Robert Yates (1738-1801) was born in Schenectady. His parents were Joseph and Maria Yates. He received a classical education in the city of New York and later studied law in the Albany law firm of William Livingston, who was later a signer of the U.S. Constitution.
Yates was admitted to the New York bar in 1760 and thereafter resided in Albany. From 1771 to 1775, Yates was on the Albany Board of Aldermen and considered himself a member of the Radical Whigs, a party carried over from England that had a reputation for strong opposition to corruption and the protection of liberty.
When the American Revolution broke out, Yates joined Albany’s revolutionary Committee of Safety, together with other prominent Albanians. Yates, his uncle Abraham Yates Jr. and Philip Schuyler, authored correspondence for the committee. They drafted and signed Albany’s April 29th, 1775 resolution opposing the “several arbitrary and oppressive acts of the British Parliament” that was sent along with a message of support to the Committee of Safety at Boston following the opening shots of the war at Lexington.
Yates represented Albany County in four New York Provincial Congresses. While serving in the Provincial Congress with his uncle Abraham Yates Jr. and Matthew Adgate, they received a newly copied Declaration of Independence that they sent on to Albany on July 14th, 1776 with instructions that it be published and read at 11 am on July 19, 1776, from the front steps of Albany City Hall.
Robert Yates was appointed to the New York Provincial Congress’ “Secret Committee” during the Revolutionary War and charged with securing the Hudson River from attack by the British. He was responsible for the construction of the “Chain across the Hudson” at West Point.
With his uncle Abraham Yates Jr., who served as president of the State Convention of 1775-1776, they were members of the committee that drafted New York’s first state constitution. The committee met at Kingston and included John Jay, Lewis Morris, Robert Livingston and James Duane.
On May 8th, 1777, Yates was appointed a New York State Supreme Court judge succeeding his uncle Abraham and presided as its chief justice from 1790 to 1798. During the Revolutionary War years, he was criticized for leniency towards Loyalists. His feeling was not that he was lenient but that he was fair.
Following the Revolutionary War, it was widely recognized that the Articles of Confederation adopted by the states uniting them to conduct the war, were very inadequate. The Articles were an outgrowth of a plan known as the Albany Plan of Union, drafted by Benjamin Franklin and first presented at a congress of colonial representatives at Albany, New York in 1754. Franklin’s Albany Plan sought to establish a “Grand Council” of the states with authority to raise troops and levy taxes for protection during the French and Indian War.
The Articles of Confederation actually were a weakened form of the Albany Plan. They foresaw 13 independent states joining together only for certain limited purposes. The new confederation could not tax; it could not issue money; it could not raise an army of its own; it could not issue laws governing commerce between the states; it could not negotiate treaties with foreign governments. Some foreign governments refused to conduct business with 13 independent states as this required 13 different treaties.
An army could only be raised if the states volunteered their militias. On a given issue, some states might volunteer soldiers and funds but others would not. This was a major problem during the American Revolution.
Arguments had broken out among the states concerning the payment of debt for the Revolutionary War. Some states were refusing to pay because they did not agree with the expenditure; others were then refusing to pay unless everyone paid. There was no common money system. Each state could issue its own money, but so could banks or some private corporations. On the whole however, there was not enough money in circulation. Employers could not pay employees; merchants could not make change; businesses could not deal among themselves.
Disputes between states could not be settled, there was no federal court system. New Jersey was threatening war against New York because New York had set import duties on goods imported through the Port of New York, many of which were destined for New Jersey. New Jersey residents felt that they were being forced to pay taxes to New York. There were boundary disputes between Massachusetts and New York, New York and Vermont, and Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Most leaders understood the need for change. Several influential national leaders proposed a strong federal government with extensive powers. In New York, Governor George Clinton and his followers, who came to be included in a group known as the Anti-Federalists, were in power in New York and were reluctant to give up that power.
They also were suspicious of a strong federal government, feeling that it might become a copy of all they disliked about the European governments that they had so recently abandoned to immigrate to America. They particularly despised a standing army that they felt would seize power at the first opportunity and the influences of powerful religious groups on public policy. It was just such religious influence and persecution that they had recently escaped.
In May, 1787, a convention was called to meet in Philadelphia to modify the Articles of Confederation to address some of these problems. The Federalists approached the convention with the intention of adopting a new constitution creating a new federal government. The Anti-Federalists wanted to modify the Articles of Confederation as little as possible. They wanted to retain the autonomy and power of the states.
In New York, Senator Abraham Yates, Jr. introduced a bill to limit the authority of New York’s delegates to only consider proposals “not repugnant to or inconsistent with the constitution of this state” but the bill was narrowly defeated. Control of the process would depend on the representatives selected.
In New York, three delegates were appointed. The New York Senate nominated Alexander Hamilton, possibly one of the strongest Federalists in the country. Hamilton was a brilliant attorney who had been catapulted into the upper echelon of New York society and power through his marriage to the daughter of Major General Philip Schuyler (Schuyler was an influential member of the New York Senate when they designated Hamilton to attend the Constitutional Convention) and subsequent relation through marriage to Albany’s Patroon Stephen Van Rensselaer (who married another Schuyler daughter).
New York’s Governor DeWitt Clinton and the New York Assembly, also under Clinton’s control, nominated two Anti-Federalists: Albany’s Robert Yates and Albany’s John Lansing to counterbalance Hamilton. Since vote was by state, Yates and Lansing’s two votes would always beat Hamilton’s single vote.
Robert Yates and Alexander Hamilton were confirmed by the New York Legislature easily but John Lansing’s appointment was a closer vote when it became apparent what it would mean. Hamilton immediately introduced a bill to expand the state’s delegation to five members and proposed that John Jay (Schuyler’s second cousin) be added to the delegation. This bill was narrowly defeated.
John Lansing was a wealthy Albany lawyer who owned a large estate at Lansingburgh near Troy. He was speaker of the New York Assembly and mayor of Albany at the time that he was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. He had been military secretary to Major General Philip Schuyler during the Revolution. Lansing was related to Yates by marriage.
John Lansing served on New York’s Supreme Court from 1790 until 1798 when Robert Yates retired and then took over as New York’s chief justice until 1801, when he became chancellor of the State of New York.
On December 12th, 1829, he left the City Hotel to go to New York Harbor to post letters to Albany on the night boat. The doorman saw him leave. It was a rainy night and he carried his umbrella. He failed to appear for dinner at the house of a friend who was expecting him. He was never seen again.
His name is included on his wife’s headstone in the Lansing family plot at Albany Rural Cemetery.
Illustrations, from above: a detail from “The Manner in which the American Colonies Declared Themselves Independent of the King of England, throughout the Different Provinces, on July 4, 1776,” by Noble (engraver), after Hamilton (painter), for Edward Barnard’s The New, Comprehensive, Impartial and Complete History of England… (London, 1783); detail from a publication of the Articles of Confederation (Library of Congress); a page from John Lansing’s copy of Robert Yates notes from July 5, 1787 on the Constituional Convention in Philadelphia, rediscovered in the 1970s (Library of Congress); and a John Lansing portrait by Ezra Ames (1768-1836) made in 1829.