Americans argued and even fought over the adoption of the United States Constitution. Alexander Hamilton and the other Federalists supported the new form of government. Anti-Federalists opposed it.
In 1787, the Constitutional Convention met at Independence Hall to improve the Articles of Confederation, which had been ratified in 1781. Almost immediately, the delegates decided to write a new constitution instead of revising the existing form of government. They struggled to create a document that would balance the rights of states and individuals with the powers of a central government. For three months, they proposed articles, made speeches, argued, and compromised.
Portrait of Alexander Hamilton by Jonathan Trumbull, 1804-1806
Most delegates agreed that the country needed executive, legislative, and judicial branches. However, they disagreed on how the members would be selected and how the states would be represented in Congress. The Virginia Plan of representation favored large states. The New Jersey Plan favored smaller states. Hamilton proposed an alternative to the Virginia and New Jersey Plans.
Alexander Hamilton’s Plan of Government, June 18, 1787
While there is no existing copy of Hamilton’s speech, the notes taken by several delegates, including this set by John Lansing, survive. Hamilton spoke for six hours and angered many delegates. The most controversial part of Hamilton’s plan called for the president and senators to serve for life “during good Behaviour.” Many saw this as a form of monarchy and denounced Hamilton. Historians have argued that Hamilton introduced his radical plan to make the Virginia Plan more acceptable to the delegates.
Hanover Square was named after King George I and the House of Hanover. During the eighteenth century, it earned the nickname “Printing House Square” because many printers worked in the area. Once the Convention drafted the Constitution, the battle to ratify it began in the newspapers. Federalists wrote articles supporting ratification, while anti-Federalists expressed fears that the strong central government would take away the liberties won in the Revolution.
The Federalist Papers, 1787-1788
James Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton were leaders of the Federalists. Together, they wrote 85 essays published under the pseudonym “Publius” in New York newspapers. Hamilton wrote fifty-one of the essays, Madison twenty-nine, and Jay five. As New York prepared for the state’s ratification convention, J. & A. McLean in Hanover Square collected all the essays and printed them in a book. The Federalist Papers were essential in convincing Americans across the country to support the Constitution.
Federalist Number 51, February 6, 1788
In Federalist Number 51, James Madison explained how the system of checks and balances would safeguard the country from a corrupt government. “It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government ... If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”
George Mason, who lived in this house in Virginia, helped write the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776, which spelled out the liberties of individual citizens. As one of Virginia’s delegates to the Constitutional Convention, Mason was concerned about the amount of power being given to the federal government. During the Convention, he argued that only a bill of rights would protect citizens from a strong central government that could pass laws to limit their freedom.
Objections to the Constitution Published by Mason
Just like Hamilton and the Federalists, the anti-Federalists took their arguments to the press. Unlike most politicians of the time, George Mason boldly used his real name rather than a pseudonym. He argued that without a bill of rights, the government could become corrupt and destroy the liberty of citizens: “It is at present impossible to foresee whether [the Constitution] will ... produce a monarchy, or a corrupt, tyrannical aristocracy.”
Statue of Mercy Otis Warren
Born in Barnstable, Massachusetts, Mercy Otis Warren was a patriot, poet, and historian. She defied the idea that women should not participate in politics. She argued that women, as both citizens and mothers, had a moral responsibility to take part in civic discussions. Writing under a pseudonym, Warren advocated independence during the Revolution.
Mercy Otis Warren to Catharine Macaulay, 1787
In this letter written on September 28, 1787, to English historian Catharine Macaulay, Warren denounces the strong role of the federal government: “We have struggled for liberty & made lofty sacrifices at her shrine: and there are still many among us who revere her name too much to relinquish ... the rights of man for the Dignity of Government.” In 1788, Warren published a pamphlet, Observations on the New Constitution, summarizing her objections.
In February 1788, the New York State legislature met at the Clinton House in Poughkeepsie and proclaimed that the state’s ratification convention would take place on June 21. New York, New Hampshire, and Virginia all scheduled their conventions for the month of June. By the beginning of June, eight states had already voted to accept the Constitution and only one more was needed to approve the new government.
The US Constitution Printed in Albany, New York, June 1788
Unlike most versions of the Constitution, this printing does not start with the preamble. Instead, it begins with the letter George Washington wrote at the Constitutional Convention supporting the new form of government. This broadsheet was printed in June 1788 by Claxton and Babcock at the Federal Printing Office in Albany, New York. It can be viewed as a last-minute offensive by the Federalists to garner support for the proposed Constitution.
Federalists vs. Anti-Federalists
Debates over the ratification of the Constitution took place in towns and villages across the country. To gain support, both Federalists and anti-Federalists held meetings and marches that sometimes became violent. One such encounter happened on this street in Albany, New York.
Reporting on a Street Brawl
In July 1788, Federalists marched through Albany, New York, and were stopped at Green Street by a group of anti-Federalists. According to a newspaper report, “a general battle took place, with swords, bayonets, clubs, stones, &c. which lasted for some time, both parties fighting with the greatest rage, and determined obstinacy, till at last the antifederalists being overpowered by numbers gave way and retreated.”
Alexander Hamilton, Delegate to the NYS Ratification Convention
At the New York ratification convention, forty-seven anti-Federalists outnumbered nineteen Federalists. Over the course of six weeks, Hamilton spoke twenty-six times in support of the Constitution. He argued eloquently, passionately, and logically and overcame the anti-Federalists’ concerns. On July 26, 1788, New York became the eleventh state to ratify the Constitution.
Developed by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.