Alexander Hamilton - Ron Chernow (2005)


After being exculpated by the House investigating committee in late May 1794, Hamilton had informed George Washington that he would not resign after all, citing the prospect of war. In the end, he did go to war, not against European powers but against American frontier settlers. The Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania that year was an armed protest against the excise tax on domestic distilled spirits—the “whiskey tax,” in common lingo—that Hamilton had enacted as part of his funding system. It may qualify as the first “sin tax” in American history, for in Federalist number 12, Hamilton had written reprovingly of liquor, “There is perhaps nothing so much a subject of national extravagance as these spirits.”1

The whiskey tax was doomed to be unpopular, inevitably reminding Americans of the Stamp Act and the whole hated apparatus of British tax collecting. Nonetheless, the tax constituted the second largest source of federal revenues and was indispensable to Hamilton. If deprived of that crucial tax, he would have to raise tariffs, which would encourage more smuggling and tax evasion and spur commercial retaliation abroad. The government also needed money to finance military expeditions against the Indians—expeditions that were especially popular in the affected frontier communities, such as those of western Pennsylvania.

Shortly after the whiskey tax was passed, federal collectors were shunned, tarred, feathered, blindfolded, and whipped. In May 1792, Hamilton had tried to pacify opponents by lowering the rates, but this conciliatory action did not appease them. That summer, Philip Freneau printed inflammatory letters that likened Hamilton’s taxes to those imposed arbitrarily under British rule: “The government of the United States, in all things wishing to imitate the corrupt principles of the court of Great Britain, has commenced the disgraceful career by an excise law.”2 In August 1792, embodying Hamilton’s worst nightmare of mob rule, protesters terrorized Captain William Faulkner, who had rented his house to a whiskey-tax inspector, Colonel John Neville. Hamilton received hair-raising reports of the incident: “They drew a knife on him, threatened to scalp him, tar and feather him, and finally to reduce his house and property to ashes if he did not solemnly promise them to prevent the office of inspection from being there.”3 The next day, thirty armed men on horseback, their faces blackened, burst into Faulkner’s house, hoping to seize and throttle Neville.

Around this time, a mass meeting in Pittsburgh tried to lend a patina of legitimacy to this open lawlessness. The gathering’s clerk was a Swiss-born member of the Pennsylvania Assembly, Albert Gallatin, who had taught French at Harvard and spoke with an unmistakable Gallic accent. A tall, skinny man with a narrow face and hooked nose, Gallatin was a notoriously slovenly character. It was probably Gallatin who drafted a resolution saying the protesters would persist in every “legal measure that may obstruct the operation of the [excise] law until we are able to obtain its total repeal.” In the meantime, tax collectors would be treated with the “contempt they deserve.”4 Gallatin later portrayed his part in this meeting as “my only political sin,” but Hamilton had a long memory for such transgressions.5 Moreover, as we have seen, when sworn in as a U.S. senator in late 1793, Gallatin had quickly emerged as an unremitting Hamilton critic.

Refusing to tolerate illegal behavior and not finding the violent protests as colorful as did some later commentators, Hamilton appealed to Washington for “vigorous and decisive measures,” or else “the spirit of disobedience will naturally extend and the authority of the government will be prostrate.”6 Hamilton was being typically decisive. He worried that federal authority was still suspect in the backcountry and needed to be firmly established—ideally by consent, if necessary by force. He wanted Washington to issue a proclamation warning tax evaders to desist and, if they refused, to send in troops. Washington reacted in a more temperate fashion. He issued a call for obedience to the law, but he regarded using soldiers as a last resort and hesitated to deploy troops against domestic opponents. If he dispatched troops, he told Hamilton, critics would only exclaim, “The cat is let out. We now see for what purpose an army was raised.”7 It was an accurate prediction.

The mostly Scotch-Irish frontiersmen of western Pennsylvania, who regarded liquor as a beloved refreshment, had the highest per-capita concentration of homemade stills in America. In places, whiskey was so ubiquitous that it doubled as money. The rough-hewn backwoods farmers grew abundant wheat that they couldn’t transport over the Allegheny Mountains, which were crossed only by narrow horse paths. They solved the problem by distilling the grain into whiskey, pouring it into kegs, and toting them on horseback across the mountains to eastern markets. Some whiskey was also shipped down the Mississippi. Local farmers believed they unfairly bore the economic brunt of Hamilton’s excise tax and also resented any interference with their recreational consumption of homemade brew.

