Friday, 16 January 2015

Anti-Federalist No. 85 (A Plebian), Part I: Context

Before I move on in coming weeks to a rather extended project, involving a series of thematically linked discussions on the nature of corporations in the early American republic, I’d like to take the opportunity to sort of wrap up a topic I seem to have spent quite a lot of time on. Though I may not have intended it from the outset, the debate between Federalism and Anti-Federalism over the ratification of the United States Constitution has figured largely in my writings, low these many months. After discussing the efforts of Hamilton, Madison and Jay and examining some of the arguments put forward by the Anti-Federalists, I’d like to put a button on things by taking a look at another of the Anti-Federalist Papers. Specifically I’ll be examining Anti-Federalist No. 85, written under the pseudonym “A Plebian.” Usually the last of the Anti-Federalist Papers found in most printed collections, it attempted to sum up some of the arguments against ratification prior to discussing amendments, debunk some of the declarations made by supporters of ratification of the danger of delay, and point to some of the most commonly agreed-upon flaws to be found in the main text of the Constitution. It is, to my mind, not particularly remarkable in its arguments, language, or influence. Still, I found that when compared with the efforts of Hamilton in particular, who was arguing from the opposite point of view, some very interesting conclusions presented themselves.

The author of Anti-Federalist No. 85, in spite of the self-consciously humble pen name he chose to write under, was a well-heeled New York merchant and land-owner named Melanchthon Smith. Born in 1744 on Long Island in the Province of New York, Smith was home-schooled by his parents and in his adult life became a prominent merchant in Poughkeepsie, the seat of Dutchess County. In 1775 he entered state politics after being elected to the first New York Provincial Congress and helped organize a militia in his home county. There he also served on a three-member surveillance commission tasked with ascertaining the loyalty of various residents to the Patriot cause and monitoring potentially harmful conspiracies. During this same period, 1777/78, he also served as Dutchess County sheriff and enhanced his personal wealth by purchasing several estates that had been seized by the state government from confirmed Loyalists. After the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, in 1785, Smith relocated to New York City where he helped found the anti-slavery New York Manumission Society alongside future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and Governor of New York John Jay. From 1785 to 1787 he served as one of New York’s delegates to the Continental Congress, and in 1788 he was among the 57 delegates sent to the New York ratification convention in Poughkeepsie to debate and vote on the adoption of the proposed constitution. At the time he was considered one of the few prominent land-owners and merchants within the Anti-Federalist ranks, and a staunch supporter of long-time New York Governor George Clinton.

Not a lot to go on, right?

Well, the fact of the matter is that Melancton Smith was among the multitude of state politicians, military officers, merchants and diplomats whose exploits never became the stuff of legend, as with some of their more prominent contemporaries, but whose efforts nevertheless were instrumental to the success of the Patriot cause during the American Revolution. Because Smith never really entered the national stage, serving only two years in Congress prior to the adoption of the Constitution, and because he subsequently died in 1798 he remains relatively obscure. That being said, armed with the admittedly paltry biographical information now available, certain conclusions may be drawn about the kind of man Smith was and perhaps why he was inclined to oppose, in writing, the ratification of the United States Constitution.

First, it’s worth noting that Smith’s professional life was spent almost entirely within the New York political arena. He served in the state legislature and on a county counter-espionage committee, stood as sheriff, and on top of it all was one of the most prominent landowners and merchants in Dutchess County. His two years in Congress, representing the first and only time he stepped out onto the emerging American national stage, were during the last years of the notably dysfunctional federal government under the Articles of Confederation. As the national assembly under the Articles was often plagued by conflicts between the states over land and trade, it might be safe to say that its various delegates tended not to view themselves as serving larger American interests, but as representing only the specific desires of their respective states. Taking all of this into account, I think it would be fair to characterize Smith’s political priorities as being distinctly parochial. Whatever power and influence he wielded, and whatever wealth he had managed to accrue, flowed directly out of the State of New York, its politics, and its prosperity. Unlike Alexander Hamilton, another New Yorker who had served in the Continental Army, John Jay, who had represented the United States on the world stage as a diplomat in Europe, or James Madison, who was instrumental in creating the federally-administered Northwest Territory and in shaping the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights, Smith never had the same chance to develop an appreciation of the United States as a distinct political entity. For him, and for many others in the 1780s and 1790s, the United States of America was chiefly a confederation of smaller political entities. It was to one of these entities that Smith doubtless felt the most loyalty, and whose authority and influence he would not have wanted to see diminished.

