University of Wisconsin–Madison

The New York Federal Republican Committee Seeks Interstate Cooperation in Obtaining Amendments to the Constitution, May–August 1788

Intent on adopting amendments before the Constitution was ratified by nine states, New York Antifederalists realized that time was running out. Consequently, in mid-May the Federal Republican Committee of New York (pdf) , a group of Antifederalists in and around New York City, wrote letters to prominent Antifederalists in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and North and South Carolina calling for cooperation in obtaining amendments to the Constitution before it was ratified. The Committee’s members were allies of Governor George Clinton. Its members included Chairman John Lamb, Charles Tillinghast, Melancton Smith, Marinus Willett, Hugh Hughes, and Samuel Jones.

The New York Federal Republican Committee, targeting Virginia as the most important state, addressed letters to Patrick Henry, George Mason, and William Grayson, considering them among “the most influential Delegates” to the Virginia Convention. The letters were carried to Richmond by Eleazer Oswald, the Antifederalist printer of the Philadelphia Independent Gazetteer. Oswald’s arrival in Richmond coincided with the first days of the Virginia Convention. Federalist convention delegates, such as James Madison and Henry Lee of Westmoreland County, knew of Oswald’s arrival, his meetings with Virginia Antifederalists, and the movement to obtain amendments prior to ratification.

The letter-writing campaign of the New York Federal Republican Committee ultimately failed to obtain prior or conditional amendments. The letters to South Carolina arrived after its Convention ratified the Constitution with recommendatory amendments. The letters to New Hampshire, Virginia, and North Carolina arrived in sufficient time, but in all cases the conventions only recommended amendments. The Virginia Convention rejected prior, while the North Carolina Convention refused to ratify. In the New York Convention, conditional amendments were defeated and, like Virginia, the Convention adopted the Constitution with many recommendatory amendments. Nevertheless, the letter-writing campaign of the New York Federal Republican Committee, as part of a larger Antifederalist movement for amendments, was a factor in pressuring the first Congress under the Constitution to propose amendments to the states for their ratification.