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Posts Tagged ‘Rufus King’

During the first decade the United States lived under the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton (on the left) was a political force.  In fact, one could go so far as to say he was the second-most powerful man in the country, a rung or two below President Washington.  A good number of men loved and respected him (including the first President), and a good number loathed and reviled him (including the second, third, fourth, and fifth Presidents) .  But no one could argue with the presence and influence the country’s first Treasury Secretary enjoyed.  If you’ve spent any time on the pages of Today’s History Lesson, you know that to be true.  His legacy, now nearly two-and-a-half centuries in length, still lives with us.

During the second decade, Hamilton’s power began to dwindle.  Some of that was his own fault, some not.  Clearly, the Federalist party (to which Hamilton belonged) was falling out of favor, wilting under the pressure of an Anti-Federalist party led by Jefferson and Madison.  Federalists were under constant attack and in those days, before the “gentleman’s press” had come into being, those attacks were vicious and in numerous cases, untrue.

But Hamilton’s own indiscretions hadn’t helped his situation.  His affair with Maria Reynolds had been made public in the late 1790s, causing him to offer up a well-intentioned, but ill-advised public apology.  Then there was the even more ill-advised attack on President Adams (a fellow Federalist), published in the newspapers shortly before the 1800 election.  At this point, he was still hated by Anti-Federalists, but a good number of Federalists were keeping their distance as well.

By 1804, Hamilton was doing very well in his law practice, but struggling mightily for political significance.  The upcoming governor’s race in New York provided Hamilton with chance to gain some ground.  Aaron Burr (on the right above), the current Vice President, had decided to run for the position.  Of course, the feud between Hamilton and Burr needs no introduction around here.  Hamilton was incredibly worried that Burr would win, so he drafted a letter to his close friend Rufus King, currently the ambassador to England, asking him to run.  Hamilton knew that King might not be able to win the election outright against the firmly entrenched Clinton machine, but maybe he would siphon off enough “Burr” votes to prevent his arch-enemy’s victory.

On the day he wrote the letter, February 23, 1804, Hamilton became the center of attention again, and again, for all the wrong reasons.  The “Clinton machine”, led my New York governor George Clinton (another bitter rival of Hamilton’s), began circulating the report that, way back in 1787 (during the time of the Constitutional Convention), Hamilton and John Adams (then the ambassador to England) had negotiated with King George III to create an American monarchy with one of George’s sons as king.  In return, England would give up Canada, Nova Scotia, and other land holdings.

The story was utterly false.  Yes, both Hamilton and Adams had made statements in the past that, taken on their own, could be seen to favor a monarchical government.  But each man’s overall body of work clearly showed that neither, under any circumstance, wanted to return to that form of rule.  And having England in control of America in any way, shape, or form, was anathema to both men.  But the timing of the story was perfect, as Hamilton was beginning to gain a bit of political traction via his law practice.

Without letting go of his current work, Hamilton began tracing threads to determine the story’s originator.  He was a man that, above all else, treasured his own honor.  People began to detect the smell of gunpowder in the air and pistols at ten paces.

Hamilton was in the thick of it again.  Dates are a bit fuzzy, but I’m going to try put together a proper conclusion to this story on the proper day.

Recommended Reading:  Duel:  Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Future of America – A good composite read on the feud between these two powerful men.  It starts a bit slowly for my tastes, but finishes with a flourish.

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There has been some significant debate recently over the idea of “American Exceptionalism”.  Some argue that it’s reality, while others say it’s a bunch of hooey.  What is it?  Well, I’m probably the wrong guy to be defining obtuse nine-syllable phrases, but here goes my best attempt.  American Exceptionalism is the idea that the United States is a special country (something of a one-of-a-kind nation), due to the nature of its founding, its rather unique form of government, and the success it has achieved.

Needless to say, some people argue from a different perspective.  They contend that American Exceptionalism is, in the best case, extreme jingoism…a self-exalted view that arrogantly puts America on a higher plane than other countries.  In the worst case, opponents of the concept say that this attitude is what permitted the scourge of slavery until the 1860s, allowed gross mistreatment of numerous Native American tribes, and continues to foster American imperialism around the world.

I happen to think that many things about the creation of this country were exceptional, and its likely that Today’s History Lesson has covered several of them.  And I think our topic for today may fit the mold as well.

On September 8, 1787, the Committee of Style and Arrangement was formed.  Hmm…not that exceptional?  I disagree.

If you look back over the last four months, you’ll find we’ve shared a handful of articles focused on the Constitutional Convention.  And what you’ll discover is that, far from being in agreement on anything, a great many of the delegates fought tooth-and-nail to prevent the creation of a new government.  Men like Luther Martin, Gunning Bedford, and John Lansing argued vociferously against changing the status quo…against that pesky concept of innovation.

In her book Miracle at Philadelphia, Catherine Bowen writes that, “In spite of disagreement, indecision, threats of withdrawal and articles not settled, the Convention was ready to put the Constitution into final form and present it to the country.”  Was the Constitution being ram-rodded through?  Absolutely not!!  Hundreds of years ago, Sir Francis Bacon said, “Let the losers have their words.”  And those who were against the various articles (and against the whole proceeding in general) more than had their say.  It’s part of what made (and what continues to make) the Constitution so powerful.

