Twenty years ago on this date, my friend The Frumious Bandersnatch and I crashed a party at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. It was one of those black tie and periwig affairs that happen whenever the blue-blooded descendants of America's Founding Fathers get together to venerate their ancestors, and this occasion was nothing less than the bicentennial celebration of the Constitutional Convention. As a direct descendant of one of the signers of this document, I was eligible to attend, and since we were in college in the Philadelphia area and the food at the event promised to be better than cafeteria fare, Frumiousb posed as my spouse and we waltzed right in as to the manor born.
We soon found my Great Uncle Dayt, standing in for our ancestor Jonathan Dayton, the youngest delegate to the Convention. This fact is usually all that gets noted about him as a Signer. Today being Constitution Day, it seems an opportune moment for a post on Jonathan Dayton, especially as it is fashionable to speak of the Framers as if they spoke with one enlightened mind, when in fact they were an all too human and a deeply divided bunch. It is really astonishing, even miraculous that they were able to come to agreement at all and establish our Republic, though we bless them for it.
One of Dayton's colleagues at the Convention, William Pierce of Georgia, described him thus:
"a young Gentleman of talents, with an ambition to exert them. He possesses a good education and reading; he speaks well, and seems desirous of improving himself in Oratory. There is an impetuosity in his temper that is injurious to him; but there is an honest rectitude about him that makes him a valuable Member of Society, and secures to him the esteem of all good Men."
Pierce served along with Dayton as Aides-de-Camp to General Sullivan during his 1779 expedition against the Iroquois - Pierce was senior A.D.C. and Dayton 2nd in seniority - and so may have been speaking from prior knowledge of his brother officer's character as well as what he observed during the time they were together at the Convention. Sullivan's Expedition was certainly a crucible of political intrigue, and an Aide-de-Camp was a patronage position. Dayton's military and later political career was advanced by his father, Col. Elias Dayton, commander of the 3rd New Jersey Line. He received a diploma from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) at 15 years of age, having in the meantime enlisted as an Ensign in his father's regiment.
His wartime service was long and mainly honorable. He achieved the rank of Captain, was briefly a P.O.W. in British held New York, and served under Lafayette at Yorktown. But he also was rumored to be involved in the illicit trade of smuggling of goods between British and American lines under flags of truce, a practice that was rampant in his hometown of Elizabethtown, New Jersey despite Washington's repeated efforts to put a stop to it. Captain Dayton certainly was in a position to profit from smuggling, as his father the Colonel used him to gather intelligence on the British, often under a flag of truce. One of Washington's letters to Elias Dayton states "I wish you to leave such directions with your Son, as will enable him to carry on the train of intelligence you are now engaged in." and immediately follows up with "N.B. The Flag Boats should also be well attended to, to prevt. abuses." Captain Dayton was never charged and I cannot substantiate whether he was involved in smuggling across enemy lines, but given his subsequent career in politics that was ultimately wrecked by too close association to the treasonous plans of Aaron Burr, it is worth at least contemplating that Jonathan Dayton's "impetuosity" might not have been the only character flaw of this otherwise staunch Patriot.
Be that as it may, young Dayton emerged from the war with powerful connections and a bright political future. His father was the first President of the New Jersey Chapter of the Society of the Cincinnati, in which as one of Washington's officers with three or more years service Jonathan Dayton was also a member. Like most of his fellow officers he had belonged to the Continental Army chapter of the Freemasons (Military Lodge, Number 19). He practiced law and speculated in western lands, ultimately accumulating over 250,000 acres including what would become Dayton, Ohio.
Politically, he was a staunch Federalist, believing that a strong central government was necessary to provide for the common defense, and also deeply conservative - he still wore a powdered wig long after they had fallen from fashion. As one biography puts it:
"Dayton possessed a very strong and stubborn philosophy of what was right. He believed that the government was supposed to defend the rights and freedoms of its citizens, but only when it was practical to do so. He believed in a social hierarchy supported by the government."
Given the patronage and social position which he enjoyed, it is not surprising that he should have felt this way.