Trouble flared anew in western Pennsylvania during the summer of 1794 just as Hamilton was bedeviled by family problems. His fifth child, John Church Hamilton, who was almost two, became gravely ill, upsetting the again pregnant Eliza. Although Hamilton scarcely ever took a vacation, he beseeched Washington for “permission to make an excursion into the country for a few days to try the effect of exercise and change of air upon the child.”8 When Eliza and “beloved Johnny” failed to improve after a week, Hamilton extended his leave and escorted them partway to the Schuyler mansion in Albany. The diligent Hamilton apologized to Washington, saying he hoped that “when the delicate state of Mrs Hamilton’s health is taken in connection with that of the child, I trust they will afford a justification of the procrastination.”9 After Maria Reynolds, the guilt-ridden Hamilton continued to be a doting paterfamilias.

While Hamilton nursed his family, whiskey protesters blasted the stills of their neighbors who had honored the tax. They again terrorized Colonel John Neville, the long-suffering whiskey inspector. A Revolutionary War veteran who had served writs on those evading the tax, Neville issued an emergency summons for militia assistance after angry farmers surrounded his house. About a dozen soldiers tried to hold at bay five hundred rebels who fired at Neville’s house for an hour while torching his crops, barn, stables, and fences. They also kidnapped David Lenox, the U.S. marshal for the district, who was released after swearing that he would serve no more papers on tax evaders. Lenox and Neville finally fled the region “by a circuitous route to avoid personal injury, perhaps assassination,” Hamilton told Washington.10

On August 1, six thousand rebels converged on Braddock’s field outside Pittsburgh as extemporaneous violence took on a more systematic character. An organizer named Bradford, having feasted on news of the French Revolution in the Pittsburgh Gazette, touted Robespierre as a splendid model for the crowd. He urged creation of a “committee of public safety” along Jacobin lines and several weeks later exhorted his comrades to erect guillotines. To obtain weapons, the rebels decided to attack the government garrison at Pittsburgh, with Bradford boasting, “We will defeat the first army that comes over the mountains and take their arms and baggage.”11

Always haunted by the hobgoblins of disorder, Hamilton saw more than mass disobedience: he saw signs of treasonous plots against the government. The man who seldom wavered sent Washington a 7,500-word account, reviewing the thuggish punishments meted out to revenue officers since the excise tax was introduced. Hamilton wished to strip these violations of any veneer of acceptable “civil disobedience” and showed they had been massive, vicious, and premeditated. He was not alone in perceiving a more general threat. Attorney General William Bradford regarded the western upheaval as a “formed and regular plan for weakening and perhaps overthrowing the general government,” while Secretary of War Knox wanted to combat the unrest with “a superabundant force.”12 Regarding the uprising as a direct threat to constitutional order, Washington asked Supreme Court Justice James Wilson to declare a state of anarchy around Pittsburgh.

When it came to law enforcement, Hamilton believed that an overwhelming show of force often obviated the need to employ it: “Whenever the government appears in arms, it ought to appear like a Hercules and inspire respect by the display of strength. The consideration of expence is of no moment compared with the advantages of energy.”13 Meeting with state officials on a blazing day in early August, Hamilton advised them to send troops to the western part of the state. He recommended that Washington assemble a multistate militia of twelve thousand men to suppress an uprising estimated at seven thousand armed men. Secretary of State Edmund Randolph advised against sending troops, fearing it would only unify the protesters, and called instead for a “spirit of reconciliation”—a position echoed by Pennsylvania officials.14

