The Conqueror by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Book IV. "Alexander the Great"
The story of the Convention has been told so often that only the merest outline is necessary here; those who have not before this read at least one of the numberless reports, would be the last to wish its multigenerous details. To the students of history there is nothing new to tell, as may be the case with less exploited incidents of Hamilton's career. Someone has said that it was an assemblage of hostile camps, and it certainly was the scene of intense and bitter struggles, of a heterogeneous mass blindly striving to cohere, whilst a thousand sectional interests tugged at the more familiar of the dual ideal; of compromise after compromise; of a fear pervading at least one-half that the liberties of republicanism were menaced by every energetic suggestion; of the soundest judgement and patriotism compelled to truckle to meaner sentiments lest they get nothing; of the picked men of the Confederacy, honourable, loyal, able, and enlightened, animated in the first and last instance by a pure and common desire for the highest welfare of the country, driven to war upon one another by the strength of their conflicting opinions; ending--among the thirty-nine out of the sixty-one delegates who signed the Constitution--in a feeling as closely resembling general satisfaction as individual disappointments would permit.
At first so turbulent were the conditions, that Franklin, who troubled the Almighty but little himself, arose and suggested that the meetings be opened with prayer. After this sarcasm, and the submission of his mild compromise with the Confederation, he sat and watched the painted sun behind Washington's chair, pensively wondering if the artist had intended to convey the idea of a rise or a setting. Hamilton presented his draft at the right moment, and the startled impression it made quite satisfied him, particularly as his long speech to the Committee of the Whole was received with the closest attention. Nothing could alter his personal fascination, and even his bitterest enemies rarely left their chairs while he spoke. The small figure, so full of dignity and magnetizing power that it excluded every other object from their vision, the massive head with a piercing force in every line of its features, the dark eyes blazing and flashing with a fire that never had been seen in the eyes of a mere mortal before, the graceful rapid gestures, and the passionate eloquence which never in its most apparently abandoned moments failed to be sincere and logical, made him for the hour the glory of friend and enemy alike, although the reaction was correspondingly bitter. Upon this occasion he spoke for six hours without the interruption of a scraping heel; and what the Convention did not know about the science of government before he finished with them, they never would learn elsewhere. Although he made but this one speech, he talked constantly to the groups surrounding him wherever he moved. To his original scheme he had too much tact to make further allusion; but his general opinions, ardently propounded, his emphatic reiteration of the demoralized country's need for a national government, and of the tyrannies inherent in unbridled democracies, wedged in many a chink. Nevertheless, he was disgusted and disheartened when he left for New York, at the end of May. The Convention was chaos, but he could accomplish nothing more than what he hoped he might have done; the matter was now best in the hands of Madison and Gouverneur Morris, and his practice could no longer be neglected.
But although he returned to a mass of work,--for he handled most of the great cases of the time,--he managed to mingle daily with the crowd at Fraunces' and the coffee-houses, in order to gauge the public sentiment regarding the proposed change of government, and to see the leading men constantly. On the whole, he wrote to Washington, he found that both in the Jerseys and in New York there was "an astonishing revolution for the better in the minds of the people."
Washington replied from the depths of his disgust:--
To Washington, who presided over that difficult assemblage with a superhuman dignity, to Hamilton who breathed his strong soul into it, to Madison who manipulated it, to Gouverneur Morris, whose sarcastic eloquent tongue brought it to reason again and again, and whose accomplished pen gave the Constitution its literary form, belong the highest honours of the Convention; although the services rendered by Roger Sherman, Rufus King, James Wilson, R.R. Livingston, and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney entitle them to far more than polite mention.
When Hamilton signed the Constitution, on the 17th of September, it was by no means strong enough to suit him, but as it was incomparably better than the Articles of Confederation, which had carried the country to the edge of anarchy and ruin, and was regarded by a formidable number of people and their leaders as so strong as to be a menace to the liberties of the American citizen, he could with consistency and ardour exert himself to secure its ratification. After all, it was built of his stones, chipped and pared though they might be; had he not gone to the Convention, the result might have been a constitution for which his pen would have refused to plead.
