Alexander Hamilton - Ron Chernow (2005)


In writing an intemperate indictment of John Adams, Hamilton committed a form of political suicide that blighted the rest of his career. As shown with “The Reynolds Pamphlet,” he had a genius for the self-inflicted wound and was capable of marching blindly off a cliff—traits most pronounced in the late 1790s. Gouverneur Morris once commented that one of Hamilton’s chief characteristics was “the pertinacious adherence to opinions he had once formed.”1

Hamilton found it hard to refrain from vendettas. He would be devoured by dislike of someone, brood about it, then yield to the catharsis of discharging his venom in print. “The frankness of his nature was such that he could not easily avoid the expression of his sentiments of public men and measures and his extreme candor in such cases was sometimes productive of personal inconveniences,” observed friend Nathaniel Pendleton.2 Even Eliza in after years conceded that her adored husband had “a character perhaps too frank and independent for a democratic people.”3

So long as Hamilton was inspector general, he had stifled his pent-up anger against Adams, but by July 1800 his military service had ended and he could gratify his need to lash out at the president. He would repay all the snubs and slurs he had suffered, all the galling references to his bastardy. Once McHenry and Pickering were fired, Hamilton did not simply commiserate with them but encouraged them to preserve internal papers that would expose the president. “Allow me to suggest,” he told Pickering, “that you ought to take with you copies and extracts of all such documents as will enable you to explain both Jefferson and Adams.4 Pickering encouraged the project that Hamilton meditated: “I have been contemplating the importance of a bold and frank exposure of A[dams]. Perhaps I may have it in my power to furnish some facts.”5 Suspecting that Adams and Jefferson had sealed a secret election pact, Hamilton told McHenry, “Pray favour me with as many circumstances as may appear to you to show the probability of coalitions with Mr. Jefferson[,]…which are spoken of.”6

Hamilton ended up with the cooperation of the discontented cabinet members, including the one member of the triumvirate who had avoided the purge, Oliver Wolcott, Jr., the capable if unimaginative treasury secretary. Even though Adams thought Wolcott more loyal than McHenry and Pickering, Wolcott considered the president a powder keg. Of Adams, he told Fisher Ames, “We know the temper of his mind to be revolutionary, violent and vindictive…. [H]is passions and selfishness would continually gain strength.”7 Wolcott deprecated Adams’s peace overtures to France as a mere “game of diplomacy” designed to court votes.8 At moments, however, Wolcott grew ambivalent about the idea of Hamilton exposing Adams, arguing that “the people [already] believe that their president is crazy.”9 In the end, though, convinced that Adams would ruin the government, Wolcott told Hamilton that somebody had to write a “few paragraphs exposing the folly” of those who had idealized Adams as a noble, independent spirit.10

Thus, in his massive indictment of Adams, Hamilton drew on abundant information provided by McHenry, Pickering, and Wolcott about presidential behavior behind closed doors. Hamilton knew that the three would be charged with treachery by Adams, but he thought his pamphlet would forfeit all credibility without such documentation. Stories about Adams’s high-strung behavior, if legion in High Federalist circles, were little known outside of them. Hamilton also wanted to stress the mistreatment of cabinet members, lest readers dismiss his critique of Adams as mere personal pique over the disbanded army. Adams was duly shocked by the confidences that his ex–cabinet members betrayed. “Look into Hamilton’s pamphlet,” he told a friend. “Observe the pretended information of things which could only have passed between me and my cabinet.”11 In these revelations, Adams saw patent “treachery and perfidy.”12

By early August, Hamilton was in a fighting mood. On July 12, the Aurora printed yet another article accusing him—“the morally chaste and virtuous head” of the Treasury Department—of having devised a “corrupt system” of controlling the press and government employees while in office.13 Hamilton was so offended by this interminable nonsense that he told Wolcott he might institute a libel suit: “You see I am in a very belligerent humor.”14

Just how belligerent was already clear on August 1, 1800, when the hotheaded Hamilton composed an extraordinary letter to the president. All summer, Hamilton had chafed at reports that Adams was branding him a British lackey. Now he wrote to the president in peremptory terms.