Washington contrived a statesmanlike compromise between Hamilton’s truculence and Randolph’s civility. He issued a proclamation telling the insurgents to desist by September 1, or the government would send in a militia. At the same time, he announced that a three-man commission would confer with citizens. William Bradford was picked as one of the three commissioners, and before the attorney general headed west Hamilton, later accused of lusting for a showdown with the rioters, told him that he was prepared to enact “any reasonable alterations” to make the excise tax more palatable. “For in truth,” he told Bradford, “every admissible accommodation in this way would accord with the wishes of this department.”15 This lenient approach, unfortunately, only emboldened the rebels. On August 17, the three commissioners met with concerned Pittsburgh residents, who contended that extremists both “numerous and violent” had resolved to resist the excise tax “at all hazards.” The commissioners reluctantly concluded that enforcing compliance with the law would require “the physical strength of the nation.”16

As the use of force loomed, Knox told Washington that he had to go to Maine to deal with some pressing real-estate problems, though he said he could postpone the trip if necessary. Remarkably enough, Washington let Knox go at this critical moment, which meant that temporary responsibility for the War Department fell upon Hamilton’s slim shoulders. This once more provided emphatic proof of Washington’s faith in Hamilton’s varied abilities and of Hamilton’s perennial eagerness to exercise power.

Hamilton found himself in an agonizing predicament. He was immersed in urgent business—“I have scarcely a moment to spare,” he had told Eliza—as he assigned contracts to military vendors for a possible operation in western Pennsylvania.17 He was ordering horses, tents, and other military stores and did not feel he could vacate his post. But the news he received from Eliza in Albany made him heartsick: little Johnny, despite treatment with laudanum and limewater, was losing ground, and Eliza’s pregnancy was precarious. As he tore open each letter, Hamilton trembled that it might announce his son’s death. “Alas my charmer, great are my fears, poignant my distress,” he told Eliza. “I feel every day more and more how dear this child is to me and I cease not to pray heaven for his recovery.”18 Hamilton’s letters show both love for his family and an encyclopedic medical knowledge. He gave Eliza minute instructions on what to do if the baby’s situation worsened:

If he is worse, abandon the laudanum and try the cold bath—that is, abandon the laudanum by degrees, giving it overnight but not in the morning, and then leaving it off altogether. Let the water be put in the kitchen overnight and in the morning let the child be dipped in it head foremost, wrapping up his head well and taking him again immediately out, put in flannel and rubbed dry with towels. Immediately upon his being taken out, let him have two teaspoons full of brandy, mixed with just enough water to prevent its taking away his breath. Observe well his lips. If a glow succeeds, continue the bath. If a chill takes place, forbear it.19

This sounds like more than book knowledge. Somewhere along the way, possibly as a boy or in the army, he had learned a considerable amount about nursing the sick and did so with a touching solicitude. By the end of the month, John Church Hamilton had started to recover, and Hamilton sent his wife and child to New York City, where they remained under the watchful care of Nicholas Fish and Elisha Boudinot. All the while, events in western Pennsylvania lurched toward an open confrontation with the government.

On the morning of August 23, 1794, subscribers to the American Daily Advertiser of Philadelphia read an impassioned warning from a writer called “Tully.” For this apprehensive author, the tumult in western Pennsylvania was a thinly veiled pretext for tearing down the constitutional order. The foes of the federal government were too cunning to attack it directly, he argued, so they feigned moderation and exploited issues such as the excise tax. Despite ailing health, Hamilton wrote three more “Tully” letters during the next nine days. As always, his easily alarmed mind dwelled on dire outcomes: “There is no road to despotism more sure or more to be dreaded than that which begins at anarchy.20 In Hamilton’s opinion, the most sacred duty of government was an “inviolable respect for the Constitution and laws.”21 He believed the supreme test of the new government’s strength was at hand.

Scarcely had “Tully” spoken than the three commissioners returned from western Pennsylvania and offered Washington’s cabinet a bleak assessment. During a marathon eight-hour session, Washington, Hamilton, and Randolph decided to call up Virginia’s militia under Governor Henry Lee and muster an additional force of up to fifteen thousand troops for possible action. After the meeting, Hamilton swung into action to line up additional supplies.

