Alexander Hamilton - Ron Chernow (2005)
Chapter 35. GUSTS OF PASSION
Even while carrying out his duties as inspector general of a nascent army, Hamilton made time for the occasional legal case. He had seldom gravitated to criminal cases, preferring civil cases with substantial constitutional issues or commercial cases that generated adequate fees. On those infrequent occasions when he took criminal cases, he usually defended the underdog on a pro bono basis—evidence that once again challenges the historic stereotype of Hamilton as an imperious snob. Such a case arose in the spring of 1800 when he thought a likable young carpenter named Levi Weeks was being unjustly accused of murder. As in the postwar Loyalist cases, Hamilton was disturbed whenever public opinion howled for bloody revenge.
In the annals of New York crime, the Levi Weeks case is often called the Manhattan Well Tragedy, and it forms yet another chapter in the convoluted relationship of Hamilton and Aaron Burr. At first glance, the case seemingly involved an innocent maiden betrayed by an unfeeling cad. On the snowy evening of December 22, 1799, Gulielma Sands, about twenty-two, left her boardinghouse on Greenwich Street, which was operated by her respectable Quaker relatives, Catherine and Elias Ring. It was believed that she had gone off to marry her fiancé, Levi Weeks, who was also a tenant and was seen chatting with her before her departure. Later that night, Weeks returned to the Ring household alone, inquired if Sands had gone to bed, and was shocked to discover that she was not there. On January 2, her fully dressed corpse was fished from a wooden well owned by the Manhattan Company. Perhaps because he had founded the company, Aaron Burr joined with Hamilton and Brockholst Livingston to defend Levi Weeks against a murder charge.
The corpse of Gulielma Sands was mottled and swollen and badly bruised around the face and breasts. The public was riveted by these gory details, and handbills insinuated that she had been impregnated and then murdered by Weeks. Elias and Catherine Ring egged on this speculation, with Elias recalling that when Weeks came home on the evening of Sands’s disappearance “he appeared as white as ashes and trembled all over like a leaf.”1 The Rings even engaged in some macabre showmanship at their boardinghouse. They displayed Sands’s body in a coffin for three days and then placed it for a day on the pavement outside, allowing people to gratify their ghoulish curiosity and decide whether she had been pregnant. (The inquest said she had not.) As the uproar against Levi Weeks reached a crescendo—“Scarcely anything else is spoken of,” said one local diarist—gossips whispered of ghostly apparitions at the Manhattan well.2 The prosecution of Weeks assumed the vengeful mood of a witch-hunt. The indictment said that, “not having the fear of God before his eyes, but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the devil,” Weeks had “beat[en] and abused” Sands before murdering her and stuffing her down the well.3
The People v. Levi Weeks began on March 31 at the old City Hall on Wall Street, the Federal Hall of Washington’s first inauguration. Such a huge throng showed up that constables had to empty the courtroom of “superfluous spectators.”4 Levi Weeks could hear crowds outside chanting for his blood: “Crucify him! Crucify him!”5 The case holds a special place in Hamilton’s legal practice because William Coleman, a court clerk and later editor of the New-York Evening Post, provided an almost complete stenographic transcript—a novelty in those days. Unfortunately, Coleman did not specify which defense lawyer spoke at any given moment, though we can make some educated guesses. For instance, the grandiloquent lawyer who opened the defense case spoke in a florid style reminiscent of Hamilton rather than the more succinct Burr.
I know the unexampled industry that has been exerted to destroy the reputation of the accused and to immolate him at the shrine of persecution without the solemnity of a candid and impartial trial…. We have witnessed the extraordinary means which have been adopted to inflame the public passions and to direct the fury of popular resentment against the prisoner. Why has the body been exposed for days in the public streets in a manner the most indecent and shocking?…In this way, gentlemen, the public opinion comes to be formed unfavourably and long before the prisoner is brought to his trial he is already condemned.6
It seems mystifying that Levi Weeks could have assembled a team composed of the three preeminent lawyers in New York. Hamilton could scarcely have warmed to Burr after the Manhattan Company sham and was likely motivated by his friendship with Ezra Weeks, Levi’s brother, whom he had hired to construct a weekend home north of the city. Another likely reason why Hamilton collaborated with Burr is that the trial occurred on the eve of local elections that were to have profound national implications. None of the three lawyers could afford to miss a chance to publicize his talents in a spectacular criminal case.
