With whatever reluctance and dread Jefferson may have accepted the office of Secretary of State, his forebodings were realized. After five years’ residence in Paris at the most interesting period of its history, after a kind of triumphal progress through Virginia, where delegations of grateful and admiring citizens had saluted him with addresses of congratulation, after some peerless weeks at Monticello crowded with old friends and relatives gathered to attend his daughter’s wedding, he found himself; in the early spring of 1790, just when his gardens at home were fullest of allurement, closeted with four clerks (the whole force of his department), face to face with a Monticello of despatches, documents, applications, many of which were bulky and important papers, requiring close attention and hard work. It was like going to school after a particularly joyous vacation inky grammar and damp dictionary, instead of gun, pony, and picnic; keen contests with uncomplimentary equals and rivals, instead of the easily won applause of partial friends and affectionate sisters. He had enjoyed much and done much during the past few years; he was now to be tried and tested. The summer of his growth was suspended; the wintry blast was to blow upon him awhile, pruning and hardening him. A tree does not look so pretty during this season, but the timber ought to improve.
He had a very cordial welcome in New York. General Washington was relieved to find his Cabinet complete after the new government had existed nearly a year, and glad to have near him a Virginian whom he knew, from of old, to be in singular accord with the American people. The leading citizens threw open their doors to him. Among members of Congress, whom should he find but that genial comrade of his youth, John Page? Oddly enough, one of the first parties he attended, in the very first week of his residence, was the wedding of that confidant of his own early loves to a daughter of New York. Madison, too, was in Congress, with other allies and old colleagues. But it is plain from his letters that his heart was in Virginia; that he pined for his children, and took unkindly to the yoke of his office. He told his daughters that, after having had them with him so long to cheer him in the intervals of business, he felt acutely the separation from them; but that his own happiness had become a secondary consideration with him, and he was only happy in their happiness. He was homesick during the whole period of his holding this office, except when he was at home.
Even his health failed at first. He attacked his arrears of business with such vigor and persistence as to bring on a three weeks’ headache, which for several days even kept him from his office. And while the gloom of this malady still hung over him, the infant government was menaced with a stroke that appalled the group of persons nearest him, whose dearest hopes for themselves and for their country were bound up with it. The President, who had been drooping for some time, became alarmingly sick. Washington, too, found the desk a bad exchange from the saddle. It was his custom to read with the utmost care, pen in hand, all important despatches and papers, and to make abstracts of the most important. During the year that had elapsed since his inauguration, he had been going through, in the same thorough, attentive manner, the mass of papers which had been accumulating in the offices of government since the peace of 1783. Fidelity to a trust was the ruling instinct, the first necessity, in the nature of this most nearly perfect head of a Commonwealth that ever lived. For several days in May, 1790, the inner circle of official persons in New York were anxious about him. He grew worse and worse. At one time the inmates of his house lost all hope, for he seemed to be dying. He rallied, however, and began slowly to improve. “He continues mending to-day,” Jefferson wrote to his daughter, “and from total despair we are now in good hopes of him.”
In a strange, unexpected way, Jefferson found himself in ill-accord with the tone of society in New York. He had come from Paris more a republican than ever, all glowing with the new hopes for mankind which the Revolution there had kindled. The patriots of France had drawn inspiration from America, and tried all their measures of American standards. “Our proceedings,” Jefferson wrote to Madison from Paris, in August, 1789, “have been viewed as a model for them on every occasion; and though, in the heat of debate, men are generally disposed to contradict every authority urged by their opponents, ours has been treated like that of the Bible, open to explanation, but not to question.” He was now in that America whose conquest of freedom and peaceful establishment of a republican government intelligent men in other lands had owned among the noblest achievements of civilization. The faithful believer was now at Mecca. But he did not find the magnates of the temple so enthusiastic for the Prophet and the Koran as more distant worshippers. He was in the situation of a person who had left his native village full of ardent Methodists, himself among the most ardent of them all, and returning after five years’ absence, during which he had become ever more glowing, finds half the people turned Ritualists!
While France for sixty years—ever since the publication of Voltaire’s “English Letters,” in 1730—had been growing to a sense of the evils of excessive power in the government, America for ten years had had painful experience of the evils of an insufficient central authority.
A favorite toast in the Revolutionary Army, as General Knox records, was this, “A hoop to the Barrel.” Some officers preferred a plainer form of words, and gave the same sentiment thus, “Cement to the Union.” The army, he says, abhorred the idea of being “thirteen armies.” We can all imagine how much feelings of this nature would be increased when the troops co-operated with French soldiers, who served a single power, carried one flag, obeyed one general, received the same pay at regularly recurring periods, in a kind of money that did not waste and spend itself, even when it lay untouched in the pocket, — money to-day, paper to-morrow. We cannot wonder that officers should have longed for an efficient power at the centre, when we hear General Washington averring that to the want of it he attributed “more than half” of his own perplexities, and “almost the whole of the difficulties and distress of the army.” Civilians came, at length, to share in this feeling and no man more than Jefferson. When, in Paris, in 1786, he was choking down the humiliation of bribing the Algerines to peace, instead of blowing the pirates out of water with honest guns under his country’s flag, he desired nothing so much as that Congress should seize the happy occasion to found a navy. “It will be said,” he wrote to Monroe, “there is no money in the treasury. There never will be money in the treasury, till the Confederacy shows its teeth. The States must see the rod; perhaps it must be felt by one of them. I am persuaded all of them would rejoice to see every one obliged to furnish its contributions.”
