Alexander Hamilton - Ron Chernow (2005)


After Hamilton and his family left Philadelphia in mid-February 1795, they rented lodgings in New York City for several days before proceeding to the Schuyler residence in Albany for a long-overdue rest. Hamilton found it hard to retrieve his privacy. He was lionized by New York’s merchant community, which treated him to a hero’s homecoming. In late February, the Chamber of Commerce feted him at a huge dinner attended by two hundred people, “the rooms not being large enough to accommodate more,” one newspaper noted.1 It was a merry, boisterous affair, with toasts offered impartially to both commerce and agriculture. Hamilton received nine cheers, compared to three apiece for Washington and Adams. With New York about to overtake Philadelphia and Boston as America’s main seaport, Hamilton was saluted as the patron saint of local prosperity. In his toast, Hamilton paid homage to local businessmen: “The merchants of New York: may they never cease to have honor for their commander, skill for their pilot, and success for their port.”2 Two weeks later, Mayor Richard Varick awarded Hamilton the freedom of the city—a form of honorary citizenship. In the manner of many immigrants who found thriving new identities in New York City, Hamilton had developed a special feeling for his adopted home. “Among the precious testimonies I have received of the approbation of my immediate fellow citizens,” he told Varick, “none is more acceptable or more flattering to me than that which I now acknowledge.”3

After Hamilton left the government, the English artist James Sharples did a sensitive pastel of him in profile that shows that, despite his tireless exertions in Philadelphia and the lethal broadsides hurled by the Jeffersonians, he still exuded good humor. Sharples captured an alert man with keenly observant eyes and an amused air of high spirits. He has a pointed chin, a long, slightly irregular nose, and a receding hairline. Whatever the underlying depths of despair, Hamilton was still very much in his prime and able to project a long career ahead of him.

The news of his resignation unleashed speculation about his future. Cynics perceived deep cunning in his stepping down as treasury secretary, a desire to succeed Washington as president. Detractors and admirers could not conceive that he intended to try private life for a while. When Governor Clinton announced in January that he would not run for reelection, the press pegged Hamilton as a gubernatorial prospect, maybe with his old boss Nicholas Cruger as lieutenant governor. Hamilton instructed Philip Schuyler to dampen this speculation, much of it, he thought, motivated by a wish to present him as a man of irrepressible ambition. When one New York attorney asked Hamilton if he could float his name for governor, he did not answer but appended his own private memo to the message: “This letter was probably written with some ill design. I keep it without answer as a clue to future events. A. H.”4 This self-protective action says much about the suspicious atmosphere of the day.

The plain truth was that Hamilton was indebted and needed money badly. This alone refuted accusations that he had been a venal official. If Hamilton had a vice, it was clearly a craving for power, not money, and he left public office much poorer than he entered it. Having taken care of the nation’s finances, he had told Angelica Church, “I go to take a little care of my own, which need my care not a little.”5 He planned “to resign my political family and set seriously about the care of my private family.”6 As treasury secretary, Hamilton had made $3,500 per year, which fell far short of the expenses of his burgeoning family and of what he might have earned as an attorney. He owned little more than his household furniture and estimated it would take five or six years of steady work to repay his debts and replenish his finances. Because such indebtedness did not square with Jeffersonian orthodoxy, it had to be denied. After Hamilton resigned, Madison wrote to Jefferson, saying peevishly of Hamilton, “It is pompously announced in the newspaper that poverty drives him back to the bar for a livelihood.”7

Hamilton was frank about his financial travails. George Washington Parke Custis, the president’s adopted grandson, told how Hamilton appeared at the presidential mansion after tendering his resignation. Washington’s staff was there when Hamilton smilingly entered. “Congratulate me, my good friends,” he announced, “for I am no longer a public man. The president has at length consented to accept my resignation and I am once more a private citizen.” Hamilton, noting their dismay, explained, “I am not worth exceeding five hundred dollars in the world. My slender fortune and the best years of my life have been devoted to the service of my adopted country. A rising family hath its claims.” Hamilton then picked up a slim volume on the table and turned it over in his hands. “Ah, this is the constitution,” he said. “Now, mark my words. So long as we are a young and virtuous people, this instrument will bind us together in mutual interests, mutual welfare, and mutual happiness. But when we become old and corrupt, it will bind us no longer.8 This queasy view of America’s future guaranteed that Hamilton wouldn’t just bask in the afterglow of his Treasury success and would return to politics.

Having grown up with insecurity, Hamilton was not immune to the attractions of wealth and wanted to live comfortably, but he had no desire to acquire a fortune by unethical means and gave dramatic proof of this after leaving office. When he returned to New York, he was contacted by his old classmate Robert Troup, who had been “in the habit of lending him [Hamilton] small sums of money to answer current family calls” while he was treasury secretary.9 The affable Troup had prospered as an agent for a leading real-estate promoter, Charles Williamson, who represented some wealthy British investors in American land. In late March 1795, Troup urged Hamilton to join a scheme for purchasing property in the old Northwest Territory: “No event will contribute more to my happiness than to be instrumental in making a man of fortune—I may say—a gentleman of you. For such is the present insolence of the world that hardly any man is treated like a gentleman unless his fortune enables him to live at his ease.”10 Troup then added that the law would wear down Hamilton and leave him, a decade later, unable to support his family.

