Harrisburg (WHTM) If you live in the Harrisburg area, and the name William Maclay rings a bell, it could be because you traveled along McClay Street. And yes, the street is named after him. But William Maclay needs to be remembered for more than just a street, and there’s good reason there’s a historical marker about him in Riverfront Park. He was one of Pennsylvania’s first two U.S. Senators – and he kept a journal about it.
William Maclay was born in 1737. He served in the French and Indian War, taking part in the Forbes Campaign, then fought in Revolutionary War.
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He wasn’t one of Pennsylvania’s delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, but after the Constitution was ratified, on he was chosen, along with Robert Morris, to represent Pennsylvania in the newly created U.S. Senate. (They were the first two senators to be elected from any state.)
The Senate convened in New York in 1789. One of the first things they did was draw lots to see which of the new senators would serve for two, four, or six years. Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution required the Senate to divide its members into three classes for elections. Every two years, one class—one-third of the members—would face election or reelection.
William Maclay ended up in Class 1, which meant his first term would be for two years. As it turned out it would be his only term as a Senator.
One of the Senate’s other first decisions was to conduct business behind closed doors. (They would do this until 1795.) McClay was not happy with this decision, and decided to keep a journal, recording what happened – and his feelings about it.
The first Congress had a lot to deal with. They passed a bill to establish the Federal Judiciary, confirmed members of Washington’s cabinet, decided how Congress should be paid (by the Federal treasury instead of the states), confirmed the first nominees of the Supreme Court, and on September 25, 1789, they passed the first twelve amendments to the Constitution- the Bill of Rights – and sent them to the states for ratification. (The first two proposed amendments were voted down; amendments three through twelve passed, and became part of the Constitution.)
They also had to decide on a permanent home for the new government. Maclay wanted to see the new capital along the Susquehanna River, either near Harrisburg or around Columbia and Wrightsville. To his great disappointment, it ended up being built along the Potomac.
There was also the matter of chartering the United States Bank, which Maclay firmly opposed. In fact, while Mcclay started his term generally in favor of Federalist policies, by the end of his term he was strongly Antifederalist-and was very stubborn about it.
Every evening he wrote in his journal; what happened, why it happened, his feelings about the what and why, and his at times rather acerbic opinions of his fellow politicians. It should be noted some of his fellow politicians had acerbic opinions of him; Mcclay and Vice-President/President of the Senate/Future President John Adams seemed to have had a particular talent for getting on each other’s nerves.
His Anti-Federalist positions ultimately cost him a second term in the Senate. Maclay returned to Harrisburg. His house, located across Front Street from the historical marker, is now home to the Pennsylvania Bar Association. He died in 1804, but his family wouldn’t allow his journal to be published until 1880-with some of the acerbic bits removed. A complete version was published in 1890. It’s the only insider’s account of what went on in the very early years of the U.S. Senate.
To view an online copy of his journal, click here.