Everything had been pulling this way in America for ten years when Jefferson reached New York. He came from Paris when it was negatively charged with electricity, to New York positively charged. The whole soul of France was intent upon limiting the central power, but America’s dearest wish had long been to create one.
There is a fashion in thinking, as well as in watch-chains and dog-carts. In the new, untried Republic, which had had no experience of tyranny except to combat and defeat it, various influences had been drawing the minds of the educated class away from republican ideas. It was the mode to extol strong and imposing governments, to regret that the people were so attached to the town-meeting methods of conducting public business, and to anticipate the day when America would be ripe for a government “not essentially different from that which they had recently discarded.” Nowhere was this tone so prevalent as in New York, the chief seat of the royal authority for seven years of the war, the refuge of Tories, the abode, after the peace, of that ardent, positive, captivating spirit, Alexander Hamilton.
How difficult to extract the real Hamilton from the wilderness of contradictory words in which he is lost Everything we have about him partakes of the violence of his time. If we question his opponents, Jefferson informs us that Hamilton was “the evil genius of America”; and George Mason declares that he did the country more harm than “Great Britain with all her fleets and armies.” If we consult his partisans, we are assured that, after having created the government, he, and he alone, kept it in prosperous motion for twelve years. Every one has in his memory some fag-end of Daniel Webster’s magnificent sentence, in which he represents Hamilton as touching the corpse of the Public Credit, and causing it to spring to its feet. And have we not a lumbering pamphlet, in seven volumes octavo, designed to show that George Washington was Punch, and Alexander Hamilton the man behind the green curtain pulling the wires and making him talk? We have. It weighs many pounds avoirdupois. But we must rule out extreme and frenzied utterances, and endeavor to estimate this gifted and interesting man as though he had had no worshippers, no rivals, and no sons.
It is not so very easy to see why he had any public career at all. When we have turned over the ton of printed matter to which he gave rise, and looked at all his busts and portraits, we are still at some loss to understand the victorious dash he made at America. A little fellow of about five feet seven, a stranger in a strange land, without an influential friend on earth, the child of a broken-down merchant in the West Indies, subsisting in New Jersey upon invoices of West India produce, we find him, from the start, having the best of everything, distinguished at school, at college, in the army, taking an influential part in every striking scene of the war, and every crisis after the peace, — a public man, as it were, by nature. Nor was it a dash only. He held his own; and, rapid as his rise was, it was always the high place that sought him, never he the high place; unless, indeed, when he asked General Washington the favor of letting him head an attack on the enemy’s works. Nor was it merely place and distinction that he won. The daughter of one of America’s most noted and wealthy families became the proud and happy wife of this stranger when he was a lieutenant-colonel of twenty-three, without a dollar or an acre to fall back upon at the peace.
We do not get at the secret of all this from print or picture; so difficult is it to put upon paper or canvas that which gives a man ascendency over others. It is hard to define the Spirit of Command. Kent recognized it in Lear when he met the fiery old king in the wilderness, and told him he had that in his mien and bearing which he would fain call master. I once asked a Tennesseean what kind of man General Jackson was. “He was this kind of man,” said he; “if Andrew Jackson had joined a party of strangers travelling in the woods, and, half an hour after, they should be attacked by Indians, he would instantly take command, and all the rest would obey him.” Nothing that has ever been put upon paper about Jackson so explains him as this chance saying of an unlettered man.
Of this commanding, self-sufficient spirit Hamilton had an ample share. His confidence in himself is among the curiosities of character; it was absolute and entire; and, hence, neither events nor men could teach him; and he died cherishing the delusions of his youth. If to this remark his life furnishes one exception, it was when as a lad of sixteen he allowed himself to be converted from a supporter of the king to a defender of the Colonies. But, it seems, even this conversion was only partial; for when it came to a question of severance from the king, he wrote a pamphlet against Paine’s “Common Sense.” He appears to have had nothing that could be called youth. In the earliest of his effusions, whatever we may think of the sentiments, we perceive that the writer had no sense whatever of the deference due from youth to maturity. Nothing is more evident in his aide-de-camp letters than that he condescended to serve General Washington. He was but twenty-four when he wrote, after refusing to resume his place in the General’s family, that he had remained in it as long as he had, not from regard to General Washington, nor because he thought it an honor or a privilege to assist him, but because the popularity of the General was essential to the safety of America, and he “thought it necessary he should be supported.” It was also his opinion that the breach between them ought to be concealed, since it would have “an ill-effect” if it were known. In the records of youthful arrogance there are few instances so amusing as this.
