The Necessity of the Constitution

Alexander Hamilton Argues for Ratification

Hamilton’s 1788 speech at Poughkeepsie, New York

In the summer of 1788 — 225 years ago — a momentous drama drew toward its climax as key state conventions voted whether to ratify the Constitution that had been drafted the summer before, in secret and exhaustive consultations among state delegates to the Constitutional Convention. Once nine of the thirteen states ratified the document, it would become their binding law; but any state failing to ratify would not become part of the new union. Professor Stephen Knott argues the essential contribution of Alexander Hamilton in persuading the key state of New York to approve our founding document.

No man worked more assiduously for the ratification of the American Constitution than Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton had many doubts about the efficacy of the Constitution, yet in June, 1788, and for the remainder of his life, Hamilton arrayed all of his formidable intellectual talents in defense of that document.  Hamilton was well aware that he was part of a unique generation (Tom Brokaw to the contrary, this was America’s greatest generation) whose decisions would shape “the fate of an empire” and prove to cynics around the globe that men were capable “of establishing good government from reflection and choice” rather than from “accident and force.”

Alexander Hamilton portrait by John Trumbull

While Hamilton’s role as the creative force behind The Federalist Papers is well known (he organized the effort and appears to have authored 52 of its 85 essays), his struggle to secure ratification of the Constitution in the critical state of New York is not as well known. As the link between New England and the Middle Atlantic states and home to the nation’s commercial center, New York, if it failed to ratify the Constitution, would strike an enormous blow to the new nation. Hamilton and his Federalist allies had to convince their fellow New Yorkers, as Hamilton put it in a letter to George Washington in April, 1788, to “think continentally,” at a time when most Americans seldom journeyed beyond the confines of their birthplace.Hamilton led the pro-ratification forces, known as Federalists, at New York’s ratifying convention where he was opposed by the most powerful man in the state, Governor George Clinton, an avowed Antifederalist. Clinton, in the condescending but not entirely inaccurate words of a future governor of New York, Theodore Roosevelt, knew how to capitalize on the “cold, suspicious temper of small country freeholders” with their “narrow” interests. Clinton was a fierce political infighter who Hamilton described as “inflexibly obstinate” and seldom persuaded by “reason.” In Federalist #77, Hamilton appeared to allude to Governor Clinton when he condemned the practice of executive appointments based on a “despicable and dangerous system of personal interest.”

Eight other states had already ratified the Constitution by the time the New York delegates assembled for their contentious ratification convention in Poughkeepsie in mid-June. The majority of delegates were opposed to ratification, including the two New Yorkers who had accompanied Hamilton to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, John Lansing and Robert Yates. Hamilton and the Federalists benefitted from a major development that occurred hundreds of miles from Poughkeepsie when New Hampshire ratified the Constitution on June 21, 1788. New Hampshire’s vote secured the three-quarters of ratifying state conventions necessary to make the Constitution law, and when Virginia ratified four days later due to the efforts of James Madison, pressure increased on New York to follow suit. In the end, on July 26, 1788, and only after agreeing to further amendments to the Constitution to satisfy the concerns of Antifederalists, Hamilton secured New York’s ratification by a razor thin 30-27 margin.

In his remarks on June 20th, Alexander Hamilton begins by alluding to the comments of a member “who spoke yesterday” — Chancellor Robert R. Livingston, the highest judicial officer in the state of New York, and a fellow Federalist. Reinforcing Livingston’s arguments, Hamilton reminded his fellow delegates of the “fatal consequences” inherent if his state rejected the Constitution. Hamilton noted that New York’s “misfortunes, in a great degree, proceeded from the want of vigor” under the Articles of Confederation. At times he played on the fears of the delegates, noting that their state would be vulnerable to attack if it did not join the new union. Article VII of the proposed Constitution provided that it would cover only those states which ratified; those that did not would not be part of the new nation.

—  Stephen F. Knott, Professor of National Security Affairs at the United States Naval War College. Knott is author of Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth (2002), which examines “the evolution of Hamilton’s controversial image in the American mind.”

Finding a Way Forward for African Americans After Emancipation

An Interview with Professor Robert J. Norrell

Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington

The clash of views between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, two men vying to lead the African American struggle for social advancement and civil rights in the early twentieth century, is well known. Historians in the last 45 years have almost uniformly credited Du Bois’ position as better for promoting the interests of the black minority in America. Professor Jeff Norrell powerfully challenges this assessment in his biography of Washington, Up from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington. This summer, Norrell will teach a course in the Master of Arts in American History and Government program which will examine the major writings of the two leaders, contrasting their approaches.

Anyone who reads Professor Jeff Norrell’s biography, Up from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington (Belknap Press / Harvard University Press, 2009), will be struck by the rapidity and ruthlessness with which white Southerners erected barriers to the self-advancement of the former slaves, even before Reconstruction drew to a close. Norrell’s carefully researched account of Washington’s tireless efforts to bring about African American social and political equality through education, land ownership and entrepreneurship consistently foregrounds the enormous obstacles Washington faced. Reviewing the book for the New York Times, Shelby Steele enlarged on the book’s implicit argument:

W.E.B. DuBois

W.E.B. Du Bois

To belong to an oppressed group always meant that you could not pursue your self-interest by acting directly on the world. You first had to account for the oppressor who had so much power over you. So you inevitably wore a mask that helped you navigate the oppressor’s bigotries, ignorances and self-absorptions. For the oppressed, the mask was power itself.

