'Impost Begat Convention': Albany and New York Confront the Ratification of the Constitution
34 Pages Posted: 14 Dec 2017
Date Written: December 14, 2017
The critical framework for the 1788 debates over ratification of the U.S. Constitution by New York was set by the debates over whether the tax on imports through New York harbor, then called the “impost,” would be a national or state tax. New York had vetoed the 1783 proposal to allow a national impost. The defeated proponents of the 1783 impost became the Federalists in favor of the Constitution in 1788 in New York, and the party that had defeated the 1783 impost remained intact to become the Anti-Federalists in opposition to the Constitution in 1788. In the end a group of delegates elected as Anti-Federalists, most prominently Melancton Smith, the New York delegate to the Articles of Confederation Congress, moved over to ratification to allow New York to avoid secession from the Union. “United We Stand, Divided We Fall” won both the Revolution and the Constitution.
The New York debates serve as synecdoche for the ratification debates as a whole. The first mission of the Constitution was to give Congress a tax of its own to maintain payments on the debts of the Revolutionary War. In the next and inevitably coming war, Congress would need to borrow from the Dutch again. The Confederate form of government, a mere league of friendship among sovereign states, would plausibly have survived, had New York not vetoed the 1783 impost. As Hamilton put it: “Impost begat Convention.”
This article was written for a panel before the Society of the History of the Early American Republic in celebration of publication of the five volumes on the New York debate in the magisterial Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution. The publication has expanded the available archives and our understanding of New York Ratification.
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