Alexander Hamilton - Ron Chernow (2005)


The battle royal over the Constitution exposed such glaring rifts in the country that America needed a first president of unimpeachable integrity who would embody the rich promise of the new republic. It had to be somebody of godlike stature who would seem to levitate above partisan politics, a symbol of national unity as well as a functioning chief executive. Everybody knew that George Washington alone could manage the paradoxical feat of being a politician above politics. Many people had agreed reluctantly to the new Constitution only because they assumed that Washington would lead the first government.

Within weeks of the Poughkeepsie convention, Hamilton began to woo Washington for the presidency as determinedly as would a lover. Long ago, he had hitched his career to the general’s, and he needed George Washington as president no less than America did. They had shared the same chagrin over the inept Congress and grasping state politicians and saw an assertive central government as the indispensable corrective. In mid-August 1788, Hamilton broached the subject of the presidency when he sent Washington the two-volume set of The Federalist Papers. He no longer had compunctions about revealing his authorship with Madison and Jay. This was throat clearing for the letter’s real intent: “I take it for granted, Sir, you have concluded to comply with what will no doubt be the general call of your country in relation to the new government. You will permit me to say that it is indispensable you should lend yourself to its first operations. It is to little purpose to have introduced a system, if the weightiest influence is not given to its firm establishment in the outset.”1

Washington replied that he had seen no better gloss on the Constitution than The Federalist and predicted that “when the transient circumstances and fugitive performance which attended this crisis shall have disappeared, that work will merit the notice of posterity.” This tribute previewed things to come, since the first president would need constitutional experts in his cabinet to advise him on what actions were permissible. Washington approached the presidency gingerly. In the late eighteenth century, politicians tended to disclaim ambition and pretend that public service was purely sacrificial. So Washington closed the letter with a delicate statement that he would defer a decision on the presidency, intimating that he would rather stay at Mount Vernon: “For you know me well enough, my good Sir, to be persuaded that I am not guilty of affectation when I tell you it is my great and sole desire to live and die, in peace and retirement, on my own farm.”2

Not since the Revolution had Washington and Hamilton spoken so candidly. Their bond, if sorely tested, had never frayed, and Washington seemed relieved to unburden himself about his future. Hamilton knew that the new republic would be on trial in the first administration, and he dreaded having a mediocrity at the top. If the first government miscarried, he warned Washington, “the blame will in all probability be laid on the system itself. And the framers of it will have to encounter the disrepute of having brought about a revolution in government without substituting anything that was worthy of the effort. They pulled down one Utopia, it will be said, to build up another.”3

Far from bristling, Washington thanked Hamilton for his openness, which enabled him to assess the presidency without betraying unseemly ambition. In a confessional mode, Washington said that at the thought of being president he “always felt a kind of gloom” settle upon his mind and noted that if he became president, “the acceptance would be attended with more diffidence and reluctance than ever I experienced before in my life.”4 Sensing Washington’s need for gentle prodding, Hamilton stressed that America’s glorious destiny demanded him as president and that “no other man can sufficiently unite the public opinion or can give the requisite weight to the office in the commencement of the government.”5 Hearing this from others as well, Washington finally overcame his misgivings and agreed to stand for president.

While Hamilton endeared himself to Washington in this first election, he also antagonized John Adams, a man with an encyclopedic memory for slights. Returning from Europe in June 1788, Adams decided that any post less than vice president was “beneath himself,” as wife Abigail phrased it.6 As a favorite son of the New England states, with their hefty bloc of votes, Adams agreed to run for vice president. This created a ticklish predicament. Under the Constitution, the presidential electors cast two votes apiece, but they did not vote separately for president and vice president. Whoever garnered the most electoral votes became president and the runner-up vice president. The peril was manifest: there could be a tie vote, forcing the contest into the House of Representatives. Still worse, a vice presidential candidate might accidentally walk off with the presidency. “Everybody is aware of that defect in the constitution, which renders it possible the man intended for vice president may, in fact, turn up president,” Hamilton told Pennsylvania federalist James Wilson in early 1789. If Adams received a unanimous vote and a few votes were “insidiously withheld” from Washington, Hamilton said, Adams might edge out Washington for the presidency.7 Hamilton doubted that the sometimes irascible Adams could unite a divided country or give the new government its best chance of success. For Hamilton, the whole American experiment hinged upon having Washington as president. His worries were only compounded by the improbable presidential candidacy of George Clinton. As Hamilton maneuvered to wean electors away from Clinton, he feared they might turn to Adams instead of Washington. If so, Hamilton brooded, he might inadvertently help to defeat the one man he so desperately wanted as president.

In the fall of 1788, Hamilton and Adams had no personal relationship. Hamilton had become a major domestic figure during Adams’s long diplomatic sojourn abroad. Adams knew of Hamilton’s superlative reputation as a lawyer, but he would naturally have considered the younger man an upstart, a latecomer to the American Revolution. Hamilton, for his part, already felt ambivalent toward Adams. He could recall vividly the sympathy of the Massachusetts Adamses and the Virginia Lees with the nebulous Conway Cabal, which had encouraged the military pretensions of General Horatio Gates to supplant Washington. Hamilton told one Massachusetts ally, “The Lees and Adams[es] have been in the habit of uniting and hence may spring up a cabal very embarrassing to the executive and of course to the administration of the government.”8 At the same time, Hamilton credited Adams’s indisputable patriotism, his “sound understanding,” and his “ardent love for the public good,” and he was certain he would not “disturb the harmony” of a Washington administration.9 Hamilton confided to Madison that Adams was a trustworthy friend of the Constitution and as vice president would provide geographic balance with a Virginia president.

