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History Smackdown - "The Compromise of 1790." Part II

Updated on July 24, 2015

In Part I of this article I began to take a look at the debate over the meaning and importance of the “Compromise of 1790.” After a look at the traditional view of the compromise I noted there was a heated debate between two scholars – Dr Kenneth R. Bowling and Dr. Jacob E. Cooke - over its importance. In Part II I take a look at the main points of contention between these two, both looking at the same evidence but coming to different conclusions

The opening salvo in this battle of the titans occurred in 1970 with the publication of a paper by Dr. Jacob E. Cooke largely refuting the traditional depiction of the compromise, including that by Dr. Kenneth R. Bowling in his 1968 doctoral dissertation.1 In it he asserts that while there is no doubt the Jefferson dinner party occurred and the parties to it believed they were taking steps to assure passage of assumption, they nevertheless “overestimated their influence on Congress.”2 In fact, as Cooke points out, neither James Madison nor Alexander Hamilton ever left a written account of the agreement reached at Jefferson’s dinner party, or ever referred to it in their correspondence. Only Jefferson in his 1792 account ever discussed it, and while not doubting Jefferson’s truthfulness, Cooke does question his “exaggerated claim that it was responsible for the passage of the residence and assumption measures.”3 He gives several reasons why he believes this to be true, asserting that passage of each measure was accomplished “owing to sub rosa congressional negotiations and compromises relating to that measure,” that while the compromise only referred to the House of Representatives, the real action was taking place in the Senate, and that the real compromise involved changes to the assumption proposal and the interest rate on the funding of the resulting debt.4 However, central to his conclusion are two main points. First, that the number of votes switched in favor of assumption as a result of the compromise was not enough to account for its passage, and second, that Hamilton’s influence regarding residence was not required as Pennsylvania and the south had already reached a compromise.

Bowling’s response was delivered precisely one year later in an essay that attempted to refute the main pillars of Cookes argument.5

Central to Cooke’s thesis was an analysis of the votes taken in the House of Representatives in which he concluded that the number of votes switched as a result of the negotiations between Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton were not enough to insure passage of the assumption bill. Following its passage in the Senate, the House again took up the measure on July 24th and it was passed by a close 32-29 vote. Cooke argues that the similarity of this margin of victory to the previous margin of defeat on April 12th is misused by proponents of the traditional account in their assertion that the votes switched by Madison provided the crucial margin of victory. He notes the “composition of the House was not the same on the two dates, nor can it be assumed that all congressmen, save Lee and White, voted the same way.”6 In fact based on his review of the July 24th vote, Cooke argues that since two assumption opponents had joined the congress since the April 12th vote (from North Carolina), and that one assumption supporter, Theodorick Bland of Virginia, had died, six votes needed to switch, not the four as implied by the traditional story of the compromise. So assuming no other changes other than those accounted for by these changes in membership, the vote would have been 33 to 28 against passage. This meant six votes had to be found to make up for the 5 vote deficit. Since the compromise only accounts for four votes (Lee, White, Carroll, and Gale), Cooke argues there were other factors at work not explained by the compromise.

Dr Bowling, in his analysis, points to a rather serious mathematical error made by Cooke, noting also that using a reconstructed version of the unrecorded April 12th vote, it was clear to Jefferson and Madison prior to the June dinner party how many votes had to be swayed.

As Bowling points out, in a body comprised of 61 members only 31 votes were needed for passage. Since Cooke’s analysis indicated that there were 28 votes for assumption prior to the compromise, rather than needing 6 votes for passage, proponents only needed to sway 3 votes to achieve a majority, a number more than accounted for by the votes switched as a result of the compromise. In addition, Dr. Bowling’s analysis of the reconstructed April 12th vote as well as public statements made by various members, shows by June 16th when Rep. John Sevier (a no vote) arrived from North Carolina, it was known three switched votes would be needed to achieve passage.7

