The Campaign Against the Critics of the Constitution

The campaign to discredit those opposed to the new system of government began in June 1787 while the Constitutional Convention was still in session. Much of the political debate of the time occurred in anonymous newspaper articles, sometimes signed with a pseudonym. This was an attempt to stay focused on the issues and avoid personal attacks, but the anonymity of the debate allowed each side to make insinuations about the identity and motives of the other. Critics of the Constitution were accused of being former Loyalists, enemies of liberty, or state officeholders who feared the loss of power under the new government.

The newspaper items below provide examples of attempts to discredit critics of the Constitution.

VARIOUS Attacks on THE CONSTITUTION’S CRITICS

Alexander Hamilton Attacks New York Governor George Clinton, 21 July–30 October 1787

In the spring and summer of 1787 the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia to revise and amend the Articles of Confederation. Within a week after the Convention began its sessions on 25 May, the delegates agreed that, instead of amending the Articles, the Convention would establish a new government for the United States. Advocates of such a government in New York and Pennsylvania believed that strong opposition to it would come from state officeholders who feared they would lose their power. The first known public attack on these state officeholders was made by a correspondent in the Pennsylvania Gazette on 20 June, who warned officeholders to be quiet or else they would suffer the same fate as Loyalists early in the American Revolution. This brief item was reprinted in the New York Journal, 28 June, and the Lansingburgh, N.Y. Northern Centinel, 2 July.

The most important attack on any state officeholder was made against New York Governor George Clinton in the Daily Advertiser on 21 July by Alexander Hamilton, a New York delegate to the Constitutional Convention, member of the New York Assembly, and son-in-law of Clinton’s erstwhile political rival, Philip Schuyler. Hamilton had previously clashed with Clinton’s faction in New York state politics. Writing anonymously, Hamilton claimed that Clinton had opposed the appointment of delegates to the Constitutional Convention and had “predicted a mischievous issue of that measure.” According to Hamilton, Clinton had stated publicly that the Convention was unnecessary and that the “evils” it intended to remedy were imaginary. Hamilton rejected Clinton’s analysis of the Confederation’s political and economic condition and defended the appointment of a convention that would create a strong central government able to address the many “evils” that had befallen America. Hamilton accused Clinton of having a “greater attachment to his own power than to the public good.” New Yorkers were told to watch Clinton “with a jealous eye, and when he sounds the alarm of danger from another quarter, to examine whether they have not more to apprehend from himself.” Anticipating Clinton’s eventual opposition to the new Constitution, Hamilton wanted to discredit the governor before Clinton could choose the most advantageous moment for his public statement.

Support for Hamilton’s position came swiftly. “An Admirer of Anti-Federal Men,” Daily Advertiser, 26 July, decried “the conduct of several leading men” who had “given the friends to liberty much uneasiness.” He praised the Convention delegates and called upon Americans to have confidence in them. On 1 August the Pennsylvania Herald heard from a New York gentleman that “the antifœderal disposition of a great officer” in New York had seriously alarmed the people with “anticipation of anarchy and division.” An anonymous verse printed in the Massachusetts Centinel, 18 August, accused Clinton of seeking “to wreck” the Union. Other newspapers outside New York—in brief and widely circulated articles—did not identify Clinton by name but instead criticized self-interested and scheming officeholders in general for their opposition to a convention that promised to create a vigorous central government. (See New Hampshire Spy and Salem Mercury, 7 August, and Pennsylvania Gazette, 8 August.) On 1 September, David Humphreys of Connecticut, who like Hamilton served as an aide-de-camp to George Washington during the war, complimented Hamilton for the “honest boldness” of his public attack on Clinton. Humphreys was disturbed by “popular Demagogues who are determined to keep themselves in office at the risque of every thing.”

In early September the attack on Clinton in New York was renewed, perhaps in anticipation of the completion of the Constitutional Convention’s work. “Rough Carver” criticized those persons whose refusal to increase the powers of the Confederation Congress had endangered the Union to the point of its impending dissolution. According to “Rough Carver,” opponents of a strong Union had “coolly” opposed all things that did “not bear the marks of Self”; they had “nothing in view but their own aggrandizement.” He wanted Clinton—their “thick skulled and double-hearted Chief”—replaced as governor.

Clinton’s adherents responded slowly. On 6 September “A Republican” (possibly Clinton himself), writing in the New York Journal, answered Hamilton’s initial 21 July attack. “A Republican” defended Clinton’s right, as a “citizen of a free state” and a public officer, to speak “freely and unreservedly to express his sentiments on public measures, however serious the posture of our national affairs may be.” Clinton’s attacker, declared “A Republican,” belonged to an “opulent and ambitious” party, a “lordly faction,” that sought to undermine the state government so “that they may establish a system more favorable to their aristocratic views.” “A Republican” concluded by quoting some verse from English poet Charles Churchill to suggest that Hamilton had penned the attack on Clinton. “An Old Soldier,” Northern Centinel, 10 September, and “Rusticus,” New York Journal, 13 September, also defended Clinton.

While answering “A Republican” in the Daily Advertiser on 10 September, “Aristides” defended Hamilton, stating that no man was more “worthy of credit.” When he attacked Clinton, Hamilton was “impelled, from pure principles.” Hamilton, stated “Aristides,” had not misrepresented Clinton’s views and neither Clinton nor his defenders denied the charges. Clinton, according to “Aristides,” had definitely been hostile to all measures seeking to strengthen the central government. As governor, Clinton exercised too much power, while he and his “motley group” created a dangerous “system of Connections and dependencies.” On 20 September “Anti-Defamationis,” writing in the New York Journal, denounced “Aristides” and others for attacking Clinton, whose duty it was to criticize the Convention if he thought “evil instead of good would result from their deliberations.”

Defending himself in a lengthy article for the Daily Advertiser on 15 September, Hamilton admitted writing the 21 July attack on Clinton, stating that he had left his name with the printer “to be disclosed to any person who should apply for it, on the part of the Governor.” His denunciations of Clinton were well founded because the governor’s wish to retain his power would come at the expense of the nation’s peace and happiness. In a free country, declared Hamilton, citizens had every right to question their ruler’s conduct. How could one voice injure a man who possessed “all the influence to be derived from long continuance in office.” Finally. Hamilton insisted that his actions were consistent “with the strictest rules of integrity and honor.”

After Hamilton publicly acknowledged his authorship of the 21 July attack on Clinton, he was lambasted by “Inspector” in three satirical articles printed in the New York Journal, 20 September, and 4 and 18 October. According to “Inspector,” Hamilton (referred to as “Tom S**t”) was “overrated”; he was of low and illegitimate West Indian birth; he was an “upstart attorney” who advanced his military career by ingratiating himself with George Washington, only to be summarily dismissed by the general from his staff; he owed his position to his wealthy and influential father-in-law, Philip Schuyler (referred to, among other names, as Hamilton’s “immaculate daddy, Justice Midas”); his vanity led him to attack Clinton whom he wanted to see replaced as governor by Schuyler; he expressed monarchical views in the Constitutional Convention; he despised the common people; and as a lawyer he grew rich defending Loyalists (“traitors”).

The attack on George Clinton was only the first that charged critics of the Constitution with selfish motives. Some Federalists subsequently broadened this criticism to all state officeholders who opposed the Constitution, charging them with trying to retain their lucrative and powerful positions, rather than seeking the benefit of the country through the implementation of the new Constitution.