Nonetheless, Hamilton fretted that whether by chance or design Adams might sneak past Washington in the voting. So he approached two electors in Connecticut, two in New Jersey, and three or four in Pennsylvania and asked them to deny their votes to Adams to insure that Washington became president. As usual, Hamilton proved excessively fearful. When the sixty-nine electors met on February 4, 1789, they voted unanimously for Washington, who became the first president, and cast only thirty-four ballots for Adams, who came in second and thus became vice president. (The remaining thirty-five votes were split among ten candidates.) This relatively weak showing dealt a blow to the vanity of John Adams, who bemoaned it as a “stain” upon his character and even thought of declining the office out of wounded pride.10 At this juncture, he did not know of Hamilton’s efforts to deny him a handful of votes. When he learned of a “dark and dirty intrigue,” apparently originating in New York, to deprive him of votes, he was incensed. “Is not my election to this office, in the scurvy manner in which it was done, a curse rather than a blessing?” he protested to Benjamin Rush.11 Adams came to view Hamilton’s actions as unforgivably duplicitous.

In fact, Hamilton had approached only seven or eight electors, so that his actions could have accounted for just a small fraction of Adams’s thirty-five-vote deficit. And Hamilton had been motivated by a laudable desire to help Washington, not to harm Adams, whom he favored for vice president. Hamilton was thunderstruck when he learned that Adams had misread his actions as a calculated effort to humiliate him and lessen his public stature. Years later, he portrayed the episode as proof of Adams’s “extreme egotism” and vanity: “Great was my astonishment and equally great my regret when afterwards I learned…that Mr. Adams had complained of unfair treatment in not having been permitted to take an equal chance with General Washington.”12 It was the first of many hurtful misunderstandings between these two giants of the early republic.

The true target of Hamilton’s venom was Governor George Clinton, who had been in office for twelve years and ran again in the spring of 1789. Clinton had advocated the rotation of presidents in office but had no misgivings about converting the New York governorship into his personal fiefdom. Hamilton feared that Clinton would try to undermine the new government. Having waged a vigorous campaign to deny him the presidency, Hamilton now attempted to oust him as governor. Massachusetts federalist Samuel Otis informed a friend that Hamilton and Philip Schuyler planned to do everything in their power “to kill the governor politically.”13

On February 11, 1789, Hamilton chaired an overflowing meeting at Bardin’s Tavern on Broad Street, a business haunt, to anoint a candidate to challenge Clinton. The hundreds who showed up opted for a surprise choice: Judge Robert Yates. It was dramatic proof of Hamilton’s resolve to unseat Clinton that he endorsed this erstwhile foe, whom he thought capable of assembling a winning coalition of downstate federalists and upstate antifederalist farmers. Yates had impressed him by his unswerving support for the Constitution once it was ratified in New York. Hamilton agreed to chair a correspondence committee to foster support for him. One of Yates’s dearest friends, the antifederalist Aaron Burr, showed up at Bardin’s Tavern and consented to join the group.

Once Hamilton had latched on to Yates, he was determined to strike hard at Clinton in the slashing style that was fast becoming his trademark—a combativeness that may well have been a legacy of his troubled upbringing. He advised one supporter, “In politics, as in war, the first blow is half the battle.”14 In customary fashion, Hamilton opened his campaign with a blistering series of sixteen anonymous letters printed in The Daily Advertiser under the initials “H. G.” Like his Federalist essays, Hamilton wrote these letters in a titanic burst of energy, eight of them appearing in consecutive issues at the end of February 1789 alone.

Starting with the first “H. G.” essay, Hamilton flung poisoned darts at Clinton. Reviewing the governor’s political and military career, Hamilton accused him of “narrow views, a prejudiced and contracted disposition, a passionate and interested temper.”15 He questioned Clinton’s bravery as a brigadier general during the Revolution: “After diligent enquiry, I have not been able to learn that he was ever more than once in actual combat.”16 In one letter, Hamilton differentiated between two types drawn to revolutions: those sincerely interested in the public good and “restless and turbulent spirits,” such as Clinton, who sought to exploit unrest to become despots.17 Upping the stakes, Hamilton accused Clinton of having stolen from Philip Schuyler the first governor’s race, which was held during the Revolution, by forcing militiamen under his command to vote for him.

In later “H. G.” letters, Hamilton occupied higher moral ground. He analyzed Clinton’s unremitting opposition to the Constitution and found it unpardonable that the governor had maintained a course “replete with danger to the peace and welfare of this state and of the Union.”18 Hamilton wanted New York to continue as the nation’s capital, as it had been since January 1785. He noted that Clinton had opposed it as the residence for Congress because he was afraid this would encourage dissolute 'font-size:8.0pt;font-family: "Times New Roman",serif;color:black'>19 More than just petty, power hungry, and stubborn, Clinton was cast by Hamilton as a boor devoid of good manners who had not even paid courtesy calls on the last two presidents of the Confederation Congress.

The federalists were overjoyed by these resounding blasts. “Never was anything read with more avidity and with greater success,” wrote one Hamilton supporter.20 Said another: “Col. H[amilton] has taken a very active part in favour of Judges Yates, from which circumstance much is expected. I believe old Clinton the sinner will get ousted.21 The old sinner did not rebut Hamilton with his own quill, preferring surrogates, and rejoinders soon glutted the press. In early March, one “Philopas” protested “the torrent of scurrility” from “H. G.”’s pen, which “would make an inhabitant of Billingsgate blush.”22 Another writer said the real issue in the election was that “an obscure Plebeian”—Clinton—had dared to oppose “the boundless ambition of Patrician families”: the Schuylers.23 If Yates beat Clinton, he predicted, he would be thrust aside at the next election so that the “F[athe]r and the S[o]n” could divide the fishes and loaves—a transparent reference to Philip Schuyler and his son-in-law Hamilton.24 By making cutting personal remarks about Clinton, Hamilton had ensured that the retaliation would also be highly personal. That Hamilton could be so sensitive to criticisms of himself and so insensitive to the effect his words had on others was a central mystery of his psyche.

The invective grew uglier in late March when someone writing under “William Tell” branded Hamilton a Machiavellian and tarred him as a power-mad politician puffed up “by an expecting band of sycophants, a train of ambitious relations, and a few rich men.” “William Tell” then leveled a charge against Hamilton more terrible than mere ambition: “Your private character is still worse than your public one and it will yet be exposed by your own works, for [you] will not be bound by the most solemn of all obligations!*******25 The seven asterisks must have signified the word wedlock, meaning that Hamilton was being charged, for the first time in print, with adultery. As we shall see, there was a reason why this charge surfaced at this time.