The trial unfolded with a speed that seems unimaginable today. Fifty-five witnesses testified in three days, each day’s testimony lasting well past midnight. The rigorous defense team established a credible alibi for Levi Weeks, claiming that he had dined with Ezra on the night in question. During that dinner, John B. McComb, Jr., the architect hired for Hamilton’s new home, arrived and found a cheerful Levi stowing away a hearty dinner. From medical experts, the defense elicited helpful opinions that the marks on Gulielma Sands’s body might have been produced by drowning or by the autopsy itself, opening up the possibility of suicide. (The coroner’s inquest had established drowning, not beating, as the cause of death.) The defense lawyers also discredited the testimony of Elias and Catherine Ring, showing that Elias Ring had probably slept with Gulielma Sands and that Sands, no innocent damsel, had a little weakness for laudanum. The image of the Ring household evolved from a scene of violated gentility into something closer to a sedate brothel.
As the trial proceeded, the defense cast suspicion on a Richard Croucher, a shady salesman of ladies’ garments, who had zealously stirred up malice against Levi Weeks. Croucher had arrived from England the year before and was yet another raffish lodger at the steamy Ring premises. As principal witness for the prosecution, he seemed too eager to retail stories about sexual liaisons between Levi Weeks and Gulielma Sands. The defense lawyers damaged Croucher’s credibility by getting him to confess that he had quarreled with Weeks.
It has become part of Hamiltonian legend that when Croucher testified, Hamilton placed candles on both sides of his face, giving his features a sinister glow. “The jury will mark every muscle of his face, every motion of his eye,” Hamilton is said to have declaimed. “I conjure you to look through that man’s countenance to his conscience.”7 Croucher supposedly confessed on the spot. Oddly enough, Aaron Burr later claimed that he had grabbed two candelabra from the defense table, held them toward Croucher, and declared theatrically, “Behold the murderer, gentlemen!”8 Traumatized by this exposure, the guilty Croucher was alleged to have bolted in terror from the courtroom. Coleman’s transcript shows when the famous moment may have occurred. One witness was testifying to Croucher’s unsavory character when, Coleman noted, “here one of the prisoner’s counsel held a candle close to Croucher’s face, who stood among the cro[w]d and asked the witness if it was he and he said it was.”9 Hamilton or Burr may have flicked the candle toward Croucher in a rapid gesture that made him appear to cringe guiltily in the glare of a burning taper. The lodger never confessed to the crime. The likelihood that Croucher, not Weeks, was the culprit increased three months later when he was convicted of raping a thirteen-year-old girl at the racy Ring boardinghouse.
The protracted case ended at 1:30 in the morning on April 2, 1800. The bleary-eyed prosecutor had not slept for forty-four hours, and Hamilton noted that everyone was “sinking under fatigue.” Hamilton therefore waived the right to a summation, saying he would “rest the case on the recital of the facts” by the bench. Hamilton felt confident that the case required no “laboured elucidation.”10 He and his colleagues had convincingly shown that Levi Weeks had a watertight alibi, that the evidence against him was circumstantial, and that he possessed no motive for butchering his fiancée. The jury agreed. William Coleman ended his transcript: “The jury then went out and returned in about five minutes with a verdict—NOT GUILTY.”11 It was a triumph for the defense and a hideous embarrassment for Elias and Catherine Ring. As Hamilton strode from the courtroom, Catherine Ring waved a fist in his face and shouted, “If thee dies a natural death, I shall think there is no justice in heaven.”12
While Hamilton and Burr bestrode the Wall Street courtroom, they knew that local elections for the state legislature in late April might affect much more than New York politics: they might determine the next president of the United States. With John Adams certain to run strongly in New England and Thomas Jefferson equally so in the south, the election would hinge on pivotal votes in the mid-Atlantic states, particularly New York, which had twelve electoral votes. The Constitution gave each state the right to choose its own method for selecting presidential electors, and New York picked its by a joint ballot of the two houses of the legislature, both now with Federalist majorities, yet with the upstate counties evenly split between Republicans and Federalists. The New York City elections that spring could tip the balance of the legislature one way or the other. Thus, as New York City went, so went the state, and possibly the nation.
Jefferson realized this and advised Madison in early March that “if the city election of N[ew] York is in favor of the Republican ticket,” then the national winner might be Republican.13 Within Hamilton’s Federalist coterie, the April elections arose as the best chance to blunt John Adams’s reelection bid and substitute a more congenial Federalist candidate. Robert Troup wrote to Rufus King, “This election will be all important…and particularly so as there is a decided and deep rooted disgust with Mr. Adams on the part of his best old friends.”14
The centrality of the New York City elections presented an unprecedented opportunity for that most dexterous opportunist, Aaron Burr, who knew that the Republicans wanted to achieve geographic balance on their national ticket by having a northern vice presidential candidate. If he could deliver New York into the Republican camp, he might parlay that feat into a claim on the second spot under Jefferson. In the polarized atmosphere of American politics, Burr knew that a northern renegade aligned with southern Republicans could provide a critical swing factor. This was Alexander Hamilton’s recurring nightmare: an electoral deal struck between Virginia and New York Republicans.
