Alexander Hamilton - Ron Chernow (2005)


With the British still clinging to New York City after Yorktown, Hamilton adopted the Schuyler mansion in Albany as his temporary home for the next two years. His lifelong wanderings ended as he formally became a citizen of New York State in May 1782. As he rocked the cradle and dandled the infant Philip, the twenty-seven-year-old war veteran projected the image of a contented paterfamilias. “You cannot imagine how entirely domestic I am growing,” he told ex–Washington aide Richard Kidder Meade.1 In a letter veined with whimsy, Hamilton described Philip at seven months:

It is agreed on all hands that he is handsome, his features are good, his eye is not only sprightly and expressive, but it is full of benignity. His attitude in sitting is by connoisseurs esteemed graceful and he has a method of waving his hand that announces the future orator. He stands however rather awkwardly and his legs have not all the delicate slimness of his father’s…. If he has any fault in manners, he laughs too much.2

Hamilton so savored this unaccustomed domestic role that he informed Meade, “I lose all taste for the pursuits of ambition. I sigh for nothing but the company of my wife and my baby.”3 Meade must have known this was poppycock and that Hamilton’s career would move forward with its own furious inner propulsion. He had lost time in the Caribbean, plus another five years in the Revolution, so as he resumed the legal studies suspended at King’s he wanted to adhere to a speeded-up timetable. For Hamilton, the law arose as the shortest route to political power—the profession claimed thirty-four delegates at the Constitutional Convention—and it would enable him to make a tolerable, even lucrative, living. Ordinarily, the New York Supreme Court stipulated that would-be lawyers serve a three-year apprenticeship before appearing in court. However, responding to a petition from Aaron Burr that January, the rule was temporarily waived for returning veterans who had begun their law studies before the war. Having waded through the tomes of all the major legal sages at King’s, Hamilton qualified for this exemption and set about mastering the law in short order.

Unlike other aspiring lawyers of the time, Hamilton declined to clerk under a practicing attorney and planned to instruct himself. After serving Washington, he probably did not wish to be subservient to another boss and could not bear the prospect of copying out legal documents for some self-styled mentor. He had access to the superlative law library in Albany owned by his friend James Duane, its shelves stocked with treatises on British law, which closely paralleled New York law. “In this state, our judicial establishments resemble more nearly than in any other those of Great Britain,” Hamilton later wrote in Federalist number 83. For Hamilton and other New York law students, British thought crept into their minds in this subliminal fashion and exerted a conservative, Anglophile influence. Particularly influential were Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries, first published in America ten years earlier, which endowed British law with a more systematic coherence. Forrest McDonald has observed, “Blackstone taught Hamilton a reverential enthusiasm for the law itself…. Moreover, the law as Blackstone spelled it out resolved once and for all the tension Hamilton had felt between liberty and law.”4

In that era, law students often cobbled together workbooks that arranged legal precedents, statutes, and procedures by category. John Marshall kept a digest that covered 238 manuscript pages, spanning more than seventy topics; he drew on it extensively in his practice. Hamilton prepared his own manual, entitled “Practical Proceedings in the Supreme Court of the State of New York.” This compendium of 177 manuscript pages and thirty-eight topics is the earliest surviving treatise that captures New York law as it shifted away from British and colonial models. Hamilton did not just transcribe dry extracts; he poked fun at legal pretensions. In one place, he said facetiously that the courts had lately acquired “some faint idea that the end of suits at law is to investigate the merits of the cause and not to [get] entangle[d] in the nets of technical terms.”5 Later the source of famous proclamations about the law’s majesty, Hamilton could also be quite waspish about his chosen profession, telling Lafayette that he was busy “rocking the cradle and studying the art of fleecing my neighbours.”6 “Practical Proceedings” was so expertly done, its copious information so rigorously pigeonholed, that it was copied by hand and circulated among New York law students for years until it was superseded by William Wyche’s 1794 manual, New York Supreme Court Practice, which was itself based in part on Hamilton’s outline. Even then, some attorneys continued to prefer Hamilton’s seminal version.

Hamilton raced through his legal studies with quicksilver speed. By July, just six months after starting his self-education, he passed the bar exam and was licensed as an attorney who could prepare cases before the New York State Supreme Court. In October, he further qualified as a “counsellor” who could argue cases, a status akin to an English barrister. He had to sign an allegiance oath, which showed the extent to which states held sovereign sway under the Articles of Confederation: “I renounce…all allegiance to the King of Great Britain; and…will bear true faith and allegiance to the State of New York, as a free and independent state.”7

In acquiring these credentials, Hamilton lagged six months behind Aaron Burr, who had opened an Albany law office in July 1782. Aside from having sacrificed time to warfare, both young men were rushing to set up practices because it was widely known that patriotic lawyers would inherit the lion’s share of legal work after the peace. This had been confirmed in November 1781 when the New York legislature enacted a law barring Tory lawyers from state courts, a certain bonanza for republican attorneys. Even though Hamilton was to hotly contest anti-Tory bias, he and other young attorneys who had sided with the patriots profited from it during the more than four years that the law stayed in effect.

There is little doubt that Hamilton and Burr socialized a good deal in Albany. While Hamilton was still at Yorktown, Burr had shown up on the Schuyler doorstep with a letter of introduction from General Alexander McDougall: “This will be handed to you by Lieutenant Col. Burr, who goes to Albany, to solicit a license in our courts.”8 It was probably at this point that a pregnant Eliza first smiled and shook hands with her husband’s future executioner. Hamilton’s old classmate Robert Troup was studying for the bar in Albany with his friend Burr, and the two were licensed at the same time. During the summer of 1782, Troup resided at the Schuyler mansion, helping Hamilton with whatever legal tutoring he needed.

