Mr. Maclay walking up and down the riverbank, dressed in a white flannel suit with lace ruffles. The young man thought he had never seen such a “dignified, majestic old gentleman. … I was always half afraid of him,” he said. “He seemed to awe me into insignificance.” One feels a sense of personal loss that the old gentleman had not continued to fill the pages of his “precious document” as a senator through the Whiskey Rebellion, the Jay Treaty with England, the administration of John Adams, the half-war with France, and the rise to power of the Jeffersonian Democrats, the party he anticipated.