Alexander Hamilton - Ron Chernow (2005)


As demonstrated by his leadership on the Jay Treaty, Hamilton was more than just the principal theorist of the Federalists. He was also their chief tactician and organizer, mobilizing the faithful through numberless letters, speeches, and writings. Most astounding of all, his political work formed just one portion of his demanding life, and perhaps not the most time-consuming one. “I am overwhelmed in professional business and have scarcely a moment for anything else,” he told Rufus King two years after leaving office.1 By common consent, he was New York’s premier lawyer, with an elite clientele that included the city of Albany and the state of New York. “He was employed in every important and every commercial case,” noted James Kent. “He was a very great favorite with the merchants of New York.”2 With so much lucrative work, he now earned three or four times his Treasury salary, but he did not aim to maximize his income. As Attorney General William Bradford once teased him, “I hear that…you will not even pick up money when it lies at your feet…. You were made for a statesman and politics will never be out of your head.”3

Often the political and legal sides of Hamilton’s life dovetailed. He handled many maritime-insurance cases stemming from the seizure of American ships by foreign powers. He also argued notable constitutional cases, finally traveling to Philadelphia in early 1796 to defend before the Supreme Court the constitutionality of the carriage tax he had introduced as treasury secretary. “He spoke for three hours,” said one newspaper, “and the whole of his argument was clear, impressive and classical.”4 The court approved Hamilton’s argument that this excise tax was legal and that Congress had power “over every species of taxable property, except exports.”5 The decision in Hylton v. United States not only endorsed Hamilton’s broad view of federal taxing power but represented the first time the Supreme Court ever ruled on the constitutionality of an act of Congress.

With his life engrossed by work, Hamilton had little leisure time left over for the scientific, scholarly, and artistic pursuits that embellished the days of Jefferson. He was chronically overworked and increasingly absentminded. Months after leaving office, he wrote to the Bank of the United States and admitted that he did not know his account balance because he had lost his bank book—this from the man who had created the bank. He did allow himself some vacation time. During the summer of 1795, he made a three-week journey to meet with Indian tribes at Cayuga Lake in upstate New York. From a sketchy journal he kept, it appears this was basically a business trip involving a land sale, enlivened by ceremonial meetings with tribal leaders. In the autumn of 1796, Hamilton spent five days hunting and riding horseback on Long Island with two friends, a trip that may have been therapy for medical problems. His old kidney disorder had flared up, forcing Hamilton to renounce champagne forever. “We got a few grouse and the ride restored Hamilton’s digestion,” reported his friend John Laurance. “He was not well.”6 This was the extent of Hamilton’s wanderlust. It is odd that the man who melded the nation so closely together through his fiscal policies never arranged a pleasure trip through the United States.

Hamilton’s failure to travel to Europe or even the south is explained partially by his workload, but his attachment to family may have been no less important. After his Long Island adventure, he rushed off to Albany to argue a case and wrote to Eliza from the Schuyler mansion, “I need not add that I am impatient to be restored to your bosom and to the presence of my beloved children. ’Tis hard that I should ever be obliged to quit you and them. God bless you my beloved…. Y[ou]rs. with unbounded Affec[tion] A Hamilton.”7 Hamilton wrote dozens of such tender notes to Eliza. Whatever his imperfections, he was a caring father and husband who often seemed anxious about the health and welfare of his family. Once the Maria Reynolds affair ended, he was not eager to leave Eliza and the children alone.

Alexander and Eliza continued their longtime practice of sheltering orphans. On October 1, 1795, George Washington Lafayette, son of the marquis, appeared incognito with a tutor in New York. Hamilton had never lost his affection for Lafayette, who he thought would recover his popularity in France after the Revolution faded, but the arrival of Lafayette’s son posed a thorny situation for George Washington. The marquis was still imprisoned by the Austrians at the Olmütz fortress, and young Lafayette wanted American help in freeing him. With his paternal regard for Lafayette, Washington dearly wanted to embrace his son, but the Jay Treaty furor made this a vexed question. Washington already stood accused of anti-French bias, and Lafayette, while a certified hero of the American Revolution, had been branded a traitor to the French one.

For Washington, suspended between his personal feelings and political necessity, it was an exquisitely painful predicament. Though he was inclined to have Hamilton send the two young men to Philadelphia, Hamilton thought it prudent to postpone this, and he took the two young Frenchmen into his home. “The President and Mrs. Washington would gladly have received them into their family,” Eliza recalled, “but state policy forbade it at that critical time. The lad and his tutor passed a whole summer with us.”8 Actually, it was the whole winter. For six months, the Hamiltons tried to cheer up the gaunt, melancholy youth before he was finally allowed to see Washington in April 1796 as the Jay Treaty crisis waned.

