Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804)
A genuine American rags-to-riches story, Hamilton’s life began on the tiny island of Nevis, where he was born the illegitimate son of a Scottish merchant and an English-French Huguenot mother, and it ended with the largest funeral honoring a distinguished New Yorker ever held in that state. Brilliant, ambitious, and fortunate in his ability to find powerful mentors, Hamilton came to America just as the Revolutionary crisis was beginning. He quickly emerged as a leader of the independence movement in New York, and when war broke out, his skill as an artillery captain caught the attention of General George Washington, who invited the young officer to join his “family” as an aide-de-camp. Marriage to the daughter of one of New York’s leading landholders, combined with the devotion of Washington, secured Hamilton a place in the top echelons of society. But it was his genius and his legal talents as much as his charm and connections that made him welcome. A dedicated nationalist from the start, it was Hamilton who orchestrated the groundswell for a Constitutional Convention. Hampered by his state’s antinationalist delegation, he took a backseat to Madison and Morris at the convention but was critical in securing New York’s ratification afterward. He was an author, with James Madison and John Jay, of the influential Federalist Papers and was chosen to serve as the nation’s first secretary of the treasury. It was his plans for fiscal responsibility—including funding the debt and the creation of the Bank of the United States—that set the country on the path of remarkable economic growth. Hamilton’s support for a commercial and industrial economy clashed with Jefferson and Madison’s vision of a primarily agrarian society, and as the Jeffersonian party gained power, Hamilton confined his influence to New York. In 1804, at the age of forty-nine, Hamilton was killed in a duel with longtime political enemy, Aaron Burr. At his funeral New York City’s financial, political, and educational leaders as well as former Continental army officers joined scores of other mourners honoring a man they considered the driving force behind a strong new nation.
John Lansing Jr. (1754–1829)
Born in Albany, New York, this wealthy landowner and lawyer served as military secretary to General Philip Schuyler during the Revolutionary War. When his military service ended, Lansing turned to politics and served six terms in the New York assembly, eventually becoming the speaker of that assembly. For two years he was a delegate to the Confederation Congress before leaving that body to serve as Albany’s mayor from 1786 to 1790. A staunch supporter of Governor George Clinton, to whom he owed much of his political success, Lansing went to the Philadelphia convention suspicious that it might go beyond simply amending the Articles of Confederation and concerned that it might produce a challenge to New York’s autonomy. After only six weeks, both Lansing and fellow Clinton supporter, Robert Yates, left the convention in protest against its obvious intention to consolidate the United States under one powerful central government. At the New York ratifying convention, Lansing was a vocal opponent of the Constitution. After ratification Lansing confined his political career to his home state, serving for eleven years on the supreme court of New York and from 1798 to 1801 as its chief justice. From 1801 to 1814 Lansing served as chancellor of the state, and in 1817 he became a regent of the University of the State of New York. He died mysteriously, disappearing without a trace during a visit to New York City.
Robert Yates (1738–1801)
A native of Schenectady, New York, Yates was a well-educated lawyer considered by many to be a vain and pompous man. After admission to the bar, Yates moved to Albany, where he became immediately involved in local politics. A strong supporter of independence, he served on the Albany Committee of Safety and in the provincial congress. He played a key role in drafting the first constitution for New York State. By 1777 Yates was a member of the New York Supreme Court and presided over the court as chief justice throughout the 1790s. A determined opponent of the Constitution, Yates left the Philadelphia convention in protest. With his fellow delegate John Lansing Jr. he wrote a joint letter to Governor Clinton that detailed the dangers of a centralized government and the illegitimacy of the Constitutional Convention. He worked vigorously against ratification when the state convention met, writing a series of letters, signed “Brutus” and “Sydney,” that criticized the Constitution. Like Madison and Hamilton, Yates took personal notes at the convention, and in 1821 these were published as the Secret Proceedings and Debates of the Convention Assembled…for the Purpose of Forming the Constitution of the United States.
The delegate biographies are excerpted with the generous permission of Carol Berkin, author of A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution (Harcourt). Copyright © 2002 by Carol Berkin.