The First Federal Congress Project
Documentary History of the First Federal Congress

William Maclay, Senator from Pennsylvania
(portrait-109K)

William Maclay was born on 20 July 1737, at New Garden Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania, the son of Charles and Eleanor Query Maclay, who emigrated from Lurgan in County Antrim, Ireland, three years earlier. In 1742, along with many others of Scotch-Irish descent, the family migrated west of the Susquehanna River to the Conococheague Valley, to what eventually became Lurgan Township in Franklin County. The Maclays quickly became prominent in a farming community three miles northwest of Shippensburg. William began his formal education there in an academy presided over by his minister, John Blair. To further his studies he was sent to Samuel Finley's academy at West Nottingham in Chester County (included in Cecil County, Maryland, after the Mason and Dixon survey). Unlike many of his schoolmates who went to the College of New Jersey at Princeton, the ambitious young Maclay returned to central Pennsylvania anxious to be "brought forward."
In May 1758 Maclay was commissioned a lieutenant in the colonial militia, where he served in the successful campaign to establish British control over the forks of the Ohio River. He studied law and was admitted to the York County bar in 1760, opening a practice in Carlisle. Before resuming military service during Pontiac's Rebellion in 1763 and 1764, Maclay journeyed to London to lobby Pennsylvania Proprietor Thomas Penn on behalf of Pennsylvanians who had served as officers in the French and Indian War. He so impressed Penn that the proprietor became his patron.
In 1764 Maclay was appointed deputy surveyor in vast Cumberland County and ceased the practice of law. In part because of the influence of the Penns, Maclay's clients soon included many of the well to do families and politicians of eastern Pennsylvania. It was during the decade before the Revolutionary War that he laid the basis for his extensive landholdings and financial independence. In April 1769 he married Mary Harris, daughter of the influential John Harris of Harris's Ferry on the Susquehanna. In 1772 the couple settled at Sunbury at the juncture of the east and west branches of the Susquehanna. They had eleven children between 1770 and 1787, all but three of whom surived infancy.
From 1772 to 1786, except when he served in the Assembly, Maclay sat as one of the twelve appointed justices who governed the county. In addition he acted as protonotary, register, recorder, clerk of the county court, and commissioner for the county buildings. His attitude toward New Englanders was deeply influenced by Connecticut's attempt to assert its claim to extensive portions of northern Pennylvania. He was among the posse that attacked some of the settlements in September 1775, concluding, "there surely never was so great a pest in any civilized country."1 A supporter of independence, Maclay served on the Northumberland Committee of Safety during 1776. In 1779 he served as an assistant commissary for purchase for the Continental Army.
Maclay spent fifteen of the last twenty-five years of his life as an elected member of a legislative body, where his independence frequently placed him with the minority. He differed from a majority of his constituents in supporting the Pennsylvania Republican or Anti-Constitutional Party, in sympathizing with Philadelphia and its interests, and in taking a Federalist stance when Pennsylvania debated the new United States Constitution.
First elected to the Assembly from Northumberland County in 1781, he was reelected in 1782, seated by the Assembly in 1783 after it resolved a disputed election, probably defeated in 1784, and refused to accept a seat in 1785 after another disputed election. Prevented from assuming his seat in 1786 as one of the assemblymen from Westmoreland County, he was elected instead to the Supreme Executive Council. There he served on committees to instruct the commissioners appointed to purchase the Erie Triangle and to decide on what action to take when Thomas Scott initially declined his seat in the United States House of Representatives in 1789.
Maclay's public life was not limited to popularly elected office. The state entrusted him with a variety of special commissions relating to the navigation of the Susquehanna and other rivers, the boundary with New York, and land purchases from the Iroquois. During the 1780s he also served as a trustee for newly founded Dickinson College, and platted Harrisburg for his father-in-law and Maclaysburg just to the north of it for himself.
