Alexander Hamilton - Ron Chernow (2005)


While Washington meditated the fate of Citizen Genêt that August, Philadelphia was beset by a threat far more fearsome than the French minister appealing to the American people. Some residents who lived near the wharves began to sicken and die from a ghastly disease that shook the body with chills and severe muscular pain. The red-eyed victims belched up black vomit from bleeding stomachs, and their skins turned a hideous jaundiced color. The onset of the yellow-fever epidemic, the worst to have befallen the young country thus far, has been traced to many sources. The disease had ravaged the West Indies that year, and an influx of refugees after the slave revolt in Santo Domingo may have introduced it to Philadelphia. A wet spring giving way to an uncommonly hot, dry summer may have helped to spread the disease. Sanitary conditions were atrocious in many parts of town, with residents dumping refuse into clogged, filthy gutters and drinking water from wells contaminated by outhouses.

By late August, twenty people per day were expiring from the epidemic, which was to claim more than four thousand lives, bringing government and commerce to a standstill. Coffin makers cried their wares in front of City Hall. People didn’t understand that the disease was transmitted by mosquitoes but knew it could be communicated by contact with victims. People stopped shaking hands and stuck to the middle of the street to avoid other pedestrians. Some people covered their noses with vinegar-dipped handkerchiefs while others chewed garlic, releasing malodorous clouds that could be smelled several feet away. The safest course was to flee the city, and twenty thousand people did just that, thinning the ranks of government employees. By early September, six clerks in Hamilton’s Treasury Department and seven in the Customs Service had the disease, as did three Post Office employees.

The city’s preeminent physician was the indomitable Dr. Benjamin Rush—“a sprightly, pretty fellow,” as John Adams described him—who scarcely slept during the pestilence, flitting bravely from house to house, treating rich and poor alike.1 This required intestinal fortitude as carts rumbled across the cobblestones, carrying piles of cadavers, and residents were loudly exhorted, “Bring out your dead.”2 Rush had warning signs posted outside affected houses. In treating yellow fever, Rush adopted an approach that now sounds barbaric: he bled and purged the victim, a process frightful to behold. He emptied the patient’s bowels four or five times, using a gruesome mixture of potions and enemas, before draining off ten to twelve ounces of blood to lower the pulse. For good measure, he induced mild vomiting. This regimen was repeated two or three times daily. Rush was a man of exemplary courage, but it is questionable whether he saved lives or only hastened deaths by weakening the body’s natural defenses.

On September 5, 1793, Hamilton contracted a violent case of yellow fever. He and Eliza repaired to their summer residence, a mansion called Fair Hill that lay two and a half miles from town and was owned by Philadelphia merchant Joseph P. Norris. Their children were sequestered at an adjoining house. To calm them, Eliza would appear at a window and wave to them. Pretty soon, Eliza had the illness, and the children were evacuated to the Schuylers in Albany. In an astonishing storybook coincidence, Hamilton’s boyhood friend from St. Croix, Edward Stevens, had turned up in Philadelphia and now attended to the couple. A prosperous, distinguished physician, Stevens had practiced in St. Croix for ten years until his wife, Eleonora, had died the previous year. He then married a rich widow named Hester Amory and moved to Philadelphia.

Having treated yellow-fever victims in the islands, Stevens dissented from the American dogma of bloodletting and bowel purges, which he thought only debilitated patients. He argued for remedies that were “cordial, stimulating, and tonic.”3 To strengthen patients, Stevens administered stiff doses of quinine called “Peruvian bark” as well as aged Madeira. He also submerged them in cold baths before giving them glasses of brandy topped with burned cinnamon. He sedated patients nightly with a tincture of opium (laudanum). To stop vomiting, patients quaffed an aromatic blend of camomile flowers, oil of peppermint, and lavender spirits.

