The Conqueror by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Book IV. "Alexander the Great"
Although Hamilton and Clinton had no liking for each other, they were far from being the furious principals in one of those political hatreds which the times were about to engender,--an intellectual cataclysm which Hamilton was to experience in all its blackness, of which he was to be the most conspicuous victim. He had by no means plumbed his depths as yet. So far he had met with few disappointments, few stumbling blocks, never a dead wall. Life had smiled upon him as if magnetized. At home he found perfect peace, abroad augmenting ranks of followers, sufficient work to use up his nervous energies, and the stimulant of enmity and opposition that he loved. It was long since he had given way to rage, although he flew into a temper occasionally. He told himself he was become a philosopher, and was far from suspecting the terrible passions which the future was to undam. His mother, with dying insight, had divined the depth and fury of a nature which was all light on the surface, and in its upper half a bewildering but harmonious intermingling of strength, energy, tenderness, indomitability, generosity, and intense emotionalism: a stratum so large and so generously endowed that no one else, least of all himself, had suspected that primeval inheritance which might blaze to ashes one of the most nicely balanced judgements ever bestowed on a mortal, should his enemies combine and beat his own great strength to the dust.
But when Hamilton and Clinton approached the Court-house from opposite directions, on the morning of the 17th, they did not cross the street to avoid meeting, although they bowed with extreme formality and measured each other with a keen and speculative regard. Clinton was now forty-nine years old, his autocratic will, love of power, and knowledge of men, in their contemptuous maturity. He was a large man, with the military bearing of the born and finished martinet, a long hard nose, and an irritated eye. The irritation kindled as it met Hamilton's, which was sparkling with the eager determination of a youth which, although desirable in itself, was become a presumption when pitted against those eighteen additional distinguished years of the Governor of New York. That there was a twinkle of amusement in the Federalist's eye was also to his discredit.
"The young fop," fumed Clinton, as he brushed a fleck of mud from his own magnificent costume of black ducape, "he is the enfant gate of politics, and I shall settle him here once for all. It will be a public benefaction."
The Court-house, which stood halfway up the hill, on the corner of Main and East streets, and was surrounded by the shade of many maples, was a two-story building of rough stones welded together by a ruder cement. The roof sloped, and above was a belfry. The Convention was held in the upper story, which was unbroken by partition; and with the windows open upon what looked to be a virgin forest, so many were the ancient trees remaining in the little town, the singing of birds, the shrilling of crickets, the murmur of the leaves in an almost constant breeze, the old Court-house of Poughkeepsie was by no means a disagreeable gathering-place. Moreover, it was as picturesque within as it was arcadian without; for the fine alert-looking men, with their powdered hair in queues, their elaborately cut clothes of many colours, made for the most part of the corded silk named ducape, their lawn and ruffles, made up the details of a charming picture, which was far from appealing to them, but which gives us a distinct pleasure in the retrospect.
Governor Clinton was elected the President of the Convention. On the right of the central table sat his forty-five henchmen, with Melancthon Smith, one of the most astute and brilliant debaters of the time, well to the front. Opposite sat Hamilton, surrounded by General Schuyler, Jay, Duane, and Robert Livingston, the rest of his small following close to the windows, but very alert, their gaze never ranging far from their leader. Beyond the bar crowded the invited guests, many of them women in all the finery of the time.
If the anti-Federalists had entertained the idea of an immediate and indefinite adjournment, they appear to have abandoned it without waste of time; perhaps because long and tedious journeys in midsummer were not to be played with; perhaps because they were sure of their strength; possibly because Clinton was so strongly in favour of arranging Hamilton's destinies once for all.
Certainly at the outset the prospects of the Federalists were almost ludicrous. The anti-Federalists were two-thirds against one-third, fortified against argument, uncompromisingly opposed to union at the expense of State sovereignty, clever and thinking men, most of them, devoted to Clinton, and admirably led by an orator who acknowledged no rival but Hamilton. The latter set his lips more than once, and his heart sank, but only to leap a moment later with delight in the mere test of strength.
Clinton's first move was to attempt a vote at once upon the Constitution as a whole, but he was beaten by Hamilton and many in his own ranks, who were in favour of the fair play of free debate. The Governor was forced to permit the Convention to go into a Committee of the Whole, which would argue the Constitution section by section. Hamilton had gained a great point, and he soon revealed the use he purposed to make of it.
It is doubtful if his own followers had anticipated that he would speak almost daily for three weeks, receiving and repelling the brunt of every argument; and certainly Clinton had looked for no such feat.
The contest opened on the Clintonian side, with the argument that an amended Confederation was all that was necessary for the purposes of a more general welfare. The plan advanced was that Congress should be given the power to compel by force the payment of the requisitions which the States so often ignored. Hamilton demolished this proposition with one of his most scornful outbursts.
His words created a palpable uneasiness. The outburst was the more effective for following and preceding close passionless and pointed reasoning, a trenchant review of other republics ancient and modern, and an elaborate argument in favour of the representation prescribed by the new Constitution.
Hamilton was not only the most brilliant, resourceful, and unanswerable orator of his time, but he was gifted with an almost diabolical power over the emotions of men, which he did not hesitate to use. At this momentous assembly he kept them in exercise; when he chose, he made his audience weep; and the Clintonians weakened daily. Had not many years of trouble and anxiety made their emotions peculiarly susceptible, Hamilton would have attempted their agitation more sparingly; and had he been theatrical and rhetorical in his methods, he would have lost his control of them long before the end of the session. But he rarely indulged in a trope or a flight, never in bathos nor in bursts of ill-balanced appeal. Nothing ever was drier than the subjects he elucidated day after day for three weeks: for he took the Constitution to pieces bit by bit, and compelled them to listen to an analysis which, if propounded by another, would have bored them to distraction, vitally interested as they were. But he not only so illuminated the cold pages of the Constitution that while they listened they were willing to swear it was more beautiful than the Bible, but the torrent of his eloquence, never confusing, so sharp was every feature of the Constitution to his own mind, the magic of his personality, and his intense humanity in treating the driest sections of the document, so bewitched his audience that, even when he talked for six hours without pausing on the subject of taxation, perhaps the baldest topic which the human understanding is obliged to consider, there was not a sign of impatience in the ranks of the enemy.
