Alexander Hamilton - Ron Chernow (2005)

Chapter 25. SEAS OF BLOOD

After Jefferson left the cabinet, Washington did not conduct a purge of Republicans. On the contrary, the unity-minded president turned to the foremost congressional Republican, James Madison, as his first choice as secretary of state. Only when Madison rejected the job did Washington hand it to Attorney General Edmund Randolph, who was succeeded in his post by William Bradford of Philadelphia. This sequence of events did not stop Jefferson and Madison from complaining that Washington was a captive of crafty, manipulative Federalists.

Jefferson’s presence lingered in Congress through Madison. On the eve of his departure, Jefferson submitted a bulky report to the House on European trade policies toward America. He laid out a litany of charges—from unfair dominance of transatlantic shipping to the banning of American boats from the British West Indies—to buttress his claim that England discriminated against American trade. Based on this evidence, Jefferson advocated commercial reprisals against Britain coupled, not surprisingly, with expanded trade relations with France.

On January 3, 1794, Madison introduced seven congressional resolutions that converted Jefferson’s brief into a tough anti-British trade policy. Ten days later, Federalist William Loughton Smith rebutted him in an eloquent speech of fifteen thousand words that adroitly picked apart Madison’s arguments. Smith suggested that it would be suicidal for America to disrupt relations with the country that accounted for most of its trade. As soon as Jefferson scanned Smith’s speech, he knew his old bête noire had struck again. “I am at no loss to ascribe Smith’s speech to its true father,” he told Madison. “Every letter of it is Hamilton’s, except the introduction.”1 Jefferson had guessed shrewdly: Hamilton either drafted Smith’s speech or provided the information.

Responding to Madison’s attempts to solidify relations with France, Hamilton lashed back in his time-tested manner. Under the disguise of “Americanus,” he published two fervid newspaper essays about the horrors of the French Revolution. He condemned apologists for “the horrid and disgusting scenes” being enacted in France and branded Marat and Robespierre “assassins still reeking with the blood of murdered fellow citizens.” Long before Napoleon came on the scene, he predicted that after “wading through seas of blood…France may find herself at length the slave of some victorious…Caesar.”2

Unfortunately for Hamilton, even as he touted England as a law-abiding ally, the British evinced a bullying arrogance and stupidity toward America that surpassed the most acrid Jeffersonian caricatures. England refused to acknowledge the traditional doctrine “free ships make free goods”—i.e., that neutral vessels had a right to carry all cargo save munitions and enter the ports of belligerent countries. On November 6, 1793, William Pitt’s ministry had decreed that British ships could intercept neutral vessels hauling produce to or from the French West Indies. Without further ado, the British fleet captured more than 250 American merchant ships, impounding more than half of them as war prizes. Britain also boarded American vessels at sea and dragged off sailors, claiming they were British seamen who had deserted. These high-handed actions kicked up such a ruckus in America that, for the first time since the Revolution, the prospect of a new war against Great Britain seemed a genuine possibility.

The Federalists felt shocked, betrayed, and embittered. “The English are absolute madmen,” sputtered an indignant Fisher Ames. “Order in this country is endangered by their hostility no less than by French friendship.”3 When Hamilton heard about British depredations, he did not behave like a pawn of British interests. Rather, he drew up for Washington contingency plans to raise a twenty-thousand-man army to defend coastal cities and impose a partial trade embargo. “The pains taken to preserve peace,” he told Washington, “include a proportional responsibility that equal pains be taken to be prepared for war.”4 Once again, Hamilton and Washington agreed that the executive branch should take the lead in a national emergency.

While continuing to meet with his dogged congressional investigators, the sorely taxed treasury secretary instructed customs collectors to fortify ports for a possible invasion, while Federalists presented plans to Congress for a provisional army. As word spread that the omnipresent Hamilton might supervise this new force, Republicans discerned another insidious power play. “You will understand the game behind the curtain too well not to perceive the old trick of turning every contingency into a resource for accumulating force in the government,” Madison told Jefferson.5 Madison and other Republicans opposed Federalist plans to form an army and increase taxes for national defense. When Federalists suggested that it was high time America had its own navy to combat the plunder of American shipping by Barbary pirates, Madison suggested, in all seriousness, that the United States hire the Portuguese navy instead.