Like Hamilton, Washington feared that a disruptive faction wanted to pull down the government, and he was prepared to defend the Constitution at all costs. Still, with his finely honed instincts, he delayed dispatching troops. The more assertive Hamilton gave Washington evidence of militia colonels who had abetted the rioters and of judges who had defended resistance to the tax. There had not been a single instance, he alleged, where a Pennsylvania official had punished someone for flouting the whiskey tax. Especially upsetting was the fear that the upheaval might be spreading to other states. When Maryland summoned its militia to enforce the tax, soldiers turned on their officers and set up a liberty pole in the courthouse square. Rumor claimed that the rebels were about to pillage the state armory for weapons.

By September 9, Washington had had enough. “If the laws are to be trampled upon with impunity,” he said, “and a minority is to dictate to the majority, there is an end put at one stroke to republican government.”22 Worried about the advent of cold weather, he ordered troops to march to western Pennsylvania. Since Pennsylvania had been reluctant to quash the insurrection, militias from New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia were recruited instead. Hamilton was in constant motion as he bore the burdens of both the Treasury and War Departments. With his inexhaustible capacity for work, he outfitted an entire army, ordering shoes, blankets, shirts, coats, medicine chests, kettles, rifles, and muskets. As was his wont, he specified everything in great detail, especially when it came to uniforms. “The jackets ought to be made of some of the stuffs of which sailors jackets are usually made,” he ordered, “and, like them, without skirts, but of sufficient length of body to protect well the bowels. The trousers, or rather overalls, ought also to be of some strong coarse cheap woolen stuff.”23

Though the natural leader of the western expedition, Washington wanted to limit his participation. “The President will be governed by circumstances,” Hamilton told Rufus King. “If the thing puts on an appearance of magnitude, he goes. If not, he stays.” Hamilton himself had never outgrown his love of martial glory and yearned to participate: “If permitted, I shall at any rate go.”24 As author of the excise tax, Hamilton assured Washington, it would be good for him to accompany the army: “In a government like ours, it cannot but have a good effect for the person who is understood to be the adviser or proposer of a measure, which involves danger to his fellow citizens, to partake in that danger.”25 Washington acceded to Hamilton’s wishes. Secretary of State Randolph then felt obliged to remind Washington “how much Colonel Hamilton’s accompanying him was talked of out of doors and how much stress was laid upon the seeming necessity of the Commander-in-Chief having him always at his elbow.”26

Hamilton remained in a state of trepidation about Eliza’s pregnancy. The day before departing for western Pennsylvania, he tried to reassure his children with breezy words: “For by the accounts we have received here, there will be no fighting and, of course, no danger. It will only be an agreeable ride, which I hope will do me good.”27 On the morning of September 30, Washington and Hamilton set off quaintly for war: they climbed into a carriage on Market Street and headed west to join the troops. Soon, they rolled through peaceful farmland. If this carriage ride seems less than epic in nature, we must recall that Washington, sixty-two, could no longer endure long days in the saddle. Hamilton made the travel arrangements for the president and scrupulously declared that if the president stayed in any private homes, he would insist upon paying; otherwise, he would take rooms at local taverns. With Hamilton tending to Washington’s needs, the general and his former aide-de-camp must have experienced a queer sense of déjà vu. Hamilton was back serving his general. On the other hand, Hamilton, thirty-nine, had become a mighty figure in his own right. It was far less remarkable that Washington had been elevated to the presidency than that his former aide had risen to become America’s second most powerful man.

By October 4, the two men reached their rendezvous with troops at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in the state’s southern tier, about halfway to Pittsburgh. They reviewed a throng of three thousand soldiers, an army that finally swelled to twelve thousand men. The superefficient Hamilton bristled when he discovered that shipments of clothing and ammunition had not arrived and gave a tongue-lashing to the person responsible: “For heaven sake, send forward a man that can be depended upon on each route to hasten them. My expectations have been egregiously disappointed.”28 While Washington and Hamilton camped at Carlisle, emissaries from western Pennsylvania, led by Congressman William Findley, a former weaver, tried to persuade them to turn back. They reported that people in the west country would now submit to the excise tax without coercion. Washington replied that if no shots were fired at his troops, no force would be used, but that he would not desist. Hamilton was even more unyielding. When Findley mentioned one individual who was supposedly restoring order in the area, Hamilton “answered us that that very man, if he was met with, would be skewered, shot, or hanged on the first tree.”29 Seeing the expedition as a major test of government will, Hamilton was in no mood to back down.

