Home  »  New York  »  The Federalist City. 1783–1800

Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919). New York. 1906.


The Federalist City. 1783–1800

NEW YORK was indeed a dreary city when the king’s troops left it after their sojourn of seven years. The spaces desolated by the great fires had never been built up, but still remained covered with the charred, melancholy ruins; the churches had been dismantled, the houses rifled. Business was gone, and the channels in which it had run were filled up. The Americans on taking possession once more had to begin all over again. They set busily to work to rebuild the fallen fortunes of the town; but the destruction had been so complete, and the difficulties in the way of getting a fair start were so great, that for four years very little progress was made. Then affairs took a turn for the better; the city began to flourish as it never had flourished before, and grew in wealth and population at a steadily increasing pace.

The dismantled churches were put in order; and Trinity, which had been burnt down in the fire of 1776, was entirely rebuilt. King’s College had its name changed to Columbia, and was again started, the first scholar being De Witt Clinton, a nephew of George Clinton, at the time governor of the State. The free public library—the New York Society Library—was revived on a very much larger scale, and a good building erected, wherein to house the books. The new constitution of the independent State of New York completely did away with the religious disabilities enforced under the old provincial government, and declared and maintained absolute religious toleration and equality before the law. In consequence a Catholic church was soon built; while the Methodists increased rapidly in numbers and influence.

The New York Medical Society began its career in 1788; and one of the most curious of New York’s many riots occurred shortly afterward. The mob engaged in this riot was always known as “the doctors’ mob,” because their wrath was directed against the young medical students and their teachers. Rumors had been rife for some time that the doctors rifled the graveyards to get subjects for dissection, which excited the populace greatly. One day a boy looking into the dissecting-room saw the medical students at work on a body, and immediately ran home and alarmed his father. Without any more reason than this, the mob suddenly assembled, hunted the doctors out of their homes, entered houses and destroyed property, refused to obey the commands of the civil officers when called on to disperse, and finally came into collision with the State troops, who scattered them with a volley, killing and wounding several.

An occasional turbulent outbreak of this sort, however, could not check the city’s growth. Commerce throve apace. The more venturesome merchants sent ships for the first time to the far China seas; and in a few years, when the gigantic warfare of the French Revolution convulsed all Europe, New York began to take its full share of the traffic which was thereby forced into neutral bottoms.

The achievement of liberty had not worked any radical change in the municipal government of the city; and the constitution under which the State entered on its new life of independence was not ultra-democratic, although of course marking a long stride toward democracy. The suffrage was rigidly limited. There were two kinds of franchise: any man owning a freehold worth £20, or paying rent to the value of forty shillings could vote for the members of the Assembly; while only a freeholder whose freehold was worth £100 could vote for senator or governor. Almost all the executive and legislative officers, whether of the State, the county, or the town, were appointed by the Council of Appointment, which consisted of the governor and four senators. The large land-holding families thus still retained very much influence. The destruction of the power of the great Tory families, however, had of course diminished the weight of the rich landowning class as a whole; and in the country the decisive power was in the hands of the small freeholding farmers.

The State was not yet governed by an absolute democracy, because as yet no one save theorists were believers in an absolute democracy, and even manhood suffrage was not advocated by many persons; while the unenfranchised were not actively discontented. The framers of the State constitution were not mere paper-government visionaries; they were shrewd, honest, practical politicians, acquainted with men and affairs. They invented new governmental methods when necessary, but they did not try to build up an entirely new scheme of government; they simply took the old system under which the affairs of the colony had been administered and altered it to suit the altered conditions of the new State. This method was of course much the wisest; but it was naturally attended by some disadvantages. The constitution-makers kept certain provisions it would have been well to throw away; they failed to guard against certain dangers that were sure to arise under the changed circumstances; and on the other hand, they created difficulties by their endeavors to guard against certain other dangers which had really vanished with the destruction of the old system. This was notably shown by their treatment of the governorship, and by their fear of one-man power generally. The colonial governor was not elected by the people, nor responsible to them in any way; it was therefore to the popular interest to hem in his power by all lawful expedients. This was done by the colonial legislature, the only exponent and servant of the popular wish. The State governor, however, was elected by the people, was responsible to them, and was as much their servant and representative as the legislature. Nevertheless, the distrust of the non-representative, appointed, colonial governor was handed down as a legacy to his elective and representative successor. The fact that the colonial governor was made irresponsible by the method of his appointment, and that a colonial legislature appointed in the same way would have been equally irresponsible and objectionable, was seemingly overlooked, and the governorship was treated as if a single person were more dangerous than a group of persons to those who elect both, and can hold both equally responsible. Accordingly, he was hampered with the Council of Appointment, and in other ways. We have since grown wiser in this respect; but the curious fear still survives, and shows itself occasionally in odd ways,—such as standing up for the “rights” of a wholly useless and pernicious board of aldermen.