In the New York City elections that spring, Hamilton and Burr descended from the lofty heights to spar in the grit and bustle of lower Manhattan ward politics. On April 15, Hamilton met with his Federalist adherents at the Tontine City Hotel and drew up a largely undistinguished slate of candidates for the state Assembly. It was composed of an atypical (for the Federalists) cross-section of New Yorkers, with a potter, a mason, a ship chandler, a grocer, and two booksellers. This may have been a strategy to outflank the Republicans, or it may have reflected the reluctance of many wealthy Federalists to put in time as poorly paid state legislators, especially with the state capital now transferred to Albany. Burr, with his customary craft, waited for Hamilton to present his slate before revealing his own. When Burr scanned a sheet naming the Federalist candidates, he “read it over with great gravity, folded it up, put it in his pocket, and…said, ‘Now I have him all hollow,’” said John Adams.15
The suave Burr packed his slate with gray eminences. He cajoled the perennial ex-governor, George Clinton, out of retirement and added the aging Horatio Gates, still feeding off his wartime victory at Saratoga, as well as Brockholst Livingston, his recent cocounsel. An early master of the art of coalition politics, Burr made common cause with Clintonians and Livingstons to present a redoubtable united front. Hamilton thought Burr had engaged in deceptive window-dressing by padding his slate with luminaries who had no real intention of serving in the state legislature and cared only about the selection of Republican electors in the presidential race.
Unlike other contemporary politicians, Burr enjoyed the nitty-gritty of such campaigns and embraced the electioneering they disdained. No other member of the founding generation would have explained his fondness for elections by stating that they provided “a great deal of fun and honor and profit.”16 That spring, Burr ran a campaign that, with its exhaustive toolbox of techniques, previewed modern political methods. Federalists had benefited from a requirement that voters needed to own substantial real estate. To bypass this, Burr exploited a legal loophole that enabled tenants to pool their properties and claim that their combined values qualified them to vote. He sent German-speaking orators into German-speaking areas. Burr also infused his passionate young followers with uncommon zeal at a time of haphazard campaigning. They drew up lists of voters in the city, with long columns of names accompanied by thumbnail sketches of the voter’s political bent, finances, health, and willingness to volunteer. With his campaign workers knocking on doors to solicit funds, Burr dispensed canny tips about potential donors. “Ask nothing of this one,” he would say. “If we demand money, he’ll be offended and refuse to work for us…. Double this man’s assessment. He’ll contribute generously if he doesn’t have to work.”17 However aristocratic his lineage, Burr was a proponent of the hard sell and shrewdly sized up his targets. He also scented victory on several topical issues, denouncing the Alien and Sedition Acts and the unpopular taxes levied to finance Hamilton’s army. “Burr’s generalship, perseverance, industry, and execution exceeds all description,” Commodore James Nicholson told Albert Gallatin. He was as “superior to the Hambletonians as a man is to a boy.”18
That April, New Yorkers out for a stroll could have stumbled upon either Alexander Hamilton or Aaron Burr addressing crowds on street corners, sometimes alternating on the same platform. They treated each other with impeccable courtesy. Neither seemed to have any hesitation about soliciting voters individually or in small groups. One Republican paper could scarcely believe Hamilton’s strenuous campaigning as he rallied the faithful like a general marshaling men for battle: “Hamilton harangues the astonished group. Every day he is seen in the street, hurrying this way and darting that. Here he buttons a heavy-hearted fed[eralist] and preaches up courage, there he meets a group and he simpers in unanimity…. [H]etalks of perseverance and (God bless the mark) of virtue!”19 The Federalist papers professed similar shock at seeing the patrician Burr working the Manhattan sidewalks, one paper asking how a would-be vice president could “stoop so low as to visit every corner in search of voters?”20 Burr opened his home to his workers, serving refreshments and scattering mattresses on the floor to allow quick naps. One New York merchant recorded in his diary: “Col. Burr kept open house for nearly two months and committees were in session day and night during that whole time at his house.”21
Burr displayed similar professional stamina during the three-day polling period. To guard against any Federalist vote tampering, he assigned poll watchers to voting stations and kept a ten-hour vigil at one venue. A local congressman told James Monroe, “Burr is in charge, to his exertions we owe much. He attended the [polling] places within the city for 24 hours without sleeping or resting.”22 To turn out the vote, he organized a cavalcade of “carriages, chairs and wagons” to transport Republican sympathizers to the polls. For three days, Hamilton was no less assiduous, mounting his horse and riding from place to place, mobilizing supporters and enduring shouts of “scoundrel” and “villain” in Republican precincts.23