It was to be more than a year before Lafayette was released from prison and wrote to Washington after what he described as “five years of a deathlike silence from me.”9 Both thrilled and relieved, Hamilton wrote at length to Lafayette, assuring him that their friendship would “survive all revolutions and all vicissitudes…. No one feels more than I do the motives which this country has to love you, to desire and to promote your happiness. And I shall not love it, if it does not manifest the sensibility by unequivocal acts.” If Lafayette ever needed asylum in America, he would receive a cordial reception: “The only thing in which our parties agree is to love you.”10 Alexander Hamilton seldom used the word love three times in one letter.

The Republican demonizing of Alexander Hamilton only intensified after he left the Treasury Department. To opponents, he seemed able to manipulate the government from New York. That Hamilton came to exercise profound influence over the distant cabinet members is patent from his extensive correspondence with them. What is equally clear, however, is that he did not obtrude in some power-hungry, ham-handed fashion but was gradually invited into their deliberations.

A case in point is Hamilton’s relationship with his Treasury successor, Oliver Wolcott, Jr. As early as April 1795, Hamilton did volunteer to tutor Wolcott on how to maintain American credit, saying, “Write me as freely as you please.”11 Government expenses were growing, the deficit yawned wider, and Republicans grumbled. Hamilton was glad to retain this hidden influence, but it was Wolcott who solicited advice, as if Hamilton had never stopped being his boss, and he plied him with technical questions about everything from French privateers to government loans. In a single letter on June 18, Wolcott asked Hamilton seven complicated questions about fiscal management. He could not quite emerge from Hamilton’s shadow and at times struck an almost plaintive note: “Will you reply briefly to a few questions I lately stated. I care not how briefly. Your ideas upon a system projected essentially by you will enable me to proceed with less hesitation. Indeed I need some help. There is no comptroller here.”12 In another letter, Wolcott confessed, “The public affairs are certainly in a critical state. I do not clearly see how those of the Treasury are to be managed…. [I]ntimations from you will always be thankfully rec[eive]d.”13 Based on these queries, Hamilton may well have fancied himself an ex officio member of the administration. He was uniquely poised to render authoritative opinions on how policies had evolved in the new government.

In September 1795, Hamilton wrote deferentially to Washington, “I beg, Sir, that you will at no time have any scruple about commanding me.”14 Washington took full advantage of the offer. In late October, he asked Hamilton to help prepare his annual address to the opening session of Congress, and Hamilton drafted a speech as if he remained on the government payroll.

The crux of the problem was that Washington’s second generation of cabinet members was decidedly inferior to the first. Federalist William Plumer compared Hamilton and Wolcott: “The first was a prodigy of genius and of strict undeviating integrity. The last is an honest man, but his talents are immensely beneath those of his predecessor.”15 The same could be said of other cabinet officers. There was simply a dearth of qualified people for Washington to consult. The plague of partisan recriminations had already diminished the incentives for people to serve in government. Washington told Hamilton a woeful tale of trying to replace Edmund Randolph. “What am I to do for a Secretary of State?” he asked forlornly, noting that four people had already rejected the post. “I ask frankly and with solicitude and shall receive kindly any sentiments you may express on the occasion.”16 Washington asked Hamilton to sound out Rufus King, who became the fifth person to turn down the State Department job. Hamilton reported that King declined because of “the foul and venomous shafts of calumny” constantly shot at government officials.17

In the end, Washington settled upon his seventh pick, the crusty Timothy Pickering, a stern Federalist and unabashed Hamilton admirer. Like Wolcott, Pickering solicited Hamilton’s opinion regularly. When the secretary of war job descended to James McHenry, Hamilton’s old friend from Washington’s military family, Hamilton suddenly had three steadfast admirers in the cabinet. Its uniformly Federalist cast was no accident. Washington told Pickering that it would be “political suicide” to recruit anyone into his administration who was not prepared to support his programs wholeheartedly.18 He had learned his lesson with Jefferson and discarded the naïve belief that he could straddle both political factions. He was now more solidly aligned with the Federalists, and few of the prominent ones stood entirely outside of Hamilton’s extended social and intellectual coterie. James Madison, observing the stout phalanx of Hamiltonians surrounding the president, asked Jefferson rhetorically, “Through what official interstice can a ray of republican truths now penetrate to the President?”19

