Rediscovering Americans: Robert Yates

Updated: Oct 22, 2021

Written by Samuel Postell, Director of the Center for Liberty and Learning

In some sense, it is odd to call Robert Yates a founding father. Yates was one of the most prominent leaders of the Anti-Federalists. The fruit of his labor was that the state of New York was almost led to reject ratification of the Constitution. Although Yates might be considered something of an “Anti-Founder,” his role in pressuring the Federalists was important: his role in making the people wary of centralized governmental power perhaps educated Americans at the time of the founding to maintain their dedication to limited government.

Yates was born in New York in 1738. He was classically educated and went on to become a surveyor. He is credited with the creation of the first surveyor’s map of Albany, NY. In 1760, Yates was admitted to the New York Bar and joined the Albany Board of Aldermen. He was a member of the first, second, third, and fourth New York Provincial Congresses from 1775-1776 and played an important role in drafting New York’s Constitution. In 1777 he was appointed to the New York Supreme Court. He became the third Chief Justice of that court in 1790.

In 1787 the New York Legislature appointed Yates, Alexander Hamilton, and John Lansing to represent the state at the Constitutional Convention. On July 5th of the convention, the day that the Gerry Committee presented the resolutions for the Connecticut Compromise, Yates and Lansing left the proceedings and wrote a letter to the governor of New York, George Clinton, stating their reasons for leaving the convention. They claimed that they were appointed “for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.”

After the convention, when the states were considering ratification of the new Constitution, Yates became one of the writers under the pseudonyms Brutus and Sydney who argued against ratification. In one of those papers, he wrote,

What then may we expect if the new constitution be adopted as it now stands? The great will struggle for power, honor and wealth; the poor become a prey to avarice, insolence and oppression. And while some are studying to supplant their neighbors, and others striving to keep their stations, one villain will wink at the oppression of another, the people be fleeced, and the public business neglected. From despotism and tyranny good Lord deliver us.

After the ratification of the Constitution, Yates ran twice for governor, but was unsuccessful. In 1821 his notes from the Constitutional Convention were published.

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