By midnight on May 1, 1800, the local political world learned the result of this fierce election, one that portended a fundamental realignment in American politics: the Republican slate had swept New York City, converting Hamilton’s own home turf from a Federalist to a Republican stronghold. This meant that Jefferson could now count on twelve electoral votes where he had received none in 1796. Since he had lost to Adams then by only three votes, this shift was a real thunderbolt. Burr took justifiable pride in his triumph, explaining to one downcast Federalist that “we have beat[en] you by superior management.”24 Theodore Roosevelt later interpreted Burr’s victory as that of the skillful ward politician, with a “mastery of the petty political detail,” over the statesmanlike Hamilton, but Hamilton had not hesitated to dip into the humble mechanics of politics.25
A shaken Hamilton and fellow Federalists attended a May 4 caucus that was infiltrated by the Republican press. The Aurora said that the “despondency” of those assembled verged on “the melancholy of despair.”26 Those present were so petrified at the thought of Jefferson as president that they considered desperate measures. Led by Hamilton, they decided to appeal to Governor Jay and have him convene the outgoing state legislature to impose new rules for choosing presidential electors. They now wanted the electors chosen through popular voting by district. Most shocking of all, they wanted this new system applied retroactively, to overturn the recent election. In heated arguments over the proposition, the Aurora noted that “when it was urged that it might lead to a civil war…a person present observed that a civil war would be preferable to having Jefferson.”27
Hamilton’s appeal may count as the most high-handed and undemocratic act of his career. A year earlier, Burr had championed a proposal in the state legislature to scrap the existing method for selecting presidential electors: instead of having the legislature elect them, they would be elected by the people on a district-by-district basis. The Federalists had hooted this down, but now Hamilton had the gall to revive the idea. On May 7, he warned Jay that the recent election would probably install Jefferson—“an atheist in religion and a fanatic in politics”—as president.28 He portrayed the Republican party as an amalgam of dangerous elements, some favoring “the overthrow of the government by stripping it of its due energies, others…a revolution after the manner of Buonaparte.”29 Hamilton acknowledged that Republicans would unanimously oppose his measure but that “in times like these in which we live, it will not do to be overscrupulous. It is easy to sacrifice the substantial interests of society by a strict adherence to ordinary rules.”30 This from a man who had consecrated his life to the law. Henry Cabot Lodge said of this irreparable blot on Hamilton’s career, “The proposition was, in fact, nothing less than to commit under the forms of law a fraud, which would set aside the expressed will of a majority of voters in the state.”31 Hamilton seemed oblivious of the contradiction in asking Jay to resort to extralegal means to conserve the rule of law. A politician of strict integrity, Jay was dumbstruck by Hamilton’s letter, which he tabled and never answered. On the back, he wrote this deprecating description: “Proposing a measure for party purposes which it would not become me to adopt.”32 Jay’s silence was an apt expression of scorn.
How had Hamilton justified this disgraceful action to himself? He believed that Jefferson’s support for the Constitution had always been lukewarm and that, once in office, he would dismantle the federal government and return America to the chaos of the Articles of Confederation. This was not entirely paranoid thinking on Hamilton’s part, for Jefferson made statements that sounded as if he wanted an annulment or radical recasting of the Constitution. “The true theory of our Constitution,” Jefferson told Gideon Granger, was that “the states are independent as to everything within themselves and united as to everything respecting foreign nations.”33 The application of this theory would have canceled out much of Hamilton’s domestic system. Yet by this point Hamilton should have known that Jefferson’s rhetoric tended to outpace reality and that a wily, pragmatic politician lurked behind the sometimes overheated ideologist.
Within days of the New York election, Burr felt within his grasp the prize he coveted: the Republican nomination for vice president. As a reward for the New York victory, a congressional caucus in Philadelphia decided that the party’s vice presidential candidate should come from that state. Although consideration was given briefly to George Clinton and Robert R. Livingston, Burr had masterminded the victory, and his followers exacted their due. A heavy load of mutual distrust between Jefferson and Burr was temporarily set aside. Burr remembered that during the previous presidential campaign, Virginia Republicans had pledged to support him and then given him only lackluster backing. For his part, Jefferson later admitted that he had employed Burr as a (slippery) tool to further his ambitions in 1800. “I had never seen Colonel Burr till he came as a member of [the] Senate,” he would write. “His conduct very soon inspired me with distrust. I habitually cautioned Mr. Madison against trusting him too much.”34 Only Burr’s bravura performance in the New York elections had secured his place on the ticket. “When I destined him for a high appointment,” Jefferson continued, “it was out of respect for the favor he had obtained with the republican party by his extraordinary exertions and successes in the New York election in 1800.”35 Jefferson had no true respect for Burr, much less affection. Their partnership was to last as long as it served their mutual interests and not a second longer.