Manhattan Island, Kings and Westchester counties had long since accepted his doctrines, and they stood behind him in unbroken ranks; but the northern counties and cities of New York, including Albany, were still under the autocratic sway of Clinton. Hamilton's colleagues, Yates and Lansing, had resigned their seats in the Great Convention. Among the signatures to the Constitution his name stood alone for New York, and the fact was ominous of his lonely and precarious position. But difficulties were ever his stimulant, and this was not the hour to find him lacking in resource.
"The Constitution terrifies by its length, complexity, frigidity, and above all by its novelty," he said to Jay and Madison, who met by appointment in his library. "Clinton, in this State, has persuaded his followers that it is so many iron hoops, in which they would groan and struggle for the rest of their lives. To defeat him and this pernicious idea, we must discuss the Constitution publicly, in the most lucid and entertaining manner possible, lay every fear, and so familiarize the people with its merits, and with the inseparable relation of its adoption to their personal interests, that by the time the elections for the State Convention take place, they will be sufficiently educated to give us the majority. And as there is so much doubt, even among members of the Convention, as to the mode of enacting the Constitution, we must solve that problem as quickly as possible. My purpose is to publish a series of essays in the newspapers, signed, if you agree with me, Publius, and reaching eighty or ninety in number, which shall expound and popularize the Constitution of the United States; and if you will give me your inestimable help, I am sure we shall accomplish our purpose."
"If you need my help, I will give it to you to the best of my ability, sir," said Jay, "but I do not pretend to compete with your absolute mastery of the complex science of government, and I fear that my weaker pen may somewhat counteract the vigour of yours; but, I repeat, I will do my best with the time at my disposal."
Hamilton laughed, "You know how anxious I am to injure our chances of success," he said. "I hope all things from your pen."
Jay bowed formally, and Hamilton turned to Madison. "I know you must feel that you have done your share for the present," he said, "and there is hard work awaiting you in your State Convention, but the subject is at your finger tips; it hardly can be too much trouble."
"I am not very well," said Madison, peevishly, "but I realize the necessity,--and that the papers should be read as extensively in Virginia as here. I will write a few, and more if I can."
But, as it came to pass, Madison wrote but fourteen separate papers of the eighty-five, although he collaborated with Hamilton on three others, and Jay wrote five only. The remaining sixty-three, therefore, of the essays, collected during and after their publication under the title of "The Federalist," which not only did so much to enlighten and educate the public mind and weaken the influence of such men as Clinton, but which still stand as the ablest exposition of the science of government, and as the parent of American constitutional law, were the work of Hamilton.
"It is the fortunate situation of our country," said Hamilton, a few months later, at Poughkeepsie, "that the minds of the people are exceedingly enlightened and refined." Certainly these papers are a great tribute to the general intelligence of the American race of a century and more ago. Selfish, petty, and lacking in political knowledge they may have been, but it is evident that their mental tone was high, that their minds had not been vulgarized by trash and sensationalism. Hamilton's sole bait was a lucid and engaging style, which would not puzzle the commonest intelligence, which he hoped might instruct without weighing heavily on the capacity of his humbler readers. That he was addressing the general voter, as well as the men of a higher grade as yet unconvinced, there can be no doubt, for as New York State was still seven-tenths Clintonian, conversion of a large portion of this scowling element was essential to the ratification of the Constitution. And yet he chose two men of austere and unimaginative style to collaborate with him; while his own style for purity, distinction, and profundity combined with simplicity, has never been excelled.