But, then, those who knew him best appear to have accepted him at his own valuation. Some unworthy opponents have dishonored themselves by sneering at his poverty and at the alleged insignificance of his family in the West Indies; but he brought with him from St. Croix a better title of nobility than any herald could have given him, — the admiring love of his friends there, who hailed his early honors in the United States with enthusiasm. His brother aids in General Washington’s busy family loved him most warmly. In his early letters we catch gleams of the good fellow amid the formalities of the General-in-Chief’s official scribe. “Mind your eye, tonight, my boy,” he writes to a young friend on picket; and Meade, his colleague, writes to him as a lover to a mistress. “If you have not already writ to me,” says Meade, “let me entreat you, when you go about it, to fill a sheet in close hand.” At the same time, when governors, generals, members of Congress, and presidents of convention wrote to him, they addressed him as a man of their own weight and standing, as a personage and an equal. The General-in-Chief, too, overvalued the accomplishments he did not himself possess, — the fluent tongue, the ready pen, dexterity at figures.
Hamilton was singularly incapable of Americanization. Besides having arrived here a few years too late, his mind was invincibly averse to what we may call the town-meeting spirit, — the true public spirit, generated by the habit of acting in a body for the good of the whole, putting questions to the vote and accepting the will of the majority as law. His instincts were soldierly. How he delighted in all military things! How he loved the recollection of his seven years’ service in the army! In later years, though under a political necessity to detest Bonaparte, he found it impossible to do so with any heartiness, so bewitched was he with the mere skill with which that marauder of genius devastated the heritage of the people of Europe. He delighted to read of battles. It pleased him to have a tent upon his lawn, because it reminded him of the days when he and Lafayette and Meade and the young French officers were merry together; and he always retained in his gait something that betrayed the early drill. But it is questionable if he could ever have been greatly successful as a general, because, unlike Bonaparte, he thought officers were everything, and soldiers nothing. When he was a bronzed veteran of twenty-two, he wrote a letter of ludicrous gravity to the president of Congress, urging the enrolment of negro slaves; in which he says that their stupidity and ignorance would be an advantage, it was a maxim, he observed, with some great military judges, — the king of Prussia being one, — that “with sensible officers, soldiers can hardly be too stupid.” Hence, “it was thought” that the Russians would be the best soldiers in the world if they were commanded by officers of a more advanced country. The conclusion reached by this great military authority was this: “Let officers be men of sense and sentiment; and the nearer the soldiers approach to machines, perhaps the better.”
As the utterance of a very young military dandy, airing his lavender kids in St. James’s Park after an early breakfast at one P. M., this would be merely funny; we should smile, and hope he would show to better advantage when the time came for action. And, indeed, Hamilton was a brave, vigilant, energetic officer, on fire to distinguish himself by being foremost where the danger was greatest. But this contempt for the undistinguished part of mankind (i. e., for mankind) he never outgrew. The ruling maxim of his public life, the source of its weakness, its errors, find its failure, was this, “Men in general are vicious.”
This lamentable misreading of human nature, so worthy of a Fouché or a Talleyrand, he repeats in many forms, always assuming it to be a self-evident truth. It was certainly an unfortunate basis for a statesman who was to be the servant of a system founded on a conviction that men in general are well disposed. He could not be an American. Richly endowed as he was, he could not rise to that height. He knew it himself at last; for, twenty years later, when he had outlived his success, and lost the control even of his own wing of the Federalists, we hear him saying, with his usual unconscious arrogance, “Every day proves to me, more and more, that this American world was not made for me.” It certainly was not, nor was he made for this American world. It never, we may be sure, once crossed his mind, during his whole life, that possibly this American world might be right and Colonel Hamilton wrong.
Everything that happens to these self-sufficient persons seems to confirm them in their errors and strengthen their strong propensities. This American world, which Hamilton thought so much beneath him, had been too easy a conquest; he would have respected it more, perhaps, if it had given him a few hard knocks at an age when hard knocks are salutary. But when he began to write his first essays in the newspapers, literary ability was so rare in the world, — rarest of all in these Colonies, — that his friends were agape with wonder. Every one flattered him. Then he early exhibited another imposing talent, that of oratory. He was haranguing meetings in New York when he was the merest boy both in years and appearance, and acquitting himself to admiration. He was but nineteen, and young looking even for that age, when he thundered across Jersey, captain of a company of artillery, in General Washington’s retreating army. Soon after, in his character of aide-de-camp, he was truly an important person, a power, as any efficient aid must ever be to a busy commander, as any competent secretary must ever be to the greatest minister. If he overestimated his importance, it was but natural and most pardonable. Few young fellows of twenty, who write despatches or editorials for a chief, can believe that the chief may be the true author of important despatches or thundering leaders which, perhaps, he never so much as looks over. The chief has created the situation which the writer but expresses. A secretary, while using his own hand, often employs his chief’s mind.