Hamilton always believed that the Federalist defeat in New York City in the spring of 1800 had thrown John Adams into such a fright about his reelection prospects that he decided to purge his cabinet of Hamilton loyalists in order to court Republican votes. On May 3, the day the news arrived, Jefferson saw that the election results had indeed dealt a horrendous blow to Adams. “He was very sensibly affected,” Jefferson reported, “and accosted me with these words, ‘Well, I understand that you are to beat me in this contest and I will only say that I will be as faithful a subject as any you will have.”36
John Adams later claimed that in May 1800 he had experienced a sudden epiphany and discovered Hamilton’s malevolent control over his cabinet. But he had harbored such thoughts all along, and rumors of impending cabinet firings had flitted about since the previous summer. George Washington had handled cabinet infighting in a forceful, dignified fashion, as when he tried in vain to impose a truce in the anonymous newspaper war between Hamilton and Jefferson. By contrast, Adams had sputtered and railed and done nothing. “Adams was contemplative and something of a loner,” wrote John Ferling, “whereas Washington was an aggressive, energetic businessman-farmer who read relatively little and was happiest when he was physically active.”37 Washington had a command over his subordinates, and a subtle knowledge of their true nature that Adams never managed to achieve.
Increasingly, Adams had accused Pickering and McHenry of being tools of Great Britain who opposed his French peace initiatives, and he excoriated them openly. Treasury Secretary Wolcott told a colleague in December 1799 that President Adams “considers Col. Pickering, Mr. McHenry, and myself as his enemies; his resentments against General Hamilton are excessive; he declares his belief at the existence of a British faction in the United States.”38With his selective memory, Adams sometimes forgot having made such defamatory remarks. Federalist George Cabot told Wolcott that the president “denies that he ever called us [a] ‘British faction.’…[H]e does not recollect these intemperances and thinks himself grossly misunderstood or misrepresented.”39 House Speaker Sedgwick supplied Hamilton with similar anecdotes of the president belittling his Federalist colleagues and subordinates: “He everywhere denounces the men…in whom he confided at the beginning of his administration as an oligarchish faction.” Adams noisily upbraided his cabinet, Sedgwick said, telling them that “they cannot govern him” and that “this faction and particularly Hamilton its head…intends to drive the country into a war with France and a more intimate…union with Great Britain.”40 Fisher Ames said that Adams went on in this vein “like one possessed.”41
The image of a wrathful Adams, prone to temper tantrums, was not the invention of Alexander Hamilton, and he was far from alone in finding Adams agitated, intemperate, and subject to violent fits. Congressman James A. Bayard of Delaware told Hamilton that Adams was “liable to gusts of passion little short of frenzy, which drive him beyond the control of any rational reflection. I speak of what I have seen. At such moments the interest of those who support him or the interest of the nation would be outweighed by a single impulse of rage.”42 The Republicans disseminated a similarly unflattering view of an irascible Adams. Jefferson recalled how Adams shouted profanities at his cabinet while storming around the room and “dashing and trampling his wig on the floor.”43 And Jefferson’s tool, James T. Callender, assailed Adams in a string of essays collected into a book entitled The Prospect Before Us:“The reign of Mr. Adams has been one continued tempest of malignant passions. As president, he has never opened his lips or lifted his pen without threatening and scolding.”44 Callender got nine months in jail for his tirade, which had been modestly subsidized by Jefferson. The latter denied any involvement until Callender later publicized a clutch of telltale letters that Jefferson had written to him.
Many High Federalists who constituted Hamilton’s wing of the party preferred Charles Cotesworth Pinckney as their presidential standard-bearer. An Oxford-educated lawyer from South Carolina—a southern state with a significant merchant class—Pinckney had risen to brigadier general during the Revolution and later attended the Constitutional Convention. His candidacy possessed powerful symbolic value, on account of his role in the XYZ Affair and his position as Hamilton’s senior partner in the recent army. Pinckney’s admirers, however, knew that they could hardly dump a sitting president and would have to settle for him as vice president. After Federalist congressmen caucused in Philadelphia on May 3, 1800, they decided that to “support Adams and Pinckney, equally, is the only thing that can possibly save us from the fangs of Jefferson,” as Hamilton wrote.45 But if Pinckney received more votes than Adams in his native South Carolina, he could easily become president instead of vice president on the Federalist ticket. Adams saw the Pinckney boomlet as a thinly veiled ploy by Hamilton to replace him with someone more tractable to his wishes. Hamilton now regarded Adams as unstable and thought Pinckney had a more suitable temperament for the presidency. His preference for Pinckney was a risky strategy, since Adams was an incumbent president, and Americans were scarcely clamoring for Charles Cotesworth Pinckney.