While the army was at Carlisle, a young man named David Chambers brought messages from Governor Henry Lee. He later left this telling vignette of Hamilton and Washington:

As soon as it was known that dispatches had arrived from General Lee, they were taken possession of and earnestly perused by Col. Hamilton, who seemed to be the master spirit. The President remained aloof, conversing with the writer in relation to roads, distances etc. Washington was grave, distant, and austere. Hamilton was kind, courteous, and frank. Hamilton in person prepared answers to the dispatches and, with the most insinuating and easy familiarity, encouraged the writer to carry out the purpose of the mission with dispatch and fidelity. At the same time [he] bestowed a douceur from his purse.30

Later, crossing the Alleghenies, Chambers again encountered Hamilton, who gave him a tour of the troops “with all the familiarity and kindness of a father.”31

Hamilton always found bracing the manly atmosphere of a military camp. Setting up an elegant tent for himself, he strode about and swapped stories of the Revolution with soldiers. Never a martinet, Hamilton did insist on discipline and condoned no lapses. Often, he roamed the camp after dark, surprising sentries at their posts. Finding one wealthy young sentry seated lazily with his musket by his side, Hamilton reproached his laxity. After the youth complained of a soldier’s hard life, “Hamilton shouldered the musket, and pacing to and fro, remained on guard until relieved,” John Church Hamilton later wrote. “The incident was rumored throughout the camp, nor did the lesson require repetition.”32 Hamilton’s experience with this amateurish militia reinforced his long-held conviction that the central government needed a standing army. “In the expedition against the western insurgents,” he later said, “I trembled every moment lest a great part of the militia should take it into their heads to return home rather than go forward.”33 A larger federal army was exactly what Republicans feared, and Madison reported to Jefferson that “fashionable language” was now being heard in Philadelphia that a standing army might soon be “necessary for enforcing the laws.”34

Washington decided that, if the army’s situation looked favorable, his own involvement would terminate at Carlisle. So at the end of October, he returned to Philadelphia and left Hamilton and Virginia governor Henry Lee in charge of an army larger than the one he had usually headed in the Revolution. The soldiers marched west along muddy roads in soaking rain. Despite these conditions, Hamilton’s health was restored by the campaign, and he even wrote playfully to Angelica Church about his exploits. In a letter marked “205 Miles Westward of Philadelphia,” he told his sister-in-law, “I am thus far, my dear Angelica, on my way to attack and subdue the wicked insurgents of the west. But you are not to promise that I shall have any trophies to lay at your feet. A large army has cooled the courage of those madmen and the only question seems now to be how to guard best against the return of the frenzy.”35

Once Washington left Hamilton in charge of one wing of the army, the imagination of the Republican press ran riot. The Whiskey Rebellion conjured up their favorite bogeyman of Hamilton as the Man on Horseback, the military-despot-in-waiting. Now that Freneau’s paper had folded, the principal source of anti-Hamilton bile was Benjamin Franklin Bache, a grandson of Benjamin Franklin and editor of a newspaper soon known as the Aurora. As Hamilton rode the soggy, rutted roads of western Pennsylvania, Bache saw devilry in his leadership: “By some it is whispered that he is with the army without invitation and by many it is shrewdly suspected his conduct is a first step towards a deep laid scheme, not for the promotion of the country’s prosperity, but the advancement of his private interests.”36 Washington, unfazed, sent this screed to Hamilton, who replied that “it is long since I have learnt to hold popular opinion of no value.”37

The military expedition met little overt resistance in the mutinous regions. Many delinquent distillers were rounded up, and others either surrendered or fled into the mountains. At times, the behavior of the rowdy, heavy-drinking soldiers was more worrisome than that of the whiskey rebels, and at least two innocent civilians were killed by militia. Washington set an important precedent by having these soldiers tried in civilian, not military, courts.

Hamilton was appalled by his meetings with disaffected elements, which convinced him that revolutionary tendencies had to be extirpated root and branch. He wanted the culprits to lose their homes or even be deported—the beginning of a major shift in his tolerant views on immigration. “This business must not be skinned over,” he told Rufus King. “The political putrefaction of Pennsylvania is greater than I had any idea of.”38 He was especially disturbed by the involvement of elected officials in the uprising.

