Robert Yates (politician)

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Robert Yates (January 27, 1738 – September 9, 1801) was a politician and judge well known for his Anti-Federalist stances. He is also well known as the presumed author of political essays published in 1787 and 1788 under the pseudonyms "Brutus" and "Sydney". The essays opposed the introduction of the Constitution of the United States.


Robert Yates was born January 27, 1738, in Schenectady, New York, the oldest of 12 children of merchant Joseph Yates and Maria Dunbar.

He learned the craft of the surveyor and then decided to pursue a career in law. After clerking for William Livingston in New York City, in 1760 he was licensed to practice on his own. In 1765, he married Jannette Van Ness and settled in Albany, New York. The couple had six children.

Surveying supplemented Yates' attorney's income as he made a number of important land maps during the 1760s. He drew the first civilian map of Albany in 1770. He also relied on patronage from the Albany Corporation through his uncle, alderman Abraham Yates, Jr. In 1771, he was elected to the Common Council as an alderman for the second ward. In those years he served on a number of committees, provided legal advice, and stepped forward to compile and issue the first published version of the “Laws and Ordinances of the City of Albany” in 1773.

From the beginning of the struggle for American independence, although he did not sign the Albany Sons of Liberty constitution of 1766, he was prominent in the local resistance to the Stamp Act. By 1774, he had joined the Albany Committee of Correspondence and stood among its first members when the committee’s activities became public in 1775. At that time, he was still a member of the Albany common council - although its activities were being replaced by the extra-legal Committee of Correspondence, Safety and Protection. He represented the second ward on the committee and was in close contact with it from his subsequent offices until it ceased operations in 1778. At the same time, he also served as secretary of the Board of Indian Commissioners - a post that required him to travel to the frontier.

Beginning in the spring of 1775, Yates was elected to represent Albany in each of the four New York Provincial Congresses. The first three met in New York, while the last one, convened after the Declaration of Independence, met under duress in locations throughout the Hudson Valley. In 1776-77, he served on the committee that drafted the first New York State Constitution and also was a member of the "Secret Committee for Obstructing Navigation of the Hudson."

In October 1777, Yates was appointed to the New York State Supreme Court.

After the war ended, although principally an associate justice of the state Supreme Court, Yates maintained a modest legal practice and continued surveying as well. During the 1780s, his political star continued to rise in the "party" of Governor George Clinton as he spoke in opposition to the expansion of the scope of a national government. In 1787, he was appointed with John Lansing, Jr. and Alexander Hamilton to represent New York at the Philadelphia convention to revise the Articles of Confederation. Arriving in Philadelphia, Yates and Lansing felt the mood of the convention to produce an entirely new form of government was beyond their authority. After sending a letter to Governor Clinton urging opposition to the new Constitution, they returned home. His personal notes from the Philadelphia convention were published in 1821.

In 1788, Yates was elected as an antifederalist delegate to the New York State ratifying convention at Poughkeepsie, and worked against adoption of the Constitution. Among the leading antifederalists who attended the Poughkeepsie Convention, he was the most vocal delegate in support of protecting individual liberties.[1] After the Poughkeepsie Convention ratified the Constitution with an accompanying request for amendments to protect individual liberties, Yates pledged his support as a matter of patriotic duty.

In 1789, he ran for governor against George Clinton with the support of the New York Anti-Federalists - who viewed him as a reasonable, potentially kindred spirit who was not from a wealthy family. He was defeated by Governor Clinton. Approached by the Federalists again in 1792, Yates refused to run citing the financial drain caused by past politicking. In the gubernatorial campaign of 1795, considerable sentiment existed for Yates's candidacy as he was firmly established in the center of the former antifederal party. John Jay defeated him in a close election, effectively ending Yates's political career. By then, he already had devoted himself to the law.

In September 1790, Yates was chosen Chief Justice of the New York State Supreme Court. He served until the mandatory retirement age of sixty in 1798. Unlike many "new men of the Revolution," he did not attain great wealth and retired to his middling Albany home.

He died in Albany, New York on September 9, 1801, at age 63.[2]



The series of writing that most nearly paralleled and confronted The Federalist Papers during the ratification fight over the United States Constitution was a series of 16 essays published in the New-York Journal, and Weekly Register, which published between 1787 and 1790. The essays were published from October, 1787, through April, 1788, during the same period The Federalist was appearing in New York newspapers. The essays were widely reprinted and commented on throughout the American states. All 16 of the essays were addressed to "the Citizens of the State of New York".

