Alexander Hamilton - Ron Chernow (2005)


The period of John Adams’s presidency declined into a time of political savagery with few parallels in American history, a season of paranoia in which the two parties surrendered all trust in each other. Like other Federalists infected with war fever, Hamilton increasingly mistook dissent for treason and engaged in hyperbole. In one newspaper piece, he blasted the Jeffersonians as “more Frenchmen than Americans” and declared that to slake their ambition and thirst for revenge they stood ready “to immolate the independence and welfare of their country at the shrine of France.”1 Republicans behaved no better, interpreting policies they disliked as the treacherous deeds of men in league with England and bent on bringing back George III. The indiscriminate use of pejorative labels—“Jacobins” for Republicans, “Anglomen” for Federalists—reflected the rancorously unfair emotions. During this melancholy time, the founding fathers appeared as all-too-fallible mortals.

An episode at Congress Hall in January 1798 symbolized the acrimonious mood. Representative Matthew Lyon of Vermont, a die-hard Republican, began to mock the aristocratic sympathies of Roger Griswold, a Federalist from Connecticut. When Griswold then taunted Lyon for alleged cowardice during the Revolution, Lyon spat right in his face. Griswold got a hickory cane and proceeded to thrash Lyon, who retaliated by taking up fire tongs and attacking Griswold. The two members of Congress ended up fighting on the floor like common ruffians. “Party animosities have raised a wall of separation between those who differ in political sentiments,” Jefferson wrote sadly to Angelica Church.2

The publication of the XYZ dispatches led to an even more militant atmosphere in Philadelphia. Violent clashes arose between roving bands of Federalists, sporting black cockades, and Republicans wearing French tricolor cockades. Actors singing “The Marseillaise” were booed off one stage. A Federalist gang descended upon the Republican newspaper the Aurora and not only smashed the windows of editor Benjamin Franklin Bache but smeared a statue of his revered grandfather with mud. As rumors gathered that French saboteurs might torch the city, John Adams stationed guards outside the presidential residence and laid in a store of arms.

The low point of his presidency came in June and July 1798. While Adams wrestled with Hamilton over the ranking of Washington’s major generals, Congress enacted four infamous laws designed to muzzle dissent and browbeat the Republicans into submission. They were known as the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Naturalization Act, passed on June 18, lengthened from five to fourteen years the period necessary to become a naturalized citizen with full voting rights. The Alien Act of June 25 gave the president the power to deport, without a hearing or even a reasonable explanation, any foreign-born residents deemed dangerous to the peace. The Alien Enemies Act of July 6 granted the president the power to label as enemy aliens any residents who were citizens of a country at war with America, prompting an out-flow of French émigrés. Then came the capstone of these horrendous measures: the Sedition Act of July 14, which rendered it a crime to speak or publish “any false, scandalous, or malicious” writings against the U.S. government or Congress “with intent to defame…or to bring them…into contempt or disrepute.”3 If found guilty, the perpetrators could face up to two thousand dollars in fines and two years in prison.

The Federalist-controlled Congress was maneuvering for partisan advantage and betraying an unbecoming nativist streak. Federalists wanted to curb an influx of Irish immigrants, who were usually pro-French and thus natural adherents to the Republican cause. Congressman Harrison Gray Otis of Boston set a strident tone when he declared that America should no longer “wish to invite hordes of wild Irishmen, nor the turbulent and disorderly parts of the world, to come here with a view to disturb our tranquillity after having succeeded in the overthrow of their own governments.”4

Another grievance rife among Federalists was reckless press behavior. During the 1790s, as the number of American newspapers more than doubled, many partisan sheets specialized in vituperative character attacks. Jefferson acknowledged the strategic power of these papers for Federalists and Republicans alike. “The engine is the press,” he told Madison. “Every man must lay his purse and his pen under contribution.”5 John Adams had learned to loathe many members of the Republican press. After Benjamin Franklin Bache died at twenty-nine in September 1798 in a yellow-fever epidemic (which also claimed the life of Federalist rival John Fenno), Adams described Bache as a “malicious libeller” and said “the yellow fever arrested him in his detestable career and sent him to his grandfather, from whom he inherited a dirty, envious, jealous, and revengeful spite against me.”6

