Hamilton-Gerry Nexus Hypothesis (Miss Dally Part VI)

Hamilton-Gerry Nexus Hypothesis

(Miss Dally Part VI)

The contrasts between Elbridge Gerry and Alexander Hamilton are stark. Gerry loudly objected to the final version of the Constitution which he refused to sign. Hamilton was one of the Constitution’s most vocal proponents. Nevertheless, is it possible that their close quarters at Miss Dally’s boarding house facilitated efforts to compromise in the final week of the Constitutional Convention? Indeed, Hamilton and Gerry may have choreographed a series of unexpected motions on September 10 (hereinafter the “Hamilton-Gerry Nexus Hypothesis”).

As theorized by the Hamilton-Gerry Nexus Hypothesis, there is substantial evidence of a surprising alignment between Alexander Hamilton and Elbridge Gerry in the final week of the Constitutional Convention. Recognizing that the Convention was winding down, Hamilton may have attempted to work behind the scenes to accommodate Gerry’s objections. If so, Hamilton failed to convince Gerry to sign his name to the Constitution. Yet, the evidence of collaboration between Hamilton and Gerry on September 10 is clear. Accordingly, it is appropriate to ask the question: Did Hamilton and Gerry strategize together at Miss Dally’s boarding house?

In particular, several historians have commented that Hamilton and Gerry were “two strange bedfellows” who “rarely saw eye to eye.” Nevertheless, John R. Vile notes that “curiously” Hamilton agreed with Gerry on September 10 that Congressional approbation should be required for ratification. According to Richard Beeman, Hamilton and Gerry formed an “odd alliance” on September 10. For Jack Rakove, Hamilton and Gerry formed an “unlikely alliance.” Catherine Drinker Bowen opines that “surprisingly” Hamilton “took Gerry’s side” on September 10. In other words, the collaboration between Hamilton and Gerry near the end of the Convention may have reflected a calculated effort by Hamilton to horse trade to obtain Gerry’s signature on the Constitution. [1]

Elbridge Gerry’s growing dissatisfaction

In a letter dated September 9 to his wife Ann, Gerry made clear that he expected to be voting against the Constitution. According to Gerry, “I have every prospect at present of giving my negative.”  A week earlier, on September 1, Gerry wrote to Ann that the Constitution required “considerable alterations” to secure his vote.

If Gerry was willing to share these sentiments with his wife, who was not a member of the Convention, presumably Gerry might have expressed the same opinions to his colleagues. As Gerry and Alexander Hamilton were living together in the same boarding house, it is reasonable to assume that Gerry discussed his objections with Hamilton, including Gerry’s expectation of voting against the Constitution. 

In his September 9 letter to Ann, Gerry indicates that “I have every prospect at present of giving my negative” to the Constitution.

Based on letters written by Elbridge Gerry to his wife in August of 1787 it is clear that Gerry and Hamilton were boarding at Miss Dally’s boarding house on Market Street between Second and Third Streets. Click here for a discussion of Miss Dally’s boarding house where Alexander Hamilton, Elbridge Gerry, and Gouverneur Morris boarded during the Convention. Click here for a discussion of the “Committee on Style Venue Hypothesis” which proposes that the Committee on Style operated out of Miss Dally’s boarding house.

Hamilton-Gerry nexus

After two months of deliberations, the Constitutional Convention went on recess on July 26th.  Having begun its work on May 25, the Convention adjourned from July 27 through August 6 to permit the Committee on Detail to prepare the first draft of the Constitution. During the recess, Elbridge Gerry returned to New York with his wife and infant daughter. According to a letter dated August 9, Gerry and Alexander Hamilton returned to Philadelphia together and began boarding at Miss Dally’s boarding house. [2]

Prior to their return to the Convention on August 9, Gerry and Hamilton spent time in New York. It is unknown whether they interacted in New York when they were away from the Convention. While it may have been a coincidence that Hamilton and Gerry “met at the Hook,” it is also possible that they coordinated their travel plans in New York, intending to travel together. In either event, on their return trip to Philadelphia from Paulus Hook, New Jersey, Hamilton and Gerry would have been afforded an uninterrupted opportunity to compare notes. While boarding together at Miss Dally’s in August and September Hamilton and Gerry likely continued their discussions about the emerging draft of the Constitution, which would be signed on September 17. [3]

Admittedly, Gerry and Hamilton ultimately took contrary positions on the final draft of the Constitution. Yet, there is strong evidence that Gerry and Hamilton cooperated and/or were aligned on the following issues:

  • the amendment process (Committee on Detail Article XIX – which became Article 5);
  • the question of whether to obtain Congressional approbation prior to sending the Constitution to the states for ratification (Committee on Detail Article XXI – which became Article 7);
  • opposition to slavery and the 3/5 th Compromise (Committee on Detail Article VII, Section 3 – which became Article 1, Section 2);
  • expanding representation in the House (Committee on Detail Article IV, Section 4 – which became Article 1, Section 2’s “Enumeration Clause”)

“Surprising” Hamilton-Gerry alignment on September 10

On September 10, Gerry opened the Convention’s morning session by moving for reconsideration of Article XIX. Hamilton seconded Gerry’s motion. At the time, the Committee on Detail’s working draft only permitted Constitutional amendments upon the application of two-thirds of the states. According to  Hamilton, “[t]he National Legislature will be the first to perceive and will be most sensible to the necessity of amendments, and ought also to be empowered, whenever two-thirds of each branch should concur to call a Convention.” Hamilton reasoned that “[t]here could be no danger in giving this power, as the people would finally decide in the case.” With Madison’s assistance, the process to amend the Constitution was successfully expanded to permit Congress to propose amendments. [4]

Immediately thereafter, Gerry sought to revise another provision of the Committee on Detail’s working draft. For a second time, Hamilton agreed. The original version of the Committee on Detail’s report (Articles XXI and XXII) specified that the Constitution shall be laid before Congress “for their approbation,” but this requirement had been stricken in August.

When Gerry moved to reconsider Articles XXI and XXII he argued that ratification of the Constitution “without the approbation of Congress” would be improper and offensive to Congress. According to Madison’s notes, “Mr. HAMILTON concurred with Mr. Gerry as to the indecorum of not requiring the approbation of Congress. He considered this as a necessary ingredient in the transaction.”  Hamilton then moved to postpone Article XII and require Congressional approval as part of the ratification process. Gerry seconded Hamilton’s motion. [5]

As described by Professor Edward Countryman, when Elbridge Gerry announced his objections to proceeding without the approbation of Congress Alexander Hamilton, “of all people” concurred. While this second example of cooperation between Gerry and Hamilton on September 10 was overwhelmingly rejected by the Convention, many historians have commented that Hamilton’s request was “surprising.” “Despite their profound disagreements, Gerry and Hamilton were fully agreed on the procedures they thought the convention was obligated to follow.” [6] Why?

Hamilton biographer Robert A. Hendrickson argues that Hamilton was the most active of all the delegates in urging his colleagues to sign the Constitution. In so doing, Hamilton “enjoyed a distinct practical advantage” as a result of his outspoken views. “Now, in these final weeks, Hamilton plied all he knew of the arts of accommodation.” Hendrickson suggests that Hamilton “could forcefully urge compromises and adjustments between proposals that differed less from each other than they fell short of the high tone of his well-publicized ideal.” [7] Was Hamilton’s support of Gerry’s minority views on September 10th part of a larger strategy to lobby Gerry?

Hamilton-Gerry-Morris positions on “representation” and hostility to slavery

Elbridge Gerry’s views made him a maverick at the Convention. Yet, Gerry’s positions on “representation” in the House and Gerry’s hostility to slavery aligned with Alexander Hamilton and Gouverneur Morris.

Following the Convention, Gerry sent a famous letter dated October 18 to the Massachusetts Legislature explaining his reasons for not signing the Constitution (“Gerry’s objections”). According to Gerry, “My principal objections to the plan, are that there is no adequate provision for a representation of the People—that they have no security for the right of election….” Professor John P. Kaminski believes that Gerry may also have been the author of the famous Anti-Federalist Letters from the Federal Farmer, which date to October of 1787. [8]

The Hamilton-Gerry Nexus Hypothesis – set forth below for the first time – argues that the issue of representation in the House may have been an area where Hamilton tried to accommodate Gerry. Based on the fact that Hamilton and Gerry had traveled and boarded together, Hamilton would presumably have known of Gerry’s growing dissatisfaction with the Convention. Additional evidence of the Hamilton-Gerry Nexus Hypothesis is the fact that Hamilton and Gery were seemingly collaborating on September 10. Gerry did not announce his formal objections until September 15 when he presented eight reasons why he had decided not to sign the Constitution. The substance of these objections would be repeated in Gerry’s October 18 letter to the Massachusetts Legislature. If Professor Kaminski is correct, Gerry’s objections were also a basis of Gerry’s Letters from the Federal Farmer.

The issue of representation in the House of Representatives was a major topic of debate, which required referral to three separate committees of representation. Indeed, Elbridge Gerry was selected as the chair of the first “Committee of Representation” created on July 2. Gouverneur Morris would be the chair of the second “Committee of Representation” created on July 6. Rufus King would chair the final “Committee of Representation” created on July 9. Click here for a chart of all of the committee assignments at the Convention.