Like other founding fathers, Hamilton inhabited two diametrically opposed worlds. There was the Olympian sphere of constitutional debate and dignified discourse—the way many prefer to remember these stately figures—and the gutter world of personal sniping, furtive machinations, and tabloid-style press attacks. The contentious culture of these early years was both the apex and the nadir of American political expression. Such a contradictory environment was probably an inescapable part of the transition from the lofty idealism of Revolution to the gritty realities of quotidian politics. The heroes of 1776 and 1787 were bound to seem smaller and more hypocritical as they jockeyed for personal power and advantage in the new government.

For the remainder of the gubernatorial campaign, Hamilton issued open letters to the electorate, and at Clinton campaign rallies his essays were hurled under the table as marks of contempt. In shaping his final appeal to voters, Hamilton said that Clinton’s most effective tactic was to single out the rich for abuse, and he warned that republicans scapegoated the rich to their detriment: “There is no stronger sign of combinations unfriendly to the general good than when the partisans of those in power raise an indiscriminate cry against men of property.”26

The argument did not persuade voters: Governor Clinton solidly defeated Judge Yates. This vicious election left a trail of wounded feelings, removing any chance of a rapprochement between Hamilton and Clinton. New York remained a bitterly divided state, ripe for political manipulation. The wily Clinton knew that he had to shore up his base, so in September he offered the state attorney-general job to Aaron Burr, whom he neither liked nor trusted. For the first time, Hamilton felt betrayed by Burr, who had campaigned for Yates. The political genius of Aaron Burr was to lie in figuring out endless ways to profit from the partisan wrangling in his home state. For three years, he had engaged in little political activity. Now his dormant ambition was beginning to awaken.

The new government was launched with all due pageantry and fanfare. On April 16, 1789, George Washington departed from Mount Vernon on an eight-day journey to New York that blossomed into a national celebration. Cannon saluted the president-elect as he approached each town. He passed under many triumphal arches and crossed a bridge in Trenton covered with flower petals strewn by thirteen young maidens cooing greetings. If this sometimes seemed like a royal procession, appearances could be misleading. Washington had fallen into debt and had to borrow heavily at exorbitant interest rates to make the trip. When he reached Elizabeth-town, New Jersey, he boarded a sumptuous barge that transported him across the Hudson River to New York City. Shaded by a red canopy and tossed by brisk breezes, the barge was towed by thirteen pilots. At the foot of Wall Street, Governor Clinton and Mayor Duane welcomed the president-elect before masses of cheering people. Church bells chimed, ships in the harbor ran up their colors, and cannon fired a thirteen-gun salute before Washington made his way to his new residence, a three-story brick building at 10 Cherry Street. That night, with candles aglow in windows across the city, Governor Clinton hosted a state dinner for Washington. Hamilton smarted over the deference shown to the governor, but Washington wished to convey that he would be the leader of all the people.

Selected as temporary home of the new federal government, New York had devoted considerable expense to preparations. Hoping to become the permanent capital, the city had invested in some necessary improvements. The Common Council hired Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the French architect and engineer who was to later design Washington, D.C., to renovate City Hall at the corner of Broad and Wall. He transformed it into the elegant, neoclassical Federal Hall, surmounted by a glass cupola. Some money for the alterations came from local citizens and some from Hamilton’s Bank of New York. When the new Congress first met there in early April, the flag from the “Federal Ship Hamilton” waved over the building, which had a depiction of an American eagle embedded in its facade.

On April 30, George Washington rose early, sprinkled powder on his hair, and prepared for his great day. At noon, accompanied by a legislative escort, he rode to Federal Hall in a fancy yellow carriage to take the oath of office. Ten thousand ecstatic New Yorkers squeezed into the surrounding streets to observe the historic moment. Hamilton, who had done as much as anyone to bring it about, looked on distantly from the balcony of his Wall Street home. From the outset, the fifty-seven-year-old Washington was determined to strike a happy medium between regal dignity and republican austerity. Resplendent with a ceremonial sword at his side, he also wore a plain brown suit of American broadcloth woven at a mill in Hartford. A special message for Hamilton’s future was encoded in this outfit: that America should encourage manufactures, especially textiles, an industry dominated by Great Britain. Washington hoped it would soon “be unfashionable for a gentleman to appear” in any dress that was not of American origin.27

The strapping Virginian took the oath on the second-story balcony, flanked by columns against a backdrop of gold stars on a blue background. With John Adams standing beside him, Washington was sworn in by Chancellor Robert R. Livingston and then kissed the Bible brought on a crimson cushion. The moment was joyous but not flawless. When Washington read a brief inaugural address, probably drafted by James Madison, to Congress in the Senate chamber, he kept his left hand in one pocket and turned pages with the other, making an awkward impression. His nervous mumbling was scarcely audible. One observer said wryly of America’s hero, Washington was more “agitated and embarrassed than ever he was by the leveled cannon or pointed musket.”28 Afterward, the first president and his entourage marched up Broadway to pray at St. Paul’s Chapel, near where Hamilton had attended King’s College.

Both Alexander and Eliza attended the first inaugural ball on May 7. Eliza was well placed to be a social ornament of the new regime and later looked back fondly on those days.

As I was younger than [Martha Washington] I mingled more in the gaieties of the day. I was at the inauguration ball—the most brilliant of them all—which was given early in May at the Assembly Rooms on Broadway above Wall Street. It was attended by the President and Vice President, the cabinet officers, a majority of the members of the Congress, the French and Spanish Ministers, and military and civic officers, with their wives and daughters. Mrs. Washington had not yet arrived in New York from Mount Vernon and did not until three weeks later. On that occasion, every woman who attended the ball was presented with a fan prepared in Paris, with ivory frame, and when opened displayed a likeness of Washington in profile.29

As a close friend of Philip Schuyler and Hamilton, Washington enjoyed a warm rapport with Eliza and danced with her at the inaugural ball. Like Alexander, she was cordial with Washington but not too familiar, and she noted that even on the dance floor he never entirely relaxed or stopped being president. Present at many balls with Washington, she later described how “he would always choose a partner and walk through the figures correctly, but he never danced. His favorite was the minuet, a graceful dance, suited to his dignity and gravity.”30 This tallies with one observer’s comment that Washington seldom laughed and that even when encircled by young belles his countenance “never softened nor changed its habitual gravity.”31