Steele joined other reviewers when he wrote of Norrell’s book that “Up From History gives back to America one of its greatest heroes.”

MAHG students can study with Professor Norrell this summer, during the second session of our in-residence program, when he introduces a new Great Texts course covering the most important writings of Washington and his rival for influence in the African American community, W. E. B. Du Bois. In a recent interview Norrell discussed with us some of the issues his course will cover.

Is it accurate to say that in the post-Reconstruction era through the early 20th century, Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois represented the prevailing alternative views of America’s race problem?

What I argue in my biography of Washington is that there was more than a little similarity in their positions. But Du Bois and his allies often misrepresented Washington’s positions, accusing Washington of being a toady to white power. There was more similarity between the positions of the two men than either admitted. The antagonism between them was quite personal, and the personal disagreement pushed them into ideologically opposite postures.

To some extent, was each man’s thinking shaped by his early upbringing?

Du Bois was born into a free family in western Massachusetts, an area that was fairly free and open to black Americans. Washington grew up in Virginia and West Virginia. He was a slave as a child in Virginia; freedom came when he was nine years old. After the Civil War, his family migrated to West Virginia, where he spent his adolescence in service work. He worked in a salt mine for a while, and hated it. Ultimately he became a servant to a Yankee lady who was a formidable influence on him. She had been a teacher and was instrumental in his acquiring a thorough mastery of the English language: he would learn to read well, write well, and speak well. With some help from his employer he would enroll in Hampton Institute in far eastern Virginia, where he would get the equivalent of perhaps a seventh grade education.

Would you also say that they had different strengths or interests shaped by temperament as much by early experience?

They had very different temperaments. Washington was outwardly engaged; he was sensitive to the circumstances around him and an intense observer. Du Bois was more cerebral and became quite an accomplished intellectual. He was most happy in the academy, in a university community. Washington, of necessity, showed confidence in his dealings with whites and was comfortable dealing with them. I don’t think Du Bois was in general comfortable with whites.

Do you accept the usual characterization of Washington’s point of view as willing to accommodate white prejudice and insistence on power by embracing an inferior role for African-Americans in the US?

I do not; that’s the whole point of my biography of Washington. He was trying to improve the prospects of all African Americans by advancing black education. This, he felt, would lead to larger opportunities in fields like teaching and in the petty bourgeois occupations and in farming. Of course, in the broadest terms, he didn’t succeed in his lifetime, but that was his purpose. I don’t think that, as his detractors have claimed, his principle purpose was self-aggrandizement. Of course, he understood that by promoting himself he could gain influence and thereby further his purpose.

Was there anything strategic about his public pronouncements?

Everything was strategic with Washington. He didn’t ever speak or act in a way that was not calculated to advance his larger mission. Of course, he made mistakes—most notably in his relationship with Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt sought out Washington as a political ally, thinking Washington could help him out with black support in the South. But in 1906 Roosevelt betrayed Washington in a public furor over the punishment of some black soldiers accused of rioting and engaging in a shooting spree in Texas. Instead of waiting for a trial, Roosevelt ordered the dishonorable discharge of 160 soldiers. Washington told Roosevelt he was wrong, but instead of loudly protesting, he basically took the mistreatment silently. He should have departed from Roosevelt at that point. But Washington took the attitude that a person who is my enemy today may be my friend tomorrow, so I can’t afford to alienate him—except in his relationship with Du Bois, of course.

Did Du Bois’ determination to challenge white power come to predominate among African-Americans after Washington’s death in 1915? Or did it remain an intellectual stance? How did Du Bois’ socialist views affect his reception?

Du Bois has been more influential in the recollections of subsequent generations than he was in his own time. His ideological position did marginalize him to some extent, but black Americans in general have been less judgmental about ideological positions than white Americans, then or now. Nevertheless, Du Bois was not widely popular among blacks of his own day; Washington was. Washington had demonstrated mastery of a difficult world, and African Americans admired him for that. Some white Americans did too, but it is not generally recognized that Washington was widely hated in the South. White Southerners understood perfectly well that Washington’s purpose was ultimately to bring about African American equality.

What are each man’s most important writings, in your view? What will you read for the course?

We will read Washington’s autobiography, Up From Slavery, which is his most important book, as well as Du Bois’ most influential book, The Souls of Black Folk. Students will read excerpts from Du Bois’ other essays and letters, and I will also assign portions of my biography of Washington, Up From History.

Professor Norrell’s Summer Teacher Course, Great American Texts: Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, will be held the week of June 30th to July 5th on the campus of Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio.  Complete information about this 2 semester credit hour course, including tuition and registration, may be found online.  

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