Alexander Hamilton - Ron Chernow (2005)

Chapter 31. AN INSTRUMENT OF HELL

One reason that Hamilton so feared the repercussions of the Reynolds affair was a premonition that the United States might soon be at war with an imperious France. If this conflict came about, Hamilton intended to assume a major position and could not afford any hint of scandal. As many Republicans had predicted, the French had retaliated against the Jay Treaty by allowing their privateers to prey on American ships carrying contraband cargo bound for British ports. With Napoleon emerging as the new French military strongman, Hamilton had little doubt that his troops would spread despotism across Europe. Writing under “Americus,” Hamilton had warned early in 1797 that the “specious pretence of enlightening mankind and reforming their civil institutions is the varnish to the real design of subjugating” other nations.1 Hamilton predicted that France would become “the terror and the scourge of nations.”2

Soon after being sworn in as president, John Adams learned that the Directory, the five-member council now ruling France, had expelled the new American minister, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and promulgated belligerent new orders against America’s merchant marine. By spring, the French had seized more than three hundred American vessels. To lift domestic morale, Hamilton suggested to Secretary of State Pickering a day of prayer “to strengthen religious ideas in a contest” that might pit Americans “against atheism, conquest, and anarchy.”3 Not trusting to the Lord alone, Hamilton also recommended more muscular measures, principally a new naval force and a twenty-five-thousand-man provisional army. Far from being a reflexive warmonger, Hamilton wanted to explore first every diplomatic option. “My opinion is to exhaust the expedients of negotiation and at the same time to prepare vigorouslyfor the worst,” he advised Oliver Wolcott, Jr.4 “Real firmness is good for everything. Strut is good for nothing.”5 He told William Loughton Smith, “My plan ever is to combine energy with moderation.6

President Adams decided to pursue a two-pronged strategy: maintaining American neutrality through negotiations while simultaneously expanding the military in case talks with France miscarried. He entertained the anodyne hope that he could thread a neat path between Federalist Anglophiles and Republican Francophiles. Like Adams, Hamilton wanted to preserve peace with France through diplomacy and possibly even negotiate a commercial treaty on the Jay Treaty model. In a high-minded mode, he urged that a bipartisan three-man commission that included an old political rival be sent to France. “Unless Mr. Madison will go, there is scarcely another character that will afford advantage,” he said.7 Despite heated protests from some Federalists, Hamilton thought that any delegation lacking a prominent Republican would forfeit all credibility with the French. He also yearned to call the Republicans’ bluff and show that the Federalists had done everything possible to conserve peace. Nevertheless, the three members of Adams’s cabinet under Hamilton’s supposed dominion—Pickering, Wolcott, and McHenry—steadfastly opposed the choice of a Republican. Wolcott did more than just defy Hamilton’s wishes: he threatened to resign if Adams executed such a policy. As Hamilton suspected, Madison, who had a deathly fear of transatlantic travel, turned down the chance to join the delegation to France, as did Jefferson.

Starting with this first crisis of the Adams administration, Hamilton answered interminable queries from the secretaries of state, treasury, and war, who sought his guidance and shared with him internal cabinet documents. Ensconced in his Manhattan law office, Hamilton was apprised of everything happening in Philadelphia. Adams knew nothing of these contacts. At first, Hamilton did not denigrate Adams or his cabinet and behaved in exemplary fashion. “I believe there is no danger of want of firmness in the executive,” he told Rufus King. “If he is not ill-advised, he will not want prudence.”8 Vice President Jefferson, by contrast, was already in the thick of a secret campaign to sabotage Adams in French eyes. The French consul in Philadelphia, Joseph Létombe, held four confidential talks with Jefferson in the spring of 1797—talks no less unorthodox than the ones Hamilton had held with British minister George Hammond—and informed his superiors in Paris, paraphrasing Jefferson, that “Mr. Adams is vain, suspicious, and stubborn, of an excessive self-regard, taking counsel with nobody.”9 Jefferson predicted to Létombe that Adams would last only one term and urged the French to invade England. In the most brazen display of disloyalty, he advised the French to stall any American envoys sent to Paris: “Listen to them and then drag out the negotiations at length and mollify them by the urbanity of the proceedings.”10 Jefferson and other Republicans encouraged the French to believe that Americans sided with them overwhelmingly, and this may have toughened the tone that the Directory adopted with the new administration.

On May 16, 1797, President Adams delivered a bellicose message to Congress, denouncing the French for ejecting Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and stalking American ships and chiding them for having “inflicted a wound in the American breast.”11 He also announced plans to expand the navy and bolster the militias. For the Aurora, this suggested too much belligerence. After a pacific inaugural speech, editorialized the paper about Adams, “we see him gasconading like a bully, swaggering the hero, and armed cap-a-pie, throwing the gauntlet to the most formidable power on earth.” Ergo, Adams must be a British agent: “We behold him placing himself the file-leader of a British faction and marshalling his forces as if he were the representative of George the Third, instead of the chief magistrate of the American people.”12

Dashing this Republican stereotype, Adams made a conciliatory overture and announced plans to dispatch a diplomatic mission to Paris. The three-man delegation was to include two southern Federalists, John Marshall and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and a northern Republican, Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, who had been a partisan of the French Revolution. “The French are no more capable of a republican government,” Adams advised Gerry, “than a snowball can exist a whole week in the streets of Philadelphia under a burning sun.”13 Quite unlike the cabinet members he reputedly controlled, Hamilton applauded Adams with gusto. “I like very well the course of executive conduct in regard to the controversy with France,” he told Wolcott.14 But he had reservations about the likely outcome of the mission. He believed that Adams had erred by not sending a southern Republican, a move that would have convinced the French that the deck was not stacked against them. He also doubted that French officials would treat the American envoys respectfully and fulminated against them as “the most ambitious and horrible tyrants that ever cursed the earth,” rebuking Republicans who would “make us lick the feet of her violent and unprincipled leaders.”15

When the American commissioners arrived in France in August 1797, they were greeted by a lame minister of foreign affairs who had been a pariah a few years earlier: Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, who had befriended Hamilton in Philadelphia. With the end of the Terror, Talleyrand had been rehabilitated and returned to France. Hamilton knew that he was avaricious and regarded public office as a means of obtaining money. The cynical Frenchman once told a mutual friend that “he found it very strange that a man of his [Hamilton’s] quality, blessed with such outstanding gifts, should resign a ministry in order to return to the practice of law and give as his reason that as a minister he did not earn enough to bring up his eight children.”16 After Hamilton returned to New York, Talleyrand was en route to a dinner party one night when he glimpsed Hamilton toiling by candlelight in his law office. “I have seen a man who made the fortune of a nation laboring all night to support his family,” he said, shocked.17 After becoming French foreign minister in July 1797, he rejoiced at the plunder placed at his fingertips. “I’ll hold the job,” he confided to a friend. “I have to make an immense fortune out of it, a really immense fortune.”18 He proceeded to scoop up an estimated thirteen to fourteen million francs during his first two years as foreign minister alone.