Bent upon postponing war with Britain, influential Federalists gathered at the lodgings of Senator Rufus King. They agreed that Washington should send a special envoy to England and proposed Hamilton, who thought he was a splendid choice. As usual, the mere mention of his name sent Federalists into shivers of ecstasy:

“Who but Hamilton would perfectly satisfy all our wishes?” asked Ames.6 At first, Washington leaned toward Hamilton and grew resentful when Edmund Randolph interposed objections. Randolph thought Hamilton had been too vocal in criticizing France to enjoy credibility as an objective negotiator with Britain. Republicans joined this chorus of dissent and talked as if Washington were about to deputize the devil himself. Representative John Nicholas, brother-in-law of Senator James Monroe, told the president apropos of Hamilton that “more than half [of] America have determined it to be unsafe to trust power in the hands of this person…. Did it never occur to you that the divisions of America might be ended by the sacrifice of this one man?”7 Jefferson detected yet another cabal to place “the aristocracy of this country under the patronage” of the British government, not to mention a convenient way to send Hamilton abroad and protect him “from the disgrace and public execrations which sooner or later must fall on the man.”8 In the end, Washington concluded that Hamilton lacked “the general confidence of the country” and wisely opted for a less partisan figure.9

On April 14, Hamilton composed a long, plaintive letter to Washington and removed himself from consideration for the post. Madison said that Hamilton was crushed and informed Jefferson that he had been turned down “to his great mortification.”10 Yet Hamilton must have known he would be a divisive choice. He also had reasons for staying close to home: he feared that, without him, Washington might submit to Republican influence; he was still committed to vindicating his reputation before the congressional investigating committee; and he wanted to deal with ominous protests now gathering force in western Pennsylvania against the excise tax he had imposed on liquor.

In his letter to Washington, Hamilton made some statements on foreign policy of lasting significance, especially the idea of war as a last resort. He said that he belonged to the camp that wanted “to preserve peace at all costs, consistent with national honor,” resorting to war only if attempts at reparations failed. He warned that Republicans wanted to poison relations with Britain, foster amity with France, and cancel debts owed to England. The British would then retaliate by blocking commodity exports to America, causing a catastrophic drop in customs duties. This would “bring the Treasury to an absolute stoppage of payment[,]…an event which would cut up credit by the roots.”11 Hamilton has often been extolled as the exponent of a rational foreign policy based on cool calculations of national self-interest. But his April 14 letter expressed his unswerving conviction that nations, transported by strong emotion, often miscalculate their interests: “Wars oftener proceed from angry and perverse passions than from cool calculations of interest.”12 War with Britain might unleash violent popular fantasies and set in motion “turbulent passions” that would lead to extremism on the French model, pushing America to “the threshold of disorganization and anarchy.”13 Like so many Hamilton polemics, the letter was a hot-blooded defense of a cool-eyed policy.

When he took himself out of the running for envoy, Hamilton recommended John Jay as the perfect substitute—“the only man in whose qualifications for success there would be thorough confidence and him whom alone it would be advisable to send.”14 As the first chief justice of the Supreme Court, Jay lacked Hamilton’s conspicuous liabilities as a party head. Hamilton had always admired Jay, but with reservations. He once said of Jay that “he was a man of profound sagacity and pure integrity, yet he was of a suspicious temper.”15 In contrast to Hamilton’s colorful exuberance, Jay often dressed in black, tended to be taciturn, and could be aloof, though Philip Schuyler once said that he numbered Jay among the few men for whom he had an affection approaching love.

Jay consented to undertake the mission to England without resigning as chief justice. Republicans found him more palatable than Hamilton but far from a neutral choice. In their eyes, he was another Federalist smitten with England. Nevertheless, the Senate approved him. To offset Jay’s appointment, Washington decided to choose a Republican to succeed Gouverneur Morris as American minister to France and settled on James Monroe. Aaron Burr and some Republican colleagues suspected that Hamilton had induced Washington to veto Burr; for Burr, this was another of many times that Hamilton spiked his aspirations for office. But Washington continued to distrust Burr as a devious, prodigal man and needed no prodding from Hamilton.