It has been repeatedly mentioned to me that you have on different occasions asserted the existence of a British Faction in this Country, embracing a number of leading or influential characters of the Federal Party (as usually denominated) and that you have named me…as one of this description of persons…. I must, Sir, take it for granted that you cannot have made suchassertions or insinuations without being willing to avow them and to assign the reasons to a party who may conceive himself injured by them.15

Hamilton demanded the evidence behind these statements. As Adams would have known from the phraseology, Hamilton was, implausibly, commencing an affair of honor with the president of the United States. Many duels began with such imperious demands for explanations of purported slander. Adams did not answer the letter because of its insolent tone; perhaps he also knew that it would be difficult to substantiate his accusations. Hamilton, too, must have realized that he would be rebuffed by Adams. On October 1, he sent a follow-up note to Adams, calling the allegations against him “a base, wicked, and cruel calumny, destitute even of a plausible pretext to excuse the folly or mask the depravity which must have dictated it.”16 This was shockingly offensive language to use with a president and terminated all possibility of future contact between the two men.

Once launched upon a course of action, the combative Hamilton could never stop. As Federalists speculated about his upcoming open letter, prominent party members had misgivings. George Cabot told Hamilton that a careful, well-tempered critique of Adams might tip the balance toward Pinckney, but he thought it was too late for the Federalists to abandon Adams altogether. He feared that Hamilton would go to extremes and only excite jealousy and discord. “Although I think some good [may] be derived from an exhibition of Mr Adams’s misconduct,” Cabot wrote, “yet I am well persuaded that you may do better than to put your name to it. This might give it an interest with men who need no such interest, but it will be converted to a new proof that you are a dangerous man.17 The wavering Wolcott also warned Hamilton that his letter might breed divisions among Federalists, but he pressed on undeterred.

Hamilton did not seem to foresee that his anti-Adams pamphlet would prove so sensational. At first, he conceived of it as a private letter that would circulate among influential Federalists in New England and especially South Carolina, where he hoped electors might give the edge to Pinckney over Adams. What he did not anticipate was that his letter would soon be purloined and excerpted by the Aurora and other hostile Republican papers.

How did they gain access to Hamilton’s circular letter? Historians have tended to finger Burr, who obtained a copy and provided extracts to selected newspapers. In fact, the ubiquitous John Beckley, who leaked the Maria Reynolds pamphlet, may have been the conduit to the Aurora. Republicans knew that publishing Hamilton’s letter would deepen the rift in the Federalist party. Beckley gloated over Hamilton’s faulty judgment and hoped his letter would deal the coup de grâce to his career. “Vainly does he essay to seize the mantle of Washington and cloak the moral atrocities of a life spent in wickedness and which must terminate in shame and dishonor,” Beckley told a friend.18 The president’s nephew, William Shaw, confirmed that the pamphlet had been “immediately sent to Beckley at Philadelphia, the former clerk of the House of Rep[resentative]s, who caused extracts to be reprinted in the Aurora, through which medium it was first made known to the public.”19

The appearance of juicy passages in the Aurora and other Republican papers forced Hamilton to revise his plans and publish his letter openly in pamphlet form. He preferred that people read the entire document rather than portions selectively culled by his enemies. Among other things, Hamilton’s pamphlet was his riposte to Adams’s failure to acknowledge his challenging letter. So, contrary to his usual practice of anonymous publishing, Hamilton knew that, as a man of honor, he had to sign his name boldly to the document. The fifty-four-page pamphlet was published on October 24, 1800, while Hamilton was arguing a case before the New York Supreme Court in Albany. Instead of the letter being restricted to specific localities, it was now broadcast to a national audience.

