Alexander Hamilton - Ron Chernow (2005)
Chapter 20. CORRUPT SQUADRONS
Despite financial panics and the setbacks of his manufacturing society, Alexander Hamilton’s touch still seemed golden, his step nimble, and his position impregnable in Washington’s administration. He was brimming with bold ideas and enacting them with singular panache. It petrified Jefferson and Madison that the one man in America willing and able to lead the country in precisely the wrong direction was Washington’s right-hand man, who seemed to be virtually running the country.
As early as May 1791 Madison and Jefferson had begun to organize opposition to the treasury secretary’s triumphal march. After Hamilton’s success with the Bank of the United States, the two Virginians embarked on what seemed a harmless “botanizing tour” that led them through New York City, up the Hudson River to Lake George, then down through western New England��the heartland of Hamilton’s support. As Jefferson observed, it was “from New England chiefly that these champions for a King, Lord, and Commons come.”1 Even though the two men registered copious notes about trees and floral specimens and pulled speckled trout from lakes, their activities thinly camouflaged a more serious agenda. As American politics split along regional lines, Jefferson knew that the south had to make northern inroads to stop the Hamiltonian juggernaut. “There is a vast mass of discontent gathered in the South and how and when it will break God knows,” Jefferson told Robert R. Livingston on the eve of the trip.2
In New York, the two Virginians conferred with Livingston as well as Aaron Burr, who had replaced Philip Schuyler as one of New York’s two senators. The alert Robert Troup suspected a plot to strip Hamilton of power in his own backyard. “There was every appearance of a passionate courtship between the Chancellor [Livingston], Burr, Jefferson and Madison when the two latter were in town,” he apprised Hamilton. “Delenda est Carthago, I suppose, is the maxim adopted with respect to you.”3Delenda est Carthago: Carthage must be destroyed and obliterated. These fighting words, quarried from the pages of Roman history, signaled the start of interminable warfare between Hamilton and Jefferson, which was to tear apart Washington’s cabinet and the country at large. The conflict went beyond the personal clash between Washington’s two most gifted officials and contrasted two enduring visions of American government. “Of all the events that shaped the political life of the new republic in its earliest years,” Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick wrote in their history of the period, “none was more central than the massive personal and political enmity, classic in the annals of American history, which developed in the course of the 1790s between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.”4 This feud, rife with intrigue and lacerating polemics, was to take on an almost pathological intensity.
As noted, Hamilton and Jefferson at first enjoyed cordial relations. “Each of us perhaps thought well of the other man,” Jefferson recalled, “but as politicians it was impossible for two men to be of more opposite principles.”5 In combating Hamilton’s cabinet influence, the courtly Jefferson, who hated confrontation, operated at a severe disadvantage. “I do not love difficulties,” he once told John Adams. “I am fond of quiet, willing to do my duty, but [made] irritable by slander and apt to be forced by it to abandon my post.”6 By contrast, the bumptious Hamilton savored the cut and thrust of controversy. Fast on his feet, sure in his judgments, informed on every issue, he was as dazzling and voluble in debate as Jefferson was retiring. By early 1792, any pose of civility between the two secretaries disappeared, and Jefferson remembered them “daily pitted in the cabinet like two cocks.” By the end of their tenure, the two adversaries could scarcely stand each other’s presence.
Today we cherish the two-party system as a cornerstone of American democracy. The founders, however, viewed parties, or “factions” as they termed them, as monarchical vestiges that had no legitimate place in a true republic. Hamilton dreaded parties as “the most fatal disease” of popular governments and hoped America could dispense with such groups.7 James Kent later wrote, “Hamilton said in The Federalist, in his speeches, and a hundred times to me that factions would ruin us and our government had not sufficient energy and balance to resist the propensity to them and to control their tyranny and their profligacy.”8 In many passages in The Federalist, Hamilton and Madison inveighed against malignant factions, although Hamilton conceded in number 26 that “the spirit of party, in different degrees, must be expected to infect all political bodies.”9 Hamilton associated factions with parochial state interests and imagined that federal legislators would be more broad-minded—“more out of the reach of those occasional ill humors or temporary prejudices and propensities which in smaller societies frequently contaminate the public councils,” he said in number 27.10
Nevertheless, it was Hamilton, inadvertently, who became the flash point for the formation of the first parties. The searing controversy over his programs exploded idyllic fantasies that America would be free of partisan groupings. His charismatic personality and far-reaching policies unified his followers, who gradually became known as Federalists. By capitalizing the term used for supporters of the Constitution, the Federalists tacitly implied that their foes opposed it. The Federalists were allied with powerful banking and merchant interests in New England and on the Atlantic seaboard and were disproportionately Congregationalists and Episcopalians.
At the same time, the mounting fear of Hamilton among Jefferson, Madison, and their supporters cohered into an organized opposition that began to call itself Republican. Alluding to the ancient Roman republic, this was also a clever label, insinuating that Federalists were not real republicans and hence must be monarchists. Often Baptists and Methodists, Republicans drew their strength from rich southern planters and small farmers. They defined their beliefs, in large measure, by their dread of Hamilton’s system and employed anti-Hamilton rhetoric as shorthand to express their solidarity. Jefferson distinguished the two parties by saying that Federalists believed that “the executive is the branch of our government which needs most support,” while Republicans thought that “like the analogous branch in the English government, it is already too strong for the republican parts of the Constitution and therefore, in equivocal cases, they incline to the legislative powers.”11
Elkins and McKitrick describe “the emergence of parties” as “the true novelty of the age” and date their onset to around 1792.12 It is tempting but misleading to think of the Federalists as the patrician party and the Republicans as representing the commoners. “The controversy which embroiled the two champions was not basically concerned with the haves and the have-nots,” James T. Flexner once wrote of the clash between Hamilton and Jefferson. “It was between rival economic systems, each of which was aimed at generating its own men of property.”13 In fact, the Federalist ranks had plenty of self-made lawyers like Hamilton, while the Republicans were led by two men of immense inherited wealth: Jefferson and Madison. Moreover, the political culture of the slaveholding south was marked by much more troubling disparities of wealth and status than was that of the north, and the vast majority of abolitionist politicians came from the so-called aristocrats of the Federalist party.
The sudden emergence of parties set a slashing tone for politics in the 1790s. Since politicians considered parties bad, they denied involvement in them, bristled at charges that they harbored partisan feelings, and were quick to perceive hypocrisy in others. And because parties were frightening new phenomena, they could be easily mistaken for evil conspiracies, lending a paranoid tinge to political discourse. The Federalists saw themselves as saving America from anarchy, while Republicans believed they were rescuing America from counterrevolution. Each side possessed a lurid, distorted view of the other, buttressed by an idealized sense of itself. No etiquette yet defined civilized behavior between the parties. It also was not self-evident that the two parties would smoothly alternate in power, raising the unsettling prospect that one party might be established to the permanent exclusion of the other. Finally, no sense yet existed of a loyal opposition to the government in power. As the party spirit grew more acrimonious, Hamilton and Washington regarded much of the criticism fired at their administration as disloyal, even treasonous, in nature.
One last feature of the inchoate party system deserves mention. The emerging parties were not yet fixed political groups, able to exert discipline on errant members. Only loosely united by ideology and sectional loyalties, they can seem to modern eyes more like amorphous personality cults. It was as if the parties were projections of individual politicians—Washington, Hamilton, and then John Adams on the Federalist side, Jefferson, Madison, and then James Monroe on the Republican side—rather than the reverse. As a result, the reputations of the principal figures formed decisive elements in political combat. For a man like Hamilton, so watchful of his reputation, the rise of parties was to make him even more hypersensitive about his personal honor.
If, on the domestic side, Hamilton’s bottomless chest of programs precipitated the rise of parties, equally inflammatory were political convulsions in Europe—specifically, whether U.S. policy should tilt toward England or France. Much of the debate’s fervor sprang from the fact that the colonists had fought a war against England with France as their chief ally. Beyond this obvious backdrop, England and France functioned as proxies in the domestic debate over what kind of society America should be. For Jefferson and Madison, the problem was not simply that Hamilton was pro-British but that his policies would replicate aspects of the British government they loathed. And for Hamilton, the French Revolution was a bloody cautionary tale of a revolution gone awry.
Jefferson possessed a long-standing grudge against Britain. Back in 1786, he had received a glacial reception in London from British officials, and their insufferable condescension had left a residue of implacable malice. “That nation hates us, their ministers hate us, and their king more than all other men,” Jefferson fulminated after two months in England.14 It may be significant that Hamilton, who never visited Europe or experienced firsthand the insolence that stung Jefferson and Franklin, found it easier to warm to the British. Besides the dependence of Virginia tobacco planters upon British credit, Hamilton thought that some southern hostility toward Britain also dated from wartime experience: “It is a fact that the rigor with which the war was prosecuted by the British armies in our southern quarter had produced…there more animosity against the British Government than in the other parts of the United States.”15
With evergreen memories of the Revolution, many Americans viewed Britain warily, and Hamilton had to preach the unpalatable truth that England was a more suitable trading partner for America than France, the clear sentimental favorite. The United States still had not escaped economic dependence on England, which consumed nearly half of American exports and accounted for three-quarters of American imports. Even that understated the dependence, since many British imports were articles of everyday use—cutlery, pottery, and the like—whereas France specialized in wine, brandy, women’s hosiery, and other luxury goods. As an exponent of commercial realism in foreign affairs, Hamilton thought it better for America to operate temporarily as a junior partner in Britain’s global trading system than to try to undercut Britain and align itself with France.
By virtue of his background, Hamilton may have been well disposed toward the British. His father, descended from Scottish nobility, had probably diverted his son with tales of the British Isles. The illegitimate boy may have identified with his father’s lapsed patrician heritage. Nor would Hamilton have felt alone in his emotional affinity for England. The Revolution had been a family feud, with all the ambivalent feelings that implied. It had been their violated rights as Englishmen that had driven the colonists to revolt. Immigration soon diversified the population mix, but in the 1790s the country’s Anglo-Saxon character remained largely intact.
Jefferson often told of a dinner discussion that he had about British politics with Adams, Knox, and Hamilton in Philadelphia in 1791. They were discussing the “corruption” of the British political system—the system of royal patronage and pensions, the unequal size of electoral districts, and so on—when the following exchange occurred:
Mr. Adams observed, “Purge that constitution of its corruption…and it would be the most perfect constitution ever devised by the wit of man.” Hamilton paused and said, “Purge it of its corruption…and it would become an impracticable government. As it stands at present, with all its supposed defects, it is the most perfect government which ever existed.”16
Jefferson gave this comment a sinister gloss, but Hamilton was merely saying that the Crown needed patronage to offset Parliament’s power of the purse. In Federalist number 76, Hamilton had described the tendency of popular assemblies, in England and elsewhere, to encroach upon the executive branch. Admiration for Britain’s unwritten constitution and representative government had been commonplaces of colonial rhetoric. John Marshall said of prerevolutionary America, “While the excellence of the English constitution was a rich theme of declamation, every colonist believed himself entitled to its advantages.”17 Only seven months before the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote, “Believe me, dear Sir, there is not in the British empire a man who more cordially loves a union with Great Britain than I do.”18 During the fight to ratify the Constitution, Patrick Henry praised the British constitution as superior to the new American version. It was not illogical for patriots to see their new government as realizing British ideals that had been wantonly trampled on by the Crown. It was France, not England, that had long been associated with despotic government, and Hamilton’s high praise for England was not as heretical as Jefferson pretended it was.
To Jefferson, it sometimes seemed that Hamilton wasn’t just content to run the Treasury Department but wanted to annex the State Department to his domain. Some of this can be ascribed to Hamilton’s ambition, some to the minute size of Washington’s cabinet, and some to the fact that Hamilton’s system hinged on customs duties from mostly British imports. The affairs of Treasury and State could not easily be pried apart. As mentioned earlier, even as Jefferson lobbied for closer trade ties with France in early 1791, Hamilton had launched freelance contacts with George Beckwith, an informal emissary of the British government.
Hamilton had told Beckwith that Britain could help her case by granting full diplomatic status to the United States and naming an official ambassador. Americans felt demeaned that Britain had sent no representative since the Revolution. Hamilton’s hints bore fruit when the British sent twenty-eight-year-old George Hammond to Philadelphia in late 1791. Already a seasoned diplomat, Hammond commenced the first of many private chats with Hamilton. Hammond wrote to London, “I had a very long and confidential conversation with Mr. Hamilton…in the course of which the opinion I had entertained of that gentleman’s just and liberal way of thinking was fully confirmed.”19Hammond withheld his credentials from Washington, however, until the United States agreed to post an envoy to London.
George Hammond arrived at a critical juncture, with the United States and Britain still trading endless recriminations about which side had reneged on the peace treaty. America chided Britain for failing to surrender its northwest forts and not compensating planters for slaves it had spirited away, while Britain complained that America still had not paid off prewar debts to its creditors. Hamilton impressed upon Hammond the vital need for Britain to relinquish the forts and conceded the justice of British claims for repayment of old debts. The one issue that Hamilton again refused to push vigorously was compensation for emancipated slaves—a vital point for Jefferson. When Hammond downgraded the importance of this item, he noted with pleasure that Hamilton “seemed partly to acquiesce” in his reasoning.20
It is possible to fault Hamilton for poaching on Jefferson’s turf with Hammond while also recognizing that he salvaged talks that Jefferson wanted to sabotage. Jefferson treated Hammond to a frigid reception such as he himself had received in London. Hammond complained of the secretary of state that “it is his fault that we are at a distance. He prefers writing to conversing and thus it is that we are apart.”21 Hamilton despaired when Jefferson dredged up stale arguments about the justice of the American Revolution, and he apologized to Hammond for “the intemperate violence of his colleague,” assuring him that Jefferson’s views were “far from containing a faithful exposition of the sentiments of this government.”22 Jefferson’s pro-French bias prevented any real progress from being made in Anglo-American relations during his tenure at State. “When the British minister wanted to know whether a thing was or was not unreasonable,” Elkins and McKitrick note, “he found the Secretary of the Treasury a better guide than the Secretary of State.”23 Hamilton, for his part, subverted moves by Jefferson to negotiate a commercial treaty with France. This internecine warfare between two ambitious, relentless politicians began to immobilize policy in the Washington administration.
On issue after issue, ranging from redemption of war debt to creating a national bank, Washington had sided with Hamilton against Jefferson and Madison. Washington shared many values with Hamilton, relied on his eclectic knowledge, and tended to be swayed by his judgments. This posed a dilemma for Republican critics of the administration because Washington was still America’s hero and a political untouchable; to assail him outright was thought to be political suicide. Hamilton, vulnerable as Washington never could be, therefore became the necessary bogeyman.
How could Jefferson hound Hamilton from office without tipping his hand? A proficient political ventriloquist, Jefferson was skilled at using proxies while keeping his own lips tightly sealed. The mouthpiece he chose to broadcast his views was the poet Philip Freneau. The Republicans had been bedeviled by the Gazette of the United States, a paper edited by a former Boston schoolmaster, John Fenno, who was adoring in his treatment of Hamilton. Hamilton had urged Fenno to start the paper in 1789 and later raised money to rescue it from financial distress. It was a quasi-official paper, since Fenno did work for the federal government and was even listed in the 1791 Philadelphia directory as an officer of the U.S. government. Jefferson denounced the Gazette as “a paper of pure Toryism, disseminating the doctrines of monarchy, aristocracy, and the exclusion of the influence of the people.”24Jefferson and Madison decided to groom Freneau as a foil to Fenno and make him editor of a Republican newspaper.
Educated at Princeton, Freneau had been a friend and classmate of James Madison before the Revolution. As a crew member on a revolutionary privateer, Freneau had been captured by the British and subjected to six harrowing weeks aboard a prison ship, leaving him with a lasting detestation of England. The so-called Poet of the Revolution, Freneau was known for his scathing ridicule of English royalty, including his caustic description of George III as “the Caligula of Great Britain.”25 He had also rhapsodized about Washington as “a second Diomede[s]” whose actions might have awed a “Roman Hero or a Grecian God.”26
Three days after Washington signed Hamilton’s bank bill on February 25, 1791, Jefferson, at Madison’s behest, tried to lure Freneau to Philadelphia by offering him a job as State Department translator at a modest $250 annual salary. Freneau knew only one foreign tongue, French, and was poorly qualified for the post. In Hamilton’s view, this sinecure disguised the real design. Indeed, Jefferson hinted to Freneau that the translation job “gives so little to do as not to interfere with any other calling the person may choose.”27 When Jefferson and Madison made their botanizing tour in 1791, they breakfasted with Freneau in New York and urged him to move to Philadelphia to launch an opposition paper. Jefferson volunteered to toss in small State Department jobs, such as printing legal notices, to give the paper extra income. (He later denied making any such promises.) In his acerbic account of these events, Hamilton observed of Jefferson, “He knows how to put a man in a situation calculated to produce all the effects he desires without the gross and awkward formality of telling him, ‘Sir I mean to hire you for the purpose.’”28 By July 1791, Freneau had agreed to take the job as State Department translator, and on October 31 the maiden issue of the National Gazette appeared. This freewheeling paper soon became the foremost Republican organ in America.
Like other newspapers of the 1790s, Freneau’s National Gazette did not feign neutrality. With the population widely dispersed, newspapers were unabashedly partisan organs that supplied much of the adhesive power binding the incipient parties together. Americans were a literate people, and dozens of newspapers flourished. The country probably had more newspapers per capita than any other. A typical issue had four long sheets, crammed with essays and small advertisements but no drawings or illustrations. These papers tended to be short on facts—there was little “spot news” reporting—and long on opinion. They more closely resembled journals of opinion than daily newspapers. Often scurrilous and inaccurate, they had few qualms about hinting that a certain nameless official was embezzling money or colluding with a foreign power. “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper,” Jefferson later said. “Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”29 No code of conduct circumscribed responsible press behavior.
Signed articles were relatively rare. Perhaps the era’s most prolific essayist, Hamilton seldom published under his own name and drew on a bewildering array of pseudonyms. Such pen names were sometimes transparent masks through which the public readily identified prominent politicians. The fashion of allowing anonymous attacks permitted extraordinary bile to seep into political discourse, and savage remarks that might not otherwise have surfaced appeared regularly in the press. The brutal tone of these papers made politics a wounding ordeal. One contemporary critic said of newspaper publishers, “Like birds of game…they make sport to the public as their party prompts or supplies them with materials. By this practice our elective privileges are converted into a curse.”30
Though Jefferson and Madison were the chief instigators of the National Gazette, Jefferson had to move cautiously, while Madison could be more open. Madison solicited friends to subscribe to the paper, explaining that he did so “from a desire of testifying my esteem and friendship to Mr. Freneau by contributing to render his profits as commensurate as possible to his merits.”31 That Madison held high partisan hopes for the National Gazette is evident from a letter to Attorney General Edmund Randolph in which he rhapsodized about Freneau as “a man of genius” and described the need for a newspaper that would be an “antidote to the doctrines and discourses circulated in favor of monarchy and aristocracy.”32 By now, monarchy and aristocracy were standard code words for Hamilton and the Federalists.
One of Jefferson’s main weapons in discrediting Hamilton was his own insatiable appetite for political intelligence. After noteworthy discussions, Jefferson scribbled down the contents on scraps of paper. In 1818, he collected these snippets of political chatter into a scrapbook he called his “Anas”—a compendium of table gossip. In these pages, Hamilton figures as the melodramatic villain of the Washington administration, appearing in no fewer than forty-five entries. These horror stories about Hamilton have been regurgitated for two centuries and are now engraved on the memories of historians and readers alike. Unfortunately, these vignettes often cruelly misrepresent Hamilton and have done no small damage to his reputation. Jefferson understood very well the power of laying down a paper trail.
By coincidence or not, Jefferson recorded his first “Anas” item right after Freneau agreed to take the State Department job. Jefferson was credulous when it came to tales about Hamilton and believed implicitly in the Anglophile, royalist demon he conjured up. In the “Anas,” he fingered Hamilton as the cat’s-paw of a cabal that wished to defeat the Constitution and install a British-style monarchy—never mind that Hamilton had written the bulk of The Federalist Papers and almost singlehandedly gotten the Constitution ratified in New York. In his silent but lethal style, Jefferson stored up Hamilton’s indiscretions. It was here that Jefferson recorded the story of Hamilton and Adams singing the praises of the British constitution; of Hamilton supposedly raising a toast to George III at a St. Andrew’s Society dinner in New York; and of Hamilton declaring at a dinner party that “there was no stability, no security in any kind of government but a monarchy.”33 The suspect nature of these stories can be seen in the anecdote Jefferson told of Hamilton visiting his lodging in 1791 and inquiring about three portraits on the wall. “They are my trinity of the three greatest men the world has ever produced,” Jefferson replied: “Sir Francis Bacon, Sir Isaac Newton, and John Locke.” Hamilton supposedly replied, “The greatest man that ever lived was Julius Caesar.”34What makes the story suspect, if not downright absurd, is that Hamilton’s collected papers are teeming with pejorative references to Julius Caesar. In fact, whenever Hamilton wanted to revile Jefferson as a populist demagogue, he invariably likened him to Julius Caesar. One suspects that if Hamilton was accurately quoted, he was joking with Jefferson.
The problem with the “Anas” isn’t that Jefferson fabricated things. Sometimes he accepted secondhand gossip at face value. Sometimes he took a casual comment and blew it up into a monstrous portrait. Sometimes he missed nuances that would have cast matters in a different light. Take the references to Hamilton as an avowed monarchist: Hamilton had always wondered whether the Constitution would be durable enough to protect society and feared that a constitutional monarchy might be necessary; on the other hand, he had sworn to do everything in his power to give the new government a fair chance. In one “Anas” entry of August 13, 1791, Jefferson got this emphasis right when he reported Hamilton as saying that the new republic “ought to be tried before we give up the republican form altogether, for that mind must be really depraved which would not prefer the equality of political rights which is the foundation of pure republicanism, if it can be obtained consistently with order.”35 At other times, however, Jefferson was not so careful, stating baldly that Hamilton “was not only a monarchist, but for a monarchy bottomed on corruption.”36
The most damaging tale about Hamilton, however, came not from Jefferson but from a much later book called the Memoir of Theophilus Parsons. Parsons had been an attorney general appointed by John Adams; the book was published by his son in 1859—forty-six years after Theophilus Parsons died and fifty-five after Alexander Hamilton died. The author contends that at a New York dinner party, soon after the Constitution was adopted, an unnamed guest was declaiming about the wisdom of the American people. Hamilton allegedly slammed his fist on the table and exclaimed, “Your people, sir—your people is a great beast!” The author added, “I have this anecdote from a friend, to whom it was related by one who was a guest at the table.”37 As Stephen F. Knott has shown in Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth, this report of an event that occurred seventy-one years earlier, relayed by someone who heard it from someone else who heard it from someone else, has been trotted out at every opportunity by people seeking to smear Hamilton’s reputation. In fact, the quote was derived from a populist poem by a Dominican friar, Tommaso Campanella (1568–1639), who argued that the people were a slumbering beast who should awaken to their own power. Hamilton was wont to say that the world was full of knaves and fools, but this particular comment, if he ever made it, may have had a very different tone or intent from what has been imputed to it.
On the afternoon of February 28, 1792, Jefferson sat down with Washington, ostensibly to discuss the post office. The real purpose was Jefferson’s intention to warn Washington that Hamilton’s Treasury Department was threatening to devour the government. Jefferson wanted the post office under his jurisdiction at State because “the department of the Treasury possessed already such an influence as to swallow up the whole executive powers and that even future presidents…would not be able to make head against this department.”38 As always, Jefferson piously disclaimed any political ambitions, said that he contemplated resigning his post, and noted glumly that Hamilton showed no signs of leaving. At breakfast the next day, Washington urged Jefferson to stay. Notwithstanding the general prosperity, Jefferson contended that the country’s troubles arose from a single source, Hamilton’s system, and he accused his colleague of luring the citizenry into financial gambling. Hamilton did not know about Jefferson’s efforts to turn Washington against him.
Jefferson grew more sedulous in propagating defamatory charges against Hamilton. At one cabinet meeting in April, Hamilton said that he would try to accommodate congressional demands for internal Treasury Department documents but would reserve the right to withhold sensitive information. “They might demand secrets of a very mischievous nature,” he explained. For Jefferson, this was all a cover story. “Here I thought [Hamilton] began to fear they would go on to examining how far their own members and other persons in the government had been dabbling in stocks, banks etc.,” Jefferson wrote in his “Anas.”39 In May, Jefferson warned Washington that Philip Schuyler had advocated hereditary government at a dinner a few months earlier. That same month, Jefferson wrote a memo to Washington arguing that the “ultimate objective” of the Hamiltonian system was “to prepare the way for a change from the present republican form of government to that of a monarchy.”40 The incorruptible Washington had known Hamilton intimately for fifteen years and was smart enough to dismiss these charges.
Madison had become no less confirmed an opponent of Hamilton than had Jefferson and thought his diabolical foe must be stopped. As Garry Wills has observed, “Madison tended to think that those who opposed what seemed to him the obvious truth must have evil motives.”41 Madison saw Hamilton grafting British-style corruption on America in preparation for a monarchy. Freneau’s National Gazette provided a handy platform for Madison, and each month his anonymous blasts against Hamilton grew more withering. In February 1792, as Jefferson burrowed away at Hamilton from within the cabinet, Madison railed against “a government operated by corrupt influence, substituting the motive of private interest in place of public duty.”42 By March, Madison’s critique of Hamilton had grown indiscriminate: Hamilton was coddling speculators, inflating the national debt, distorting the Constitution, and scheming to bring aristocracy to America.
A master legislative tactician, Madison was now recognized as the first opposition leader in House history and had most of the south lined up solidly behind him. Among other things, Madison may have resented that Hamilton had replaced him as Washington’s confidential adviser. In an attempt to stymie Hamilton, Madison tried to exert legislative control over the Treasury’s power to raise money for the army for an upcoming western expedition. Madison did not prevail, but Hamilton was aghast that his former friend tried to curtail his power so drastically. As he said afterward, Madison “well knew that if he had prevailed, a certain consequence was my resignation.”43Abigail Adams saw the anti-Hamilton campaign emanating from Virginia. “All the attacks upon the Secretary of the Treasury and upon the government come from that quarter,” she told her sister, “but I think whilst the people prosper and feel themselves happy, they cannot be blown up.”44 Fisher Ames also saw systematic opposition to Hamilton coming from Virginia. “Virginia moves in a solid column,” he told a friend, “and the discipline of the party is as severe as the Prussian. Deserters are not spared. Madison is become a desperate party leader.”45
That spring, Hamilton closely monitored the National Gazette. While Freneau glorified Jefferson as the “illustrious patriot” and the “colossus of liberty,” he presented Hamilton in satirical terms, mocking him as “Atlas.”46 In early May, he taunted Hamilton with this verse: “Public debts are public curses / In soldiers’ hands! then nothing worse is! / In speculators’ hands increasing, / Public debt’s a public blessing!”47 Nor did Freneau exempt Washington from his mockery. When Hamilton made an innocent proposal to place Washington’s face on the new currency, Freneau saw royalist tendencies at work: “Shall Washington, my fav’rite child, / Be ranked ’mongst haughty kings?”48
That such antigovernment diatribes were being published by the paid translator for Jefferson’s State Department was finally too much for Hamilton. He concluded that Jefferson and Madison had mounted a concerted effort to drive him from office. He wasn’t being just criticized but crucified. With an imagination no less suspicious than Jefferson’s, he saw a populist conspiracy out to destroy him. After years of restraint as treasury secretary, Hamilton’s mind and emotions were now at full boil.
On May 26, 1792, he wrote a remarkable letter to Edward Carrington, a revenue supervisor in Virginia, that virtually declared war against Jefferson and Madison. Hamilton shed discretion and let his deepest feelings gush forth. He told Carrington that as early as the debates over his funding system, people had given him hints of Madison’s enmity, but he had not believed them. Now the scales had dropped from his eyes. “It was not ’till the last session that I became unequivocally convinced of the following truth: That Mr. Madison cooperating with Mr. Jefferson is at the head of a faction decidedly hostile to me and my administration and actuated by views in my judgment subversive of the principles of good government and dangerous to the union, peace and happiness of the country.”49 Of the “systematic opposition” of Jefferson and Madison, Hamilton declared, “My subversion, I am now satisfied, has been long an object with them.”50
Hamilton seemed more anguished by Madison’s betrayal than Jefferson’s. By this point, Hamilton saw the mild-mannered Jefferson as a fanatic with a settled malice toward him, if not toward the federal government itself. Madison had always impressed him as the more brilliant and honorable man. Now he concluded that Madison had fallen under Jefferson’s sway. “I cannot persuade myself that Mr. Madison and I, whose politics had formerly so much the same point of departure, should now diverge so widely in our opinions of the measures which are proper to be pursued,” Hamilton told Carrington. “The opinion I once entertained of the candour and simplicity and fairness of Mr. Madison’s character has, I acknowledge, given way to a decided opinion that it is one of a peculiarly artificial and complicated kind.”51
Not for the last time, Hamilton tried to refute the grotesque fantasy that he belonged to a “monarchical party” that meditated the downfall of republican government. He conceded that he and kindred spirits held less populist beliefs than Jefferson and Madison but that they would regard “as both criminal and visionary any attempt to subvert the republican system of the country.” He wanted to give the Constitution every possible chance: “I am affectionately attached to the republican theory. I desire above all things to see the equality of political rights, exclusive of all hereditary distinction, firmly established by a practical demonstration of its being consistent with the order and happiness of society.”52
If he had wanted to impose a monarchy upon America, Hamilton said, he would follow the classic path of a populist demagogue: “I would mount the hobbyhorse of popularity, I would cry out usurpation, danger to liberty etc. etc. I would endeavour to prostrate the national government, raise a ferment, and then ride in the whirlwind and direct the storm.” He denied Madison was doing this but was doubtful about Jefferson, a “man of profound ambition and violent passions.”53 Lest Carrington consider these views confidential, Hamilton indicated that he had thrown down the gauntlet to both Jefferson and Madison: “They are both apprised indirectly from myself of the opinion I entertain of their views.”54 The period of covert skirmishing had ended. Open warfare had begun.
George Washington watched this feuding in his cabinet with dismay. He was no longer the swaggering young general of the Revolution but a craggy, aging man with parchment skin. His gray eyes seemed smaller, more deeply set in their sockets. He was plagued by rheumatism, and his painful dentures crafted from hippopotamus tusks rubbed agonizingly against his one remaining good tooth. William Maclay found his “complexion pale, nay, almost cadaverous. His voice hollow and indistinct, owing, as I believe, to artificial teeth before his upper jaw.”55
Washington clung to an idealized image of the president as a citizen-king above partisanship. This pose was more and more difficult to maintain with a bitterly divided cabinet. Jefferson sniped privately at Washington as a vain, close-minded man, easily manipulated by flattery. “His mind has been so long used to unlimited applause that it could not brook contradiction or even advice offered unasked,” Jefferson complained to a friend, adding that “I have long thought therefore it was best for the republican interest to soothe him, by flattering where they could approve the measures and to be silent when they disapprove.”56 Unable to believe that Hamilton won internal arguments on their merits, Jefferson concluded that Washington was being hoodwinked. If not an intellectual, Washington was fully capable of independent judgment and could not be tricked or coerced. When Jefferson later accused him of falling under Hamilton’s influence, Washington reminded him irritably that “there were so many instances within [your] own knowledge of my having decided against as in favor of the opinions of the person evidently alluded to [Hamilton].”57 By early July 1792, it was clear that George Washington would not have the option of silence or inaction in stemming the feud between Hamilton and Jefferson. He had probably waited too long to assert control. His fine, nonpartisan stance may have only intensified the partisan mischief between his two appointees.
The slanderous hyperbole of Philip Freneau’s National Gazette now soared to a new pitch. To commemorate July 4, Freneau ran a front-page article listing the “rules for changing a limited republican government into an unlimited hereditary one” and mentioned Hamilton’s programs as the most effective means for doing so.58 Other articles followed with equally heavy-handed hints that Hamilton and his retinue planned to enslave America under a monarchy and an aristocracy. To provoke the president still further, Freneau had three copies of the National Gazette delivered to Washington each day.
Before leaving for Monticello for the rest of the summer, Jefferson again sat down with Washington to persuade him that a “corrupt squadron of voters in Congress” was in Hamilton’s pocket and voted for his measures only because they owned bank stock or government paper.59 Washington exhibited growing impatience with Jefferson’s warnings of a royalist plot and stated flatly that he endorsed Hamilton’s policies. Anyone who thought otherwise, he told Jefferson, must regard the president as “too careless to attend to them or too stupid to understand them.”60
On July 25, Hamilton planted in Fenno’s Gazette of the United States the opening shot in a sustained volley against Jefferson. Signed “T. L.,” this letter posed a simple query about Freneau and his State Department stipend: “Whether this salary is paid him for translations or for publications, the design of which is to vilify those to whom the voice of the people has committed the administration of our public affairs…?”61 The letter was just one paragraph, yet it could not have been more momentous: the treasury secretary was making anonymous public accusations against the secretary of state. Hamilton had returned to his old career as a bare-knuckled polemicist, and Freneau relished the chance to retaliate. Three days later, he tarred John Fenno, his Federalist counterpart, as a “vile sycophant” who printed the journals of the U.S. Senate and received more money from the government than he did.62
Washington was upset by this extraordinary tumult. The nasty newspaper war was pushing things fast to the breaking point. On July 29, Washington sent Hamilton a letter from Mount Vernon, labeled “Private & Confidential,” that enumerated twenty-one grievances about his administration that he had heard during his trip home. Everyone agreed that the country was prosperous and happy but voiced concern over specific measures. Although Washington pretended that George Mason was the principal voice of these concerns, Jefferson was clearly the source. Reluctant to offend Hamilton, Washington tactfully avoided mention that the twenty-one grievances all related to Hamilton’s policies. The litany of complaints was by now familiar: the excise tax was oppressive, the public debt too high, speculation had drained capital from productive uses and corrupted Congress, and on and on. Finally, Washington told Hamilton of the rumor that the real intent of these initiatives was “to prepare the way for a change from the present republican form of government to that of a monarchy, of which the British Constitution is to be the model.”63
By the time he received Washington’s letter on August 3, Hamilton had already posted one to Mount Vernon, urging Washington to stand for reelection and warning him that failure to do so would be “deplored as the greatest evil that could befall the country at the present juncture.”64 Washington’s letter must have reinforced Hamilton’s fear that the government was encircled by enemies and that Jefferson was plotting his ouster. Before Hamilton replied, he published a stinging critique of Jefferson in the Gazette of the United States. Under the guise of “An American,” Hamilton raised the stakes markedly by naming names. Freneau’s newspaper, he alleged, had been set up to advance Jefferson’s views, and Madison had been the intermediary in bringing Freneau to Philadelphia. Hamilton engaged in some wicked mockery, noting that the only foreign language the translator Freneau knew was French and that Jefferson was already acquainted with that language. He then directly accused Jefferson of disloyalty: “Is it possible that Mr. Jefferson, the head of a principal department of the government, can be the patron of a paper, the evident object of which is to decry the government and its measures?”65 Many readers must have guessed the identity of the author hiding behind the mask of “An American.”
Now in the fray, Hamilton published two more installments of “An American” on August 11 and 18, elaborating on the impropriety of Jefferson’s relationship with Freneau: “It is a fact known to every man who approaches that officer…that he arraigns the principal measures of the government and, it may be added, with indiscreet if not indecent warmth.”66 Even as Hamilton fired these broadsides, he composed a fourteen-thousand-word letter to Washington, vindicating his Treasury tenure. He confessed to deep hurt at the false charges hurled against him. He could endure criticisms of his judgment but not of his integrity: “I feel that I merit them in no degree and expressions of indignation sometimes escape me in spite of every effort to suppress them.”67 Hamilton listed his economic feats in office. He talked of the steep drop in the interest rates that the United States had to pay for loans (from 6 percent to 4 percent) and the influx of foreign money that had financed commerce and agriculture. Abundant money was now available for legitimate business purposes. Even speculation had proved his system’s soundness, for “under a bad system the public stock would have been too uncertain an article” for people to speculate in it.68 Hamilton denied that any member of Congress “can properly be called a stock-jobber or a paper dealer,” even if some had invested in government debt.69 Many had bought bank stock after the founding of the Bank of the United States, and he saw nothing wrong with that. It irked Hamilton that Jefferson claimed a monopoly on morality, and he made the following retort to his adversary: “As to the love of liberty and country, you have given no stronger proofs of being actuated by it than I have done. Cease then to arrogate to yourself and to your party all the patriotism and virtue of the country.”70
For all its brilliance, the zeal of Hamilton’s letter must have heightened Washington’s worries about the schism in his administration. In late August, he sent Hamilton a melancholy reply, pleading for mutual tolerance between him and Jefferson. Aware of the accusations they were trading in the press, Washington regretted these “wounding suspicions” and “irritating charges” and asked for “healing measures” to restore harmony.71 The president feared that, if the acrimony continued, the union itself might dissolve.
This full-length portrait of Alexander Hamilton as treasury secretary in 1792 shows his trim physique and debonair style. Ensnared in controversy, Hamilton asked the artist, John Trumbull, to omit any allusions to his political life.
This 1768 portrait of Myles Cooper, an Anglican minister and second president of King’s College, reflects the massive self-confidence of this unrepentant Tory. Hamilton helped save him from a patriotic mob in the early days of the Revolution.
In the eighteenth century, King’s College (later Columbia) was situated in lower Manhattan and enjoyed a bucolic Hudson River vista.
George Washington at Princeton. This splendid Charles Willson Peale portrait conveys the graceful panache of the Revolutionary War general, so unlike the later stiffness of his presidential demeanor.
During the Revolution, Hamilton formed a gallant trio with the marquis de Lafayette, pictured below in military uniform in the early days of the French Revolution, and John Laurens. The Laurens miniature was probably a gift for Martha Manning, whom Laurens impregnated and then married during his prewar legal studies in London.
Prompted by her husband, Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton visited a debtors’ prison to pose for this portrait by the insolvent artist Ralph Earl. Despite her elaborate hairdo, Earl captured Eliza’s lively, direct, and unpretentious nature.
Major General Philip Schuyler, a highly status-conscious man, embraced Hamilton as his son-in-law despite the latter’s murky, illegitimate boyhood.
Angelica Church—bright, witty, and fashionable—captivated her brother-in-law Hamilton no less than she did Thomas Jefferson and other political notables of the day.
The elegant Schuyler mansion in Albany, the Pastures, was one of the few places where the high-strung, work-obsessed Hamilton allowed himself to relax.
This 1792 portrait of James Madison, painted a few years after his collaboration with Hamilton on The Federalist, testifies to his tough, combative nature as he tried to foil Hamilton’s financial system in the House of Representatives.
The first newspaper installment of The Federalist. Hamilton turned out the essays in a white heat, publishing up to five or six “numbers” in a single week.
A wary, lugubrious John Jay depicted just before he teamed up with Hamilton on The Federalist. He finally had to drop the project because of severe rheumatism.
George Clinton, the seven-time governor of New York State, repeatedly clashed with Hamilton and came to personify for him the perils of state power.
The two faces of Thomas Jefferson. These portraits chart Jefferson’s metamorphosis from the foppish aristocrat of his Parisian years to the seemingly more austere republican vice president under John Adams.
Philip Freneau. A celebrated poet and firebrand recruited by Jefferson and Madison to edit the National Gazette, Freneau baited both Hamilton and Washington with anti-administration polemics.
William Branch Giles, then a fervent young congressman from Virginia, harried Treasury Secretary Hamilton at every turn with resolutions and investigations.
James Monroe as American minister to France. Alexander and Eliza Hamilton devoutly believed that after the Federalists demanded Monroe’s recall from Paris, he conspired to expose Hamilton’s adulterous trysts with Maria Reynolds.
The flamboyant diplomacy of Citizen Genêt in America precipitated both frenzied support and opposition and split a nation already deeply torn about the French Revolution.
The wily Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord thought that Hamilton was arguably the greatest political figure of the age, while Hamilton found the French statesman brilliant but unprincipled.
This portrait of John Adams as vice president suggests formidable reserves of strength but also hints at his unyielding pugnacity.
The title page of Hamilton’s 1800 pamphlet denouncing President Adams. Its publication was one of Hamilton’s least inspired ideas and only hastened his political decline.
Members of John Adams’s cabinet, allegedly under the treacherous control of Alexander Hamilton:
Left: Timothy Pickering, secretary of state.
Bottom left: Oliver Wolcott, Jr., secretary of the treasury.
Bottom right: James McHenry, secretary of war.
Three stages in the protean career of Aaron Burr:
Left: As a young senator from New York, circa 1792, having replaced Philip Schuyler.
Bottom left: As vice president in 1802, two years before his fatal “interview” with Hamilton.
Bottom right: In 1834, two years before his death, the jaded Burr looked supremely cynical as he sat for his final portrait.
Recently graduated from Columbia, nineteen-year-old Philip Hamilton became embroiled in a sudden dispute over his father’s reputation that resulted in his death in November 1801.
This somber portrait of Hamilton registers profound grief after his son’s death and reflects the sorrows of his last years.
Eliza Hamilton outlived her husband by more than half a century. She was in her nineties when this delicate study was sketched in charcoal and chalk.
Until she died at ninety-seven, Eliza Hamilton doted on this marble bust of her beloved husband by Giuseppe Ceracchi.
Hamilton did not complete the Grange until two years before his death, but his widow and children continued to occupy the pastoral retreat for years afterward.
Political life in the young republic now presented a strange spectacle. The intellectual caliber of the leading figures surpassed that of any future political leadership in American history. On the other hand, their animosity toward one another has seldom been exceeded either. How to explain this mix of elevated thinking and base slander? As mentioned, both sides believed that the future of the country was at stake. By 1792, both political parties saw their opponents as mortal threats to the heritage of the Revolution. But the special mixture of idealism and vituperation also stemmed from the experiences of the founders themselves. These selfless warriors of the Revolution and sages of the Constitutional Convention had been forced to descend from their Olympian heights and adjust to a rougher world of everyday politics, where they cultivated their own interests and tried to capitalize on their former glory. In consequence, the founding fathers all appear to us in two guises: as both sublime and ordinary, selfless and selfish, heroic and humdrum. After the tenuous unity of 1776 and 1787, they had become wildly competitive and sometimes jealous of one another. It is no accident that our most scathing portraits of them come from their own pens.
Far from heeding Washington’s call to desist from attacking Jefferson, Hamilton stepped up his efforts. Increasingly bitter, he was incapable of the forbearance Washington requested. The day before he replied to Washington on September 9, Hamilton found himself reeling from another fresh burst of articles against him. An author named “Aristides”—the name of an Athenian motivated by love of country, not mercenary gain—deified Jefferson as the “decided opponent of aristocracy, monarchy, hereditary succession, a titled order of nobility, and all the other mock-pageantry of kingly government.” He implied that Hamilton had endorsed these abhorrent things when, in fact, he had always condemned them. Noting the anonymous nature of Hamilton’s diatribes, the author likened the treasury secretary to “a cowardly assassin who strikes in the dark and securely wounds because he is unseen.”72 Freneau’s National Gazette continued to lambaste the Federalists as the “monarchical party,” the “monied aristocracy,” and “monocrats”—none of this likely to induce a mood of remorse in Hamilton.
In his September 9 letter, Hamilton applauded Washington’s attempts at reconciliation, then insisted that he hadn’t started the feud, that he was the injured party, and that he was not to blame. He took the feud a step further by recommending that Jefferson be expelled from the cabinet: “I do not hesitate to say that, in my opinion, the period is not remote when the public good will require substitutes for the differing members of your administration.”73 As long as it had not undermined the government, Hamilton said, he had tolerated Jefferson’s backstabbing. That was no longer the case: “I cannot doubt, from the evidence that I possess[,] that the National Gazette was instituted by him [Jefferson] for political purposes and that one leading object of it has been to render me and all the measures connected with my department as odious as possible.”74 Hamilton thought it his duty to unmask this antigovernment coterie and “draw aside the veil from the principal actors. To this strong impulse…I have yielded.”75 In an astounding statement, Hamilton told Washington that he could not desist from newspaper attacks against Jefferson: “I find myself placed in a situation not to be able to recede for the present.”76
Never before had Hamilton refused such a direct request from Washington, and not since quitting the general’s wartime staff had he so willfully asserted his own independence. Even while telling Washington that he would try to abide by any truce, he was preparing his next press tirade. The furious exchanges between Hamilton and Jefferson had hardened into a mutual vendetta that Washington was powerless to stop.