The government of the city was treated in the same way. In colonial times the freeholders elected their own aldermen, while the mayor and executive officers were appointed by the representatives of the Crown. The system was continued, the State governor and Council of Appointment being substituted for the royal governor and his council. The freeholders continued to elect their aldermen, and the constables, when constables were elected; but the mayor, the sheriff, and the other officers were appointed by the State authorities. James Duane was the first mayor thus appointed. There was thus in one respect far less local independence, far less right of local self-government granted the city then than now. The entire patronage or appointing power was centralized in the State authorities. On the other hand the city had greater liberty of action in certain directions than nowadays. The aldermen formed a real local legislature; and the city treasurer was actually accustomed to issue paper money on the credit of the municipality. On the whole, however, American cities have never possessed the absolute right to independent life and the exercise of local sovereignty that have been enjoyed by most European burghs. In America, both in colonial days and under the national government, the city has been treated merely as a geographical section of the State, and has been granted certain rights of self-government, like other sections; though those rights are of a peculiar kind, because of the peculiar needs and characteristics of the grantee. They can be altered, amended, enlarged, or withdrawn at the pleasure of the grantor, the State legislature. Even the enormous growth of the urban population during the last half-century has not in the least altered the legal and political status of the city as the creature of the State.

Long before the Revolutionary War had closed, the old government of the confederation had demonstrated its almost utter impotence; and things grew worse after the peace. The people at large were slow to accept the idea that a new and stronger government was necessary. The struggle they had just passed through was one for liberty, against power; and they did not for the moment realize that license and anarchy are liberty’s worst enemies. Their extreme individualism and their ultra-independent feelings, perpetually excited and played upon by all the legion of demagogues, inclined them to look with suspicion and distrust upon the measures by which alone they could hope to see their country raise her head among the nations of the earth. The best and wisest men of the land saw from the first the need of a real and strong union; but the mass of the people came to this idea with the utmost reluctance. It was beaten into their minds by the hard logic of disaster. The outbreak of armed rebellion in Massachusetts and North Carolina, the general lawlessness, the low tone of commercial honor, the bankruptcy of the States and their loss of credit at home and abroad, the contempt with which the confederation was treated by European nations, and the jarring interests of the different commonwealths themselves, which threatened at any moment to break out into actual civil war,—all these combined with the wisdom and eloquence of the ablest statesmen in the land, and the vast weight of Washington’s character were needed to convince an obstinate, suspicious, and narrow-minded, though essentially brave, intelligent, and patriotic people that they must cast aside their prejudices and jealousies and unite to form a stable and powerful government. Had they not thus united, their triumph in the Revolutionary War would have been a calamity for America instead of a blessing. Freedom without unity, freedom with anarchy, would have been worse than useless. The men who opposed the adoption of the present constitution of the United States committed an error to the full as great as that of the Tories themselves; and they strove quite as hard, and fortunately quite as unsuccessfully, to damage their country. The adoption of the constitution was the completion of the work begun by the War of Independence. This work had two stages, each essential; and those who opposed it during the second stage, like those who opposed it in the first, however honest of intent, did all they could to injure America. The Tory and the disunionist, or nonunionist, were equally dangerous enemies of the national growth and well-being.