The author of the anti-federalist essay series was "Brutus," a pseudonym for the author. Brutus is believed by many scholars[which?] to be the penname of Yates, and named after either Lucius Junius Brutus who led the overthrow of the last Roman King Tarquinius Superbus or Marcus Junius Brutus, who was one of Julius Caesar's assassins.

Arguments against the Constitution

The people's liberties

One of the main objections to the Constitution argued by Brutus is the immense power of the federal government which requires the people to sacrifice their liberties. Like other Anti-Federalist writers, he argued that a bill of rights was necessary to protect the people from the government. He urged the people of New York not to ratify the Constitution and therefore give up powers to the government because "when the people once part with power, they can seldom or never resume it again but by force." [3] In his view, Americans believe “that all men by nature are free” and the new Constitution requires them to give up too many rights which “counteracts the very end of government.” [4] To alleviate this issue, a bill of rights that considers criminal rights, free elections, and freedom of press must be included.

Legislative branch


Brutus writes the Congress possess far too much power, especially over the states. He prefers a true confederation, which would be: a number of independent states entering into a compact, for the conducting certain general concerns, in which they have a common interest, leaving the management of their internal and local affairs to their separate governments.”[5]

He believes the power to hold a standing army in peacetime as evil and highly dangerous to public liberty.[6] Congress’ unlimited power to collect revenue and to “"borrow money on the credit of the United States” as well as the Necessary and Proper Clause, are highly dangerous to the states, and Brutus believes they will eventually be dissolved if the Constitution is adopted.


Brutus argues that a free republic cannot exist in such a large territory as the United States. He uses the examples of the Greek and Roman republics that became tyrannical as their territory grew.[3] He states that a true free republic comes from the people, not representatives of the people. With the population and geographical size of the United States, he warns that citizens “will have very little acquaintance with those who may be chosen to represent them; a great part of them will, probably, not know the characters of their own members, much less that of a majority of those who will compose the federal assembly; they will consist of men, whose names they have never heard, and whose talents and regard for the public good, they are total strangers to.”[7] He also sees danger in giving Congress the power to modify the election of its own members.

Brutus also questions the validity of the Three Fifths Compromise and asks ““If [slaves] have no share in government. why is the number of members in the assembly, to be increased on their account?”[8] He sees this as one example of the corruption of the branch. The fact that each state, regardless of size, will have the same number of senators "is the only feature of any importance in the constitution of a confederated government" and is one of the few aspects of the legislature that Brutus approves of (16). He disagrees with the method of electing senators as well as the six year term they are given as he believes spending that much time away from his constituents will make him less in touch with their interests (16). He advocates for a rotation in government to avoid the problem of men serving in the Senate for life. He also objects to Congress taking part in appointing officers and impeachment as it gives them both executive and judicial powers and he deems such blurring of the branches as dangerous (16).

Judiciary branch

Brutus argues that the power given to the judiciary will:

  • Extend legislative authority
  • Increase jurisdiction of the courts
  • Diminish and destroy both the legislative and judiciary powers of the states.[9]

He believes that their ability to declare what the powers of the legislature are will lead to extension of legislative power, especially because the Supreme Court can interpret the Constitution according to its "spirit and reason" and will not be bound by its words alone.[9] Like in Britain, this will allow them to "mold the government into almost any shape they please." [10] Also, their ability to deem the validity of state legislation overrides the state judiciaries and will eventually make them so "trifling and unimportant, as not to be worth having.” [9] He also thinks there should be more checks on the branch and judges should not only be removed on the basis of crime. He writes "no way is left to control them but with a high hand and an outstretched arm.” [11]


  1. Klein, Milton. "Nature’s Gift; The Colonial Origins of the Bill of Rights in New York" in The Bill of Rights and the states: the colonial and revolutionary origins of American liberties, p. 222 (1992). His uncle Abraham Yates, Jr. was the only other leading antifederalist who spoke out publicly for individual liberties.
  2. "Biography of Robert Yates". Retrieved 2010-03-22.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1 "Anti-Federalist Papers: Brutus #1". Retrieved 2010-03-22.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. "Anti-Federalist Papers: Brutus #2". Retrieved 2010-03-22.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. "Anti-Federalist Papers: Brutus #5". Retrieved 2010-03-22.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. "Anti-Federalist Papers: Brutus #8". Retrieved 2010-03-22.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. "Anti-Federalist Papers: Brutus #4". Retrieved 2010-03-22.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. "Anti-Federalist Papers: Brutus #3". Retrieved 2010-03-22.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 "Anti-Federalist Papers: Brutus #12". Retrieved 2010-03-22.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. "Anti-Federalist Papers: Brutus #11". Retrieved 2010-03-22.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. "Anti-Federalist Papers: Brutus #15". Retrieved 2010-03-22.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

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