Thus, from the outset of their careers, Hamilton and Burr were thrust into close proximity and a competitive situation. Both were short and handsome, witty and debonair, and fatally attractive to women. Both young colonels had the self-possession of military men, liked to flaunt their titles, and seemed cut out to assume distinguished places at the New York bar. Yet in the political sphere, Burr already trailed his upstart acquaintance, who was now a hero of Yorktown and basked in the reflected aura of General Washington. Hamilton also inhabited the splendid Schuyler mansion, while Burr settled for a frugal life until he could build up a legal clientele. That July, Burr married Theodosia Prevost, the confidante of Peggy Shippen Arnold, in the Dutch Reformed Church frequented by the Schuylers. (Theodosia’s husband, a British officer, had died in Jamaica the previous fall.) They had a daughter, also named Theodosia, the following year. The elder Theodosia was ten years older than Burr and was never mistaken for a beauty, but she was charming, pleasant, and conversant in both French and English literature. As much as any man of his day, Burr appreciated smart, accomplished women, which made his later roguish antics all the more inexplicable to admirers.

However impressive it was that Hamilton could compress three years of legal training into nine months, he juggled several other balls at once. After Yorktown, he wrote two more installments of the “Continentalist” essays, which he then lost or misplaced. “He has lately recovered them,” The New-York Packet informed readers in April 1782 in introducing “The Continentalist No. V.” The paper said he had published the essays “more to finish the development of his plan than from any hope that the temper of the times will adopt his ideas.”9 In a sweeping historical tour, Hamilton showed how the English government had fostered trade starting in the reign of Queen Elizabeth and how Louis Colbert had accomplished the like as Louis XIV’s finance minister. He alluded to David Hume’s essays in endorsing government guidance of trade, which he denied was self-regulating and self-correcting. Previewing his Treasury tenure, he advocated duties on imported goods as America’s best form of revenue. For a nation still fighting a revolution over unjust duties on tea and other imports, this was, to put it mildly, a loaded topic. To those who feared oppressive taxes, Hamilton made an argument that anticipated “supply-side economics” of the late twentieth century, saying that officials “can have no temptation to abuse this power, because the motive of revenue will check its own extremes. Experience has shown that moderate duties are more productive than high ones.”10

At the time, many states were loath to transfer control over their own import duties to Congress, and Hamilton feared that the resulting economic rivalries would threaten political unity. His qualms were shared by Robert Morris, who sketched the broad contours of a program—establishing a national bank, funding the war debt, and ending inflation—that was the forerunner of Hamilton’s work as treasury secretary. To strengthen the central government, Morris decided to appoint a tax receiver in each state who would be free from dependence on local officials. On May 2, 1782, he asked Hamilton to become receiver of continental taxes for New York. As an inducement, he assured Hamilton that he could pocket one-quarter of 1 percent of any monies collected. Hamilton, feeling harried, turned him down flat. “Time is so precious to me that I could not put myself in the way of any interruptions unless for an object of consequence to the public or to myself,” he replied.11 Hamilton may have suspected that with five New York counties still in enemy hands, the job would not be that remunerative. In early June, Morris sweetened the pot by guaranteeing Hamilton a percentage of the money owed, not just collected. This evidently persuaded Hamilton to accept the offer, and he further volunteered to lobby the state legislature for Morris’s tax measures. Whether the self-taught Hamilton knew it or not—and one suspects that he very much did—he was now squarely positioned to succeed Robert Morris as America’s preeminent financial figure.

The few months that Hamilton spent trying to gather taxes demonstrated anew the perils of the Articles of Confederation. States regarded their payments to Congress, in effect, as voluntary and often siphoned off funds for local purposes before making any transfers. This situation, combined with a lack of independent federal revenues, had forced the patriots to finance the Revolution by either borrowing or printing paper money. On July 4, in his sixth “Continentalist” essay, Hamilton, with a nod to Morris, applauded the appointment of federal customs and tax collectors to “create in the interior of each state a mass of influence in favour of the federal government.”12 This essay makes clear that, in the Revolution’s waning days, Hamilton had to combat the utopian notion that America could dispense with taxes altogether: “It is of importance to unmask this delusion and open the eyes of the people to the truth. It is paying too great a tribute to the idol of popularity to flatter so injurious and so visionary an expectation.”13

In mid-July, while still cramming for his next bar exam, Hamilton traveled to Poughkeepsie and pleaded successfully with state legislators to form a special committee to expedite tax collection. Working with Philip Schuyler, he got the legislature to adopt a set of resolutions (likely authored by Hamilton himself) calling for more congressional taxing power and a national conference to overhaul the Articles of Confederation—the first such appeal issued by a public body. Hamilton’s determined pursuit of reform won plaudits from Morris, and in his correspondence with Hamilton, Morris let down his guard and confided his frustration at congressional ineptitude. Hamilton repaid the candor. “The more I see, the more I find reason for those who love this country to weep over its blindness,” Hamilton wrote.14 He recoiled at the cowardice and selfishness he saw rampant in the New York legislature. “The inquiry constantly is what will please, not what will benefit the people,” he told Morris. “In such a government there can be nothing but temporary expedient, fickleness, and folly.”15 Increasingly Hamilton despaired of pure democracy, of politicians simply catering to the popular will, and favored educated leaders who would enlighten the people and exercise their own judgment.

Whatever his disdain for state legislators, Hamilton made a favorable impression at Poughkeepsie. Jurist James Kent recalled that “his animated and didactic conversation, far superior to ordinary discourse in sentiment, language, and manner, and his frank and manly deportment, interested my attention.”16 The legislators were so taken with Hamilton’s presentation that he was chosen as one of five members of New York’s delegation to the Continental (or Confederation) Congress that was to convene in November. With typical dexterity, Hamilton had parlayed the technocratic job of tax collector into a congressional seat.