So when Adams inaugurated his cabinet purge on May 5, 1800, it was not so much that he had just “discovered” Hamilton’s control over his cabinet in a flash of light. Rather, he was alarmed by the realization of his own weakness as a candidate, as evidenced by the New York elections that week. One can scarcely fault Adams for cleansing his cabinet of mediocre or disloyal men, and he should have fired them a lot earlier. But he conducted the firings in an autocratic manner that led to a political bloodbath, widened the discord in Federalist ranks, and confirmed Hamilton’s doubts about his unbecoming behavior.
The firings started on May 5 when Adams summoned the unwitting James McHenry from a dinner party. The Irish-born McHenry had been an inept secretary of war. He was a sensitive, mild-mannered man who wrote poetry and retained a lilt in his voice. As a cabinet member, McHenry had been unnerved by the president’s mercurial moods and capricious judgment. He once said that whether Adams was “sportful, playful, witty, kind, cold, drunk, sober, angry, easy, stiff, jealous, cautious, confident, close, open,” it was “almost always in the wrong place or to the wrong persons.”46
At first, Adams pretended that he had yanked McHenry from the dinner party to discuss some inconsequential War Department business. Then, as McHenry was leaving, Adams erupted in a furious monologue about Hamilton and the New York election and accused McHenry of conspiring against him. Against all evidence, Adams accused the indefatigable Hamilton of having sought a Federalist defeat in the New York election. A dumbfounded McHenry said, “I have heard no such conduct ascribed to General Hamilton and I cannot think it to be the case.” To which Adams replied, “I know it, Sir, to be so and require you to inform yourself and report.”47 Then Adams unleashed a memorable volley:
Hamilton is an intriguant—the greatest intriguant in the world—a man devoid of every moral principle—a bastard and as much a foreigner as Gallatin. Mr Jefferson is an infinitely better man, a wiser one, I am sure, and, if President, will act wisely. I know it and would rather be vice president under him or even minister resident at the Hague than indebted to such a being as Hamilton for the Presidency…. You are subservient to Hamilton, who ruled Washington and would still rule if he could. Washington saddled me with three secretaries who would control me, but I shall take care of that.48
This monologue went on and on. Adams faulted McHenry for not having forewarned him that Hamilton would materialize in Trenton the previous fall, charged him with incompetence in running his department, and mocked the notion that McHenry might know something about foreign affairs. “You cannot, sir, remain longer in office,” he concluded.49
McHenry was shocked less at being sacked than by Adams’s “indecorous and at times outrageous” behavior. He told his nephew that the president sometimes spoke “in such a manner of certain men and things as to persuade one that he was actually insane.”50 McHenry had just bought an expensive home in Washington, D.C., the federal district where the government would shortly move, and the firing cost him dearly. Nonetheless, he fell on his sword and resigned the next day.
Adams later expressed remorse at having “wounded the feelings” of McHenry, but Hamilton knew that McHenry was not the only one who felt the president’s anger. “Most, if not all, his ministers and several distinguished members of the two houses of Congress have been humiliated by the effects of these gusts of passion,” Hamilton wrote.51 For years, McHenry licked his wounds. Later on, upon reading Adams’s defense of his administration, he commented to Pickering, “Still in his own opinion the greatest man of the age, I see [Adams] will carry with him to the grave his vanity, his weaknesses, and follies, specimens of which we have so often witnessed and always endeavored to veil them from the public.”52
Five days after expelling McHenry, Adams wrote to Timothy Pickering and tried to induce the secretary of state to tender his resignation. A former adjutant general in the Continental Army, the Harvard-educated Pickering was too ornery to be controlled by anyone, even Hamilton, who acknowledged something “warm and angular in his temper.”53 He had tenaciously supported the Alien and Sedition Acts and proved an unyielding opponent of the Paris peace mission. Abigail Adams described Pickering as a man “whose temper is sour and whose resentments are implacable,” while her husband found him shifty eyed and ruthless, “a man in a mask, sometimes of silk, sometimes of iron, and sometimes of brass.”54 For Adams, Pickering had been Hamilton’s main henchman in his cabinet and an object of special detestation. As a confirmed abolitionist, Pickering so admired Hamilton that he later tried his hand at an authorized biography of him. “Mr. Pickering would have made a good collector of the customs, but, he was not so well qualified for a Secretary of State,” said Adams. “He was so devoted an idolater of Hamilton that he could not judge impartially of the sentiments and opinions of the President of the U[nited] States.”55 When Pickering received Adams’s note, he refused to give him the satisfaction of resigning, so Adams cashiered him in an act he called “one of the most deliberate, virtuous and disinterested actions of my life.”56