Betsey was ailing, and her doors closed to society; the children romped on the third floor or on the Battery. Hamilton wrote chiefly at night, his practice occupying the best of the hours of day, but he was sensible of the calm of his home and of its incentive to literary composition; it never occurred to him to open his office in the evening. Betsey, the while she knitted socks, listened patiently to her brilliant husband's luminous discussions on the new Constitution--which she could have recited backward--and his profound interpretation of its principles and provisions. If she worried over these continuous labours she made no sign, for Hamilton was racing Clinton, and there was not a moment to lose. Clinton won in the first heat. After a desperate struggle in the State Legislature the Hamiltonians succeeded in passing resolutions ordering a State Convention to be elected for the purpose of considering the Constitution; but the result in April proved the unabated power and industry of Clinton,--the first, and not the meanest of New York's political "bosses,"--for two-thirds of the men selected were his followers. The Convention was called for the 17th of June and it was rumoured that the Clintonians intended immediately to move an adjournment until the following year. According to an act of Congress the ratification of only nine States was necessary to the adoption of the Constitution. The others could come into the Union later if they chose, and there was a disposition in several States to watch the experiment before committing themselves. Hamilton, who knew that such a policy, if pursued by the more important States, would result in civil war, was determined that New York should not behave in a manner which would ruin her in the present and disgrace her in history, and wrote on with increasing vigour, hoping to influence the minds of the oppositionists elected to the Convention as well as the people at large. Even he had never written anything which had attracted so wide admiring and acrimonious attention. The papers were read in all the cities of the Confederation, and in such hamlets as boasted a mail-bag. When they reached England and France they were almost as keenly discussed. That they steadily made converts, Hamilton had cause to know, for his correspondence was overwhelming. Troup and General Schuyler attended to the greater part of it; but only himself could answer the frequent letters from leaders in the different states demanding advice. He thought himself fortunate in segregating five hours of the twenty-four for sleep. The excitement throughout the country was intense, and it is safe to say that nowhere and for months did conversation wander from the subject of politics and the new Constitution, for more than ten minutes at a time. In New York Hamilton was the subject of constant and vicious attack, the Clintonians sparing no effort to discredit him with the masses. New York City was nicknamed Hamiltonopolis and jingled in scurrilous rhymes. In the midst of it all were two diversions: the fourth of his children, and a letter which he discovered before General Schuyler or Troup had sorted his mail. As the entire Schuyler family were now in his house, and his new son was piercingly discontented with his lot, he took refuge in his chambers in Garden Street, until Betsey was able to restore peace and happiness to his home. The postman had orders to bring his mail-bag thither, and it was on the second morning of his exile that the perfume of violets caused him to make a hasty journey through the letters.
He found the spring sweetness coincidentally with a large square, flowingly superscribed. He glanced at the clock. His devoted assistants would not arrive for half an hour. He broke the seal. It was signed Eliza Capet Croix, and ran as follows:--
The absence of superfluous capitals and of underscoring in this letter, alone would have arrested his attention, for even men of a less severe education than himself were liberal in these resources, and women were prodigal. The directness and precision were also remarkable, and he recalled that she was but nineteen. The flattery touched him, no doubt, for he was very human; and despite the brevity of his leisure, he read the note twice, and devoted a moment to conjecture.
"She is cleverer, even, than Lady Kitty, or Susan and Kitty Livingston, by this," he mused. "She would be worth knowing, did a driven mortal but have the time to idle in the wake of so much intelligence--and beauty. Not to answer this were unpardonable--I cannot allow the lady to die." He wrote her a brief note of graceful acknowledgement, which caused Mrs. Croix to shed tears of exultation and vexation. He acknowledged her but breathed no fervid desire for another letter. It is not to be expected that maturest nineteen can realize that, although a busy man will find time to see a woman if it be worth his while, the temptations to a romantic correspondence are not overwhelming.
Hamilton tore up the letter and threw it into the waste basket. Its perfume, delicate but imperious, intruded upon his brief. He dived into the basket as he heard Troup's familiar whistle, and thrust the pieces into a breast pocket. In a moment he remembered that Betsey's head would be pillowed upon that pocket at five in the afternoon, and he hastily extracted the mutilated letter, and applied a match to it, consigning women to perdition. Troup sniffed as he entered the room.
"Violets and burnt paper," remarked he. "'Tis a combination I have noticed before. I wonder will some astute perfumer ever seize the idea? It would have its guilty appeal for our sex--perchance for t'other; though I'm no cynic like you and Morris."
"Shut up," said Hamilton, "and get to work if you love me, for I've no time to write to St. Croix, much less waste five seconds on any woman."
That afternoon he wasted half an hour in search of a bunch of redolent violets to carry home to his wife. He pinned three on his coat.