Alexander Hamilton - Ron Chernow (2005)


The popularity of President Jefferson further darkened Hamilton’s pessimistic outlook. Fortified by Republican majorities in the House and Senate, Jefferson presided over a united government that his two predecessors would have envied, as he purged Federalist officeholders. Thanks to Washington and Hamilton, the American economy flourished; thanks to Adams, the Quasi-War with France had receded to a memory. Inheriting domestic prosperity and international peace, Jefferson benefited from exceptional good fortune as America settled down for the first time since the Revolution.

Jefferson soon adopted a relatively reclusive style as an administrator. He almost never made speeches and communicated with cabinet officers largely through memos. But he took daily horseback rides through Washington and perfected his populist image. “He has no levee days, observes no ceremony, often sees company in an undress, sometimes with his slippers on, always accessible to, and very familiar with, the sovereign people,” said Robert Troup.1Jefferson cultivated rapport with the common people, while Hamilton stuck with his dated, paternalistic view of politics. The Federalists found themselves on the wrong side of a historical divide, associated with well-bred gentlemen, while Republicans appealed to a more democratic, rambunctious populace.

With Jefferson triumphant, Hamilton imagined that his own achievements would be scorned or soon forgotten. Republican journalist James Cheetham revived the hoary story that Hamilton had advocated a monarchy at the Constitutional Convention. Forced again to refute this propaganda, Hamilton sent a famously bleak letter to Gouverneur Morris in late February 1802:

Mine is an odd destiny. Perhaps no man in the U[nited] States has sacrificed or done more for the present Constitution than myself. And contrary to all my anticipations of its fate, as you know from the very beginning, I am still labouring to prop the frail and worthless fabric. Yet I have the murmur of its friends no less than the curses of its foes for my rewards. What can I do better than withdraw from the scene? Every day proves to me more and more that this American world was not made for me.2

Written during the period of mourning after Philip’s death, the letter is tremendously revealing about Hamilton’s deep sense of estrangement from American politics. He hewed to a tragic view of life in which virtue was seldom rewarded or vice punished.

If given to dispirited musings, Hamilton could never completely withdraw from politics. His dismay over Jefferson’s success only added urgency to his desire to reverse the Republican tide. In “The Examination” essays, Hamilton undertook a broad-gauge assault on Jefferson’s program. The tone was captious and lacked the large-minded generosity that had distinguished his earlier work. Jefferson wanted to abolish the fourteen-year naturalization period for immigrants, and Hamilton insinuated that foreigners, not real Americans, had voted the Virginian into office; he predicted that “the influx of foreigners” would “change and corrupt the national spirit.”3 Most amazing of all, this native West Indian published a diatribe against the Swiss-born treasury secretary, Albert Gallatin. “Who rules the councils of our own ill-fated, unhappy country?” Hamilton asked, then replied, “A foreigner!4 Throughout his career, Hamilton had been an unusually tolerant man with enlightened views on slavery, native Americans, and Jews. His whole vision of American manufacturing had been predicated on immigration. Now, embittered by his personal setbacks, he sometimes betrayed his own best nature.

After Philip’s death, Hamilton’s views seemed to emanate from some gloomy recess of his mind. He stood on more solid ground when he took Jefferson to task for favoring repeal of the whiskey tax and all other revenues except import duties. It galled him that Jefferson, who had accused him of wanting a perpetual debt, now canceled taxes that might have extinguished the federal debt more rapidly. In the end, Jefferson proved lucky: through a trade-induced boom in tariff revenues, he was able to cut taxes and produce a budget surplus.

