Alexander Hamilton - Ron Chernow (2005)


It was ironic that John Adams, like Hamilton, was denigrated as a monarchist, because he grew up without the patrician comforts enjoyed by Jefferson and Madison, who were the quickest to apply the epithet against him. He was born in Braintree, Massachusetts, to a father who toiled as a farmer in summer and as a shoemaker in winter. Though his family lacked wealth, it boasted a proud ancestry, tracing its roots back to Puritans who had emigrated from England in the 1630s: “My father, grandfather, great grandfather, and great, great grandfather were all inhabitants of Braintree and all independent country gentlemen.”1

Adams was schooled in the ascetic virtues of Puritan New England: thrift, hard work, self-criticism, public service, plain talk, and a morbid dread of ostentation. As a young man, he wrote, “A puffy, vain, conceited conversation never fails to bring a man into contempt, although his natural endowments be ever so great and his application and industry ever so intense.”2 Much of his life’s drama arose from the intense, often fitful, sometimes tormenting struggle to measure up to his own impossibly high standards, and he never entirely made peace with his own craving for fame and recognition.

After a formal education that began at age six, Adams entered Harvard at fifteen, the first in his family to attend college. He briefly taught school in Worcester, then turned to law as the most promising career route. In 1764, he married Abigail Smith, a smart, sharp-tongued minister’s daughter with a passion for politics and books. Abigail Adams tended the farm and raised the children while John roamed the world on diplomatic missions. Before Hamilton had arrived in North America, Adams had fought against the Stamp Act and defended British soldiers accused of killing five colonists in the so-called Boston Massacre of 1770. This legal work displayed a perverse streak of independence in Adams that ranked among his most attractive qualities. He was a born gadfly, always skeptical of reigning orthodoxy. Like Hamilton, he was an ambivalent revolutionary, appalled by the repressive measures of the British Crown but unsettled by the disorder of the rebel colonists. He always had a vivid sense of how easily righteous causes could degenerate into mob excess. Before independence, he asked himself what “the multitude, the vulgar, the herd, the rabble, the mob” would do if the colonists flouted royal authority. “I feel unutterable anxiety,” he confessed to his diary.3

At the Continental Congress, John Adams emerged as the most impassioned voice for independence, leaping to his feet in rich bursts of oratory. All the while, this feisty, rough-hewn lawyer brooded about potential anarchy. “There is one thing, my dear sir, that must be attempted and most sacredly observed or we are all undone,” he told a friend in 1776. “There must be decency and respect and veneration introduced for persons of authority of every rank.”4 His dedication in Congress was prodigious: he sat on ninety congressional committees, chairing twenty-five of them. He also laid claim to having been the main talent scout of the Revolution, touting Washington as commander of the Continental Army and recruiting Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence. Somehow, Adams also found time to draft a constitution for Massachusetts and publish a pamphlet, Thoughts on Government,which influenced other state constitutions.

Adams served his country with sustained diplomatic assignments in London, Paris, and Amsterdam. In 1782, he coaxed the Dutch into recognizing the United States and cajoled a two-million-dollar loan from Amsterdam bankers. His Paris stay brought him into close contact with both Franklin and Jefferson. Adams could not match their social graces and was “quite out of his element,” fretted his friend Jonathan Sewall: “He cannot dance, drink, game, flatter, promise, dress, swear with the gentlemen, and talk small talk or flirt with the ladies.”5 In addition, Franklin’s blithe hedonism offended the austere New England soul of John Adams. “His whole life has been one continued insult to good manners and to decency,” Adams complained.6 Franklin’s fame in France was a blow to Adams’s amour propre, his sense that he was the superior man.

Franklin himself captured Adams with a penetrating epigram: “He means well for his country, is always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes, and in some things, absolutely out of his senses.”7 Franklin was one of the first to spot the paranoid streak that came to mar Adams’s career. In 1783, he grumbled about the “ravings” of Adams, who suspected him and the comte de Vergennes, the French foreign minister, “of plots against him which have no existence but in his own troubled imaginations.”8 In a similar vein, Bernard Bailyn later observed of Adams: “Sensitive to insults, imaginary and real, he felt the world was generally hostile, to himself and to the American cause, which was the greatest passion of his life. There were enemies on all sides.”9