For Hamilton, nobody in his generation showed a more genuine love of country or more salient leadership traits than his friend John Laurens. In January 1782, at a time when the British still held Charleston and Savannah, Laurens had addressed the South Carolina legislature in a futile last bid for his star-crossed scheme to recruit black troops. That July, he wrote a warm letter to Hamilton, expressing hope that his friend would “fill only the first offices of the republic.” (Once again, a portion of Laurens’s letter is missing, perhaps sanitized by Hamilton’s family.) The note concluded, “Adieu, my dear friend. While circumstances place so great a distance between us, I entreat you not to withdraw the consolation of your letters. You know the unalterable sentiments of your affectionate Laurens.”17 Hamilton believed fervently that, once the war ended, he and Laurens, like figures from classical antiquity, would embark jointly on a new political crusade to lay the foundations for a solid republican union. In mid-August, he told Laurens that the state legislature had named him to Congress. Striking an uplifting note, he made a stirring appeal for his old comrade to join him there. “Quit your sword my friend, put on the toga, come to Congress. We know each other’s sentiments, our views are the same. We have fought side by side to make America free. Let us hand in hand struggle to make her happy.”18

We do not know whether Laurens ever set eyes on this message. In late August 1782, a British expedition from Charleston was foraging for rice near the Combahee River when the impetuous Laurens flouted orders and tried to ambush them with a small force. The enemy was tipped off and squatted in the high grass waiting for him. Once they stood up to fire, Laurens began to charge and exhorted his men to follow. He was instantly cut down by a bullet. John Laurens was one of the last casualties of the American Revolution. Many thought he had foolishly risked his life and those of his men in a trivial action against a superior force after real hostilities had ended. His death vindicated Washington’s judgment that the patriotic Laurens had only one serious fault: “intrepidity bordering on rashness.”19 He was mourned by many who thought he had had the makings of a fine leader. “Our country has lost its most promising character in a manner, however, that was worthy of the cause,” John Adams consoled Henry Laurens.20

For Hamilton, the news was crushing. “Poor Laurens, he has fallen a sacrifice to his ardor in a trifling skirmish in South Carolina,” he wrote sadly to Lafayette, the other member of their war triumvirate. “You know how truly I loved him and will judge how much I regret him.”21 The death deprived Hamilton of the political peer, the steadfast colleague, that he was to need in his tempestuous battles to consolidate the union. He would enjoy a brief collaboration with James Madison and never lacked the stalwart if often aloof patronage of George Washington. But he was more of a solitary crusader without Laurens, lacking an intimate lifelong ally such as Madison and Jefferson found in each other. On a personal level, the loss was even more harrowing. Despite a large circle of admirers, Hamilton did not form deep friendships easily and never again revealed his interior life to another man as he had to Laurens. He became ever more voluble in his public life but somehow less introspective and revelatory in private. Henceforth, his confessional remarks were reserved for Eliza or Angelica Church. After the death of John Laurens, Hamilton shut off some compartment of his emotions and never reopened it.

In late November 1782, Alexander Hamilton, after trotting on horseback all the way from Albany, arrived in Philadelphia to take up his place in the Confederation Congress. The city of forty thousand people that he encountered was larger and more affluent than New York or Boston. Having grown up in seaside towns, he must have found something pleasingly familiar about this seaport with its tall-masted ships and extensive wharves. Compared to the raucous commercial chaos of New York, Philadelphia was a more orderly place, abounding in elegant homes tucked tidily behind garden walls. On sunny days, fashionable ladies strolled with parasols. Many tree-shaded streets had brick sidewalks swept clean by a sanitation department and illuminated nightly by whale-oil lamps. Though Presbyterians and Baptists now outnumbered Quakers, a trace of their old austerity lingered. By 11:00 P.M., one young English visitor grumbled, “there is no city in the world, perhaps, so quiet. At that hour, you may walk over half the town without seeing the face of a human being, except the watchman.”22

Hamilton had left Eliza and baby Philip behind but was still the starry-eyed newlywed and did not wander the streets in search of nocturnal adventure. He assured his wife several weeks after arriving that “there never was a husband who could vie with yours in fidelity and affection.”23 At first, he tolerated Eliza’s absence well and did not yearn for her presence until early January, when he began arranging her trip to Philadelphia—then he could not wait to see her. “Every hour in the day I feel a severe pang on this account and half my nights are sleepless,” he told her. “Come my charmer and relieve me. Bring my darling boy to my bosom.”24

In Philadelphia, Hamilton found himself part of a Congress whose inadequacy he had long ridiculed. The whole jerry-built structure—the endless ad hoc committees, the voting rules that encouraged states to veto vital measures, the term limits that restricted congressmen to three one-year terms in a six-year period—guaranteed paralysis. As Hamilton complained, the undemocratic voting rules put it in the power “of a small combination to retard and even to frustrate the most necessary measures.”25 For someone with his reverence for efficiency, it was an exasperating situation. The problems only worsened after November 30, 1782, when American peace commissioners signed a provisional peace treaty with Great Britain, sapping incentives for further unity. Local leaders such as Sam Adams in Massachusetts and Patrick Henry in Virginia eloquently asserted the sovereignty of the states. So magnetic was the allure of state governments that many members of Congress stayed home, making it difficult to muster quorums. The caliber of delegates suffered accordingly, and their jealous discords infuriated Hamilton.