By the time the three Americans showed up in Paris, Napoleon had crushed the Austrian army in Italy. Then, in early September, the Directory staged a veritable coup d’état, arresting and deporting scores of deputies and shutting down more than forty newspapers in a wholesale purge of moderate elements. John Marshall sent a gloomy assessment to Pickering: “All power is now in the undivided possession of those who have directed against us those hostile measures of which we so justly complain.”19 Corruption, long endemic among French officials, had only worsened under the Directory. When Talleyrand received the three American commissioners in October, he treated them civilly during a fifteen-minute audience, but they did not hear from him again for another week. The tone then turned frigid as Talleyrand explained that the Directory was “excessively exasperated” by statements made about France by President Adams in his May 16 address to Congress. Talleyrand then forced the three Americans to deal with three minions—Jean Conrad Hottinguer, Pierre Bellamy, and Lucien Hauteval—who were to become infamous in American history through the three coded letters, X, Y, and Z, that identified them in diplomatic dispatches sent to Philadelphia. Through these underlings, Talleyrand imposed a series of insufferable demands: that President Adams retract the controversial passages of his truculent speech; extend a large loan to France; and even pay for damage inflicted on American ships by French privateers! Talleyrand’s lieutenants further insisted that the Americans fork over a considerable bribe as the prelude to any negotiations. Playing a cat-and-mouse game, Talleyrand deferred meetings with the American envoys, allowing extra time for his intermediaries to extort money.

John Marshall and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney were disgusted and wanted to terminate the negotiations at once—“No! No! Not a sixpence!” Pinckney spluttered in protest—while the Francophile Elbridge Gerry counseled patience. Marshall began drafting two long accounts to Timothy Pickering that chronicled the indignities they had endured. Due to the absence of winter traffic across the North Atlantic, the dispatches did not arrive in Philadelphia until the spring. While Adams awaited the results, Jefferson continued to make mischief by urging France to put off talks with the American delegation. “The Vice-President still argues that the Directory has everything to gain here by temporizing and he repeats to me incessantly that Machiavelli’s maxim, Nil repente [nothing suddenly], is the soul of great affairs,” Létombe told his French bosses.20

Not until March 4, 1798, did Marshall’s explosive narratives land on President Adams’s desk. Once decoded, they made for shocking reading. The mission had been a disaster, nothing short of a grand national humiliation. After receiving an account of Talleyrand’s chicanery, Hamilton advised Pickering, “I wish to see a temperate, but grave, solemn, and firm communication from the president to the two houses on the result of the advices from our commissioners.”21 Still willing to leave the door to talks open, Hamilton laid out an ambitious program for an enlarged army: “The attitude of calm defiance suits us,” he told Pickering.22

At first, President Adams made a politic speech to Congress that announced that the mission had foundered while omitting the notorious circumstances that would have riled the public. He asked for a broad array of military preparations. In a serious miscalculation, the Republicans branded Adams a warmonger and claimed that France had behaved far better than the president was allowing. Vice President Jefferson referred privately to Adams’s speech as an “insane message.”23 On March 29, 1798, Hamilton’s old foe William Branch Giles of Virginia intimated that Adams was suppressing documents that would show France in a more flattering light. When he and other Republicans demanded the release of the communiqués, the House agreed. Hamilton was pleased that France would now be shown in its true colors. Americans “at large should know the conduct of the French government towards our envoys and the abominable corruption of that government together with their enormous demands for money. These are so monstrous as to shock every reasonable man when he shall know them.”24

When the XYZ papers were published, they proved a bonanza for the Federalists, and John Adams attained the zenith of his popularity as president. Although he had no military background, he now began to appear in military regalia, exhorting his followers to adopt a “warlike character.”25 After Adams dined with a delegation of patriotic admirers from New York in late May, Abigail gave each visitor a black cockade—a knot of ribbons—which became the emblem of support for the administration. “The act has produced the most magical effects,” Robert Troup said after the XYZ dispatches appeared. “A spirit of warm and high resentment against the rulers of France has suddenly burst forth in every part of the United States.”26 Congress rushed through a program for fortifying eastern seaports and augmenting the army and navy.

The Republicans contrived ways to rationalize what had happened. Jefferson complained to Madison that Adams had perpetrated “a libel on the French government” as part of his “swindling experiment.”27 He conceded that Talleyrand might have organized an extortion plot, but “that the Directory knew anything of it is neither proved nor provable.”28 Jefferson’s conviction that the XYZ Affair was a Federalist hoax only grew with time. The whole brouhaha was “a dish cooked up by [John] Marshall, where the swindlers are made to appear as the French government.”29 Nor did the XYZ Affair lead Madison to reevaluate the French Revolution. After hearing of Talleyrand’s conduct toward the American envoys, Madison could not believe that the French minister had behaved so stupidly. He thought President Adams, not the Directory, “the great obstacle to accommodation” and accused the Federalists of resorting to “vile insults and calumnies” to foment war with France.30

Some Republican papers had the temerity to blame the XYZ Affair on Hamilton. The Aurora said the whole fiasco resulted from his relationship with Talleyrand:

“Mr. Talleyrand is notoriously anti-republican…. [H]e was the intimate friend of Mr. Hamilton…and other great Federalists[,] and…it is probably owing to the determined hostility which he discovered in them towards France that the government of that country consider us only as objects of plunder.”31 This must have been hard for Hamilton to swallow. For years, he had accused France of being a faithless friend. Now that the XYZ dispatches had vindicated his judgment, the Republicans chided him instead of admitting their own errors.

As was his wont, Hamilton charged into print with a seven-part newspaper series entitled “The Stand,” in which he advocated the formation of a large army to face down French aggression. When it had been a question of a possible war with Great Britain a few years earlier, Hamilton had been willing to make concessions and negotiate at length to avoid hostilities. But his foreign-policy views frequently varied with the situation, and he now adopted a much tougher tone when France was the potential belligerent power.

In writing “The Stand,” Hamilton took dead aim against Republicans who had become apologists for French mis'font-size:8.0pt;font-family:"Times New Roman",serif;color:black'>32 Hamilton mocked Jefferson’s claim that Talleyrand, not the Directory, was to blame for the XYZ Affair. He noted that Talleyrand was the world’s “most circumspect man” and would never have acted without the direct support of the Directory.

The recourse to so pitiful an evasion betrays in its author a systematic design to excuse France at all events, to soften a spirit of submission to every violence she may commit, and to prepare the way for implicit subjection to her will. To be the pro-consul of a despotic Directory over the United States, degraded to the condition of a province, can alone be the criminal, the ignoble aim of so seditious, so prostitute a character.33

Hamilton’s indignation with Jefferson was warranted, but the idea that he wanted to reduce the United States to a French province or that his ideas were criminal was cruelly overblown and reminiscent of the most malicious nonsense heaved at Hamilton himself.

