Alexander Hamilton - Ron Chernow (2005)
Chapter 17. THE FIRST TOWN IN AMERICA
After passage of his funding program, Hamilton did not stop to take a breather from his work. This intensely driven man, always compensating for his deprived early years, had a mind that throbbed incessantly with new ideas. When it came to issues confronting America, he committed all the resources of his mind. Hamilton could not do things halfway: he cared too passionately, too personally, about the fate of his adopted country.
Inside his teeming brain, he found it hard to strike a balance between the grand demands of his career and the small change of everyday life. The endless letters that flowed from his pen are generally abstract and devoid of imagery. He almost never described weather or scenery, the clothing or manners of people he met, the furniture of rooms he inhabited. He scarcely ever alluded to days off, vacations, or leisure moments. In one letter, he told Angelica that his “favorite wish” was to visit Europe one day, but he never left the country and seldom ventured beyond Albany or Philadelphia.1 Only rarely did he enliven letters with anecdotes or idle chatter. It was not so much that Hamilton was writing for the ages—though surely he knew his place in the larger scheme of things—as that his grandiose plans left scant space for commonplace thoughts.
Soon after Hamilton became treasury secretary, Philip Schuyler told Eliza a comical story about her husband’s absentminded behavior in an upstate New York town where he once paused en route to Albany. Hamilton must have been composing a legal brief or speech in his mind, for he kept pacing in front of a store owned by a Mr. Rodgers. As one observer recalled:
Apparently in deep contemplation, and his lips moving as rapidly as if he was in conversation with some person, he entered the store [and] tendered a fifty-dollar bill to be exchanged. Rodgers refused to change it. The gentleman [Hamilton] retired. A person [Hamilton] retired. A person in the store asked Rodgers if the bill was counterfeited. He replied in the negative. Why, then, did you not oblige the gentleman by exchanging it? Because, said Rodgers, the poor gentleman has lost his reason. But, said the other, he appeared perfectly natural. That may be, said Rodgers, he probably has his lucid intervals. But I have seen him walk before my door for half an hour, sometimes stopping, but always talking to himself. And if I had changed the money and he had lost it, I might have received blame.2
As the main architect of the new American government, Hamilton was usually in harness to his work. A recurring theme among the Schuylers was that Eliza should coax her husband into getting some fresh air and exercise to relieve his overtaxed brain. In 1791, Henry Lee sent Hamilton a horse from Virginia so that, for health reasons, he could take “daily airings and short rides.”3 An excellent horseman who had ridden a great deal in the Revolution, Hamilton had asked Lee to send him an especially gentle horse. Hamilton still suffered from a recurring kidney ailment that one friend described as his “old nephritic complaint” and that made jolting carriage rides an agonizing experience.4 Midway through Washington’s first term, Angelica Church heard reports of Hamilton growing puffy from overwork. “Colonel Beckwith tells me that our dear Hamilton writes too much and takes no exercise and grows too fat,” she complained to Eliza. “I hate both the word and the thing and you will take care of his health and good looks. Why, I shall find him on my return a dull, heavy fellow!”5
This man who worked with feverish, all-consuming energy could be the soul of conviviality after hours. William Sullivan left a verbal sketch of Hamilton that points up his incongruous blend of manly toughness and nearly feminine delicacy:
He was under middle size, thin in person, but remarkably erect and dignified in his deportment…. His hair was turned back from his forehead, powdered, and collected in a club behind. His complexion was exceedingly fair and varying from this only by the almost feminine rosiness of his cheeks. His might be considered, as to figure and color, an uncommonly handsome face.6
In describing one social gathering they attended, Sullivan said that Hamilton made a dramatic late entrance and was alternately the deep thinker and the witty conversationalist, especially when the ladies watched him adoringly:
When he entered the room, it was apparent from the respectful attention of the company that he was a distinguished individual. He was dressed in a blue coat with bright buttons; the skirts of his coat were unusually long. He wore a white waistcoat, black silk small clothes, white silk stockings. The gentleman who received him as a guest introduced him to such of the company as were strangers to him. To each he made a formal bow, bending very low, the ceremony of shaking hands not being observed…. At dinner, whenever he engaged in conversation, everyone listened attentively. His mode of speaking was deliberate and serious and his voice engagingly pleasant. In the evening of the same day, he was in a mixed assembly of both sexes and the tranquil reserve, noticed at the dinner table, had given place to a social and playful manner, as though in this he was alone ambitious to excel.7
Most people found Hamilton highly agreeable. Sullivan wrote, “Those who could speak of his manner from the best opportunities to observe him in public and private concurred in pronouncing him to be a frank, amiable, high-minded, open-hearted gentleman…. In private and friendly intercourse, he is said to have been exceedingly amiable and to have been affectionately beloved.”8 The few unflattering portraits of Hamilton’s personality tend to stem, not surprisingly, from political enemies. Hamilton was a man of daunting intellect and emphatic opinions, and John Quincy Adams contended that it was hard to get along with him if you disagreed with him. Hamilton knew he had a dogmatic streak and once joked, writing about himself in the third person, “Whatever may be the good or ill qualities of that officer, much flexibility of character is not of the number.”9 John Adams perhaps saw in Hamilton the mirror of his own vanity, later telling Jefferson that he was an “insolent coxcomb who rarely dined in good company where there was good wine without getting silly and vaporing about his administration, like a young girl about her brilliants and trinkets.”10
On the other hand, Hamilton had scores of faithful friends: Gouverneur Morris, Rufus King, Nicholas Fish, Egbert Benson, Robert Troup, William Duer, Richard Varick, Oliver Wolcott, Jr., Elias Boudinot, William Bayard, Timothy Pickering, and James Kent, to name but a few. Throughout his career, he accumulated companions “drawn to him by his humorous and almost feminine traits,” his grandson observed.11 James Wilkinson, who patched things up with Hamilton after their wartime clash, once told Hamilton that he missed his company because “I have never discovered in another [so much] matter to captivate the understanding and manner to charm the heart.”12 In view of the heartless image of Hamilton propagated by political opponents, it is worth noting the numerous acts of generosity strewn throughout his correspondence. Thanking him for an unspecified act of “disinterested friendship,” Morgan Lewis told Hamilton, “Indeed, if my memory does not fail me, I may with truth assert the present [instance as] the only one I ever experienced.”13 After Hamilton bailed out James Tillary with a loan, the New York physician tipped his hat: “You lent me some money to serve me at a time when an act of friendship had embarrassed me, and I now return it to you with a thousand thanks.”14 Hamilton also did favors for humble people, as when he drolly recommended his barber, John Wood, to George Washington’s secretary: “He desires to have the honor of dealing with the heads and chins of some of your family and I give him this line…to make him known to you.”15
Given his imposing responsibilities, it is hard to imagine that Hamilton could have enjoyed a warm, happy social life without Eliza’s support. They created an elegant but unostentatious home filled with lovely furniture, including chairs in Louis XVI style and a Federal mahogany sofa. Among other ornaments, they had a china snuffbox from Frederick the Great (courtesy of Baron von Steuben), a portrait of Louis XVI (a gift from the French ambassador), and, later on, a stately Gilbert Stuart painting of George Washington. From London, Angelica Church showered them with exquisite items, including gold-embossed porcelain tableware and blue-and-gold French flowerpots. Eliza would gladly have devoted herself to private life alone, but she submitted good-naturedly to the demands of her husband’s career. She was always a sprightly presence at tea parties given by Martha Washington. She reminisced in old age:
I had little of private life in those days. Mrs. Washington who, like myself, had a passionate love of home and domestic life, often complained of the “waste of time” she was compelled to endure. “They call me the first lady in the land and I think I must be extremely happy,” she would say almost bitterly at times and add, “They might more properly call me the chief state prisoner.” As I was younger than she, I mingled more in the gaieties of the day.16
Martha Washington’s style of entertaining struck Eliza as possessing just the right amalgam of beauty, taste, and modesty. One of Eliza’s few surviving personal effects is a pair of pink satin slippers that Martha Washington left at the Schuyler mansion and that Eliza gratefully inherited.