Embittered by published screeds against her husband, Abigail Adams wrote perfervid letters in support of the Alien and Sedition Acts. Until Congress passed a sedition bill, she warned her sister-in-law, nothing would halt the “wicked and base, violent and calumniating abuse” of the Republican papers.7 She added that in “any other country, Bache and all his papers would have been seized long ago.”8 She hoped the Alien Act would be invoked to oust the Swiss-born Albert Gallatin, the House Republican leader after Madison’s departure. She considered Gallatin and his Jeffersonian colleagues little more than “traitors to their country.”9 She also distrusted immigrants, averring that “a more careful and attentive watch ought to be kept over foreigners.”10

Of course, the supreme bugaboo of Republican scribes was Alexander Hamilton. On May 21, 1798, William Keteltas, a Republican lawyer in New York, chastised him for ingratitude to a nation that had embraced him as a young man. Keteltas likened him to Caesar: “But like Caesar, you are ambitious and for that ambition to enslave his country, Brutus slew him. And are ambitious men less dangerous to American than Roman liberty?”11 Replying in the same newspaper the next day, Hamilton drew a dire inference about the author. “By the allusion to Caesar and Brutus, he plainly hints at assassination.”12

John Adams always tried to sidestep responsibility for the Alien and Sedition Acts, the biggest blunder of his presidency. He did not shepherd these punitive laws through Congress, but they were passed by a Federalist-dominated Congress during his tenure and with his tacit approval. After Hamilton was dead, Adams did not hesitate to blame him for these unfortunate measures. Upon taking office in 1797, Adams maintained, he had gotten a memo from Hamilton recommending an alien and sedition law. Embroidering this recollection in 1809, Adams thumped his chest proudly at his principled rejection of Hamilton’s advice: “I recommended no such thing in my speech. Congress, however, adopted both these measures. I knew there was need enough of both and therefore consented to them. But as they were then considered as war measures and intended altogether against the advocates of the French and peace with France, I was apprehensive that a hurricane of clamour” might be raised against them.13 Adams straddled two positions here, presenting himself as both prescient critic and reluctant advocate of the Alien and Sedition Acts. The truth is that Hamilton never espoused any such laws in the memos he drew up after Adams’s inauguration.

So what did Hamilton think of the notorious laws? Fearing an American fifth column, he now wanted to throttle the flow of immigration. “My opinion is that the mass [of aliens] ought to be obliged to leave the country”—a disappointing stance from America’s most famous foreign-born citizen and once an influential voice for immigration. He did argue for exceptions, however, and admonished Pickering, “Let us not be cruel or violent.”14 In contrast, he was stunned by his first glance at the Sedition Act, protesting to Treasury Secretary Wolcott, “There are provisions in this bill which according to a cursory view appear to me highly exceptionable and such as more than anything else may endanger civil war…. I hope sincerely the thing may not be hurried through. Let us not establish a tyranny. Energy is a very different thing from violence.”15

Unfortunately, once they were amended, Hamilton supported the Alien and Sedition Acts. Among other things, he was still outraged by the cutthroat behavior of the Scottish-born James T. Callender, who had exposed the Reynolds scandal. By late 1799, Hamilton exhorted Senator Jonathan Dayton to prosecute such foreign-born journalists, claiming that “in open contempt and defiance of the laws they are permitted to continue their destructive labours. Why are they not sent away? Are laws of this kind passed merely to excite odium and remain a dead letter?”16 Hamilton was never an automatic press critic, however much he deplored its abuses. And he justly applauded one meritorious idea buried in the Sedition Act: that in libel cases, the truth of an allegation should be allowed as a defense. Before, it had been necessary for the prosecution to prove only that the charges were defamatory, not that they were true. Hamilton would have much more to say about this issue in a dramatic legal case that was to expand press freedom in the United States. For this reason, he later said that “the sedition law, branded indeed with epithets the most odious[,]…will one day be pronounced a valuable feature in our national character.”17 For Republicans, however, the most salient feature of the Sedition Act was that it violated the First Amendment of the Constitution.

