A Biography of Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804)

The war of words: ratifying Convention (Summer 1788)

Less than three weeks after Hamilton pounded out the last number of the Federalist, he attended the New York ratifying convention in Poughkeepsie. The pro-constitution, or Federalist, attendees were outnumbered two to one by Clinton's minions, indicating that Publius was largely ineffective in turning the political tide in New York. In truth, the Federalist essays were considered too high-brow for the common reader. Considering their density and detail, it is hard to imagine that many people rushed to the newsstand for the next Federalist installment. People were less interested in reading scientific political analyses than measuring the immediate impact of change on their lives, and the latter was emphasized by the Antifederalist press. Hamilton noted this in a letter to Madison in May of 1788:
"As Clinton is truly the leader of his party, and is inflexibly obstinate I count little on overcoming opposition by reason."
Locking horns with the Clinton faction at the convention, Hamilton rehashed those arguments he had just recently put forth in the Federalist: the "evils" of state autonomy, the benefits of union, the importance of national reputation, the basic principles and goals of the federal constitution. John Lansing pulled out his notes on Hamilton's speeches from the Philadelphia convention, and accused Hamilton of advocating the destruction of the states by reducing them to "mere corporations." Hamilton, after rebuking Lansing for the indiscretion of airing confidential material, wielded a familiar argument. He pointed out that "corporation" is an indefinite term not indicative of levels of power. He then adopted his finest courtroom panache, and cleverly cross-examined his opponent into refuting his own assertions.

A newspaper account of one of Hamilton's speeches in the ratifying convention gives great insight into his style as an orator:

"He described in a delicate but most affecting manner the various ungenerous attempts to prejudice the minds of the convention against him. ...He called on the world to point out an instance in which he had ever deviated from the line of public or private duty. The pathetic appeal fixed the silent sympathetic gaze of the spectators, and made them all his own."
Keenly aware of his own personal appeal and having no compunction about using it, Hamilton drew the audience into the man as well as the message. That is what made Hamilton's power of persuasion so effectual, himself so attractive, even in so thoroughly hostile an environment as the ratifying convention.

Hamilton's political and courtroom oratory were nothing short of drama. Acknowledged as a master of both elements of presentation, Hamilton perfectly synthesized them; but he never substituted style for substance. James Kent, a fellow New York lawyer, described Hamilton's superiority in the courtroom:

"the mighty mind of Hamilton would at times bear down all opposition by its comprehensive grasp and the strength of his reasoning powers."
Regardless of Hamilton's Herculean efforts of oratory, New York held out until the bitter end, stalling with proposals for amendments and conditional acceptances. As Hamilton had predicted early on, it was only when Virginia ratified that the New York resistance began to crack. On July 27, 1788, the state of New York ratified the constitution and joined the United States.

Hamilton's contributions to the future of state and country did not go unacknowledged. On July 23 New York City held an Independence Day parade whose main attraction was a float in the shape of a ship. Named after the state's favorite son the "Good Ship Hamilton" was met with the proud cheers of onlookers. Hamilton had reached the zenith of his political celebrity. The public would not gather to honor him again until his funeral procession almost precisely sixteen years later.