When the young French officers came over and head-quarters were gay with young nobles, all enthusiasm for this novel service in a new world, Colonel Hamilton was a brilliant personage indeed, — so young, so handsome, so high in the confidence of the General and the army, and such a master of the French language! He must, I think, have spoken French in his boyhood, to have written it so well at twenty-three as we see he did. Who was now so much in request as our cher Hamilton?
But, if he caught his loose military morals from the Gauls, it was from the British that this Briton learned his politics. Before the war was over, he tells us, he “was struck with disgust” at the rise of a party actuated by “an undue complaisance” to France, — a power which, in helping us, had only been pursuing, he thought, her own interest. “I resolved at once,” he continues, “to resist this bias in our affairs.” He was British, as was natural. He had a British mind and a British heart. While in the immediate presence of the fact that the English governmental system had split asunder the British Empire, he cherished the conviction that it was the best system possible. It was the hereditary Dunderhead with whom Great Britain was saddled who began, continued, and ended the business of severing America from the empire and yet the very corruption of Parliament, which had enabled an obstinate and unteachable king to carry his measures, Hamilton extolled as essential to its perfection. The grand aim of his public life was to make the government of the United States as little unlike that of Great Britain as the people would bear it. Nor did he reach these convictions by any process of reasoning. He was a Briton; and it was then part of a Briton’s birthright to enjoy a complete assurance of his country’s vast superiority to all others in all things. I honor him for the disinterested spirit in which he pursued his system, and the splendid contempt of all considerations of policy with which he avowed opinions the most unpopular. In spite of his errors and his faults, this alone would give him some title to our regard.
With all his other qualities he had one which would have carried him to great heights in a more congenial scene. He had a wonderful power of sustained exertion. His mind was energetic and pertinacious. He thought little of sitting over a paper till the dawn dimmed his candles. His favorite ideas and schemes were never inert within him; he dinned them into every ear; and his incessant and interminable discourses upon the charms of monarchy rendered him at last a bore to his best friends.
He began at an early period of the war to take a laborious part in political discussion. While the army lay at Morristown in 1779, having less to do than usual at head-quarters, and having arrived at the mature age of twenty-three, he wrote to Robert Morris an anonymous letter, that must have filled a dozen sheets of large paper, upon the troubled finances of the country, recommending the establishment of a Bank of the United States. The scheme was wrought out in great detail, with infinite labor, and uncommon ability for so young a financier. The scheme was founded upon Law’s idea of utilizing the depreciated paper with which Louis XIV.’s profusion had deluged France. By receiving hundreds of millions of this paper, at its market value, in payment for shares in his various enterprises, Law soon raised the price of paper above that of gold; and thus afforded the strange spectacle of people selling their family plate in order to buy a dead king’s Promises to Pay, Hamilton, of course, intended to stop short of Law’s fatal excesses. He was as honorable a person in all matters pecuniary as ever drew the breath of life; and, consequently, his bank was to have a sound basis of two millions of pounds sterling of borrowed money; to which should be added a subscription of two hundred millions of dollars in the depreciated paper of Congress. At once, he thought, the paper would rise in value, and become an instrument of good. The existence of the bank, he thought, “would make it the immediate interest of the moneyed men to co-operate with the government in its support.” This was the key to his financial system; for he never advanced beyond the ideas of this production. It was ever his conviction that a government could not stand which it was not the interest of capitalists to uphold; and by capitalists he meant the class who control money, who live in cities, and can speculate in paper. He meant Wall Street; though, as yet, the actual street of that name was only a pleasant lane of modest, Dutch-looking residences.
This portentous epistle was accompanied with notes, in one of which the youthful sage favors an honorable Congress with a few hints. “Congress,” he observes, with the modesty so becoming his years, “have too long neglected to organize a good scheme of administration, and throw public business into proper executive departments. For commerce, I prefer a Board; but, for most other things, single men. We want a Minister of War, a Minister of Foreign Affairs, a Minister of Finance, and a Minister of Marine”; and, having these, he thought, “we should blend the advantages of a monarchy and a republic in a happy and a beneficial union.”
What Robert Morris thought of this production no one has told us. The author of it was evidently in earnest; he did not write the essay to amuse his leisure, nor merely to display his talents; he meant bank; he clearly saw the institution he recommended, believed in its feasibility, and, I am sure, felt himself competent to assist in establishing it, though he intended Mr. Morris to take the leading part. He concluded his long letter by saying that he had reasons which made him unwilling to be known; but a letter addressed to James Montague, Esq., lodged in the post-office at Morristown, would reach him; and even an interview might be had with the author, should it be thought material.
