The Life and Legacy of Alexander Hamilton

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Part 4: Making a New Country

As the months passed, many in the country grew restless, wanting more from the government than the Articles of Confederation was allowed to give. Shays's Rebellion illustrated the weakness of the central government and was essentially the flashpoint that started in earnest the movement that would become the Constitutional Convention.

Hamilton was a delegate from his home state of New York. One of the things that he did during the Convention was to introduce his own plan of government. The two competing plans were the Virginia Plan, which favored the larger states, and the New Jersey Plan, which favored the smaller states. Hamilton, in a five-hour speech, presented the Hamilton Plan.

Among the provisions of the Hamilton Plan were these:

  • Two houses of Congress, one of which, the Assembly, would have members who would be elected to serve three-year terms and the other of which, the Senate, would have members who were appointed to each state's electors and would serve "during good behavior";
  • A Judiciary, made up of 12 Justices, all of whom would serve "during good behavior";
  • A Governor, who was chosen by electors and would serve "during good behavior".

The phrase "during good behavior," of course, meant that the term had no limit. In effect, Senators and the Governor could serve as long as they were not thrown out of office. In effect, they could serve for life. This would make the Governor a monarch, just like the King that the American people had so recently fought so hard to get rid of.

Hamilton's motivation for removing the term provision of the Governor's service was to avoid the sort of "always running for re-election" characteristic that he wisely foresaw to be the case with modern politicians. But nobody liked the word monarch, which Hamilton unwisely used.

In the ensuing discussions, a compromise was hammered out that incorporated elements of both the Virginia Plan and the New Jersey Plan. The assembled delegates signed the Constitution on Sept. 17, 1787. Hamilton signed under the words "New York." He was the only New York delegate to do so; the other two delegates, John Lansing and Robert Yates, were so disgusted with the proceedings that they left early. They represented a powerful faction in their home state, led by Gov. George Clinton, who did not want the Constitution to succeed.

The Constitution stipulated that 9 of the 13 states would have to ratify it before it could become law. How would the states ratify? The people of each state would vote for people who would attend a ratification convention. These people were similar to the electors who voted for President.

Some states acted quickly. Delaware was the first state to ratify the Constitution. Pennsylvania was next, followed by New Jersey and then Georgia and Connecticut. Massachusetts soon followed, and then came Maryland and South Carolina. New Hampshire was the ninth state, making the Constitution official. But New York had not approved it yet. New York was one of the most powerful states in the Union, in both population and industry. Many people believed that without the support of New York, the Constitution was in danger of being ignored. Some grimly predicted that if New York did not ratify, then it might find itself pursuing independence of its own.

Governor Clinton lined up support against the Constitution. Alexander Hamilton enlisted powerful rivals John Jay and James Madison to help convince the people of New York to ratify. One of the main things they did was to write letters to newspapers. These were powerful arguments in favor of the Constitution. They were all signed "Publius," no matter which of the three men wrote them. They were all published, and they helped convince the people of New York that the Constitution was worth taking a chance on, especially since a Bill of Rights was in the offing. These essays, taken together, are commonly called The Federalist Papers, after the political party that was started by Hamilton, which favored a strong federal government.

Finally, on July 27, 1788, at the state convention in Poughkeepsie, New York delegates voted to ratify the Constitution. It was Hamilton's greatest triumph.

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David White