Maclay's Federalist orientation and strong ties to Philadelphia made him a highly favored candidate to represent the western part of the state in the United States Senate. On 30 September 1788 he received the votes of all but one member of the Assembly, thus becoming the first person elected to the First Congress. Between his election and the opening of Congress in March 1789 he devoted considerable time to preparing himself on the issues he expected Congress to consider.
Maclay was one of the eight Senators who were in New York on 4 March 1789. His arrival two days late for the second session made the quorum, but he was present in Philadelphia for the appointed opening day of the third session. Maclay was absent on leave during the first session from 20 July to 17 August, and illness prevented him from attending between 2 and 20 September as well. In 1790 he was granted an additional leave from 26 July until the end of the second session.
During the first session Maclay and Wynkoop lived at the corner of Greenwich and Partition streets. In the second session he resided with the Muhlenberg brothers at the home of their brother-in-law, Dr. John Christopher Kunze, pastor of Trinity and Christ Lutheran churches, at 24 Chatham Street. During the third session he resided at William Ogden's tavern at 222 S. Second Street.
Because of the diary he kept, Maclay's social life, or absence of it, is better documented than that of any other member of the First Congress. That document, one of the most important political diaries in American history, records not only information about his life as a Congressman but also details of Senate debates and Congressional politics and comments on fellow members of Congress. The weekends and evenings he spent in happy company with his colleagues were few. He preferred to leave to Robert Morris the task of representing Pennsylvania at official levees.
The pain Maclay remembered when reflecting on his Senate career arose not only from his situation as a tenacious minority critic but also from his personality, calvinistic morality, and attitude about a legislator's role. A sense of rectitude and a pessimistic view of human nature dominated Maclay's world view. While he believed that he almost always lived up to his high expectations for human behavior, he felt that most others did not. He judged especially harshly those who, having once earned his respect, later fell from grace.
Maclay served on nineteen committees, eight of which grew out of petitions. Four others concerned procedure and internal business. His remaining committee assignments generally concerned significant bills such as the Patents Act [HR-41], a Post Office Bill [HR-74], and, most prominently, the Judiciary Act [S-1] and Funding Act [HR-63]. Maclay chaired three committees, including that which reported on the bill for settling the claim of Baron von Steuben, the most controversial private bill considered by the First Congress.
Maclay spoke frequently during floor debates. His speeches demonstrate an anti-executive, anti-speculator, pro-agriculture, and generally old style republican philosophy. From the very beginning of his two years in the Senate, Maclay found himself at odds with most of his colleagues on such issues as Senate rules, the adoption of British procedural precedents, the structure and jurisdiction of the federal judiciary, the size and salaries of the federal bureaucracy, and the relationship between the executive and legislative branches. He opposed Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson's foreign policy, Secretary of War Henry Knox's plan for a military establishment, and most particularly Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton's recommendations for funding the debts of the federal and state governments. Washington's support of these same policies gradually diminished Maclay's regard for the revolutionary hero. The president had become, wrote Maclay, "in the hands of Hamilton The Dishclout of every dirty Speculation, as his name Goes to Wipe away blame and Silence all Murmuring."2 The failure of two attempts to open the Senate debates to the public further discredited their proceedings in Maclay's mind.
Maclay was the most democratically inclined member of the Senate and the first Federalist to split from his party. He assumed a leadership position in the fight against titles for public officials, especially the president, and in the manner in which the Senate would consent to treaties. Other subjects on which he spoke often were the president's power of removal, the funding of the public debt, particularly the assumption of state debts and the settlement of acounts among the states, the Judiciary Act [S-1], the permanent military establishment, salaries for Congressmen, the attempt to pressure Rhode Island into ratifying the Constitution by the Rhode Island Trade Bill [S-11], and the Duties on Distilled Spirits Act [HR-110].
