There is a tendency, when dealing with public men of the past, to throw a glamour around their memory, and, by a systematic perversion or ignoring of facts, to lead present generations to regard them as little less than deities. The signers of the Declaration of Independence, the framers of our Constitution, and all who in any way were involved in the inception of this nation, are venerated with a childlike awe, rendering us oblivious to the motives which led to those occurences or to the pressure of circumstances which induced many to take the course they did. The journal of William Maclay, beginning with the 24th of April, 1789, and ending on the 3d of March, 1791, gives a graphic description of the debates, ceremonies, and social life of that important period of our national existence. Some hesitancy has been felt in giving an unreserved publication of this journal to the world, owing to the severity of the criticisms made on prominent personages, which in a large degree serve to dispel the roseate illusions in reference to men of that day. It should be kept in mind, however, that the journal was strictly private in its nature, intended merely for personal reference, and that the thought of its publication seems never to have entered the mind of its author, else he undoubtedly would have smoothed over many phrases and erased entire passages, as being too forcible for public expression.


But in just this circumstance lies the great value of the work. William Maclay wrote every evening of events which took place during the day. He wrote while his mind was yet heated with the fierce debates in the Senate, and while the scenes were yet fresh in his memory, thus transmitting on paper pictures of historical events which are wonderfully vivid. Great care, therefore, has been taken to give the present publication word for word from the original manuscript, even to the spelling of proper names: Ellsworth being spelled with one "l," Read as Reed, Beckley, Clerk of the House of Representatives, as Buckley, and Carroll as Carrol.

William Maclay, like many of those who were actively engaged in the Revolution, was of Scotch descent, his father, Charles Maclay, having sailed for America in 1734. The brothers of William Maclay were also active in the movements which led to the overthrow of British supremacy in America; his brother, the Hon. John Maclay, being a member of that conference held in "Carpenters' Hall" which declared that "they, in behalf of the people of Pennsylvania, were willing to concur in a vote of Congress declaring the United Colonies free and independent States." John Maclay also served three terms in the Pennsylvania Legislature, 1790, 1792, and 1794. Another brother of William Maclay, the Hon. Samuel Maclay, was chosen Speaker of the Pennsylvania State Senate, of which body he was a member from 1797 to 1802, and resigned in 1802 in order to serve in the United States Senate, where he represented Pennsylvania from 1802 to 1809.

William Maclay was born on the 20th of July, 1737, in New Garden Township, Pennsylvania, and was educated in the classical school of the Rev. John Blair. He studied law, and was admitted to practice at the York County bar, April 28, 1760. At the close of the French and Indian War he visited England and had an interview with Thomas Penn, one of the {v} proprietaries, relative to the surveys in the middle and northern parts of the province. In 1772 he laid out the town of Sunbury, and erected for himself a stone house, which was standing a few years since. He acted as the representative of the Penn family, and took a prominent part in the so-called Pennamite war. At the outset of the Revolution, although an officer of the proprietary Government, he took an active part in favor of independence, during which struggle he held the position of assistant commissary. In 1781 he was elected to the Assembly of Pennsylvania, and from that time filled the offices of member of the Supreme Executive Council, Judge of the Court of Common Pleas, deputy surveyor, and was one of the commissioners for carrying into effect the laws respecting the navigation of the Susquehanna. In January, 1789, he was elected to the United States Senate. The question as to who should hold the long term of office was decided by lot — William Maclay drawing the short term, while Robert Morris, his colleague, drew the long term.

William Maclay began to differ with the Federalists very early in the session. He did not approve of the state ceremony attendant upon the intercourse of the President with Congress; he flatly objected to the presence of the President in the Senate while business was being transacted; and boldly spoke against his policy in the immediate presence of President Washington. He was one of the foremost in opposing the chartering of the United States Bank, even at the sacrifice of personal popularity, for the strong Democratic position he took and the stubbornness with which he maintained it in the face of overwhelming pressure cost him his re-election, he being succeeded by an ardent Federalist.

So pronounced were the Democratic views of William Maclay, and so boldly and ably did he maintain his position in the face of the opposition, that the question {vi} can well be raised if he, rather than Thomas Jefferson, was not the true founder of the Democratic party. It is well known that on the organization of the "new Government," as it was then called, April, 1789, Thomas Jefferson was in France, where he had resided since 1784, and that he did not arrive in New York, then the seat of government, until March, 1790, some eleven months after the Federal machine had been in operation. And it was some time after he took his place as Secretary of State that his influence and ability as a leader of men were felt among the elements composing the Democratic party. It was during these first months of the new Government's life that questions seriously affecting its character, whether to be monarchical or republican in its forms, were fiercely debated and decided. It was then that the foundations of the great Democracy were laid; the superstructure erected by Thomas Jefferson being in conformity with the precedents then and there irrevocably established.

Who, then, was the leader of the opposition to this strong monarchical tendency? The records of the First Congress, unfortunately, are fragmentary and meager, so that little has been known of the stirring debates that took place at that time. The journal of William Maclay, however, throws a flood of light on this period, and establishes beyond cavil the claims of Pennsylvania to having produced the father of the Democratic party in the person of William Maclay.

For a hundred years this valuable journal has been jealously guarded from public scrutiny by the descendants of the statesman. Portions of it were privately printed in 1880, and a limited edition distributed among the members and friends of the family. Many passages, however, were suppressed, as being too caustic in their strictures on eminent personages whom we are accustomed to regard with the highest veneration. This, however, in a great measure, destroyed the complexion {vii} of the context and the value of the work. But, now that an unreserved publication is called for in the interest of history, it will be seen that William Maclay was foremost in the opposition to these extreme monarchical views of the Federalists, and that in combating and subverting their aspirations he laid the foundation of the Democratic party.

On his retirement from the Senate, William Maclay resided on his farm, adjoining Harrisburg, where he erected a stone mansion. In the year 1795 he was elected a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, and was again elected in 1803. He was a presidential elector in 1796, and from 1801 to 1803 officiated as one of the Associate Judges of Dauphin County. He died on the 16th of April, 1804, in Harrisburg, and is buried in Paxtang churchyard.

He was a man of the strictest integrity, positive opinions, keen insight into the underlying motives of men, and with indomitable perseverance and tenacity of purpose in carrying out views once formed. In personal appearance he was six feet and three inches in height, light complexion, while his hair, in middle age, appears to have been brown, and was tied behind or "clubbed." Mr. Harris, of Harrisburg, narrates that he "well remembered, when a young collegian, during the summer vacation he used to watch Mr. Maclay wearing a suit of white flannel, with lace ruffles, walking up and down the river-bank in Maclayville — as it was then called — and he thought he had never seen such a dignified, majestic old gentleman: while," he added, "I was always half afraid of him — he seemed to awe me into insignificance."

Edgar S. Maclay.
New York. August, 1890.

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