If Hamilton lusted for money, here was his chance: a dear friend fairly panted to make him rich by legitimate means. Instead, though touched by Troup’s concern, Hamilton wrote him a gracious letter and declined the invitation. That Williamson represented foreigners weighed in his decision because he foresaw “a great crisis in the affairs of mankind” and wanted to be free of any overseas involvement. Hamilton feared that the terrors of the French Revolution might soon be visited upon America, guillotines and all, and that he himself might be condemned by a revolutionary tribunal. “The game to be played may be a most important one,” he told Troup. “It may be for nothing less than true liberty, property, order, religion and, of course, heads. I will try Troup, if possible, to guard yours and mine.” He didn’t need to live “in splendor in town” if he could “at least live in comfort in the country and I am content to do so.”11 Thus Hamilton renounced his chance at fortune. He did accept a legal retainer from Charles Williamson but did not take part in the land deal.

Hamilton spent most of that spring with Eliza and the children in Albany, while shuttling back and forth to a small temporary home and office at 63 Pine Street in Manhattan. He had fleeting reveries about making his first trip to Europe—it would have been his first outside the country since arriving in North America—but opted to spend this precious time with his family. Liberated from official duties, he seemed more lighthearted than he had in years and took an insouciant tone with Eliza. One day, when he failed to book the stagecoach to Albany in time, he told her, “I must therefore take my chance by water, which I shall do tomorrow and must content myself with praying for a fair wind to waft me speedily to the bosom of my beloved.”12 In May, Hamilton even took a weeklong vacation, riding with his friend Henry Glen all the way from Schenectady, New York, to the Susquehanna River and back. Hamilton could not relax for long, however, and by summer he was back in the city, attending to a blue-ribbon clientele that included many eminent New York names. From this base in lower Manhattan, Hamilton would not be as distant from national politics in Philadelphia as geography alone might have suggested.

Hamilton’s vacation from American politics was so transient that few people could have noticed. While taking on a full legal calendar, he did not slacken the pace of his essay writing and dove into the first great controversy following his resignation: the furor over the Jay Treaty. No sooner had John Jay arrived in London the previous summer than Hamilton’s personal ambassador, Angelica Church, had taken him in hand and invited him to her soirees. Like other powerful males, Jay was taken with Church, telling Hamilton, “She certainly is an amiable, agreeable woman.”13 As he made the social rounds and received a cordial reception, Jay knew that the treaty he would negotiate could ignite a firestorm back home. He warned Hamilton that “we must not make a delusive settlement that would disunite our people and leave seeds of discord to germinate.”14

Hamilton was still in office when the draft of the so-called Jay Treaty with England arrived in Philadelphia. Jefferson claimed that when Hamilton first set eyes on it, he criticized it privately as “execrable” and “an old woman’s treaty.”15 Whether true or not, Hamilton gave the draft treaty a coolly perspicacious review and protested to Secretary of State Edmund Randolph that article 12 placed too many restrictions on American trade with the British West Indies.

Jay signed the final version on November 19, 1794. Refusing to brave the North Atlantic in winter, he remained in England until the spring, while the official version of his treaty preceded him to Philadelphia on March 7, 1795. It was not the sort of document calculated to gladden American hearts, and Washington decided to cloak it in “impenetrable secrecy,” as Madison termed it.16 Possibly because he was an ardent abolitionist, Jay had not pressed England to make good on compensation for slaves carried off at the close of the Revolution. Nor did he obtain satisfaction for American sailors abducted by the British Navy. Americans had expected him to uphold the traditional prerogatives of a neutral power in wartime, but he seemed to have bargained this away too. Most heinous of all to Republicans, Jay had granted British imports most-favored-nation status, while England made no equivalent concessions for American imports. Jay had secured some small but notable victories. Britain agreed to evacuate its northwest forts, to allow arbitration for American merchants whose cargo had been seized, and to grant limited access to the West Indies for small American ships. For the Jeffersonians, the Jay Treaty represented, in its rawest form, a Federalist capitulation to British hegemony and a betrayal of the historic alliance with France.

From the Federalist perspective, however, Jay had attained something of surpassing importance. He had won peace with Britain at a time when war seemed suicidal for an ill-prepared America. By aligning the country’s fortunes with the leading naval power, Jay had also guaranteed access to overseas markets for American trade. Joseph Ellis has written of the treaty, “It linked American security and economic development to the British fleet, which provided a protective shield of incalculable value throughout the nineteenth century.”17

Soon after Jay returned to America in late May, Washington summoned a special session of the Senate to debate his treaty behind closed doors. Hamilton expressed extreme anxiety about the outcome. “The common opinion among men of business of all descriptions,” he told Rufus King, “is that a disagreement to the treaty would greatly shock and stagnate pecuniary plans and operations in general.”18 Rather than renewing negotiations with England, Hamilton wanted the Senate to predicate approval on deleting the noxious article 12. Senate opposition was spearheaded by Aaron Burr, who wanted “the value of the Negroes and other property” carried off after the Revolution to “be paid for by the British government.”19 He indicated objections to ten other articles as well. Overriding Burr, the Senate narrowly passed the Jay Treaty on June 24 with the proviso that article 12 be partly suspended.