Federal action in suppressing the Whiskey Rebellion left behind a trail of controversy. William Findley believed that Hamilton had welcomed this chance to prove the government’s power. He left a one-sided chronicle of events that gives a glimpse of Hamilton’s tough, prosecutorial tactics in interrogating prisoners. Hamilton was especially harsh toward those he deemed the leaders. In one case, he questioned a Major Powers about Albert Gallatin’s role at insurgent rallies. When Powers answered grudgingly, Hamilton advised him to take an hour to refresh his memory. Findley claims that Powers was flung into a room with other prisoners with a bayonet at his head. An hour later, with Hamilton “suddenly assuming all his terrors, [he] told Major Powers that he was surprised at him, that having the character of an honest man he would not tell the truth, asserting that he had already proofs sufficient of the truth of what he knew he could testify.”39 Powers was held in military custody for eight days, then released as innocent of all charges.

Another suspect, Hugh Henry Brackenridge, was questioned by Hamilton, who struck him as courteous if severe. He “was willing to treat me with civility, but was embarrassed with a sense that, in a short time, I must probably stand in the predicament of a culprit and be in irons.”40 Hamilton asked Brackenridge bluntly if he had planned to overthrow the government, at which point the prisoner recounted his actions. Hamilton scribbled detailed notes during this two-day interrogation, then freed Brackenridge, saying he had been misrepresented. Hamilton’s behavior here would seem exemplary—the treasury secretary had taken two days to weigh a man’s innocence—but William Findley talked only of the “terrors” that Hamilton had “dispensed” to Brackenridge.41 Brackenridge himself believed that the show of force orchestrated by the federal government had made its use unnecessary, just as Hamilton had predicted.

Findley told of his own interrogation at the hands of Hamilton, who believed that Findley had published thirteen anonymous newspaper pieces against him. According to Findley, Hamilton snapped at him “that he would never forgive me, because I had told or wrote lies about him.” Hamilton was irate that Findley and Gallatin, both elected representatives, had abetted the troublemakers: “He expressed much surprise and indignation at their reposing so much confidence in foreigners, that Gallatin and I were both foreigners and therefore not to be trusted.”42 Findley, who had been born in Ireland, found it scandalous that Hamilton of all people should object to his immigrant background: “I say for secretary Hamilton to object to such a man as a foreigner must be astonishing to those who have any knowledge of his own history.”43

Public opinion applauded the way Washington balanced firmness and clemency in suppressing the Whiskey Rebellion. There had been very few deaths. Washington and Hamilton had brought new prestige to the government and shown how a democratic society could handle popular disorder without resort to despotic methods. Contrary to European wisdom, democracies did not necessarily degenerate into lawlessness. Hamilton wanted to make an example of some perpetrators, but Henry Lee issued an amnesty proclamation that exempted from prosecution all but about 150 prisoners alleged to have committed “atrocities.” Although two insurrectionists were accused of treason and convicted, Washington, with his usual magnanimity, pardoned them. Hamilton feared that this clemency would only encourage lawless elements.

In a public postmortem on the rebellion, Washington blamed the Democratic-Republican societies that had sprouted in the wake of Citizen Genêt’s arrival. This presidential message to Congress infuriated James Madison, who rated it “perhaps the greatest error” of Washington’s political career and further proof that he was the tool of Alexander Hamilton.44 “The game was to connect the democratic societies with the odium of insurrection—to connect the Republicans in Congress with those societies—[and] to put the President ostensibly at the head of the other party in opposition to both,” Madison fumed.45 He saw the Whiskey Rebellion as the prelude to the establishment of a standing army that would constrain American liberties. Like Madison, Jefferson regarded the uprising as another instance of Hamilton’s vainglorious desire to exercise power and of his fiendish control over Washington’s mind. Jefferson had never liked the “infernal” excise tax and had the temerity to label the episode “Hamilton’s insurrection.”46 Jefferson likened Washington to an aging “captain in his cabin” who dozed while “a rogue of a pilot has run them into an enemy’s port.”47