Everything about Washington’s administration assumed heightened importance, since he was setting precedents and establishing the tone of government. No sooner was he sworn in than questions of protocol provoked hairsplitting debates. How should a president be addressed? Should he receive visitors? Since many antifederalists were convinced that Hamilton and his circle meditated a monarchy, they followed such debates avidly for signs of incipient treachery. Though Hamilton opposed noble titles, he wondered what would substitute for courtly forms to inspire reverence for law. Other founders labored under a similar apprehension. In May 1789, Ben Franklin told Benjamin Rush, “We have been guarding against an evil that old states are most liable to, excess of power in the rulers. But our present danger seems to be defect of obedience in the subjects.”32

The new vice president, John Adams, adopted an especially princely style that outraged republicans, and he was even mocked by Washington for his “ostentatious imitation [and] mimicry of royalty.”33 The Adamses rented the enchanting mansion known as Richmond Hill, which had splendid Hudson River views and was later home to Aaron Burr. Each morning, John Adams climbed into a costly coach, driven by a liveried servant, then presided over the Senate in a powdered wig. (He was often accompanied by his second son, Charles, just down from Harvard. Still unaware that Hamilton had worked to pare his electoral votes, Adams asked in July if Charles could study law with him; Hamilton accepted this flattering request.) In May, when a Senate committee took up the explosive issue of titles, Adams suggested that Washington be addressed as “His Highness, the President of the United States of America and Protector of their Liberties.”34 Adams provided fodder for contemporary wags and was promptly dubbed “His Rotundity” or the “Duke of Braintree.” Adams wanted only to inspire respect for the new government, but his concern for decorum bred a belief in suspicious minds that he sought a hereditary monarch, with himself as king and son John Quincy groomed as his dauphin. In a slap at the Senate, the House of Representatives decided that the chief executive was to be referred to simply as “George Washington, President of the United States,” and the Senate then concurred.

In early May, Washington asked Hamilton for his reflections on presidential etiquette. Like Adams, Hamilton thought the dignity of the office essential and recommended that Washington receive visitors at weekly “levees” but not stay longer than a half hour and never return visits. He thought private dinners with legislators and other officials should be limited to six or eight visitors and that the president should not linger at the table. In a revealing suggestion, he also advised Washington to be available to senators but not congressmen. Clearly, Hamilton wanted a president invested with a touch of grandeur and buffered from popular pressure.

Washington generally took Hamilton’s advice, holding levees on Tuesday afternoons that proved exercises in tedium. Even at the best of times, Washington was not a blithe presence, and the strict reception rules hardened him into a waxwork. He materialized in a black velvet coat, yellow gloves, and black satin breeches, with a dress sword hanging in a scabbard. Then he circulated among guests with glacial slowness, bowing but not shaking hands, exchanging pleasantries with each. Guests must have stifled yawns and fought off drowsiness. Bewigged footmen stood by at lavish dinners that couldn’t have been fun either. “The president seemed to bear in his countenance a settled aspect of melancholy,” Senator William Maclay of Pennsylvania wrote of one occasion. “No cheering ray of convivial sunshine broke through the cloudy gloom of settled seriousness. At every interval of eating and drinking, he played on the table with a fork and knife, like a drumstick.”35 Both as a matter of temperament and policy, Washington was taciturn, once advising his adopted grandson, “It is best to be silent, for there is nothing more certain than that it is at all times more easy to make enemies than friends.”36 Such a circumspect president formed a striking contrast with the loquacious Hamilton.

Washington tried to be neither too lofty nor too casual and, according to Abigail Adams, succeeded admirably that spring: “He is polite with dignity, affable without formality, distant without haughtiness, grave without austerity, modest, wise, and good.”37 Still, antifederalists spied royal trappings galore, small but menacing concessions that portended a monarchy. When Washington rode out on public occasions, through unpaved streets teeming with wandering pigs, he often traveled in a buff-colored coach with two liveried postilions to guide him. The coach was pulled by six white horses that had been rubbed with lustrous white paste; their coats were brushed till they veritably gleamed in the dark. At the same time, to certify his republican credentials, Washington took daily walks at two o’clock each afternoon. To modern eyes, the most incongruous fact of all was that Washington had seven slaves shipped up from Mount Vernon to assist his white household servants.

There might have been less hand-wringing over social distinctions had it not been for an obvious and widening gap between the rich and poor in New York. After years of wartime austerity, local merchants flaunted their wealth. Brissot de Warville observed, “If there is a town on the American continent where the English luxury displays its follies, it is New York…. In the dress of the women, you will seethe most brilliant silks, gauzes, hats, and borrowed hair. Equipages are rare but they are elegant.”38 Men of social distinction strode about in velvet coats and ruffled shirts, aping European nobility. For republicans afraid that the country would slip back into aristocratic ways, such foppery smacked of Old World decadence. They worried that if the capital stayed in New York, American innocence would be undone by urban hedonism. Many legislators led confined, threadbare lives and did not partake of the extravagance. Ralph Izard complained that the poorly paid senators were forced into “boardinghouses, lodged in holes and corners, associated with improper company, and conversed improperly so as to lower their dignity and character”—a situation that could only have heightened their resentment toward New York.39

Hamilton kept vigilant watch on the new Congress, aware that its early decisions were to affect profoundly American finance and the evolving structure of the executive and judiciary branches. Although scheduled to start in early March, the House and Senate took more than a month to muster quorums. In a significant piece of symbolism, the House met on the ground floor of Federal Hall and provided open galleries for visitors. At the inaugural session on April 1, 1789, Hamilton milled about among the onlookers. James Kent recalled, “Col. Hamilton remarked to me that as nothing was to be done the first day, such impatient crowds were evidence of the powerful principle of curiosity.”40 Meanwhile, the secretive Senate met upstairs in a chamber without a spectator section. For the first five years, senators conducted their business behind closed doors.