Worried about popular reaction to the treaty, Washington still withheld the text from public scrutiny. Hamilton was eager for it to be printed, if only to allay exaggerated fears, and so advised Washington. On July 1, the full text, leaked by a Republican senator, appeared in a Philadelphia newspaper and created a hullabaloo such as American politics had never seen. Madison said the galvanic effect was “like an electric velocity” imparted “to every part of the Union.”20 Jay surfaced as the new scapegoat for Republican wrath. He had just resigned as first chief justice of the Supreme Court—Hamilton rebuffed an overture to replace him—and had been elected, in absentia, New York’s governor, with Hamilton’s brother-in-law, Stephen Van Rensselaer, as lieutenant governor. Jay was attacked with peculiar venom. Near his New York home, the walls of a building were defaced with the gigantic words, “Damn John Jay. Damn everyone that won’t damn John Jay. Damn everyone that won’t put up lights in the windows and sit up all night damning John Jay.”21

The Jay Treaty resurrected the vengeful emotions called forth by the Citizen Genêt contretemps two years earlier. “No international treaty was ever more passionately denounced in the United States,” Elkins and McKitrick have written, “though the benefits which flowed from it were actually considerable.”22 The popular fury that swept city after city again disclosed the chasm separating the two main political factions. On the Fourth of July, Jay was burned in effigy in so many cities that he said he could have walked the length of America by the glow from his own flaming figure. For Hamilton, these protests confirmed his premonition that Jeffersonians were really Jacobin fanatics in diguise. On July 14, Charleston citizens celebrated Bastille Day by dragging the Union Jack through the streets then setting it ablaze in front of the British consul’s house.

The capital was shaken by raucous demonstrations reminiscent of revolutionary Paris, albeit without royalist heads skewered on pikes. Oliver Wolcott, Jr., recorded one such scene: “The treaty was thrown to the populace, who placed it on a pole. A company of about three hundred then proceeded to the French minister’s house before which some ceremony was performed. The mob then went before Mr. [George] Hammond’s house and burned the treaty with huzzahs and acclamations.”23 John Adams was aghast and later recollected Washington’s residence being “surrounded by an innumerable multitude from day to day, buzzing, demanding war against England, cursing Washington, and crying success to the French patriots and virtuous Republicans.”24

Thus far, Hamilton had generally hesitated to intrude upon his former cabinet colleagues and kept a salutary distance. Now his views were solicited by Washington—with his encyclopedic knowledge of trade and other issues, Hamilton was not easily replaced. Fully aware that the Jay Treaty was bound to be unpopular among Republicans, Washington at least wished to be convinced of its merits in his own mind and know how best to defend it. On July 3, he had sent Hamilton a letter marked “Private and perfectly confidential,” asking him to evaluate the treaty. He laid on the flattery pretty thick, praising Hamilton for having studied trade policy “scientifically upon a large and comprehensive scale.”25 Washington apologized for distracting Hamilton from his law practice and said he should refuse the request if he was too busy. Washington must have smiled as he wrote this, knowing Hamilton would deliver a formidable critique at the earliest opportunity. Indeed, on July 9, 10, and 11, Hamilton shipped to Washington, in three thick chunks, a detailed analysis of the treaty. He approved of the first ten articles, dealing with issues from the 1783 peace treaty. He again condemned article 12, restricting American trade with the West Indies, and reserved harsh words for article 18, with its absurdly long list of contraband goods that could be seized by Britain from American ships. The overwhelming message of the Jay Treaty, however, was benign and irresistible: peace for America. “With peace, the force of circumstances will enable us to make our way sufficiently fast in trade. War at this time would give a serious wound to our growth and prosperity.”26

Washington was thunderstruck when he received Hamilton’s treatise so promptly. He expressed sincere thanks, adding, “I am really ashamed when I behold the trouble it has given you to explore and to explain so fully as you have done.”27 Washington quibbled with Hamilton on one or two points but otherwise stood in perfect agreement. His letter to Hamilton again corroborates what the Jeffersonians found difficult to credit: that Washington never shied away from differing with the redoubtable Hamilton but agreed with him on the vast majority of issues.

After Alexander Hamilton left the Treasury Department, he lost the strong, restraining hand of George Washington and the invaluable sense of tact and proportion that went with it. First as aide-de-camp and then as treasury secretary, Hamilton had been forced, as Washington’s representative, to take on some of his decorum. Now that he was no longer subordinate to Washington, Hamilton was even quicker to perceive threats, issue challenges, and take a high-handed tone in controversies. Some vital layer of inhibition disappeared.

This was first seen in Hamilton’s crusade for the Jay Treaty. Despite Senate passage, Washington had not yet affixed his signature to it. The battle over the treaty became more than a routine political clash for Hamilton. He fought as if it were a political Armageddon that would decide America’s fate. That summer he saw himself as in the midst of a quasi-revolutionary atmosphere in New York. The French tricolor even flapped above the Tontine Coffee House, gathering place of the merchant elite. In his more fearful moments, Hamilton envisaged Jeffersonian tumbrels carting him and other Federalists off to homegrown guillotines. “We have some cause to suspect, though not enough to believe, that our Jacobins meditate serious mischief to certain individuals,” Hamilton wrote confidentially to Oliver Wolcott, Jr. “It happens that the militia of this city, from the complexion of its officers in general, cannot be depended on…. In this situation, our eyes turn as a resource in as udden emergency upon the military now in the forts.”28

It was increasingly difficult for Hamilton to trust the sincerity of his opponents, whom he viewed as a malignant force set to destroy him. Early in the spring, Commodore James Nicholson—the father-in-law of Albert Gallatin, a friend of Aaron Burr, and the former president of New York’s Democratic club—had leveled vicious accusations against him. Nicholson claimed that Hamilton, as treasury secretary, had stashed away one hundred thousand pounds sterling in a London bank—the clear insinuation being that Hamilton had both profited from public office and connived with the British. One of Hamilton’s friends, taking umbrage at this slander, demanded proof. The unruffled Nicholson replied that he would disclose his source only if Hamilton called upon him. “No call has, however, been made from that time to this,” John Beckley informed Madison, as if this constituted proof of Hamilton’s guilt. “Nicholson informed me of these particulars himself and added that, if Hamilton’s name is at any time brought up as a candidate for any public office, he will instantly publish the circumstance.”29 That Republicans could swallow such nonsense as gospel truth suggests that Hamilton did not entirely dream up the conspiracies ranged against him.