Nor did Jefferson heed Washington’s large-spirited plea for tolerance. In replying to the presidential request, he renewed his withering critique of Hamilton’s system, which, he said, “flowed from principles adverse to liberty and was calculated to undermine and demolish the republic by creating an influence of his department over the members of the legislature.” He charged Hamilton with favoring a king and a House of Lords at the Constitutional Convention—a misconstruction of what Hamilton had said. With greater justice, he grumbled about Hamilton’s unauthorized meetings with British and French ministers, but he also displayed an ugly condescension toward Hamilton that he ordinarily concealed: “I will not suffer my retirement to be clouded by the slanders of a man whose history, from the moment at which history can stoop to notice him, is a tissue of machinations against the liberty of the country which has not only received him and given him bread, but heaped its honors on his head.”77 The comment smacked of aristocratic disdain for the self-made man. In fact, no immigrant in American history has ever made a larger contribution than Alexander Hamiliton.
Hamilton seemed unhinged by the dispute. In the still secret Reynolds affair, he had shown a lack of private restraint. Now something compulsive and uncontrollable appeared in his public behavior. A captive of his emotions, he revealed an irrepressible need to respond to attacks. Whenever he tried to suppress these emotions, they burst out and overwhelmed him. Throughout that fall, the argumentative treasury secretary donned disguises and published blazing articles behind Roman pen names. Henceforth, he provided a running newspaper commentary on his own administration. Since he saw both his personal honor and the republic’s future at stake, he fought with his full arsenal of verbal weapons. Again and again in his career, Hamilton committed the same political error: he never knew when to stop, and the resulting excesses led him into irremediable indiscretions.
In a new tack, Hamilton carried the battle into enemy territory: the pages of the National Gazette itself. Two days after telling Washington that he could not stop his polemics, he appeared twice in Freneau’s paper. As “Civis,” he warned of a Jeffersonian cabal trying to win power at the next election. In “Fact No. I,” he corrected the continuing Jeffersonian distortions of his belief that a national debt could be a national blessing. He denied that government debt was a good thing at all times and held that “particular and temporary circumstances might render that advantageous at one time, which at another might be hurtful.”78 He also charged the Jeffersonians with hypocrisy for opposing both taxes and debt: “A certain description of men are for getting out of debt, yet are against all taxes for raising money to pay it off.”79
Within a week, Hamilton had returned to his ideological home, Fenno’s Gazette of the United States, publishing a new series under the name “Catullus.” He had the cheek to praise himself handsomely, saying that the treasury secretary feared no scrutiny into his motives: “I mistake however the man…if he fears the strictest examination of his political principles and conduct.”80 As before, Hamilton limned Jefferson as a despot in disguise, masking political ambitions behind republican simplicity. He contended that Jefferson had first opposed the Constitution, then adopted it from expediency. Hamilton didn’t stop with politics and now slashed at Jefferson’s personal reputation. Hinting that he possessed darker knowledge of his subject’s life, Hamilton intimated that Jefferson was a closet libertine: “Mr. Jefferson has hitherto been distinguished as the quiet, modest, retiring philosopher, as the plain simple unambitious republican. He shall not now for the first time be regarded as the intriguing incendiary, the aspiring, turbulent competitor.” “Catullus” said that Jefferson’s true nature had not been exposed before:
But there is always “a first time” when characters studious of artful disguises are unveiled. When the vizor of stoicism is plucked from the brow of the Epicurean; when the plain garb of Quaker simplicity is stripped from the concealed voluptuary; when Caesar coyly refusing the proffered diadem is seen to be Caesar rejecting the trappings, but tenaciously gripping the substance of imperial domination.81
Hamilton was pointing to some deeper knowledge of Jefferson’s private life, perhaps his knowledge of Jefferson’s liaison with Sally Hemings, based on reports from Angelica Church. Notably, Hamilton again used Julius Caesar as an example of the worst sort of tyrant, not as history’s greatest man.
In responding to Washington’s call for toleration, the only difference between Hamilton and Jefferson was that Hamilton wielded his own pen while Jefferson employed proxies. Between September 26 and December 31, 1792, six essays entitled “Vindication of Mr. Jefferson” came out in the American Daily Advertiser. Jefferson’s protégé from Virginia, Senator James Monroe, wrote five of them and Madison the sixth. The two men had conferred at length with Jefferson at Monticello, and Jefferson sent seven letters to Madison, which Monroe drew freely on in his articles. Monroe tried to exculpate Jefferson from charges that he had opposed the Constitution and wished to repudiate the national debt. In one essay, “A Candid State of Parties,” Madison described the Hamiltonians as “more partial to the opulent than to the other classes of society” and said they wanted to conduct government by “the pageantry of rank, the influence of money and emoluments, and the terror of military force.”82 Before writing the article, Madison received word from John Beckley, clerk of the House of Representatives, that Hamilton had declared unequivocally that Madison was “his personal and political enemy.”83 Things had reached a frenzied state that would have been inconceivable to Hamilton and Madison five years earlier, when they started The Federalist.
Before breakfast on the morning of October 1, 1792, Jefferson met with George Washington at Mount Vernon and again tried to convince him that Hamilton headed a monarchist plot. According to Jefferson, Hamilton had told him that the “Constitution was a shilly-shally thing of mere milk and water, which could not last and was only good as a step to something better.”84 Washington now lost all patience with Jefferson and his obsessive belief in a nonexistent plot. He told him that “as to the idea of transforming this government into a monarchy, he did not believe there were ten men in the United States whose opinions were worth attention who entertained such a thought.”85Washington also made it plain that he supported Hamilton’s funding system because it had worked. “That for himself, he had seen our affairs desperate and our credit lost, and that this was in a sudden and extraordinary degree raised to the highest pitch,” Jefferson later wrote.86 Washington said that it did not bother him that some legislators owned government debt, because some self-interest was inescapable in any government.
Because the president sided with his much younger rival, Jefferson concluded grumpily that the president’s brain must be enfeebled by age and that his opinions showed “a willingness to let others act and even think for him.”87 In despair, Jefferson repeated his intention to retire from the State Department at the end of Washington’s first term (March 1793), though he was to linger until the end of that year. Hamilton had flowered in office and found his identity there, while Jefferson hated the paperwork, had wearied of contesting administration policies, and daydreamed about a return to more peaceful pursuits at Monticello. The job had trapped him among political enemies, and he knew it would be easier to build up his following outside of office. There was no longer any point in trying to convert George Washington. Alexander Hamilton had won.