Washington was probably glad to be spared any further rays of Republican truth. In portraits done during his final years in office, he looks moody and irritable, devoid of serenity. His energy seems spent, his eyes are dully glazed, and his military carriage sags. He was suffering from an aching back, bad dentures, and rheumatism; visitors noted his haggard, careworn look. Scarred by Republican attacks, Washington found it hard to contain his rage. One reason that he decided to return to private life was that he no longer wished to be buffeted “in the public prints by a set of infamous scribblers.”20

Washington’s decision to forgo a third term was momentous. He wasn’t bound by term limits, and many Americans expected him to serve for life. He surrendered power in a world where leaders had always grabbed for more. Stepping down was the most majestic democratic response he could have flung at his Republican critics. Toward the end of his first term, he had asked James Madison to draft a farewell address and then stashed it away when he decided on a second term. Now, in the spring of 1796, he unearthed that draft. As at the close of the American Revolution, Washington wanted to make a valedictory statement that would codify some enduring principles in American political life. To update Madison’s draft, he turned to Hamilton. Washington no longer felt obliged to restrain his affection for his protégé and now sent Hamilton handwritten notes marked “Private.” He increasingly treated him as a peer and warm friend, and Hamilton responded with gratitude.

There was piquant irony in Washington asking Hamilton—who had espoused a perpetual president at the Constitutional Convention—to draft the farewell address. Hamilton would now help to embed in American politics a tradition of presidents leaving office after a maximum of two terms, a precedent that remained unbroken until Franklin Roosevelt. In mid-May 1796, Washington sent Hamilton a rough draft, which consisted of Madison’s speech and a section that Washington had appended to reflect the “considerable changes” wrought by the past four years, especially in foreign affairs.21 He invited Hamilton, if he thought it best, to discard the old speech and “to throw the whole into a different form.”22 Washington wanted Hamilton to make the style plain and avoid personal references and controversial expressions. The goal was to create a timeless document that would elevate Americans above the partisan sniping that had disfigured public life. Usually the hotheaded one, Hamilton deleted some splenetic lines that Washington had slipped in about newspapers filled “with all the invective that disappointment, ignorance of facts, and malicious falsehoods could invent to misrepresent my politics.”23

Hamilton tackled the task with exemplary energy, giving depth and scope and sterling expression to the overarching themes listed by Washington. That summer, he prepared two documents for Washington. One was a reworking of the Madison-Washington draft and the other his own version of the speech. Washington preferred the latter, which became the basis of the final product. But the president was bothered by the length of Hamilton’s draft; he had envisioned something elegant and concise, which could fit into a newspaper. “All the columns of a large gazette would scarcely, I conceive, contain the present draught,” he told Hamilton.24 By now a seasoned ghostwriter, Hamilton speedily pruned his draft to a more compact size. Washington and Hamilton honed and polished the speech until it had a uniformly authoritative voice. Occasionally, Hamiltonian thunder rumbled through the prose, as in the ranting line that factions can become “potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.”25 In general, however, their two voices blended admirably together. The result was a literary miracle. If Hamilton was the major wordsmith, Washington was the tutelary spirit and final arbiter of what went in. The poignant opening section in which Washington thanked the American people could never have been written by Hamilton alone. Conversely, the soaring central section, with its sophisticated perspective on policy matters, showed Hamilton’s unmistakable stamp.

It is difficult to disentangle the contributions of Washington and Hamilton because their ideas overlapped on many issues. Both men were still smarting over the Jay Treaty dispute and livid at reports that France might send an envoy and a fleet to demand its immediate repeal. Were it not for domestic acrimony over the treaty, Washington told Hamilton, he would tell the French bluntly, “We are an independent nation and act for ourselves. Having fulfilled…our engagements with other nations and having decided on and strictly observed a neutral conduct towards the belligerent powers…we will not be dictated to by the politics of any nation under heaven farther than treaties require of us.”26 The farewell address sprang from this recent experience.