The altercation with Nicholson formed the backdrop to some extraordinary events that unfolded in mid-July 1795. For several days, New York City was saturated with handbills urging citizens to gather at City Hall (Federal Hall) at noon on July 18 “to deliberate upon the proper mode of communicating to the President their disapprobation of the English treaty.”30 Boston citizens had issued a blanket condemnation of the Jay Treaty, and Hamilton feared a bandwagon effect. Already leaders of the Democratic clubs were delivering heated antitreaty speeches on Manhattan street corners. To devise ways to blunt the gathering, the business community summoned a meeting at the Tontine Coffee House on the night of the seventeenth at which Hamilton and Rufus King endorsed the Jay Treaty. They appealed to supporters to show up at City Hall the next day and stage a counter-demonstration.

As the clock tolled twelve the next day, Hamilton took up a position on the stoop of an old Dutch building on the west side of Broad Street, right across from City Hall. More than five thousand people had squeezed into the intersection where George Washington had taken the oath as president in 1789. But the scene of concord six years earlier now witnessed one of the uglier clashes in the early republic. From his stoop, Hamilton shouted out and demanded to know who had convened the meeting. The irate crowd shouted back in response, “Let us have a chairman.”31 Colonel William S. Smith, John Adams’s son-in-law, was chosen and presided from the balcony of City Hall. Peter R. Livingston began to speak against the Jay Treaty, but he was brusquely interrupted by Hamilton, who questioned his right to speak first. When a vote was taken, the vast majority of those present favored Livingston, who resumed his oration. But there was so much heckling, such a tremendous din of voices, that Livingston could not be heard, and he suggested to treaty opponents that they move down Wall Street toward Trinity Church.

Not all treaty critics drifted away, however, and about five hundred listened in a surly mood as Hamilton began his ringing defense. According to one newspaper, Hamilton stressed “the necessity of a full discussion before the citizens could form their opinions. Very few sentences, however, could be heard on account of hissings, coughings, and hootings, which entirely prevented his proceeding.”32 This was a remarkable spectacle: the former treasury secretary had descended from Mount Olympus to expose himself to street hecklers. John Church Hamilton contends that when his father asked the demonstrators to show respect, he was greeted “by a volley of stones, one of which struck his forehead. When bowing, he remarked, ‘If you use such knock-down arguments, I must retire.’”33 Federalist Seth Johnson confirmed the tale: “Stones were thrown at Mr. Hamilton, one of which grazed his head,” while another indignant Federalist said that the “Jacobins were prudent to endeavour to knock out Hamilton’s brains to reduce him to an equality with themselves.”34 Before long, treaty opponents stormed down to the Battery, formed a circle, and ceremonially burned a copy of the Jay Treaty. When Jefferson heard about Hamilton being stoned in the street, he didn’t react with horror or sadness; rather, he was elated, telling Madison that “the Livingstonians appealed to stones and clubs and beat him and his party off the ground.”35 Evidently, Jefferson thought this would delight the author of the Bill of Rights.

For a man of his stature, Hamilton had suffered the ultimate indignity. The opposition had turned into the faceless rabble he had feared. On the other hand, his own behavior had been provocative and unbecoming. When he told “friends of order” to follow him down the block, only a small number complied. It was at this moment that Hamilton and his entourage came upon a shouting match in the street between a Federalist lawyer, Josiah Ogden Hoffman, and the same Commodore James Nicholson who had smeared Hamilton months earlier. When Hamilton intervened to stop the quarrel, he was insulted anew by Nicholson, who called him an “abettor of Tories” and told him he had no right to interrupt them. Hamilton tried to herd the feuding men indoors. Nicholson then said that he didn’t need to listen to Hamilton and accused him of having once evaded a duel. These were incendiary words for any gentleman. “No man could affirm that with truth,” Hamilton retorted, and he “pledged himself to convince Mr. Nicholson of his mistake” by calling him to a duel at a more suitable time and place.36

Hamilton wasn’t through with his swaggering performance. After leaving Nicholson, he and his followers stopped by the front door of Edward Livingston—the youngest brother of Chancellor Robert R. Livingston, a later mayor of New York, and a man Hamilton called “rash, foolish, intemperate, and obstinate”—where Hoffman and Peter Livingston were locked in a nasty verbal scuffle over the Jay Treaty.37 The discussion grew more heated until Edward Livingston and Rufus King begged the men to settle their quarrel elsewhere. “Hamilton then stepped forward,” Edward Livingston later said, “declaring that if the parties were to contend in a personal way, he was ready, that he would fight the whole party one by one. I was just beginning to speak to him on the subject [of] this imprudent declaration when he turned from me, threw up his arm and declared that he was ready to fight the whole ‘detestable faction’ one by one.”38 Livingston thought Hamilton must have been “mortified at his loss of influence before he would descend [to] language that would have become a street bully.”39 This was truly amazing 'font-size:8.0pt;font-family:"Times New Roman",serif;color:black'>40 Hamilton confessed that he already had another duel on his hands but would get around to Livingston once he had disposed of Nicholson. Evidently, Hamilton had no concerns about issuing two deadly challenges in quick succession. Vigilant as ever about his reputation, he knew how to exploit such affairs of honor to face down his enemies.

