Alexander Hamilton was instrumental
in the call for, proceedings of,
and ratification of the U.S. Constitution.
Alexander Hamilton was:
- “Father of the Constitutional Convention” in Philadelphia
- Member of the two critical constitutional convention committees
- Influential in moving delegates to embrace a new constitution
- “Father of the Federalist Papers” for ratification of the U.S. Constitution
- “Father of the living U.S. Constitution”
On September 11, 1786, twelve delegates from five states met at Mann’s Tavern in Annapolis, Maryland for the Annapolis Convention. This convention was called for the purpose of resolving commercial issues between the states. During the Annapolis Convention, however, it became clear that there were overriding federal government impediments that required action as a precondition to resolving commercial issues.
Alexander Hamilton rallied the attendees to take bold action and hold another convention to address the deficiencies of the Articles of Confederation. Hamilton wrote the call on September 14th for a federal convention - what has come to be known as the Constitutional Convention - to convene in May of 1787 in Philadelphia to be attended by all the states. He obtained a unanimous vote among the attending delegates. [Read: The Annapolis Resolution]
George Washington named Alexander Hamilton to the committee that often determines the ultimate success of a convention – the Committee on Standing Orders and Rules. The other two members were Chancellor George Wythe of Virginia and Charles Pinckney of South Carolina. One of the key rules: the discussions and proceedings would remain secret during and after the convention so that delegates would be free to offer a variety of ideas and to change their positions if convinced by other’s arguments.
At the end of the convention, a committee had to collect all the various elements of the four month convention and construct the final constitutional document. The Committee of Style and Arrangement was comprised of five delegates – Alexander Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris, Rufus King, James Madison, and William Samuel Johnson. This committee was responsible for constructing the text of the U.S. Constitution that we read today.
Many, if not most, of the attending delegates were originally expecting to make a few improvements to the Articles of Confederation (the national governing document ratified by the states six years earlier in 1781). A few, like Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, were determined to replace it with document that gave a much more substantial role to the national government.
Two main proposed formulations of a constitution emerged. The New Jersey Plan was but a set of minor modifications to the existing Articles of Confederation. The Virginia Plan was a complete replacement for the Articles of Confederation. After weeks of discussion and debate, an official vote was called to decide whether the Virginia Plan would be used as a basis for the future Constitution. The weekend before this vote was to occur, seven or eight state delegations were leaning against the Virginia Plan.
The day before the vote (June 18, 1787), Washington was to determine who would receive the floor for presentations during the 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. time slot. Washington allocated the whole day to Alexander Hamilton to present his views. Hamilton's speech had a major effect in shifting the thought from retaining much of the Articles of Confederation (as advocated by the New Jersey plan) toward a belief that a more prominent nation-based constitution was necessary - thereby strengthening the vote for the Virginia Plan. The vote after Alexander Hamilton’s five-hour presentation? Six states to five in favor of the Virginia Plan, which shaped much of the discussion in arriving at the resulting constitution three months later!
After the Constitutional Convention, there were numerous groups that were determined that the proposed new constitution should not be successfully ratified by the states. Since the proceedings were in secret, some in opposition felt free to create a misrepresentation of what actually occurred. They were quite successful in turning large numbers of people against the proposed constitution. Alexander Hamilton decided to produce a number of printed essays that would explain the need for such a new constitution. In October 1787, he outlined the themes for these articles as he was traveling down the Hudson River from Albany, NY toward Manhattan.
These essays are now referred to as the “Federalist Papers”. The actual title was “The Federalist: A Collection of Essays Written in Favor of the New Constitution”. He obtained two other authors to assist in writing sections of the outline. Almost every week a new essay would be published. They were later grouped into two volumes and shipped throughout the states, but largely focused on the two main large states - New York and Virginia - that had strong leadership who were opposed to the ratification. These essays were invaluable in educating the public of the true purpose and value of the new constitution.
They also helped facilitate discussion during the state ratification conventions. Virginia went in to their state convention with delegates tied at 84-84. The end result of the convention was Virginia's ratification – the final vote was 89 for and 79 against. Delegates in New York, where Hamilton led in support of the constitution, came into the state ratification convention with 46 against ratification and only 19 for ratification. After six weeks, and against all odds, New York ratified the U.S. Constitution on July 26, 1788 with a vote of 30 for ratification and 27 against.
In addition to its importance during the 1780s, the “Federalist Papers” have maintained a meaningful significance in successive generations. They are now the leading voice of the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution in the U.S. Supreme Court case proceedings and in U.S. history textbooks.
It is one thing to define words in a constitutional document; quite another to determine how it should be used in practice. Many fierce political battles were waged about the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution’s intent. For example, a reading of Article II, the Executive Branch, includes very little about the implementation of the Executive Branch and how the Presidency would operate. Hamilton’s influence made the Executive Branch a robust part of the government.
Many thought that the Legislative Branch would be by far the most dominant part of the government. As a result, a number of government leaders felt that Hamilton overstepped the intent of the Constitution. One group argued for “Defined Powers” (only what is specifically listed in the document) and Hamilton embraced “Implied Powers”. He argued that the U.S. Constitution gave a limited scope of responsibilities to the Executive Branch, but that all power should be available to accomplish those set of responsibilities. Hamilton was the leading proponent that influenced how the U.S. Constitution was actually implemented for the three branches of government.
The U.S. Constitution, thanks to Alexander Hamilton
By Rand Scholet
Founder of The Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society