Republicans knew the unashamedly partisan nature of the new bills. “The Alien bill proposed in the Senate is a monster that must forever disgrace its parents,” Madison told Jefferson, who quickly agreed that it was “a most detestable thing.”18 So he would not have to preside over a Senate enacting legislation that he found hateful, Jefferson slipped away from Philadelphia and took refuge at Monticello for four and a half months. Beyond indignation, Jefferson professed a serene faith that the common sense of the people would rectify such errors. He told a fellow Virginian, “A little patience and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolved, and the people, recovering their true sight, restoring their government to its true principles.”19 He would not rely upon patience alone. He believed that Washington had checked the most harmful tendencies of the Federalists but that under Adams the party had “mounted on the car of state and, free from control, like Phaethon on that of the sun, drove headlong and wild.”20

Often amazingly accurate in his predictions, Jefferson saw the country approaching a political crossroads. The Federalists were displaying insufferable arrogance and using federal power to snuff out the opposition. In so doing, he concluded, they would relinquish the advantages they had won through the XYZ dispatches. Perhaps suffering from fatigue after almost a decade in power, the Federalists were governed more by fear than by hope. They had helped to build a durable government but did not trust the strength of the institutions they had so well created. Ironically, it was Jefferson, searing in his criticism of Federalist measures, who surveyed the future with habitual optimism. The Alien and Sedition Acts unified the Republican party while unchecked warfare between the Adams and Hamilton wings of the Federalist party was inwardly eroding its strength.

Many Republicans thought it best to sit back and let the Federalists blow themselves up. As James Monroe put it, the more the Federalist party was “left to itself, the sooner will its ruin follow.”21 Jefferson and Madison were not that patient, especially after Hamilton became inspector general of the new army. Jefferson thought the Republicans had a duty to stop the Sedition Act, explaining later that he considered that law “to be a nullity as absolute and as palpable as if Congress had ordered us to fall down and worship a golden image.”22 With Federalists in control of the government, this political magician decided that he and Madison would draft resolutions for two state legislatures, declaring the Alien and Sedition Acts to be unconstitutional. The two men operated by stealth and kept their authorship anonymous to create the illusion of a groundswell of popular opposition. Jefferson drafted his resolution for the Kentucky legislature and Madison for Virginia. The Kentucky Resolutions passed on November 16, 1798, and the Virginia Resolutions on December 24. Jefferson’s biographer Dumas Malone has noted that the vice president could have been brought up on sedition charges, possibly even impeached for treason, had his actions been uncovered at the time.

In writing the Kentucky Resolutions, Jefferson turned to language that even Madison found excessive. Of the Alien and Sedition Acts, he warned that, “unless arrested at the threshold,” they would “necessarily drive these states into revolution and blood.”23 He wasn’t calling for peaceful protests or civil disobedience: he was calling for outright rebellion, if needed, against the federal government of which he was vice president. In editing Jefferson’s words, the Kentucky legislature deleted his call for “nullification” of laws that violated states’ rights. The more moderate Madison said that the states, in contesting obnoxious laws, should “interpose for arresting the progress of the evil.”24This was a breathtaking evolution for a man who had pleaded at the Constitutional Convention that the federal government should possess a veto over state laws. In the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, Jefferson and Madison set forth a radical doctrine of states’ rights that effectively undermined the Constitution.

Neither Jefferson nor Madison sensed that they had sponsored measures as inimical as the Alien and Sedition Acts themselves. “Their nullification effort, if others had picked it up, would have been a greater threat to freedom than the misguided [alien and sedition] laws, which were soon rendered feckless by ridicule and electoral pressure,” Garry Wills has written.25 The theoretical damage of the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions was deep and lasting. Hamilton and others had argued that the Constitution transcended state governments and directly expressed the will of the American people. Hence, the Constitution began “We the People of the United States” and was ratified by special conventions, not state legislatures. Now Jefferson and Madison lent their imprimatur to an outmoded theory in which the Constitution became a compact of the states, not of their citizens. By this logic, states could refrain from complying with federal legislation they considered unconstitutional. This was a clear recipe for calamitous dissension and ultimate disunion. George Washington was so appalled by the Virginia Resolutions that he told Patrick Henry that if “systematically and pertinaciously pursued,” they would “dissolve the union or produce coercion.”26 The influence of the doctrine of states’ rights, especially in the version promulgated by Jefferson, reverberated right up to the Civil War and beyond. At the close of that war, James Garfield of Ohio, the future president, wrote that the Kentucky Resolutions “contained the germ of nullification and secession, and we are today reaping the fruits.”27