The prickly Adams developed a tender affection for Jefferson, albeit one mingled with an uneasy sense of his unfathomable mystery. No less than Hamilton, Adams perceived that Jefferson, behind the facade of philosophic tranquillity, was “eaten to a honeycomb” with ambition.10 Jefferson, in turn, detected traces of the curmudgeon in Adams. “He hates Franklin, he hates Jay, he hates the French, he hates the English,” he told Madison from Paris. “To whom will he adhere? His vanity is a lineament in his character which had entirely escaped me.”11 Four years later, Jefferson sent Madison a more potent version of this same critique, calling Adams “vain, irritable, and a bad calculator of the force and probable effect of the motives which govern men.”12 For all that, Jefferson appreciated Adams as a warmhearted, convivial spirit, a fascinating conversationalist, and a man of bedrock integrity. Their relationship had foundered in 1791 when Jefferson lauded The Rights of Man by Thomas Paine by drawing an invidious contrast to the “political heresies which have sprung up among us”—a cutting reference to Adams’s Discourses on Davila, which Jeffersonians read as a plea for a hereditary presidency.13 After Jefferson stepped down as secretary of state, he and Adams seldom corresponded during the next three years.

John Adams was an unprepossessing man. Short and paunchy with a round, jowly face and a pale complexion, he had piercing eyes that protruded from behind thick lids. He had an exceedingly active mind, always bubbling with words. Images welled up spontaneously from his imagination, as in his extraordinary description of Thomas Paine as “the satyr of the age…a mongrel between pig and puppy, begotten by a wild boar on a butch wolf.”14 Because he bared his psyche in diaries and letters, we know him more intimately than any other founder. One can summon up an army of adjectives for John Adams—crotchety, opinionated, endearing, temperamental, frank, erudite, outspoken, generous, eccentric, restless, petty, choleric, philosophical, plucky, quirky, pugnacious, fanciful, stubborn, and whimsical—and scarcely exhaust the possibilities. His life was a kaleidoscope of constantly shifting moods. Charles Francis Adams summed up his mercurial grandfather well when he wrote that he could be very warm and engaging in ordinary conversation but “extremely violent” when provoked.15

Adams was a mass of psychosomatic symptoms, his nervous tics and tremors often betraying extreme inner tension. “My constitution is a glass bubble,” he once said, and he had a medical history of headaches, fatigue, chest pains, failing eyesight, and insomnia to prove it.16 In 1776, he etched this self-portrait: “My face is grown pale, my eyes weak and inflamed, my nerves tremulous.”17 He seems to have undergone some form of nervous breakdown during his time in Amsterdam, suffering from periods of withdrawal from society and flashes of temper. Later on, he complained of “quivering fingers” and lost several teeth from pyorrhea, forcing him to speak with a lisp. By the time he became president, the sixty-one-year-old John Adams looked like a pudgy, toothless old man.

But it was Adams’s vanity, not premature aging, that most detracted from his image. “Vanity, I am sensible, is my cardinal vice and cardinal folly,” he admitted as a young man.18 At least thirty times, he posed for portraits and quibbled with the results. From some underlying insecurity, he spent inordinate time brooding about his place in history. He worried that rivals would overshadow him or steal credit that he deserved. This vanity made him feel unappreciated. In 1812, he told Benjamin Rush, “From the year 1761, now more than fifty years, I have constantly lived in an enemies’ country.”19 Biographer Joseph Ellis has observed of Adams, “Lurking in his heart was a frantic and uncontrollable craving for personal vindication, a lust for fame that was so obsessive, and so poisoned by his accurate awareness that history would not do him justice, that he often appeared less like a worthy member of the American gallery of greats than a beleaguered and pathetic madman.”20

This insecurity fostered envy of other founders. He even bemoaned the “impious idolatry” of Washington, dubbing him Old Muttonhead, and seemed bothered by all the adulation he received.21 He thought Washington better at striking heroic poses than providing leadership. In later writings, he faulted Washington’s intelligence, said he “could not write a sentence without misspelling some word,” and took him to task for being “but very superficially read in the history of any age, nation, or country.”22 Relatedly, by the time he became president, Adams found Alexander Hamilton flamboyant, lascivious, and egotistical, a conceited, conniving upstart who had been unfairly catapulted above him in Washington’s government.

