“The Poughkeepsie Convention”
The problem of factions began in America at noon on June 17, 1788, about a hundred miles up the Hudson River from Manhattan in Poughkeepsie, New York. On that day, a group of men convened in Poughkeepsie’s two-story stone courthouse for a debate. The topic of their debate came down to a single question: What should we do about the new Constitution?
The meeting was called to order by big-shot New York governor George Clinton, who had been voted unanimously to chair the proceedings. Clinton was an Anti-Federalist. He and the other "Antis," as they were called, opposed the recently drafted Constitution. New York was an Anti stronghold, and they held the majority at the Poughkeepsie Convention. Their opposition, the smaller of the two factions, were in favor of the Constitution. They were known as the Federalists.
The leader of the Federalists was a young political upstart by the name of Alexander Hamilton. Though he was just thirty-one, Hamilton had already made a name for himself in New York. He got his start as George Washington’s go-to aid during the Revolution and had used that as a platform to launch his political career. Though Clinton may have enjoyed an advantage in numbers, Hamilton presence among the opposition unnerved him. Hamilton was a charismatic and compelling orator, the kind of speaker who could turn his side from a minority to a majority.
As soon as the convention got underway, Clinton’s first order of business was to lay down the ground rules. Hamilton spoke up immediately. He invoked a technical provision which said that the proposed Constitution had to be debated clause by clause, instead of everything all at once. It was an ingenious move. When it came to close-reading a text, no one could match Hamilton. His plan was to draw out the debate and postpone the general vote until news came in from New Hampshire or Virginia. If they ratified, surely it would force New York to do so as well.
The Constitution had been drafted in September of the previous year by a committee of delegates representing each state. Since America had declared Independence in 1776, the nation’s government had been operating under The Articles of Confederation, a working document put together by the Second Continental Congress. The Articles were intended to get the American enterprise going, not sustain it long term. That’s where the new Constitution came in. This was the document which would outline how government operates in America. Delaware was the first state to ratify, in December 1787, with a vote of 30-0. Pennsylvania showed more reservation, but nonetheless agreed to ratify 46-23. New Jersey and Georgia ratified next, both with unanimous votes. Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, and South Carolina followed from there. The Constitution needed a two thirds majority to pass. The next state to ratify would make that majority.
The news from New Hampshire arrived in Poughkeepsie on June 24. Their delegates had voted to ratify. Upon hearing this, Hamilton and the Federalists began to celebrate. This was exactly what they had hoped would happen. But when the buzz subsided they found that news had done little to sway the Antis.
“Let them make the experiment,” responded John Lansing, a prominent Anti. The Constitution had the majority it needed to be put into effect. But that didn’t mean New York also had to go all in on the gamble the other states were making. When the Antis still refused to budge after hearing about New Hampshire, Hamilton wrote to James Madison, a Federalist in Virginia, that “our only chance of success depends on you.” Virginia was the most powerful of the thirteen states, and their decision could make all the difference in New York. Early in the afternoon on July 2, a courier interrupted a speech by Governor Clinton to deliver the news from Richmond that Virginia had also voted to ratify. The Federalists let out a cheer. But Hamilton and his side again discovered that this news didn’t sway Governor Clinton and the Antis anymore than the news about New Hampshire. New York, it seemed, was determined to reject the Constitution.
The debate in New York over the proposed Constitution began long before the Poughkeepsie Convention. On September 27, 1787, only ten days after the Constitution had been drafted, Governor Clinton published an essay in the New-York Journal, under the pen name Cato, arguing for his Anti position. It was the first of many essays published in New York, written by a handful of different authors, that would become known as the Anti-Federalist Papers. These essays, in turn, elicited a series of responses from Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, writing collectively under the pen name Publius. We know these essays today as the Federalist Papers, the most famous of which is Federalist No. 10 by James Madison.
Madison’s No. 10 deals with the problem of factions. How, asks Madison, do you build a government that brings together different groups who want different things? It’s a question about how to make the government accurately represent the people when “the people” don’t hold a uniform opinion. Madison writes, “There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: The one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects." In terms of the first strategy, Madison argues that there are two ways to get rid of the causes of factions. “The one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests." The first one raises obvious concerns. The whole point of establishing a new nation was to further individual liberty, so restricting that liberty in order to suppress the formation of factions doesn’t make any sense. But the second option doesn’t work either. It’s impossible for any decently large group of people not to develop a variety of opinions. Humans can’t help but form factions when they are faced with a society that offers them the freedom to do so. That means that if we can’t stop the causes of factions, we have deal with their effects. That, in Madison’s view, is the whole point of the Constitution. The document is an outline of e pluribus unum—a game plan for how to make one out of many.
The debate in Poughkeepsie centered around precisely how to deal with the effects of factions. The Antis argued that the best way to do it was not at all. They reasoned that in order to make a republic work, you must allow small, like-minded communities to self-govern. This avoids intergroup conflict and circumvents the problem altogether. The Federalists disagreed. The purpose of the United States was to unite the states, not just to maintain a loosely affiliated collection of provinces. The Federalists argued that such heterogeneity was, in fact, a source of strength. They believed that if you got the system right—the right government and the right Constitution—then not only could you mitigate the effects of factions but you could benefit from them as well.
But there’s something strange about the way Madison and his contemporaries thought about factions. The groups that Madison had in mind ranged from Massachusetts in the north to Carolina in the south, the citizens of which came almost exclusively from the same Anglo-Saxon stock. These groups all shared a language, an ethnic background, a religion, and a memory of the Revolution. And, of course, Madison, along with everyone else, failed to consider slaves, Native Americans, or even women as legitimate members of these factions. In short, what Madison thought of as a faction would today be considered a homogenous group.
On July 26, after weeks of debate and deliberation, Governor Clinton held a vote in Poughkeepsie. It was time to decide. Would New York be a part of the new Union or not? Ultimately, the New York delegates voted 30 to 27 in favor of ratification. Hamilton and the Federalists had won. Rhode Island and North Carolina soon followed, and the thirteen states became united in the sense that we now think of them today.
In many ways, the vote that took place in Poughkeepsie set the precedent for how we deal with differing points of view in America. The verdict of the Poughkeepsie Convention approved a plan for how the American government would work, sure, but it also affirmed Madison’s philosophy about factions. We have to find a way to deal with their effects, because we can’t justly eliminate their causes. But the delegates made a big assumption about how that would work. Simply put, they assumed that it’s easy to understand someone who has a different point of view. They took it as a given that someone from one faction could understand the perspective of a person from another, even if they didn’t agree. That may have been a reasonable assumption in 1788, for a country made up of factions with a largely similar background. But in 21st century America that’s not something that we can take as a given. The differences between our factions have become more pronounced, but our ability to understand the perspectives across those divides has not. It’s no longer enough to chalk it up to putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. If it were that easy, we’d be a lot better at it. We have to go deeper and talk about the mechanics of what it actually means to understand people from other factions.
In this book, I want to talk mechanics.