The strident tone of “The Stand” reflects the polarization that had gripped America over the French crisis. Feelings ran so high that Jefferson told one correspondent, “Men who have been intimate all their lives cross the street to avoid meeting and turn their heads another way, lest they should be obliged to touch hats.”34 Hamilton thought that America was in an undeclared civil war that had segregated the country into two warring camps. At first, the XYZ Affair seemed a windfall for the Federalists, and their fortunes improved sharply in elections that autumn. Having been strong in the patrician Senate, they now made sweeping gains in the House and even picked up southern seats. But this sudden flush of power in time proved perilous for the Federalists, for they were henceforth to lack the self-restraint necessary to curtail their more dogmatic, authoritarian impulses, thus paving the way for abuses of power.

As he braced for potential conflict with France, President Adams had to cope with the ambivalent emotions Americans brought to the vexed subject of war. As colonists, they had been antagonized by the need to quarter and provision redcoats and remembered the arrogance of the standing armies sent to enforce hated laws. Among the fanciful dreams fostered by American independence was the fond hope that America would be spared wars and the need for a permanent military presence. “At the close of our revolution[ary] war,” wrote Hamilton, “the phantom of perpetual peace danced before the eyes of everybody.”35 Gordon Wood has observed, “Since war was promoted by the dynastic ambitions, the bloated bureaucracy, and the standing armies of monarchies, then the elimination of monarchy would mean the elimination of war itself.”36 Hamilton, by contrast, believed that war was a permanent feature of human societies.

Many Republicans deplored standing armies as tools used by oppressive kings to subdue popular legislatures. The Declaration of Independence had protested standing armies kept in the colonies in peacetime. At the Constitutional Convention, Elbridge Gerry had bawdily likened standing armies to a tumescent penis: “An excellent assurance of domestic tranquillity, but a dangerous temptation to foreign adventure.”37 Jefferson wanted to ban standing armies in the Bill of Rights. He thought state militias and small gunboats sufficient to guard American shores. Republican orthodoxy declared that citizen-soldiers could defend the nation and obviate the need for a permanent military. Jeffersonians also feared that war would engender the powerful central government favored by Hamilton. In Madison’s view, “War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies and debts and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.”38 Unlike many Federalists, John Adams thought a navy and militia would suffice to guard the country and feared a large standing army as a “many bellied monster.”39 Hobbled by this aversion to a federal military, the country was reduced to a regular army of just a few thousand troops when Washington left office.

During the Revolution, Hamilton had despaired of reliance on militias and learned to respect the superiority of trained soldiers. During the war scare with France, he saw a chance to promote a robust national defense and advanced a pet project for a fifty-thousand-man army: twenty thousand regulars joined by thirty thousand auxiliaries. The president reacted with contempt. “The army of fifty thousand men…appeared to me to be one of the wildest extravagances of a knight errant,” Adams later wrote, harping again on Hamilton’s foreign birth. “It proved to me that Mr. Hamilton knew no more of the sentiments and feelings of the people of America than he did of those of the inhabitants of one of the planets.”40 As far as Adams was concerned, “Hamilton’s hobby was the army.”41

Hamilton’s blood boiled as France grew more audacious in attacking American ships. In May 1798, a French privateer captured American vessels outside New York harbor. “This is too much humiliation after all that has passed,” Hamilton protested to Secretary of War McHenry. “Our merchants are very indignant. Our government [is] very prostrate in the view of every man of energy.”42 That month, amid growing fears of an imminent French invasion, Congress decided to create a separate Navy Department with twelve new frigates and a “Provisional Army” of ten thousand men. The euphemistic language was significant: a permanent or standing army was anathema. In July, Congress provided for an “Additional Army” of twelve infantry regiments and six cavalry companies. These numbers exceeded what Adams wanted, though they fell short of Hamilton’s fantasies. Adams, who sometimes portrayed himself as a passive spectator of his presidency, blamed Hamilton for pushing through this larger army: “Such was the influence of Mr. Hamilton in Congress that, without any recommendation from the President, they passed a bill to raise an army.”43 As war hysteria grew, trade with France was embargoed, and American naval vessels were empowered to pounce on any French ships threatening American trade. The so-called Quasi-War with France was under way.

It proved impossible to separate the war from partisan domestic wrangles. Republicans feared that the unacknowledged agenda behind this burgeoning military establishment was not to defend America from France so much as to save America for the Federalists and stifle domestic dissent. Sometimes, Hamilton had trouble keeping the issues apart in his mind because he thought that, if France invaded, many Jeffersonians would aid the interlopers and “flock to the standard of France to render it easy to quell the resistance of the rest.”44

Hamilton hovered in a queer limbo during this period. He felt both powerful and powerless. He was a private citizen and lawyer, yet alleged by some to be more influential than the president himself. He certainly had unparalleled access to Adams’s cabinet and often sent them letters that they repeated verbatim in memos for the president, without identifying Hamilton as the source. At the same time, Hamilton struggled to redeem his reputation after the disclosure of his assignations with Maria Reynolds. Writing to Rufus King, Robert Troup noted the paradox that Hamilton’s legal practice was “extensive and lucrative” but that he was still under siege from the scandal. “For this twelvemonth past this poor man—Hamilton I mean—has been most violently and infamously abused by the democratical party. His ill-judged pamphlet has done him incomparable injury.”45

One might have thought that Hamilton would crow in triumph after Congress approved a new army. Surely he was slated for a commanding position. Instead, in personal letters to Eliza, he again seemed weary of public life and hankered for a more retired existence. When Eliza went off to Albany in early June 1798, leaving him with the older boys, Hamilton seemed incurably lonesome. “I always feel how necessary you are to me,” he wrote to her. “But when you are absent, I become still more sensible of it and look around in vain for that satisfaction which you alone can bestow.”46 More than at any time since their courtship, Hamilton showed his deep emotional dependence upon his wife. She provided a psychological anchor for this turbulent man who was disenchanted with public life. “In proportion as I discover the worthlessness of other pursuits,” he wrote to Eliza, “the value of my Eliza and of domestic happiness rises in my estimation.”47 One suspects that Alexander and Eliza had slowly repaired the harm done by the Reynolds affair, that she had begun to forgive him, and that they had recaptured some earlier intimacy. Perhaps it took this scandal for Hamilton to recognize just how vital his wife had been in providing solace from his controversial political career.