It was during this period of the foundation of the Federal government, and during the immediately succeeding period of the supremacy of the Federalists in national affairs that New York City played its greatest and most honorable part in the government of the nation. Never before or since has it occupied so high a position politically, compared to the country at large; for during these years it was the seat of power of the brilliant Federalist party of New York State. Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and at the end of the time Gouverneur Morris, lived in the city, or so near it as to have practically the weight and influence of citizens; and it was the home likewise of their arch-foe Aaron Burr, the prototype of the skilful, unscrupulous ward-politician, so conspicuous in the later periods of the city’s development.

Hamilton, the most brilliant American statesman who ever lived, possessing the loftiest and keenest intellect of his time, was of course easily the foremost champion in the ranks of the New York Federalists; second to him came Jay, pure, strong and healthy in heart, body, and mind. Both of them watched with uneasy alarm the rapid drift toward anarchy; and both put forth all their efforts to stem the tide. They were of course too great men to fall in with the views of those whose antagonism to tyranny made them averse from order. They had little sympathy with the violent prejudices produced by the war. In particular they abhorred the vindictive laws directed against the persons and property of Tories; and they had the manliness to come forward as the defenders of the helpless and excessively unpopular Loyalists. They put a stop to the wrongs which were being inflicted on these men, and finally succeeded in having them restored to legal equality with other citizens, standing up with generous fearlessness against the clamor of the mob.

As soon as the project for a closer union of the States was broached, Hamilton and Jay took it up with ardor. New York City followed their lead, but the State as a whole was against them. The most popular man within its bounds was stout old Governor Clinton, and he led the opposition to the proposed union. Clinton was a man of great strength of character, a good soldier, and stanch patriot in the Revolutionary War. He was bitterly obstinate and prejudiced, and a sincere friend of popular rights. He felt genuine distrust of any form of strong government. He was also doubtless influenced in his opposition to the proposed change by meaner motives. He was the greatest man in New York; but he could not hope ever to be one of the greatest in the nation. He was the ruler of a small sovereign State, the commander-in-chief of its little army, the admiral of its petty navy, the leader of its politicians; and he did not wish to sacrifice the importance that all of this conferred upon him. The cold, suspicious temper of the small country freeholders, and the narrow jealousy they felt for their neighbors, gave him excellent material on which to work.

Nevertheless, Hamilton won, thanks to the loyalty with which New York City stood by him. By untiring effort and masterful oratory he persuaded the State to send three delegates to the Federal constitutional convention. He himself went as one, and bore a prominent part in the debates; his two colleagues, a couple of anti-Federalist nobodies, early leaving him. He then came back to the city where he wrote and published, jointly with Madison and Jay, a series of letters, afterward gathered into a volume called “The Federalist,”—a book which ranks among the ablest and best which have ever been written on politics and government. These articles had a profound effect on the public mind. Finally he crowned his labors by going as a representative from the city to the State convention, and winning from a hostile body a reluctant ratification of the Federal constitution. The townsmen were quicker witted, and politically more far-sighted and less narrow-minded than the average country folk of that day. The artisans, mechanics, and merchants of New York were enthusiastically in favor of the Federal constitution, and regarded Hamilton as their especial champion. To assist him and the cause they planned a monster procession, while the State convention was still sitting. Almost every representative body in the city took part in it. A troop of light horse in showy uniforms led, preceded by a band of trumpeters and a light battery. Then came a personator of Columbus, on horseback, surrounded by woodsmen with axes,—the axe being pre-eminently the tool and weapon of the American pioneer. Then came farmers in farmers’ dress, driving horses and oxen yoked to both plow and harrow, while a new modeled threshing-machine followed. The Society of the Cincinnati came next. The traders followed: gardeners in green aprons, tailors, grain-measurers, bakers, with a huge “Federal loaf” on a platform drawn by ten bay horses; brewers, and coopers, with a stage drawn by four horses, bearing the “Federal cask,” which the workmen finished as the procession moved; butchers, tanners, glovers, furriers, carpenters, masons, bricklayers, whitesmiths, blacksmiths, cord-wainers, peruke-makers, florists, cabinet-makers, ivory-turners, shipwrights, riggers, and representatives of scores of other trades. In every part of the procession fluttered banners with Hamilton’s figure and name, and the great feature of the show was the Federal ship Hamilton, drawn by ten horses. It was a thirty-two-gun frigate in miniature, twenty-seven feet long, fully rigged, and manned by thirty seamen and marines. Thirteen guns from her deck gave the signal to start, and saluted at times during the procession. The faculty and students of the University, the learned societies and professions, the merchants, and distinguished strangers brought up the rear. The procession moved out to the Bayard House, beyond the city, where a feast for six thousand people was served.