In considering Adams’s presidency, two or three traits should be emphasized because they formed the burden of Hamilton’s critique of him. Adams could be thin-skinned and hypersensitive, as he himself acknowledged. “My temper, in general, has been tranquil except when any instance of extraordinary madness, deceit, hypocrisy, ingratitude, treachery or perfidy has suddenly struck me,” Adams once confided. “Then I have always been irascible enough.”23 He did not handle pressure very well. He tended to store up anger until his patience had been tested long enough; then he would explode. He told Benjamin Rush there had “been very many times in my life when I have been so agitated in my own mind as to have no consideration at all of the light in which my words, actions, and even writings would be considered by others.”24 His combative spirit did not always lend itself to presidential decorum, social lies, or useful flattery. In old age, he said that as a public figure, “I refused to suffer in silence. I sighed, sobbed, and groaned, and sometimes screeched and screamed. And I must confess to my shame and sorrow that I sometimes swore.”25

Had they been more alike in style and temperament, Hamilton and Adams might have embraced as political comrades, since their views tallied on so many issues. Consider this statement from Adams: “Popularity was never my mistress, nor was I ever or shall I ever be a popular man…. But one thing I know: a man must be sensible of the errors of the people and upon his guard against them and must run the risk of their displeasure sometimes or he will never do them any good in the long run.”26 This was Hamilton’s credo as well. Like Hamilton, Adams had sufficient faith in the people to want liberty for them but enough doubts to want to constrain their representatives with an ironclad system of checks and balances. Both men were staunch nationalists; admired the British system; were averse to utopian thinking; rejected romantic notions that human nature could be purified by democracy; and thought the masses could be no less tyrannical than kings. Both also feared the French Revolution as a possible portent for America. For Adams, events in France reeked of “blood and horror, of murder and massacre, of ambition and avarice.”27

On the other hand, Adams lacked Hamilton’s financial acumen. He favored a nation of small farmers and expressed grave reservations about aspects of Hamilton’s economic program, thinking that it was informed by the “mercenary spirit of commerce.”28 He detested banks and believed that Hamilton’s system would “swindle” the poor and release the “gangrene of avarice” into the American atmosphere.29 Most important for his presidency, John Adams did not care for standing armies or closer relations with Great Britain—both views that were to lead to severe clashes with Hamilton.

Whatever the congruence of their political views, Hamilton and Adams had contrasting personalities. Smoothly artful in society, Hamilton could have been a European courtier. He was much more worldly than Adams. As a young man, notes biographer David McCullough, “Adams often felt ill at ease, hopelessly awkward. He sensed people were laughing at him, as sometimes they were, and this was especially hurtful.”30 Where the young Adams dreaded the mockery of others, the young Hamilton was uplifted by an encouraging sense of destiny. It is easy to see why Adams resented Hamilton as a preening, uppity young man: he had missed the formative struggles of the American Revolution dating back to the 1760s. Fisher Ames noted that Adams tended to hold cheap any reputation that wasn’t “founded and topped off” during the Revolution.31 By this standard, Hamilton was an intruder, a bumptious latecomer to the restricted honor roll of American founders. Adams ended up regarding Hamilton as someone “in a delirium of ambition. He had been blown up with vanity by the Tories, had fixed his eye on the highest station in America, and he hated every man young or old who stood in his way.”32

For all his fundamental decency, patriotism, and good heart, John Adams struck the lowest blows against Alexander Hamilton. He was preoccupied with Hamilton’s illegitimacy and foreign birth and could be quite heartless on the subject. He characterized Hamilton as being born “on a speck more obscure than Corsica, from an original not only contemptible but infamous, with infinitely less courage and capacity than Bonaparte.”33 On one occasion, borrowing a line from Jonathan Swift, he vilified Hamilton as “the bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar.” At other times, Hamilton became “the Scottish Creolian of Nevis” or the “Creole bastard.”34 As a foreigner, Adams alleged, Hamilton was devoid of knowledge of the American character or true appreciation of the Revolution’s patriots and “could scarcely acquire the opinions, feelings, or principles of the American people.”35 Adams found nothing admirable in the extraordinary saga of this self-made man from the tropics. “Hamilton had great disadvantages,” he told Benjamin Rush. “His original was infamous; his place of birth and education were foreign countries; his fortune was poverty itself.”36 Adams made these misfortunes sound like so many personal failings.