The Committee of Style was tasked with collecting all the documentation and putting it into a cohesive, easily-read document.  Five men comprised the committee, and their names read much like a Founding Fathers All-Star team.

James Madison, who would spend the rest of his life defending what the Committee created, and is known as the Father of the Constitution.

William Samuel Johnson, a quiet strength from the South who hadn’t missed a single day of the proceedings.

Gouverneur Morris, who spoke more during the Convention than anyone else, but also had the fortitude to publicly admit when he was wrong.  It was his hand that penned our Constitution.

Alexander Hamilton.  Bowen writes, “…his speech of June eighteenth had not been forgotten, with its monarchical slant; yet delegates knew his grasp of the situation, knew also that his pen was quick and eloquent;  nobody could say better what he wanted to say about the constitution of governments.”  He, along with Madison, would spill an enormous amount of ink defending what was about to be created.

And finally, Rufus King.  He had arrived in Philadelphia full of doubt, believing that the Congress under the Confederacy should take up changing the Confederacy.  But over the course of the Convention, he became a staunch supporter…and converts are always strong believers.

These men penned a letter (also written by Morris) to accompany the final document, and its words are timeless, too.  “It is obviously impractical in the foederal government of these States, to secure all rights of independent sovereignty to each, and yet provide for the interest and safety of all.  Individuals entering into society, must give up a share of liberty to preserve the rest.  The magnitude of the sacrifice must depend as well on siuation and circumstance, as on the object to be obtained.  It is at all times difficult to draw with precision the line between those rights which must be surrendered, and those which may be reserved…”

Exceptional?  I think so.  Bowen summarizes in agreement with me.  “The wonder is that twelve states got through months of discussion without disbanding, and that the Committee of Style could now go on with their task unhampered.”

And for five days, these five men would work.  They condensed, they word-smithed, and they debated amongst themselves over language and detail.  And in the end…well, let’s cover that when the time is right.  But I’ll give you a hint…it begins with three remarkable (dare I say “exceptional”?) words…“We the people…”

Recommended Reading: Miracle at Philadelphia

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No one spectating the Federal Convention during Philadelphia’s blistering summer of 1787 would have said that the first month’s proceedings had gone smoothly.  Of course, the meetings were secret, so there were no spectators.  But still the point remains.  The first month had seen some progress, but also some serious hangups.  The biggest sticking point, without a doubt, was the issue of representation in the legislature.  Small states wanted essentially a “one state, one vote” structure, while larger states preferred representation to be based on population.  Like most disagreements in life, the real issue was control.

Under the Articles of Confederation, each state had an equal voice and each state had the power of veto.  This meant that small states, like Maryland or Delaware, could suppress legislation that affected the entire remaining population.  And frankly, the small states liked it…they had serious power.

The plans being proposed (by larger states like Virginia) radically altered the existing imbalance of power to the other side of the scale.  And the small states were vehemently opposed to it…and they made their feelings known.  Plus there was the whole issue about what kind of people should comprise the Senate, which led to another set of arguments.  Not too long ago we mentioned Luther Martin, the Marylander with a penchant for verbosity.  His speech on June 20th, in some sense, lit a fire under opponents of the Virginia Plan (and pretty much any idea upsetting “small state” power established by the Articles), and for a while, things weren’t looking so good in Independence Hall.

On June 27th (and most of the 28th) Martin was at it again, quoting Locke, Priestly, Somers, and others as he rambled toward a conclusion that the convention had no business taking power away from the states.  Madison scribbled in exasperation that Martin labored, “at great length…with much diffuseness, and considerable vehemence…”.  New York delegate Robert Yates, who actually sided with Martin, said of Martin’s meanderings, “It was not possible to trace him through the whole, or to methodize his ideas into a systematic or argumentative arrangement.”

Once Luther Martin had finished his “dissertation”, Virginian James Madison got up and worked to refute all that Martin had contended, using his typical logic to attack Martin’s ideas point-by-point.  But the small states were steadfast.  It was at this point that elder statesman Benjamin Franklin, looking at the division and hearing the harsh rhetoric, suggested that each day’s proceedings open with prayer.  Clearly assistance of a Divine nature was not unwelcome.

In his biography of James Madison, Ralph Ketchum writes that June 30, 1787 was the Federal Convention’s “rock bottom.”  It was then that Gunning Bedford (shown above), a somewhat large man from the (small) state of Delaware spoke words most dangerous to the convention’s purpose.  “I do not, gentlemen, trust you,” he shouted.  The larger states wouldn’t dare kill the Confederation, he threatened, because the small states had another option.  “…sooner than be ruined, there are foreign powers who will take us by the hand.”  One can almost imagine the stifling silence that followed those words that flirted with the precipice of treason.

Rufus King, from the relatively small state of Massachusetts, rose and said, “I am concerned for what fell from the gentleman from Delaware – ‘Take a foreign power by the hand’!  I am sorry he mentioned it, and hope he is able to excuse it to himself on the score of passion.  Whatever may be my distress, I never will court a foreign power to assist in relieving myself from it.”

June 30th was a day of vitriol and acrimonious debate in Independence Hall.  It’s a very good thing it was a Saturday, as Sunday (for most of the delegates) would provide time for solemn reflection and reconsideration in a local house of worship.

Recommended Reading: James Madison

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