The Constitution had kept a tactful silence about the executive departments of government and made no mention of a cabinet. For months after his inauguration, George Washington was the executive branch. The administration was still a nebulous concept, not a tangible reality. Madison lamented, “We are in a wilderness without a single footstep to guide us.”41 The financial state of the new government was especially precarious. The United States had already suspended interest payments on much of its foreign and domestic debt, and American bonds continued to trade at steep discounts on European exchanges, suggesting little faith in the new government’s ability to repay them. If this situation persisted, the government would have to pay extortionate interest rates to appease jittery creditors.

Despite shrieking vendors, tinkling cowbells, and rumbling carts on Wall Street that often drowned out speakers inside Federal Hall, the new government slowly took shape during the summer and early fall. In the House, James Madison helped to compress dozens of changes to the Constitution recommended by the state conventions into twelve amendments; the first ten, when ratified by the states, would be known as the Bill of Rights. And in the Senate, Oliver Ellsworth took the lead in drafting a judiciary act that provided for a six-member Supreme Court, buttressed by federal district and circuit courts. On May 19, Representative Elias Boudinot of New Jersey, Hamilton’s old patron from Elizabethtown, proposed that Congress establish a department of finance. From the clamor that arose over what would become the Treasury Department, it was clear this would be the real flash point of controversy in the new government, the place where critics feared that European-style despotism could take root. Legislators recalled that British tax abuses had spawned the Revolution and that chancellors of the exchequer had directed huge armies of customs collectors to levy onerous duties. To guard against such concentrated power, Elbridge Gerry wanted to invest the Treasury leadership in a board, not an individual. It was Madison who insisted that a single secretary, equipped with all necessary powers, should superintend the department.

A tremendous hubbub accompanied the act outlining the treasury secretary’s duties, including his need to report to Congress on matters in his bailiwick. Opponents did not see this duty as a welcome form of congressional oversight that would subject the secretary to the bright glare of scrutiny. Mindful of British precedent, they feared it would open the door to executive tampering with legislative affairs—a charge that was, in fact, to hound Hamilton throughout his tenure.

The spring of 1789 was a gratifying time for the patriotic Schuylers. Leaving behind her husband and four children, Angelica Church sailed from England and arrived in time to witness Washington’s inauguration. She missed home terribly and was concerned about her gout-ridden father. Most of all, she yearned for the company of Alexander and Eliza. Hamilton remained smitten with his sister-in-law, never missing a chance to flatter or tease her with some arch message. With Angelica, he reverted to the high-spirited, chivalric young man. “I seldom write to a lady without fancying the relation of lover and mistress,” he had told her after knocking off Federalist number 17. “It has a very inspiring effect. And in your case, the dullest materials could not help feeling that propensity.”42

John Barker Church’s political ambitions had subjected Angelica to a peculiarly uncomfortable fate: this daughter of an American general was about to become the wife of a member of the British Parliament. Trying to make the best of the situation, Angelica told Hamilton that she would happily have her husband in the House of Commons “if he possessed your eloquence.”43 Hamilton replied that he would rather have seen his brother-in-law elected to the new American Congress. Nevertheless, Church became an M.P. from Wendover Borough in 1790. At Down Place, their estate near Windsor Castle, the Churches surrounded themselves with luminous personalities from the literary, artistic, and political worlds. A visiting American cousin found the fashionable Angelica “an angel, all affectionate politeness towards a cousin who trudges out to her country seat on foot.”44 The Churches inhabited a social world in which excessive drinking, compulsive gambling, and discreet adultery were routine. At the center of their circle stood the Prince of Wales, later King George IV, who adored Angelica, and Charles James Fox, the Whig leader, who shared John Church’s gambling passion and often borrowed immense sums from him to feed his habit. The Churches also kept a private box at the Drury Lane Theater and befriended the spendthrift playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, author of The School for Scandal, who once refused to satisfy his creditors on the grounds that “paying only encourages them.”45 The Churches also grew close to the American artist John Trumbull, lending him money so that he could study with Benjamin West in England and Jacques-Louis David in France.

For all the glamorous settings, Angelica was often lonely and melancholy in her European exile. In one later plaintive letter to Eliza, she described going to the theater and beholding the royal family there, then added, “What are Kings and Queens to an American who has seen a Washington!”46 She went on to tell her sister: “I envy you the trio of agreeable men. You talk of my father and my Baron [von Steuben] and your Hamilton. What pleasant evenings, what agreeable chitchat, whilst my society must be confined to chill, gloomy Englishmen.”47 In another letter, heavy with homeward longing, Angelica wrote, “Adieu, my dear Eliza. Be happy and be gay and remember me in your mirth as one who deserves and wishes to partake of your happiness. Embrace Hamilton and the Baron.”48

It may be more than coincidental that the first scandalous reference to Hamilton’s marital infidelity occurred in late March 1789 just as Angelica Church returned to New York. The town was humming with social events marking the new government, and the mutual admiration between Hamilton and his sister-in-law, apparent at parties and dinners they attended, must have excited speculation. At one ball, Angelica dropped a garter that was swept gallantly off the floor by Hamilton. Angelica, who had a sly wit, teased him that he wasn’t a Knight of the Garter. Angelica’s sarcastic sister, Peggy, then remarked, “He would be a Knight of the Bedchamber, if he could.”49 This may all have been harmless banter, but such tales fed material to the local gossips.

