The Hideous Political Giant With a Reputation as a Monkey

The United States Senate was designed to be the upper house of Congress. Its rules of procedure are intended to allow for the smooth conduct of business and to preserve civility and decorum in the Senate’s proceedings.

When a senator harbors ill feelings toward another person, however, there is no rule or procedure that can change his attitude. Certainly, there is nothing that prevents the senator from recording his personal observations.

This has been the case since the very first Congress.

Pennsylvania Senator William Maclay
William Maclay (1737-1804)

William Maclay represented Pennsylvania in the Senate from 1789 to 1791. He was one of the most vocal members of the loyal opposition, disagreeing with the agenda of the Federalist Party.

Maclay was no fan of Vice President John Adams. The pompous and thin-skinned Adams made himself an easy target for Maclay’s contempt, which the senator recorded faithfully in his journal:

“After Senate adjourned, I saw the Vice-President standing disengaged. I stepped up to him, asked for his health, and fell into commonplace chat. He is not well furnished with small talk more than myself, and has a very silly kind of laugh. I have often looked with the utmost attention at him to see if his aspect, air, etc., could inspire me with an opinion of his being a man of genius; but…No; the thing seems impossible.”

“God forgive me for the vile thought, but I cannot help thinking of a monkey just put into breeches when I saw him….”

Senator William Maclay

On another occasion, Maclay reflected on Adams’ demeanor and appearance as he sat as the Senate’s presiding officer. He wrote that the Vice President, while seated in his chair, would “look on one side, then on the other, then down on the knees of his breeches, then dimple his visage with the most silly kind of half-smile, which I cannot well express in English. The Scotch-Irish have a word that hits it exactly —smudging. God forgive me for the vile thought, but I cannot help thinking of a monkey just put into breeches when I saw him betray such evident marks of self-conceit. He made us a speech this day also, but, as I did not minute the heads of it when he spoke, I will not attempt to recollect it.”

Maclay was certainly not alone in his contempt for Adams. Thomas Jefferson frequently was put off by his political rival’s personality. Although Jefferson and Adams would spend the final years of their lives as close friends, one would never have predicted it on the evidence of Jefferson’s opinion that Adams was a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”

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