Hamilton’s friend Timothy Pickering later observed that the excise tax remained “particularly odious to the whiskey drinkers” and that Jefferson’s pledge to repeal the tax did much to boost his popularity: “So it may be said, with undoubted truth, that the whiskey drinkers made Mr. Jefferson the President of the United States.”48

Enough rancor toward Hamilton remained in western Pennsylvania that he required a special escort of six soldiers on horseback when he left Pittsburgh in late November. Tired and weather-beaten from almost two months on the road, he galloped toward Philadelphia with an urgent need to see Eliza, who still struggled with a difficult pregnancy and felt alone without him. Even Angelica Church in London knew about the strained situation. “During his absence I know, my love, that you have been very unhappy and I have often thought of you with more than common tenderness,” she wrote to Eliza.49 On November 24, Henry Knox told Hamilton of Eliza’s earnest prayers for his return: “It seems that she has had, or has been in danger of a miscarriage, which has much alarmed her.” The guardian angel of the Hamilton household, Edward Stevens, who seemed to appear at providential moments, now tended Eliza and reassured her that she was in no danger. Nevertheless, Knox informed Hamilton that she was “extremely desirous of your presence [and] in order to tranquilize her this note is transmitted by the President’s request.”50

It turned out that Eliza did have a miscarriage, and Hamilton flagellated himself for this misfortune. “My dear Eliza has been lately very ill,” he wrote to Angelica Church in early December, sidestepping direct mention of the miscarriage. “Thank God, she is now quite recovered, except that she continues somewhat weak. My absence on a certain expedition was the cause…. You will see, notwithstanding your disparagement of me, I am still of consequence to her.”51 Ever since the Maria Reynolds fiasco, Hamilton had tried to be attentive to his family, but the ceaseless demands of public life had often denied him the necessary time, and now his absence had yielded dreadful results.

Hamilton now believed that his great opportunities lay behind him. On December 1, 1794, the day he returned to Philadelphia, he told Washington that he would surrender his Treasury post in late January. One wonders whether Eliza’s miscarriage affected this snap decision. With her selfless love for Hamilton, she didn’t care for the blood sport that passed for politics and was disgusted by the unceasing attacks on her husband. It pained her to see the scant appreciation for his sacrifices. Angelica Church wrote to Eliza with mixed emotions when she heard of Hamilton’s rumored resignation, “The country will lose one of her best friends and you, my dear Eliza, will be the only person to whom this change can be either necessary or agreeable. I am inclined to believe that it is your influence [that] induces him to withdraw from public life.”52 Church knew Hamilton’s fun-loving side and agreed that Hamilton needed a respite from politics, telling Eliza that “when you and I are with him, he shall not talk politics to us. A little of his agreeable nonsense will do us more good.”53

The news of Hamilton’s departure was a watershed for Washington, who had made him the master builder of the new government. When John Marshall later read through Washington’s correspondence for his authorized biography, he expressed “astonishment at the proportion of it” from Hamilton’s pen.54 In acknowledging Hamilton’s resignation, Washington penned one of his loftiest tributes.

In every relation which you have borne to me, I have found that my confidence in your talents, exertions, and integrity has been well placed. I the more freely render this testimony of my approbation, because I speak from opportunities of information w[hi]ch cannot deceive me and which furnish satisfactory proof of your title to public regard. My most earnest wishes for your happiness will attend you in retirement.55

The letter shows why Washington tended to discount the Jeffersonian invective against Hamilton. Both as general and president, Washington had numberless chances to observe Hamilton and had seen only competence, dedication, and integrity. In yet another tribute to Hamilton, Washington replaced him with his deputy at Treasury, Oliver Wolcott, Jr.