As he pondered an amorphous comeback—he never spelled it out—Hamilton struggled with the conundrum that while Republicans might be “wretched impostors” with “honeyed lips and guileful hearts,” they had won the public’s affection.5 How could this be? Hamilton thought that Republicans appealed to emotion, while Federalists relied too much on reason. “Men are rather reasoning than reasonable animals, for the most part governed by their passion,” he told James Bayard, and his controversial solution was something called the Christian Constitutional Society.6 The charge of atheism had been a leitmotif of Hamilton’s critiques of Jefferson and the French Revolution. Now he hoped that by publishing pamphlets, promoting charities, and establishing immigrant-aid societies and vocational schools, this new society would promote Christianity, the Constitution, and the Federalist party, though not necessarily in that order of preference. By signing up God against Thomas Jefferson, Hamilton hoped to make a more potent political appeal. The society was an execrable idea that would have grossly breached the separation of church and state and mixed political power and organized religion. Hamilton was not honoring religion but exploiting it for political ends. Fortunately, other Federalists didn’t cotton to the idea. As he drifted into more retrograde modes of thought, Hamilton seemed to rage alone in the wilderness, and few people listened.

It is striking how religion preoccupied Hamilton during his final years. When head of the new army, he had asked Congress to hire a chaplain for each brigade so that soldiers could worship. Although he had been devout as a young man, praying fiercely at King’s College, his religious faith had ebbed during the Revolution. Like other founders and thinkers of the Enlightenment, he was disturbed by religious fanaticism and tended to associate organized religion with superstition. While a member of Washington’s military family, he wrote that “there never was any mischief but had a priest or a woman at the bottom.”7 As treasury secretary, he had said, “The world has been scourged with many fanatical sects in religion who, inflamed by a sincere but mistaken zeal, have perpetuated under the idea of serving God the most atrocious crimes.”8

The atheism of the French Revolution and Jefferson’s ostensible embrace of it (Jefferson was a deist who doubted the divinity of Christ, but not an atheist) helped to restore Hamilton’s interest in religion. He said indignantly in his 1796 “Phocion” essays, “Mr. Jefferson has been heard to say since his return from France that the men of letters and philosophers he had met with in that country were generally atheists.9 He thought James Monroe had also been infected by godless philosophers in Paris and pictured the two Virginians dining together to “fraternize and philosophize against the Christian religion and the absurdity of religious worship.10 For Hamilton, religion formed the basis of all law and morality, and he thought the world would be a hellish place without it.

But did Hamilton believe sincerely in religion, or was it just politically convenient? Like Washington, he never talked about Christ and took refuge in vague references to “providence” or “heaven.” He did not seem to attend services with Eliza, who increasingly spoke the language of evangelical Christianity, and did not belong formally to a denomination, even though Eliza rented a pew at Trinity Church. He showed no interest in liturgy, sectarian doctrine, or public prayer. The old discomfort with organized religion had not entirely vanished. On the other hand, Eliza was a woman of such deep piety that she would never have married someone who did not share her faith to some degree. Hamilton believed in a happy afterlife for the virtuous that would offer “far more substantial bliss than can ever be found in this checkered, this ever varying, scene!”11 He once consoled a friend in terms that left no doubt of his overarching faith in a moral order: “Arraign not the dispensations of Providence. They must be founded in wisdom and goodness. And when they do not suit us, it must be because there is some fault in ourselves which deserves chastisement or because there is a kind intent to correct in us some vice or failing of which perhaps we may not be conscious.”12 How then did Hamilton interpret God’s lesson after the death of Philip?

The papers of John Church Hamilton provide fresh evidence of his father’s genuine religiosity in later years. He said that Hamilton experienced a resurgence of his youthful fervor, prayed daily, and scribbled many notes in the margin of the family Bible. A lawyer by training, Hamilton wanted logical proofs of religion, not revelation, and amply annotated his copy of A View of the Evidences of Christianity, by William Paley. “I have examined carefully the evidence of the Christian religion,” he told one friend, “and if I was sitting as a juror upon its authenticity, I should rather abruptly give my verdict in its favor.”13 To Eliza, he said of Christianity, “I have studied it and I can prove its truth as clearly as any proposition ever submitted to the mind of man.”14 John Church Hamilton believed that the time his father spent at the Grange, strolling about the grounds, broadened his religious awareness. During his final months, he was walking with Eliza in the woods and speaking of their children when he suddenly turned to her and said in an enraptured voice, “I may yet have twenty years, please God, and I will one day build for them a chapel in this grove.”15