The Republican newspaper, The Argus, called for another large protest rally against the Jay Treaty two days later. This huge meeting passed a resolution against the treaty, an action duplicated by protest rallies in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Charleston. It was a horrendously busy week for Hamilton, who was supposed to defend before the Supreme Court the legality of a tax on carriages that he had instituted as treasury secretary. (In the end, the case wasn’t argued until February.) Two days after their encounter, Hamilton stung Commodore Nicholson with a letter proposing a duel a week later: “The unprovoked rudeness and insult which I experienced from you on Saturday leaves me no option but that of a meeting with you, the object of which you will readily understand.”41 Hamilton didn’t leave room for an apology and proceeded straight to a challenge. His old friend Nicholas Fish, drafted as his second, delivered the letter to Nicholson. Within minutes, the impulsive Nicholson scratched out a reply, accepting the duel and asking that it take place the next morning. He claimed that his family would be upset by any delay and that word might leak out. In a series of faintly mocking replies—“I should hope that it will be easy for you to quiet the alarm in your family”—Hamilton insisted that he was too busy to duel before the following Monday.42 He adopted the brisk tone of an important man irritated by having to negotiate with an inferior. From the tone of this exchange, one can tell that Hamilton felt fully in charge and free to needle Nicholson at will.

For several days, their seconds scurried back and forth, trying to work out a settlement. In all likelihood, Hamilton thought Nicholson was bluffing and would back down. But Hamilton took the prospect of a duel seriously enough that he named Troup executor of his estate and wrote him a letter that would serve as a revised will. Hamilton was especially concerned about a sheaf of personal papers that he had stowed in a leather trunk and marked “JR. To be forwarded to Oliver Wolcott Junr. Esq.43 Presumably, the “JR” referred to James Reynolds, with Wolcott charged if need be with the safekeeping of the correspondence related to the Reynolds affair.

The 1795 will sheds light on other mysteries, including Hamilton’s relationship with his father, who had moved to St. Vincent five years earlier. They had never entirely lost touch and now exchanged stilted, intermittent letters through couriers. James Hamilton ended one letter to his famous son with his “respectful compliments to Mrs. Hamilton and your children,” whom he had still never met.44 James Hamilton had borrowed seven hundred dollars from his son. Hamilton now worried that, if he died in a duel, his creditors might seek to recover money from his aging father. Hamilton told Troup that he had considered giving his father special protection from creditors, then decided against it:

I hesitated whether I would not also secure a preference to the drafts of my father. But these, as far as I am concerned, being a merely voluntary engagement, I doubted the justice of the measure and I have done nothing. I regret it lest they should return upon him and increase his distress. Though, as I am informed, a man of respectable connections in Scotland, he became bankrupt as a merchant at an early day in the West Indies and is now in indigence. I have pressed him to come to me, but his great age and infirmity have deterred him from the change of climate.45

Hamilton seemed to repress some unspoken hostility here—there is pity but no warmth in the description—as he leaves his father to the tender mercies of his creditors. Though now free of Treasury duties, Hamilton never expressed a wish to visit his aging father in St. Vincent.

The will again belies Jeffersonian fantasies that Hamilton had reaped a fortune from government service and had salted away embezzled funds in a British bank. Hamilton told Troup that he owed five thousand pounds to his brother-in-law, John Barker Church, and that he feared he was insolvent: “For after a life of labor, I leave my family to the benevolence of others, if my course shall happen to be terminated here.”46 In the event that he died in debt, Hamilton said that he trusted to the “friendship and generosity” of John Barker Church.47

In the end, Hamilton tinkered with the apology that he wanted Nicholson to make, and Nicholas Fish got him to sign it pretty much verbatim. As for the second duel that Hamilton broached on July 18, he got Maturin Livingston to deny that he had ever cast aspersions on his manhood or accused him of cowardice. Hamilton had prevailed in the two affairs of honor arising from the Jay Treaty protests, but at what price? He had shown a grievous lack of judgment in allowing free rein to his combative instincts. Without Washington’s guidance or public responsibility, he had again revealed a blazing, ungovernable temper that was unworthy of him and rendered him less effective. He also revealed anew that the man who had helped to forge a new structure of law and justice for American society remained mired in the old-fashioned world of blood feuds. When it came to intensely personal conflicts, New York’s most famous lawyer still turned instinctively not to the courtroom, but to the dueling ground.

Four days after confronting his Jay Treaty foes in the streets, Hamilton took to the public prints. Republicans had chipped away at the treaty behind Roman names—whether Robert R. Livingston writing as “Cato” or Brockholst Livingston as “Decius” and “Cinna”—and Hamilton commenced a ferocious counterattack called “The Defence.” Over a period of nearly six months, he published twenty-eight glittering essays, strengthening his claim as arguably the foremost political pamphleteer in American history. As with The Federalist Papers, “The Defence” spilled out at a torrid pace, sometimes two or three essays per week. In all, Hamilton poured forth nearly one hundred thousand words even as he kept up a full-time legal practice. This compilation, dashed off in the heat of controversy, was to stand as yet another magnum opus in his canon.