By 1798, many people were trying to woo Hamilton back into public life. When one of New York’s two senators resigned, Governor John Jay offered the post to Hamilton. “If after well considering the subject, you should decline an appointm[en]t,” he told Hamilton obligingly, “be so good as to consult with some of our most judicious friends and advise me as to the persons most proper to appoint.”48 Congressman Robert G. Harper, a South Carolina Federalist, dangled before Hamilton the prospect of becoming secretary of war, hinting that he had sounded out President Adams on the subject. Both times, Hamilton declined, for he was stalking bigger game. For someone of his vaulting ambition, the leadership of the new army was a shiny, irresistible lure, especially with the presidency foreclosed. Fisher Ames said that the only distinction that Hamilton devoutly craved was not money or power but military fame. “He was qualified beyond any man of the age to display the talents of a great general.”49 Many Federalists assumed that if France attacked America, Washington would head the war effort with Hamilton loyally at his side, in a rousing reenactment of the Revolution. “The old chief is again furbishing his sword,” Robert Troup reported excitedly to Rufus King. “If there be a conflict and he is invited, he will take the field. And so will Hamilton.”50

On military matters, John Adams was often adrift. For all his dogged committee work in the Continental Congress and sturdy promotion of an American fleet, he had not experienced combat and perhaps felt deprived of some essential glory. “Oh, that I was a soldier!” he had written in 1775. “I will be. I am reading military books. Everybody must and will and shall be a soldier.”51 The fraternal bond that knit Washington and his former officers into an elite caste excluded Adams. In matters of war, nobody could possibly measure up to the exalted Washington, who would be needed to confer legitimacy on any new army.

After Congress authorized the provisional army, Hamilton beseeched Washington to take the lead. He again exhibited perfect pitch in addressing his mentor. “You ought also to be aware, my dear Sir,” Hamilton told him, “that in the event of an open rupture with France, the public voice will again call you to command the armies of your country.” Washington’s friends were reluctant to summon him from retirement, “yet it is the opinion of all those with whom I converse that you will be compelled to make the sacrifice.”52

Now somewhat infirm at sixty-six, Washington thought the military required an able man in his prime. Should he agree to serve, he confided to Hamilton, “I should like previously to know who would be my coadjutors and whether you would be disposed to take an active part if arms are resorted to.”53 Washington signed the letter, “Your affectionate friend and obed[ien]t ser[van]t”—a style that underscored their new peer relationship. So, without prompting, Washington made Hamilton’s cooperation a precondition for heading the new army.

On June 2, Hamilton informed Washington that he would join the army only if given the number-two post: “If you command, the place in which I should hope to be most useful is that of Inspector General with a command in the line. This I would accept.”54 The inspector general would be the second spot, carrying the rank and pay of major general. Since Washington expected any French invasion force to be far more mobile and daring than the stodgy British armies he had fought during the Revolution, he thought the inspector general should be an energetic young man. And Hamilton was his undisputed choice.

During the next few weeks, Hamilton sent a flurry of messages to Adams’s cabinet about war preparations. He tossed off stiffly worded dispatches, as if he were the president in absentia. Flashing, as usual, with a surplus of ideas, he told Treasury Secretary Wolcott that the United States should boost taxes, take out a large loan, and establish “an academy for naval and military instruction.”55 He furnished a precise description of the new navy he envisioned: six ships of the line, twelve frigates, and twenty small vessels. Hamilton was typically quick, clear, and decisive in his recommendations. It is easy to understand why Adams’s cabinet warmed to his executive prowess and equally easy to understand why Adams resented his high-handed intrusion. The flinty Timothy Pickering later recounted three testy exchanges with Adams as to who should supervise the new army:

A[dams]: “Whom shall we appoint Commander-in-Chief?”

P[ickering]: “Colonel Hamilton.”

Then on a subsequent day:

A: “Whom shall we appoint Commander-in-Chief?”

P: “Colonel Hamilton.”

Then on a third day:

A: “Whom shall we appoint Commander-in-Chief?”

P: “Colonel Hamilton.”

A: “Oh no! It is not his turn by a great deal. I would sooner appoint Gates or Lincoln or Morgan.”56

Adams preferred these three senior veterans of the battle of Saratoga. Pickering explained wearily to Adams that the ailing Daniel Morgan had “one foot in the grave,” that Horatio Gates was “an old woman,” and that Benjamin Lincoln was “always asleep.” Pickering later drew the moral for Hamilton’s son: “It was from these occurrences that I first learned Mr. Adams’s extreme aversion to or hatred of your father.”57 Such petulant talks occurred two years before Adams’s “discovery” of Hamilton’s influence over his cabinet.

On June 22, President Adams sent an ambiguously worded inquiry to Washington, asking for advice about leadership of any new army: “In forming an army, whenever I must come to that extremity, I am at an immense loss whether to call out the old generals or to appoint a young set.”58 Adams told Washington that he hoped to consult him periodically. In a striking example of political gaucheness, Adams then nominated Washington to command the new army before he had a chance to register an opinion. On July 3, the Senate hastily approved the choice. With a few conspicuous exceptions, Hamilton had always treated Washington with punctilious courtesy and was taken aback that Adams had made the appointment without first securing Washington’s consent. On July 8, he wrote to the first president from Philadelphia, “I was much surprised on my arrival here to discover that your nomination had been without any previous consultation of you.” Yet he urged Washington to accept: “Convinced of the goodness of the motives, it would be useless to scan the propriety of the step.”59

To ensure Washington’s acceptance, Adams dispatched James McHenry on a three-day mission to Mount Vernon. The secretary of war toted a batch of communiqués, including Washington’s commission and a letter from the president. Unbeknownst to Adams, McHenry also bore a message from Hamilton that was anything but friendly toward the president and faulted his expertise in military affairs: “The President has no relative ideas and his prepossessions on military subjects in reference to such a point are of the wrong sort…. Men of capacity andexertion in the higher stations are indispensable.”60 Because of his advancing age, Washington did not intend to take the field until a war actually arrived, so his chief deputy would be the effective field commander. Both McHenry and Pickering knew of Adams’s dislike of Hamilton and schemed behind their boss’s back to get Washington to choose Hamilton. As it happened, Washington did not need coaching, telling McHenry that he would entertain only Hamilton or Charles Cotesworth Pinckney as his deputy. In a confidential letter, Washington bluntly advised Pickering that Hamilton’s “services ought to be secured at almost any price.”61 Before McHenry returned to Philadelphia, Washington slipped him a sheet naming the three men he wished to see as his major generals, listed in order: Alexander Hamilton, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and Henry Knox. Writing to Adams, Washington made the appointment of his general officers a precondition for accepting the commanding post.