As its centerpiece, the farewell address called for American neutrality, shorn of names and party labels. Hamilton’s words, however, were saturated with arguments that he had used to promote the Jay Treaty. Beneath its impartial air, the farewell address took dead aim at the Jeffersonian romance with France. When Hamilton implied that it was folly for one nation to expect disinterested favors from another, he restated an old argument against Jefferson: that France had aided America during the Revolution only to harm England. When Hamilton sounded the great theme that the United States should steer clear of permanent foreign alliances—“That nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave”—he echoed his earlier statements about Republicans betraying a reflexive hatred of England and adoration of France.27 Even his comments on the need for religion and morality, slightly altered in the final version, arose from his horror at the “atheistic” French Revolution: “Religion and morality are essential props. In vain does that man claim the praise of patriotism who labours to subvert or undermine these great pillars of human happiness.”28

The domestic portion of the address was a digest of ideas that Hamilton had advanced under Washington’s aegis. Hamilton expressed an urgent plea for preserving the union and enumerated various threats. He cited the danger of domestic factions, which could become vehicles for unscrupulous men; urged a vigorous central government to protect liberty; stressed public credit and the need to control deficits; and invoked the sacred duty of obeying the Constitution. In a country riven by quarrels, Hamilton produced a vision of harmonious parts. Agriculture and commerce were mutually beneficial. North and south, the western frontier and the eastern seaboard, enjoyed complementary economies. The only thing needed to capitalize on these strengths was national unity.

The farewell address was meant to be printed, not spoken, and Washington consulted Hamilton about the optimal time and place for publication. On September 19, 1796, it appeared in Claypoole’s American Daily Advertiser, and it was then reprinted in newspapers across the country. It can be read two ways: as a dispassionate statement of American principles and as a thinly disguised attack on the Republicans. With consummate artistry, Washington and Hamilton had extracted general themes from particular debates about the Jay Treaty, the Whiskey Rebellion, and other events and endowed them with universal meaning. Over time, the underlying events have faded away, lending the aphorisms an oracular quality. The arguments for neutrality and a foreign policy based on national interests became especially influential. “It was the first statement, comprehensive and authoritative at the same time, of the principles of American foreign policy,” Felix Gilbert has written.29 A century later, as the document evolved into a canonical text, Congress read the speech aloud each year on Washington’s birthday.

Though contemporary Americans hailed the address, the Republican reaction was venomous and unwittingly underscored its urgent plea for unity. One newspaper denounced Washington’s words as “the loathings of a sick mind.”30 In the Aurora, Benjamin Franklin Bache dredged up the old wives’ tale that Washington had conspired with the British during the Revolution. Bache also gave prominent play to an open letter to Washington from Thomas Paine, the author of Common Sense, expressing the hope that Washington would die and telling him that “the world will be puzzled to decide whether you are an apostate or an impostor, whether you have abandoned good principles or whether you ever had any.”31

Though never humble, Hamilton could be self-effacing in serving Washington and his country. Only a handful of intimates—Eliza, Robert Troup, and John Jay among them—knew that he had crafted the president’s address. Fired by a sense that Hamilton had been denied credit, Eliza often recollected the composition of the address. More than forty years later, she testified that Hamilton had written it

principally at such time as his office was seldom frequented by his clients and visitors and during the absence of his students to avoid interruption; at which times he was in the habit of calling me to sit with him that he might read to me as he wrote, in order, as he said, to discover how it sounded upon the ear and making the remark, “My dear Eliza, you must be to me what Moliere’s old nurse was to him.” [Molière was popularly reported to have tested dramatic speeches on his old nurse to get her reaction.] The whole or nearly all the “Address” was read to me by him as he wrote it and a greater part, if not all, was written by him in my presence.32

After the farewell address appeared, it was sold widely in pamphlet form. Eliza cherished the memory of strolling down Broadway with her husband when an old soldier accosted them and tried to sell them a copy. After buying one, Hamilton said laughingly to Eliza, “That man does not know he has asked me to purchase my own work.”33

Hamilton’s central role also stayed a well-kept secret because Washington’s admirers feared its disclosure might detract from the ex-president’s Olympian stature. They perhaps succeeded too well. After Hamilton’s death, his draft of the farewell address and all related correspondence with Washington were entrusted to Rufus King. In the 1820s, Eliza and her sons had to file a lawsuit to retrieve the documents from King, who relinquished them only reluctantly. Later, Eliza recorded her memories of the events surrounding the farewell address so “that my children should be fully acquainted with the services rendered by their father to our country and the assistance given by him to General Washington during his administration for the one great object: the independence and stability of the government of the United States.”34

For all the strife surrounding his time in office, historians now routinely rank George Washington with Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt as one of the three outstanding American presidents. Washington left a legacy of prosperity, neutrality, sound public credit, stable government, and a viable constitution. As the resident policy genius of the administration, Hamilton deserves a large share of the accolades. Why, then, was he not a presidential candidate in 1796 or beyond? He had the advantage of being a major Federalist—perhaps the major Federalist—at a time when party elites chose presidential candidates. Nevertheless, Hamilton gave no hint that he or anybody else envisioned him as Washington’s successor, and he never received a single electoral vote in a presidential contest.

