Alexander Hamilton's Life-Long Burden
"I consider Napoleon, Fox, and Hamilton, the three greatest men of our epoch, and if I were forced to decide between the three, I would give without hesitation the first place to Hamilton. He divined Europe."
- - - - Charles Maurice de Talleyrand [on Alexander Hamilton]
Before earning such a glowing acclamation from the French statesman, Alexander Hamilton would have a rocky road to travel. It is believed that he was born on the island of Nevis in the British West Indies in 1755. The exact date of his birth is unknown, and even his year of birth is an item of dispute.
Alexander was the youngest of two illegitimate sons born to Rachel Faucett Lavien, a Huguenot, and James Hamilton, an irresponsible but charming Scottish merchant. In print is a single document stating his age at 13 in 1768 when his mother died. Alexander, his brother James, and their mother, who had been abandoned by their undependable father in 1765 on St. Croix, lived on the bottom rung of white society.
His mother Rachel, opened a store and employed Alexander as clerk and bookkeeper. It was probably in this capacity that he got his first exposure to malicious whispers from townspeople he encountered. Rachel's husband had had her imprisoned in Christiansted some years before for adultery, and had posted a public summons for her to appear before a divorce court, declaring her a whore who had given birth to illegitimate children. After Rachel's death from yellow fever, her husband then sued for all her assets, depriving her "whore children" of any benefits from her meager belongings.
That Hamilton was frowned upon as a youngster can be reasonably assumed by his behavior later in life: primarily his preoccupation with matters of honor and character, and his often visceral reactions to criticism aimed at him. The harsh and shameful circumstances of his childhood haunted Hamilton throughout his life; and even long after he had proved himself a brave soldier and a brilliant statesman, the whispering continued.
Oddly, after his family situation had disintegrated, Alexander's life seemed to improve immensely. His experience as bookkeeper in his mother's store landed him a job as a clerk with the international trading firm of Nicholas Cruger, a New Yorker whose business hub was on St. Croix. Here he mastered the intricacies of global finance and experienced first hand the material interests of peoples and countries. He also saw the darker side of international dealings, as the island was a center for the slave trade. Hamilton came away with a deep hatred of slavery, and he eventually co-founded an abolitionist society in New York. Nothing Hamilton experienced ever went unused.
Whereas Nicholas Cruger exposed Alexander Hamilton to material realities, the Reverend Hugh Knox provided him with a strong spiritual and intellectual grounding. Knox took Hamilton under his wing shortly after Rachel's death and tutored him in the humanities and sciences. By 1773, his mentors had raised enough money to send him to America to continue his education. It was clear to all who encountered the young man that he was much too brilliant and determined to remain in what Hamilton himself termed "the grovelling condition of a clerk." Cruger, Knox, and other wealthy islanders, sent Hamilton off in June of 1773 to New York to study medicine, most likely in the hope that he would return to the island and set up his practice there. But Alexander Hamilton was never to see the West Indies again.
Hamilton entered King's College (now Columbia University) in 1774, and began his studies in medicine. His American benefactors, the Elias Boudinot family, were Presbyterians of the Whig persuasion who supported rebellion against England. He did not readily accept this notion and following the Boston Tea Party, he journeyed to Boston to investigate the situation. He returned to New York convinced that the American colonists had a valid argument against England. This was to become a familiar working pattern for Hamilton -- dedicated to making informed decisions, he researched extensively and often conducted lengthy fact-finding missions before he came to any major decisions. Among the revolutionary pamphletists he read with ardor was John Adams, who was to become one of his most bitter political opponents.
Hamilton's adopted state of New York was traditionally the most independent of the colonies, and there was a strong opposition to a revolt. Arguments pro and con raged in the newspapers, and it was not long until Hamilton added his opinion to the fray. In response to a loyalist pamphletist who criticized the actions of the continental congress, Hamilton wrote "A Full Vindication of the Measures of Congress," which gained him much notoriety among rebels and loyalists alike. The pamphlet was Hamilton's first foray into politics and an impressive beginning as a courageous debater and master propagandist.
When armed hostilities broke out at Lexington and Concord in April of 1775, Hamilton and some of his college friends formed a drilling company. In the summer of 1776, as the British fleet sailed toward New York harbor, Hamilton responded to a call for recruits, and after studying the science of artillery, was appointed Captain of the Provincial Company of Artillery. Hamilton was a strict disciplinarian but just as fiercely fought with the New York assembly for decent pay and supplies for his men. He even exhausted his own savings to pay for their uniforms.