From this time the ingenious, intense, Scotch intellect of Alexander Hamilton was a power in the United States. Before the war was quite over, he was in Congress, and one of the members said to him, “If you were but ten years older and twenty thousand pounds richer, Congress would give you the highest place they have to bestow.” In New York, young as he was, without fortune, just admitted to the bar, we find him always discussing the great topics, always the peer of the most important men, always exerting his influence for one overruling object, the founding of a “strong,” a “high-toned” government, which should attract to it the trinity he believed in, “character, talents, and property,” and raise the Thirteen States to national rank. In the State of New York he became, not the most powerful, but by far the most shining, conspicuous, active personage.
Behold him, at length, in the Convention of 1787, which met at Philadelphia to make a constitution, — Washington its president, Franklin a member. It was this young lawyer, thirty years of age, who brought with him a plan of government so completely wrought out, that, Madison says, it could have gone into operation at once, without alteration or addition. He had thought of everything, and provided for everything. There it was, in Hamilton’s pocket, a GOVERNMENT, complete to the last detail. In making it, too, he had exercised self-control; he had put far away from him his own dearest preferences; he had fixed his thoughts upon the people of the United States, allowed for their prejudices, their ignorance of Greek and Roman history, their infatuation in supposing they knew what was good for them. In a most able, ingenious, candid speech of five or six hours’ duration, he told the Convention what he knew about government, and prepared the way for the reading of his plan. He said he did not offer it as the best conceivable, but only the best attainable. The British Constitution, he said, was “the best form.” It was only a king who was, necessarily, “above corruption,” who “must always intend, in respect to foreign nations, the true interest and glory of the people.” Republicanism was a dream; an amiable dream it was true, but still a dream. No matter, the people would have their government republican; and, therefore, as long as there was any chance of its success, he would do his very utmost to afford it a chance. This he proposed to do by making the American Republic as much like the British monarchy as possible.
His plan was such as might have been expected from a person so ingenious, so self-sufficient, so inexperienced, and so young. Nothing more unsuitable or more impracticable can be imagined than this government evolved from the depths of Hamilton’s consciousness; for even if the principles upon which it was founded had been admissible, it was far too complicated a machine for the wear and tear of use. Most of Hamilton’s measures had the great fault of being too complex and refined. His enemies, indeed, accused him of purposely mystifying the people; but, in truth, he had so mathematical an intellect, that a statement might be as clear as the light to him, which was a mere conundrum to people in general. His scheme of government included, first of all, a popular assembly, or House of Commons, to consist of not less than a hundred members, elected by universal suffrage, which should have the control of the public purse and the exclusive power to impeach. So far, so good. But assuming that men in general are ill-disposed and stand ready to embrace the first opportunity of voting themselves a farm, his chief care was to keep this body in check! That was a point respecting which he was deeply solicitous. Here was a democratic assembly to be checked by an elected senate, and both of them by an elected chief magistrate. His senate, accordingly, which was to consist of not less than forty members, was to be a permanent body, elected by men of property. The senators, chosen by electors who had an estate in land for life or for an unexpired term of fourteen years, were to hold their seats until removed by death or impeachment. It was the senate that was to declare war, ratify treaties, and control appointments.
The President of the Republic was to be a tremendous personage indeed, — more powerful far than any monarch of a country enjoying any semblance of liberty. No man could have any part even in electing him who had not an inherited estate wholly his own, or for three lives, or “a clear personal estate of the value of a thousand Spanish dollars.” Nor were these favored mortals to vote directly for the President; they were only to elect electors; and these electors were to vote for the President, each man handing in a sealed ballot. That done, the electors of each State were to elect two “second electors,” who were to carry the sealed ballots to some designated place, where, in the presence of the chief justice, they were to open the ballots, and declare that man President who had a majority of the whole number. In case no one had a majority, then these second electors were to try their hand at electing, though they could only vote for the three candidates who had received the highest number of votes. If the second electors could not give a clear majority for any candidate, then the man who had received the highest number of votes of the first electors was to be declared elected.
Happily, when once a President had been evolved by this ingenious complication, the country could hope to enjoy a long period of rest; for he was to hold his office for life, unless removed by impeachment. Besides exercising all the authority which our present Constitution confers on the President, Hamilton’s President was to have the power to appoint the governors of States, and to convene and prorogue Congress. The president of the Senate was to be the Vice-President of the United States, and the Supreme Court was to be about such a tribunal as we see it now.
When Dr. Channing was the ruling influence of Boston, forty years ago, the Orthodox clergy used to describe his system of theology as “Calvinism with the bones taken out.” The Convention of 1787 listened to Hamilton with attentive admiration, and then performed upon his plan of government an operation similar to that which Dr. Channing was supposed to have done upon the ancient creed of New England. Nothing which he regarded as bone was left in it. The Constitution of 1787, though he admitted it to be an improvement upon the Confederation, he thought a “shilly-shally thing,” which might tide the country over the crisis, and begin the construction of a nation, but could not endure. What he chiefly hoped from it was this : That it would sicken the country of republicanism, and reconcile it to the acceptance of his panacea of King, Lords, and Commons. For every reason, however, he deemed it necessary to give the new Constitution a trial; and, accordingly, it was Hamilton, the man who believed in it least, that did most to recommend it to the people. Gliding down the tranquil Hudson, in October, 1787, in one of the commodious packet-sloops of the time, he wrote in the cabin the first number of the series of newspaper essays now called The Federalist. Absorbed as he then was in his young family and his profession, he found time, in the course of the winter, to write sixty-five of the eighty-five pieces of which the series consists; writing several of them, it appears, amid the bustle of his law-office, with the printer’s boy waiting for the copy.