The one grim consolation that Hamilton derived from Jefferson’s administration was that Aaron Burr’s ostracism only worsened with time. The vice president’s contacts with the president were confined to fortnightly dinners, and he met with the cabinet once a year. Burr gave a satiric picture of his exclusion from power when he told his son-in-law, “I…now and then meet the [cabinet] ministers in the street.”16 One senator said that Burr presided over the Senate “with great ease, dignity and propriety,” yet it says much about Burr’s estrangement from Jefferson that his most notable achievements came in the legislature.17 John Adams had experienced the same frustration as vice president but not the same hostility from Washington’s administration.

Burr kept up a loyal air to Jefferson until he broke ranks with other Republicans over repeal of the Judiciary Act. With this, Burr knew that he had signed his death warrant with the party and had to curry favor with the Federalists. Burr was now “completely an insulated man in Washington,” declared Theodore Sedgwick, “wholly without personal influence.”18 Just how far Burr would go to woo Federalists became evident on February 22, 1802, when party legislators gathered at Stelle’s Hotel to honor Washington’s birthday, with Gouverneur Morris hosting the festivities. At the end of the dinner, guests heard a modest tapping at the door and were amazed when the vice president slipped into the room and asked if he was intruding. Having been invited by the organizers, he was received civilly, and he offered a bipartisan toast to a “union of all honest men.”19 With that deft gesture, Burr effectively severed ties with Jefferson. Pondering Burr’s appearance, Hamilton asked, “Is it possible that some new intrigue is about to link the Federalists with a man who can never [be] anything else than the bane of a good cause?”20

As Federalists entered a game of mutual manipulation with the vice president, Hamilton did not dismiss Burr’s overture outright, thinking that the best way to engineer Jefferson’s downfall was to drive a wedge between him and Burr and divide Republicans. “As an instrument, the person will be an auxiliary of some value,” Hamilton wrote of Burr, while noting that “as a chief, he will disgrace and destroy the party.”21 For Hamilton, this strategy was fraught with peril, for Burr might try to replace him as the Federalist chieftain. Thus, a situation arose in which Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, two desperate politicians with fading careers, regarded each other as insuperable obstacles to their respective political revivals.

As Burr eyed a New York comeback—either by taking control of the local Republican party, infiltrating the Federalists, or patching together a coalition of defectors from both parties—press attacks erupted among local factions in what historians have labeled the Pamphlet Wars. After Burr became vice president, a mysterious handbill entitled “A Warning to Libellers” appeared on the walls of New York coffeehouses, accusing him of “abandoned profligacy.” This anonymous sheet claimed that “numerous unhappy wretches” had been victimized by this seasoned “debauchee.”22 It also listed the initials of courtesans whom Burr had left “the prey of disease, of infamy, and [of] wretchedness.”23 Some contemporaries drew parallels between the sexual exploits of Hamilton and those of Burr. Architect Benjamin Latrobe observed that “both Hamilton and Burr were little of stature and both inordinately addicted to the same vice.”24 But the innumerable references to women in Burr’s letters attest to the exotic variety and frequency of his affairs. In comparison, Hamilton was a mere choirboy.25

The unsigned broadside against Burr may have originated with De Witt Clinton, the governor’s rangy, strong-willed nephew, who now controlled state patronage, earning him the unsavory title of “father of the spoils system.”26Adept at the bare-knuckled style, Clinton was the moving force behind the American Citizen, started in 1801 and edited by a former hatter and rabble-rousing English journalist named James Cheetham. It soon became necessary for every New York faction to possess its own newspaper. Hamilton had countered with William Coleman and the New-York Evening Post. Burr and his cohorts started the Morning Chronicle, which was edited by Peter Irving, the older brother of Washington Irving.