The professionalism of the New York artillery company and its commander impressed all the senior officers who had dealings with it, including Henry Knox, artillery commander of the Continental Army. Hamilton and his company fought as part of Washington's army at Long Island in August of 1776, followed him on the campaign to White Plains, and took part in the Delaware river crossing to participate in the victories at Trenton and Princeton.
Washington, who was building up his personal staff, offered Hamilton the position of aide-de-camp with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He accepted Washington's offer, and took his place at headquarters in early March, 1777.
Two years later he departed the staff after his famous quarrel with the general and stayed with his wife and her family at the Schuyler residence in Albany. There he read and studied political issues. Many months passed and as he became less content to keep his ideas private, he began writing his first formal essays on the American government. "The Continentalist," as he named his six-part series, was published in the New York Packet and the American Advertiser, and treated the public to their first taste of Hamiltonian politics.
While his essays were in process, Hamilton was in transit. Washington and Rochambeau were planning a decisive strike on the British; and Hamilton, ever hopeful of seeing action, rode off to Dobbs Ferry NY to rejoin the army. This time, Washington gave him his long-awaited command, that of the New York and Connecticut light infantry battalion, with orders to lead an assault on British redoubt number 10 at Yorktown. On October 14, Hamilton and his battalion did just that. The redoubts were taken, and Cornwallis surrendered his forces to Washington on October 19, 1781.
Hamilton took part in the surrender ceremonies, and then departed for Albany to rejoin his wife, who was due to have their first child, Philip, in January.
On March 1, 1782, Hamilton resigned from active military duty and embarked on a career which propelled him into history as a Founding Father.
Hamilton had served well through the war for independence and Washington's admiration grew. After the war Hamilton became an active politician and was the lone signer from New York of the Constitution ratified in 1788. Hamilton unwittingly served in another way by becoming a lightning rod for Washington's critics.
In 1789 Hamilton became the first Secretary of the Treasury and began proposing a plan for a federal financial system that many believed was unconstitutional. When Washington backed Hamilton, the framework was set for a strong two-party political system -- strong federalism versus strict constitutionalism. In other words... If the Constitution didn't PROHIBIT it, it COULD be done -- VERSUS -- If the Constitution didn't SPECIFY it, it COULD NOT be done. The emerging parties became:
The Federalist -- led by Hamilton and John Adams, with passive support from Washington. Strongest public support came from New York, Massachusetts and other northern states.
AND the Democratic-Republicans -- led by Jefferson and James Madison. Public support was strongest in southern states.
Hamilton and the Federalist were winning battles in congress because of the onerous public debt created during the war, foreign support -- especially France, and because Washington backed Hamilton.
Hamilton envisioned a benevolent federal system which eliminated any necessity for state governments. He especially did not agree with those sections of the Constitution which permitted state control over the militia, banned direct taxation, and authorized state courts. He was not militant nor strident in opposition to the prevailing concepts debated at the convention in 1787 -- he simply did not agree. Early in the convention he had delivered a five-hour speech describing his plan for a federal system and when it became clear that the delegates were not inclined toward unitary government, he faded into the background and played only a minor role for the duration of the convention. However, the State of New York placed a lot of faith in him and when their other delegate returned home he was not replaced; Hamilton became the lone signer from New York.
Despite his solitary views among the founders, Hamilton was not a loner. Three years prior to the Constitutional Convention he had worked closely with James Madison in attempting to gain approval for a plan of federal government and among the revolutionary pamphletists, John Adams was the one he admired most. Therefore, it is not surprising that once the Constitutional Convention reached a consensus, no one worked more vigorously than Hamilton to obtain ratification for the document which emerged on September 17, 1787. In the Federalist Papers he argued forcefully for ALL of the provisions.
Such was the character of Hamilton. His political life was always an open book. Later his personal life became just as exposed. His brilliance, honesty, and openness were undoubtedly the traits which endeared him to George Washington and led Washington to appoint him as the first Secretary of the Treasury.
Hamilton, years earlier, had worked out a plan for a federal financial system but his plan did not fit any of the of the provisions explicitly authorized by the Constitution. However, if Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and others had read Hamilton's writings as carefully as they had read Blackstone, Bolingbroke, and the Greek and Roman philosophers, they would have known that Hamilton did not have a conventional mind... He did not interpret the Constitution as placing finite limits on the federal government, especially on what could be perceived as procedural matters. In other words, if the Constitution did not PROHIBIT an action, congress could make a law to do it. The others believed that the federal government could do only those things specifically delegated by the Constitution. Ironically, less than fifteen years later Jefferson used the Hamiltonian thinking to purchase the Louisiana Territory from France.