For the first year of government under the new constitution, New York was the Federal capital. It was thither that Washington journeyed to be inaugurated President with stately solemnity, April 30, 1789. The city had by this time fully recovered its prosperity; and when it became the headquarters for the ablest statesmen from all parts of the Union, its social life naturally became most attractive, and lost its provincial spirit. However, its term of glory as the capital was short, for when Congress adjourned in August, 1790, it was to meet at Philadelphia.

The political history of the city during the twelve years of Washington’s and Adams’s administrations, is the history of a nearly balanced struggle between the Federalists and the anti-Federalists, who gradually adopted the name, first of Republicans and then of Democrats. As always in our political annals, individuals were constantly changing sides, often in large numbers; but as a whole, party continuity was well preserved. The men who had favored the adoption of the constitution grew into the Federal party; the men who had opposed it, and wished to construe it as narrowly as possible, and to restrict the powers of the central government even to the point of impotence, became Jeffersonian Republicans.

Hamilton and Jay were the heart of the Federalist party in the city and State. Both were typical New Yorkers of their time,—being of course the very highest examples of the type, for they were men of singularly noble and lofty character. Both were of mixed and non-English blood, Jay being of Huguenot and Hollander stock, and Hamilton of Scotch and French creole. Hamilton, born out of New York, was in some ways a more characteristic New Yorker than Jay; for New York, like the French Revolution, has always been pre-eminently a career open to talent. The distinguishing feature of the city has been its broad liberality; it throws the doors of every career wide open to all adopted citizens. Jay lacked Hamilton’s brilliant audacity and genius; but he possessed an austere purity and poise of character which his greater companion did not. He was twice elected governor of the State, serving from 1795 to 1801; indeed, he was really elected to the position in 1792, but was cheated out of it by most gross and flagrant election frauds, carried on in Clinton’s interest, and connived at by him. His popularity was only temporarily interrupted even by the storm of silly and unwarranted abuse with which New York City, like the rest of the country, greeted the successful treaty which he negotiated when special envoy to England in 1794.

Hamilton was, of course, the leader of his party. But his qualities, admirably though they fitted him for the giant tasks of constructive statesmanship with which he successfully grappled, did not qualify him for party leadership. He was too impatient and dictatorial, too heedless of the small arts and unwearied, intelligent industry of the party manager. In fighting for the adoption of the constitution he had been heartily supported by the great families,—the Livingstons, the Van Rensselaers, and his own kin by marriage, the Schuylers. Afterward he was made secretary of the treasury, and Jay chief-justice, while through his efforts Schuyler and Rufus King—a New York City man of New England origin—were made senators. Chancellor Robert R. Livingston was not an extreme believer in the ideas of Hamilton. He was also jealous of him, being a very ambitious man, and was offended at being, as he conceived, slighted in the distribution of the favors of the national administration. Accordingly, he deserted to the Republicans with all his very influential family following. This was the first big break in the Federalist ranks.

When Washington was inaugurated President he found that he had a number of appointments to make in New York. Almost all the men he thus appointed were members of the party that had urged the adoption of the constitution,—for Washington, though incapable of the bitter and unreasoning partisanship which puts party above the public welfare and morality, was much more of a party man than it has been the fashion to represent him, and during the final years of his life, in particular, was a strong Federalist. Clinton distributed the much larger and more important State patronage chiefly among his anti-Federalist adherents. As already explained, there was then no patronage at all in the hands of the local, that is, the county and city, authorities; for though an immense amount was given to the mayor, he was really a State official.

