The Conqueror by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Book IV. "Alexander the Great"
In February he went to the Assembly to fight Clinton's opposition to the harassing need of conferring a permanent revenue upon Congress. He had already written a memorial, distributed over the State, setting forth the dangerous position of the country. But Clinton was lord of the masses, and their representatives in the Legislature had been trained to think as he thought. They honoured him because he had made New York the greatest State in the Union, not yet realizing that he had brought her into disrepute at home and abroad, and that his selfish policy was now hastening her to her ruin. To increase the power of Congress was to encourage the spirit of Nationalism, and that meant the sure decline of the States and of himself. The fight was hot and bitter. Clinton won; but the thinking men present took Hamilton's words home and pondered upon them, and in time they bore fruit.
After many delays the Convention was summoned to meet at Philadelphia on the 14th of May. History calls it the Constitutional Convention, but its promoters were careful to give the States-right people no such guide to contravention. The violent oppositionists of all change slumbered peacefully, while the representatives of the more enlightened were appointed to the Convention under moderately worded and somewhat vague resolutions; and some of them went as vaguely. Congress, after a characteristic and selfish hesitation, and a thorough fright induced by the Massachusetts rebellion, was finally persuaded to give her official sanction to the proposed Convention. Hamilton secured his appointment as a delegate,--after a hard fight to have New York represented at all,--and found himself saddled with two Clintonians, Robert Yates and John Lansing, Jr. But the first great step for which he had struggled, since his Morristown letter to the Financier of the Revolution seven years before, was assured at last.
Shortly before the Convention opened, Gouverneur Morris and James Madison, Jr. met by appointment at Hamilton's house to discuss the plan of campaign and make sure of their leader's wishes. General Schuyler and Robert Troup were also present.
Morris was a delegate from Pennsylvania, but was about to return to New York, having bought the family estate at Morrisania from his brother, Staats Long Morris, and was involved in business enterprises which resulted in a large fortune. He awaited the settlement of the country's affairs before sailing for Europe in his private interests. Troup, now a successful lawyer at the New York bar, was an able politician and devoted to Hamilton's interests. Philip Schuyler was entirely in his son-in-law's confidence, working for and with him always, occupying the double position of adviser and follower. Madison, who had forced the Convention at Annapolis, had had his breath taken away by Hamilton's coup, but now was delighted that he had been the instrument which made it possible. He had composed his somewhat halting mind to the determination to concentrate his energies upon wringing from the Convention a national scheme of government after Hamilton's model, provided that model were not too extreme: he was no monarchist, and knew the people very thoroughly. But he was deeply anxious to have Hamilton's views and plans for his guidance, even if modification were necessary. He knew Hamilton's complete mastery of the science of government, and that his broad structure was bound to be right, no matter what its frills.
The company assembled in the library, whose open windows overhung a garden full of lilacs, dogwood, and maples. There was a long table in the room, about which the guests mechanically seated themselves, so accustomed were they to the council table. Hamilton had greeted them in the hall, and sent them on to the library, while he went to fetch some papers his wife had promised to copy for him.
"So this is the room in which the government of the United States is to be born," said Troup, glancing about at the familiar books and at the desk stuffed with papers. "I shall always smell lilacs in the new Constitution."
"If we get one," observed Morris. "'Conceive' would be a better word than 'born,' Twelve states,--for my part I am glad the refusal of Rhode Island to send delegates makes one less,--each wanting its own way, and the North inevitably pitted against the South: I confess that 'still-born' strikes me as a better word than any."
"We'll have a Constitution," said Madison, doggedly, "I've made up my mind to that. There are a sufficient number of able and public-spirited men on their way to Philadelphia to agree upon a wise scheme of government and force it through--besides Hamilton and ourselves there are Washington, Governor Randolph, William Livingston, Rufus King, Roger Sherman, Dr. Franklin, James Wilson, George Wythe, the Pinckneys, Hugh Williamson--to mention but a few."
"They are not a bad lot," admitted Morris, "if they had all seen more of the world and less of their native or adopted State--all this State patriotism makes me sick. Half were not born in the State they vociferate about, are not certain of ending their days in it, nor of which their children may adopt as intemperately."
"Travel is not the only cure for provincialism," said General Schuyler. "Dr. Franklin, I happen to know, is bent upon a form of government little firmer than the one now existing; and Hamilton, whose travels are limited to campaigning in the different States, has a comprehensive grasp of European political machinery, and the breadth of vision such knowledge involves, which could gain nothing by personal contact."
