William Maclay of Pennsylvania was 51 when he became, along with Robert Morris, one of the first two senators to be elected under the new federal government established by the Constitution. Elected by the Pennsylvania state legislature, Maclay received a nearly unanimous vote of 66-1 to begin his Senate service. When the Senate convened in 1789, the newly elected senators drew lots to see which Senate “class” they would join. Maclay became a member of Class 1, whose members served an initial two-year term. Maclay’s Senate service was short but memorable.
Journal of William Maclay, a diary written by Maclay as a daily private record of Senate proceedings, was intended for personal reference. It was quite common for senators at that time to take notes of the various debates occurring in the Senate chamber, especially given the importance of the First Congress and its role in selecting the location of the capital, the creation of the federal judicial system, and many other matters crucial in the early years of the federal government. Maclay wrote in his diary every evening, while the events of the day were still fresh in his memory. Most likely, Maclay never thought it would be published, since many entries expressed strong opinions about colleagues and events of the time. In fact, the impetus for starting the diary may have come from Maclay’s tenuous relationship with the first vice president of the United States, and thus the first president of the Senate, John Adams. They took an immediate dislike to each other. Adams considered Maclay a dullard of sorts, Maclay was disturbed by Adams’s fondness for ceremony, and they held fundamentally different views about the role of the new federal government.
Maclay entered the Senate as a Federalist, or pro-Administration, legislator, but he soon began to disagree with his Federalist colleagues in the Senate. He disliked the abundance of ceremony in interactions between President George Washington and the Senate. He objected to Washington’s presence in the Senate while business was being transacted. He opposed the chartering of the United States Bank, even at the sacrifice of personal popularity. The strong anti-federalist positions he developed, and the stubbornness with which he maintained them, even in the face of overwhelming pressure, cost Maclay the opportunity to be re-elected to a full six year term by the Pennsylvania legislature. Thus denied a second term, Maclay returned home in the spring of 1791. He became a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 1795, and was reelected in 1796 and 1797. He served as a county judge from 1801-1803, and returned to the state legislature in 1803. He died in 1804.
George Washington Harris, a nephew of William Maclay, found three volumes of his uncle’s diaries some time after the senator’s death. He was convinced that portions of the diary should be printed at public expense. Congress’ Joint Committee on the Library disagreed however, forcing Harris to continue seeking congressional support for the project over the next 20 years, to no avail. Finally, in 1880, Harris published an edited and abridged edition on his own, omitting some of Maclay’s stronger opinions and commentary.
In 1890, D. Appleton and Company published an unabridged edition of the diary edited by historian Edgar S. Maclay, a distant cousin of William Maclay. In his preface to this edition, Edgar Maclay criticized the earlier “expurgated” version, which suppressed passages because of their “caustic” commentary about persons “whom we are accustomed to regard with the highest veneration,” thus destroying the diary’s value and complexities. Edgar Maclay believed that William Maclay was “foremost in the opposition to [the] extreme monarchical views of the Federalists, and that in combating and subverting their aspirations he laid the foundation of the Democratic party.” In 1941, Congress finally purchased the original diary for $750, paid to descendants of William Maclay, ensuring the manuscript would stay in the Library of Congress. Today, Maclay’s diary of the earliest years of Senate proceedings, when its members still met behind closed doors, is considered an important and vital component in the documentation of American political and constitutional history.
Bowling, Kenneth R., and Helen E. Veit, eds. The Diary of William Maclay and Other Notes on Senate Debates. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.
Maclay, Edgar S., ed. Journal of William Maclay, United States Senator from Pennsylvania, 1789-1791. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1890.