In “The Reynolds Pamphlet,” Hamilton had exposed only his own folly. In the Adams pamphlet, he displayed both his own errant judgment and Adams’s instability. An elated Madison wrote to Jefferson, “I rejoice with you that Republicanism is likely to be so completely triumphant.”20 William Duane, the Aurora editor, exulted that the “pamphlet has done more mischief to the parties concerned than all the labors” of his paper.21 The Federalists were no less staggered by Hamilton’s folly. Noah Webster said that Hamilton’s “ambition, pride, and overbearing temper” threatened to make him “the evil genius of this country.”22 Condemnation of the pamphlet echoed down the generations even among the most admiring Hamiltonians. Henry Cabot Lodge labeled the open letter “a piece of passionate folly,” which coming on “the eve of a close and doubtful contest for the presidency was simple madness.”23

The bulk of the Letter from Alexander Hamilton, Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, Esq. President of the United States is a petulant survey of John Adams’s life and presidency. The author presented a tale of growing disenchantment with a man he once admired: “I was one of that numerous class who had conceived a high veneration for Mr. Adams on account of the part he acted in the first stages of our revolution.”24 However, in the early 1780s, while Hamilton served in Congress, Adams had shed his halo as he displayed “the unfortunate foibles of a vanity without bounds and a jealousy capable of discoloring every object.”25 He described the Adams presidency as “a heterogeneous compound of right and wrong, of wisdom and error.”26 While granting that Adams was a fair theorist, he criticized his handling of the peace mission to France, told how he routinely overrode cabinet members, and recounted the “humiliating censures and bitter reproaches” meted out to James McHenry.27

Not content to catalog wrongs done to administration members, Hamilton made the mistake of reviewing his own personal grievances. He complained that the president had not named him commander in chief after Washington’s death and cited sources that “Mr. Adams has repeatedly indulged himself in virulent and indecent abuse of me…has denominated me a man destitute of every moral principle…[and] has stigmatized me as the leader of a British Faction.”28 Such special pleading made Hamilton appear petty and vengeful, more a self-absorbed man seeking personal vindication than an upstanding party leader.

The final section of the pamphlet seemed particularly absurd. Having pummeled Adams for dotty behavior, he then endorsed him for president and advised electors to vote equally for Adams and Pinckney. If Federalists stayed united behind these two men, he predicted, they would “increase the probability of excluding a third candidate of whose unfitness all sincere Federalists are convinced”—namely, Jefferson.29 For a man of Hamilton’s incomparable intellect, the pamphlet was a crazily botched job, an extended tantrum in print.

In his sketch of Adams, it must be said, Hamilton only repeated what he had seen and heard. Adams certainly was not “mad,” as Hamilton alleged, but he had given way to numerous instances of profane and inappropriate behavior. There had been raving and cursing, indecent comments, and loss of self-control. Hamilton reiterated criticisms that Jefferson, Franklin, and others had made privately about Adams and synthesized them with observations from cabinet members and other Federalists who had witnessed the president’s oddly changeable behavior. Joseph Ellis has written that, despite Hamilton’s political prejudices, “he effectively framed the question that has haunted Adams’s reputation ever since: how was it that one of the leading lights in the founding generation seemed to exhibit such massive lapses in personal stability?”30

Some Federalists certified the accuracy of the Adams portrait. Benjamin Goodhue of Massachusetts saluted Hamilton’s courage: “We have been actuated by a pernicious policy in being so silent respecting Mr. A[dams]. The public have been left thereby to form opinions favorable to him and of course unfavorable to those who were the objects of his mad displeasure.”31 Charles Carroll, a former senator from Maryland, likewise sang the letter’s praises: “The assertions of the pamphlet, I take it for granted, are true. And, if true, surely it must be admitted that Mr Adams is not fit to be president and his unfitness should be made known to the electors and the public. I conceive it a species of treason to conceal from the public his incapacity.”32 Still other Federalists, such as William Plumer of New Hampshire, said sotto voce what Hamilton had the temerity to trumpet in print: “Mr. Adams’s conduct in office, in many instances, has been very irregular and highly improper. The studied neglect and naked contempt with which he has treated the heads of departments afford strong evidence of his being governed by caprice or that age has enfeebled his mental faculties.”33