He was saved from despondency by a like-minded delegate who also foresaw a mighty nation and had a richly furnished mind to match his own: James Madison. They shared a continental perspective, enjoyed a congruent sense of missions, and served together on numerous committees. Having been thrown on his own resources at an early age, Hamilton, twenty-seven, was far more worldly than Madison, thirty-one, who had led a cosseted life. On the other hand, Madison, laboring in Congress since 1780, was already a seasoned legislator. He was so conscientious that he set a congressional endurance record by scarcely missing a day during three years of service. The French minister rated Madison “the man of soundest judgment in Congress…. He speaks nearly always with fairness and wins the approval of his colleagues.”26

In many ways, Madison was a pivotal figure in Hamilton’s career, their early collaboration and later falling-out demarcating distinct stages in Hamilton’s life. People tended either to embrace Hamilton or to abhor him; Madison stands out for having alternated between the usual extremes. Small and shy, James Madison had a formidable mind, but he was unprepossessing in manner and appearance. He usually dressed in black, had the bookish pallor of a scholar, and cut a somber figure. Seldom did he smile in public, and the wife of one Virginia politician chided him for being “a gloomy stiff creature.”27 Another female observer found Madison entertaining in private but “mute, cold, and repulsive” in company.28 He did not court publicity and lacked the charismatic sparkle that made the brashly confident Hamilton a natural leader. If Hamilton seemed born to rule, then Madison seemed born to reflect. Still, Madison’s diffidence could be deceptive, and his indomitable force showed when he opened his mouth. He was a queer mixture of intellectual assurance, bordering on conceit, and social timidity and awkwardness. Lacking Hamilton’s social ease and fluency, he could also be funny and a superb raconteur among warm companions, even telling the occasional bawdy tale. At the time they met, Madison was a priggish bachelor and tight-lipped about his private affairs. No personal gossip ever smudged the severe rectitude of James Madison’s image.

Madison came from a family that had lived comfortably in Virginia’s Piedmont region for a century and was related to many local landowners. Madison’s grandfather owned 29 slaves, and his father boosted that number to 118, making him the largest slaveholder in Orange County, Virginia. The family also owned up to ten thousand acres in the county. Until age fifty, Madison, the oldest of ten children, lived in economic dependence on his father and even in Congress fell back on income from the family plantation. Like Jefferson, he could not escape his dependence on slavery, whatever his private qualms, and told his father during his last year in Congress that unless the delegates got a pay raise, “I shall be under the necessity of selling a Negro.”29

Against an incongruous backdrop of black hands stooping in the fields, Madison passed his cloistered childhood. Suffering from a nervous disorder reminiscent of epilepsy, he was prone to hypochondria and, like many sickly children, took to reading. He received a fine classical education: five years at a boarding school, followed by two years of private tutoring on his plantation. At Princeton, he absorbed prodigious heaps of books and slept only four or five hours per night. President Witherspoon, who had rejected Hamilton, remarked of Madison that “during the whole time he was under [my] tuition [I] never knew him to do, or to say, an improper thing.”30 Madison retained the air of a perennial student and always immersed himself in laborious study before major political events.

Because of poor health, Madison served only briefly as a colonel in the Orange County militia and then became a member of the Virginia House of Delegates and the governor’s Council of State before being named the youngest member of Congress in 1780. Hamilton and Madison represented a new generation of postwar leaders whose careers were wholly identified with the new republic. At this juncture, they had a similar vision of the structural reforms needed by the government. Madison favored a standing army, a permanent navy, and other positions later associated with the Hamiltonians. If anything, Madison was even more militant than Hamilton in asserting central authority and wanted Congress to be able to apply force against states that refused to pay their requested contributions.

Despite the thorny complexities, it was a heady time for these two young men who saw themselves striving for mankind. As Madison phrased it in April 1783, the rights for which America contended “were the rights of human nature,” and its citizens were “responsible for the greatest trust ever confided to a political society.”31 To galvanize the new country, Hamilton and Madison concentrated on the crying need for revenue—a need alleviated only partially when John Adams had arranged a large loan from Holland on June 11, 1782. They believed that Congress required a permanent, independent revenue source, free from reliance on the capricious whims of the states. Only then could Congress retire the huge war debt and stem a nascent movement to repudiate it. Hamilton stressed this in a resolution that read like a fervent trumpet blast: “Resolved, that it is the opinion of Congress that complete JUSTICE cannot be done to the creditors of the United States, nor restoration of PUBLIC CREDIT be effected, nor the future exigencies of the war provided for, but by the establishment of permanent and adequate funds to operate generally throughout the United States, to be collected by Congress.32

Hamilton joined Madison in a campaign to introduce a federal impost—a 5 percent duty on all imports—that would finally grant Congress autonomy in money matters. For Hamilton, the overriding goal was to institute a federal power of taxation. The most heated opposition came from Rhode Island, and Hamilton and Madison sat on a committee that dealt with the maverick state. They issued a joint statement, almost entirely in Hamilton’s handwriting, that reiterated his now standard plea of the importance of public credit to national honor. Then came a statement still more fraught with large consequences: “The truth is that no federal constitution can exist without powers that, in their exercise, affect the internal policy of the component members.”33

Hamilton was throwing down a gauntlet: the central government had to have the right to enact laws that superseded those of the states and to deal directly with their citizens. In late January, he made a still more heretical speech: he wanted to assign federal tax collectors to the states as a way of “pervading and uniting” them.34 Hamilton was now aiming openly not at a makeshift confederation of states but at a unitary nation. Taken aback by this excessive candor, Madison noted that some members “smiled at the disclosure” and gloated privately “that Mr. Hamilton had let out the secret.”35 The incident again showed that Hamilton, far from being a crafty plotter, often could not muzzle his opinions. He was not one to traffic in halfhearted measures—Congress was setting enduring precedents for peacetime—and he opposed a compromise bill in April that limited the scope of the imposts and left revenue collection to each state. Hamilton’s quarrel with New York governor George Clinton over the impost was to blossom into full-blown mutual animosity and profoundly affect the rest of his career.

