Historical Markers
William Maclay Historical Marker
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William Maclay

Hershey/Gettysburg/Dutch Country Region


Marker Location:
Riverfront Park, Front and South Sts., Harrisburg

Dedication Date:
September 23, 1946

Behind the Marker

The United States Constitution leaves many important matters vague. What, for instance, does it mean for the President to make treaties "with the advice and consent of the Senate?" On August 22, 1789, George Washington took a common-sense approach when he entered the United States Senate and began to explain the nature of treaty provisions negotiated with Indians along the nation's border with Spanish Florida. The Senators, however, insisted on reading and debating the treaty at length, which so infuriated Washington that ever since, the President and his diplomatic representatives have negotiated treaties and then laid them before the Senate for their approval.
Color photograph of the mansion.
Maclay Mansion, North Front and South Streets, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

No member of our nation's first Senate was more critical of what he saw as this unwarranted expansion of executive power than Pennsylvania's William Maclay. "My mind revolts, in many instances, against the Constitution of the United States," he wrote. "Indeed, I am afraid it will turn out the vilest of all traps that ever was set to ensnare the freedom of an unsuspecting people. Treaties formed by the Executive of the United States are to be the law of the land. To cloak the Executive with legislative authority is setting aside our modern and much-boasted distribution of power into legislative, judicial, and executive - discoveries unknown to Locke and Montesquieu, and all the ancient writers. It certainly contradicts all the modern theory of government, and in practice must be tyranny."

One of the first two United States Senators from Pennsylvania, Maclay was a staunch critic of the Federalist Party. Consistently on the losing side of Senate votes, he was not the most successful legislator, but his Congressional journal offers some remarkable insights into the partisan struggles that emerged between the Federalists and their Democratic-Republican opposition during the first Congress under new federal constitution.
Page from Journal of William Maclay, April 30, 1789, [original journal].
Page from Journal of William Maclay, April 30, 1789.

Born to Irish parents on July 20, 1737, at New Garden, Chester County, Maclay had been a soldier, lawyer, surveyor, state legislator, and judge before drawing the short two-year term established in the first Congress to stagger the election of Senators every six years in the future. Although he had supported the Constitution in 1787 and favored amending Pennsylvania's 1776 state Constitution, Maclay was one of the first - along with James Madison - to turn against the new national government. Maclay had become convinced that President Washington's administration was unconstitutionally extending the executive power, and increasing the power of the national government at the expense of the states.
Oil on canvas of Senator William Maclay.
Pennsylvania's first United States Senator

Maclay's journal reflects his deep fear of the all-consuming power of the executive branch. In his view, many Federalists were bent on "giving the President as far as possible every appendage of royalty." Some even held that "the President, personally, was not the subject to any process whatever; could have no action whatever brought against him" save impeachment. "Well, what if a President committed a murder, and then committed new ones daily?" Maclay once asked on the floor of the senate. Vice President John Adams rebuffed him, responding that "crowned heads had never committed murder." "Very true," Maclay admitted sarcastically, "Charles IX of France [who had authorized the Massacre of French Protestants in 1574] excepted. They generally do these things on a greater scale."

Maclay led those who opposed President Washington's presence in the senate during its proceedings, consistently assailed the policies of his administration, and rejected the pomp and ceremony that both the president and Congress observed when they met.

Maclay also vehemently opposed Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton's plan for paying off the national and state debts to speculators at face value, rather than to those who originally acquired it for approximately what their bills had been worth at the time. In mid-January 1790, he wrote that Hamilton "recommends indiscriminate funding, and, in the style of a British minister, has sent down his bill."Tis said a committee of speculators in certificates could not have formed it more for their advantage." "[I]t appears," he added, "that a system of speculation for the engrossing of certificates has been carrying on for some time" and that "the members of Congress are deeper in this business than any others."

Nor was Maclay impressed with federal assumption of state debts. Aside from redistributing wealth from the general public to bondholders, and between different classes of bondholders, Maclay believed that assumption would only serve to "hasten the reduction of the State governments." Those who supported Hamilton's assumption plan, he argued, "scarcely disguise their design, which is to create a mass of debts which will justify them in seizing all the sources of Government, thus annihilating the State Legislatures and creating an empire on the basis of consolidation."

Pennsylvania was still heavily Federalist in 1791 when Maclay's Senate term expired, and he was not re-elected. He did, however, return to the Pennsylvania state legislature in 1795 and 1803, where he sponsored a host of bills designed to bring roads and bridges to the western parts of the state. Like Governor markerThomas McKean and many other Pennsylvania Democratic-Republicans who opposed the Federalists, he had no objection to the exercise of vigorous state power to further economic development. William Maclay died in 1811, the year in which the Commonwealth realized his dream of making Harrisburg the state capital.
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