When they learned of Hamilton’s illness, George and Martha Washington sent sympathy notes and six bottles of vintage wine. “With extreme concern, I receive the expression of your apprehensions that you are in the first stages of the prevailing fever,” the president wrote to Hamilton.4 Quite different was the response of Thomas Jefferson, who wrote a misguided letter to Madison that accused Hamilton of cowardice, hypochondria, and fakery: “His family think him in danger and he puts himself so by his excessive alarm. He had been miserable several days before from a firm persuasion he should catch it. A man as timid as he is on the water, as timid on horseback, as timid in sickness, would be a phenomenon if his courage, of which he has the reputation in military occasions, were genuine. His friends, who have not seen him, suspect it is only an autumnal fever he has.”5 At one stroke, Jefferson heaped heartless abuse on a sick man and inverted reality. Not only did Hamilton have yellow fever, but he had shown outstanding valor during the Revolution while Jefferson, as Virginia governor, had cravenly fled into the woods before the advancing British troops.

Edward Stevens achieved spectacular results with Alexander and Elizabeth Hamilton, curing them within five days. Trusting a man who may have been Alexander’s biological brother, the Hamiltons were saved while countless others perished. Ever since King’s College, Hamilton had been interested in medicine; he had had his children inoculated against smallpox. He was not content to be a passive patient. No sooner had Stevens cured him than Hamilton wanted to proselytize for his approach. With Eliza responding well to treatment, he published an open letter to the College of Physicians, hoping to stop “that undue panic which is fast depopulating the city and suspending business both public and private.”6 Praising Stevens, he said his friend would gladly relate his methods to the medical faculty.

Hamilton’s letter created a sensation. Even in illness, he was shadowed by controversy, since he had implicitly rebuked Benjamin Rush. Rush gave Stevens’s methods a fair chance for several days, tossing buckets of cold water on patients and injecting quinine into their bowels, but he could not reproduce Stevens’s results and reverted to the rigors of bleed-and-purge. Unfortunately, this legitimate clash of medical viewpoints took on political overtones. Rush was an abolitionist and a passionate, outspoken reformer who later published a groundbreaking treatise on mental illness. He was also a convinced partisan of Jefferson. So when Hamilton lauded Stevens’s yellow-fever treatment as superior to the “standard” method, Rush was perhaps predisposed to take offense.

An unfortunate medical dispute erupted between the “Republican” method of Rush and the “Federalist” alternative of Stevens. Rush was not averse to casting the controversy in political terms. “Colonel Hamilton’s remedies are now as unpopular in our city as his funding system is in Virginia and North Carolina,” he declared.7 He was persuaded that Hamilton’s open letter betrayed political bias against him: “I think it probable that if the new remedies had been introduced by any other person than a decided democrat and a friend of Madison and Jefferson, they would have met with less opposition from Colonel Hamilton.”8 Rush, like Jefferson, refused to believe that Hamilton had had yellow fever and pooh-poohed it as an overblown cold. “Colonel Hamilton’s letter has cost our city several hundred inhabitants,” he told Elias Boudinot, asserting that the Hamiltons had suffered “nothing but common remitting fevers from cold instead of the malignant contagion.”9 Though Benjamin Rush blamed Alexander Hamilton for yellow-fever deaths, the public ended up blaming Rush. After a second yellow-fever epidemic in 1797 and more copious bloodletting, Rush lost so many patients that President Adams rescued him by appointing him treasurer of the U.S. Mint.

Alexander and Eliza eagerly awaited a reunion with their children in Albany. To make sure they were fully recovered, they relaxed and took carriage rides for two or three days before leaving Philadelphia on September 15. They set aside any garments that might have been infected and packed only fresh clothing. It was a long, wearisome trip. On the first leg, they stopped at a tavern packed with terrified refugees from Philadelphia, who refused to allow the Hamiltons to enter until the landlord insisted upon it. At town after town, they had to contend with barriers erected to keep out potentially contagious Philadelphians. Even New York posted guards at entrances to the city to deter fugitives from the plague-ridden capital.