The parties were very evenly matched in New York City, no less than in the State at large, during the closing twelve years of the century,—the period of Federalist supremacy in the nation. The city was the pivotal part of the State, and the great fighting-ground. It was carried alternately by the Federalists and Democrats, again and again. Aaron Burr, polished, adroit, unscrupulous, was the most powerful of the city Democracy. He was elected to the United States Senate to succeed Schuyler, and was in turn himself succeeded by Schuyler. Hamilton grew to regard him with especial dislike and distrust, because of his soaring ambition, his cunning, and his lack of conscience. The Livingstons backed him ardently against the Federalists, and one of their number was elected and re-elected to Congress from the city. De Witt Clinton was also forging to the front, and was a candidate for State office from the city on more than one occasion, sharing in the defeats and victories of his party. Jay’s two successive victories, on the other hand, gave the Federalists the governorship of the State for six years. Under Hamilton’s lead they won in New York City rather more often than they lost. In 1799 they gained a complete victory, utterly defeating the Democratic ticket, which was headed by Burr; and the legislature thus chosen elected the Federalist Gouverneur Morris to the United States Senate. The newspapers reviled their opponents with the utmost bitterness, and often with ferocious scurrility. The leading Federalist editor in the city was the famous dictionary-maker, Noah Webster.

Party and personal feeling was intensely bitter all through these contests. Duels were frequent among the leaders, and riots not much less so among their followers. The mob turned out joyfully, on mischief bent, whenever there was any excuse for it; and the habit of holding open-air meetings, to denounce some particular person or measure, gave ample opportunity for outbreaks. At these meetings, speakers of the for-the-moment unpopular party were often rather roughly handled,—a proceeding which nowadays would be condemned by even the most heated partisans as against the rules of fair play. The anti-Federalists, at some of their public meetings, held to denounce the adoption of the constitution, or to break up the gatherings of those who supported it, got up regular riots against their opponents. At one of the meetings, held for the purpose of denouncing Jay’s treaty with England,—a treaty which was of great benefit to the country, and the best that could then have been negotiated,—Hamilton was himself maltreated.

At the approach of the Presidential election of 1800, Burr took the lead in organizing the forces of the Democracy. He was himself his party’s candidate for the Vice-Presidency; and he managed the campaign with consummate skill. As before, the city was the pivotal part of the State, while the State’s influence in the election at large proved to be decisive. The Democracy of the city was tending to divide into three factions. The Clintons were the natural leaders; but the Livingston family was very powerful, and was connected by marriage with such men as James Duane, a city politician of great weight, and Morgan Lewis, afterward governor; and both the Clintonians and Livingstons, jealous of one another, were united in distrust of Burr. Accordingly, the latter dexterously managed to get up a combination ticket containing the names of the most prominent members of each faction. This secured him against any disaffection. He then devoted himself to the work of organization. By his tact, address, and singular personal charm, he had gathered round him a devoted band of henchmen, mostly active and energetic young men. He made out complete lists of all the voters, and endeavored to find out how each group could be reached and influenced, and he told off every worker to the district where he could do most good. He was indefatigable in getting up ward meetings also. Hamilton fought him desperately, and with far greater eloquence, and he was on the right side; but Hamilton was a statesman rather than a politician. He had quarreled uselessly with some of the greatest men in his own party; and he could not devote his mind to the mastery of the petty political detail and intrigue in which Burr reveled. Burr won the day by a majority of five hundred votes. As so often since in this city, the statesman, the man of mark in the national arena, went down before the skilful ward-politician.

Thus the great Federalist party fell from power, not to regain it, save in local spasms here and there. It was a party of many faults,—above all the one unforgivable fault of distrusting the people,—but it was the party which founded our government, and ever most jealously cherished the national honor and integrity. New York City has never produced any other political leaders deserving to rank with the group of distinguished Federalists who came from within, or from just without, her borders. She has never since stood so high politically, either absolutely, or relatively to the rest of the country.