"Dr. Franklin was too long a mendicant at foreign courts not to be besottedly in love with their antithesis, and Hamilton has a brain power and an intellectual grasp which quite remove him from the odiums of comparison," said Morris. "I think myself he is fortunate in never having visited Europe, deeply as he may regret it; for with his faculty of divination he goes straight for what is best only--or most essential. Had he lived there, the details and disappointments might have blocked his vision and upset the fine balance of his mind. There she is!"
He was at the window as quickly as he could have flung a book to the lilacs, despite his wooden leg; and he was followed by Troup and General Schuyler, demanding "Who?"
"Mrs. Croix--there. Did anything so lovely ever dawn upon a distracted American's vision? 'Tis said she is an unregistered daughter of the house of Capet, and I vow she looks every inch a princess. I stared at her so long last night in Vauxhall that she was embarrassed; and I never saw such poise, such royal command of homage. How has she developed it at the age of eighteen? I half believe this tale of royal birth; although there are those who assert that she is nothing less than the daughter of our highest in honour."
"'Tis said that she had an opportunity to acquire her aplomb in the village of Rutland, Massachusetts, where for some years she enlivened the exile and soothed the domestic yearnings of many British officers," said Troup. "One told me that he would vow she was none other than the famous vagrant 'Betsey.'"
"But I am told that she comes of a respectable Rhode Island family named Bowen," observed General Schuyler, who was not romantic. "That she was wayward and ran off with Colonel Croix, of whose other wife there is no proof, but that none of these fancy stories are true."
"Then wherein lies her claim to the name of Capet?" demanded Morris. "'Twould be nothing remarkable were she a daughter of Louis V., and I'm told she signs her name Eliza Capet Croix."
"I don't know," said Schuyler, meekly. "'Tis easy enough to assume a name, if you have it not. I am told that Lady Sterling is assured of her respectability. She certainly shines upon us like a star at this moment. I did not know that women had such hair."
"Is this what we came here to discuss?" asked a voice, dropped to the register of profound contempt. They turned about with a laugh and faced Madison's ascetic countenance, pale with disgust. "We have the most important work to do for which men ever met together, and we stand at the window and talk scandal about a silly woman and her hair."
"You did not, my dear James," said Morris, lightly; "and thereby you have missed the truly divine stimulus for the day's work. Don't you realize, my friend, that no matter how hard a man may labour, some woman is always in the background of his mind? She is the one reward of virtue."
"I know nothing of the sort," replied Madison, contemptuously. "I can flatter myself that I at least am independent of what appears to men like you to be the only motive for living."
"Right, my boy, but great as you are, you don't know what you might have been."
The door opened, and Hamilton entered the room, his hands full of papers, his face as gay and eager as if he were about to read to his audience a poem or a lively tale. Perhaps one secret of his ascendency over those who knew him best was that he never appeared to take himself seriously, even when his whole being radiated power and imperious determination. When he descended to the depths of seriousness and his individuality was most overwhelming, his unsleeping sense of humour saved him from a hint of the demagogue.
"While my wife was finishing, I heard you gossiping from the window above," he said, "but I had by far the best view. The lilac bushes--"
"Do you know her?" asked Morris, eagerly.
"Alas, I do not. It is incalculable months since I have had time to look so long at a woman. What is the matter, Madison?"
"I am nauseated. I had thought that you--"
Here even General Schuyler laughed, and Hamilton hurriedly arranged his papers.
He sat down when he began to talk, but was quickly on his feet and shaking his papers over the table. To him, also, the council table was the most familiar article of furniture in his world, but he was usually addressing those it stood for, and he was too ardent a speaker, even when without the incentive of debate, to keep to his chair.
"I know what you are wondering," he said. "No, it is not the British Constitution. What I have done so distempered as to impress people with the belief that I am blind to the spirit of this country, I am at a loss to conjecture. The British Constitution is the best form which the world has yet produced; in the words of Necker, it is the only government 'which unites public strength with individual security,' Nevertheless, no one is more fully convinced than I that none but a republican government can be attempted in this country, or would be adapted to our situation. Therefore, I propose to look to the British Constitution for nothing but those elements of stability and permanency which a republican system requires, and which may be incorporated into it without changing its characteristic principles. There never has been, and there never will be, anything in my acts or principles inconsistent with the spirit of republican liberty. Whatever my private predilections, it would be impossible for me, understanding the people of this country as I do, to fail to recognize the authority of that people as the source of all political power. Therefore you will find many departures from the British Constitution in the rough draft I am about to read. I have neither the patience nor the temper to dogmatize upon abstract theories of liberty, and our success will lie in adapting to our particular needs such principles of government as have been tried and not found wanting, our failure in visionary experiments. The best and wisest effort we can make will be a sufficient experiment, for whose result we must all tremble.