Outside Congress, Maclay was most active in the crusade for a seat of government on the Susquehanna. His personal life and political career prior to the First Congress had been dedicated to the promotion of the Susquehanna watershed lands. His interest in the economic and political implications of the issue therefore is not surprising. In his diary Maclay vividly recorded the intense and often confusing behind-the-scenes negotiations. Less involved in the delegation's collective decisions regarding the seat of government question, he circulated his own position via anonymous newspaper articles. Indeed, Maclay was among Congress's most prolific writers of newspaper pieces.3
Maclay's displeasure with Congress and its decisions probably contributed to the poor health about which he so often complained, particularly during the first session. The litany of his ailments, lovingly recorded in his diary, included colds, sore throats, rheumatism, and sciatica. Seeing the death of Pennsylvania Surveyor General John Lukens at the close of the first session of Congress as an opportunity to escape, he lobbied actively but unsuccessfully to be appointed to fill the vacancy. The second and third sessions of Congress proved no happier for him, despite the satisfaction of seeing Congress move to Philadelphia.
Maclay's diary reveals his ambivalent feelings about serving beyond his allotted two year term. Primarily because of his opposition to Hamilton's financial program, the Pennsylvania Assembly refused to reelect him to the Senate. The seat remained vacant from 1791 until 1793. Maclay moved his family to Harrisburg, where he joined the emerging Democratic-Republican Party, lost a bid for election to the House of Representatives in the Third Congress, served as an elector for Thomas Jefferson in 1797, and represented Dauphin County in the state House of Representatives from 1795 to 1798. As the legislature met next door to Congress in Philadelphia, he surely saw many of his former colleagues from the First Federal Congress. In the state legislature he supported a constitutional amendment which limited the term of United States Senators to three years, cast a vote against an address expressing regret at the retirement of President Washington, and introduced a resolution declaring the state's opposition to war, particularly with France. The last action cost him reelection and from 1798 until 1803 he held only Dauphin County judicial offices. Reelected to the state legislature in 1803, Maclay died at Harrisburg on 16 April 1804.
The Pennsylvania Bar Association, which owns Maclay's Harrisburg house, has a modern portrait painted by Nick Ruggieri and based on a miniature now owned by Frank A. Krause, Jr., of Fairfax, Virginia, a Maclay descendant. A photograph of the miniature appeared in Colonial Williamsburg, The Journal of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (Summer 1987), p. 27.
With the exception of his three volume Senate diary, Maclay's papers have disappeared. A descendant informed us that he witnessed an aunt burning some of the papers during the 1930s. On the other hand, a significant body of letters he wrote during the First Congress has survived. A list of these appears in MD, pp. 428--31. Since the compilation of that list the Library of Congress purchased his 26 June and 1 July letters to Benjamin Rush. A letter to John Nicholson dated 7 February 1790 was once owned by Henry C. Van Schaack. An excerpt dated 30 May 1790 which appeared in the Philadelphia Independent Gazetteer on 5 June and as a reprint in at least ten other newspapers is clearly from a Maclay letter; external evidence suggests that it was from a letter he wrote Nicholson.
Of the several short biographies, the most accurate is Maclay Diary, pp. 431--41. A longer treatment is Gerald Shannon, "William Maclay," M.A., Indiana University, 1948.
    1. Maclay Diary, p. 435.
    2. Maclay Diary, p. 321.
    3. In addition to those which appear in Maclay Diary, pp. 406--26, see "To the Honorable and Right Honorable Members of the Congress of the United States of America . . ." signed "Y. Z. X. W. etc. etc.," in the Federal Gazette, 3 Apr. 1789 (cited by Jacob E. Cooke, Tench Coxe and the Early Republic, Chapel Hill, 1978).

Recommended citation: Documentary History of the First Federal Congress of the United States of America, ed. Charlene Bickford, et al. (Columbia, S.C.: Model Editions Partnership, 2002). http://adh.sc.edu [Accessed (supply date here)]

Copyright 1999. Documentary History of the First Federal Congress Project. All rights reserved.