For Hamilton, the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions threatened to undo his lifelong goal of molding the states into a single, indivisible nation. Rejecting as a “gangrene” the idea that states could arbitrarily disobey certain federal laws, he asserted categorically that this would “change the government.”28 He inquired of Theodore Sedgwick, a High Federalist, “What, my dear Sir, are you going to do with Virginia? This is a very serious business, which will call for the wisdom and firmness of the government.”29 Hamilton wanted the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions submitted to a special congressional committee, which would expose how they would destroy the Constitution and afford evidence “of a regular conspiracy to overturn the government.”30 Just as Jefferson believed that Republicans could turn the Alien and Sedition Acts to advantage, so Hamilton thought the Federalists could capitalize on the misconceived Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. “If well managed,” he told Rufus King, “this affair will turn to good account.”31

Of the quartet of laws intended to silence dissent, the Sedition Act proved the most pernicious; indictments were brought against Republican editors based on flimsy, trumped-up charges. Some people were hauled into court for the heinous crime of setting up a liberty pole with the banner: “No Stamp Act; no Sedition, no Alien-Bill; no Land Tax; Downfall to the Tyrants of America; Peace and Retirement to the President.”32 One Republican editor made the mistake of calling Hamilton’s projected army a “standing army” and paid a steep price: a two-hundred-dollar fine plus two months in prison, where he could ponder his linguistic error. Another editor earned eighteen months behind bars for daring to print the heresy that the government allowed the wealthy to benefit at the expense of commoners. Congressman Matthew Lyon of Vermont got four months in jail for criticizing the president’s “unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice.”33 The most outlandish case involved the prosecution of Luther Baldwin of New Jersey, who, under the spell of strong drink, wished that the ceremonial cannon fire greeting President Adams had landed in his backside. Five of the six most influential Republican papers were ultimately prosecuted under the new laws by a Federalist-dominated judiciary.

During the reign of the Alien and Sedition Acts, Hamilton, long embattled by slander, instigated a libel suit against New York’s leading Republican newspaper, The Argus. After the death of publisher Thomas Greenleaf in September 1798, his widow, Ann, perpetuated the paper’s crusade against the Adams administration. Backed by the Sedition Act, Secretary of State Pickering—nicknamed “the Scourge of Jacobinism” for exploiting the government’s new prosecutorial powers—asked New York district attorney Richard Harison to monitor The Argus for “audacious calumnies against the government.”34 This led to a sedition prosecution against Ann Greenleaf for her paper’s contention that “the federal government was corrupt and inimical to the preservation of liberty.”35 Her problems were exacerbated on November 6, 1799, when the paper reprinted an article alleging that Hamilton had tried to squash the Philadelphia-based Aurora by offering to buy it for six thousand dollars from the widow of Benjamin Franklin Bache. (The sum was supposedly Hamilton’s share of a joint Federalist bid.) Margaret Bache claimed that she had rebuffed Hamilton’s offer in high dudgeon, insisting that she would never dishonor her husband’s memory by selling to Federalists. Aside from the small detail that he had never made such a bid, what irked Hamilton was that the Aurora had spun a tangled skein of speculation as to where he might have gotten the six thousand dollars. How, the Aurora queried, could Hamilton afford this when he had made so much of his inability to pay James Reynolds (“the reputed husband of the dear Maria”) one thousand dollars? The Aurora author served up a ready-made answer: the funds came from “British secret service money…. One would have supposed Mr. Hamilton might have fallen upon a better plan to suppress the Aurora, for it is a bungling piece of work at best.”36