Like The Federalist, “The Defence” was conceived as a collaboration. Hamilton planned to handle the first section of the Jay Treaty, which dealt with violations of the 1783 peace treaty, writing twenty-eight articles in all. Rufus King contributed another ten on the commercial and maritime articles. Governor Jay stayed in touch with both men but refrained from adding to their output. “Jay was also to have written a concluding peroration,” John Adams told Abigail, “but being always a little lazy, and perhaps concluding that it might be most politic to keep his name out of it, and perhaps finding that the work was already well done, he neglected it. This I have from King’s own mouth.”48

Hamilton employed a daring strategy used before, publishing the first twenty-one essays deep in enemy territory: the pages of The Argus, which had printed Robert R. Livingston’s “Cato” essays. For his nom de guerre, Hamilton picked “Camillus,” from Plutarch’s Lives. This Roman general was a perfect symbol: a wise, virtuous man who was sorely misunderstood by his people, who did not see that he had their highest interests at heart. The fearless Camillus expressed unpalatable truths and was finally exiled for his candor. He was vindicated when he was recalled from banishment to rescue his city, which was endangered by the Gauls. The choice of pen name tells us much about how Hamilton viewed himself and what he perceived as a lack of appreciation by his fellow citizens.

As usual, Hamilton wrote like a man possessed, showing drafts to James Kent, who marveled that even under deadline pressure Hamilton did not stint on scholarship: “Several of the essays of Camillus were communicated to me before they were printed and my attention was attracted…to the habit of thorough, precise, and authentic research which accompanied all his investigations. He was not content, for instance, with examining Grotius and taking him as an authority in any other than the original Latin.”49

In his first essay on July 22, Hamilton attacked the motives of the Jay Treaty opponents—what he saw as their desire to subvert the Constitution, embroil the United States in war on France’s side, and install one of their own as president: “There are three persons prominent in the public eye as the successor of the actual president of the United States in the event of his retreat from the station: Mr. Adams, Mr. Jay, Mr. Jefferson.”50 By discrediting the treaty, Hamilton averred, Republican critics hoped to destroy Jay as a presidential candidate. Since Adams was also a Federalist, Hamilton clearly implied that the hue and cry over the treaty was a stratagem to further Jefferson’s presidential ambitions. Interestingly enough, after reading this first issue, Washington wrote an approving note from Mount Vernon: “To judge of this work from the first number, which I have seen, I augur well of the performance, and shall expect to see the subject handled in a clear, distinct, and satisfactory manner.”51

Washington had complained of the treaty being distorted by “tortured interpretation” and “abominable misrepresentations,” and so Hamilton reviewed each article in turn.52 First, however, he wanted to address the larger political context. The specter of war with Britain was real, and Hamilton dreaded the demolition of his economic program. “Our trade, navigation, and mercantile capital would be essentially destroyed” if war came, he warned.53 He excoriated the Republicans as “our war party” and pleaded that the young nation required an interval of peace. The United States was “the embryo of a great empire,” and the European powers, if given half a chance, would happily stamp out this republican experiment: “If there be a foreign power, which sees with envy or ill will our growing prosperity, that power must discern that our infancy is the time for clipping our wings.”54 Better to negotiate than to engage in premature war with England. In the “Defence” essays, we see the restrained, pacific side of Hamilton, who turned to war only as a last resort in case of direct aggression or national humiliation.

Hamilton was not content to write as Camillus alone. Two days after his second essay appeared, he began to publish, in the same paper, a parallel series as “Philo Camillus.” For several weeks, Philo Camillus indulged in extravagant praise of Camillus and kept up a running attack on their Republican adversaries. The prolific Hamilton was now writing pseudonymous commentaries on his own pseudonymous essays. He also tossed in two trenchant essays under the name “Horatius” in which he accused Jeffersonians of “a servile and criminal subserviency to the views of France.”55 During this frenetic period, Hamilton found time to stop by political gatherings. At one meeting at the Assembly Room on William Street, he warned his followers that “unless the treaty was ratified, we might expect a foreign war, and if it is ratified, we might expect a civil war.56 Hamilton was not alone in worrying that civil turmoil could erupt. From Philadelphia, Treasury Secretary Wolcott reported, “I think we shall have no dangerous riots, but one month will determine the fate of our country.”57 In the third “Defence,” Hamilton portrayed his opponents in the blackest colors: “If we suppose them sincere, we must often pity their ignorance; if insincere, we must abhor the spirit of deception which it betrays.”58 Contrary to his usual image, Hamilton paid homage to the ability of the common people to resist such deceptions and said that they would disappoint those “who, treating them as children, fancy that sugar plums and toys will be sufficient to gain their confidence and attachment.”59

In reviewing the 1783 peace treaty, Hamilton noted that the Jay Treaty would create a bilateral commission to arbitrate disputes over debt, the British seizure of American ships, and the boundaries between America and Canada. He claimed that the only article that Britain refused to honor was payment of compensation for nearly three thousand former slaves, and he thought it foolish to risk the treaty over this issue. This uncompromising abolitionist wrote that “the abandonment of negroes, who had been promised freedom, to bondage and slavery would be odious and immoral.”60 Hamilton also made the courageous but still taboo argument that the United States as well as England had violated the peace treaty. As to whether the Jay Treaty would create an “alliance” with Great Britain, Hamilton described this as “an insult to the understandings of the people to call it by such a name.”61 He was being disingenuous, however, when he said that the treaty would not bind the United States more closely to Great Britain and suggested that a commercial treaty lacked political implications. There was a deeply emotional coloring to Hamilton’s pro-British views that he could not admit and that often clashed with his image as the cool-eyed exponent of Realpolitik. In much the same way, his detestation of France was fueled by moral outrage as well as a sober assessment of U.S. interests. Madison was certain that the treaty would undercut U.S. neutrality: “I dread in the ratification…an immediate rupture with France…. I dread a war with France as a signal for a civil war at home.”62