How to explain the paradox that a man of such unbounded talent and ambition never attained the top office or even made a covert run for it? Surely he must have wanted to be president. The conundrum can be solved partly by noting that the political stars were never suitably aligned for Hamilton. Obviously, he could not have challenged Washington for the presidency, and, as John Adams correctly told Abigail, “I am the heir apparent.”35 Hamilton himself had stated that Adams, Jefferson, and Jay, by virtue of their seniority, were seen as presumptive presidential contenders. Also, Hamilton left the government determined to repair his finances and refurbish his legal practice. Moreover, by then he was so controversial, so divisive, that the mere mention of his name could trigger debates. Adored by his followers, he was seen as cocky, conceited, and swaggering by his enemies.

Other reasons account for Hamilton’s failure to snatch the prize. Though blessed with a great executive mind and a consummate policy maker, Hamilton could never master the smooth restraint of a mature politician. His conception of leadership was noble but limiting: the true statesman defied the wishes of the people, if necessary, and shook them from wishful thinking and complacency. Hamilton lived in a world of moral absolutes and was not especially prone to compromise or consensus building. Where Washington and Jefferson had a gift for voicing the hopes of ordinary people, Hamilton had no special interest in echoing popular preferences. Much too avowedly elitist to become president, he lacked what Woodrow Wilson defined as an essential ingredient for political leadership: “profound sympathy with those whom he leads—a sympathy which is insight—an insight which is of the heart rather than of the intellect.”36 Alexander Hamilton enjoyed no such mystic bond with the American people. This may have been why Madison was so adamant that “Hamilton never could have got in” as president.37

A baser reason may explain Hamilton’s reluctance to stand for the presidency. During the 1796 election, Noah Webster, then a Federalist editor, suggested in his newspaper, The Minerva, that Hamilton might be an appropriate presidential candidate. According to scandalmonger James T. Callender, an unnamed Republican saw this and dispatched an emissary to New York, who confronted Hamilton to “inform him that if Webster should in future print a single paragraph on that head,” the Maria Reynolds papers would instantly “be laid before the world. It is believed the message was delivered to Mr. Hamilton for the Minerva became silent.”38

While Hamilton knew he would not succeed Washington, he wasn’t about to play a passive role in 1796, the first contested presidential race in American history and the first dominated by parties. At the time, it was still considered crass for candidates to campaign or violate the charade of passivity, and this magnified the influence of party leaders. Madison began to agitate for Jefferson, who let his friend carry the burden. Similarly, the Federalist front-runner, John Adams, declared, “I am determined to be a silent spectator of the silly and wicked game.”39

At first, Hamilton told a correspondent that his one overriding goal was to stop Thomas Jefferson from becoming president: “All personal and partial considerations must be discarded and everything must give way to the great object of excluding Jefferson.”40 He even toyed with backing Patrick Henry, who had grown estranged from Virginia Republicans and might erode support for Jefferson in the south, where Federalists were weak. When Henry refused to run, Hamilton turned to another dark-horse southerner, Thomas Pinckney, a wartime hero and former governor of South Carolina, who had served as an American diplomat in Spain and England.

Hamilton’s support for Pinckney’s candidacy set him on a collision course with Adams, who regarded himself as the legitimate successor to the presidency. There was a vague understanding among Federalists that Adams would be the presidential and Pinckney the vice presidential candidate. Hamilton’s unspoken preference for Pinckney was not immediately apparent because under the old constitutional rules electors did not distinguish between their votes for president and vice president. Some Federalists planned to withhold votes from Pinckney to insure that Adams became president, leaving Hamilton with a haunting fear that Jefferson might accidentally become president or vice president. (We recall his similar fear that Washington might be denied the first presidency by accident.) As a party chieftain, Hamilton stuck to his official position that Federalist electors should cast their votes equally for Adams and Pinckney. This surface neutrality, however, was really a stratagem to elect Pinckney as president. Since Pinckney was the stronger candidate in the south, if he managed to tie Adams in the north, he would roll up more total votes.

Hamilton bet on the wrong horse, a mistake that would haunt the rest of his career. As treasury secretary, he had only limited contact with John Adams, who was excluded from the inner policy circle. The two men had maintained a wary distance. Hamilton later said that by the time Washington left office, “men of principal influence in the Federal party” began to “entertain serious doubts about [Adams’s] fitness” for the presidency because of his temperament. Yet Adams’s “pretensions in several respects were so strong that, after mature reflection, they thought it better to indulge their hopes than to listen to their fears.”41

George Washington, who “consulted much, pondered much, resolved slowly, resolved surely,” was Hamilton’s ideal of presidential temperament.42 John Adams, by contrast, was fiery and dyspeptic, as volatile as Washington was steady. Hamilton contrasted Pinckney’s “far more discreet and conciliatory” personality to “the disgusting egotism, the distempered jealousy, and the ungovernable discretion” of John Adams.43 These observations, written later, probably expressed reservations that Hamilton harbored in more muted form at the time.