Angelica stayed in New York till November, when she received a letter from John Church that some of their children had fallen sick. She promptly booked passage back to England. Whatever did—or did not—happen between Alexander and Angelica during her long stay in New York, Eliza was so distraught by her beloved sister’s departure that she could not bear to see her off; she was consoled with difficulty by, among others, Baron von Steuben. Hamilton, his eldest son, Philip, and the baron escorted Angelica to the Battery and wistfully watched her vessel disappear from the harbor. The men gave way to extravagant emotions. “Imagine what we felt,” Hamilton wrote to Angelica of this parting scene. “We gazed, we sighed, we wept.50 Even Steuben, hardened old warrior that he was, stood with tears brimming in his eyes. “Amiable Angelica!” Hamilton concluded. “How much you are formed to endear yourself to every good heart…. Some of us are and must continue inconsolable for your absence.”51 Alexander and Eliza seemed united, not divided, by their shared adoration of Angelica. “Betsey and myself make you the last theme of our conversation at night and the first in the morning,” Hamilton told her.52 Those gossips whose tongues wagged over the seeming flirtation of Alexander and Angelica might have been surprised to see Eliza’s tender farewell note to her sister:

My very dear beloved Angelica: I have seated myself to write to you, but my heart is so saddened by your absence that it can scarcely dictate, my eyes so filled with tears that I shall not be able to write you much. But remember, remember, my dear sister, of the assurances of your returning to us and do all you can to make your absence short. Tell Mr. Church for me of the happiness he will give me in bringing you to me, not to me alone, but to fond parents, sisters, friends, and to my Hamilton, who has for you all the affection of a fond own brother. I can no more. Adieu, adieu. E. H.53

As if to symbolize the tenuous state of the new administration, George Washington developed a queer affliction in mid-June 1789 that nearly killed him. What started out as a fever was followed by a tenderness in his left thigh that soon progressed to painful swelling and a “malignant carbuncle.” The president lost weight, could not sit up, and lay dangerously ill in bed for days. Few people outside the small presidential circle understood the extreme gravity of the illness, much less that it might prove fatal. Whether this was a product of anthrax, as diagnosed at the time, or a tumor, it was surgically excised without an anesthetic. (In a still rural America, it was not uncommon for farmers and planters to contract anthrax from infected animals.) The senior surgeon who presided over the procedure did so with seemingly sadistic gusto. “Cut away,” he exclaimed. “Deep—deeper—deeper still. Don’t be afraid. You will see how well he bears it!”54 The president’s health remained so uncertain that Mayor James Duane stopped carriages from passing Washington’s residence and had straw spread on the sidewalk to muffle any sounds that might disturb him.

As he convalesced, Washington lacked the strength to attend a Fourth of July celebration conducted at St. Paul’s Chapel by the Society of the Cincinnati. The ex–revolutionary officers forgathered at the City Tavern, then headed for the church, attended by an artillery regiment and martial band. As they passed the presidential residence, Washington, decked out in full regimental regalia, greeted them from the doorway. Martha Washington then joined the officers at St. Paul’s for the most glittering assemblage of personalities since the inauguration. Vice President Adams attended with the Senate and House of Representatives in tow. With eagles pinned to their buttonholes, the bemedaled Cincinnati members occupied their own special section. The highlight of the program was Hamilton’s memorial oration for his friend, General Nathanael Greene, who had died three years earlier. One newspaper noted that “a splendid assembly of ladies” gazed down from the galleries—doubtless to Hamilton’s delight.55

The clean, airy chapel sparkled with cut-glass chandeliers and Corinthian columns and was a superb, if slightly ironic, setting for the occasion. Speakers stood at a hooded pulpit topped by a coronet of six feathers—the last surviving emblem of British rule in the city. Hamilton had once paid homage to Greene by saying that he lacked “nothing but an education to have made him the first man in the United States,” and he now eulogized him with unfeigned affection.56 Like Hamilton, Greene had risen from modest circumstances and taught himself the science of warfare. At moments, Hamilton’s panegyric had autobiographical overtones:

It is an observation as just as it is common that in those great revolutions which occasionally convulse society, human nature never fails to be brought forward in its brightest as well as in its blackest colors. And it has very properly been ranked not among the least of the advantages which compensate for the evils they produce that they serve to bring to light talents and virtues which might otherwise have languished in obscurity or only shot forth a few scattered and wandering rays.57

As commander of the Southern Army late in the Revolution, harassing Cornwallis, Greene had been renowned for performing wonders with often meager forces. Probably with this in mind, Hamilton committed the faux pas of openly mocking the state militias that had served under Greene. In recounting his exploits, Hamilton deprecated the militias as “the mimickry of soldiership.” As he told of fierce fighting in South Carolina, Hamilton said that front-line militia under Greene had buckled under fire and were rescued by a second line of brave, resolute Continentals.58 Hamilton probably had scant notion that his passing comment on southern soldiers had mortally offended a congressman from South Carolina, Aedanus Burke, a bibulous, hot-tempered Irishman. At the time, Hamilton was not a federal official, and Burke did not make an open issue of the speech. Moreover, after the New York Ratifying Convention, Hamilton stood at the peak of his popularity, and Burke did not dare to challenge him. He later explained, “Mr. Hamilton was the hero of the day and the favorite of the people. And had I hurt a hair of his head, I’m sure I should have been dragged through the kennels of New York and pitched headlong into the East River.”59 As we shall see, Burke stewed about the episode and awaited a strategic moment to retaliate. He and other southerners perhaps also took umbrage at Hamilton’s frank statement that patriotic operations in the south had been hampered “by a numerous body of slaves bound by all the laws of injured humanity to hate their masters.”60 Hamilton was admitting that masters deserved to be hated by their slaves and had behaved logically in sympathizing with the British or failing to cooperate with the patriots—sentiments that surely were anathema to the slaveholders.

Hamilton seemed to spark controversy at every turn. At the time of his July Fourth oration, New York still had not selected its first two senators. Under the Constitution, this decision fell to state legislatures, insuring that local mandarins would have a disproportionate say in the matter. As in the colonial period, New York politics was still largely governed by a few powerful families. In the felicitous words of one early Burr biographer, “The Clintons had power, the Livingstons had numbers, and the Schuylers had Hamilton.61 As chieftain of his clan, General Philip Schuyler was a certain choice for one senatorial post. (One of Schuyler’s other sons-in-law, the superrich Stephen Van Rensselaer, was elected to the New York Assembly that year.) Schuyler promised the rival Livingstons that he would support New York mayor James Duane, who had married into their family, for the other Senate seat. Had this alliance held, the Schuylers and the Livingstons might have shared power in New York and isolated George Clinton. They might even have thwarted the later Jeffersonian incursion into the state and altered the entire configuration of American politics.

