Violence and the Ratification of the U.S. Constitution in New York City

By Mark Boonshoft

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Happy Constitution Day! 228 years ago today, September 17, 1787, the Constitutional Convention adjourned. With the new Constitution completed, the framers went to dinner at City Tavern before heading their separate ways and returning to their home states.

I confess that it was only in the last few years that I realized “Constitution Day” was something people celebrated. Apparently the holiday originated all the way back in… 2004. Nowadays many college campuses host lectures and programing on the founding period every September 17th. My alma mater celebrates with constitutional trivia and cupcake-decorating. Secondary schools that receive federal funding are required to hold civic programs to commemorate the occasion. On some level, this is all well and good. As a historian, I am happy to see this history get attention. But choosing to celebrate on September 17th reinforces a very particular narrative of the Constitution’s origins and the nature of American political traditions.

The framers’ work in Philadelphia may have ended on that day, but the real debate had only just begun. The states had to decide whether to ratify the document. From the fall of 1787 through the summer of 1788, this question consumed New York’s attention. The “city” was firmly in favor — all nineteen Federalist delegates came from the uniformly-Federalist counties of New York (Manhattan), Richmond (Staten Island), Kings (Brooklyn), and Westchester. But when the state’s ratification convention opened in Poughkeepsie in April 1788, Anti-Federalists outnumbered Federalists forty-six to nineteen. In the end, the convention voted thirty to twenty-seven in favor of the Constitution. Yet, even in the city, where support was overwhelming, ratification at times turned violent. This violence shaped how New Yorkers understood ratification and how they would remember the very founding of the United States.[1]

For the Constitution to have the desired effect of “creat[ing] a more perfect union,” Federalists reasoned, it would have to foster unity. Supporters of the proposed frame of government therefore saw their first task as generating enthusiasm among the public. This was a problem of their own making. The few dozen delegates who crafted the Constitution agreed to meet in secret. The public had no information about the debates at the Convention in Philadelphia.

Between September of 1787 and July of 1788 debates raged in the New York newspapers and in pamphlets. The scale of the debate is hard to understate. The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution is an effort to compile, edit, and publish all the newspaper articles, correspondence, and notes on convention debates related to ratification. The editors produced five volumes on New York State, amounting to over 2,500 pages, as well as a microfilm supplement.

On June 25, 1788, Virginia voted to ratify the Constitution. It was the tenth state to do so, when only nine were needed to bring the Constitution into operation. This reality changed the nature of the debate in New York for obvious reasons. Federalists ceased trying to make a case for the Constitution. Rather, they acted as though the case had already been made. Never mind that New York had still not ratified.

In New York City, Federalist attempts to create a consensus — or at least the appearance of a consensus — around the document culminated before the New York Ratification Convention in Poughkeepsie even came to an end. On July 23rd 1788 they held a “grand federal procession” in support of the Constitution, which seemed intended to give the impression of unanimity. New Yorkers of various occupations carried banners expressing their trades’ support for the Constitution. Reports claimed a turnout of 5,000.

David Grim, Federal Banquet Pavilion in 1788, New York City, after 1788. Watercolor, graphite, and black ink on paper folded several times. (Image: New-York Historical Society Museum.) On July 23, 1788, more than 5,000 people marched in a procession to celebrate the ratification of the Constitution by ten states. New York had not yet ratified. When the marchers reached Nicholas Bayard's farm (now between Bowery and Broadway), they were escorted to ten dining tables, each representing a ratifying state. The tables were each 440 feet long.

David Grim, Federal Banquet Pavilion in 1788, New York City, after 1788. Watercolor, graphite, and black ink on paper folded several times. (Image: New-York Historical Society Museum.) On July 23, 1788, more than 5,000 people marched in a procession to celebrate the ratification of the Constitution by ten states. New York had not yet ratified. When the marchers reached Nicholas Bayard's farm (now between Bowery and Broadway), they were escorted to ten dining tables, each representing a ratifying state. The tables were each 440 feet long.

Thomas Greenleaf, the sole printer in the City with Anti-Federalist sensibilities, published the first account of the procession on the very next day. By and large, he was complimentary. Yet, at the same time, Greenleaf tried to dispel the aura of unity. “The poor antis,” he noted, “generally minded their own business at home; others, who were spectators at an awful distance, look as sour as the Devil.” Greenleaf also took the opportunity to poke fun at some of the revelers. The local potters — who evidently ran into some trouble with their sign — bore the brunt of his sarcasm. Greenlef wrote that “insomuch that the poor Potters were separated from their clay, and no longer had power over it; the stage fell and, alas, the clay became exposed to the power of every passer-by.”[2] But these gibes, apparently, had no effect on the outcome. Two days later, on July 26th, the state Convention voted to adopt the Constitution.