The most unpleasant confrontation came in Albany. On September 21, the Albany Common Council passed a resolution forbidding ferrymen from transporting across the Hudson people who came from places infected with yellow fever. Philip Schuyler had to negotiate the Hamiltons’ arrival with Albany’s mayor, Abraham Yates, Jr. On September 23, Alexander and Eliza were stranded at a village directly across the Hudson from Albany. A delegation of physicians crossed over, examined them, and pronounced them fit. Leaving their servants and carriage on the east bank, the Hamiltons then crossed the Hudson and settled at the Schuyler mansion, as a hubbub arose over their arrival. One rumor said that, after embracing Eliza, Philip Schuyler had swabbed his mouth with vinegar disinfectant and then washed his face and mouth, as if she might still be contagious. Yates informed Schuyler of fears that the Hamilton carriage, baggage, servants, and clothing might transport yellow fever. He even wanted to station guards at the Schuyler mansion to avert contact between the Hamiltons and the local citizenry. Hamilton’s political opponents must have enjoyed the symbolism of the treasury secretary spewing contamination wherever he went.

An offended Schuyler told Mayor Yates that the Hamiltons had brought neither clothes nor servants across the river and had taken all reasonable precautions. He promised that his family would not venture into the city and asked that a guard bring food out to the mansion, “for I am fully persuaded that it cannot be the intention…of my fellow citizens that I and my family shall be exterminated by famine.”10 Sarcastically, he suggested that the guard might want to deposit the food between the house and the main gate. Not until September 26 did Hamilton learn that his father-in-law had submitted to strict conditions to receive them. He then wrote in high dudgeon to Yates, insisting that he and Eliza had adhered to all safety measures and that it was “absolutely inadmissible” to cut off their access to town. Hamilton warned that he would go about his business, “which force alone can interrupt.”11

During the following days, he and Eliza replenished their strength with fresh air and exercise. They learned from Washington’s secretary that reports of Hamilton’s death in New England had produced “deep regret and unfeigned sorrow,” which had given way to “marks of joy and satisfaction” when the reports proved unfounded.12 The controversy over Hamilton’s presence ended when the Albany Common Council passed a resolution opening the city to anyone in good health who had been absent from Philadelphia for at least fourteen days. Having last been in Philadelphia more than two weeks earlier, the Hamiltons were free to move about.

Both Washington at Mount Vernon and Hamilton in Albany itched to resume the suspended work of government. Oliver Wolcott, Jr., who headed the Treasury Department in Hamilton’s absence, had retreated to a large house on the Schuylkill River, leaving two or three clerks to soldier on in otherwise empty downtown offices fumigated with brimstone. Washington contemplated cabinet meetings in Germantown or some other spot free of fever near Philadelphia but was stumped by a constitutional conundrum: did he have the power to change the seat of government temporarily? Washington turned to his oracle on such matters, telling Hamilton that “as none can take a more comprehensive view and, I flatter myself, a less partial one on the subject than yourself…I pray you to dilate fully upon the several points here brought to your consideration.”13 Hamilton was very good at circumventing such legal roadblocks. The Constitution, he told Washington, allowed Congress to meet elsewhere only for specific, extraordinary purposes and “a contagion wouldn’t qualify.”14 He solved the problem by a subtle semantic shift, saying that the president could recommend meeting elsewhere. And so Hamilton recommended Germantown as the ideal place.

Several Treasury clerks who had fled to New York for safety had ignored Wolcott’s pleas to return to work. En route from Albany in mid-October, Hamilton collected these renegade employees. By October 26, he and Eliza arrived at Robert Morris’s estate on the Schuylkill, the Hills. They stayed there for several weeks as isolated cases of yellow fever lingered in pockets of Philadelphia. For the first three weeks of November, the cabinet met in Germantown, until frost removed any danger of returning to downtown offices.