This scenario never materialized, however, because Hamilton stumbled into a spectacular political blunder. Afraid that Duane’s successor as mayor might be “some very unfit character” whose politics would prove “injurious to the city,” Hamilton decided to oppose him for the second Senate seat.62 In a blatant affront to the almighty Livingstons, Hamilton threw his weight behind his thirty-four-year-old friend Rufus King, a handsome, Harvard-educated lawyer from New England who had recently moved to New York. King had married a beautiful heiress, Mary Alsop, and the two socialized with the Hamiltons. A mellifluous orator and an impassioned critic of slavery, King had attended the Constitutional Convention as a Massachusetts delegate and served on the style committee with Hamilton. In a short period of time, King became a fixture in New York City society—“our King is as much followed and attended to by all parties as ever a new light preacher was by his congregation,” Robert Troup told Hamilton63—and Hamilton induced Philip Schuyler to renege on his pledged support for Duane in favor of King. In a foolish and egotistical move, Hamilton was bent upon having both his father-in-law and his friend as New York’s two senators.

With finely honed political instincts, George Clinton saw that Hamilton was overreaching, and he secretly aided King’s candidacy in order to drive a wedge between the Schuylers and the Livingstons. When New York picked its second senator on July 16, 1789, Rufus King came out on top. Just as Clinton suspected, Chancellor Robert R. Livingston was irate and gradually moved into the governor’s camp. The polished, graceful Livingston was accustomed to deference and felt stymied by the parvenu Hamilton. This weakened Hamilton in his home state, depriving him later of a vital springboard to the presidency. It also paved the way for Aaron Burr to work his peculiar mischief in state politics. Compounding the tension between Hamilton and Robert R. Livingston that summer was that both men had fixed their gaze on the same tantalizing prize: the job of treasury secretary, soon to be assigned by Washington and sure to be the most powerful spot in the first administration.

As George Washington mulled over his choice, he knew that fiscal bungling had led to the demise of the confederation, making this a critical appointment. He turned first to the man synonymous with patriotic finance, Robert Morris, the Philadelphia merchant who had pledged his personal credit on behalf of the Revolution. Washington’s adopted grandson said that en route to the inauguration in April, the president-elect had stopped at Morris’s opulent residence. “The treasury, Morris, will of course be your berth,” Washington confided. “After your invaluable services as financier of the Revolution, no one can pretend to contest the office of the secretary of the treasury with you.” Citing private reasons—Morris was already lurching down a long, slippery path that led to bankruptcy and debtors’ prison—Morris politely declined the offer.

“But, my dear general,” he reassured Washington, “you will be no loser by my declining the secretaryship of the treasury, for I can recommend to you a far cleverer fellow than I am for your minister of finance in the person of your former aide-decamp, Colonel Hamilton.”

Taken aback, Washington replied, “I always knew Colonel Hamilton to be a man of superior talents, but never supposed that he had any knowledge of finance.”

“He knows everything, sir,” Morris replied. “To a mind like his nothing comes amiss.”64 Another version of this story has Washington asking Morris what to do about the huge pile of public debt. Morris advised, “There is but one man in the United States who can tell you: that is, Alexander Hamilton.”65 Robert Morris served in the first U.S. Senate instead.

Even as Washington conferred with Morris, Hamilton was strolling down a New York street when he encountered Alexander J. Dallas, a Philadelphia lawyer. “Well, colonel, can you tell me who will be the members of the cabinet?” Dallas asked.

“Really, my dear sir,” Hamilton answered, “I cannot tell you who will, but I can very readily tell you of one who will not be of the number and that one is your humble servant.”66

Soon after being sworn in as president, Washington informed Hamilton that he planned to name him to the top financial spot. Hamilton must have daydreamed about this moment for years. Why else had he ploughed through dry economic texts during the war or perused the three-volume memoir of Jacques Necker, the French finance minister? For years, his mind had wrought detailed financial plans, as if he were rehearsing for the job. His ascent to the Treasury post seemed an almost inevitable next step in his headlong rush to fame. Clearly, he felt equal to the task and told Washington that he would accept if offered.

Friends cautioned him against heading the Treasury Department, the activities of which would arouse latent memories of British rule. When Gouverneur Morris assured him that the treasury secretary would be exposed to special calumny, Hamilton replied that “it is the situation in which I can do most good.”67 In debating the Constitution, Hamilton knew that the issue of federal taxation and tax collectors had provoked the biggest brouhaha. As chief tax collector, he would be the lightning rod for inevitable discontent. In fact, everything that Hamilton planned to create to transform America into a powerful, modern nation-state—a central bank, a funded debt, a mint, a customs service, manufacturing subsidies, and so on—was to strike critics as a slavish imitation of the British model.

After chatting with Washington, Hamilton informed Robert Troup of the momentous news and asked if he would assume his legal business. Troup was glad to oblige but thought Hamilton was committing a serious error. He noted the financial sacrifice entailed by the annual salary of $3,500, far less than Hamilton was then earning as a lawyer. Troup recalled he remonstrated with Hamilton “on the ground of the serious injury his quitting the practice of the law would work to his family. At that time [Hamilton’s] fortune was very limited and his family was increasing.” Hamilton told Troup that he understood the financial sacrifice, but “he thought it would be in his power in the financial department of the government to do the country great good and this consideration outweighed with him every consideration of a private nature.”68 A man of irreproachable integrity, Hamilton severed all outside sources of income while in office, something that neither Washington nor Jefferson nor Madison dared to do.