During the first week of the Convention, on May 30th, Hamilton introduced a resolution proposing that “rights of suffrage in the national Legislature ought to be proportioned to the number of free inhabitants.” On June 11 Hamilton moved that “the right of suffrage in the 2d. branch ought to be according to the same rule as the 1st branch.” [9] Ultimately, the Committee on Detail’s August 6th draft settled on an apportionment formula of one seat for every 40,000 inhabitants, “according to the provisions hereinafter made.”

On September 8, Hugh Williamson moved to reconsider the apportionment formula in order to increase the number of members of the House of Representatives. Madison seconded Williamson’s motion. Hamilton concurred and “expressed himself with great earnestness and anxiety in favor of the motion.” Hamilton argued for expanded representation in the House, favoring “a broad foundation.” According to Hamilton, it was:

essential that the popular branch of it should be on a broad foundation. He was seriously of opinion that the House of Representatives was on so narrow a scale as to be really dangerous, and to warrant a jealousy in the people for their liberties. [10]

The September 8th effort by Williamson, Madison and Hamilton to revise the representation formula in the House was rejected. Interestingly, Massachusetts was one of the states to vote against expanding the apportionment formula on September 8th. Had the House representation formula been modified on September 8th, it would have allayed one of Gerry’s objections. While the Williamson motion was denied on September 8, ultimately this decision would be reversed on the last day of the Convention.

On September 17, with the intervention of George Washington, the requirement for representation in the House was lowered from 40,000 to 30,000. The “Washington Satisfaction Gambit” – Part VII (pending) – theorizes that Washington’s intervention on this issue was specifically orchestrated by Alexander Hamilton to accommodate Elbridge Gerry and George Mason. Indeed, the two delegates who made the surprising, last-minute motion to expand the representation formula on September 17 were Gerry’s two colleagues from Massachusetts, Nathanial Gorham and Rufus King. Yet, on September 8th Massachusetts had voted “no” on Williamson’s motion.

When Washington rose for the first – and only – time to express an opinion in support of a motion, he indicated that it would give him “much satisfaction” to see Gorham’s motion granted. Washington further explained that “[i]t was much to be desired that the objections to the plan recommended might be made as few as possible.” Madison’s notes on September 17 describe the following remarkable scene:

When the PRESIDENT rose, for the purpose of putting the question, he said that although his situation had hitherto restrained him from offering his sentiments on questions depending in the House, and it might be thought, ought now to impose silence on him, yet he could not forbear expressing his wish that the alteration proposed might take place. It was much to be desired that the objections to the plan recommended might be made as few as possible. The smallness of the proportion of Representatives had been considered by many members of the Convention an insufficient security for the rights & interests of the people. He acknowledged that it had always appeared to himself among the exceptionable parts of the plan, and late as the present moment was for admitting amendments, he thought this of so much consequence that it would give much satisfaction to see it adopted.

Madison’s notes indicate in brackets that “This was the only occasion on which the President entered at all into the discussions of the Convention.”

According to the Washington Gambit Hypothesis, Washington, Gorham and King participated in Hamilton’s stratagem in a final effort to lobby Gerry. Note that Nathanial Gorham was the immediate past president of Congress. [11] Likewise, it was widely understood that George Washington would likely become the incoming president if the Constitution could be successfully ratified. Thus, the Washington Gambit Hypothesis theorizes that it was no coincidence that Hamilton “enlisted support from the heaviest artillery in the East Room” to win Gerry’s support. [12]

Alignment in Opposition to Slavery

Hamilton, Morris and Gerry were also likely aligned in their opposition to slavery. On June 11 Gerry asked why slaves “who were property in the South” should be entitled to any more representation “than the cattle & horses of the North”? Agreeing with Gerry, Gouverneur Morris wondered on August 8 “upon what principle is it that the slaves shall be computed in the representation? Are they men? Then make them Citizens and let them vote. Are they property? Why then is no other property included?” On August 22 Gerry expressed his hostility to slavery during a debate over the slave trade. “We have nothing to do with the conduct of the States as to slaves,” Gerry asserted, “but ought to be careful not to give any sanction to it.” [13] As described by John Kaminski, Gerry “opposed the three-fifths clause and the sanctioning of the foreign slave trade by a prohibition on Congress from interfering with it.” [14] 

Gouverneur Morris was the most outspoken opponent of slavery at the Convention. Similarly, in 1785 Alexander Hamilton was a founder of the New York Manumission Society. On August 8, Morris described slavery as a “nefarious institution” which was “the curse of heaven on the States where it prevails.” Morris indicated that “[h]e would sooner submit himself to a tax for paying for all the negroes in the U. States, than saddle posterity with such a Constitution.” Hamilton, who suggested in May that “rights of suffrage in the national Legislature ought to be proportioned to the number of free inhabitants” would likely have agreed with Morris, but Hamilton was not in attendance at the Convention on August 8. [15] 