If Hamilton could not go to London, he would engage in freelance diplomacy at home. Even before Jay was confirmed by the Senate, Hamilton met twice with the imperious George Hammond, Britain’s minister to the United States. Once again, those who saw Hamilton as toadying to Britain would have been surprised by how vehemently he laced into Hammond. Hammond told superiors back in London that the treasury secretary “entered into a pretty copious recital of the injuries which the commerce of this country had suffered from British cruisers and into a defense of the consequent claim which the American citizens had on their government to vindicate their rights.”16Hamilton wanted compensation for American vessels captured in the British West Indies, and Hammond was taken aback by the “degree of heat” Hamilton showed.17

At a meeting with Jay and Federalist senators and in a follow-up memo prepared for Washington, Hamilton sketched out Jay’s instructions as envoy, making him the primary architect of the treaty that was to result. In addition to compensation, Hamilton wanted a settlement of outstanding issues from the 1783 peace treaty. The most controversial item on his agenda, however, was the forging of a new commercial alliance in which each nation would receive “most favored nation status” from the other—that is, the lowest possible duties on goods they traded with each other. Presumably, this would increase the volume of trade between the two countries. After some modification, Hamilton’s instructions were adopted by the cabinet as Jay’s marching orders. In frequent meetings with Jay before his departure, Hamilton made clear that he did not want to coddle the British. On the contrary, because of the outrage voiced by the American people, Hamilton wanted Jay to be tough and demand “substantial indemnification.”18 At the same time, he wanted Jay to woo the British with a compelling vision of the advantages of closer Anglo-American ties.

On May 12, a thousand New Yorkers cheered from the docks as Jay sailed to England, hoping to avert war. Notwithstanding Republican fears, Washington and Hamilton trod the fine line of neutrality that summer. The U.S. government protested renewed attempts by French privateers to seek asylum in American ports while building up American military strength in case of war with Britain. Washington gave orders to construct six frigates—the birth of the U.S. Navy—and Hamilton negotiated contracts for many naval components: cannon, shot and shells, iron ballast, sailcloth, live oak and cedar, and saltpeter for gunpowder.

Republicans watched Jay’s mission with grave doubts. Madison had a nagging intuition that Jay would surrender too much to England and rupture Franco-American relations. The Republican press clung to the malicious fantasy that Jay would negotiate the sale of America back to the British monarchy. There were fresh rumors to boot that Hamilton was involved in a nefarious plot to make the duke of Kent, the fourth son of King George III, the new king of the United States. This prompted one Republican wag to opine that the royal family should adopt Alexander Hamilton to sire a new line in America. With Hamilton’s well-known attraction to the ladies, the British monarchy would never need to worry about a shortage of heirs in America.

Even as the repression in France acquired a terrible new ferocity, Republicans could not shed their warm, fraternal attachment to the French Revolution. However upset by gory deeds committed in the name of liberty, Madison was heartened when Joseph Fauchet, Citizen Genêt’s successor as French minister, declared “the revolution firm as a rock.”19 Jefferson still gazed at France through rose-colored glasses that magically transformed horrific events into a fresco of glowing colors. “I am convinced they will triumph completely,” he said in May 1794 and blamed the excesses not on the French but on “invading tyrants” who had dared “to embroil them in such wickedness.” Far from being repelled by bloodshed, Jefferson awaited the day when “kings, nobles, and priests” would be packed off to “scaffolds which they have been so long deluging with blood.”20 By early summer 1794, that blood ran in rivers, and executions in Paris reached a monstrous toll of nearly eight hundred per month. Nevertheless, when Jefferson’s protégé James Monroe arrived in France, he embraced the president of the National Assembly and, to Jay’s dismay, lauded the “heroic valor” of French troops.21

Where Jefferson dismissed these wholesale killings as regrettable but necessary sacrifices to freedom, Hamilton was traumatized by them. The burgeoning atheism of the French Revolution reawakened in him religious feelings that had lain dormant since King’s College days. “The very existence of a Deity has been questioned and in some instances denied,” he wrote in alarm about French attacks on Christianity. “The duty of piety has been ridiculed, the perishable nature of man asserted, and his hopes bounded to the short span of his earthly state. Death has been proclaimed an eternal sleep.”22 For Hamilton, the French Revolution had become a compendium of heretical doctrines, including the notion that morality could exist without religion or that human nature could be so refined by revolution that “government itself will become useless and society will subsist and flourish free from its shackles.”23