What a world of trouble was packed into the seemingly inoffensive list. John Quincy Adams later identified the feud over this list as the “first decisive symptom” of a schism in the Federalist party.62 Ideally, Washington wanted the three men ranked in exactly the order he had given—that is, with Hamilton given precedence as his second in command. There were complications aplenty, however, not the least that Adams wished to reverse the order and have Knox and Pinckney supersede the upstart Hamilton. For Adams, this was a straightforward assertion of presidential prerogative. After all, Washington had not named his own subordinates during the Revolution. To Washington, however, it seemed a rough slap in the face and violated his basic conditions for taking the assignment.

Though Washington rated Hamilton’s abilities above those of Knox and Pinckney, he knew they had some legitimate claims to preference. During the Revolution, Knox had been a major general and Pinckney a brigadier general, while Hamilton had been a lowly lieutenant colonel. Washington claimed that this outdated hierarchy no longer counted. This was a touchy matter for the hearty, affable Henry Knox. The three-hundred-pound former secretary of war had been a brigadier general when Hamilton was a mere collegian and captain of an artillery company. Knox had been an early booster of Hamilton, perhaps even instrumental in getting him the job on Washington’s staff, and Hamilton told McHenry how pained he was by any conflict with Knox, “for I have truly a warm side for him and a high value for his merits.”63 All the same, their relative stations had shifted in the intervening years. It was Hamilton who had been preeminent in Washington’s cabinet and Hamilton who had overseen the military campaign during the Whiskey Rebellion when Knox was distracted by real-estate dealings in Maine. Afterward, Knox had thanked Hamilton profusely: “Your exertions in my department during my absence will never be obliterated.”64 Nevertheless, Knox was stung to learn that Washington now planned to demote him below Hamilton and Pinckney. Washington laid greater stress on the recruitment of Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina. He calculated that the French might invade the south, hoping to gain the support of local Francophiles and arm the slave population. He thought it politic to have a southerner and worried that Pinckney might refuse a place inferior to Hamilton.

Adams seemed dazed, infuriated, and plain befuddled by the frantic jockeying around him. On July 18, 1798, he submitted the nominations for general officers to the Senate in the order Washington had noted them, but he hoped their relative ranks would be reversed. Within a week, when Hamilton accepted appointment as inspector general, Republicans were aghast. The Aurora loudly ridiculed Adams’s religion and morality in promoting the self-confessed lover of Maria Reynolds: “He has appointed Alexander Hamilton inspector general of the army, the same Hamilton who published a book to prove that he is AN ADULTERER…. Mr. Adams ought hereafter to be silent about French principles.”65

Adams fled to Quincy and stayed there for the rest of the controversy, then complained that his cabinet had plotted behind his back to foist Hamilton on him. He saw himself as a decent, helpless man, tangled in byzantine plots dreamed up by the devious mind of Alexander Hamilton. The controversy simmered throughout the summer. Henry Knox, refusing to be subordinated to Hamilton, complained to McHenry on August 8: “Mr. Hamilton’s talents have been estimated upon a scale of comparison so transcendent that all his seniors in rank and years of the late army have been degraded by his elevation.”66 Fuming, Adams informed McHenry in mid-August that, even though the three nominations had been confirmed, he wanted Knox to take the lead: “General Knox is legally entitled to rank next to General Washington and no other arrangement will give satisfaction.” For good measure, he added that Pinckney “must rank before Hamilton.”67 In early September, Oliver Wolcott, Jr., reminded Adams that Washington had made Hamilton’s appointment his prerequisite for taking command and concluded that “the opinion of General Washington and the expectation of the public is that General Hamilton will be confirmed in a rank second only to the commander in chief.”68

In his reply to Wolcott, Adams let all his bile gush to the surface in a tirade against Hamilton. Even though Hamilton had tendered more than twenty years of outstanding service to his country, he was still blackballed in Adams’s eyes for being foreign born. The president daubed him in demonic colors:

If I should consent to the appointment of Hamilton as a second in rank, I should consider it as the most [ir]responsible action of my whole life and the most difficult to justify. He is not a native of the United States, but a foreigner and, I believe, has not resided longer, at least not much longer, in North America than Albert Gallatin. His rank in the late army was comparatively very low. His merits with a party are the merits of John Calvin—

“Some think on Calvin heaven’s own spirit fell,

While others deem him [an] instrument of hell.”

I know that Knox has no popular character, even in Massachusetts. I know, too, that Hamilton has no popular character in any part of America.69

Adams was ventilating his frustration and decided, on second thought, not to send the unfair letter. What he actually wrote to James McHenry was: “Inclosed are the commissions for the three generals signed and all dated on the same day.”70 It was a victory for Hamilton and a humiliating surrender for Adams, who later griped, “I was no more at liberty than a man in prison.”71

By this point, Washington was smarting at how badly Adams had botched things. He told Adams pointedly, “You have been pleased to order the last to be first and the first to be last.”72 Addressing the question of whether Hamilton’s former service entitled him to high military position, he remarked that, as his principal wartime aide, Hamilton had “the means of viewing everything on a larger scale than those who have had only divisions and brigades to attend to, who know nothing of the correspondences of the commander in chief or of the various orders to or transactions with the general staff of the army.”73 In other words, Hamilton had been his chief of staff, not a high-ranking secretary. Adams’s patent displeasure with Hamilton afforded Washington an opportunity to pay his protégé a huge compliment. Washington said that some people considered Hamilton “an ambitious man and therefore a dangerous one. That he is ambitious I readily grant, but it is of that laudable kind which prompts a man to excel in whatever he takes in hand. He is enterprising, quick in his perceptions, and his judgment intuitively great.” In sum, Hamilton’s loss would be “irreparable.”74 Far from weakening Washington’s faith in Hamilton, Adams had drawn the two old allies closer together. On October 15, Adams yielded grudgingly to the appointment of Hamilton as inspector general. Knox refused to serve under him, but Charles Cotesworth Pinckney agreed and praised Hamilton. “I knew that his talents in war were great,” he told McHenry, “that he had a genius capable of forming an extensive military plan, and a spirit courageous and enterprizing, equal to the execution of it.”75

Adams’s defeat over Hamilton’s appointment only added to his dislike of the younger man, and the incident never ceased to rankle. To be sure, Hamilton had been cunning, quick-footed, and manipulative and had placed Adams in an awkward spot. But Adams had made the classic mistake of committing his presidential prestige to a fight he could not win. He could not accept that most observers, from Washington to Jay, thought Hamilton the most highly qualified man for the job.