For years, Hamilton had tried ceaselessly to stamp out slander and preserve his reputation. Now, he was convinced that it was all part of a well-organized plot to overthrow the government, as evidenced by the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. The same day that The Argus ran its offending piece about him, he composed an angry letter to Josiah Ogden Hoffman, New York’s attorney general, asking for criminal prosecution of the perpetrators on libel charges. He cast his grievance in cosmic terms, saying that he had long been subject to “the most malignant calumnies” but had refrained from libel suits, “repaying hatred with contempt.” He continued: “But public motives now compel me to a different conduct. The design[s] of that faction to overturn our government…become every day more manifest and have of late acquired a degree of system which renders them formidable. One principal engine for effecting the scheme is by audacious falsehoods to destroy the confidence of the people in all those who are in any degree conspicuous among the supporters of the government.”37 The next day, Cadwallader Colden, the assistant attorney general, visited Ann Greenleaf to apprise her of the prosecution. When she pleaded that she had merely reprinted the questionable article from another paper, Colden pointed out that under the Sedition Act her paper was still liable. Greenleaf then tried another line of defense: she had played no part in running the paper.

The suit was therefore filed against the editor, David Frothingham, who tried to dodge prosecution by billing himself as a journeyman printer in The Argus office. Despite his demanding duties as inspector general, Hamilton sat in on the trial, itching to testify. According to one newspaper account, the attorney general told the court that Hamilton’s “reputation depended in a great measure on the verdict then to be given. This was dearer to the witness than property or life.”38 (In retrospect, this statement has an eerily true ring.) Falling back on the common law, the court did not allow Hamilton to testify as to the truth or falsity of the charges leveled against him—a situation that may have firmed his resolve to establish this principle in American libel law. He did testify to general circumstances about the articles and said he had never made any offer for the Aurora. Asked whether the Aurora was hostile to the U.S. government, Hamilton fired back a resounding yes. Frothingham was convicted, fined one hundred dollars, and incarcerated in Bridewell prison for four months.

For the Republican press, the Frothingham conviction had one inestimable virtue: it allowed a full-scale reprise of the Maria Reynolds affair, a subject of which readers never tired. With heavy sarcasm, Hamilton was now styled “the amorous general.39 Both The Argus and the Aurora cast him as a heartless scamp who had gone from a dalliance with Maria Reynolds, under the guise of protecting her, to the callous prosecution of the Widow Bache. The Aurora taunted this “distinguished man of gallantry” and added that “the heart of this man must be formed of peculiar stuff.40 Another Republican paper suggested that Hamilton’s pursuit of The Argus had been revenge for the Reynolds exposé, saying of Hamilton that “it is very likely his ire has been provoked against the press for publishing to the world what a good friend he has been to female distress; how like the angel of charity he has poured the balm of consolation on the wounds of a poverty-struck matron; that he deigned to stoop from his then high and important station to console the sorrows and to relieve the woes of an afflicted fair one.”41 If Hamilton’s aim had been to crush The Argus, he succeeded. The following year, Ann Greenleaf shut down the paper and sold its equipment, depriving the Republicans of a key party organ on the eve of national elections.

Hamilton’s tough action against The Argus involved a legitimate case of libel. Far more questionable was the use he wished to make of the new army to deal with domestic disturbances. All along, Republicans had worried that his soldiers would pounce on them instead of Napoleon. The Aurora, as usual, sounded the alert: “The echoes of our ministerial oracles assert that the army of mercenaries contemplated to be raised are entirely for home service.”42 In some respects, the threat from Hamilton was exaggerated. His army remained more hypothetical than real, and he never commanded a large force. He would also have required the approval of President Adams for any domestic use of force.