Hamilton somehow managed to be worldly without having seen the world. He kept abreast of occurrences in France by subscribing to French newspapers and periodicals, and he polished his French through a Philadelphia tutor, M. Dornat. Equally important, he obtained eyewitness accounts of the French Revolution from the exodus of largely aristocratic refugees who flocked to America. At its peak, this refugee flood was so huge that one in every ten Philadelphians was French; one exile christened the capital “the French Noah’s Ark.”24 Hamilton felt at home among these elegant, reform-minded aristocrats. “Mr. Hamilton spoke French fluently and, as we did not sympathize with the revolutionists who drove the exiles from their homes, he was a favorite with many of the cultivated émigrés,” Eliza recalled.25 “He was small, with an extremely composed bearing, unusually small eyes, and something a little furtive in his glance,” Moreau de St. Méry said of Hamilton. “He spoke French, but quite incorrectly. He had a great deal of ready wit, kept a close watch over himself, and was…extremely brave.”26 Nobody else ever faulted Hamilton’s French. Another émigré, Madame de la Tour du Pin, said of Hamilton, “Although he had never been in Europe, he spoke our language like a Frenchman.”27

Many French aristocrats were directed to Hamilton by Angelica Church, who had entertained them at her bountiful London table. She steered to him the vicomte de Noailles, Lafayette’s brother-in-law, who had formed part of the brotherhood at Yorktown and knew Hamilton well. Like other refugees, de Noailles had been hopeful at the inception of the French Revolution, then recoiled in horror as it veered toward violence. Church also referred the duc de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt to Hamilton. An enlightened aristocrat and social reformer who had set up a model farm and two factories, the melancholy duke had tried to protect the king from mobs in 1792 before seeking safety in England. In Philadelphia, he grew to adore Hamilton. “Mr. Hamilton is one of the finest men in America, at least of those I have seen,” he later wrote. “He has breadth of mind and even genuine clearness in his ideas, facility in their expression, information on all points, cheerfulness, excellence of character, and much amiability.”28 Whatever his carping about the French, Hamilton invariably managed to charm them.

Most French refugees were in desperate straits, having suffered steep declines in status and wealth. Once well-to-do Frenchmen now scraped out livings by giving French lessons, becoming cooks, or opening small stores. “I wish I was a Croesus,” Hamilton told Angelica Church. “I might then afford solid consolations to these children of adversity and how delightful it would be to do so. But now, sympathy, kind words, and occasionally a dinner are all I can contribute.”29 Both Alexander and Eliza Hamilton had a special feeling for the dispossessed and helped to raise money for indigent French émigrés. Beginning in 1793, Hamilton, touched as usual by the plight of distressed women, kept lists of French mothers marooned with their children in America. On one list, he wrote: “1 Madame Le Grand with two children lives near the little market at the house of Mr. Peter French hatter in the greatest indigence 2 Madame Gauvin second street North No. 83 with three children equally destitute.” On the attached donor list, the biggest contributor stood out plainly: “Eliza Hamilton—20 dollars.”30 Eliza sent off bundles of food and clothing to refugee families, showing an activism that previewed her later dedication to the cause of widows and orphans in New York City.

Of all the French expatriates stranded in Philadelphia, none cut a more memorable figure than a French diplomat of unflappable composure who walked with a clubfoot from a childhood fall and who dissected the world with a sardonic eye: Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, better known as Talleyrand. On the eve of the Revolution, the king had named him bishop of Autun, a reward for managing church finances, not for superior spirituality, but he did not allow the appointment to slow down his dissolute life. Gouverneur Morris described Talleyrand as “sly, cool, cunning, and ambitious.”31 He had an acerbic wit, and given his legions of enemies, he needed it. Mirabeau, the French revolutionary politician, once observed of Talleyrand that he “would sell his soul for money and he would be right, for he would be exchanging dung for gold.”32 Napoleon expressed this sentiment more concisely, calling Talleyrand “a pile of shit in a silk stocking.”33

A man for all political seasons, Talleyrand had initially hoped the French Revolution would create a dynamic new state, based on law, order, and sound finance.

He stuck with the Revolution until September 1792, when the overthrow of Louis XVI and the attendant massacres eliminated his last hopes. He sat out the subsequent Terror in England and was condemned in absentia for conspiring with the king. British Conservatives snubbed him, but he was welcomed by the opposition Whigs, led by Charles James Fox, and by the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the same social circle inhabited by John and Angelica Church.