Critics said that Jay had given away everything in his treaty and gotten little in return. Hamilton countered that Britain had made significant concessions, modifying her old “system of colonial monopoly and exclusion” and granting concessions to America that no other country had won.63 He thought these would lead to a burst of American trading abroad. Bold, cosmopolitan, and self-confident, Hamilton thought the United States had nothing to fear from commercial engagement with the rest of the planet. “The maxims of the U[nited] States have hitherto favoured a free intercourse with all the world,” he wrote. “They have conceived that they had nothing to fear from the unrestrained competition of commercial enterprise and have only desired to be admitted to it upon equal terms.”64

By the time Hamilton completed eight “Defence” and three “Philo Camillus” essays, President Washington had signed the Jay Treaty in mid-August 1795 despite a steady drumbeat of press criticism. At first the treaty’s prospects had looked poor, but the American economy was booming from British trade while French trade had dropped by more than half since the Bastille was stormed in 1789. With the treaty approved, Hamilton did not rest his pen. If anything, its passage gave his “Defence” essays extra weight as an authoritative exposition.

Hamilton had become the treaty’s undisputed champion. Fisher Ames thought he was so far superior to his Republican critics that he had squandered his talents in writing “The Defence”: “Jove’s eagle holds his bolts in his talons and hurls them, not at the Titans, but at sparrows and mice.”65 Though of a different political persuasion, Jefferson agreed that the Republicans had provided no effective antidote to Hamilton’s poison. It was a difficult time for Jefferson, who was suffering from rheumatism at Monticello. He was reading the “Defence” series, forwarded to him by John Beckley, with mounting upset. He feared that Hamilton was winning the argument, and by September 21 he could stand it no longer. Once again, he turned to Madison as his proxy. In so doing, Jefferson gave voice to the sheer terror that Hamilton’s intellect inspired in him and paid his foe one of the supreme left-handed tributes in American history. He told Madison:

Hamilton is really a colossus to the anti-republican party. Without numbers, he is an host [i.e., an army or multitude] within himself. They have got themselves into a defile, where they might be finished. But too much security on the Republican part will give time to his talents and indefatigableness to extricate them. We have had only middling performances to oppose to him. In truth, when he comes forward, there is nobody but yourself who can meet him.66

Before Jefferson requested his aid, Madison had been cocky in his critique of Hamilton’s performance, stating that “Camillus…if I mistake not will be betrayed by his anglomany into arguments as vicious and vulnerable as the treaty itself.”67 Now that Jefferson asked him to rebut those arguments, Madison beat a hasty retreat from the challenge.

While Madison shrank from verbal jousting with Hamilton, he continued to wage a vigorous legislative campaign against the Jay Treaty. He did so by pouncing upon an interpretation of the Constitution so unorthodox as to provoke a full-blown constitutional crisis. Back in the distant days when they had coauthored The Federalist Papers, Madison and Hamilton had jointly explained why the Constitution gave the Senate—with its long terms, learned members, and institutional memory—the sole power to ratify treaties. Now Madison found it expedient to argue that approval of the Jay Treaty fell within the bailiwick of the House of Representatives as well, because it had the power to regulate commerce. Of this astonishing proposition, biographer Garry Wills has noted that it was more than a “loose construction” of the Constitution: “It amounted to reversal of its plain sense.”68

Once upon a time, Jefferson had applauded the notion that the populist House would retain power over money matters while foreign affairs would be assigned to the more patrician Senate. Eager to scotch the treaty, he now altered his position: “I trust the popular branch of our legislature will disapprove of it and thus rid us of this infamous act.”69

Hamilton considered the legislative threat to the Jay Treaty as tantamount to a House veto—something that would fundamentally alter the balance of power in the American system. Fortunately, Hamilton was in an excellent position to resume his protreaty crusade. Rufus King had just completed his “Defence” essays dealing with the commercial side of the treaty, allowing Hamilton to cap the series by tackling the new constitutional issues. In early January, he devoted the last two essays of “The Defence” to exposing the absurdity of letting the House scrap a treaty. If such a precedent was established, the “president, with the advice and consent of the Senate, can make neither a treaty of commerce nor alliance and rarely, if at all, a treaty of peace. It is probable that, on minute analysis, there is scarcely any species of treaty which would not clash, in some particular, with the principle of those objections.”70 If Madison’s novel argument stood, the federal government would be unable to manage relations with foreign countries and would have to cede such authority to a squabbling, pontificating Congress.

The young country seemed to face another clash on basic governance issues, another battle over the true meaning of the Constitution. Led by Madison, the Republicans seemed willing to hazard all to kill the treaty. John Adams told Abigail that the “business of the country…stands still…. [A]ll is absorbed by the debates.” If the Republicans remained “desperate and unreasonable,” he warned, “this Constitution cannot stand…. I see nothing but a dissolution of government and immediate war.”71 Under the shadow of this impasse, business slowed, prices fell, and imports declined.