At first, Adams did not suspect Hamilton’s duplicity in the campaign. He told friends that Hamilton genuinely feared that his own weakness as a presidential candidate might elect Jefferson and that Hamilton supported Pinckney as an alternative only in case he himself could not win. When Jefferson wrote to warn Adams that “you may be cheated of your succession by a trick worthy [of] the subtlety of your arch-friend of New York,” Madison persuaded Jefferson not to send the letter, lest it be interpreted as a crude effort to stir up dissension among Federalists.44 In late December, however, Elbridge Gerry presented Adams with evidence from Aaron Burr, the self-promoting Republican favorite for vice president, that exposed Hamilton’s quiet efforts to elect Pinckney ahead of Adams. Both John and Abigail Adams were shocked. “‘Beware that spare Cassius’ has always occurred to me when I have seen that cock sparrow,” Abigail told her husband of Hamilton. “I have ever kept my eye on him.”

“I shall take no more notice of his puppyhood,” John replied, “but return to him the same conduct that I always did—that is, to keep him at a distance.”45 This was Adams’s opening volley in an unending stream of abuse against Hamilton, whom he termed “as great a hypocrite as any in the U.S. His intrigues in the election I despise.”46 He thought Hamilton had championed Pinckney as somebody more pliant to his own ambitions, someone who would create “an army of horse and foot with Mr. Hamilton at their head.”47 Madison likewise thought that Hamilton feared that someone such as Adams was “too headstrong to be a fit puppet” for his “intrigues behind the screen.”48Adams’s wrath against Hamilton was understandable, but he immediately stooped to personal insults and called Hamilton a “Creole bastard.”49 Such scurrilous comments about Hamilton persisted throughout Adams’s presidency and inflamed the already tense situation between the two men.

On October 15, 1796, John Beckley, the House clerk, alerted James Madison to a string of essays launched under the signature “Phocion” in the Gazette of the United States. Beckley divined that Hamilton was the author and guessed his dual intent: to denigrate Jefferson as a presidential candidate and tepidly endorse Adams. Between October 14 and November 24, the voluble Phocion published twenty-five installments of election commentary. Although John Adams also identified Hamilton as the author, these essays have inexplicably been omitted from Hamilton’s collected papers and biographies. They are not only unmistakably Hamiltonian in style—mocking, brilliant, prolix, bombastic, sometimes hairsplitting—but also characteristic in their obsession with Jefferson and the sanguinary turmoil of the French Revolution. Hamilton made little effort to conceal his identity, quoting earlier things he had written almost verbatim—a rare case of Hamilton cannibalizing his own work. For instance, writing as Catullus on September 29, 1792, Hamilton had called Jefferson a “Caesar coyly refusing the proferred diadem” and said he was “tenaciously grasping the substance of imperial domination.”50 Now, Phocion likened Jefferson to a proto-Caesar who had “coyly refused the proffered diadem” while “tenaciously grasping the substance of imperial domination.”51Once again, Hamilton portrayed Jefferson as a closet voluptuary hiding behind the garb of Republican simplicity.

Phocion reviewed Jefferson’s career from the time when, as Virginia governor, he had fled from British troops. Hamilton detected similar cowardice in Jefferson’s departure from Washington’s cabinet at a moment of national danger. “How different was the conduct of the spirited and truly patriotic HAMILTON?” Hamilton asked, almost advertising his presence. “He wished to retire as much as the philosopher of Monticello. He had a large family and his little fortune was fast melting away in the expensive metropolis. But with a Roman’s spirit he declared that, much as he wished for retirement, yet he would remain at his post as long as there was any danger of his country being involved in war.”52

The Phocion essays contain the most withering critique that Hamilton ever leveled at Jefferson as a slaveholder, and they hint heavily at knowledge of the Sally Hemings affair. Visitors to Monticello noted the many light-skinned slaves in residence, especially the Hemings family. One such visitor in 1786, the comte de Volney, expressed astonishment in his journal: “But I was amazed to see children as white as I was called blacks and treated as such.”53 In theory, Jefferson could have fathered all of Sally Hemings’s children. Fawn M. Brodie has written, “Jefferson was not only not ‘distant’ from Sally Hemings but in the same house nine months before the births of each of her seven children and she conceived no children when he was not there.”54 Jefferson freed only two slaves in his lifetime and another five in his will, and all belonged to the Hemings family, though he excluded Sally. On her deathbed, Sally Hemings told her son Madison that he and his siblings were Jefferson’s children. In 1998, DNA tests confirmed that Jefferson (or some male in his family) had likely fathered at least one of Sally Hemings’s children, Eston. Reading between the lines of “Phocion,” one surmises that Hamilton knew all about Sally Hemings, quite possibly from Angelica Church.

