Robust debate at New York’s ratifying convention began just days before New Hampshire ratified the Constitution on June 21 and a week before Virginia ratified four days later. But news of New Hampshire’s ratification did not arrive in New York until June 24. In the meantime, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison maintained a constant flow of correspondence between them, well aware of the fragility of their cause.
On June 19, Hamilton had confessed to Madison that it was “not easy to conjecture what will be the result” in New York. Adversaries of the Constitution “greatly outnumber us,” he lamented. Nevertheless, “so far the thing is not to be despaired of.”
Madison wrote to Hamilton the next day, their letters crossing in the mail. By this time, Madison was feeling much more confident, though physically exhausted. Believing Virginia would be the ninth State to ratify, thereby causing the new government to organize under the Constitution, he reported to Hamilton that “a majority of 3 or 4” was expected to prevail. “There is nevertheless a very disagreeable uncertainty in the case,” he cautioned, because there was “a possibility that our present strength may be miscalculated.”
Communications between the two men continued several times a week through mid-July. Madison continued to pin his hopes on the majority of 3 or 4, “or possibly 5 or 6 votes,” as Hamilton’s despair deepened. “Our chance of success here is infinitely slender,” he confided, “and none at all if you go wrong.” If ratification failed in Virginia, New York would be lost.
When news of ratification by New Hampshire and Virginia reached New York, Federalists were elated. The Constitution would go into effect. But New York Anti-Federalists were unwilling to concede. After receiving news of New Hampshire’s decision on June 24, Melancton Smith, the most vociferous of the Antis at the New York convention, resumed his speech against the Constitution the very next day, as if nothing had happened. He spoke at length about the ills of the proposed Senate and was countered by Alexander Hamilton who, in turn, was refuted by Smith.
Robert Livingston was stunned. Rising in near disbelief, he demanded whether “it would not, perhaps, be altogether impertinent to remind the [convention] that, since the intelligence of yesterday, it had become evident that the circumstances of the country were greatly altered, and the ground of the present debate changed.” The fact was, he exclaimed, “The Confederation was now dissolved!” The sole question remaining before them was one of “policy and expediency.” They should “consider the situation of their country” and be concerned “that some might contemplate disunion.”
Smith was undeterred. News that the Constitution had been ratified by the requisite nine States “had not altered his feelings or wishes on the subject,” he insisted as he continued speaking in favor of an amendment which would permit State legislatures to recall Senators before their terms of office expired. John Lansing rose in support. “That our particular circumstances are in fact altered since yesterday,” he began, “I cannot agree. It is true, we have received information that the ninth state has ratified the Constitution; but I contend that no such event ought to influence our deliberations. It is still our duty to maintain our right. If, unfortunately, a disunion should take place, we are not in so bad a situation that we could not provide for our safety independently of the other states.”
Smith and Lansing were not alone. Henry Oothoudt, the Anti-federalist chairman of the committee of whole, noted that “news of the adoption by New Hampshire does not seem to make an impression” and expected “it will not.” Gov. Clinton wrote to John Lamb that “news from New Hampshire has not had the least effect on our friends in this place.” Nevertheless, rumblings of divisions among the Antis spread through both Federalist and Anti-federalist circles. John Jay, one of the authors of the Federalist, summarized the division in a letter to George Washington: “Some insist on previous conditional amendments; a greater number will be satisfied with subsequent conditional amendments, or in other words they are for ratifying the Constitution on condition that certain amendments take place within a given time.” To Jay, “these circumstances afforded room for hope.”
Unaware that he was confirming Jay’s apprehensions, Smith shared his plan with his friend Nathan Dane in Massachusetts. The Antis, he advised, should “calmly consider the circumstances,” and “accommodate our decisions to those circumstances.” Smith’s “great object” would be to recommend “substantial amendments;” then “adopt the Constitution “conditionally.” That is, if they agreed, the condition would be that certain amendments “take place in one or two years after adoption, or the ratification to become void.” His greatest fear was that a “moderation” might arise in some of the most influential Antis. Confiding to Dane, Smith said “the principal labor of managing the controversy lies with me.” Enclosed with his letter were copies of several amendments already proposed in convention and soon to appear in newspapers throughout the State.
The convention continued its paragraph-by-paragraph deliberations through the early days of July as the Antis continued to propose amendments, in effect re-writing the Constitution. In the meantime, Federalists changed their strategy. Until hearing that New Hampshire and Virginia had ratified, they had “disputed every inch of ground,” but then, they changed “their defense.” According to Federalist delegate Abraham Bancker, Federalists “changed their system of proceeding; whereby it appears no reply will be made to any of their propositions until after the whole of the [Anti’s] objections shall be stated.” The New York Daily Advertiser took notice, publishing a “letter from Poughkeepsie” in which a Federalist wrote, “The powers of eloquence and argument are unavailing; we shall therefore refrain from any further exertions in defense of the Constitution.” New York’s place in the Union remained uncertain.