For some time after their brush with yellow fever, the Hamiltons experienced pronounced aftereffects. “Colonel Hamilton is indisposed and has sent to New York for Dr. Stevens,” Benjamin Rush gloated on November 3. “He still defends bark and the cold bath in the yellow fever and reprobates my practice as obsolete in the West Indies.”15 There were several days that November when the conscientious Hamilton skipped cabinet meetings and found his mind muddled—completely out of character for him. On December 11, he sent a totally atypical note to Jefferson: “Mr. Hamilton presents his compliments to Mr. Jefferson. He has a confused recollection that there was something agreed upon with regard to prizes about which he was to write to the collectors, but which his state of health at the time put out of his recollection. If Mr. Jefferson recollect it, Mr. H will thank him for information.”16 In late December, Hamilton told Angelica Church that he had mostly conquered the “malignant disease” that had left him prostrate: “The last vestige of it has been a nervous derangement, but this has nearly yielded to regimen, a certain degree of exercise, and a resolution to overcome it.”17

Among the casualties claimed by the yellow-fever epidemic was John Todd, Jr., whose widow, Dolley Payne Todd, married James Madison the following year. Another victim was the National Gazette. The epidemic had cost the paper money, as had Freneau’s rhapsodies about Citizen Genêt. On October 11, Freneau stepped down as State Department translator and two weeks later announced the suspension of his paper. The following month, Hamilton and Rufus King took up a collection to assist his competitor, John Fenno, and his ailing Federalist paper, the Gazette of the United States. Hamilton abused his position as treasury secretary by appealing for help to Thomas Willing, president of the Bank of the United States, who could scarcely rebuff a request from Hamilton. It was a hypocritical lapse for a man who had so often chided Jefferson for exploiting his office to assist Freneau.

It was perhaps fitting that the demise of the National Gazette preceded the year’s most satisfying event for Hamilton: Thomas Jefferson’s resignation as secretary of state on December 31, 1793. The Virginian had failed to eject Hamilton from the cabinet and had lost the contest for Washington’s favor. For a long time, he had felt estranged from the cabinet and had labored “under such agitation of mind” as he had never known, he confided to his daughter.18To Angelica Church, Jefferson groaned about the dreary “scenes of business” in Philadelphia and commented, “Never was any mortal more tired of these than I am.”19 In returning to his beloved Monticello, he was to be “liberated from the hated occupations of politics and sink into the bosom of my family, my farm, and my books.”20 Jefferson proclaimed that he would now be a “stranger” to politics and would limit his statements to a single topic: “the shameless corruption of a portion” of Congress and “their implicit devotion to the treasury.”21

Jefferson projected the image of a contemplative philosopher, yearning for his mountain retreat, but the magnitude of his ambition was sharply debated. It irked John Adams that Republicans considered Jefferson’s resignation to be the sign of a pure, self-effacing man: “Jefferson thinks by this step to get the reputation as an humble, modest, meek man, wholly without ambition or vanity…. But if the prospect opens, the world will see and he will feel that he is as ambitious as Oliver Cromwell.”22 He thought Jefferson’s resignation a shrewd tactical move to position him better for a later run at the presidency. Following Jefferson’s departure from Philadelphia, he wrote to Abigail, “Jefferson went off yesterday and a good riddance of bad ware.”23

Hamilton was no less convinced of Jefferson’s hidden aspirations. In the spring of 1792, he had written, “’Tis evident beyond a question, from every movement, that Mr. Jefferson aims with ardent desire at the presidential chair.”24When Hamilton’s son John wrote his father’s biography, he left out one story that is contained in his papers. The authenticity of the anecdote cannot be verified, but it jibes with other things Hamilton said. According to this story, soon after Jefferson announced his plans to step down, Washington and Hamilton were alone together when Jefferson passed by the window. Washington expressed regret at his departure, which he attributed to his desire to withdraw from public life and devote himself to literature and agriculture. Staring at Washington with a dubious smirk, Hamilton asked, “Do you believe, Sir, that such is his only motive?” Washington saw that Hamilton was biting his tongue and urged him to speak. Hamilton explained that he had long entertained doubts about Jefferson’s character but, as a colleague, had restrained himself. Now he no longer felt bound by such scruples. Hamilton offered this prediction, as summarized by his son:

From the very outset, Jefferson had been the instigation of all the abuse of the administration and of the President; that he was one of the most ambitious and intriguing men in the community; that retirement was not his motive; that he found himself from the state of affairs with France in a position in which he was compelled to assume a responsibility as to public measures which warred against the designs of his party; that for that cause he retired; that his intention was to wait events, then enter the field and run for the plate; that if future events did not prove the correctness of this view of his character, he [Hamilton] would forfeit all title to a knowledge of mankind.

John C. Hamilton continued that in the late 1790s Washington told Hamilton that “not a day has elapsed since my retirement from public life in which I have not thought of that conversation. Every event has proved the truth of your view of his character. You foretold what has happened with the spirit of prophecy.”25 The story’s likely veracity is bolstered by the fact that Jefferson exchanged no letters with Washington during the last three and a half years of the general’s life.

For Hamilton, the triumph over Jefferson was a bittersweet victory that he scarcely had time to savor. He was besieged by enemies, worried about his health, and felt unappreciated by the public. In a letter to Angelica Church, Hamilton, nearly thirty-nine, struck again a world-weary note: “But how oddly are all things arranged in this sublunary scene. I am just where I do not wish to be. I know how I could be much happier, but circumstances enchain me.”26 In another letter, he said, “Believe me, I am heartily tired of my situation and wait only the opportunity of quitting it with honor and without decisive prejudice to the public affairs.”27

The Republicans had captured majorities in the Congress that convened in December 1793 and that would render a final verdict over Hamilton’s conduct as treasury secretary. He had already told Washington that he would stay in office only as long as it took to clear his name. In mid-December 1793, in a rare political spectacle, Hamilton asked House Speaker Muhlenberg to resume the Giles inquiry. While he had been exonerated by the first Giles investigation, the examination had been rushed by the short deadline, and Hamilton wanted to erase any last doubts about his probity. Whatever private melancholy he poured out to Angelica Church, he sounded buoyantly combative when he told Muhlenberg of the probe, “the more comprehensive it is, the more agreeable it will be to me.”28

The Republicans were happy to oblige him. Even before Giles got down to business, Senator Albert Gallatin of Pennsylvania submitted resolutions asking for a comprehensive account of Treasury operations. He demanded reams of paper from Hamilton, ranging from a full statement of foreign and domestic debt to an itemized list of revenues. This oppressive investigation was scrapped when the foreign-born Gallatin lost his Senate seat after charges were made that he had not met the nine-year citizenship requirement. Hamilton, meanwhile, chafed at the dilatory tactics of Giles, who did not revive the Treasury inquiry until late February, even as Hamilton made threatening noises that he would resign.

Hamilton was being badgered from all sides. He was still deluged with questionable petitions, often marred by fraud or missing paperwork, from people claiming compensation for services provided during the Revolution. He felt so harassed by accusations of negligence from the Senate that on February 22 he complained to Vice President Adams in an anguished letter. Hamilton alluded to burdensome petitions, the disruptions of the yellow-fever epidemic, and eternal congressional studies of his conduct. As a conscientious public servant, he felt he should be spared petty censure over his handling of the petitions: “I will only add that the consciousness of devoting myself to the public service, to the utmost extent of my faculties and to the injury of my health, is a tranquillizing consolation of which I cannot be deprived by any supposition to the contrary.”29 Nine days later, Hamilton delivered to Congress his decisions on no fewer than thirty complex petitions for wartime compensation.

On February 24, the House assembled a select committee with sweeping powers to investigate the Treasury Department. Reflecting the new composition of Congress, the bulk of the committee was Republican. The members drew up an exhausting schedule to drain any energy Hamilton had left. Until their work was complete, they planned to meet every Tuesday and Thursday evening and Saturday morning. For three months, the committee stuck to this punitive schedule, and Hamilton testified at about half the sessions. Besides providing extensive official information, he had to disclose all of his private accounts with the Bank of the United States and the Bank of New York, as Republicans tried to prove that Hamilton had exploited his office to extort credits from the two banks.