In the first “Phocion” essay, Hamilton listed eight virtues claimed for Jefferson and demolished each in turn. Was Jefferson a good moral philosopher? Hamilton replied with sarcasm: “If it can be shown that he has disapproved of the cruelties which have stained the French revolution…his qualities as a good moral philosopher would be valuable ingredients in the character of the President of the United States.”55 Had Jefferson made discoveries in the useful arts? Hamilton drolly evoked an airy philosopher at Monticello “impaling butterflies and insects and contriving turn-about chairs for the benefit of his fellow citizens and mankind in general.56 But Hamilton was just warming up for his real indictment of Jefferson as a hypocritical slaveholder. He observed that in Notes on the State of Virginia, written in the early 1780s, Jefferson had argued for emancipating Virginia’s slaves and shipping them elsewhere—“exported to some less friendly region where they might all be murdered or reduced to a more wretched state of slavery.”57 He ridiculed Jefferson’s pseudoscientific belief that blacks were genetically inferior to whites. In Notes,Jefferson had said of blacks, “They secrete less by the kidneys and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odour.”58 Hamilton further quoted him: “The first difference which strikes us is that of colour: whether the black of the negro resides in the reticular membrane between the skin and the scarf skin [epidermis], or in the scarf skin itself. Whether it proceeds from the colour of the blood or the colour of the bile or from that of some other secretion, the difference is fixed in nature and is as real as if the cause were better known to us.”59

Hamilton taunted Jefferson about holding contradictory beliefs on race, saying that he could not make up his mind whether slaves belonged to the human race or not, with the result that he ranked blacks as “a peculiar race of animals below man and above the orangutan… a high kind of brute hitherto undescribed.”60 This referred to a passage in Notes in which Jefferson said that blacks favored the beauty of whites over their own kind and cited “the preferences of the Orangutan for the black woman over those of his own species.”61 (Orangutan also denoted the “wild man of the woods” in the Malay language.) Hamilton then touched on the subject that he must have known Jefferson would dread above all others: sexual relations between masters and slaves.

At one moment he [Jefferson] is anxious to emancipate the blacks to vindicate the liberty of the human race. At another he discovers that the blacks are of a different race from the human race and therefore, when emancipated, they must be instantly removed beyond the reach of mixture lest he (or she) should stain the blood of his (or her) master, not recollecting what from his situation and other circumstances he ought to have recollected—that this mixturemay take place while the negro remains in slavery. He must have seen all around him sufficient marks of this staining of blood to have been convinced that retaining them in slavery would not prevent it.62

It is this last suggestion that seems to betoken knowledge of Sally Hemings.

Until this point, one can applaud Hamilton for satirizing Jefferson’s bigotry and raising taboo issues about his sexual behavior that were otherwise to slumber for two centuries. Unfortunately, the further one digs into the “Phocion” essays, the more apparent it becomes that Hamilton was engaging in devious manipulation of the southern vote. He was trying to turn southern slaveholders against Jefferson by asking whether they wanted a president who “promulgates his approbation of a speedy emancipation of their slaves.”63 Hamilton was trying to have it both ways. As an abolitionist, he wanted to expose Jefferson’s disingenuous sympathy for the slaves. As a Federalist, he wanted to frighten slaveholders into thinking that Jefferson might act on that sympathy and emancipate their slaves.