"It is going to be difficult to persuade this Convention to unite upon any constitution very much stronger than the one Dr. Franklin will propose, or to accomplish its ratification afterward. Nevertheless, I have prepared a draft of the strongest constitution short of monarchy which it is possible to conceive, and which I shall propose to the Convention for reasons I will explain after I have read it to you. Do you care to listen?"
"Hurry up!" exclaimed Morris. The audience leaned forward. Madison shook his head all through the reading; Morris jerked his with emphatic approval.
The radical points in which Hamilton's constitution differed from that under which we live, was in the demand for a President, to be elected by property holders, and who should hold office during good behaviour; senators possessing certain property qualifications and elected on the same principle; and governors of States appointed and removable by the President. Practically the author of the dual government, he believed emphatically in subserving the lesser to the greater, although endowing the States with sufficient power for self-protection. The Executive was to be held personally responsible for official misconduct, both he and the senators subject to impeachment and to removal from office. The whole scheme was wrought out with the mathematical complexity and precision characteristic of Hamilton's mind.
"Would that it were possible," exclaimed Morris, when Hamilton had finished. "But as well expect the Almighty to drive the quill. You will weaken your influence, Hamilton, and to no effect."
"Ah, but I have calculated upon two distinct points, and I believe I shall achieve them. I have not the most distant hope that this paper will be acceptable to five men in the Convention,--three, perhaps, would round the number,--Washington, yourself, myself. Nevertheless, I shall introduce it and speak in its favour with all the passion of which I am master, for these reasons: I believe in it; its energy is bound to give a tone that might be lacking otherwise; and--this is the principal point--there must be something to work back from. If I alarm with the mere chance of so perilous a menace to their democratic ideals, they will go to work in earnest at something in order to defeat me, and they will not go back so far in the line of vigour as if I had suggested a more moderate plan; for, mark my words, they would infallibly incline to weaker measures than any firm government which should first be proposed. In the management of men one of the most important things to bear in mind is their proneness to work forward from the weak, and backward from the strong. On the quality of the strength depends its magnetism over the weak. All reformers are ridiculed or outlawed, and their measures are never wholly successful; but they awaken men's minds to something of approximate worth, and to a desire for a divorce from the old order of things. So, while I expect to be called a monarchist, I hope to instil subtly the idea of the absolute necessity of a strong government, and implant in their minds a distrust of one too weak."
"Good," said Morris. "And it is always a delight to see your revelation of yourself in a new light. I perceive that to your other accomplishments you add the cunning of the fox."
"You are right to call it an accomplishment," retorted Hamilton. "We cannot go through life successfully with the bare gifts of the Almighty, generous though He may have been. If I find that I have need of cunning, or brutality,--than which nothing is farther from my nature,--or even nagging, I do not hesitate to borrow and use them."
"Let us call this sagacity," said Troup. "'Tis a prettier word. Or the canniness of the Scot. But there is one thing I fear," he added anxiously. "You may injure your chances of future preferment. Your ambition will be thought too vaulting, particularly for so young a man, and, besides, you may be thought a menace to the commonwealth."
"That is a point to be considered, Hamilton," said General Schuyler.
"I have an end to gain, sir, and I mean to gain it. Moreover, this is no time to be considering private interests. If this be not the day for patriotism to stifle every personal ambition, then there is little hope for human nature. I believe the result of this paper will be a constitution of respectable strength, and I shall use all the influence I wield to make the people accept it. So, if you worry, consider if the later effort will not outweigh the first."
"Hamilton," said Madison, solemnly, "you are a greater man even than I thought you. You have given me a most welcome hint, and I shall take upon myself to engineer the recession from your constitution. I shall study its effect with the closest attention and be guided accordingly, I am heart and soul in this matter, and would give my life to it if necessary. I never should have thought of anything so astute," he added, with some envy, "but perhaps if I had, no one else would be so peculiarly fitted as myself to work upon its manifold suggestions. I hope I do not strike you as conceited," he said, looking around anxiously, "but I feel that it is in me to render efficient service in the present crisis."
Before Morris could launch his ready fling, Hamilton hastened to assure Madison of his belief that no man living could render services so great. He underrated neither Madison's great abilities nor the danger of rankling arrows in that sensitive and not too courageous spirit. They then discussed a general plan of campaign and the best methods of managing certain members of the Convention. Morris was the first to rise.
"Adieu," he said. "I go to ruminate upon our Captain's diplomacy, and to pursue the ankle of Mrs. Croix. Be sure that the one will not interfere with the other, but will mutually stimulate."
The other gentlemen adjourned to the dining room.