The select committee, finding it hard to fix blame on Hamilton, fell back on the one charge that Giles had made stick: that he had exercised too much discretion in shifting government funds between the United States and Europe. When the committee asked Hamilton to cite his authority for transferring money abroad to the Bank of the United States, he cited both “verbal authority” and a letter from the president. The committee, suspecting a bluff, demanded proof, and Hamilton asked Washington for a letter to back up his assertions. Washington obliged Hamilton with a mealymouthed letter that was so bland—“from my general recollection of the course of proceedings, I do not doubt that it was substantially as you have stated it”—as to undercut Hamilton’s position.30 His enemies guffawed. “The letter from the P[resident] is inexpressibly mortifying to his [Hamilton’s] friends,” Madison wrote to Jefferson, “and marks his situation to be precisely what you always described it to be.”31

As delicately as possible, a crestfallen Hamilton advised Washington that his letter might seem a lukewarm endorsement to cynics. He worried that “false and insidious men” would use it to “infuse doubts and distrusts very injurious to me.”32 In fact, Washington was beginning to balk at Hamilton’s requests to transfer money in ways not tightly tied to specific legislative acts. Whether he thought the Jeffersonian arguments had merit or merely popular backing, Washington subtly distanced himself from Hamilton, insisting that he segregate funds from different sources. Once again, he proved that he was not a rubber stamp for Hamilton’s policies. At the same time, he hardly wished to repudiate his treasury secretary and promised to help out with Congress. In the end, the select committee found no wrongdoing in the way Hamilton had used European loans for domestic purposes.

In its final report in late May, the Republican-dominated committee could not deliver the comeuppance it had craved. Instead, it confessed that all the charges lodged against Hamilton were completely baseless, as the treasury secretary had insisted all along. And what of the endless Jeffersonian insinuations that Hamilton had used public office to extract private credits? The report concluded that it appears “that the Secretary of the Treasury never has, either directly or indirectly, for himself or any other person, procured any discount or credit, from either of the said banks [Bank of New York and Bank of the United States] upon the basis of any public monies which, at any time, have been deposited therein under his direction.”33 The vindication was so resounding that Hamilton withdrew his long-standing resignation, and his cabinet position grew more impregnable than ever. Nevertheless, it frustrated him that after this exhaustive investigation his opponents still rehashed the stale charges of misconduct. He had learned a lesson about propaganda in politics and mused wearily that “no character, however upright, is a match for constantly reiterated attacks, however false.” If a charge was made often enough, people assumed in the end “that a person so often accused cannot be entirely innocent.”34

Once again, the best clue to Hamilton’s mood comes from his confiding letters to Angelica Church, who still felt trapped in England by her husband’s position in Parliament. In one letter, Hamilton offered Church a whimsical but rueful meditation on the nature of public office. This previously overlooked letter is contained in the papers of Hamilton’s son James, who tore off and crossed out other portions, making one wonder whether it contained evidence of the long-rumored affair between Hamilton and his sister-in-law. Hamilton observed:

Truly this trade of a statesman is but a sorry thing. It plagues a man more than enough and, when it obliges him to sacrifice his own pleasure, it is very far from fitting him the better to please other people…. I speak from experience. You will ask why I do not quit this disagreeable trade. How can I? What is to become of my fame and glory[?] How will the world go on without me? I am sometimes told very gravely it could not and one ought not, you know, to be very difficult of faith about what is much to our advantage. Besides, you would lose the pleasure of speaking of your brother[-in-law as] “The Chancellor of the Exchequer” if I am to give up the trade…. There is no fear that the minister will spoil the man. I find by experience that the man is every day getting the upper hand of the minister.35