Cooke’s second main argument against the importance of the compromise, is his assertion that the deal between Pennsylvania and the southern states to remove the capital to the south was consummated long before any thought was given to linking the two issues. This is true. The residence issue had been debated since the first session of the first congress, with various schemes being proposed and some nearly accepted. Cooke does acknowledge Alexander Hamilton may have made attempts to sway Pennsylvania’s support for assumption by attempting to arrange a compromise between north and south on the residence issue, and by efforts to persuade New York not to interfere in any eventual compromise. He believes however, that Hamilton did not have the requisite influence to insure a compromise was reached.8 It was reached he believed once each side had determined a compromise was in their best interests. After a number of attempts and jockeying for political advantage, Pennsylvania and the south agreed to the compromise that placed the capital in Philadelphia for a yet to be determined period of time, followed by a move to a site along the Potomac River. Each side believed this compromise offered it the best chance to land the capital permanently. Philadelphia, was “convinced that the advantages [of a move there] were so great that the capital, once located there, would never again move.”9 Southern states were convinced this compromise was the only way they would get a move written into law, and they believed they could fight any change to it once the time for removal had arrived. This compromise was reached according to Cooke, between the first vote on assumption on April 12th and Jefferson’s dinner party about June 20th. Therefore its existence was known to Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton prior to the compromise, and so was unimportant to the subsequent passage of the assumption bill.

Bowling believes this analysis misses the mark on the nature of Hamilton’s influence. In an effort to help New York retain the capital, Massachusetts had managed to scuttle a previous arrangement between Pennsylvania and the south on residence. In that case they proposed an amendment making a site along the Susquehanna as the eventual permanent capital. This split apart the compromise in that instance because Pennsylvania delegates felt duty-bound to vote for the amendment that, after all, gave their state the permanent seat of government. But at the same time of course, it drove southerners to oppose it, thus assuring its defeat. Hamilton’s job was not to round up votes in favor of the new arrangement reached after April 12th, rather it was to use his influence to prevent Massachusetts from interfering as it had in the previous instance. While acknowledging Hamilton’s role here is less clear than his influence on assumption, Bowling nevertheless believes it was crucial. What is certain is he convinced his fellow New Yorkers that Massachusetts would not interfere as it had before, because they were then the north’s strongest supporter of assumption. Bowling also believes Hamilton “perhaps through his Massachusetts supporters"…convinced the Massachusetts delegation not to interfere with the Philadelphia-Potomac residence bill. Thus, on both main points Bowling believes the evidence, plus the weight of opinion as expressed by the many involved who believed there was linkage between assumption and residence, argues for the traditional view of the importance of the compromise.

So who is right? We will never know for sure, but in my opinion the weight of evidence still argues in favor of the compromise being the primary factor in the passage of the assumption bill. While there is no doubt other factors contributed to its passage, particularly Hamilton’s attempt to grease the skids by offering various concession on its implementation, too many people at the time believed the issues were linked to discount – including that of Richard Bland Lee. Bowling’s analysis of the votes taken April 12th and July 24th are very persuasive, and it strikes me as odd that a person as politically astute and ambitious as Alexander Hamilton would undertake a course of action on residence, which according to Cooke, he knew was doomed to fail. Others works on the “Compromise of 1790” have been produced over the years including a very interesting statistical analysis published in 2002 that looks at the voting patterns of members of congress and comes to the conclusion that assumption and residence were not linked (largely supporting Cooke).10 My guess is we have not heard the last word on this subject!!

1 Bowling, Kenneth R. The First Congress, 1789-1791 (unpubl. Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin, 1968); Cooke, Jacob E. “The Compromise of 1790” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 27, No. 4 (Oct., 1970), pp. 524-545

2 Cooke, Jacob E. “The Compromise of 1790”, p. 524

3 Cooke, Jacob E. “The Compromise of 1790”, p. 524

4 Cooke, Jacob E. “The Compromise of 1790”, p. 525

5 Bowling, Kenneth R. “Dinner at Jefferson’s: A Note on Jacob E. Cooke’s ‘The Compromise of 1790’” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 28, No. 4 (Oct., 1971), pp. 629-648

6 Cooke, Jacob E. “The Compromise of 1790, p. 543; A record of the vote of individual members was not taken on April 12th.

7 Bowling, Kenneth R. “Dinner at Jefferson’s”, p. 638; In his rebuttal to Dr. Bowling’s analysis Dr. Cooke downplays the importance of his mathematical error by asserting it was unimportant to his overall thesis that there was much more at play in the passage of these two measures that are unexplained by the compromise.

8 According to Cooke, “Hamilton was being uncharacteristically fanciful if he believed, even momentarily, that he could cajole the New York delegation into surrendering their own claim to their arch-rival [Pennsylvania].” Cooke, Jacob E “The Compromise of 1790”, p. 533

9 Cooke, Jacob E. “The Compromise of 1790”, p. 535

10 Clinton, Joshua D. and Meirowitz, Adam. The Fruit of Jefferson’s Dinner Party: Roll Call Analysis of the Compromise of 1790 with Substantive and Relational Constraints. Princeton University, 2002


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