He by no means harrowed them daily; he was far too astute for that. There were days together when he merely charmed them, and they sat with a warm unconscious smile while he demolished bit by bit one of Melancthon Smith's clever arguments, in a manner so courteous that even his victim could only shrug his shoulders, although he cursed him roundly afterward. Then, when his audience least expected an assault, he would treat them to a burst of scorn that made them hitch their chairs and glance uneasily at each other, or to a picture of future misery which reduced them to pulp.
Clinton was infuriated. Even he often leaned forward, forgetting his own selfish ambitions when Hamilton's thrilling voice poured forth a rapid appeal to the passions of his hearers; but he quickly resumed the perpendicular, and set his lips to imprison a scarlet comment. He saw that his men were weakening, and as much to the luminous expounding of the Constitution, to the logic of the orator, as to a truly satanic eloquence and charm. He held long private sessions at his mansion on the turnpike, where he was assisted by much material argument. But even Melancthon Smith, who distinguished himself in almost daily debate, acknowledged more than once that Hamilton had convinced him; and others asserted, with depression, that their minds, which they had supposed to be their own,--or Clinton's,--seemed to be in a process of remaking.
After all, for the most part, they were sincere and earnest; and although it is difficult for us of the present day to comprehend that enlightened men ever could have been so mad as to believe that the country would prosper without union, that a mere State should have been thought to be of greater importance than a Nation, or that a democratic constitution, which permits us to coddle anarchists in our midst, and the lower orders to menace the liberties of the upper, was ever an object of terror to men of bitter republican ideals, yet the historic facts confront us, and we wonder, when reading the astonishing arguments of that long and hard-fought contest, if Hamilton's constitution, had it passed the Great Convention, would not have ratified with a no more determined opposition.
Melancthon Smith was one of the brightest and most conspicuous men of his time, but his name is forgotten to-day. He was sincere; he was, in his way, patriotic; he was a clever and eloquent orator. Moreover, he was generous and manly enough to admit himself beaten, as the sequel will show. To insure greatness, must the gift of long foreknowledge be added to brilliant parts and an honest character? If this be the essential, no wonder Melancthon Smith is forgotten. We have him asserting that in a country where a portion of the people live more than twelve hundred miles from the centre, one body cannot legislate for the whole. He apprehends the abolition of the State constitutions by a species of under-mining, predicts their immediate dwindling into insignificance before the comprehensive and dangerous power vested in Congress. He believes that all rich men are vicious and intemperate, and sees nothing but despotism and disaster in the Federal Constitution.
But, like most of the speakers of that day, he was trenchant and unadorned, so that his speeches are as easy reading as they must have been agreeable to hear. It is a curious fact that the best speakers of to-day resemble our forefathers in this respect of trenchant simplicity. Mediocrity for half a century has ranted on the stump, and given foreigners a false impression of American oratory. Those who indulge in what may be called the open-air metaphor, so intoxicating is our climate, may find consolation in this flight of Mr. Gilbert Livingston, who had not their excuse; for the Court-house of Poughkeepsie was hot and crowded. He is declaiming against the senatorial aristocrats lurking in the proposed Constitution. "What," he cries, "what will be their situation in a Federal town? Hallowed ground! Nothing so unclean as State laws to enter there, surrounded as they will be by an impenetrable wall of adamant and gold, the wealth of the whole country flowing into it!" "What? What WALL?" cried a Federal. "A wall of gold, of adamant, which will flow in from all parts of the continent." The joyous roar of our ancestors comes down to us.
Hamilton's speech, in which he as effectually disposed of every argument against the Senate as Roger Sherman had done in the Great Convention, is too long to be quoted; but it is as well to give the precise words in which he defines the vital difference between republics and democracies.
Again he says, in reply to Melancthon Smith:--
More than once Hamilton left his seat and went up to the belfry to strain his eyes down the Albany post road or over the Dutchess turnpike, and every afternoon he rode for miles to the east or the south, hoping to meet an express messenger with a letter from Madison, or with the good tidings that New Hampshire had ratified. Madison wrote every few days, sometimes hopefully, sometimes in gloom, especially if he were not feeling well. Each letter was from ten to twelve days old, and it seemed to Hamilton sometimes that he should burst with impatience and anxiety. On the 24th of June, as he was standing in the belfry while Chancellor Livingston rained his sarcasms, he thought he saw an object moving rapidly down the white ribbon which cut the forest from the East. In five minutes he was on his horse and the Dutchess turnpike. The object proved to be the messenger from Rufus King, and the letter which Hamilton opened then and there contained the news of the adoption of the Constitution by New Hampshire.
There was now a Nation, and nine States would be governed by the new laws, whether New York, Virginia, North Carolina, and Rhode Island sulked unprotected in the out-skirts, or gracefully entered the league before dragged in or driven. It was a glittering and two-edged weapon for Hamilton, and he flashed it in the faces of the anti-Federalists until they were well-nigh blinded. Nevertheless, he did not for a moment underrate Clinton's great strength, and he longed desperately for good news from Virginia, believing that the entrance of that important State into the Union would have more influence upon the opposition than all the arts of which he was master.