Far more vexing to Burr than exposure of his love affairs was scrutiny of his electoral tie with Jefferson in 1801. James Cheetham and the American Citizen pounced on the theme of Burr’s electoral duplicity and drove it home with obsessive frequency. The moment Burr was nominated, Cheetham contended, “he put into operation a most extensive, complicated, and wicked scheme of intrigue to place himself in the presidential chair.”27 At first, Burr reacted to these charges with typical phlegm, but as Cheetham and others stepped up their campaign, he began to sulk about a conspiracy to destroy him. As the Clintonians heaped more abuse on Burr, Robert Troup reported, “The high probability is that Burr is a gone man and that all his cunning, enterprise, and industry will not save him.”28

Not content to smear Burr alone, Cheetham also reviled Hamilton as a traitor to the American Revolution who had reverted to his aristocratic roots. To make this far-fetched claim, Cheetham had to re-create Hamilton’s father as “a merchant of some eminence.”29 The reality of a self-made, enterprising orphan did not suit Cheetham’s needs: “Mr. Hamilton, unfortunately, was a native of that part of the civilized world where tyranny and slavery prevail in a manner even unknown to the despots of Europe. It was utterly impossible that the habits and prejudices he contracted in infancy could ever have been eradicated.”30 Having emigrated from England in 1798, Cheetham knew little and cared less about Hamilton’s abolitionist activities. Cheetham’s main thesis was that Burr planned to run on the Federalist ticket in 1804 along with Charles Cotesworth Pinckney: “Viewing the matter then in this light…Mr. Hamilton is evidently in his [Burr’s] way!!”31 In fact, after the Reynolds fiasco and Adams pamphlet, Hamilton would not have been a strong contender for president in 1804 and never implied that he planned to run.

As stunning as the verbal abuse in New York politics was the physical violence. Duels became fashionable for settling political quarrels: historian Joanne Freeman has counted sixteen such affairs of honor between 1795 and 1807, though not all resulted in duels.32 When John Swartwout, a Burr protégé, denounced Cheetham as the mouthpiece of De Witt Clinton, Clinton denounced Swartwout as “a liar, a scoundrel, and a villain.”33 Accordingly, Clinton and Swartwout exchanged rounds of gunfire at the dueling ground in Weehawken, New Jersey. After Swartwout took two bullets in the leg, Clinton strode from the field and would not fire again. Newspaper editors, too, traded bullets as well as words. After James Cheetham accused William Coleman of siring a mulatto child, the two men almost fought a duel before being legally restrained from confronting each other. This did not stop a certain Captain Thompson, a Jeffersonian harbormaster, from accusing Coleman of cowardice and fighting a twilight duel with him in Love Lane (now Twenty-first Street), in which Thompson suffered a mortal wound. After killing his adversary, the unruffled Coleman returned to the Post “and got out the paper in good style, although half an hour late,” said a subsequent editor.34 In yet another political fracas, Coleman received a caning that left him paralyzed from the waist down.

President Jefferson was not immune to the gutter journalism that thrived in these years. He and the Republicans had championed James T. Callender, who had criticized President Adams and thus been slapped with a nine-month jail term and a two-hundred-dollar fine under the Sedition Act. Once out of jail, Callender appealed to the president to help pay his fine and solicited an appointment as postmaster of Richmond, Virginia. When Jefferson gave him only a niggardly fifty dollars, the vengeful, heavy-drinking Callender defected to the Federalist camp. Editing a Federalist newspaper in Richmond, he revealed that Jefferson, while vice president, had subsidized him to malign Adams and Hamilton. When Jefferson denied this, Callender published documents showing that Jefferson had sent him money in 1799 and 1800 to assist with publication of The Prospect Before Us, in which Hamilton had been denigrated as “the son of a camp-girl.”35 The embarrassed Jefferson lamely described these payments as prompted by “mere motives of charity.”36

