Constitution and Federalism I: 1786–1787
Farmers were hit particularly hard by the national economic crisis, although poverty was everywhere. The troubles came to a climax in 1786, when Daniel Shays of western Massachusetts led a revolt of farmers to protest the state's high taxes, which had been increased to unprecedented heights in order to pay back debts. Rumors quickly spread that an army of 15,000 troops was ready to march, but Shay's Rebellion, as it came to be known, was not nearly that large. Nevertheless, the uprising prompted many in the government to call for reform. Several states, including New York, agreed to meet in Annapolis, Maryland to discuss possible amendments to some areas of the Articles of Confederation. The conference was to be held in September of 1786.
Very few people took the conference seriously. Alexander Hamilton was one of five delegates chosen to represent New York at the conference, but not all of his colleagues even bothered to arrive. Without a majority of the states, it was impossible to amend the Articles. Those delegates who did arrive, however, refused to abandon their vision of reform. Led by Hamilton, they sent another request to the state governments requesting their presence at another convention to be held in Philadelphia in 1787. Unlike the Annapolis conference, the Philadelphia Convention would meet to revise the Articles entirely, not just certain areas.
Toward the end of 1786, Hamilton was elected to serve in the 1787 session of the New York State Assembly. As an Assemblyman, Hamilton worked with several issues. He continued to fight for the protection of loyalists against persecution and drafted proposals to solve the economic crisis, but his main goal was to convince the other legislators in the New York State Assembly to send a delegation to Philadelphia to amend the Articles of Confederation. Hamilton's proposal was met with bitter opposition from New York Governor George Clinton, who feared the power of a stronger national government. In the end, Hamilton achieved only a half-victory: the Assembly agreed to send a delegation to Philadelphia, but this delegation was made up of Hamilton and two Clinton supporters.
The Assembly's decision crippled Hamilton's influence at the convention. Hamilton's colleagues, Robert Yates and John Lansing, did not prevent Hamilton from making his own speeches at the convention, but refused to support him in other ways. After a month of debating, Hamilton left the convention and returned to New York because he felt the delegates were not doing as much as they should to strengthen the national government. Lansing and Yates returned to New York as well, although their concern was that the representatives in Philadelphia were amending the Articles of Confederation too much rather than too little. With his two main opponents out of the way, Hamilton rushed back to Philadelphia to assist his fellow delegates. Convention rules stated that one man alone could not cast a vote for his state, but Hamilton could still push the other delegates into creating a stronger national union.
In order to understand Hamilton's desire for a stronger central government, one must first understand Hamilton's personal political philosophy. Hamilton extracted many of his beliefs from the writings of David Hume, an eighteenth-century English philosopher who believed that society could only function if strong government institutions existed. Hamilton believed that government served three purposes: to foster commerce, agriculture, and revenue; to encourage "domestic tranquility and happiness"; and to be stable and strong enough to earn the respect of foreign governments. These ideas contrasted sharply with the prevalent philosophies of the time. Most Americans extracted their beliefs from philosophers like Locke and Montesquieu, who believed that government derived its authority from the people in order to protect personal property. Because Hamilton's philosophical views differed greatly from the rest of the delegates' beliefs, many at the convention regarded him as a radical. Furthermore, many saw Hamilton as an extremist because of his zealousness in advocating a strong national government.
By July of 1787, the delegates had divided themselves into two camps. Members of the first faction favored the New Jersey Plan to modify the existing Articles of Confederation, while those in the second camp preferred the Virginia Plan, which was to create a new national government altogether. Ironically, Hamilton's most famous speech was a five-hour long tirade against the dangers of the Virginia Plan–although he preferred it to the New Jersey one, Hamilton felt that even this plan did not create a strong enough government.
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