Those siding with Hamilton composed a small minority of politicos. Most Federalists and all Republicans understood that the extended tirade against Adams made Hamilton look hypocritical and woefully indiscreet, especially when combined with the Maria Reynolds pamphlet. Robert Troup said that Hamilton’s letter had been universally condemned: “In point of imprudence, it is coupled with the pamphlet formerly published by the general respecting himself and not a man in the whole circle of our friends but condemns it…. Our enemies are universally intriumph.”34 Only something “little short of a miracle” could now stop Jefferson from becoming president, Troup feared, and he had little doubt that the pamphlet would sharply erode Hamilton’s influence among the Federalist faithful.35 At the other end of the political spectrum, Jefferson also believed that the tract dealt a mortal blow to Adams’s chances for reelection.

At first, Hamilton was caught off guard by news that his private letter would be widely circulated, but then he professed pleasure. Like Adams, he was blinded by pride. George Cabot told Hamilton that even his most “respectable friends” faulted him for displaying “egotism and vanity” in the publication.36 When Troup said he dreaded the impact on the Federalist cause, Hamilton insisted that it was being read with “prodigious avidity” and would be “productive of good.”37 Hamilton had departed so far from common sense that he solicited “new anecdotes” from McHenry and Pickering for a revised, expanded edition, even though McHenry had been shocked to see Hamilton print his stories without permission.38 Oliver Wolcott, Jr., was so alarmed about the projected update that he goaded McHenry into writing a letter that “pointedly advised” Hamilton against any such move.39 Hamilton reconsidered, and no new edition appeared.

Without question, Adams was correct in not dignifying the pamphlet with a response. “This pamphlet I regret more on account of its author than on my own because I am confident it will do him more harm than me,” he told a friend, while reviving his bizarre accusation that Hamilton had tried to blackmail Washington by threatening to publish “pamphlets upon his character and conduct.”40 For Adams to have responded publicly on the eve of national elections would only have aggravated turmoil in Federalist ranks. Abigail Adams privately mocked Hamilton with epithets often applied to her husband and derided his “weakness, vanity and ambitious views.”41

Adams did compose a refutation of Hamilton’s Letter but then let it gather dust in the drawer. He was no more capable of long-term silence than Hamilton, however, though he waited until after Hamilton’s death. The manner of Hamilton’s dying did not faze Adams, who said that he would not permit his “character to lie under infamous calumnies because the author of them, with a pistol bullet through his spinal marrow, died a penitent.”42 In 1809, Adams undertook an elaborate justification of his presidency in The Boston Patriot. The series continued almost weekly for three years, and Adams proved every bit as volatile as Hamilton had long ago alleged. He rejected Hamilton’s pamphlet as being “written from his mere imagination, from confused rumors, or downright false information.”43 He was not content to undo the work of the pamphlet and again stooped to personal characterizations as spiteful as anything Hamilton had written against him. He again criticized him for being foreign born, for knowing nothing of the American character, for not being a real patriot, for being an incorrigible rake, for being immature, for lacking military knowledge, even for being a shiftless treasury secretary who spent his time scribbling “ambitious reports” while underlings carried out the real departmental business. Like most people, Hamilton and Adams were preternaturally sensitive to flaws in the other that they themselves possessed.

For all their fratricidal warfare, the Federalists ran a surprisingly close race for the presidency. Jefferson and Burr tied with seventy-three electoral votes apiece, while Adams and Pinckney trailed with sixty-five and sixty-four votes respectively. As expected, New England unanimously backed Adams, while Jefferson captured virtually the entire south. The New York City elections in April 1800, which had pitted Hamilton against Burr in riveting political drama, had the expected decisive influence. New York cast its twelve electoral votes in a solid bloc for the Republican ticket, giving it the edge. David McCullough has noted the rich irony that “Jefferson, the apostle of agrarian America who loathed cities, owed his ultimate political triumph to New York.”44

But John Adams never doubted that Hamilton’s pamphlet had dealt a fatal blow to his candidacy. He later said, “if the single purpose had been to defeat the President, no more propitious moment could have been chosen.”45 On another occasion, Adams said that Hamilton and his band had “killed themselves and…indicted me for the murder.”46 Scholars have questioned the pamphlet’s direct impact on the vote. In many of the sixteen states, electors had been chosen by state legislatures whose composition had been determined long before Hamilton perpetrated his pamphlet. And the results in states that had not yet selected their electors did not deviate significantly from earlier predictions. Hamilton had hoped that his efforts might boost Charles C. Pinckney in his native South Carolina, but Republicans swept the state.