A disproportionate number of references to Hamilton’s womanizing come from the straitlaced Adams. “Hamilton I know to be a proud, spirited, conceited, aspiring mortal, always pretending to morality,” said Adams, “but with as debauched morals as old Franklin, who is more his model than anyone I know.”37 Hamilton, he said, had “a superabundance of secretions which he could not find whores enough to draw off.”38 “His fornications, adulteries and his incests [an apparent insinuation that he had slept with Angelica Church] were propagated far and wide.”39 In time, Adams came to detest Hamilton so much that he fell victim to sheer credulity. Surely Adams was the only person ever to accuse Hamilton of slacking off at Treasury or of lazily fobbing off work onto subordinates so that he could frolic in Philadelphia society. In one particularly bizarre letter, Adams intimated that Hamilton might have owed his eloquence to drug usage. In his last years, he informed a friend, with a straight face, “I have been told by Parson Montague of Dedham, though I will not vouch for the truth of it, that General Hamilton never wrote or spoke at the bar or elsewhere in public without a bit of opium in his mouth.”40 Despite these absurd aspersions against Hamilton, Adams continued to see himself as a man who always turned the other cheek. “I never wrote a line of slander against my bitterest enemy,” he told Mercy Warren, “nor encouraged it in any other.”41

Adams had spent most of his vice presidency exiled in the Senate, casting a record thirty-one tiebreaking votes. Of the number-two post, he said wearily but indelibly that it was “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.”42 Washington seldom consulted him, banishing him to the distant wings of power.

When John Adams was sworn in as the second president on March 4, 1797, he had on a gray suit and had powdered his hair and brandished a ceremonial sword at his side. Washington exuded the serenity of a successful, outgoing president, while Adams seemed more unsure of himself and told Abigail later that he had been afraid he would faint. Upon leaving Congress Hall, Washington, Adams, and Jefferson executed a delicate little minuet of etiquette, with Washington magnanimously insisting that Adams and Jefferson precede him.

Shy in many ways, Adams disliked the trappings of power. “I hate speeches, messages, addresses and answers, proclamations, and such affected, studied, contraband things,” he told Abigail. “I hate levees and drawing rooms. I hate to speak to a thousand people to whom I have nothing to say.”43 Beyond the unenviable task of succeeding Washington, Adams had several handicaps to overcome. Despite long years in politics, he had never exercised executive power at the state or federal level. And he detested political parties at a time when America was being torn asunder by factions. As president, Adams was the nominal head of the Federalists, yet he dreamed of being a nonpartisan president. Hence, he effectively abdicated the role of partisan leader, which Hamilton, with his taste for power, was only too glad to assume. In later years, Adams conceded that in holding himself apart from Hamilton, “the sovereign pontiff of Federalism,” he knew he would cause all of Hamilton’s “cardinals to excite the whole church to excommunicate and anathematize me.”44 During his presidency, Adams was often stranded between the Federalists and the Republicans and accepted by neither. It was to prove a rare case in American history of the president hesitating to function as the de facto party leader.

This first transfer of presidential power naturally awakened fears of civil war, despotism, and foreign intrigue. To soothe worries about an orderly succession and placate the Federalists, Adams took the statesmanlike step of retaining the core of Washington’s cabinet: Timothy Pickering at State, Oliver Wolcott, Jr., at Treasury, and James McHenry at War, the “triumvirate” that he came to loathe as traitors.45 All three men were identified with Hamilton and the rabidly Anglophile wing of the party known as High Federalists. Why did Adams submit to a situation that seems in retrospect fraught with trouble? “Washington had appointed them and I knew it would turn the world upside down if I removed any one of them,” he explained. “I had then no particular objection to any of them.”46 As he developed objections to his cabinet members, he portrayed himself as their helpless captive, duped by Hamilton and his minions. Hamilton did not think Adams could sidestep responsibility so lightly: “As the President nominates his ministers and may displace them when he pleases, it must be his own fault if he be not surrounded by men who for ability and integrity deserve his confidence.”47