In pushing the treaty, the major asset that the Federalists possessed was still George Washington, the unifying figure in American life. For Jefferson, Federalism was a spent force sustained only by the president’s unique stature. Hence, Republicans decided that the time had come to shatter the taboo about criticizing Washington, and they declared open season on him. Once again, the Republican press drew a facile equation between executive power and the British monarchy. On December 26, 1795, Philip Freneau wrote that Washington wanted to enact the Jay Treaty to elevate himself to a king: “His wishes (through the treaty) will be gratified with a hereditary monarchy and a House of Lords.”72 This sort of vicious abuse, once reserved for Alexander Hamilton, was now directed at the venerable Washington. The president heard rumors that Jefferson was leading a whispering campaign that portrayed him as a senile old bumbler and easy prey for Hamilton and his monarchist conspirators. Jefferson kept denying to Washington that he was the source of such offensive remarks. Joseph Ellis has commented, however, “The historical record makes it perfectly clear, to be sure, that Jefferson was orchestrating the campaign of vilification, which had its chief base of operations in Virginia and its headquarters at Monticello.”73

In the early days of Washington’s presidency, James Madison had been his most trusted adviser and confidant. Now in early March 1796, Madison risked an unalterable break with Washington by supporting a congressional demand that the president turn over the private instructions given to Jay to guide his negotiations—instructions that Hamilton had largely assembled. Hamilton, outraged, urged Washington to protect the confidentiality of these executive discussions; being Hamilton, he listed thirteen compelling reasons for such executive privilege. If Madison prevailed, it would set a precedent that “will be fatal to the negotiating power of the government, if it is to be a matter of course for a call of either House of Congress to bring forth all the communications, however confidential.”74 Hamilton’s position toughened in coming weeks, and by late March he advised Washington that he should send no reply whatever to the House and “resist in totality.”75 If the House gained the power to nullify a treaty, Hamilton warned, it would destroy executive power and erect “upon its ruins a legislative omnipotence.”76 Hamilton and Madison were again pitted in a fundamental contest over whether the executive or legislative branch would run American foreign policy.

Hamilton was relieved when Washington denied Congress the treaty instructions. With this request spurned, Madison and House Republicans vowed to starve the treaty by blocking appropriations needed to implement it. Hamilton wanted Washington to deliver a solemn protest to Congress, citing “the certainty of a deep wound to our character with foreign nations and essential destruction of their confidence in the government.”77 Partly at Hamilton’s instigation, the Federalists organized meetings of merchants and circulated petitions to promote the treaty. “We must seize and carry along with us the public opinion,” Hamilton told Rufus King.78 A tremendous outpouring of popular feeling arose on both sides of the issue, and mass rallies in many cities culminated in pro or con resolutions. When a demonstration against the treaty was called for the Common in New York City—the same public space where Hamilton had made his dramatic debut as a student orator—he sent a broadside to be distributed to those attending. He invoked the glorious wartime service of Washington, Jay, and others who now stood accused of selling their souls to England: “Can you, I ask, believe that all these men have [of] a sudden become the tools of Great Britain and traitors to their country?”79

At first, Madison had been energized by the sense of a congressional majority backing him, but the Federalist campaign slowly whittled down this strength. Adams noted the toll on a shaken Madison. “Mr. Madison looks worried to death. Pale, withered, haggard.”80 On April 30, 1796, Federalists eked out a razor-thin victory of fifty-one to forty-eight in the House to make money available for the Jay Treaty. Hamilton’s “Defence” essays may well have tipped the balance. Biographer Broadus Mitchell concluded, “It is a fair inference that Hamilton’s arguments for the treaty made the difference between acceptance and rejection.”81 For Madison, the vote confirmed Washington’s power and the success of scare tactics employed by the Federalists. Always searching for sinister cabals, Madison also believed that northern merchants and banks had bought the vote, though it was probably the general prosperity spawned by trade with England that enlisted the sympathies of ordinary citizens.

Wrangling over the Jay Treaty cost Madison his friendship with Washington. Washington was so indignant at what he regarded as Madison’s duplicity that he unearthed the secret minutes from the Constitutional Convention and showed how the framers, Madison included, had refused to give the House the power to thwart the executive branch in making treaties. Madison was sure that Hamilton had goaded Washington into this “improper and indelicate act,” though it was actually Washington’s own doing.82 Washington never forgave Madison, never sought his counsel again, and never invited him back to Mount Vernon. It was a crushing defeat for the short, erudite Republican leader. Federalist pamphleteer William Cobbett gloated of Madison, “As a politician he is no more. He is absolutely deceased, cold, stiff and buried in oblivion for ever and ever.”83 Jefferson likewise refused to concede that the treaty had passed on its merit or because of Hamilton’s inspired advocacy; he credited the Federalist victory to the prestige of Washington, “the one man who outweighs them all in influence over the people.”84

Increasingly disillusioned with both Jefferson and Madison, Washington felt a corresponding warmth toward Hamilton. Even though he was no longer in the cabinet, Hamilton was still the one who helped Washington to reconcile political imperatives with constitutional law. The two men had won a great victory together: they had established forever the principle of executive-branch leadership in foreign policy. Shortly before the House vote on the treaty, Washington thanked Hamilton “for the pains you have been at to investigate the subject” and assured him of “the warmth of my friendship and of the affectionate regard” in which he held him.85 Washington had never expressed friendship for Hamilton so fervently before. For Hamilton, the Jay Treaty victory represented the culmination of his work with Washington. By settling all outstanding issues left over from the Revolution, the treaty removed the last impediments to improved relations with England and promised sustained prosperity.