When Phocion turned to John Adams, the Massachusetts patriot appeared to great advantage compared to Jefferson. Hamilton paid Adams a mighty compliment, describing him as “a citizen pre-eminent for his early, intrepid, faithful, persevering, and comprehensively useful services, a man pure and unspotted in private life, a patriot having a high and solid title to the esteem, the gratitude, and the confidence of his fellow citizens.”64 (In September 1792, Hamilton had written as Catullus that Adams was “preeminent for his early, intrepid, faithful, persevering, and comprehensively useful services to his country, a man pure and unspotted in private life, a citizen having a high and solid title to the esteem, the gratitude and the confidence of his fellow citizens.)65 He cited thirty years of unblemished public conduct and said the Jeffersonian press had distorted Adams’s political writings, trying to convert him into a monarchist. “For my own part,” Hamilton concluded, “were I a Southern planter, owning negroes, I should be ten thousand times more alarmed at Mr. Jefferson’s ardent wish for emancipation than at Mr. Adams’s system of checks and balances.”66

At first glance, Hamilton’s paean to Adams suggests an unqualified endorsement and seems fully consistent with Hamilton’s stated position that Federalists should vote equally for Adams and Pinckney. Nonetheless, one wonders whether there was not a subtle strategy here to sabotage Adams. Hamilton knew that if he could prompt southern slaveholders to desert Jefferson over emancipation, they would opt not for Adams, an abolitionist, but for Thomas Pinckney of South Carolina. There was no way that invoking the slavery issue could assist Adams in the south, where he needed the votes.

When the ballots were counted in February 1797, the outcome was a split ticket. Adams became president with seventy-one electoral votes and Jefferson vice president with sixty-eight. Pinckney received fifty-nine votes and Burr, making a miserable showing in the south, only thirty. Renegade electors in New England had reversed Hamilton’s strategy and denied Pinckney eighteen votes. The New England states had voted solidly for Adams, while the south went for Jefferson. Adams had been prepared to resign if he was only reelected as vice president or subjected to the indignity of a tie vote that threw the election into the House of Representatives. He regarded his thin victory as also a blow to his pride, however, and blamed it on followers of Hamilton and Jefferson. “As both parties despaired of obtaining their favorite,” he later wrote with self-pity, “Adams was brought in by a miserable majority of one or two votes, with the deliberate intention to sacrifice him at the next election. His administration was therefore never supported by either party, but vilified and libelled by both.”67 He blamed Hamilton more than Jefferson for this slim margin and spent the next four years trying to punish him.

Jefferson did not especially mind winning second place. Since resigning as secretary of state, he had been in isolation at his mountain fastness at Monticello. “From 1793 to 1797, I remained closely at home, saw none but those who came there, and at length became very sensible of the ill effect it had on my own mind…. [I]t led to an anti-social and misanthropic state of mind,” he told his daughter.68 With his unerring sense of timing, Jefferson did not think the moment auspicious for a Republican president. Troubles were still brewing with France, and he was happy to let Adams bear the brunt. Sure that the wheel of history would soon turn in his favor, the prescient Jefferson counseled patience to Madison.

Many Republicans preferred President Adams to Washington, if only because of his distance from Hamilton. The Jeffersonian Aurora celebrated Adams’s anticipated victory with an implicit swipe at Washington and Hamilton: “There can be no doubt that Adams would not be a puppet—that having an opinion and judgment of his own, he would act from his own impulses rather than the impulses of others.”69 Similarly, Jefferson welcomed an Adams presidency as “perhaps the only sure barrier against Hamilton’s getting in.”70 Though currently estranged from Adams, Jefferson had been dear friends with him and Abigail in Paris, and once the election was over he sought to ingratiate himself with the president-elect and turn him against Hamilton by dwelling on the latter’s election machinations. “There is reason to believe that [Adams] is detached from Hamilton and there is a possibility he may swerve from his politics,” he told one confidant.71 Hamilton studiously monitored the attempted rapprochement between Adams and Jefferson. “Mr. Adams is President, Mr. Jefferson Vice President,” he reported to Rufus King, now the American minister in London. “Our Jacobins say they are well pleased and that the lion and the lamb are to lie down together.”72 Hamilton was skeptical about this truce, seeing Jefferson as too wedded to ideology to make compromises.

Hamilton received fair warning that Adams intended to retaliate for his disloyalty during the election. That January, Hamilton was laid up with an injured leg that resulted from serving on nocturnal patrols that sought to stop a rash of mysterious fires in New York—fires that may have been related to slave revolts. Stephen Higginson of Boston told Hamilton that the “blind or devoted partisans of Mr. Adams” were accusing him of leading a cabal that had tried to swing the election for Thomas Pinckney. “At the head of this junto, as they call it, they place you and Mr. Jay and they attribute the design to him and you of excluding” Adams from the presidency.73 Hamilton thus went from unmatched access to President Washington to total exclusion from President Adams. Given his belief in Hamilton’s treachery, Adams made the seemingly contradictory decision to retain Washington’s cabinet, which was filled with Hamilton’s friends, admirers, and former colleagues. Adams was to come to regret that decision as much as any other he made in office.