While the efforts by Morris and Hamilton to resist slavery at the Convention were unsuccessful, it is useful to recognize that Morris (and the other members of the Committee on Style) deleted the word “justly” from the fugitive slave clause. As described by historian Sean Wilentz, doing so “removed the possible implication that there was justice in slavery.” [16] Professor Akhil Reed Amar lists Gerry and Morris among the “bluntest critics” of slavery at the Convention. [17] Is it a coincidence that Gerry, Hamilton and Morris boarded at Miss Dally’s, which was located in a building owned by an outspoken abolitionist, Bartholomew Wistar? Click here for a discussion of pending research questions about Miss Dally’s boarding house.

The following questions remain: What, if anything, can be inferred from the relationship between Morris, Hamilton and Elbridge Gerry? Do their votes/positions taken at the Convention provide any clues into their collaboration at Miss Dally’s boarding house?

This post continues in Miss Dally Part VII which explores the “Washington Satisfaction Gambit Hypothesis.”


[1] Robert A. Goldwin, From Parchment to Power (AEI Press, 1997)(“two strange bedfellows”) at p. 20; Michael J. Klarman, The Framers’ Coup (Oxford University Press, 2016)(“rarely saw eye to eye”) at p. 417; John R. Vile, The Constitutional Convention of 1787: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of America’s Founding  (ABC CLIO, 2005) (“curiously”) at p. 346; Richard Beeman, Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution (Random House, 2009)(“odd alliance”) at p. 340; Jack N. Rakove, Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution (Vintage Books 1996) (“unlikely alliance”) at 106; Catherine Drinker Bowen, Miracle at Philadelphia (Little Brown, 1966)(“surprisingly”) at p. 231.

[2] Gerry’s letter to Ann indicates that he arrived “with Colo. Hamilton, whom I met at the Hook.” It is likely that Gerry was referring to Paulus (or Powles) Hook, where a ferry had been operating since the 1760s between Manhattan and New Jersey.

[3] Gerry traveled to New York to escort Ann and their infant son to her parents who lived in New York. According to Gerry he traveled to New York “to accompany Mrs. Gerry and her baby, with whom this City did not very well agree.” Click here for Gerry’s letter of August 12 to his brother Samuel. Hamilton departed the Convention at the end of June. Click here for a discussion of Hamilton’s minority status on the New York delegation which likely contributed to his departing the Convention.

[4] Max Farrand, 2 The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 pps. 557-558.

[5] 2 Farrand at 559-560.

[6] Edward Countryman, The American Revolution (MacMillan, 1985) (“Hamilton, of all people, concurred”); Melvin Yazawa, Contested Conventions: The Struggle to Establish the Constitution and Save the Union (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016) (“surprisingly” Hamilton concurred) at p. 102; Goldwin (“despite their profound disagreements”) at p. 20.

[7] Robert A. Hendrickson, The Rise and Fall of Alexander Hamilton (Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1981) p. 220-222.

[8] The first Federal Farmer essay was dated October 8, 1787. These Anti-Federalist essays are commonly attributed to Richard Henry Lee or Melancton Smith, their authorship has been debated for decades. By way of example, Federal Farmer No. 2 discusses the importance of “a full and equal representation” of the people. Gerry’s October 18 letter to the Massachusetts Legislature lists the lack of an “adequate provision for a representation of the People…”

[9] 1 Farrand at 36 & 202.

[10] 2 Farrand at 554.

[11] Symbolically, Gorham was also a prominent figure at the Convention as the Chairman of the Committee of the Whole. As described by Max Farrand, “[f]or three whole weeks – from May 30 to June 19 – the important work of the Convention was carried on in a Committee of the Whole House.” Max Farrand, George Washington in the Federal Convention, 16 The Yale Review 282 (1907).

[12] David O. Stewart, The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution (Simon & Schuster, 2007) at p. 240. Stewart suggests that it was Hamilton and Madison who enlisted Washington’s support.

[13] 1 Farrand at 201; 2 Farrand at 222 and 372.

[14] John P. Kaminski, Gaspare J. Saladino, Richard Leffler, Charles H. Schoenleber, Margaret A. Hogan, 4 Documentary History of the Ratification of the U.S. Constitution xlv.

[15] 2 Farrand at 221- 223.

[16] Sean Wilentz, No Property in Man: Slavery and Anti-Slavery at the Nation’s Founding (Harvard Univ. Press, 2018) p. 111.

[17] Akhil Reed Amar, America’s Constitution: A Biography (Random House, 2005) at 89.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *