Alexander Hamilton - Ron Chernow (2005)


Even as their feud worsened, both Hamilton and Jefferson pleaded with Washington to stand for a second term as president. It may have been the sole thing that now united these sworn antagonists. Both men knew their personal warfare could wreck the still fragile union and thought Washington the one man who could hold it together. “North and South will hang together if they have you to hang on,” Jefferson told the president.1 Hamilton had additional motives for seeking a second term for Washington. The president had been his indispensable patron, the steadfast supporter of his policies, granting him preeminent status in the cabinet. (In drafting his annual address to Congress that autumn, Washington solicited suggestions from all cabinet members, then assigned the speech to Hamilton.) A second term for Washington would aid another Hamiltonian objective: to strengthen executive power. His fears of legislative tyranny had only increased as congressional opposition to him had gathered force.

Since Washington’s victory seemed almost foreordained, the focus shifted to the vice presidential race. Unable to target the popular president directly, Republicans turned to the vice presidency as a referendum on Washington’s first term. Hamilton never wavered in supporting John Adams as vice president, a fact obscured by their later row. (Even Abigail Adams, we have seen, cheered on Hamilton as treasury secretary.) Writing to a Federalist congressman in October 1792, Hamilton conceded that “Mr. Adams, like other men, has his faults and his foibles”—faults and foibles that Hamilton himself eventually exposed. He admitted they held some differing views. For all that, Adams was “honest, firm, faithful, and independent, a sincere lover of his country, a real friend to genuine liberty…. No man’s private charactercan be fairer than his. No man has given stronger proofs than him of disinterested and intrepid patriotism.”2 Such glittering adjectives seldom flowed from Hamilton’s captious quill.

By nature, Hamilton was a busybody and could not refrain from offering Adams unsolicited advice. The vice president was a Federalist more by default than conviction—he prided himself on his grumpy independence and freedom from “party virulence”—and saw no need to make common cause with Hamilton.3 Distressed by rumors that Governor Clinton might challenge Adams for the vice presidency, Hamilton took it upon himself in June 1792 to warn Adams of “something very like a design to subvert the government.”4 Among Adams’s many quirks was a penchant for extended absences from Philadelphia. By early September, Hamilton feared that Adams’s prolonged sojourn at his home in Quincy, Massachusetts, might mar his reelection chances, and he sent him a tactfully worded note, urging him to return to the capital. His stay in Massachusetts “will give some handle to your enemies to misrepresent. And though I am persuaded you are very indifferent personally to the event of a certain election, yet I hope you are not so as it regards the cause of good government.”5

Adams was far from indifferent to the election’s outcome. John Ferling has noted, “There can be little doubt that Adams saw the vice-presidency as his best means by which to succeed President Washington. To further that end, he soon eschewed his powdered wig, ceremonial sword, and handsome coach.”6 Irked by Hamilton’s advice, Adams did not rush back to Philadelphia. He was vain enough to tell Abigail that it was inconceivable that George Clinton, his inferior in knowledge and government service, could pose a serious political threat. Such was Adams’s self-regard that he told son John Quincy during the campaign that his own life story had been one of “success almost without example.”7 But the election was to vindicate Hamilton’s sense of urgency instead of Adams’s complacency.

Shortly after Hamilton sent his missive to Adams, he was alerted to an even greater menace than George Clinton. Aaron Burr was letting it be noised about that he was prepared to challenge Adams as the Republican candidate for vice president. The thirty-six-year-old Burr had avid backers in the north, such as Benjamin Rush, who told him that “your friends everywhere look to you to take an active part in removing the monarchical rubbish of our government. It is time to speak out or we are undone.”8 For many in the south, Burr’s entry into the race was an unwelcome intrusion. He lacked the depth and experience to oust someone of Adams’s stature, and they had lined up regional support for Clinton. Burr’s sudden trial balloon created suspicions among prospective southern allies that were to be confirmed nearly a decade later.

It was New York’s other senator, Rufus King, who first informed Hamilton that Burr was rounding up key supporters in New England. King feared that Burr might shave ten votes from Adams’s electoral total and that, with his delicate ego, Adams might then feel so degraded by the results that he would decline to serve. “If the enemies of the government are secret and united, we shall lose Mr. Adams,” King warned Hamilton. “Nothing which has heretofore happened so decisively proves the inveteracy of the opposition.”9

Hamilton was determined to have Washington and Adams back for a second term. Events of the previous year had taught him to cast a wary eye on Aaron Burr, whom Adams described as looking “fat as a duck and as ruddy as a roost cock.”10 Burr hadn’t endeared himself to Hamilton by defeating Philip Schuyler for the Senate seat. And Burr was a lone operator, a protean figure who formed alliances for short-term gain. In the Senate, he was loosely allied with the Jeffersonians and was an enthusiast for the French Revolution—a stand that irked Hamilton. Then in early 1792, Burr had decided to test the waters for New York governor and challenge George Clinton’s bid for a sixth term. His strategy was to enlist disaffected Clintonians and Federalists and reshuffle the political deck in New York. Afraid to adulterate his own party, Hamilton spiked this coalition and became an immovable obstacle in the path of Aaron Burr’s ambitions—a position he was to occupy so frequently in future years that it finally drove Burr into a frenzy.

The New York gubernatorial contest in the spring of 1792 had been one of special venom. Once Burr saw that his attempt had miscarried, he switched back, without evident discomfort, to supporting Governor Clinton. On the other side, the Federalist ticket, likely crafted by Hamilton, consisted of Chief Justice John Jay for governor along with Stephen Van Rensselaer, Hamilton’s brother-in-law, for lieutenant governor. The Federalist ticket was so identified with Hamilton that the race turned into something of a poll on his policies. The election culminated in a helpless stalemate. When votes in three upstate counties were disputed, Aaron Burr and Rufus King were asked to give opinions about the disputed ballots. Burr came down decisively on Clinton’s side and handed him a controversial victory. Hamilton’s friend Robert Troup was so irate that he called Burr a Clinton tool and denounced the “shameful prostitution of his talents…. The quibbles and chicanery made use of are characteristic of the man.”11 Such reports only reinforced Hamilton’s sense of Burr as an unscrupulous opportunist eager to exploit popular turmoil.

In now opposing Burr’s ambition to become vice president, Hamilton viewed him as a possible stalking horse for Governor Clinton and dispatched letters to dissuade people from backing him. Hamilton was a man of such deep, unalterable principles that Burr was bound to strike him as devoid of any moral compass. In writing to one correspondent, Hamilton even found sudden virtues in George Clinton, describing him as a “man of property” and “probity” in his private life. He couldn’t say as much for Burr:

I fear the other gentleman [i.e., Burr] is unprincipled both as a public and private man. When the constitution was in deliberation…his conduct was equivocal…. In fact, I take it he is for or against nothing but as it suits his interest or ambition. He is determined, as I conceive, to make his way to be the head of the popular party and to climb…to the highest honors of the state and as much higher as circumstances may permit…. I am mistaken if it benot his object to play the game of confusion and I feel it a religious duty to oppose his career.12

Hamilton denounced Burr in language similar to that he employed against Jefferson, warning that “if we have an embryo-Caesar in the United States ’tis Burr.”13 But if Jefferson was a man of fanatical principles, he had principles all the same—which Hamilton could forgive. Burr’s abiding sin was a total lack of principles, which Hamilton could not forgive.

Hamilton’s anxieties about Burr proved premature. On October 16, a Republican caucus in Philadelphia bestowed unanimous approval upon George Clinton’s candidacy for vice president. As a professional politician, Burr was ready to concede defeat and fight another day; he graciously stepped aside. Students of the period point to this meeting as one of the first examples of party organization in American elections, though the participants were skittish about calling themselves a party. But the group’s multistate composition did reflect a new degree of political cohesion among like-minded politicians.

The ringleader was the seemingly omnipresent House clerk John Beckley. Soon after the Republican caucus, Beckley described to Madison Hamilton’s growing influence in electoral politics. In the vice presidential race, Beckley said, the treasury secretary’s efforts both “direct and indirect are unceasing and extraordinary…. [T]here is no inferior degree of sagacity in the combinations of this extraordinary man. With a comprehensive eye, a subtle and contriving mind, and a soul devoted to his object, all his measures are promptly and aptly designed and, like the links of a chain, depend on each other [and] acquire additional strength by their union.”14 Beckley retained an unwavering belief in Hamilton’s wickedness and suggested to Madison that he had explosive new proof that might bring down the treasury secretary: “I think I have a clue to something far beyond mere suspicion on this ground, which prudence forbids a present disclosure of.”15 Beckley’s letter hints at early knowledge of the Reynolds affair.

As always, Hamilton braced for attacks on his integrity and was prepared to squelch any slander. Early in the fall, he was advised that during a Maryland congressional campaign incumbent John F. Mercer had impugned his conduct in office. The son of a wealthy Virginia planter, Mercer had been a former aide-de-camp to General Charles Lee, the conceited general who had been court-martialed after the battle of Monmouth. A foe of strong central government, Mercer had been a voluble member of the Constitutional Convention (Jefferson described him as “afflicted with the morbid rage of debate”) and had left Philadelphia without signing the document.16

In his campaign oratory, Mercer renewed every hoary charge ever leveled at Hamilton: Hamilton was the tool of the propertied class; had bought back government debt at inflated prices to enrich speculators; had dictated legislation to Congress; had rewarded William Duer with a lucrative contract to supply the Western Army; and had introduced the detestable excise tax on liquor. Mercer also revived a 1790 incident in which he had met Hamilton at the door of the Treasury building and asked to be reimbursed for horses shot from under him during the Revolution. Hamilton had replied facetiously that if Mercer voted for his assumption bill, he would pay for the horses from his own pocket. Mercer presented this passing jest as proof of Hamilton’s corruption. Finally, he ridiculed Hamilton as an upstart, “a mushroom excrescence,” who did not deserve the prominence he had gained.17

When it came to aspersions against his honor, Hamilton always had a hair-trigger temper. In language signaling a possible duel, Hamilton wrote testily to Mercer and asked him to disavow the charge that he had bought back government debt at inflated rates to help speculators. Mercer partially retracted his words and admitted that Hamilton had never bought government bonds for personal gain. On the other hand, he insisted that Hamilton had exerted his influence to attach “to your administration a monied interest as an engine of government.”18 Unable to let the matter drop, Hamilton knocked on Mercer’s door in Philadelphia that December and demanded a further retraction. Hamilton got enough satisfaction—“I spoke nothing that could tend, in my opinion, to wound your honesty or integrity,” Mercer conceded—that a possible duel was averted.19 Hamilton may have opposed duels on principle, as he later claimed, but for such a hotheaded man these affairs of honor were expedient weapons in silencing his enemies. Whenever he was maligned, Hamilton aggressively sought retractions, persisting to the bitter end.

On December 5, 1792, members of the electoral college assembled in their respective states. The outcome gratified Hamilton and corresponded with his expectations. Washington was chosen unanimously as president. Adams received seventy-seven votes, enough to return him as vice president, while George Clinton gained a respectable fifty votes. In his “Anas”—always to be taken with a pound of salt—Jefferson reported that Senator John Langdon had commented to Adams on the closeness of his vote. According to Langdon, Adams gritted his teeth and exclaimed, “Damn ’em, damn ’em, damn ’em. You see that an elective government will not do.”20

On the surface, the election seemed an impressive show of national unity, when it was just a passing truce in an ongoing war. For the last time, George Washington’s prestige papered over growing differences between Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians. Three days after the electoral college met, James Monroe resumed his newspaper defense of Jefferson and slammed Hamilton as someone “suspected, with too much reason, to be attached to monarchy.”21 Far more noteworthy than such hackneyed tirades against Hamilton, however, were the first shots fired at Washington. No longer a sacred figure, immune to criticism, he was spattered with mud by Philip Freneau, who accused him of aping royalty in his presidential etiquette: “A certain monarchical prettiness must be highly extolled, such as levees, drawing rooms, stately nods instead of shaking hands, titles of office, seclusion from the people.”22Given Washington’s reluctance to serve a second term, this was an especially undeserved cut, and Adams lamented the “sour, angry, peevish, fretful, lying paragraphs” with which the press battered the government.23

Clearly, the political tone in Washington’s second term was going to be even harsher than in the first. Right before Christmas, Hamilton wrote a despairing letter to John Jay. He was worn down by the interminable attacks against him and slander he felt powerless to stop. He told Jay that he was oppressed by the weight of official business and the need to track legislative maneuvers against him, but that his “burden and perplexity” had still more sinister origins: “’Tis the malicious intrigues to stab me in the dark, against which I am too often obliged to guard myself, that distract and harass me to a point which, rendering my situation scarcely tolerable, interferes with objects to which friendship and inclination would prompt me.”24 Hamilton wrote this cheerless assessment three days after meeting with Muhlenberg, Venable, and Monroe. He must have known the Maria Reynolds affair would have repercussions for many years to come.

As Washington’s first term ended in early 1793, the president remained distraught over his bickering cabinet. He continued to admonish his headstrong secretaries of treasury and state that they should try to get along for the national good. Jefferson assured the president that he would strive for unity and that he had “kept myself aloof from all cabal and correspondence on the subject of the government.”25 In the next breath, however, he renewed his corrosive attacks on Hamilton. Washington’s vaunted patience was giving way to petulant flashes of temper, and, according to Jefferson, he “expressed the extreme wretchedness of his existence while in office and went lengthily into the late attacks on him for levees.”26 This was an implicit rebuke of Jefferson, for it was Freneau who had accused Washington of holding royal “levees” or receptions.

Even as Jefferson mouthed sedative pledges of peace, he and Madison were secretly orchestrating the first concerted effort in American history to expel a cabinet member for official misconduct. They had come to regard Hamilton as a grave threat to republican government, a monarchist bent on destroying the republic—all without any proof. The National Gazette put it that Hamilton “fancies himself the great pivot upon which the whole machine of government turns, throwing out of view…the president, the legislature, and the Constitution itself.”27 Jefferson and Madison abandoned any residual restraint as they prepared to launch an all-out inquisition.

To disguise their efforts, they employed as their surrogate a fiery Virginia congressman, William Branch Giles, who later courted one of Jefferson’s daughters. As early as the spring of 1792, Hamilton had suspected intrigue within the Virginia delegation and identified Madison as “the prompter of Mr. Giles and others, who were the open instruments of opposition.”28 The husky, often unkempt Giles was a Princeton graduate and noted Virginia lawyer. He shared his state’s endemic hatred of banks and modern finance and thought a “northern faction” was out to destroy the union. As a frequent mouthpiece for Jefferson, he employed his pugnacious style for states’ rights and did not spare anyone in the Federalist opposition. He even accused Washington of showing “a princely ignorance of the country,” evidenced by the fact that “the wants and wishes of one part had been sacrificed to the interest of the other.”29

Giles tried to discredit Hamilton over his use of money that the government had borrowed in Europe. This charge originated in a memo that Jefferson had prepared surreptitiously for Madison. Hamilton had wanted to use foreign loans to repay a government loan from the Bank of the United States—two million dollars that the bank had extended to the federal government to purchase stock in the bank itself. Partial as ever to the French Revolution, the Jeffersonians feared that this money would be diverted from American debt payments to France. In the past, Hamilton had applied foreign loans to the repayment of domestic debt—a technical violation of the law but one, he claimed, that had been approved verbally by Washington. The suspicion prevailed among critics, however, that he wanted to transfer borrowed funds from Europe to the national bank to aid speculators. And a small circle of opponents, including Jefferson and Madison, now also knew about the denouement of the Maria Reynolds affair, with its accusations of official wrongdoing by Hamilton. Twice in late December 1792, the House demanded from Hamilton a strict accounting of foreign loans. Distracted by the Reynolds probe, he still managed to crank out a detailed report by January 3. The beleaguered Hamilton felt the weight of unseen forces marshaled against him and feared he was now the target of a highly organized attempt to destroy his reputation.

Planning to exhaust Hamilton, Giles submitted five resolutions in the House on January 23, calling for still more extensive information on foreign loans. By design, these resolutions made massive, nay overwhelming, demands on Hamilton. He had to furnish a complete reckoning of balances between the government and the central bank, as well as a comprehensive list of sinking-fund purchases of government debt. Some historians, including Giles’s biographer, believe that Jefferson instigated these resolutions, with Madison drafting their language. Taking advantage of a short, four-month congressional session, the House gave Hamilton an impossible March 3 deadline. Republicans hoped that Hamilton’s failure to comply would then be construed as prima facie evidence of his guilt; Federalists were equally convinced that he would prove to be incorruptible.

Hamilton’s critics seriously underrated his superhuman stamina. He enjoyed beating his enemies at their own game, and the resolutions roused his fighting spirit. By February 19, in a staggering display of diligence, he delivered to the House several copious reports, garlanded with tables, lists, and statistics that gave a comprehensive overview of his work as treasury secretary. In the finale of one twenty-thousand-word report, Hamilton intimated that he had risked a physical breakdown to complete this heroic labor: “It is certain that I have made every exertion in my power, at the hazard of my health, to comply with the requisitions of the House as early as possible.”30 Hamilton’s reports did not sway his opponents, who wanted to expose him, not engage him in debate. Every proof of his prodigious gifts made him seem only the more threatening.

Defying Washington’s appeal for a truce with Hamilton, Jefferson intensified the combat at close quarters. On February 25, he proposed to Washington an official inquiry into Hamilton and the Treasury Department—a demand Washington spurned bluntly. Hamilton thought Jefferson should leave the cabinet and openly head the opposition, rather than subvert the administration from within. In response, Thomas Jefferson did something extraordinary: he drew up a series of resolutions censuring Hamilton and quietly slipped them to William Branch Giles. Jefferson now functioned as de facto leader of the Republican party. The great irony was that the man who repeatedly accused Hamilton of meddling with Congress and violating the separation of powers was now secretly scrawling congressional resolutions directed against a member of his own administration.

When Giles filed nine censure resolutions against Hamilton in late February, he did not disclose that they were based on Jefferson’s rough draft. (The telltale document did not even surface until 1895.) Giles introduced his charges with what one spectator described as “a most pointed attack” on Hamilton.31 The resolutions accused Hamilton of “indecorum” in dealing with Congress and of improperly mixing foreign and domestic loans. Giles omitted two of the more outlandish resolutions drawn up by Jefferson: a claim that Hamilton had attempted to benefit speculators and a demand that the treasurer’s office be hived off from the rest of the Treasury Department. One Jefferson resolution exposed the true intent behind his vendetta: “Resolved, That the Secretary of the Treasury has been guilty of maladministration in the duties of his office and should, in the opinion of Congress, be removed from his office by the President of the United States.”32 By submitting these resolutions on the eve of the congressional recess, Giles intended to deprive Hamilton of adequate time to rebut the charges. Despite Madison’s support, the House roundly voted down these resolutions. Jefferson anticipated this defeat but knew that the unsubstantiated accusations would float tantalizingly in the air. As he observed, the resolutions would enable people to “see from this the extent of their danger.”33

The upshot of the abortive Republican campaign was an almost total vindication of Hamilton. All nine of the Virginian’s resolutions were defeated on March 1. At worst, Hamilton was found guilty of excessive discretion in shifting money among accounts to insure that the government did not miss interest payments. He also was not always meticulous in matching specific loans to the laws authorizing them, but nobody ever proved that Alexander Hamilton had diverted a penny of public money for personal profit.

Federalists rejoiced that the Republican vendetta had backfired, and one Boston Federalist exclaimed, “The conquest to the cause of government and the reputation of Hamilton must be as glorious as it was unexpected.”34Hamilton, however, foresaw further attacks. “There is no doubt in my mind,” he told Rufus King, “that the next session will revive the attack with more system and earnestness.”35 By this point, harassment was exacting a terrible physical and mental toll on the exhausted Hamilton. Sometimes, he vented his rage in essays that he let molder in his drawer. In one unpublished essay, he railed against the Jeffersonians as “wily hypocrites” and “crafty and abandoned imposters.”36 He now viewed “hypocrisy and treachery” as “the most successful commodities in the political market. It seems to be the destined lot of nations to mistake their foes for their friends, their flatterers for their faithful servants.”37 He believed that he had made a huge but thankless sacrifice for his country.

Hamilton was correct that Jefferson and his cohorts had no intention of desisting from their attacks. He now discovered that Muhlenberg, Venable, or Monroe—or perhaps all three—had breached the vow of confidentiality in the Reynolds affair. In early May 1793, Hamilton’s old friend from revolutionary days, Henry Lee, wrote from Virginia: “Was I with you, I would talk an hour with doors bolted and windows shut, as my heart is much afflicted by some whispers which I have heard.”38

The vindication of Hamilton by Congress only strengthened the faith of the Jeffersonians that legislators could never exercise independent judgment when it came to him. Jefferson now asked John Beckley to provide him with a “list of paper-men”—that is, congressmen who held bank stock or government bonds. The supposed conflicts of interest of these legislators gave Jefferson the all-purpose explanation he needed to account for Hamilton’s acquittal. Madison, too, ascribed the defeated resolutions to corrupt congressmen who had profited from Hamilton’s fiscal measures. At this stage, it grew more and more evident to Jefferson that he would have to perpetuate the struggle against the treasury secretary not from inside the government but from the safe haven of Monticello.

In the wake of their setback, Republicans seeking more damaging information about Hamilton latched on to a disgruntled former Treasury Department clerk named Andrew Fraunces. At first glance, he seemed like a magnificent find, an angry man with inside knowledge of Hamilton’s official duties. He had labored at the Treasury Department from its formation in 1789 until he was fired in March 1793. After moving to New York City, Fraunces was short of money and longed to retaliate against Hamilton. In May 1793, he presented to the Treasury two warrants for redemption that dated back to the early confederation period. In the first days of the new government, Treasury officials had routinely honored these claims, but they later declined automatic payment as they discovered how slipshod had been the paperwork of their predecessors. As a onetime Treasury employee, Fraunces knew this history. Nonetheless, when his claims were denied, he protested that he was being penalized by the treasury secretary, and he pestered both Hamilton and Washington for payment.

In early June, Fraunces not only returned to Philadelphia but accosted Hamilton, who told him to renew his claim in writing. The stymied Fraunces now drifted into the twilight world of restless Hamilton haters. Pretty soon, he was meeting in New York with Jacob Clingman, the new husband of Maria Reynolds. He told Clingman, in boastful words reminiscent of those employed by James Reynolds six months earlier, that “he could, if he pleased, hang Hamilton.”39 Clingman was still trying to prove the preposterous notion that Hamilton had conspired with William Duer to rig the market in government securities, and Fraunces pretended that he had information linking Hamilton directly with Duer’s ill-fated speculations.

Reports of talks between Clingman and Fraunces were relayed to John Beckley, who passed along this folderol to Jefferson. Beckley was prepared to believe any hearsay that defamed Hamilton, even the ludicrous notion that Hamilton had offered Fraunces two thousand dollars for papers showing his supposed financial ties to Duer. Fraunces went so far as to claim that he knew the couriers who had carried payments between the two men. Beckley was also intrigued by Clingman’s assertion that Maria Reynolds was now prepared to tell everything she knew about her former husband’s relations with Hamilton—as if the loose-tongued Maria had ever muzzled herself before.

Although Jacob Clingman knew that Andrew Fraunces was an unsavory character, this did not dent his belief in the man’s story. Beckley recorded of Clingman’s reaction: “He considers Fraunces as a man of no principle, yet he is sure that he is privy to the whole connection with Duer…. He tells me, too, that Fraunces is fond of drink and very avaricious and that a judicious appeal to either of those passions would induce him to deliver up Hamilton’s and Duer’s letters and tell all he knows.”40 Beckley was so famished for scandal about Hamilton that he traveled to New York and met with Fraunces “to unravel this scene of iniquity.”41 When Beckley tried to elicit documentation from Fraunces that would substantiate his wild allegations against Hamilton, the effort, as always, proved futile.