Many observers thought Hamilton had frittered away his prestige and that his letter had backfired. “I do not believe it has altered a single vote in the late election,” Robert Troup remarked, adding that it had exposed Hamilton’s character, not Adams’s, as “radically deficient in discretion.47 The Federalists had not dropped votes for Adams to install Pinckney as president, as Hamilton had urged—a precipitate fall from grace for Hamilton, who had lost his luster and once unchallenged power over Federalist colleagues. However peripheral in the election, Hamilton’s letter almost certainly hastened the collapse of the Federalists as a national political force. Adams was sure that Hamilton’s “ambition, intrigues, and caucuses have ruined the cause of federalism.”48 The Federalists lingered for another decade or two, but outside of New England they were a spent force. Their decline eliminated any chance that Hamilton would ever regain a top post, much less the presidency.

Why did Hamilton contribute to this disarray among the Federalists? As usual, he thought the country was careening toward a national emergency, either a French invasion or a civil war, and was convinced that Adams would adulterate federalism. Better to purge Adams and let Jefferson govern for a while than to water down the party’s ideological purity with compromises. “If the cause is to be sacrificed to a weak and perverse man,” Hamilton said of Adams’s leadership of the Federalists, “I withdraw from the party and act upon my own ground.”49 Doubtless Hamilton thought that he could pick up the pieces of a shattered Federalist party. What he overlooked was that in trying to wreck Adams’s career, he would wreck his own and that the Federalists would never be resurrected from the ashes.

The personal recriminations of the 1800 election can obscure the huge ideological shift that reshaped American politics and made the Republicans the majority party. In races for the House of Representatives, where Hamilton’s Letter played no part, the Republicans took control by a more lopsided margin—sixty-five Republicans to forty-one Federalists—than in their presidential victory. The people had registered their dismay with a long litany of unpopular Federalist actions: the Jay Treaty, the Alien and Sedition Acts, the truculent policy toward France, the vast army being formed under Hamilton and the taxes levied to support it. The 1800 elections revealed, for the first time, the powerful centrist pull of American politics—the electorate’s tendency to rein in anything perceived as extreme.

The stress placed upon the Adams-Hamilton feud pointed up a deeper problem in the Federalist party, one that may explain its ultimate failure to survive: the elitist nature of its politics. James McHenry complained to Oliver Wolcott, Jr., of their adherents, “They write private letters to each other, but do nothing to give a proper direction to the public mind.”50 The Federalists issued appeals to the electorate but did not try to mobilize a broad-based popular movement. Hamilton wanted to lead the electorate and provide expert opinion instead of consulting popular opinion. He took tough, uncompromising stands and gloried in abstruse ideas in a political culture that pined for greater simplicity. Alexander Hamilton triumphed as a doer and thinker, not as a leader of the average voter. He was simply too unashamedly brainy to appeal to the masses. Fisher Ames observed of Hamilton that the common people don’t want leaders “whom they see elevated by nature and education so far above their heads.”51

The intellectual spoilsport among the founding fathers, Hamilton never believed in the perfectibility of human nature and regularly violated what became the first commandment of American politics: thou shalt always be optimistic when addressing the electorate. He shrank from the campaign rhetoric that flattered Americans as the most wonderful, enlightened people on earth and denied that they had anything to learn from European societies. He was incapable of the resolutely uplifting themes that were to become mandatory in American politics. The first great skeptic of American exceptionalism, he refused to believe that the country was exempt from the sober lessons of history.