Money was needed urgently to mollify the disaffected officers of the Continental Army, who threatened to turn mutinous at their winter camp in Newburgh, New York. The provisional peace treaty raised the unsettling prospect that the army might disband without officers receiving either back pay—as much as six years owed, in some cases—or promised pensions. The officer corps buzzed with threats of mass resignations, and a three-man delegation went to Philadelphia to negotiate a solution. On January 6, 1783, they presented Congress with a petition that expressed festering grievances: “We have borne all that men can bear—our property is expended—our private resources are at an end.”36 Some soldiers had been left so indebted by the fighting and the devalued currency that they feared they would be jailed upon their discharge from the army. Hamilton and Madison met with the disgruntled officers and were assigned to a subcommittee to devise a solution. The two men seized the chance to admonish Congress to fund the entire national war debt and satisfy the soldiers along with other creditors. The sad reality was that, deprived of real taxing power, Congress could offer the soldiers little but rhetorical solace.

Hamilton held out slim hope that the states would replenish the general coffers and appease the officers’ demands. With his pessimistic imagination, he dwelled on the dangers inherent in situations, and he feared that civil strife, even disunion, would follow peace with Britain. In mid-February, he wrote apprehensively to Governor Clinton, outlining a plan to resettle military officers in New York State: “I wish the legislature would set apart a tract of territory and make a liberal allowance to every officer and soldier of the army at large who will become a citizen of the state.” As a leading “continentalist,” Hamilton knew that such a suggestion might seem to counter his image. “It is the first wish of my heart that the union may last,” he explained, “but feeble as the links are, what prudent man would rely upon it? Should a disunion take place, any person who will cast his eyes upon the map will see how essential it is to our state to provide for its own security.”37 In this case, Clinton heeded Hamilton’s advice and handed out lucrative land grants in New York State to willing officers.

Hamilton knew that the final arbiter of the deadly stalemate between restive officers and an impotent Congress was George Washington, with whom he had not corresponded in more than a year. On February 13, presuming on their former trust, Hamilton addressed a confidential letter to him. Writing now as a peer, he dared to advise Washington on how to handle the threatened uprising. For Hamilton, such a threat had its uses if it could prod a lethargic Congress into bolstering national finances: “The claims of the army, urged with moderation but with firmness, may operate on those weak minds which are influenced by their apprehensions more than their judgments…. But the difficulty will be to keep a complaining and suffering army within the bounds of moderation.”38 For Washington to maintain his standing among both the army and the citizenry at large, Hamilton urged him to badger Congress through surrogates.

Hamilton was coaxing Washington to dabble in a dangerous game of pretending to be a lofty statesman while covertly orchestrating pressure on Congress. The letter shows Hamilton at his most devious, playing with combustible forces. (He wasn’t alone in this strategy: Gouverneur Morris in Philadelphia was also writing to General Nathanael Greene that the states would never pay the army “unless the army be united and determined in the pursuit of it.”)39Hamilton feared that the cautious Washington might be thrust aside by more militant officers and told him of whispering in the army that he did not uphold his soldiers’ interests “with sufficient warmth. The falsehood of this opinion no one can be better acquainted with than myself, but it is not the less mischievous for being false.”40

A week later, Hamilton and Madison met at the home of Thomas FitzSimons to discuss the growing officer militance. Madison’s notes give us Hamilton’s unexpurgated view of Washington at the time. It jibes with his earlier statements about Washington’s sometimes irritable personality but absolute rectitude:

Mr. Hamilton said that he knew Gen[era]l Washington intimately and perfectly, that his extreme reserve, mixed sometimes with a degree of asperity of temper, both of which were said to have increased of late, had contributed to the decline of his popularity. But that his virtue, his patriotism, and his firmness would…never yield to any dishonorable plans into which he might be called. That he would sooner suffer himself to be cut into pieces; that he (Mr. Hamilton), knowing this to be his true character, wished him to be the conductor of the army in their plans for redress in order that they might be moderated and directed to proper objects.41

On March 4, Washington thanked Hamilton for his frank letter and confessed that he had not fathomed the abysmal state of America’s finances. He referred gravely to the “contemplative hours” he had spent on the subject of the soldiers’ pay: “The sufferings of a complaining army on one hand, and the inability of Congress and tardiness of the states on the other, are the forebodings of evil.” Washington then obliquely rebuffed Hamilton’s misguided suggestion that he exploit army discontent to goad Congress into action on public finance, saying it might “excite jealousy and bring on its concomitants.”42 With unerring foresight, Washington perceived the importance of enshrining the principle that military power should be subordinated to civilian control.

The Newburgh situation grew only more incendiary. In the following days, two anonymous letters made the rounds in camp, fomenting opposition to Washington and rallying the officers to apply force against Congress. One document warned darkly, “Suspect the man who would advise to more moderation and longer forbearance.”43 It seemed as if the new nation might be lurching toward a military putsch. On March 12, Washington, alarmed by this state of affairs, told Hamilton that he would attend an officers’ meeting on March 15 to stop them from “plunging themselves into a gulf of civil horror from which there might be no receding.”44 Washington kept his diplomatic balance, trying to head off rash action by his officers while pleading for timely congressional relief. “Let me beseech you therefore, my good sir,” he told Hamilton, “to urge this matter earnestly and without further delay. The situation of these gentlemen, I do verily believe, is distressing beyond description.”45

On March 15, Washington addressed the officers, determined to squash a reported scheme to march on Congress. For the first time, he confronted a hostile audience of his own men. Washington sternly rebuked talk of rebellion, saying it would threaten the liberties for which they had fought. An insurrection would only “open the floodgates of civil discord and deluge our rising empire in blood.”46 He then staged the most famous coup de théâtre of his career. He was about to read aloud a letter from a congressman when the words swam before his eyes. So he fished in his pockets for his glasses. “Gentlemen,” he said, “you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in service to my country.”47 The mutinous soldiers, inexpressibly moved, were shamed by their opposition to Washington and restored to their senses. Washington agreed to lobby Congress on their behalf, and a committee chaired by Hamilton granted the officers a pension payment equivalent to five years’ full pay. Whether Congress could really make good on such payments without its own taxing power was another question.

