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July 11, 1788

October 18, 2021 - 4 minute read


Robert R. Livingston

The New York ratifying convention convened in Poughkeepsie on June 17, but the robust debate over the Constitution had begun as soon as the Constitutional Convention adjourned the previous September and escalated as each side grew increasingly organized, more so than in any other State. Politics in New York had evolved into two opposed camps, one side headed by Governor George Clinton, the other led by Philip Schuyler and his son-in-law, Alexander Hamilton. When votes for delegates to the ratifying convention were counted in late May, the results clearly reflected the State’s political division and an ominous foreboding for the Constitution. Antifederalists won forty-six seats while Federalists won nineteen. 

Hamilton was alarmed. “In this state, as far as we can judge, the elections have gone wrong,” he wrote to Gouverneur Morris. “Violence rather than moderation is be looked for from the opposite party,” he continued. “Obstinacy seems to be the prevailing character of its leader. The language is, that if all the other states adopt, this is to persist in refusing the Constitution.” In this, Hamilton was correct. 

When the convention convened, fifty-three of its sixty-five delegates were in attendance. After electing Gov. Clinton as its president and agreeing on a set of rules proposed by a committee of five, delegates began debate on the Constitution on June 19 when Robert Livingston rose and addressed the chair. Acknowledging the attendance of some delegates who had already formed opinions about the Constitution, Livingston observed “there are many gentlemen present, who had yet formed no decided opinion on the important question before us, and who (like myself) bring with them dispositions to examine whatever shall be offered, and not to determine till after the maturest deliberation.”

These were sentiments appropriate to Livingston’s position, that of Chancellor of New York, the highest judicial office in the State. Livingston had held that position since 1777 and would hold it until 1801. A graduate of King’s College, he had been appointed to a committee of the Second Continental Congress assigned the task of drafting a declaration of independence from the British. Recalled to New York before the Declaration of Independence was presented to Congress, Livingston was the only one of five members of the committee not to sign the final version. His cousin, Philip Livingston, would sign in his place. 

 Another cousin, William Livingston, had been the first governor of the new state of New Jersey, replacing William Franklin, the ousted colonial governor and illegitimate son of Benjamin Franklin. In the summer of 1787, William Livingston had represented New Jersey at the Constitutional Convention and was still governor when his cousin Robert (often referred to as the “Chancellor”) opened debate at the New York ratifying convention.

Taking it upon himself to introduce some “general observations,” the Chancellor set the stage, asserting that “in the old world” governments “are the children of force or fraud…Differences among them, therefore, will continue to be decided by the sword, and the blood of thousands will be shed before the most trifling controversy can be determined.”  On the contrary, “it has pleased heaven to afford the United States means for the attainment of this great object, which it has withheld from other nations. They speak the same language, they profess the same religion; and what is of infinitely more importance, they acknowledge the same great principle – that all power is derived from the people.”

After admonishing his colleagues to avoid a hasty review of the plan before them, he proposed that no motions or amendments be voted upon until after “the Constitution and amendments should have been considered clause by clause.”  His motion was agreed to.

The next morning, John Lansing offered a rebuttal. One of New York’s three delegates to the Constitutional Convention, he had quit the Convention along with Robert Yates, asserting that the Convention was exceeding its authority. He, too, supported the union of States and agreed the Articles of Confederation were flawed, yet now was leaving open the option of disunion. Contemplating “the idea of a possible dissolution with pain” and making “these remarks with the most sincere reluctance,” Lansing nevertheless raised the issue. “If a dissolution of the Union should unfortunately ensue,” he queried, “what have we to apprehend?” After all, he said, New York is connected with other New England states, and they harbor no animosities against each other. There are “no interfering territorial claims; our manners are nearly similar, and they are daily assimilating; and mutual advantages will probably prompt to mutual concessions, to enable us to form a union with them.”

Then Melancton Smith rose. A merchant from upstate, he was as “strongly impressed with the necessity of a union as anyone could be” and would even “seek it with much ardor.” He was “disposed to make every reasonable concession, and, indeed, to sacrifice everything for a union, except the liberties of his country.” But for Smith, this Constitution sacrificed too much, beginning with Article 1 Section 2: the “rule of apportionment is unjust;” there is “no precise number below which the House shall not be reduced;” and he “could not see any rule by which slaves were to be included in the ratio of representation.” Counting three-fifths of “all other persons” for purposes of representation might have been a compromise necessary to preserve the union, Melancton mused, but it gave “certain privileges to those people who were so wicked as to keep slaves.”  He would have none of it.

Smith then offered the first of many amendments to be proposed at the New York ratifying convention - that the number of representatives be fixed at one for every twenty thousand inhabitants until the number reach three hundred and that the number of original representatives provided for in the Constitution be doubled. In the ensuing days, Smith and Lansing would be the leading spokesmen for the Antifederalists, but with a surprise ending. 

 

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