After three years of dealing with Adams at close quarters, Pickering circulated many stories about the president’s unreserved venom for Hamilton. “Once when Col. Hamilton’s name was mentioned to Mr Adams (who hated him) Adams said, ‘I remember the young bastard when he entered the army.’”57 Adams complained to Pickering that in accepting Hamilton as inspector general, the Senate had “crammed Hamilton down my throat.”58 Pickering believed that Adams feared Hamilton as a rival of superior talents and intelligence. Adams’s loathing of Hamilton grew so visceral, Pickering said, that the mere mention of his name “seemed to be sufficient to rouse his sometimes dormant resentments. And it is probable that he hoarded up all the gossiping stories of Hamilton’s amorous propensities.”59
Adams’s ouster of the two Hamiltonians produced jubilation among Republicans and led some Federalists to wonder whether that wasn’t the real point of the exercise. Pickering thought the clumsy firings were part of a deal that Adams cut with Republican opponents who would “support his re-election to the presidency, provided he would make peace with France and remove Mr. McHenry and me from office.”60 The Federalist press echoed this theme, with The Federalist of Trenton explaining Adams’s conduct as “the result of a political arrangement with Mr. Jefferson, an arrangement of the most mysterious and important complexion.”61
The repercussions of Adams’s firings were enduring. Combined with his simultaneous disbanding of the new army, Adams’s actions touched off a vindictive, mean-spirited mood in Hamilton, who now said of the president, “The man is more mad than I ever thought him and I shall soon be led to say as wicked as he is mad.”62 Beyond his own injured vanity and thwarted ambition, Hamilton regarded Adams as playing a duplicitous game, and he preferred an honest enemy to a dishonest friend. “I will never more be responsible for [Adams] by my direct support, even though the consequence should be the election of Jefferson,” Hamilton told Theodore Sedgwick. “If we must have an enemy at the head of the government, let it be one whom we can oppose and for whom we are not responsible.”63 Hamilton was congenitally incapable of compromise. Rather than make peace with John Adams, he was ready, if necessary, to blow up the Federalist party and let Jefferson become president.
The stream of personal abuse directed by Adams at Hamilton only made a bad situation worse. On June 2, McHenry sent Hamilton a confidential letter giving the unexpurgated version of his May 5 confrontation with Adams, complete with presidential references to Hamilton’s bastardy and foreign birth. Hamilton was as sensitive as ever about his illegitimacy, especially after a Republican newspaper in Boston warned him that “the mode of your descent from a dubious father, in an English island,” would bar any pretensions he might have to the presidency.64 Hamilton must have winced at this and quickly drafted a letter to an old wartime comrade, Major William Jackson. “Never was there a more ungenerous persecution of any man than of myself,” Hamilton began. “Not only the worst constructions are put upon my conduct as a public man but it seems my birth is the subject of the most humiliating criticism.”65 Hamilton then furnished the only account he ever left of his parentage, telling of his father’s chronic business troubles and his mother’s marriage to Johann Michael Lavien and subsequent divorce. He lied pathetically when he said that his parents had married but that the union was rendered technically illegal by the terms of his mother’s earlier divorce. With more than a dash of wounded pride, he added, “The truth is that on the question who my parents were, I have better pretensions than most of those who in this country plume themselves on ancestry.”66
Instead of sending the statement to Jackson, Hamilton showed it to James McHenry, who gave him wise advice:
I sincerely believe that there is not one of your friends who have paid the least attention to the insinuations attempted to be cast on the legitimacy of your birth or who would care or respect you less were all that your enemies say or impute on this head true. I think it will be most prudent and magnanimous to leave any explanation on the subject to your biographer and the discretion of those friends to whom you have communicated the facts.67
That someone of Hamilton’s elevated stature felt obligated to defend his birth at this stage of his career suggests how harrowing it must have been to hear of Adams’s constant digs at his upbringing.