As soon as he heard of Washington’s virtuoso performance, Hamilton applauded him: “Your Excellency has, in my opinion, acted wisely. The best way is ever not to attempt to stem a torrent but to divert it. You coincide in opinion with me on the conduct proper to be observed by yourself.”48 Washington had heeded Hamilton’s advice in assuming a leadership role but had pointedly ignored his advice about inflaming the situation for political ends. Hamilton still clung to the notion that a convincing bluff of armed force could help spur congressional action, but that was as far as he would venture. “As to any combination of force,” he observed, “it would only be productive of the horrors of a civil war, might end in the ruin of the country, and would certainly end in the ruin of the army.”49

The feared mutiny at Newburgh deepened but also complicated relations between Hamilton and Washington. It reinforced their mutual conviction that the Articles of Confederation had to be revised root and branch and Congress strengthened. “More than half the perplexities I have experienced in the course of my command, and almost the whole of the difficulties and distress of the army, have their origin here,” Washington wrote of congressional weakness.50 At the same time, Washington saw a certain Machiavellian streak in Hamilton and bluntly told him of grumbling in the army about congressmen who tried to use the soldiers as “mere puppets to establish continental funds.” He lectured Hamilton: “The army…is a dangerous instrument to play with.”51 Washington must have seen that Hamilton, for all his brains and daring, sometimes lacked judgment and had to be supervised carefully. On the other hand, Hamilton had employed his wiles in the service of ideals that Washington himself endorsed.

In the spring of 1783, Alexander Hamilton, twenty-eight, already stood near the pinnacle of national affairs. He chaired a military committee that hatched the first plan for a peacetime army under the aegis of the federal government. In early April, Congress named him chairman of the committee in charge of peace arrangements, equipped with a spacious mandate to investigate ways to “provide a system for foreign affairs, for Indian affairs, for military and naval peace establishments,” in Madison’s words. That month, Congress ratified the provisional peace treaty with Britain, marking an end to eight years of hostilities—news that only amplified the menacing clamor among soldiers who wanted to pocket their pay before going home. “And here, my dear Colo[nel] Hamilton,” Washington wrote, “let me assure you that it would not be more difficult to still the raging billows in a tempestuous gale than to convince the officers of this army of the justice or policy of paying men in civil offices full wages when they cannot obtain a sixtieth part of their dues.”52 Even though Congress enacted a new system of import duties that April, Hamilton still feared that it would lack the requisite funds to pacify the army. When Robert Morris threatened to quit as superintendent of finance in May, Hamilton was among those enlisted to persuade him to stay until the army could be safely disbanded. He introduced an emergency resolution, asking the states to send money to the common treasury so the soldiers could be paid and demobilized.

In mid-June, the raging billows that Washington had warned about still surged and foamed. Rebellious troops in Philadelphia sent a petition to Congress, couched in threatening language, demanding their money. Two days later, word came that eighty armed soldiers were marching from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to Philadelphia to pry loose the pay owed to them. Their surly ranks swelled as they advanced. Hamilton, now Congress’s man for all seasons, was swiftly drafted into a three-man committee to fend off the threat. He and his colleagues appealed to Pennsylvania’s Supreme Executive Council to send local militiamen to stop these soldiers before they reached Philadelphia and made common cause with troops in local barracks. Hamilton was irate when the state refused to act until some outrage was perpetrated. Unafraid to lead, he stepped into the void fearlessly and directed Major William Jackson, assistant secretary at war, to intercept the rowdy protesters before they reached the city line. “You will represent to them with coolness but energy the impropriety of such irregular proceedings,” he instructed, “and the danger they will run by persisting in an improper conduct.”53

The troops, brushing Jackson aside, poured into Philadelphia on June 20, banded together with fractious troops in city barracks, and seized control of several arsenals. The next day, Elias Boudinot, president of Congress and Hamilton’s erstwhile sponsor, convened a special Saturday-afternoon session of Congress to deal with the worsening crisis. That morning, Boudinot heard reports that rebel troops might sack the local bank. The congressmen were scarcely seated when about four hundred rebel soldiers, bayonets stabbing the air, encircled the State House, where Congress and the state’s Supreme Executive Council occupied separate chambers. Things looked ominous: the mutineers far surpassed in number loyal troops guarding the doors. The symbolism was especially troubling: a mob of drunken soldiers had besieged the people’s delegates in the building where the Declaration of Independence had been signed.

The congressmen did not fear “premeditated violence,” Madison reported, “but it was observed that spiritous drink from the tippling houses adjoining began to be liberally served out to the soldiers and might lead to hasty excesses.”54 The increasingly drunken troops sent a scolding petition to the delegates inside, insisting that they be allowed to choose their own officers and threatening to unleash an “enraged soldiery” unless their demands were met within twenty minutes. The delegates refused to submit to such blackmail, shorten their session, or negotiate with rabble.

After three hours, the embattled congressmen marched out of the State House to the sneers and taunts of rioters. As he emerged, Hamilton saw embodied his worst nightmare: a portion of the revolutionary army had broken down into a mob that was intimidating an enfeebled central government. Now it was Hamilton, like Washington three months before, who made a vigorous case for military subordination to civilian rule. “The licentiousness of an army is to be dreaded in every government,” he later commented, “but in a republic it is more particularly to be restrained, and when directed against the civil authority to be checked with energy and punished with severity.”55 The situation made him again wonder how a spirited young democracy could generate the respect necessary for the rule of law to endure.

That evening, Elias Boudinot assembled congressmen at his home. They passed a defiant resolution, written by Hamilton, claiming that government authority had been “grossly insulted” by the rioters and demanding that “effectual measures be immediately taken for supporting the public authority.”56 If Pennsylvania persisted in its spineless inaction, Congress would relocate to Trenton or Princeton—by no coincidence, the scenes of famous patriotic victories. The next morning, Hamilton and Oliver Ellsworth delivered this blunt ultimatum to John Dickinson, now the president of the Supreme Executive Council. If Pennsylvania could not guarantee the safety of Congress, then it would suspend all further meetings in the city.