John Adams told two stories of his presidency that never quite jibed. In one, he claimed to be an innocent bystander, long oblivious of Hamilton’s influence over his cabinet members. He had no idea until the end, he said, that they were receiving guidance from his foe; when he belatedly discovered the plot, he moved swiftly to purge the culprits. In another version, Adams claimed that he had known all along that Hamilton controlled the cabinet, because he had already controlled it under Washington: “The truth is, Hamilton’s influence over [Washington] was so well known that no man fit for the office of State or War would accept either.” For this reason, Washington “was driven to the necessity of appointing such as would accept. And this necessity was, in my opinion, the real cause of his retirement from office. For you may depend upon it, that retirement was not voluntary.”48 According to Adams, Washington was merely the titular president, a “viceroy under Hamilton.”49 Furthermore, wrote Adams, “I could not name a man who was not devoted to Hamilton without kindling a fire…. I soon found that if I had not the previous consent of the heads of departments and the approbation of Mr. Hamilton, I ran the utmost risk of a dead negative [veto] in the Senate.”50

After Adams was inaugurated, Hamilton inadvertently ruffled the new president by sending him an unsolicited memorandum, suggesting policies for the new administration. This “long, elaborate letter,” Adams said, contained “a whole system of instruction for the conduct of the President, the Senate and the House of Representatives. I read it very deliberately and really thought the man was in a delirium…. I despised and detested the letter too much to take a copy of it.”51 The sort of advice that Washington had so valued, Adams chose to resent. Not surprisingly, Hamilton wanted to maintain the intellectual preeminence he had enjoyed under Washington. Once again, he tried to be the one-man brain trust, promiscuously dispensing his opinions, and he was probably assaying what access he would enjoy under Adams. Hamilton was not the sort to surrender his proximity to power. Having mastered many arcane issues, he aspired to be the shadow president of the Federalists. In his endless missives to Pickering, Wolcott, and McHenry, one can feel Hamilton’s frustration that he no longer held the levers of power.

Washington had always shown great care and humility in soliciting the views of his cabinet. Adams, in contrast, often disregarded his cabinet and enlisted friends and family, especially Abigail, as trusted advisers. His cabinet members found him aloof and capricious and prone to bark out orders instead of asking opinions. Oliver Wolcott, Jr.—who had one of the warmer relationships with Adams—gave this sarcastic description of the administration: “Thus are the United States governed, as Jupiter is represented to have governed Olympus. Without regarding the opinions of friends or enemies, all are summoned to hear, reverence, and obey the unchangeable fiat.”52

The friction between Adams and his cabinet was exacerbated by the president’s puzzling retreats to his home in Quincy, Massachusetts. As a member of the Continental Congress and a diplomat in Europe, Adams had been ideally diligent and self-sacrificing, enduring separations from Abigail of as long as five years. Especially during John’s later years as vice president, Abigail often suffered from rheumatism and was forced to stay in Massachusetts. Adams became an absentee official, spending as many as nine months per year away from Philadelphia. During one foreign-policy crisis, Washington complained to his cabinet about his truant vice president: “Presuming that the vice president will have left the seat of government for Boston, I have not requested his opinion to be taken…. Should it be otherwise, I wish him to be consulted.”53

As president, Adams stuck to a similarly peculiar schedule and frequently seemed to be absent from his own administration. During his first year in office, he spent four months in Quincy, twice as long a period as Washington had ever left the capital. At times, Adams seemed to be in headlong flight from his own government, spending up to seven months at a stretch in Massachusetts and trying to run the government by dispatch. Washington, mystified by this behavior, groaned that it “gives much discontent to the friends of government, while its enemies chuckle at it and think it a favorable omen for them.”54 Adams, of course, blamed Hamilton for his loss of control over his cabinet and said bitterly that “I was as president a mere cipher.”55 But it is hard to separate Adams’s absences from the disloyalty of his cabinet. David McCullough has observed, “Adams’s presence at the center of things was what the country rightfully expected and could indeed have made a difference.”56

It was an inauspicious situation for the Federalists. The Republican leaders, Jefferson and Madison (the latter having now retired from Congress to Montpelier, his Virginia plantation), exhibited remarkable discipline and discretion. The two Virginians were shrewd men with an imperviously close bond and an impressive degree of patience and self-control. Meanwhile, the Federalists, united for two terms under Washington, were about to degenerate into a fractured party, led by two brilliant and unstoppable windbags, Adams and Hamilton, who cordially detested each other. Both were hasty, erratic, impulsive men and capable of atrocious judgment. And both had blazing gifts for invective, which they eventually turned against each other.