All of this raw gossip flowed straight to the secretary of state, who faithfully recorded every scrap in his diary, even though he had just received extreme proof of Beckley’s bias. In his “Anas” for June 7, 1793, Jefferson noted Beckley’s crackpot story that the British had offered Hamilton asylum if his plans for an American monarchy miscarried. About this fairy tale—allegedly gleaned from Britain’s consul general in New York—Jefferson commented in the margin: “Impossible as to Hamilton. He was far above that.” Jefferson then made this further observation on his chief source of political intelligence: “Beckley is a man of perfect truth as to what he affirms of his own knowledge, but too credulous as to what he hears from others.”42 Nonetheless, Jefferson added to his swelling dossier on Hamilton the farrago of stories that Beckley had taken down from Clingman and Fraunces.

By early July, Hamilton knew that enemies were tracking his movements and trying to extract information from Andrew Fraunces. He also knew that this spying operation was supervised by Jefferson’s protégé Beckley. In early July, Hamilton took a potentially hazardous step by inviting Jacob Clingman to his office. We know roughly what Hamilton said because the dialogue was transmitted to Beckley. Like an attorney subtly probing a witness, Hamilton tried to draw Clingman out, asking if he knew Andrew Fraunces, had boarded at his house, had dined at his table, or had visited his office. Clingman admitted to one dinner and one office visit with Fraunces. Hamilton then told Clingman to discount what Fraunces said, “as he spoke much at random and drank.”43 Showing the accuracy of his suspicions, Hamilton then asked Clingman, point-blank, if he ever visited John Beckley. Clingman said he had run into Beckley at the home of Frederick Muhlenberg, his former boss. This information could only have validated Hamilton’s worst fears.

Perhaps aware that Hamilton had been blackmailed with some success before, Fraunces wrote to him in early August and threatened to expose everything to “the people” if he did not get paid for his two warrants. Within hours, Hamilton sent back a furious reply. He was not about to repeat the mistake he made with James Reynolds: “Do you imagine that any menaces of appeal to the people can induce me to depart from what I conceive to be my public duty!…I set you and all your accomplices at defiance.”44 The next day, Hamilton did something out of character: he wrote a toned-down letter to Fraunces, apologized for his rash initial response, and merely protested the notion that he had failed to pay for the warrants because of “some sinister motives.”45 The change of tone apparently came about because Washington had received another letter from Fraunces and had asked Hamilton to comment on the case. This must have reminded Hamilton that he was dealing with official business, not just private threats. Hamilton explained the affair to Washington’s satisfaction. At the same time, he sent a pointed letter to Fraunces’s lawyer, warning of legal consequences if any fabricated documents were used against him.

Undeterred, in late August Fraunces published a pamphlet of his correspondence with Hamilton and Washington. On October 11, an irate Hamilton placed a notice in two New York newspapers, informing the public that he had repeatedly asked Fraunces for proof of his charges and that Fraunces had evaded the request. Hamilton called his former employee “contemptible” and a “despicable calumniator.”46 The next day, an unrepentant Fraunces retorted in a rival paper that “if I am a despicable calumniator, I have been, unfortunately, for a long time past a pupil of Mr. Hamilton’s.”47 Fraunces kept up his diatribes, and Robert Troup and Rufus King gathered affidavits from prominent people attesting to Hamilton’s innocence. It was testimony to the vile partisanship of the period that a disgruntled former government clerk, tainted by a well-known history of drinking, could sustain such a public assault upon Hamilton’s character. It also testified to Hamilton’s exaggerated need to free his name from the slightest stain that he felt obliged to trade public insults with such an obscure figure.

The Fraunces controversy ended when the former clerk appealed for justice to Congress, citing Hamilton’s supposed mishandling of his warrants. The charges, as Hamilton knew, lacked merit. On February 19, 1794, Congress passed two resolutions rejecting Fraunces’s claims and commending Hamilton’s honorable handling of the matter.