These essays by Hamilton, Madison, and Jay, Jefferson read in Paris with great satisfaction. He had lamented the absence in the new Constitution of a formal bill of rights, which should secure “the freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom from standing armies, trial by jury, and a constant habeus corpus act”; and he regarded a few of its provisions with some apprehension. The re-eligibility of the President, he thought, would result in the President usually holding the office as long as he lived; the tendency to re-elect being so powerful. He would have preferred a single term of seven years, which was often proposed and once carried in the Convention. But “The Federalist,” he owns, “rectified him on several points,” dissipated his apprehensions, and rendered him more than willing to accept the Constitution, and trust to the future for the needful amendments.
Thus we find persons of opposite political sympathies heartily commending a Constitution which neither of them wholly approved: Hamilton, because it was, as he hoped, a step toward the only kind of government he believed in, — a limited monarchy; Jefferson, because he thought it would issue in a plain, republican government, simple, inexpensive, just sufficient to enable the thirteen States to deal with foreign nations as one power, and secure the prompt payment of the Revolutionary debt. When Hamilton commended the Constitution, he had in his mind his “favorite morsels,” those features which gave the government some resemblance to a monarchy, which made it more imposing, and less dependent upon the people, than the Confederation which it displaced. Coming events, he felt sure, would quickly convince all thinking men that a democratic assembly could not be effectually “checked” by a democratic senate, nor either of them by a democratic chief magistrate; and then the whole of the character, talents, and property of America would demand the stiffening of the loose contrivance by the insertion of the rivet, bolt, and screw of an hereditary king and house of lords. Jefferson, on the other hand, looked upon the new government as an engine already more potent than the case required, cumbered with several superfluous appendages, easily capable of becoming oppressive; but he trusted to time and the republican habits Of the people to lop its redundancies, and keep its dangerous possibilities in check. What Jefferson loved in the Constitution, Hamilton despised; and the changes in it which Hamilton hoped for, Jefferson dreaded.
In the city of New York, in 1790, when it contained a population of about thirty-five thousand people, “society” consisted of so few families, that when one of them gave a grand party, the whole body of society would be present. In this small circle, Hamilton was incomparably the most shining and captivating individual, and he found it well disposed toward his ideas. What is society? It properly consists of the victorious class, the leading persons in each of the honorable pursuits; the great mechanics, merchants, lawyers, doctors, preachers, teachers, actors, artists, authors, capitalists, farmers, engineers; the men and women who have conquered a safe and pleasant place for themselves in the world by serving the community with signal skill and effect. These are the aristocrats to whom we all render a proud and willing homage. We are even disposed to honor them too much, and undervalue the prodigious multitude of those who are equally worthy, perhaps, though less gifted or less fortunate. But in Hamilton’s day, society chiefly consisted of families who had inherited estates, — people descended from victors. It is human in a conqueror to wish to throw around his conquest every possible safeguard. It is natural to a man who possesses a fine estate to lend a favoring mind to ideas, laws, usages, which tend to exempt that estate from the usual risks of waste and accident, and to reserve for the holders of inherited property the most coveted honors of the state. In New York, therefore, the young and eloquent propagandist carried all before him, and assisted to prepare for his coming colleague a painful surprise.
“I had left France,” Mr. Jefferson wrote long after, “in the first year of her Revolution, in the fervor of natural rights and zeal for reformation. My conscientious devotion to those rights could not be heightened, but it had been aroused and excited by daily exercise. The President received me cordially, and my colleagues and the circle of principal citizens apparently with welcome. The courtesies of dinner-parties given me, as a stranger newly arrived among them, placed me at once in their familiar society. But I cannot describe the wonder and mortification with which the table conversations filled me. Politics were the chief topic, and a preference of kingly over republican government was evidently the favorite sentiment. An apostate I could not be, nor yet a hypocrite; and I found myself, for the most part, the only advocate on the republican side of the question, unless among the guests there chanced to be some member of that party from the legislative houses.”