In January 1794, Talleyrand, informed that he had five days to leave England or face deportation, decided to join other stateless émigrés in Philadelphia. The Churches subsidized the trip, and Angelica smoothed the way for Talleyrand and his traveling companion, the chevalier de Beaumetz, by writing to Eliza and introducing the two gentlemen as martyrs for “the cause of moderate liberty…. To your care, dear Eliza, I commit these interesting strangers. They are a loan I make you till I return to America, not to reclaim my friends entirely, but to share their society with you and dear Alexander the amiable.”34

Angelica regretted that Eliza did not speak French nor Talleyrand English. Talleyrand’s linguistic isolation in America made Hamilton’s fluency an advantage. After Talleyrand arrived in April, Hamilton sounded out Washington discreetly about receiving him. Talleyrand himself ruled out an unofficial meeting. “If I cannot enter the front door,” he declared, “I will not go in the back.”35 Talleyrand was still a pariah in revolutionary France, and Joseph Fauchet warned his Parisian superiors of “an infernal plan” being hatched by Talleyrand and Beaumetz, with Hamilton acting as their confederate. Fauchet let Washington know that France frowned upon his receiving Talleyrand, and the president declined a meeting, lest it cause a stir among his Republican detractors. “My wish is…to avoid offence to powers with whom we are in friendship by conduct towards their proscribed citizens which would be disagreeable to them,” Washington told Hamilton, suggesting that private citizens take up the social burden of greeting Talleyrand.36

Talleyrand soon acquired a mulatto mistress, whom he squired openly through the Philadelphia streets. This bothered some priggish souls in polite society but not Hamilton, although Eliza may have been less forgiving. “He was notoriously misshapen, lame in one foot, his manners far from elegant, the tone of his voice was disagreeable, and in dress he was slovenly,” she remembered as an old woman. “Mr. Hamilton saw much of him and while he admired the shrewd diplomat for his great intellectual endowments, he detested his utter lack of principle. He had no conscience.”37 Since Fauchet was already convinced that Hamilton was in league with Talleyrand, Hamilton suffered no political penalties in meeting with him. He and Talleyrand became companions with a mutual fascination, if not close friends.

During his two-year sojourn in America, Talleyrand cherished his time with Hamilton and left some remarkable tributes for posterity: “I consider Napoleon, Fox, and Hamilton the three greatest men of our epoch and, if I were forced to decide between the three, I would give without hesitation the first place to Hamilton. He divined Europe.”38 Of Hamilton he told one American travel writer that “he had known nearly all the marked men of his time, but that he had never known one on the whole equal to him.39 Hamilton savored the roguish diplomat’s company and gave him, as a token of esteem, an oval miniature portrait of himself.

Hamilton and Talleyrand were both hardheaded men, disgusted with the utopian dreams of their more fanciful, radical compatriots. As one Talleyrand biographer put it, “They were both passionately interested in politics and both of them looked at politics from a realistic standpoint and despised sentimental twaddle whether it poured from the lips of a Robespierre or of a Jefferson.”40 Both men wanted to create strong nation-states, led by powerful executive branches, and both wanted to counter an aversion to central banks and stock markets. Oddly, Talleyrand agreed with Hamilton that Britain, not France, could best supply America with the long-term credit and industrial products it needed. Talleyrand recalled vividly how Hamilton asserted a passionate faith in America’s economic destiny. In their talks, Hamilton said that he foresaw “the day when—and it is perhaps not very remote—great markets, such as formerly existed in the old world, will be established in America.”41 Talleyrand confessed to only one complaint about Hamilton: that he was overly enamored of the grand personages of the day and took too little notice of Eliza’s beauty.

Talleyrand was grateful to Angelica Church for having opened the door to the Hamilton home, and he informed her of Eliza’s kindness and Hamilton’s unique mind and manners. This elicited from her a remarkable letter to Eliza about the man who had so long mesmerized them both. Angelica Church came close to an outright admission that she was more than just entranced by Hamilton. Socially ambitious, she had always dreamed of political glory for her brother-in-law and now gave full-throated expression to her adoration of him and her hopes for his future.

I have a letter, my dear Eliza, from my worthy friend M. de Talleyrand, who expresses to me his gratitude for an introduction to you and my Amiable. By my Amiable, you know that I mean your husband, for I love him very much and, if you were as generous as the old Romans, you would lend him to me for a little while. But do not be jealous, my dear Eliza, since I am more solicitous to promote his laudable ambition than any person in the world, and there is no summit of true glory which I do not desire he may attain, provided always that he pleases to give me a little chit-chat and sometimes to say, I wish our dear Angelica was here…. Ah! Bess! you were a lucky girl to get so clever and so good a companion.42