After McHenry and Pickering were dismissed, Hamilton was emboldened to go further with his plans to strip Adams of the presidency. Most Federalists balked at opposing Adams, but some warmed to the idea of dropping a vote for him here and there and giving the edge to his running mate, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. That June, Hamilton sounded out Federalist opinion during a three-week tour that he made to New England under the guise of saying adieu to his crumbling army. In reality, it was a vote-getting campaign for Pinckney. In Oxford, Massachusetts, Hamilton reviewed a brigade and “expressed an unequivocal approbation of the discipline of the army and beheld with pleasure the progress of subordination and attention to dress and decorum,” a Boston paper reported.68 At moments, the tour seemed a sentimental version of Washington’s farewell from the Continental Army. At Oxford, under a flag-draped colonnade, with a backdrop of martial music, Hamilton threw a dinner for his outgoing officers. After toasting Washington’s memory, Hamilton gave a talk that “suffused every cheek” and showed “the agitation of every bosom.”69
Hamilton’s progress was tracked by a watchful Republican press. The Aurora told readers that Hamilton was traveling with “well-known aristocrats,” and when their carriage broke down in Boston the paper construed this mishap as a portent of “the downfall of aristocracy in the U[nited] States.”70 Hamilton must have felt he was riding high when he was honored by an adulatory dinner in Boston that included almost every Federalist of importance in the state. “The company was the most respectable ever assembled in this town on a similar occasion,” said one paper.71 Everywhere he went, Hamilton conjured up disturbing images of a French-style revolution in America, even telling one listener that it did not matter who became the next president because “he did not expect his head to remain four years longer upon his shoulders unless it was at the head of a victorious army.”72 This sounded like scare talk, but Hamilton actually believed these overblown fantasies of impending Jacobin carnage in America.
Spending the summer and early fall in Quincy, John and Abigail Adams understood the political agenda behind Hamilton’s mission. Quite understandably, John Adams became so consumed by anger against Hamilton, said Fisher Ames, that he was “implacable” against him and used language that was “bitter even to outrage and swearing.”73 Abigail disparaged Hamilton as “the little cock sparrow general” and described his trip as “merely an electioneering business to feel the pulse of the New England states and impress those upon whom he could have any influence to vote for Pinckney.”74 For Abigail, Hamilton was “impudent and brazen faced,” an upstart next to her husband.75 She derided Hamilton and his followers as “boys of yesterday who were unhatched and unfledged when the venerable character they are striving to pull down was running every risk of life and property to serve and save a country of which these beings are unworthy members.”76 This seemed to overlook Hamilton’s valor on many Revolutionary War battlefields. Increasingly,
John and Abigail Adams pinned a new conspiratorial tag on Hamilton and his followers, branding them the Essex Junto. These supposed plotters, many of them born in Essex County, Massachusetts, included Fisher Ames, George Cabot, Benjamin Goodhue, Stephen Higginson, John Lowell, and Timothy Pickering.
As Hamilton’s trip progressed, it was something less than the triumphal tour he had expected. He declared snobbishly that the “first class men” were for Pinckney and the “second class men” for Adams, but he encountered more of the latter than he bargained for.77 Many Adams supporters told Hamilton bluntly that if he persisted in trying to elect Pinckney, they would withhold votes from him to guarantee an Adams victory. Bruised by his brushes with Adams, Hamilton was deaf to these warnings. An incomparable bureaucrat and master theoretician, he had no comparable gift for practical politics.
The most striking example of Hamilton’s maladroit approach came when he lobbied Arthur Fenner, the Rhode Island governor. Fenner said that Hamilton showed up at his home, grandly surrounded by a retinue of colonels and generals, and instantly broached the topic of the presidential election. Hamilton stressed that only Pinckney would have broad support in both the north and south and that Adams couldn’t be reelected. Fenner turned on him hotly: “I then asked him what Mr. Adams had done that he should be tipped out of the tail of the cart.”78 Fenner lauded the peace mission to France and praised the comeuppances of McHenry and Pickering. “Adams is out of the question,” Hamilton insisted to Fenner. “It is Pinckney and Jefferson.”79 After years of painting Thomas Jefferson as the devil incarnate, Hamilton suddenly preferred him to John Adams, again showing that both Hamilton and Adams had lost all perspective in their rages against each other.
Impervious to criticism, Hamilton had embarked on a mad escapade to elect Pinckney, and it was bootless for friends to warn him that he had started a dangerous vendetta. Visiting Rhode Island that July, John Rutledge, Jr., a Federalist congressman from South Carolina, heard nasty scuttlebutt about Hamilton. Many Rhode Island residents, Rutledge informed Hamilton, are “jealous and suspicious of you in the extreme, saying…that your opposition to Mr. A[dams] has its source in private pique. If you had been appointed commander in chief on the death of Gen[era]l W[ashington] you would have continued one of Mr A[dams]’s partisans…. [Y]ou are endeavoring to give success to Gen[era]l P[inckney]’s election because he will administer the government under your direction.”80 Although several associates warned Hamilton that his lobbying campaign was backfiring, he did not heed them. He had drawn all the wrong lessons from his peregrinations through New England and decided that he would have to enlighten benighted voters to the manifold failings of John Adams. And he would do so by the method that he had employed throughout his career at critical moments: a blazing polemic in which he would lay out his case in crushing detail.