Hamilton wasted no time in proposing legislation for a central banking system and for conversion to a paper money-capital market system of finance. His arguments were simple and basic -- the huge debt incurred during the Revolutionary War and the urgent need to establish a financial system acceptable to other nations. Jefferson and Adams were surprised by Hamilton's "unconstitutional" actions and took their complaints to Washington but were rebuffed. Washington backed Hamilton. Congress also went along, so Jefferson decided to initiate an effort to slow him down. He approached James Madison, who had previously been a Hamilton ally, and together with Vice-President Adams they began a campaign to discredit Hamilton.
The political battle raged for years, even after Jefferson left the President's Cabinet in 1793 but Hamilton's later actions and writings do not reveal any lasting personal animosity toward Jefferson or Madison. Adams' actions, however, made it a personal matter. Hamilton learned that Adams, in conversations laced with serious profanity, had referred to him as a "foreigner" and son of a "whore." These were tender spots and Hamilton did not forget. When Adams ran for President in 1796 Hamilton took an active roll in the Federalist Party against him. Adams won the election by winning 9 of the 15 states but the actual vote was much closer. After Adams took office he found that Hamilton was communicating with members of his Cabinet -- offering advice and at times attempting to coerce them into actions contrary to Adams' policies. Adams was furious.
Jefferson used the Democratic-Republican Party as the vehicle to distribute anti-Hamilton information and to organize resistance to Hamilton's plans, especially the idea of free trading stock markets which many considered a form of gambling and exceedingly high risk.
In 1792 three Democratic-Republican congressmen, James Monroe, Abraham Venable, and Frederick Muhlenberg, believed they had caught Hamilton red-handed in a crooked scheme. They had found a man, James Reynolds, who had been speculating heavily in the new emerging stock market although he had no obvious means of substantial income. When he was questioned, he readily admitted that he was a stock speculator and said that Alexander Hamilton had provided the funds. Convinced that Hamilton had taken money from the Federal Treasury and was using Reynolds as a conduit to play the stock market the three decided to confront him. They asked for a meeting and went to his office prepared to take down his confession -- but they got a story far different than the one expected.
Hamilton admitted he had given James Reynolds money, but it was his own, not treasury funds. The money was not for speculation, but to pay Reynolds off. Hamilton was having an affair with Reynolds' wife, Maria, during the summer of 1791 and Reynolds had found out about it, confronted Hamilton, and demanded "satisfaction" for the terrible wrong done to him. Hamilton neither admitted nor denied Reynolds' accusation, but agreed to some terms to avoid embarrassment to the administration. At first Reynolds had asked for a Treasury Department position but Hamilton assured him that a federal job was out of the question. Reynolds then made a counter-offer. Reynolds proposed that Hamilton pay him a thousand dollars plus continued payments BUT Hamilton must continue the affair with Maria. In short, Mr. Reynolds was a clever pimp who realized that he had some very destructive information on one of the highest officials in the nation and he wanted a wedge to be sure of continuing income. Hamilton had agreed to go along, continuing to bed Reynold's wife until he could find a way to extricate himself from the messy affair.
As the inquisitors realized the significance of Hamilton's story, they tried to stop him by saying that there was no need for more details but Hamilton, perhaps wanting advice on how to get out of the situation, insisted on revealing the whole sordid affair. The congressmen were embarrassed and uncomfortable but listened as the usually unflappable Secretary squirmed through the revelations.
Finally, all three, Monroe, Venable, and Muhlenberg, declared the incident closed. According to Hamilton, they departed with "expressions of regret at the trouble and embarrassment which had been occasioned to me." A few days later Hamilton wrote to John Jay, his collaborator in the Federalist Papers, apologizing for a delay in writing because he had been preoccupied with "malicious intrigues to stab me in the dark . . . that distract and harass me to a point, which [renders] my situation scarcely tolerable . . ."
Hamilton believed the congressmen's promise that the incident was closed. He stayed on as Secretary of the Treasury after Jefferson left the Cabinet at the end of 1793 and during this last year in Washington's cabinet, he reached the pinnacle of his power and influence, advising on and directing a wide range of foreign and domestic policy. However, the Democratic-Republicans controlled the congress and prodded by Jefferson and led by Madison they did not let up in their efforts to stop Hamilton.
Hamilton left the Cabinet in January, 1795, returned to New York and found new success with his law practice. He had beaten off charges of corruption leveled by Democratic-Republicans and enjoyed a spotless reputation. During 1796 he worked hard within the Federalist Party to defeat one of his political enemies, John Adams' bid for President. Adams barely won. Suddenly, in July 1797, four months after Adams took office, a pamphlet appeared entitled "History of the United States for 1796," in which the author repeated James Reynolds' original charges that Hamilton had skimmed funds from the Treasury to engage in joint speculative ventures.