No one can glance over the memorials of the time without meeting on every side confirmation of this passage. The Hamiltonians, we perceive, were having it all their own way in New York; their immediate object being to surround the President with imposing ceremonial and court-like etiquette. Hamilton, strangely ignorant of human nature and of the people he aspired to serve, was infatuated with the idea of gradually reconciling them to the ludicrous pomp of a European court. When General Washington asked his opinion as to the etiquette of the President’s house, he replied, that, though the notions of equality were yet too general and too strong to admit of “a proper distance” being maintained by the chief magistrate, still he must go as far in that direction as the people would endure, even to the point of incurring the risk of partial and momentary dissatisfaction. He recommended the adoption of the usual etiquette of the courts of Europe; except, that to “remove the idea of too immense an inequality,” which, he feared, would excite dissatisfaction and cabal, the President might invite a few high officials to dinner, now and then; though, on such occasions, “the President should never remain long at the table”; that is, as I suppose, not sit and booze after the ladies had retired. The President was to be so august and inaccessible a personage, that a member of the House of Representatives should have no right to an interview with him, even on public business; nor any foreigner of lower rank than ambassador. Senators, Hamilton thought, should be entitled to an interview, as the peers of France and England might demand to speak to their sovereign, face to face; and, besides, the people would be glad to know there was one body of men whose right to approach the President would be “a safeguard against secret combinations to deceive him.”
All the writings of the time that most readily catch the eye are in this tone. The Vice-President, John Adams, seized every occasion to dwell upon the necessity of decorating the head of the state with the most gorgeous properties. This son of New England, who had had a life-time’s experience of the unquestioning obedience paid to the plainest citizen clad in the imperial purple of fair election or legal appointment, gave it as his opinion, that “neither dignity nor authority can be supported in human minds, collected into nations or any great numbers, without a splendor and majesty in some degree proportioned to them.” He opposed the practice of styling the President His Excellency, for precisely the reason which made it a rule of the old French court to give every one some title of honor excepting alone The King. To style the President His Excellency, Mr. Adams thought, was to “put him on a level with a governor of Bermuda, or one of his own ambassadors, or a governor of any one of our States.”
One would think, from reading the letters and newspapers of 1789 and 1790, that pickpockets and cut-throats could be driven, awe-struck, from their evil courses, by the magnificence of the President’s house and the splendor of his chariot. Jefferson reached New York on Sunday, March 21, 1790. In all probability, some one was polite enough to hand him the newspaper of the day before, the Gazette of the United States, the organ of the administration, full charged with the Hamiltonian spirit. If so, he may have espied this little essay, — milk for babes, not yet fit for stronger food, — which harmonized perfectly with the prevalent way of thinking: —
“There must be some adventitious properties infused into the government to give it energy and spirit, or the selfish, turbulent passions of men can never be controlled. This has occasioned that artificial splendor and dignity that are to be found in the courts of so many nations. Some admiration and respect must be excited towards public officers, by their holding a real or supposed superiority over the mass of the people. The sanctions and penalties of law are likewise requisite to aid in restraining individuals from trampling upon and demolishing the government. It is confessed that, in some situations, a small degree of parade and solemnity, co-operating with other causes, may be sufficient to secure obedience to the laws. In an early state of society, when the desires of men are few and easily satisfied, the temptations to trespass upon good order and justice are neither pressing nor numerous. Avarice and ambition increase with population; and in a large, opulent community the dazzling appendages and pompous formalities of courts are introduced to form a balance to the increasing ardor of the selfish passions, and to check that ascendency which aspiring individuals would otherwise gain over the public peace and authority.”
In a file of the same paper, the new Secretary of State could see many indications that some progress had been made toward investing the President with royal trappings. He could read announcements respecting the supply of the President’s family, signed “Steward of the Household.” Poems upon the President frequently appeared, which were as absurdly adulatory as the effusions by which the British poet-laureate earned his pipe of sack. A systematic attempt was made to give queenly pre-eminence to the President’s excellent wife. The movements of that industrious little lady were chronicled very much in the style of the London Court newsman when he essays to inform the world of the manner in which the queen has managed to kill another day. Every week, the “Gazette” contained a full budget of court news, not unfrequently giving half a column of such announcements as these: —
“The most Honorable Robert Morris and Lady attended the theatre last evening.”
“Monday last, the Senate of the United States, with the Vice-President at their head, went in a body, in carriages, to the house of the President, and presented him with an address.”
“We are informed that THE PRESIDENT, His Excellency the Vice-President, His Excellency the Governor of this State, and many other personages of the greatest distinction, will be present at the theatre this evening.”