Though victorious, the Federalists were not satisfied. When Greenleaf returned home that night, he “was informed that the house had been repeatedly insulted during my absence by the firing of guns, into it, and the exclamations of the most abusive nature.” Greenleaf armed himself before going to bed, and woke up later to “a violent knocking at the door”: a mob that eventually tried to break into his family’s house. Greenleaf opened fire with his two pistols, and then snuck out the back door with his family as the mob broke in and “plundered of a quantity of types, leaving the office in a ruinous condition.”[3]

This was not the first time the ratification “debate” (to use the common, though somewhat misleading, term) devolved into violence.[4] On July 4th, Anti-Federalists and Federalists in Albany held competing public events that resulted in outright battle in the streets; contemporaries euphemistically described it as a “fracas.”

Indeed, the threat of violence and coercion lurked beneath the surface during the entire ratification controversy in New York. On multiple occasions, delegates from the metropolitan area intimated that if the rest of the state did not fall in line behind the Constitution, the southern counties might secede from New York and join the new federal union as a separate state.[5] Or the southern counties might attempt to violently coerce Anti-Federalist holdouts in the north. The threat of violence was real enough to Dewitt Clinton (then simply the nephew of George Clinton, the Governor and leading Anti-Federalist in the state) that he noted in his diary, “Antis have more military men than the feds. in this state.”[6]

Constitution of the State of New York, p. 31. Fishkill [N.Y.]: Printed by Samuel Loudon, 1777. (Courtesy: New-York Historical Society Library)  The constitution New York adopted months before the states' national Convention provided for a two-part legislature, a governor, and a supreme court. Veto power over legislation was vested in a council of revision consisting of the governor, the chancellor, and three justices of the supreme court. When James Madison conceived of the new Constitution for the United States in 1787, New York's was a model for him.

Constitution of the State of New York, p. 31. Fishkill [N.Y.]: Printed by Samuel Loudon, 1777. (Courtesy: New-York Historical Society Library)

The constitution New York adopted months before the states' national Convention provided for a two-part legislature, a governor, and a supreme court. Veto power over legislation was vested in a council of revision consisting of the governor, the chancellor, and three justices of the supreme court. When James Madison conceived of the new Constitution for the United States in 1787, New York's was a model for him.

If Greenleaf was correct, Federalists succeeded to a certain extent in suppressing opposition voices, which now fit uncomfortably in popular memory of “the” founding generation. Before the ratification debates began, Greenleaf published the New York Journal weekly. In order to keep up with developments, he announced that he would begin publishing daily, which he did for the duration of the ratification controversy. In his first issue after the attack on his press, though, he informed readers that he would return to publishing on a weekly basis.[8] The Journal was in bad shape. Greenleaf lost sixty subscribers in the ten months since the ratification controversy began; eight in the weeks following the attack on his shop. Defiantly, he proclaimed that the paper still had an extensive circulation “notwithstanding the ill-natured assertions of those who act from the uncivil principles of — ‘He is going down hill, give him a kick.’”[9]

The Federalists did not silence Greenleaf. But if their goal was to create a sense of consensus around the “American union” and its new Constitution, they certainly succeeded in limiting the power of the most important oppositional voice in New York City. And though the fight against the adoption of the Constitution had ended, the fight over the implementation and meaning of the Constitution had only just begun. Ultimately, the Anti-Federalists disappeared as coherent political group during the 1790s. But their views were absorbed into a larger “loyal opposition.” Instead of seeking to overthrow the new Constitutional system, erstwhile Anti-Federalists attempted to work within that system, to police its boundaries.

"Publius" (James Madison), The Federalist No. 10, New-York Journal. These 85 essays appeared first in the newspapers of New York City, and then other states, as part of the ratification debate. (Image: New-York Historical Society)

"Publius" (James Madison), The Federalist No. 10, New-York Journal. These 85 essays appeared first in the newspapers of New York City, and then other states, as part of the ratification debate. (Image: New-York Historical Society)

In Greenleaf’s case, the mob was ostensibly outraged by his depiction of the potters. Yet the same night they attacked his print shop, they attacked other Anti-Federalists, too, including John Lamb, a leading Son of Liberty and former general in the Revolutionary War. Greenleaf believed that his snide remarks were hardly to blame. Rather, “The Editor conceives,” they intended “to ruin him with the public, and thereby destroy the usefulness of his paper as a free and impartial one.” Greenleaf felt the local Federalist majority targeted him for publishing the views of “all parties,” which included Anti-Federalists. He tried to portray his conduct as above party, claiming that airing a variety of opinions was a printer’s duty “in a republican country.” The mob’s action was thus a partisan attack on “the FREEDOM of the PRESS,” which “has hitherto been conceived the ‘PALLADIUEM of LIBERTY.’”[7]