Where Hamilton looked at the world through a dark filter and had a better sense of human limitations, Jefferson viewed the world through a rose-colored prism and had a better sense of human potentialities. Both Hamilton and Jefferson believed in democracy, but Hamilton tended to be more suspicious of the governed and Jefferson of the governors. A strange blend of dreamy idealist and manipulative politician, Jefferson was a virtuoso of the sunny phrases and hopeful themes that became staples of American politics. He continually paid homage to the wisdom of the masses. Before the 1800 election, Federalist Harrison Gray Otis saw Jefferson’s approach as “a very sweet smelling incense which flattery offers to vanity and folly at the shrine of falsehood.”52 John Quincy Adams also explained Jefferson’s presidential triumph by saying that he had been “pimping to the popular passions.”53 To Jefferson we owe the self-congratulatory language of Fourth of July oratory, the evangelical conviction that America serves as a beacon to all humanity. Jefferson told John Dickinson, “Our revolution and its consequences will ameliorate the condition of man over a great portion of the globe.”54 At least on paper, Jefferson possessed a more all-embracing view of democracy than Hamilton, who was always frightened by a sense of the fickle and fallible nature of the masses.

Having said that, one must add that the celebration of the 1800 election as the simple triumph of “progressive” Jeffersonians over “reactionary” Hamiltonians greatly overstates the case. The three terms of Federalist rule had been full of dazzling accomplishments that Republicans, with their extreme apprehension of federal power, could never have achieved. Under the tutelage of Washington, Adams, and Hamilton, the Federalists had bequeathed to American history a sound federal government with a central bank, a funded debt, a high credit rating, a tax system, a customs service, a coast guard, a navy, and many other institutions that would guarantee the strength to preserve liberty. They activated critical constitutional doctrines that gave the American charter flexibility, forged the bonds of nationhood, and lent an energetic tone to the executive branch in foreign and domestic policy. Hamilton, in particular, bound the nation through his fiscal programs in a way that no Republican could have matched. He helped to establish the rule of law and the culture of capitalism at a time when a revolutionary utopianism and a flirtation with the French Revolution still prevailed among too many Jeffersonians. With their reverence for states’ rights, abhorrence of central authority, and cramped interpretation of the Constitution, Republicans would have found it difficult, if not impossible, to achieve these historic feats.

Hamilton had promoted a forward-looking agenda of a modern nation-state with a market economy and an affirmative view of central government. His meritocratic vision allowed greater scope in the economic sphere for the individual liberties that Jefferson defended so eloquently in the political sphere. It was no coincidence that the allegedly aristocratic and reactionary Federalists contained the overwhelming majority of active abolitionists of the period. Elitists they might be, but they were an open, fluid elite, based on merit and money, not on birth and breeding—the antithesis of the southern plantation system. It was the northern economic system that embodied the mix of democracy and capitalism that was to constitute the essence of America in the long run. By no means did the 1800 election represent the unalloyed triumph of good over evil or of commoners over the wellborn.

The 1800 triumph of Republicanism also meant the ascendancy of the slaveholding south. Three Virginia slaveholders—Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe—were to control the White House for the next twenty-four years. These aristocratic exponents of “democracy” not only owned hundreds of human beings but profited from the Constitution’s least democratic features: the legality of slavery and the ability of southern states to count three-fifths of their captive populations in calculating their electoral votes. (Without this so-called federal ratio, John Adams would have defeated Thomas Jefferson in 1800.) The Constitution did more than just tolerate slavery: it actively rewarded it. Timothy Pickering was to inveigh against “Negro presidents and Negro congresses”—that is, presidents and congresses who owed their power to the three-fifths rule.55 This bias inflated southern power against the north and disfigured the democracy so proudly proclaimed by the Jeffersonians. Slaveholding presidents from the south occupied the presidency for approximately fifty of the seventy-two years following Washington’s first inauguration. Many of these slaveholding populists were celebrated by posterity as tribunes of the common people. Meanwhile, the self-made Hamilton, a fervent abolitionist and a staunch believer in meritocracy, was villainized in American history textbooks as an apologist of privilege and wealth.