He first served in the New Jersey Assembly representing Elizabethtown while his father Elias Dayton was in Congress. When Elias Dayton was offered a position representing New Jersey at the Constitutional Convention, he declined and proposed his son in his place. Thus at 26, Jonathan Dayton became the youngest Framer of the US Constitution. He did not join in the debate immediately; in fact, the convention had been engaged for more than a month before he arrived in Philadelphia. David Brearley of the New Jersey delegation wrote to his absent colleague on June 9th, 1787:
"We have been in a Committee of the Whole for some time, and have under consideration a number of very important propositions, none of which, however, have as yet been reported. My colleagues, as well as myself, are very desirous that you should join us immediately. The importance of the business really demands it."
For the next three months, Jonathan Dayton was a fairly active speaker at the Convention. In the most fractious debates over the system of representation in the legislative branches of Congress, he was a strong backer of "The New Jersey Plan", put forward to advance the interests of smaller states. It featured a unicameral house with each state alloted the same number of representatives, an executive appointed by the legislature and a supreme judicial branch appointed by the executive. This plan was put forward in response to the Virginia Plan favored by large states, which would have created a bicameral legislature with broad powers and proportional representation in both houses. One of Dayton's more caustic remarks concerning the Virginia Plan was that he considered it "a novelty, an amphibious monster" and was "persuaded it will never be received by the people."
In the end, the New Jersey Plan was rejected but some of its provisions were included in the "Great Compromise" that ultimately allowed the Constitution to go forward to ratification, including equal representation in the Senate and nomination of Supreme court justices by the Executive branch. Senators were appointed by state legislatures and not popularly elected countrywide until the seventeenth amendment to the Constitution in 1913. Intriguingly, most of the states whose representatives were supporters of the New Jersey plan were among the first adopters of the Constitution, including Delaware (1), New Jersey (3) and Connecticut (5). Other aspects of the Great Compromise included the right of Congress to regulate commerce by simple majority (the Southern states had wanted a 2/3 vote in support); the abolition of the importation of slaves after 1808 (with taxes imposed per slave not to exceed $10 in the meantime); and that slaves would count as 3/5ths of a person for the purposes of determining the number of Representatives allocated to each state. George Washington would write to Lafayette; "It appears to me, then little short of a miracle, that the delegates from so many different states (which states you know are also different from each other)–should unite in forming a system of National Government, so little liable to well founded objections."
Dayton objected to some of the provisions in the final document, but he nonetheless signed it. He went on to serve in the 2nd - 5th Congresses (he was elected to the first but chose to remain in the New Jersey Legislature during that term instead). He was a prominent Federalist during the 1790s, and was Speaker of the House during the Fourth and Fifth Congresses. He then served a term in the US Senate and it was near the end of this term that he conspired with Aaron Burr, the Vice President of the United States and a fugitive from justice in New Jersey and New York for killing Alexander Hamilton in their famous duel.
Hamilton and Burr were both well known to Dayton. Hamilton had been a schoolmate in Elizabethtown as well as one of the foremost Federalists, while Burr had been a fellow student at the College of New Jersey. Meeting in Philadelphia, Burr proposed a scheme which Dayton helped to finance and that purportedly intended to wrest territory in Texas from Spain and create a new western republic. Dayton was in ill health and so unable to participate directly in this filibuster, and when the plot unraveled he was charged with treason along with Burr. Although the charges were never proved and he was acquitted, his political career was finished on the national level and except for a single one year term in the New Jersey legislature he retired from public life. Shortly before his death in 1824, he entertained his old comrade-in-arms Lafayette in Elizabethtown on his grand tour of the United States.
The Framers of the Constitution were neither divinely inspired, nor infallible. There may have been giants among them (Madison, Hamilton, Franklin) but they were above all political negotiators able to craft an extraordinary, unifying document that is 220 years old today. Ben Franklin remarked during the Convention; "When a broad table is to be made, and the edges of the planks do not fit, the artist takes a little from both, and makes a good joint." Of such stuff was this nation made, and by men like Jonathan Dayton who themselves had rough edges.