Hamilton could easily have dismissed the pamphlet with a public denial and pointed to his exonerations of corruption by congress but he was not the kind of person to leave well enough alone. He was troubled most by the obvious fact that at least one of the three congressmen had not kept his word that the issue was closed. It took very little investigation to identify the "leaker" as James Monroe. It required even less imagination to know that the instigator was President John Adams.
Then in a move that has confounded historians, scholars, students, and certainly the citizens of 1797 New York, Hamilton issued a WRITTEN REPORT! As though for once he had not been open and forthright, he wanted to clear the slate. He published a 97 page refutation containing, among other things, a confession of his adulterous affair in complete detail, with citations of letters from both James and Maria Reynolds. In his zeal to protect his public service image he risked destroying his marriage and humiliating his colleagues by publicly admitting marital infidelity.
In 1798 Adams asked Washington to come out of retirement and build an army in anticipation of war with England. Washington agreed on the condition that Hamilton be his deputy commander. Adams, a descendent of Puritans and mindful of the Reynolds affair, was adamantly against the suggestion but finally relented when Washington made it a condition of his acceptance.
Once more Hamilton left his law practice in New York and took on the new challenge with his usual gusto but he soon ran into a brick wall. Washington, by now 66 years old, delegated much of the responsibility to Hamilton but Adams was not eager to support the younger man. Adams communicated only with Washington and dragged his feet at every turn. General Hamilton tried valiantly to raise an army but without funds it was a lost cause. As he had done during the early days of the Revolution, Hamilton used his own money. But without assurances of continued payment, qualified officers would not give up their own interest and commit to service. After months of useless drills, poor food, and no equipment, the army dwindled away. Ironically, concern over giving Hamilton a chance for glory may have been the impetus for Adams to work hard in reaching an understanding with England. Avoiding a war with England is the only real achievement of the Adams administration.
The incident was a humiliating and devastating experience for the proud Hamilton. He viewed Adams' conduct as pernicious and exceedingly dangerous for the nation. In letters to friends he vowed to ruin Adams' political career.
Returning to New York he threw himself into the activities of the Federalist Party with his sights set on the elections of 1800. He soon realized that it would be almost impossible to assure Adams' defeat in a straight, head-on attack. Instead, he concentrated on the selection of electors who would cast the actual votes. He also encouraged Jefferson to run against Adams. When the time arrived in the contest among Adams, Jefferson, Burr, and others, the Federalist electors manipulated and split their votes (each elector had to vote for two people for President) creating a tie between the top two, thereby throwing the election into the House of Representatives. The strategy worked but the tie was between Jefferson and Burr who both had 73 votes. Under procedures then in effect, the candidate with the most votes became President and the second most votes became Vice-President. The election went to the House and for months the Representatives haggled and horse traded. Finally, on the 36th ballot in February, 1801, Jefferson won by one vote and Aaron Burr became Vice-President.
John Adams paid dearly for his spiteful differences with Hamilton. He returned to his home in Braintree, Massachusetts, and virtual exclusion from national politics. He later exchanged letters with Jefferson and others but the relationships were never the same as before the 1800 election. Adams died July 4th, 1826, and his last words were, "Jefferson survives." He didn't know that Jefferson had died a few hours earlier at Monticello, VA.
Hamilton, too, was a loser. The years of neglect from his law practice left his finances in shambles. In the New York gubernatorial elections of 1804 Hamilton's Federalist Party favored Aaron Burr but Hamilton was totally against him. It was Hamilton's zeal to defeat Burr that led to the duel at Weehawken, New Jersey, Hamilton's death, and the demise of the Federalist Party.
The loss of his mentor, George Washington in 1799, the personal humiliation of becoming a general without an army, and the bitter fight with Adams took a toll on Hamilton's self-esteem. His activities in the elections of 1800 coupled with the exposť of the Reynolds affair created a cloud that remained with him for the rest of his life. The reaction of friends was to shake their heads and hold their breath hoping the whole thing would blow over. Hamilton himself seemed impervious to the consequences, going about his business as if nothing had happened; but he never regained his standing and public respect. His enemies found unlimited opportunity for ridicule, and the Democratic-Republican (D-R) press was still making jokes about "Mrs. Reynolds' gallant" in 1804 when he agreed to the duel with Aaron Burr at Weehawken, New Jersey.
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