After his encounter with the council, Hamilton lost all hope that the state would send out the militia, and he submitted a chilling report to Congress. The mutineers, he noted, had selected their own officers to present their grievances and authorized them to use force, even threatening them “with death in case of their failing to execute their views.”57 Aghast at the “weak and disgusting” behavior of Pennsylvania’s leaders at a moment demanding unequivocal action, Hamilton reluctantly concluded and Congress agreed that they should adjourn to Princeton by Thursday.58

In short order, Congress fled across the state line and set up a movable capital in Princeton. The delegates settled crankily into cramped, makeshift quarters, Madison sharing a bed with another delegate in a room scarcely larger than ten feet square. Most shocking to this bibliophile, it lacked a desk. “I am obliged to write in a position that scarcely admits the use of any of my limbs,” he complained.59 So primitive were the Princeton lodgings that one month later Congress, like a French medieval court in the hunting season, packed up again and moved to Annapolis, followed by Trenton one year later, then New York City in 1785. Of this runaway Congress, hounded from its home, Benjamin Rush said that it was “abused, laughed at, and cursed in every company.”60 True to Hamilton’s prediction, the insurrection collapsed as soon as resolute action was undertaken. The Pennsylvania council tardily called up five hundred militiamen; once the mutineers learned of an approaching detachment, they laid down their arms, and the Lancaster contingent trudged back to its base.

A perpetual magnet for controversy, Hamilton was stung by charges that he had conspired to move the capital from Philadelphia as part of a plot to transfer it to New York. In fact, Hamilton had feared that if Congress decamped, it would dilute domestic respect for its authority and sully America’s image abroad. On July 2, he seconded a resolution that Congress should return to Philadelphia and prodded Madison for a statement confirming that he had postponed the flight to Princeton until the very last instant. Like an attorney collecting affidavits in a lawsuit, Hamilton asked his colleague, “Did I appear to wish to hasten it, or did I not rather show a strong decision to procrastinate it?”61 Madison obliged with a letter: yes, Hamilton had stalled until the last moment. Once again, the thin-skinned Hamilton was quick to refute insinuations of duplicity or self-interest. Convinced that appearances, not reality, ruled in politics, he never wanted to allow misimpressions to linger, however briefly, in the air.

The Philadelphia mutiny had major repercussions in American history, for it gave rise to the notion that the national capital should be housed in a special federal district where it would never stand at the mercy of state governments. For Hamilton, the episode only heightened his dismay over the Confederation Congress and the folly of relying on state militias. On the other hand, he thought Congress had been unfairly blamed for failing to fulfill its duties when it was consistently deprived of the means of doing so. Its flagrant weaknesses stemmed from its constitution, not from its administration.

By the time the Pennsylvania mutineers dispersed, Hamilton had endured seven weary months in Congress, a period that had taxed his energy and patience. That three of New York’s five delegates had been absent much of the time only added to his heavy burden. He had concluded that the country was not ready to amend the risible Articles of Confederation, because local and state politics exerted too dominant an influence. “Experience must convince us that our present establishments are utopian before we shall be ready to part with them for better,” he told Nathanael Greene.62 While marking time in Princeton in July, Hamilton drafted a resolution that again called for a convention to revise the Articles of Confederation. This prescient document encapsulated many features of the 1787 Constitution: a federal government with powers separated among legislative, executive, and judicial branches, and a Congress with the power to levy taxes and raise an army. Hamilton again questioned the doctrine of free trade when he argued for federal regulation of trade so that “injurious branches of commerce might be discouraged, favourable branches encouraged, [and] useful products and manufactures promoted.”63 With his hyperactive mind, Hamilton was already fleshing out a rough draft of America’s future government.

Yet with the war ending, many advocates of state sovereignty wanted Congress dismantled as a permanent body. They thought the current Congress was too strong. “The constant session of Congress cannot be necessary in times of peace,” said Thomas Jefferson, who wanted to replace it with a committee.64 Slowly but inexorably, the future battle lines were being drawn between those who wanted an energetic central government and those who wanted rights to revert to the states. When his draft resolution foundered, Hamilton saw no need to dawdle any longer in this dwindling, demoralized Congress. On July 22, he informed Eliza that once the definitive peace treaty arrived, he would join her: “I give you joy, my angel, of the happy conclusion of the important work in which your country has been engaged. Now, in a very short time, I hope we shall be happily settled in New York.”65

Hamilton was dragooned into riding back to Albany with the dour Mrs. Schuyler, who insisted on making a detour through New York City. This stopover gave Hamilton a queasy foretaste of the tensions brewing between returning patriots and British sympathizers. He was scandalized by the flight of Tory businessmen—seven thousand had sailed for Nova Scotia in April alone—and feared the economic wreckage that might ensue from this large-scale exodus. When he got back to Albany, a shaken Hamilton wrote to Robert R. Livingston, “Many merchants of second class, characters of no political consequence, each of whom may carry away eight or ten thousand guineas have, I am told, applied for shipping to convey them away. Our state will feel for twenty years at least the effect of the popular frenzy.”66

For more than a century, November 25, 1783, was commemorated in New York City as Evacuation Day, the blessed end to seven years of British rule and martial law. At the southern tip of Manhattan, in a spiteful parting gesture, sullen redcoats greased the fort’s flagpole as the last British troops were ferried out to transport ships waiting in the harbor. Once the British had relinquished their hold over this last outpost of occupied soil, the procession of American worthies entered, led by General Henry Knox, who hoisted the American flag up a newly pitched pole. Cannon rattled off a thirteen-gun salute, flags flapped, and crowds cheered in delirium as George Washington and Governor George Clinton, guarded by Westchester light cavalry, rode side by side into the city, followed by throngs of citizens and soldiers marching eight abreast. The long, triumphant procession wound down to the Battery, taking in the roars of the ecstatic crowds packing the streets. America had been purged of the last vestiges of British rule. It had been a long and grueling experience—the eight years of fighting counted as the country’s longest conflict until Vietnam—and the cost had been exceedingly steep in blood and treasure. Gordon Wood has noted that the twenty-five thousand American military deaths amounted to nearly 1 percent of the entire population, a percentage exceeded only by the Civil War.67