Hamilton was eager to leave office with an unscarred reputation and immediately informed House Speaker Muhlenberg of his planned resignation. He wanted to give the select investigating committee time to pursue any last-minute inquiries so that nobody would ever intimate that he had ducked questions. It was not Hamilton’s style to fade away quietly, and he mustered the strength for one last voluminous report on government finance, which he submitted to the House on January 19, 1795. He wanted to chart a wide-ranging course for the future. Washington had recently asked Congress for plans to retire the public debt and “prevent that progressive accumulation of debt which must ultimately endanger all government.”56 Congress had debated piecemeal proposals instead of a comprehensive plan. For a long time, Hamilton had chafed at the distorted perception that he invariably viewed a public debt as a public blessing; in many circumstances, he knew, a public debt could be a public curse. “The debt of France brought about her revolution,” he wrote. “Financial embarrassments led to those steps which led to the overthrow of the government and to all the terrible scenes which have followed.”57 Despite such disclaimers, Hamilton could not shake the pernicious stereotype that he always favored a large public debt. Jefferson told a friend about the public debt, “The only difference…between the two parties is that the republican one wish it could be paid tomorrow and the fiscal [Federalist] party wish it to be perpetual, because they find in it an engine for corrupting the legislator.”58

Debt was a legitimate concern, with an astounding 55 percent of federal expenditures being siphoned off to service it. Hamilton’s parting shot to Congress, his Report on a Plan for the Further Support of Public Credit, called the bluff of Republican opponents and laid out a program for extinguishing the public debt within thirty years. He wanted new taxes passed and old ones made permanent, and he showed painstakingly that he had striven to reduce debt as speedily as possible. He could not resist tweaking the whiskey insurgents by pointing out that any surplus produced by the excise tax on liquor was explicitly pledged to reducing public debt.

Hamilton’s proposals were rolled into a bill passed by Congress within little more than a month of his departure as treasury secretary. He was bothered by amendments proposed by Aaron Burr and others that he thought violated the spirit of his scheme. He told Rufus King that he was “haunted” by the action and railed against this “abominable assassination of the national honor.”59 He wondered why he cared so desperately about the fate of his adopted country and others seemingly so little.

To see the character of the government and the country so sported with, exposed to so indelible a blot, puts my heart to the torture. Am I then more of an American than those who drew their first breath on American ground? Or what is it that thus torments me at a circumstance so calmly viewed by almost everybody else? Am I a fool, a romantic Quixote, or is there a constitutional defect in the American mind? Were it not for yourself and a few others, I…would say…there is something in our climate which belittles every animal, human or brute…. I disclose to you without reserve the state of my mind. It is discontented and gloomy in the extreme. I consider the cause of good government as having been put to an issue and the verdict against it.60

In this melodramatic letter, Hamilton again gave way to despair about the American prospect. No longer constrained by the decorum of public life, he drew on this deep well of anger more often. There was a radical alienation inside Hamilton, a harrowing sense that he remained, on some level, a rootless outsider in America. In the end, Congress enacted Hamilton’s bill largely intact, rejecting the amendments proposed by Burr. Hamilton’s response had been disproportionate to the threat and showed a depressive streak, a chronic tendency to magnify problems. For a man so involved in public life, he was curiously unable to develop a self-protective shell.

Whatever his disappointments, Hamilton, forty, must have left Philadelphia with an immense feeling of accomplishment. The Whiskey Rebellion had been suppressed, the country’s finances flourished, and the investigation into his affairs had ended with a ringing exoneration. He had prevailed in almost every major program he had sponsored—whether the bank, assumption, funding the public debt, the tax system, the Customs Service, or the Coast Guard—despite years of complaints and bitter smears. John Quincy Adams later stated that his financial system “operated like enchantment for the restoration of public credit.”61 Bankrupt when Hamilton took office, the United States now enjoyed a credit rating equal to that of any European nation. He had laid the groundwork for both liberal democracy and capitalism and helped to transform the role of the president from passive administrator to active policy maker, creating the institutional scaffolding for America’s future emergence as a great power. He had demonstrated the creative uses of government and helped to weld the states irreversibly into one nation. He had also defended Washington’s administration more brilliantly than anyone else, articulating its constitutional underpinnings and enunciating key tenets of foreign policy. “We look in vain for a man who, in an equal space of time, has produced such direct and lasting effects upon our institutions and history,” Henry Cabot Lodge was to contend.62 Hamilton’s achievements were never matched because he was present at the government’s inception, when he could draw freely on a blank slate. If Washington was the father of the country and Madison the father of the Constitution, then Alexander Hamilton was surely the father of the American government.