But the record shows that the inspector general did have domestic as well as foreign enemies on his mind, especially after passage of the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. In a letter he sent to Harrison Gray Otis on December 27, 1798, he argued against any force reduction by noting that “with a view to the possibility of internal disorders alone, the force authorised is not too considerable.”43 From William Heth, a Federalist customs collector in Virginia, he received disturbing reports of a possible armed insurrection against the federal government. “You ask, ‘What do[es] the [Republican] faction in your state aim at?’” Heth reported. “I answer—nothing short of disunion and the heads of John Adams and Alexander Hamilton and some few others perhaps.”44 Heth misled Hamilton with an erroneous report that the Virginia legislature had decided to buy arms to combat the federal government.

By this point, Hamilton thought it might be necessary to put down subversion in Virginia, and this became integral to his rationale for a national army instead of state militias. “Whenever the experiment shall be made to subdue a refractory and powerful state by militia,” he told Theodore Sedgwick, “the event will shame the advocates. When a clever force has been collected, let them be drawn towards Virginia for which there is an obvious pretext—and then let measures be taken to act upon the laws and put Virginia to the test of resistance.”45 Jefferson watched Hamilton warily, telling one ally that “our Bonaparte” might “step in to give us political salvation in his own way.”46

The violent resistance to federal law foreseen by Hamilton cropped up in eastern Pennsylvania instead of Virginia. The opposition was centered in three counties north of Philadelphia—Bucks, Northampton, and Montgomery—with dense concentrations of German immigrants. They were generally uneducated and easily misled by rumors, such as the notion that President Adams planned a wedding between one of his sons and a daughter of George III. Local residents were so upset by federal property taxes, imposed to finance the Quasi-War with France, that they resisted new property assessments. The ringleader of this obstruction was a cooper, auctioneer, and former militia captain named John Fries, who had ten children. After marshals arrested a group of tax protesters, Fries stormed the Bethlehem jail along with 150 armed militiamen to free the prisoners. President Adams decided to send in troops to squash the rebellion and on March 12, 1799, issued a proclamation ordering the army to put down “combinations too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings.”47 Having declared this emergency, Adams left Philadelphia the same day for Quincy, Massachusetts.

Since Hamilton was de facto commander of the army, he had to handle the disorder, which became known as Fries’s Rebellion. He was handicapped by the lack of presidential leadership. “I get nothing very precise about the insurrection,” he complained to Washington. “But everything continues to wear the character of feebleness in respect to the measures for suppressing it.”48 Treasury Secretary Wolcott, despondent over the president’s improbable absence in the midst of a crisis, wrote to Hamilton from Philadelphia: “I am grieved when I think of the situation of the gov[ernmen]t. An affair which ought to have been settled at once will cost much time and perhaps be so managed as to encourage other and formidable rebellions. We have no Pres[iden]t here and the appearance of languor and indecision are discouraging to the friends of government.”49

To deal with the rebellion, Hamilton assembled a force that blended state militia and federal regulars. Believing, as always, that psychology was half the battle, Hamilton decided to stage a tremendous show of force. As in the Whiskey Rebellion, the army he sent into eastern Pennsylvania seemed disproportionately large and heavy-handed compared to the threat, which had already begun to wane. The troops took sixty prisoners back to Philadelphia, where the chief instigators were tried and convicted of treason. In the spring of 1800, against the unanimous advice of his cabinet, President Adams reversed position and pardoned Fries and two other convicted protesters, calling them “obscure, miserable Germans, as ignorant of our language as they were of our laws.”50 Adams thought treason too strong a charge to apply to the Pennsylvania rioters. The action was reminiscent of Washington’s clemency after the Whiskey Rebellion, though it may have been influenced by Adams’s fears that the German population would defect to the Republicans in the 1800 presidential election. Hamilton was dismayed by the pardon.

Adams worried increasingly about the militaristic tendencies and authoritarian side that had emerged in the frustrated, restless Hamilton’s behavior. He justly observed, “Mr. Hamilton’s imagination was always haunted by that hideous monster or phantom so often called a crisis and which so often produces imprudent measures.”51 In later years, he congratulated himself that he had restrained Hamilton, who “save for me would have involved us in a foreign war with France and a civil war with ourselves.”52 What Adams could not admit was that he had failed to exercise strong leadership and had allowed the feud with Hamilton and his cabinet to fester. Escaping to his home in Quincy was not the most effective way to deal with intramural clashes.