As Washington gazed at the crowds, he could observe on every street corner debris left by the war. The British had never rebuilt those sections of the town blighted by the giant conflagration of September 1776. The city was now a shantytown of tents and hovels, interspersed with skeletal ruins of mansions and hollowed-out dwellings. Cows roamed weedy streets rank with garbage. When the future mayor James Duane saw his old properties, he moaned that they “look as if they had been inhabited by savages or wild beasts.”68 To provide firewood for British troops, the city had been denuded of fences and trees, and the wharves stood rotting and decayed. “Noisome vapours arise from the mud left in the docks and slips at low water,” said one visitor, “and unwholesome smells are occasioned by such a number of people being crowded together in so small a compass, almost like herrings in a barrel, most of them very dirty and not a small number sick of some disease.”69 Hamilton was already meditating a plan for removing this devastation. Instead of patching up derelict houses and building huts on vacant lots, he expressed hope that the city’s mechanics and artisans would find “profitable and durable employment in erecting large and elegant edifices.”70

Less apparent but no less momentous than the physical change was the huge demographic shift triggered by the approaching peace. As British hopes of victory faded, many Loyalists had crowded aboard convoys and escaped to Britain, Canada, and Bermuda. At the same time, there was a countervailing influx of patriots that doubled New York City’s population from about twelve thousand on Evacuation Day to twenty-four thousand just two years later, making it a booming metropolis that surpassed Boston and Baltimore in size. The surge of new and returning residents drove up prices sharply for food, fuel, and lodging.

During his stay of a little more than a week in New York, Washington salvaged the reputations of several suspected Tories who had engaged in espionage for the patriots. Whether coincidentally or not, two were old acquaintances of Hamilton from King’s College days. The morning after he entered New York, Washington breakfasted with the loquacious tailor, Hercules Mulligan, who had spied on British officers visiting his shop. To wipe away any doubts about Mulligan’s true loyalties, Washington pronounced him “a true friend of liberty.”71

Washington also strolled into the bookshop of the urbane printer James Rivington, who had been attacked by Isaac Sears and the Sons of Liberty when Hamilton was at King’s. With the war over, Rivington tried to stay in business by deleting the world Royal from his newspaper’s name and the British arms from its masthead, but he finally had to suspend publication. In reality, he had done yeoman’s work for the patriots, having stolen the British fleet’s signal book, which had been transmitted to Admiral de Grasse. Washington disappeared into a back room with Rivington under the guise of consulting some agricultural books and rewarded him with a bag of gold pieces.

On December 4, Washington made his tearful farewell to his officers at Fraunces Tavern at the corner of Broad and Pearl Streets, again underscoring that military officers were merely servants of the republic. Washington resisted all calls to become a king. There is no proof that Hamilton attended the historic valedictory, in spite of his having been at Washington’s side for four years of war. His absence, which must have been noted, suggests that he still nursed some secret wound because of his treatment by Washington. Certainly Washington, of all people, would not have lacked the magnanimity to invite him. Afterward, trailed by speechless admirers, Washington strolled down Whitehall Street and boarded a barge that carried him to the New Jersey shore.

Just a few days earlier, Alexander and Eliza Hamilton, along with baby Philip, had begun to rent a house at 57 (later 58) Wall Street, not far from Fraunces Tavern. For the first time, the vagabond young man from the West Indies had a real home-town, a permanent address. By the standards of the day, Wall Street was a broad, elegant thoroughfare, and many of the best-known merchant families resided there. The Hamiltons lived on the less fashionable eastern end, which was full of shops and offices, while Aaron and Theodosia Burr lived at tony 3 Wall Street—“next door but one to the City Hall,” at Wall and Broad, as Burr proudly put it.72 The lives of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr continued in parallel. Both had passed the bar in Albany at almost the same time, and they now occupied the same New York street and inaugurated their legal practices at almost the same time.

After so many years of war, Hamilton had a pressing need to earn money and tried to keep full-time politics at bay. A month after Evacuation Day, he spotted a newspaper item stating that he had been nominated for the New York Assembly. Hamilton politely but firmly deflected the honor. “Being determined to decline public office,” he wrote to the paper, “I think it proper to declare my determination to avoid in any degree distracting the votes of my fellow citizens.”73 Local populists associated with the Sons of Liberty scored lopsided victories in the election, resulting in a spate of punitive measures against Tories. As a fierce opponent of such vengeance, Hamilton busied himself defending persecuted Tories and halting their banishment.

Perhaps no individual was identified more with the postwar resurgence of New York City—not to mention the city’s future greatness—than Alexander Hamilton. He was destined to excel in what was to emerge as America’s commercial and financial metropolis, and he articulated the most expansive vision of its future. Nonetheless his vision was imperfect. At a dinner party soon after Evacuation Day, Hamilton and some other educated young men fated to lead the city debated whether to invest in local real estate or unspoiled forestland upstate. Hamilton’s son James told the tale:

John Jay was in favor of New York and made purchases there and as his means enabled him to hold his lots. His speculation made him rich…. Some of the others, including my father, took the opposite view and invested in the lands in the northern counties of the state. The wild lands were purchased at a few cents an acre, but they were not settled very rapidly.74

This last sentence was a gross understatement. That Alexander Hamilton opted to purchase land in the far northern woods and bungled the chance to buy dirt-cheap Manhattan real estate must certainly count as one of his few conspicuous failures of economic judgment.