We commonly see the ratification controversy as a war of words, a signal moment in the rise of deliberative, democratic politics in the United States, if not the world. In this way, the political conflict over the Constitution was evidence of a larger agreement: the acceptance of “democratic” political traditions. According to this narrative, people like Alexander Hamilton — one of the author’s of “The Federalist” essays — simply won the political contest. Greenleaf’s story reminds us that it was not that simple. During the struggle to ratify the Constitution, rhetorical violence was often backed up with physical violence, and the war of words threatened to devolve into actual war.

Focusing on September 17th avoids Greenleaf’s story and many others like it from the ratification period. It also obscures the conflict and violence (e.g. Shays’ Rebellion) that had impelled the framers to go to Philadelphia and write a new Constitution in the first place. Try as we might to pretend otherwise, violence was a major factor in the American founding. On this Constitution Day we should reflect on what that means for our own civic identity.


Mark Boonshoft is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at The New York Public Library. You can learn more about his work here.


[1] Kenneth Owen has also written about ratification-era violence and historical memory of the Constitution; See “Happy Constitution Day?”, The Committee of Observation and Inspection (www.observationandinspection.wordpress.com/), Sept. 17, 2012.

[2] New-York Journal, July 24, 1788 .

[3] New-York Journal, August 7, 1788.

[4] The most famous example of political violence during ratification occurred outside of New York, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania; see Saul Cornell, “Aristocracy Assailed: The Ideology of Backcountry Anti-Federalism,” Journal of American History 76, no. 4 (March 1990): 1148–72.

[5] Pauline Maier, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010), 343, 381.

[6] DeWitt Clinton, Journal Entry, July 19, 1788, in Merrill Jensen and John P. Kaminski, eds., The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution (Madison, WI: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 1976-), Vol. 23: 2252–3.

[7] New-York Journal, August 7, 1788.

[8] New-York Journal, July 31, 1788.

[9] New-York Journal, August 21, 1788.

[10] Isaac Q. Leake, Memoir of the Life and Times of General John Lamb, an Officer of the Revolution, Who Commanded the Post at West Point at the Time of Arnold’s Defection, and His Correspondence with Washington, Clinton, Patrick Henry, and Other Distinguished Men of His Time (Albany, N.Y.: J. Munsell, 1850), 331, 336.

New York Convention, 1788 Circular Letter, Draft in John Jay's hand [Poughkeepsie, N.Y., July 26, 1788]. (New-York Historical Society Library, Department of Manuscripts, McKesson Papers.) When the New York State Convention voted 30 to 25 to ratify the Constitution, it also voted unanimously to prepare a circular letter to the other states, asking them to support a second general convention to consider amendments to the document. This draft letter was reported by John Jay, in his handwriting, with revisions by Alexander Hamilton and John Lansing Jr. The circular was printed in seven New York newspapers and in more than 30 newspapers in other states.

New York Convention, 1788 Circular Letter, Draft in John Jay's hand [Poughkeepsie, N.Y., July 26, 1788]. (New-York Historical Society Library, Department of Manuscripts, McKesson Papers.) When the New York State Convention voted 30 to 25 to ratify the Constitution, it also voted unanimously to prepare a circular letter to the other states, asking them to support a second general convention to consider amendments to the document. This draft letter was reported by John Jay, in his handwriting, with revisions by Alexander Hamilton and John Lansing Jr. The circular was printed in seven New York newspapers and in more than 30 newspapers in other states.

Though outright opposition to the Constitution quickly faded, memories of ratification-era violence died hard. In a biography of John Lamb, one of his descendants, Isaac Leake, recounted how “The Violence with which each party urged its arguments” during the ratification controversy “gave rise to numerous quarrels and contentions.” The “Albany fracas,” the attack on Lamb, and especially the sacking of Greenleaf’s print shop, loomed large in Leake’s account of ratification in New York. Yet recognizing how problematic this narrative was, Leake concluded by saying that “This was the only tumult which occurred on the final adoption of the Constitution, and the great and important change in the government of a nation, was quietly effected.”[10]

In other words, Leake tried to paint a picture of consensus. Writing in 1850, the political implications of differing understandings of the Union had enormous importance in the increasingly dis-United States. Then, as ever, how Americans understood the adoption of the Constitution stood in for how they conceived of the nation writ large.