While trying to fend off Hamilton as inspector general, Adams became correspondingly unyielding in his desire to name his son-in-law, Colonel William Smith, a brigadier general, a rank one rung below major general. The handsome young colonel had given John and Abigail Adams no end of grief. He was chronically indebted from speculation and a year earlier had temporarily abandoned their daughter, Nabby. Smith had mostly survived on sinecures doled out by President Washington. Later on, he was imprisoned twice: once for debt and once for enlisting in a scheme to liberate Venezuela. Despite Smith’s irresponsible shenanigans, Adams now wanted to fob him off on America as a brigadier general, and Washington was flabbergasted. “What in the name of military prudence could have induced the appointment of [William Smith] as brigadier?” Washington asked Secretary of State Pickering. “The latter never was celebrated for anything that ever came to my knowledge except the murder of Indians.”76

At first, Pickering tried to dissuade Adams from this disastrous choice, but the stubborn president “pronounced his son-in-law a military character far, very far, superior to Hamilton!!!” Pickering recalled.77 Dusting off an old proverb, Pickering said, “Mr. Adams has always thought his own geese swans.78 Pickering secretly lobbied the Senate to veto the appointment—another instance of disloyalty, if a pardonable one. When the Senate duly rejected Smith, Abigail Adams detected “secret springs at work” and thought some senators were “tools of they knew not who.”79 Pickering contended that Adams’s disdain for him dated from that event.

Two years later, Adams again tried to elevate his son-in-law to a regimental command. Hamilton chided him, as gingerly as possible, that the appointment might look like favoritism: “There are collateral considerations affecting the expediency of the measure, which I am sure will not escape your reflection…. I trust this remark will not be misunderstood.”80

Adams wrote back blind with rage: “I see no reason or justice in excluding him from all service, while his comrades are all ambassadors or generals, merely because he married my daughter. I am, Sir, with much regard your most obedient and humble Servant John Adams.”81

John Adams had a long memory when it came to slights. On May 9, 1800, Benjamin Goodhue, a Federalist senator from Massachusetts, found himself in an unforgettable tête-à-tête with an apoplectic president. Adams returned to the Senate’s rejection of William Smith for brigadier general and blamed Goodhue, Pickering, and Hamilton. As Goodhue related this remarkable outburst, Adams claimed that “we had killed his daughter [metaphorically] by doing this; that rejection originated with Hamilton, and from him to Pickering, who he said (with extreme agitation and anger) influenced me and others to reject him; that Col. Smith was a man of the first military knowledge in the U.S. and was recommended to the appointment by Genl. Washington.” (Washington’s letter directly belies this assertion.) Goodhue went on to state that Adams’s “resentment appeared implacable towards the conduct of the Senate in those instances which resulted, as he said, with no other view than to wound his feelings and those of his family.” Throughout the discussion, Goodhue said, Adams exhibited “a perfect rage of passion that I could not have expected from the supreme executive.”82 Many such stories circulated among the Federalists about Adams’s incontinent wrath.

Another intricate appointment battle involved Aaron Burr, who had left the U.S. Senate the year before and returned to the New York Assembly. To appease the Republicans, Adams wanted to name Burr a brigadier general. Hamilton was pushing measures to defend seaports against French incursions and sat on a local military committee with Burr to improve New York City’s defenses. For the moment, the mutable Burr was flirting with the Federalists, and Robert Troup was agog that Burr, an enthusiast for the French Revolution, was now helping to equip the city against a possible French assault. Troup told Rufus King that Burr’s “conduct [is] very different from what you would imagine. Some conjecture that he is changing his ground.”83 Burr and Hamilton were more openly amicable than they had been for some time.

Hamilton was skeptical that Burr would abandon his Republican comrades but was content to see what would happen. He must have been grateful that Burr had used his good offices the previous fall to cool off his confrontation with Monroe. When one military man appeared in New York that summer, he asked if Hamilton would take it amiss if he visited Burr. “Little Burr!” exclaimed Hamilton cheerily, explaining that they had always been on good terms despite political differences. “I fancy he now begins to think he was wrong [in politics] and I was right.”84 So Hamilton took seriously the idea that Burr might be mulling over a switch in party affiliation, and he wished to encourage it cautiously.

Burr mirrored Hamilton in his military daydreams, and he was attracted by an appointment to the new army. This may explain his short-lived political rapport with Hamilton. “I have some reasons for wishing that the administration may manifest a cordiality to him,” Hamilton wrote guardedly to Wolcott when Burr set out for Philadelphia in late June 1798. “It is not impossible he will be found a useful cooperator. I am aware there are different sides, but the case is worth the experiment.”85 Around this time, Hamilton chatted with Burr about an appointment. Aware of bad blood between him and Washington, Hamilton asked Burr whether he could serve faithfully under the general. Burr unhesitatingly replied that “he despised Washington as a man of no talents and one who could not spell a sentence of common English.”86

Having tussled with Washington over Hamilton and William Smith, Adams compounded his mistake by asking the former president to take on Burr as a brigadier general despite their well-known history of friction. Washington refused, pulling no punches: “By all that I have known and heard, Colonel Burr is a brave and able officer, but the question is whether he has not equal talents at intrigue?”87

Years later, Adams still spluttered with emotion at this retort: “How shall I describe to you my sensations and reflections at that moment. [Washington] had compelled me to promote over the heads of Lincoln, Clinton, Gates, Knox, and others and even over Pinckney…the most restless, impatient, artful, indefatigable, and unprincipled intriguer in the United States, if not in the world, to be second in command under himself and now dreaded an intriguer in a poor brigadier.”88 In retirement, Adams mused that if Burr had become a brigadier general in 1798, it might have tethered him to the Federalists and assured his own reelection in 1800. Indeed, Adams was right in one respect: Washington blundered by recruiting only Federalists to top military positions, while Adams had wished to include two Republicans—Burr and Frederick Muhlenberg—as brigadiers. Had the army taken on a more bipartisan complexion, it might well have been more popular.

Alexander Hamilton was now addressed as General Hamilton and was so listed in the New York City directory. With his congenital weakness for uniforms, he allowed a painter from the British Isles, P. T. Weaver, to capture him in dazzling military dress, braided with epaulettes. A hardness now sharpened Hamilton’s features—his profile was finer, his gaze more direct than in other pictures—yet he complimented the portrait and, in a sentimental gesture, gave it to his old friend from St. Croix, Edward Stevens.

Ever the master administrator, Hamilton flung himself into the gargantuan task of organizing an army with unflagging energy. For five weeks in November and December 1798, he conferred in Philadelphia with Washington, who made his first resplendent return to the capital in twenty months, appearing in uniform on horseback. Charles C. Pinckney and Secretary of War McHenry joined the planning sessions. Hamilton sketched out this phantom force in microscopic detail, producing comprehensive charts for regiments, battalions, and companies. In a typical passage, Hamilton was to write, “A company is subdivided equally into two platoons, a platoon into two sections and a section into two squads, a squad consisting of four files of three or six files of two.”89 He assigned ranks to officers, set up recruiting stations, stocked arsenals with ammunition, and drew up numerous regulations.

