On June 24, news had arrived in New York that the ninth State required to adopt the new Constitution had been achieved by New Hampshire’s ratification, followed only days later by Virginia. At that point, the ultimate question facing the New York ratifying convention was whether to join the “more perfect union” or to go it alone. But for more than a month, delegates gathered in Poughkeepsie kept at it, proposing amendment after amendment and debating whether New York could ratify “conditionally.”
On Monday, July 14, John Jay moved that New York ratify the Constitution and attach to its ratification “explanations” and recommended amendments, but ratification would not be conditional. The next day witnessed a flurry of proposals, beginning with Melancton Smith’s motion to amend Jay’s motion and make New York’s ratification conditional upon Congress not exercising certain powers until a convention should be called to propose amendments.
Alexander Hamilton responded with yet another proposal. Similar to Jay’s, it opposed conditional ratification but added additional details regarding “explanations” and amendments. Hamilton even pledged that he and other Federalists would advocate for amendments “as far as they can.”
Much of Wednesday was devoted to a motion to adjourn until September 2 in order to give delegates time to consult with their constituents. The motion failed, but not before Hamilton launched into a passionate explanation of the consequences of New York refusing to join the union. Insisting that the Confederation Congress would not accept conditional ratification, he predicted that New York would be vulnerable, "with the wealth of the whole country against us.” Where would it “derive means of assistance - foreign powers?...France or Great Britain?” The southern part of the State would “separate from the rest of the State,” he predicted, leaving the northern part to defend itself against the jealousy of other States who coveted access to the port of New York.
Rebutting charges that the Constitution threatened the “spirit of ‘76” and the liberties so dearly won, Hamilton appealed to the reverence of “distinguished patriots” who supported the Constitution, including John Hancock; John Adams who “first conceived the bold idea of independence;” John Dickinson; Benjamin Franklin, “this old grey headed patriot looking into the grave;” and George Washington, admired by Whigs and Tories alike, who “came forward and approved this Constitution.”
The New York Daily Advertiser reported that Hamilton “was powerful in his reasoning and so persuasively eloquent that he drew tears from most of the audience.” Nevertheless, to reassure himself, two days later Hamilton wrote to James Madison, requesting his opinion about conditional ratification, especially “of a right to secede in case our amendments have not been decided…within a certain number of years, perhaps five or seven.”
Having resumed his seat in Congress (meeting in New York City), Madison responded the next day. “My opinion is,” he began, such a “conditional ratification…does not make New York a member of the New Union, and consequently that she could not be received on that plan…The Constitution requires an adoption in toto and forever.”
In the meantime, moments after Hamilton completed his plea for ratification on July 17, Melancton Smith offered a new proposition. In a move that astounded Federalists and confounded the Antis, Smith announced he could not support his own motion to ratify conditionally made several days before. He had sincerely believed that Congress would have accepted it, but now “much has been said to show that they cannot.” Admitting that his new plan “will not please either side of the house,” he believed it would at least address the major objections posed by both sides and encouraged the convention “not to decide hastily but consider well.” In short, he proposed ratification with less stringent conditions.
John Lansing, hitherto Smith’s ally, immediately declared he would reintroduce Smith’s original motion if Smith were to withdraw it. The convention adjourned without further action, leaving the Antis seriously divided. John Jay reported to Washington that Smith’s “own party were not pleased and the House adjourned.” The next morning, the convention convened and “a long silence ensued.” The Antis “seemed embarrassed – fearful to divide among themselves, and yet many of them very averse to the new plan.”
De Witt Clinton, Gov. George Clinton’s nephew, fretted that “Smith’s proposal was brought on too rapidly; the minds of the Members ought to have been prepared gradually for it.” Some of the Antis now “detest Smith as much as Hamilton.”
The next week the convention was consumed with considering successive motions, amending motions, voting down motions to adjourn or postpone, negotiating on the meaning of “conditional ratification” and how such a term could be mitigated, deciding what amendments should be proposed to the new government, and haggling over the “form” of ratification. By July 23, the issue had evolved beyond ratification itself to how to ratify.
Smith then moved that “conditional ratification” be substituted with ratification based on “confidence that the declaration of rights and explanations aforesaid are consistent with the Constitution, and therefore cannot be abridged…and with further confidence that amendments which shall have been proposed…will receive an early and mature consideration.” The motion passed 40 – 19. Remarkably, Gov. Clinton, John Lansing and Robert Yates were in the majority.
After two more days of last-minute attempts by the Antis to thwart ratification, New York finally voted to ratify the Constitution of the United States. The vote was 30 for and 27 against. In addition to a lengthy formal ratification document, the convention requested that its delegates to the new Congress “use all reasonable means “ to secure approval of thirty-two specified amendments. Additionally, it unanimously approved a circular letter to other states encouraging a general convention to consider amendments. But in the end, New York had ratified the Constitution, assuring its place in “a more perfect union.”