Later on, Hamilton acknowledged that the Treasury job was the logical culmination of his long campaign for the Constitution. Having been part of the system’s gestation, “I conceived myself to be under an obligation to lend my aid towards putting the machine in some regular motion. Hence I did not hesitate to accept the offer of President Washington to undertake the office of Secretary of the Treasury.”69 Hamilton kept his appointment secret from all but a few friends while rivals maneuvered for the post. In late May, Madison told Jefferson that Robert R. Livingston coveted the Treasury job, but that Hamilton was “perhaps best qualified for that species of business” and stood a better chance.70 After losing the Treasury job, Livingston lobbied to become chief justice of the Supreme Court and lost that battle to John Jay. When he added in his family’s loss of the New York Senate seat, Livingston must have believed that Hamilton and Schuyler, if not the entire Washington administration, were unalterably hostile to his ambitions. In July, Hamilton recommended to Washington that Livingston be sent to negotiate a European loan, but this olive branch did not heal the breach between the two men.71

Throughout the summer, as word spread that Hamilton’s appointment was imminent, it caused a flurry of excitement among admirers in New England and elsewhere. But the official announcement was deferred until Washington signed the bill creating the Treasury Department on September 2. Then, on Friday, September 11, 1789, thirty-four-year-old Alexander Hamilton was officially nominated for the job. The appointment was confirmed by the Senate the same day. Hamilton hit the ground running: the very next day, he arranged a fifty-thousand-dollar loan for the federal government from the Bank of New York. The day after that, a Sunday, he worked all day at the Treasury’s new office on Broadway, just south of Trinity Church. He dashed off a plea to the Bank of North America in Philadelphia, asking for another fifty thousand dollars. Hamilton knew the symbolic value of rapid decision making and phenomenal energy. As he wrote during the Revolution, “If a Government appears to be confident of its own powers, it is the surest way to inspire the same confidence in others.”72 With support for the Constitution still tentative in some states, Hamilton knew that designing enemies lay in wait to destroy it. To succeed, the government had to establish its authority, and to this end he was prepared to move with exceptional speed. Alexander Hamilton never seemed to wander around in a normal human muddle. With preternatural confidence, he discerned clear solutions to the murkiest questions.

From the beginning, he faced pressure as wary creditors waited to see if the young treasury secretary could miraculously resurrect American credit. Only ten days after Hamilton was confirmed, the House of Representatives asked him to prepare a report on public credit, giving him a scant 110 days to respond. With this wind at his back, Hamilton took a giant, running leap in staking out his claim to leadership in Washington’s administration.

No other moment in American history could have allowed such scope for Hamilton’s abundant talents. The new government was a tabula rasa on which he could sketch plans with a young man’s energy. Washington’s administration had to create everything from scratch. Hamilton was that rare revolutionary: a master administrator and as competent a public servant as American politics would ever produce. One historian has written, “Hamilton was an administrative genius” who “assumed an influence in Washington’s cabinet which is unmatched in the annals of the American cabinet system.”73 The position demanded both a thinker and a doer, a skilled executive and a political theorist, a system builder who could devise interrelated policies. It also demanded someone who could build an institutional framework consistent with constitutional principles. Virtually every program that Hamilton put together raised fundamental constitutional issues, so that his legal training and work on The Federalist enabled him to craft the efficient machinery of government while expounding its theoretical underpinnings.

Because the Constitution made no mention of a cabinet, Washington had to invent it. At first, this executive council consisted of just three men: Hamilton as secretary of the treasury, Jefferson as secretary of state, and Henry Knox as secretary of war. The first attorney general, thirty-six-year-old Edmund Randolph of Virginia, had no department and received an annual retainer of $1,500 for an essentially consultative role. Viewed as the government’s legal adviser, the tall, handsome Randolph was expected to retain private clients to supplement his modest salary. Vice President John Adams was largely excluded from the administration’s decision-making apparatus, a demotion in power that could only have sharpened his envy of young Hamilton.

The concept of a cabinet took some time to mature. During his first three years as president, Washington seldom assembled his secretaries for meetings—as Hamilton later told the British minister, “We have no cabinet and the heads of departments meet on very particular occasions only”—and preferred to solicit their views separately.74 With only three executive departments, each secretary wielded considerable power. Moreover, departmental boundaries were not well defined, allowing each secretary to roam across a wide spectrum of issues. This was encouraged by Washington, who frequently requested opinions from his entire cabinet on an issue. It particularly galled Jefferson that Hamilton, with his keen appetite for power, poached so frequently on his turf. In fact, Hamilton’s opinions were so numerous and his influence so pervasive that most historians regard him as having been something akin to a prime minister. If Washington was head of state, then Hamilton was the head of government, the active force in the administration.

As in the Revolution, Hamilton and Washington had complementary talents. Neither could have achieved alone what they did together. Sometimes emphasizing the ceremonial side of his job, Washington wanted to be a figure above the partisan fray, retaining his aura as an embodiment of the Revolution. His detached style left room for an assertive managerial presence, especially in financial matters, where Hamilton stepped willingly into the breach. If Washington lacked the first-rate intellect of Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, and Adams, he was gifted with superb judgment. When presented with options, he almost invariably chose the right one. Never a pliant tool in Hamilton’s hands, as critics alleged, he often overrode his treasury secretary.

Washington and Hamilton also made an exceptional team because they offset each other’s personal weaknesses. Washington could be hypersensitive to criticism and never forgot snubs, but he had learned to govern his emotions, making him a valuable foil to the volatile Hamilton. Hamilton could be needlessly tactless and provocative, while Washington was conciliatory, with an innate sense of decorum. Adams said that Washington possessed “the gift of taciturnity.”75 Hamilton’s mind was so swift and decisive that it could lead him into rash decisions. Washington’s management style was the antithesis of this. “He consulted much, pondered much, resolved slowly, resolved surely,” Hamilton later said of the president.76 Washington could weigh all sides of an issue and coolly appraise the political repercussions. “Perhaps the strongest feature in his character was prudence, never acting until every circumstance, every consideration, was maturely weighed; refraining if he saw a doubt, but, when once decided, going through with his purpose whatever obstacles opposed,” said Jefferson.77 Such a man could be counted on to temper his treasury secretary’s excesses.

Perhaps the main reason that Washington and Hamilton functioned so well together was that both men longed to see the thirteen states welded into a single, respected American nation. At the close of the war, Washington had circulated a letter to the thirteen governors, outlining four things America would need to attain greatness: consolidation of the states under a strong federal government, timely payment of its debts, creation of an army and a navy, and harmony among its people. Hamilton would have written the identical list. The young treasury secretary gained incomparable power under Washington because the president approved of the agenda that he promoted with such tireless brilliance. Jefferson had it wrong when he charged that Hamilton manipulated Washington. On fundamental political matters, Washington was simply more attuned to Hamilton than he was to Jefferson. For that reason, Washington willingly served as the political shield that Alexander Hamilton needed as he became America’s most influential and controversial man.