Then, on September 1, 1802, Callender broke a story that he had learned about in jail and that was to reverberate down through American history: Jefferson’s scandalous romance with Sally Hemings: “It is well known that the man whom it delighteth the people to honor, keeps and for many years has kept, as his concubine, one of his slaves. Her name is Sally…. By this wench Sally, our President has had several children. There is not an individual in the neighborhood of Charlottesville who does not believe the story, and not a few who know it…. The African Venus is said to officiate as housekeeper at Monticello.”37 Callender mentioned that “Dusky Sally” had five mulatto children and that her son Tom (“yellow Tom”) bore a decided resemblance to Jefferson. Merciless toward his ex-comrades, Callender now referred to the Republicans as the “mulatto party.”38 He also said that he was ready to confront the president in a court of law and debate the truth of his relationship with “the black wench and her mulatto litter.”39

Jefferson preserved a tactful silence on the issue, though he complained to Robert Livingston that “the federalists have opened all their sluices of calumny. Every decent man among them revolts at [Callender’s] filth.”40 James Madison denounced the Sally Hemings story as “incredible,” but Federalist wags whooped with delight and exhorted the president in verse to repent: “Thy tricks, with sooty Sal, give o’er. / Indulge thy body, Tom, no more. / But try to save thy soul.41 Another Federalist editor claimed that he had verified that Sally Hemings “has a room to herself at Monticello in the character of a seamstress to the family, if not as housekeeper” and was “treated by the rest of his house as one much above the level” of the other servants.42 Abigail Adams believed that Jefferson had gotten his due and wrote with barely concealed glee to him, “The serpent you cherished and warmed bit the hand that nourished him.”43 John Adams implied that he thought the story was true, while conceding that “there was not a planter in Virginia who could not reckon among his slaves a number of his children.”44 For Adams, the situation was “a natural and almost unavoidable consequence of that foul contagion in the human character—Negro slavery.”45

Hamilton and his family were irate that Jefferson had paid Callender to libel him. “If Mr Jefferson has really encouraged that wretch Callender to vent his calumny against you and his predecessors in office, the head of the former must be abominably wicked and weak,” Philip Schuyler complained to his son-in-law.46 As early as his 1796 “Phocion” essays, Hamilton had suggested that he knew about the Sally Hemings affair. Now, having seen his own love life merchandised in print, he urged Federalist editors to ignore the scandal and stick to the high road in political matters. In the New-York Evening Post he declared that his editorial sentiments were “adverse to all personalities not immediately connected with public considerations.”47 This did not stop the Post from calling Callender “a reptile” and running a twelve-part series entitled “Jefferson and Callender.”48 The Jeffersonians also accused Hamilton of leaking to the Gazette of the United States the musty charge that the twenty-five-year-old Jefferson had tried to seduce Betsey Walker, the wife of his friend and neighbor, John Walker. Callender picked up this story and sensationalized it to the point where John Walker felt obliged to challenge Jefferson to a duel.

In July 1803, James T. Callender died in an abrupt, murky manner that has fed speculation for two centuries. The Jeffersonian press had begun to issue death threats against him, and he had also been accused of sodomy. Meriwether Jones of the Richmond Examiner editorialized, “Are you not afraid, Callender, that some avenging fire will consume your body as well as your soul?”49 In another open letter to Callender, Jones imagined Callender drowning: “Oh, could a dose of James River, like Lethe, have blessed you with forgetfulness, for once you would have neglected your whiskey.”50 After Callender spent a night in heavy drinking, his sodden corpse was found bobbing in three feet of water in the James River on July 17, 1803. A coroner’s jury concluded that it was the accidental death of an inebriated man. Yet such was the venomous atmosphere of the day that more than one Federalist wondered if Callender had been bludgeoned by vindictive Jeffersonians, then dumped in the river.