For the moment, Washington delegated plenary power to him. Hamilton told one general, since Washington had “for the present declined actual command, it has been determined…to place the military force everywhere under the superintendence of Major General Pinckney and myself.”90 Not just the new army but the old one stationed on the western frontier came under Hamilton’s direct command, while Pinckney oversaw the southern troops. Hamilton exercised his far-flung authority from a small office at 36 Greenwich Street in Manhattan. From the outset, his work was often thankless. He drew no salary until November and then earned only $268.35 a month, one-quarter of what he had taken home as a lawyer. More than half of his legal clients, fearing distractions, dropped him when he was made inspector general. Hamilton could not resist government service but could never quite reconcile himself to the pecuniary sacrifice. In pleading for more money with McHenry, he said, “It is always disagreeable to speak of compensations for one’s self, but a man past 40 with a wife and six children and a very small property beforehand is compelled to wa[i]ve the scruples which his nicety would otherwise dictate.”91

Frequently laid up with poor health that winter, Hamilton had to conjure up an entire army aided by a single aide-de-camp, twenty-year-old Captain Philip Church, Angelica’s eldest son. He was so exceedingly good-looking that Hamilton told Eliza that his presence “gives great pleasure to the ladies who wanted a beau.92 This Anglo-American young man had led an improbable life. Educated at Eton with young noblemen and trained as a legal apprentice at the Middle Temple in London, he was now handling clerical work for a major general in the U.S. Army. Contemptuous of President Adams for touting his inept son-in-law, Hamilton engaged here in some minor nepotism of his own. He admitted to the president that Church’s appointment was “a personal favour to myself” and added, “Let me at the same time beg you to be persuaded, Sir, that I shall never on any other occasion place a recommendation to office on a similar footing.”93 Nevertheless, he pressed James McHenry to name several Schuyler relatives as lieutenants.

A chronic stickler for etiquette, Hamilton entered into the minutiae of protocol and dress, showing an unrestrained love of military matters. The most fastidious tailor could not have dictated more precise instructions for Washington’s uniform: “A blue coat without lapels, with lining collar and cuffs of buff, yellow buttons and gold epaulettes of double bullion tag with fringe, each having three stars. Collar cuffs and pocket flaps to have full embroidered edges and the button holes of every description to be full embroidered.” For Washington’s hat: “A full cocked hat, with a yellow button gold loop, a black cockade with a gold eagle in the center and a white plume.” For his boots: “Long boots, with stiff tops reaching to the center of the knee pan, the whole of black leather lined above with red morocco so as just to appear.”94 Hamilton’s descriptions of other uniforms were no less meticulous.

His mind percolating with ideas, Hamilton also designed huts for each rank. The huts for lieutenant colonels had to measure fourteen by twenty-four feet, while majors were given fourteen by twenty-two feet: “It is contemplated that the huts be roofed with boards, unless where slabs can be had very cheap.”95 After learning the value of training manuals from Steuben during the Revolution, the indefatigable inspector general devised one for drill exercises. What, for instance, should a soldier do when a commander barked “Head right”? Hamilton answered: “At the word ‘right,’ the soldier turns his head to the right, briskly but without violence, bringing his left eye in a line with the buttons of his waistcoat and with his right eye looking along the breasts of the men upon his right.”96 He signed up the German-born John De Barth Walbach to test cavalry systems used in Prussia, France, and Great Britain and to figure out which would work best in an American setting. To identify the ideal length and speed of the marching step, he conducted experiments using pendulums that vibrated at 75, 100, and 120 times per minute.

So encyclopedic was Hamilton’s grasp of military affairs that he laid down the broad outlines of the entire military apparatus. He viewed the new army as the kernel of a permanent military establishment that would free the country from reliance on state militias. To foster a corps of highly trained officers, he pursued an idea that he and Washington had discussed: establishing a military academy. Contrary to many of his compatriots, Hamilton thought America had much to learn from Europe about military affairs. “Self-sufficiency and a contempt of the science and experience of others are too prevailing traits of character in this country,” he wailed to John Jay.97 (This attitude was of a piece with his dismay over the Jeffersonian faith that Americans had much to teach the world but little to learn from it.) He had already pressed a leading French military authority to present him with “a digested plan of an establishment for a military school. This is an object I have extremely at heart.”98 For a military academy, Hamilton wanted a site on navigable water, with easy access to cannon foundries and small-arms manufacturers. A few weeks later, he galloped off to tour the fortress at West Point.

Hamilton’s elaborate plans contemplated five schools specializing in military science, engineering, cavalry, infantry, and the navy. With Hamiltonian thoroughness, he listed the necessary instructors right down to two drawing masters, an architect, and a riding master. He was no less directive when it came to curricula, declaring that the engineering school should teach “fluxions, conic sections, hydraulics, hydrostatics, and pneumatics.”99 Before Adams left office, Hamilton and McHenry had introduced in the House of Representatives “A Bill for Establishing a Military Academy.” Ironically, the academy at West Point was to come into being during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson, who had rejected the idea as unconstitutional during Washington’s administration.

Hamilton also devised plans for military hospitals and something very like a veterans’ administration that would tend men wounded in battle and their families: “Justice and humanity forbid the abandoning to want and misery men who have spent their best years in the military service of a country or who in that service had contracted infirmities which disqualify them to earn their bread in other modes.”100

Hamilton had a plethora of ideas, but implementing them was tough, partly because of the mediocrity of his old friend James McHenry. From the start, Oliver Wolcott, Jr., had warned Hamilton that if he became inspector general he would have to double as secretary of war because McHenry’s “good sense, industry, and virtues are of no avail without a certain address and skill in business which he has not and cannot acquire.”101 Washington chimed in that McHenry’s “talents were unequal to great exertions or deep resources.”102 The new army was plagued by bureaucratic problems, and Hamilton ended up lecturing McHenry on how to run a cabinet department. “I observe you plunged in a vast mass of detail,” he told McHenry, admonishing him to delegate more authority. As an old friend of McHenry, Hamilton did not wish to shunt him aside, but his incompetence was too glaring to overlook. Hamilton advised Washington confidentially that “my friend McHenry is wholly insufficient for his place, with the additional misfortune of not having himself the least suspicion of the fact!”103

Hamilton constantly issued directives to the hapless McHenry. That he accepted such guidance from Hamilton makes one suspect that he lacked confidence in his abilities and welcomed the guidance. But McHenry was not a quick pupil, and Hamilton wearied of trying to educate him. Before long, a querulous tone crept into Hamilton’s letters. He opened a back channel to Wolcott, telling his Treasury successor how he might assist McHenry in managing the War Department. All this intrigue thrust Hamilton ever deeper into the inner workings of John Adams’s cabinet. But this wasn’t simply a case of Hamilton’s trying to control the cabinet or alienate it from President Adams; rather, he needed a capable bureaucrat at the helm of the War Department. There was painful irony in the fact that Hamilton was quietly feuding with one of the very people whom Adams would shortly accuse him of controlling.