Second, the fact of Smith’s association with Governor George Clinton warrants reflection. As I'm sure I mentioned in a previous post some weeks ago, New York politics in the early years of the American republic were highly factional. A handful of families or clans controlled the majority of state offices and constantly jockeyed for position. Clinton, who served as governor between 1777 and 1795 and again from 1801 to 1804, was the leader of one of these factions and had a reputation as being stubborn, confrontational, and a staunch critic of the emerging federal power. That Smith was considered an ally of Clinton indicates that he was a member of the governor’s faction, that he was invested in the state political scene, and that he sympathized with Clinton’s anti-federal sentiments. Indeed, local factional loyalties may have played a large part in situating many of New York’s politically influential during the ratification debate. John Jay and Alexander Hamilton, co-authors of the Federalist Papers, were both members of the (for lack of a better term) anti-Clinton faction, along with Hamilton’s father-in-law, future-Senator Philip Schuyler. Melancton Smith, along with fellow Anti-Federalist author Robert Yates, was a member of the opposing Clinton faction. While I don’t doubt that all of these men held honest ideological or moral reasons for the positions they expressed, I would neither discount the possibility that their support for or criticism of the proposed constitution was partly a transference of existing factional rivalries.

The last point I’d like to put forward has to do with the circumstances in which Smith sat down to write his anti-constitutional missive. The ratification process was just that – a process – and so locating Anti-Federalist No. 85 on the appropriate timeline is central to understanding its purpose and the probable intentions of its author. In many cases the details surrounding the publication of the various Anti-Federalist Papers are fairly well-documented; in addition to known or probable authors, these include the date, city of publication, and name of the relevant newspaper in which the various essays first saw print. No. 85, unfortunately, is not one of those. Though Melancton Smith has been agreed upon as having been the “Plebian” in question, little else is very clear. Fortunately, Mr. Smith was good enough to provide certain details in the work itself that make pinning down the date of his writing and publishing No. 85 a matter of simple deduction.

 In the seventh paragraph of his essay Smith mentions the outcome of the Connecticut and Massachusetts ratifying conventions, which completed their deliberations in January and February of 1788, respectively. Massachusetts was the sixth of the required nine states (2/3 of the total thirteen) to vote in favor of ratification, after Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, and the aforementioned Connecticut. It is also known that Smith was present as a delegate at the New York ratifying convention that took place in his hometown of Poughkeepsie and concluded its deliberations in July of the same year. This means that Anti-Federalist No. 85 had to have been written at some point during the spring or summer of 1788. If the tone of Smith’s arguments is any indication, it’s probable that he was writing under the assumption that the adoption of the Constitution was not yet a done deal. New Hampshire was the ninth state to vote in favor of ratification in June, 1788; after that point the Constitution had met the threshold for adoption and the remaining states were left to vote on whether to join the new government or not. In all likelihood, then, Smith wrote Anti-Federalist No. 85 at some point between February and mid-June, 1788.

Why is this important? Well, it’s important because of the way it informs how Smith’s arguments in Anti-Federalist No. 85 might be read. In the early summer of 1788 the proposed constitution was neither fully accepted nor entirely defeated. Placing No. 85 in that period indicates that Smith was neither discussing the Constitution and the various states’ objections to it purely in theory, nor attempting to rally a body of resistance to a thing that had already been accomplished. Rather, Smith was taking part in a debate that was still ongoing. Of the “big four” states – Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New York and Virginia – only two had voted to ratify, and  three more states still needed to follow suite before the Constitution could be considered adopted. For Smith and his fellow Anti-Federalists, then, those spring and summer months in 1788 were crucial. The right argument at the right time to the right audience could have turned the tide against the new government, thus fundamentally altering the version of American history that was about to play out. Indeed, if New York or Virginia, wealthy and populous both, had voted against ratification, what then? How could the proposed union hope to function without two such influential states? These were that stakes that Melancton Smith confronted when he sat down to write Anti-Federalist No. 85, and the possibilities that could have unfolded from that moment. His arguments should thus be taken in that light, be they grave or confident, skeptical or imploring. 

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