As energetic as her husband, Eliza never complained about family demands. By the time Hamilton became treasury secretary, she had already given birth to four of their eight children. Eliza was an excellent housekeeper who ably governed a large household. James McHenry once teased Hamilton about reports that Eliza “has as much merit as your treasurer as you have as treasurer of the wealth of the United States.”17 Hamilton appreciated her steady contributions to his life. In frequent letters to her, he constantly inquired about her in solicitous, protective tones. He seldom mentioned his work, as if wishing to shield her from the rough-and-tumble of politics.
The bulk of the child rearing fell to Eliza, a strict but loving mother. On one occasion, she told a family friend that there is a “hazard in young people having their evenings to themselves until they know there is a friend that will observe and advise them.”18 But even with his time-consuming career, Hamilton did not fob off all the parenting duties on Eliza. When they were in separate cities, he often kept one or two of the older boys with him, allowing them to share his bed at night, while the younger children remained with their mother. Hamilton was a chronic worrier about his family, an emotion perhaps held over from his childhood. Angelica once commented to Eliza about her brother-in-law, “His sensibility suffers from the least anxiety to you or your babies.”19
Hamilton enjoyed tutoring his children. He had high expectations and wanted them to excel—he was, by nature, an exacting, ambitious person—but his handful of surviving letters to them also show patient affection. After his eldest son, Philip, went off at age nine to boarding school in Trenton in 1791, accompanied by Alexander, Jr., Hamilton received a letter from him, saying how contented he was. Hamilton replied:
Your teacher also informs me that you recited a lesson the first day you began, very much to his satisfaction. I expect every letter from him will give me a fresh proof of your progress, for I know you can do a great deal if you please. And I am sure you have too much spirit not to exert yourself that you may make us every day more and more proud of you.20
Hamilton did not assume that his children would emulate his outsize accomplishments and tailored his demands to their native endowments, gently molding their characters. When his daughter Angelica was nine and staying with Grandfather Schuyler in Albany, Hamilton took time from his duties to write this mildly didactic note:
I was very glad to learn, my dear daughter, that you were going to begin the study of the French language. We hope you will in every respect behave in such a manner as will secure to you the goodwill and regard of all those with whom you are. If you happen to displease any of them, be always ready to make a frank apology. But the best way is to act with so much politeness, good manners, and circumspection as never to have an occasion to make any apology. Your mother joins in best love to you. Adieu, my very dear daughter.21
The sensitivity and tact that Hamilton revealed as a father are the more remarkable considering the troubled circumstances of his own childhood, and he made it a point of honor never to break promises to his children.
Hamilton loved the arts and shared this interest with his children. Very musically inclined, he had Angelica Church search London for the best piano she could find for his daughter Angelica. Singing duets became their favorite pastime. Hamilton also had an appreciative eye for art. “I know Hamilton likes the beautiful in every way,” Angelica Church once told Eliza. “The beauties of nature and of art are not lost on him.”22 Hamilton counseled Martha Washington on purchases of paintings and assembled his own collection of woodcuts and copper engravings, including works by Mantegna and Dürer. Just as he and Eliza had rescued Ralph Earl from debtors’ prison in the 1780s, so they later scouted out work for William Winstanley, a British painter specializing in Hudson River scenes. Hamilton loaned money to the young artist and may have been responsible for two of his paintings that graced Martha Washington’s drawing room.
Another leitmotif of Hamilton’s private life was his constant support of educational and scholarly pursuits. On January 21, 1791, he was admitted to the American Philosophical Society, the country’s oldest learned organization. Academic honors tumbled in on this man who had never officially finished college. Already a trustee of Columbia College, he now harvested a succession of honorary doctorates from Columbia, Dartmouth, Princeton, Harvard, and Brown, all before the tender age of forty.
Through his interest in educating native Americans, Hamilton’s name came to adorn a college. During the Revolution, Philip Schuyler had negotiated with Indian tribes around Albany to guarantee their neutrality. For his translator and emissary, he often enlisted the cooperation of the Reverend Samuel Kirkland, a missionary to the six-nation Iroquois League. Especially close to the Oneida, Kirkland wooed them to the patriotic side. Hamilton had championed a humane, enlightened policy toward the Indians. When real-estate speculators had wanted to banish them from western New York, he warned Governor Clinton that the Indians’ friendship “alone can keep our frontiers in peace…. The attempt at the total expulsion of so desultory a people is as chimerical as it would be pernicious.”23 He was often outraged by depredations perpetrated by frontier settlers against the Indians; in one later speech drafted for Washington, he wrote that government policy had been “inadequate to protect the Indians from the violences of the irregular and lawless part of the frontier inhabitants.”24 When problems with the Indians arose, he always favored reconciliation before any resort to force.
With such sympathy for the Indians’ plight, Hamilton was receptive when Kirkland approached him in January 1793 to join the board of trustees of a new school in upstate New York to educate white and native American students. The latter would be taught both English and Indian languages. Kirkland wrote in his journal, “Mr. Hamilton cheerfully consents to be a trustee of the said seminary and will afford it all the aid in his power.”25 That same month, the New York legislature granted a charter for the Hamilton-Oneida Academy. The following year, Baron von Steuben, acting as Hamilton’s ambassador, laid the school’s cornerstone. Hamilton never actually visited the school, but his sponsorship was significant enough that the school was christened Hamilton College when it received a broad new charter in 1812.
The residence law that passed Congress in July 1790, establishing Philadelphia as the interim capital, dictated that all government offices relocate there by early December. The federal government did not decamp all at once but straggled off to Pennsylvania in a disorderly exodus. On August 12, 1790, Congress held its farewell session in Federal Hall; by the end of the month, President Washington had boarded a barge and waved his farewell to Manhattan. On September 1, surely with an audible sigh of relief, Jefferson and Madison fled the sinful haunts of Manhattan and began to roll south across New Jersey in a four-wheeled carriage. Abigail Adams, who did not set sail until November, seemed miffed by the enforced southward shift, swearing that she would try to enjoy Philadelphia but that “when all is done it will not be Broadway.”26
In reality, Philadelphia was a cosmopolitan city, praised by a highborn British visitor as “one of the wonders of the world,” “the first town in America,” and one that “bids fair to rival almost any in Europe.”27 Larger than either New York or Boston, it supported ten newspapers and thirty bookshops. Largely through the civic imagination of Benjamin Franklin, it boasted an astounding panoply of cultural and civic institutions, including two theaters, a subscription library, a volunteer fire company, and a hospital.
As chieftain of the biggest government department, Hamilton executed the shift to Philadelphia with almost martial precision. In early August, he secured a two-story brick building on Third Street, between Chestnut and Walnut Streets. Though now headquarters of the most powerful government ministry, the building had a curiously makeshift air, as noted by the visitors Hamilton received between 9:00 and 12:00 each morning. One French caller, Moreau de St. Méry, was “astounded that the official lodgings of a minister could be so poor.” He was surprised when a shuffling old retainer answered the front door. And of Hamilton’s plain ground-floor office he wrote, “His desk was a plain pine table covered with a green cloth. Planks and trestles held records and papers, and at one end was a little imitation Chinese vase and a plate with glasses on it…. In a word, I felt I saw Spartan customs all about me.”28
From modest origins, the Treasury offices proliferated until they occupied the entire block. The 1791 city directory gives an anatomy of this burgeoning department, with 8 employees in Hamilton’s office, 13 in the comptroller’s, 15 in the auditor’s, 19 in the register’s, 3 in the treasurer’s, 14 in the office for settling accounts between the federal government and the states, and 21 in the customs office on Second Street, with an additional 122 customs collectors and surveyors scattered in various ports. By the standards of the day, this represented a prodigious bureaucracy. For its critics, it was a monster in the making, inciting fears that the department would become the Treasury secretary’s personal spy force and military machine.
Swollen by the Customs Service, the Treasury Department payroll ballooned to more than five hundred employees under Hamilton, while Henry Knox had a mere dozen civilian employees in the War Department and Jefferson a paltry six at State, along with two chargés d’affaires in Europe. The corpulent Knox and his entire staff were squeezed into tiny New Hall, just west of the mighty Treasury complex. Inevitably, the man heading a bureaucracy many times larger than the rest of the government combined would arouse opposition, no matter how prudent his style.
The hardworking secretary informed merchant Walter Stewart that he wanted a house for his family “as near my destined office as possible.” Reared in the tropics, he was now a confirmed resident of the northern latitudes and had taken on the identity of a New Yorker. “A cool situation and exposure will of course be a very material point to a New Yorker,” he advised Stewart. “The house must have at least six rooms. Good dining and drawing rooms are material articles. I like elbow room in a yard. As to the rent, the lower the better, consistently with the acquisition of a proper house.”29 By October 14, Hamilton had taken a home at Third and Walnut, just down the block from his office, as if he wished to stumble from bed straight into his office. The move was indicative of how conscientious he was and how crowded his schedule.
History has celebrated his Treasury tenure for his masterful state papers, but probably nothing devoured more of his time during his first year than creating the Customs Service. This towering intellect scrawled more mundane letters about lighthouse construction than about any other single topic. This preoccupation seems peculiar until it is recalled that import duties accounted for 90 percent of government revenues: no customs revenue, no government programs—hence Hamilton’s unceasing vigilance about everything pertaining to trade.
Congress had authorized Hamilton to keep “in good repair the lighthouses, beacons, buoys, and public piers in the several states,” and he hired and supervised those assigned to care for them.30 He also wielded huge patronage powers in awarding contracts for these navigational aids. In creating a string of beacons, buoys, and lighthouses along the Atlantic seaboard, Hamilton reviewed each contract and got Washington’s approval—an administrative routine that stifled the two men with maddening minutiae. On the day after the famous dinner deal on assumption and the nation’s capital, Hamilton asked Washington to initial a contract “for timber, boards, nails and workmanship” for a beacon near the Sandy Hook lighthouse outside New York harbor.31 Hamilton became expert on such excruciating banalities as the best whale oil, wicks, and candles to brighten lighthouse beams.
Before the Revolution, smuggling had been a form of patriotic defiance against Britain, and colonists had cordially detested customs collectors. Now Hamilton had to correct these lawless habits. He asked Congress in April 1790 to commission a fleet of single-masted vessels called revenue cutters that would patrol offshore waters and intercept contraband. By early August, Washington had signed a bill setting up this service, later known as the Coast Guard. Hamilton advised Washington to avoid regional favoritism by constructing the first ten revenue cutters in “different parts of the Union.”32 Previewing his upcoming industrial policy, he recommended using homegrown cloth for sails rather than foreign fabrics. Once again, an instinct for executive leadership, an innate capacity to command, surfaced in Hamilton. He issued directives of breathtaking specificity, requiring that each cutter possess ten muskets and bayonets, twenty pistols, two chisels, one broadax, and two lanterns. Showing a detailed knowledge of seafaring ways that surely dated back to his Caribbean days, he instructed customs collectors that since cutters might be blown off course “even to the West Indies, it will be always proper that they have salted meat with biscuit and water on board sufficient to subsist them in case of such an accident.”33
In constructing the Coast Guard, Hamilton insisted on rigorous professionalism and irreproachable conduct. He knew that if revenue-cutter captains searched vessels in an overbearing fashion, this high-handed behavior might sap public support, so he urged firmness tempered with restraint. He reminded skippers to “always keep in mind that their countrymen are free men and as such are impatient of everything that bears the least mark of a domineering spirit. [You] will therefore refrain…from whatever has the semblance of haughtiness, rudeness, or insult.”34 So masterly was Hamilton’s directive about boarding foreign vessels that it was still being applied during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
Hamilton’s power as head of customs extended beyond his legion of employees. Equally important was the comprehensive view of economic activity that he gained in a large country hobbled by primitive communications. Seven of every eight Treasury Department employees worked outside the capital, supplying Hamilton with an unending stream of valuable intelligence. One of Jefferson’s chief political operatives, John Beckley, reviled this network as an “organized system of espionage through the medium of revenue officers.”35 To monitor government receipts, Hamilton insisted upon weekly reports from collectors, enabling him to track every ship passing through American ports. With his insatiable curiosity—he wanted to know the size, strength, and construction of ships, their schedules and trading routes and cargoes—he pioneered questionnaires to gather such data.
Hamilton also arbitrated innumerable disputes that arose with shippers, often wading into arcane legal issues. At one point, the Baltimore customs collector asked whether import duties should be levied on horses, and Hamilton decided that horses and livestock qualified as taxable objects of trade. He then made this further observation: “I think it, however, necessary to observe that I consider negroes to be exempted from duties on importation.”36 It is a sorry commentary that the question of imposing duties on horses immediately posed the question of how to treat slaves.
The Customs Service also invested Hamilton with huge influence over the monetary system, with tremendous sums passing through his hands. One apprehensive Virginian warned Madison, “I am not unacquainted personally with that gentleman at the head of that department of the revenue and…I tremble at the thought of his being at the head of such an immense sum as 86 millions of dollars—and the annual revenue of the Union.”37 In fact, Hamilton handled the cash flow in an impeccable manner.
Three quarters of the revenues gathered by the Treasury Department came from commerce with Great Britain. Trade with the former mother country was the crux of everything Hamilton did in government. To fund the debt, bolster banks, promote manufacturing, and strengthen government, Hamilton needed to preserve good trade relations with Great Britain. He understood the displeasure with Britain’s trade policy, which excluded American ships from its West Indian colonies and allowed American vessels to carry only American goods into British ports. For Hamilton these irritating obstacles were overshadowed by larger policy considerations. America had decided to rely on customs duties, which meant reliance on British trade. This central economic truth caused Hamilton repeatedly to poach on Jefferson’s turf at the State Department. The overlapping concerns of Treasury and State were to foster no end of mischief between the two men.
Hamilton hoped to diversify the revenue stream with domestic taxes. By the time he reported to Congress in December 1790 on the need for additional taxes, he feared that import duties were as high as they could reasonably go. The time had come to spread the pain more evenly, especially since import duties injured seaboard merchants who were part of Hamilton’s social circle and political base in New York.
No immediate crisis spawned a need for fresh money. By late 1790, Hamilton had actually amassed a sizable government surplus. Government securities had tripled in value under his tutelage, and compared to the disarray under the Articles of Confederation his policies had produced a healthy burst of economic growth. One Boston correspondent said, “It appears to me that there never was a period when the United States had a brighter sunshine of prosperity…. It is pleasing indeed to see the general satisfaction which reigns among every class of citizens in this part of the Union…. [O]ur agricultural interest smiles, our commerce is blessed, our manufactures flourish.”38 But at Hamilton’s urging the federal government had now assumed state debts, and Hamilton did not see how he could service them without a secondary source of income. He was boxed in, however, by the already ingrained American aversion to taxation. Direct taxation, whether of people or houses, was anathema to many, and, given the strength of agricultural interests and real-estate speculators, a land tax could never have been enacted. So what was there left to tax?
In December 1790, with other options foreclosed, Hamilton revived a proposal he had floated in his Report on Public Credit: an excise tax on whiskey and other domestic spirits. He knew the measure would be loathed in rural areas that thrived on moonshine, but he thought this might be more palatable to farmers than a land tax. Hamilton confessed to Washington an ulterior political motive for this liquor tax: he wanted to lay “hold of so valuable a resource of revenue before it was generally preoccupied by the state governments.” As with assumption, he wanted to starve the states of revenue and shore up the federal government. Jefferson did not exaggerate Hamilton’s canny capacity to clothe political objectives in technical garb. There were hidden agendas buried inside Hamilton’s economic program, agendas that he tended to share with high-level colleagues but not always with the public.
To Hamilton’s delight, Madison supported the excise tax on distilled spirits, agreeing that no plausible alternative existed. Madison averred that “as direct taxes would be still more generally obnoxious and as imports are already loaded as far as they will bear, an excise is the only resource and of all articles distilled spirits are least objectionable.”39 Madison thought the whiskey tax might even have collateral social benefits, since it would increase “sobriety and thereby prevent disease and untimely deaths.”40
In perhaps the first distant rumble of the Whiskey Rebellion that flared up a few years later, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed a motion protesting Hamilton’s tax. In the mountain hollows of western Pennsylvania, homemade brew was a time-honored part of local culture, and government interference was fiercely resented. As Hamilton worked to pass his liquor tax, William Maclay again saw him as the evil wizard of Congress, flitting from the House of Representatives on the first floor of Congress Hall to the Senate chamber on the second, dictating policy to his legislative myrmidons. When Maclay tried to present statistics on domestic stills to legislators, he found Hamilton there ahead of him: “I went to the door of the committee room…but finding Hamilton still with them, I returned.”41 When the Senate passed the excise tax, Maclay made a chillingly accurate prediction in his journal: “War and bloodshed are the most likely consequence of all this.”42 As he noted, even the Pennsylvania legislature had been unable to enforce excise taxes in the lawless hinterlands of the western counties.
Hamilton labored under no illusions about resistance to the whiskey tax and was prepared to equip a small army of inspectors with stiff enforcement powers. In his Report on Public Credit, he had outlined sweeping powers for such inspectors, including allowing them to enter homes and warehouses at any hour to seize hidden spirits. Dealers in spirits, even ramshackle one-man operations, would be required to present proper certificates and maintain accurate records. In a circular issued in May 1791, Hamilton promulgated rules that seemed excessively detailed, especially in a country with a congenital dislike of tax collectors. He wanted inspectors to visit all distilleries “at leasttwice a day” and file weekly reports, “specifying in these returns the name of each owner or manager of a distillery, the city, town or village…and the county in which such distillery is situated, the number of stills at each, and their capacity in gallons…the materials from which they usually distill, and the time for which they are usually employed.”43
It did not take long for stirrings of revolt to crop up in western Pennsylvania. As soon as the tax took effect in July 1791, locals began to shun or even threaten inspectors. Hamilton imagined that he had been scrupulous in circumscribing the powers of inspectors—they “can’t search and inspect indiscriminately all the houses and buildings of people engaged in the business”—but many distillers found their methods bullying and intrusive.44 As discontent with the liquor tax increased, the protesters began to broaden their critique, taking aim at Hamilton’s funding scheme and his entire gamut of policies.
Hamilton was caught on the horns of a dilemma. To prop up the federal government, he had to restore public credit. To restore public credit, he had to institute unpopular taxes, and this “gave a handle to its enemies to attack” the federal government, he later conceded.45 Yet all of the alternatives to the liquor tax would have proved even more unpopular. As reports drifted back to Philadelphia of disturbances in western Pennsylvania, Hamilton did not lighten up on enforcement. He thought it his duty to implement unpopular but necessary policies, even if they detracted from his own popularity. Hamilton was not the sort to tolerate lawbreaking and was not finished with the lengthy list of controversial policies he planned to introduce.