As Hamilton assembled his army in 1799, the bureaucratic snags only worsened, and recruits began to desert. At moments, Hamilton seemed to be reliving the anguish of the Revolution, when an inefficient Congress seemed deaf to the pleas of the Continental Army. Hamilton complained to McHenry about the lack of pay for his soldiers, the shortage of clothing, his fear that dissatisfied troops might mutiny. But the difficulties went deeper than administrative inadequacy on McHenry’s part; the real problems were political and far more intractable.

Republicans had long viewed Hamilton as a potential despot, but so long as he worked in harness to George Washington these fears had been totally baseless. As a member of Washington’s wartime family and then his cabinet, Hamilton operated within strict bounds. Now, Washington was retreating to a more passive role. As Hamilton drifted away from Washington’s supervision and felt more exasperated by Adams’s undisguised hostility toward him, he began to indulge in wild flights of fantasy and to resemble more the military adventurer of Republican mythology or the epithets that Abigail Adams pinned to him: “Little Mars” and “a second Bona-party.”104 This martial fervor was most apparent in Hamilton’s woefully misguided dream of liberating European colonies in North and South America. If an open break with France came, he wanted to collude with Britain to take over Spanish territory east of the Mississippi, while wresting Spanish America from Spain. “All on this side [of] the Mississippi must be ours, including both Floridas,” he had already argued to McHenry in early 1798.105

This imperialist escapade traced its origins back to a man named Francisco de Miranda. Born in Venezuela, he had fought against the British in the American Revolution along with Spanish forces. Stopping in New York in 1784, he had wooed a wary Hamilton with plans to emancipate Venezuela. A womanizer with a taste for luxury, Miranda had droned on with rapid, impassioned eloquence, pacing the room with long strides. Hamilton had given him a list of American officers whose interest might be piqued by his plan. In the years that followed, the nomadic Miranda lived in England and tried to dragoon Britain into inciting revolution in Latin America. Thwarted, he crossed the Channel and became a lieutenant general in the French Army. Then he became disillusioned with the French Revolution, telling Hamilton it had been taken over by crooks and ignoramuses in the name of liberty. In early 1798, upon leaving France, he resumed his crusade to have England and America jointly expel Spain from Latin America.

Miranda was a close friend of Adams’s son-in-law, William Smith, and perhaps imagined he would find a sympathetic ear in America. In London, he held secret talks with the U.S. minister, Rufus King, who relayed the contents to Timothy Pickering. Miranda also wrote about his plans to Hamilton, who did not answer the letter and scrawled on top of it: “Several years ago this man was in America, much heated with the project of liberating S[outh] Am[erica] from the Spanish domination…. I consider him an intriguing adventurer.”106 Only after becoming inspector general did Hamilton reply to Miranda’s letters and then cautioned him that nothing could be done unless the project was “patronized by the government of this country.”107 Nevertheless, Hamilton endorsed the plan in his letter, foresaw a combined British fleet and American army, and noted that he was raising an army of twelve thousand men. Hoping that the project would mature by winter, he told Miranda he would then “be happy in my official station to be an instrument of so good a work.”108 In sending this reply, Hamilton took a bizarre precaution to preserve secrecy, enlisting his six-year-old son, John Church Hamilton, as secretary so the letter would not bear his own handwriting. The boy also copied out a letter to Rufus King in London, supporting Miranda’s harebrained plot and hoping that the projected land force would be completely American. “The command in this case would very naturally fall upon me and I hope I should disappoint no favourable anticipation,” said Hamilton.109

Like the Reynolds pamphlet, these clandestine messages signal a further deterioration in Hamilton’s judgment once he no longer worked under Washington’s wise auspices and was left purely to his own devices. His actions were wrongheaded on several counts. Outwardly, he was professing neutrality toward Britain and France, while secretly contemplating an invasion with Britain. He was also mustering an army intended to defend America against a French threat while meditating its use in the southern hemisphere. He was also encouraging Miranda by private diplomatic channels rather than taking the matter directly to President Adams, with whom he seldom communicated. The projected mission, with Hamilton as its self-styled commander, gave him a vested interest in perpetuating the new army and resisting any accommodation with France. Drafting a letter for Washington in December 1798, Hamilton said the new army should be retained because there “may be imagined enterprises of very great moment to the permanent interests of this country, which would certainly require a disciplined force.”110

By early 1799, Hamilton advocated the South American operation far more openly, telling Harrison Gray Otis, who chaired the House committee on defense, “If universal empire is still to be the pursuit of France, what can tend to defeat the purpose better than to detach South America from Spain, which is only the channel th[r]ough which the riches of Mexico and Peru are conveyed to France? The executive ought to be put in a situation to embrace favorable conjunctures for effecting that separation.”111 As it happened, the chief executive rightly thought the whole plan an unspeakable piece of folly that would tear the country apart. “I do not know whether to laugh or weep,” Adams said of the intended scheme. “Miranda’s project is as visionary, though far less innocent, than…an excursion to the moon in a cart drawn by geese.”112 Adams then extrapolated a legitimate concern into a full-fledged conspiracy theory, telling Elbridge Gerry that “he thought Hamilton and a party were endeavoring to get an army on foot to give Hamilton the command of it and then to proclaim a regal government, place Hamilton at the head of it, and prepare the way for a province of Great Britain.”113 Adams later swore that he would have resigned before approving the Miranda plan, which would have produced “an instantaneous insurrection of the whole nation from Georgia to New Hampshire.”114

Hamilton believed that the United States should preemptively seize Spanish Florida and Louisiana, lest they fall into hostile French hands. To accomplish this, he directed General James Wilkinson to assemble an armada of seventy-five river-boats. The son of a Maryland planter, the hard-drinking Wilkinson was always ready for any mayhem. It later turned out that he had pocketed stipends from the Spanish government to incite a transfer of the Kentucky Territory to Spain. John Randolph of Roanoke called Wilkinson “the mammoth of iniquity…. [T]he only man I ever saw who was from the bark to the very core a villain.”115 The plump, ruddy Wilkinson made a showy appearance, wearing medals and gold buttons on his braided uniform. Even in the backwoods, he rode around in gold stirrups and spurs while seated on a leopard saddlecloth. He was happy to assist Hamilton in his expansionist plans. Wilkinson wanted to create a string of forts along the western edge of American settlement—measures that even Hamilton thought excessive. “The imbecility of the Spanish government on the Mississippi is as manifest as the ardor of the French fanatics of Louisiana is obvious,” Wilkinson told Hamilton.116 Hamilton never carried out his plans for Louisiana or Florida, much less for Spanish America. As the original rationale for his army—defense against a French invasion—was increasingly undercut by peace negotiations, such plans seemed increasingly pointless, preposterous, and irrelevant. Still, the episode went down as one of the most flagrant instances of poor judgment in Hamilton’s career.