The following is the “Gazette’s” account of the arrival in New York of Mrs. Washington, May 30, 1789: —
“Wednesday, arrived in this city from Mount Vernon, Mrs. WASHINGTON, the amiable consort of THE PRESIDENT of the United States. Mrs. Washington from Philadelphia was accompanied by the Lady of Mr. Robert Morris. At Elizabethtown Point she was met by the PRESIDENT, Mr. Morris, and several other gentlemen of distinction, who had gone there for that purpose. She was conducted over the bay in the President’s barge, rowed by thirteen eminent pilots, in a handsome white dress; on passing the Battery a salute was fired; and on her landing she was welcomed by crowds of citizens, who had assembled to testify their joy on this happy occasion. The principal ladies of the city have, with the earliest attention and respect, paid their devoirs to the amiable consort of our beloved President, namely, the Lady of His Excellency the Governor, Lady Sterling, Lady Mary Watts, Lady Kitty Duer, La Marchioness de Brehan, the ladies of the Most Honorable Mr. Langdon, and the Most Honorable Mr. Dalton, the Mayoress, Mrs. Livingston of Clermont, Mrs. Chancellor Livingston, the Miss Livingstons, Lady Temple, Madam de Ia Forest, Mrs. Montgomery, Mrs. Knox, Mrs. Thompson, Mrs. Gerry, Mrs. Edgar, Mrs. M’Comb, Mrs. Lynch, Mrs. Houston, Mrs. Griffin, Mrs. Provost, the Miss Bayards, and a great number of other respectable characters. Although the President makes no formal invitations, yet the day after the arrival of Mrs. Washington, the following distinguished personages dined at his house, en famille. Their Excellencies the Vice-President, the Governor of this State, the Ministers of France and Spain, and the Governor of the Western Territory, the Honorable Secretary of the United States for Foreign Affairs, the Most Honorable Mr. Langdon, Mr. Wingate, Mr. Izard, Mr. Few, and Mr. Muhlenberg, Speaker of the Honorable House of Representatives of the United States. The President’s levee yesterday was attended by a very numerous and most respectable company. The circumstance of the President’s entering the drawing-room at three o’clock, not being universally known, occasioned some inaccuracies as to the time of attendance.”
There really seemed to prevail a mania to extol, exalt, and royalize the President. Indeed, Mr. Jefferson calls it, somewhere, “a frenzy.” If the President attended a ball, the managers must needs cause a platform to be erected at one end of the ball-room, several steps high, with a sofa upon it, and conduct thither the President and his “consort.” An attempt was made to have the President’s head engraved upon the coinage about to be issued by the new government. The levees were arranged and conducted exactly as at the palace of St. James; and when the President rode abroad on any official errand, he used what was called the State Carriage, — a cream-colored chariot drawn by six horses, and attended by white servants, in liveries of white cloth trimmed with scarlet.
All of which, we can now see, proves the innocence of the Hamiltonians of any design to spring a king upon the country; for surely, people of their ability, who had formed a scheme to subvert republican government, would have most carefully avoided such a plain showing of their hand. They would at once have courted and deceived the multitude of republicans by casting aside the worn-out trumpery of kings, and weaving round the President the magic spell of utter simplicity.
This was Bonaparte’s method. We find him, first, an extreme Republican, using all the forms of that sect with rigor long after he was the ruling mind of France; next, an austere First Consul, still dating his letters in the manner decreed by the Republic, and calling his officers citizen-general; last, when his genius had dazzled and overwhelmed his intellect, and he was expanding to his ruin, he stooped to the imperial crown and condescended to inquire how things had been done in the court of that gorgeous man-doll, Louis XIV.
Nothing could be more artless and open than the manner in which our imposing-government men sought to commend their opinions to the public. Colonel Hamilton, indeed, censured the Vice-President for going too far and too fast in that direction; disturbing people’s minds prematurely, and not giving the new government that “fair chance” he was determined it should have. It was in this spring of 1790, when Jefferson and his four clerks were working their way down through the accumulated business of the State Department, that Mr. Adams broke out in the “Gazette” with his weekly “Discourses on Davila,” a chaos of passages from, and comments upon, a “History of the Civil Wars of France” by the Italian Davila, interspersed with long extracts from Pope, Young, Adam Smith, and any other author whom Mr. Adams might happen to think of in the fury of composition. The great object of the series was to show that there is a necessity, fixed in the constitution of the human mind, for such orders in the state as kings and nobles. The basis of Mr. Adams’s political system, which he drew from his own heart, was this: Man’s controlling motive is the passion for distinction. If any one should doubt this, he advises that benighted person to go and attentively observe the journeymen and apprentices in the first workshop, or the oarsmen in a cockboat, the members of a family, a neighborhood, the inhabitants of a house, the crew of a ship, a school, a college, a city, a village, the bar, the church, the exchange, a camp, a court, wherever, indeed, men, women, or children are to be found, whether old or young, rich or poor, wise or foolish, ignorant or learned, and he will find every individual strongly actuated by a desire to be seen, heard, talked of approved, and respected by the people about him and within his knowledge. And, of all known distinctions, none is so universally bewitching as “an illustrious descent.” One drop of royal blood, thought Mr. Adams, though illegitimately scattered, will make any man proud or vain; and why? Because it attracts the attention of mankind. Hence the wisdom and virtue of all nations have endeavored to utilize this passion, by regulating and legitimating it, by giving it objects to pursue, such as orders in the magistracy, titles of honor, insignia of office, ribbons, stars, garters, golden keys, marshals’ batons, white sticks, rings, the ivory chair, the official robe, the coronet. And this has been done most of all in republics, where there is no monarch to overtop and overshadow every one.
Mr. Adams was most decided in his advocacy of the hereditary principle. “Nations,” he remarked, “perceiving that the still small voice of merit was drowned in the insolent roars of the dupes of impudence and knavery in national elections, without a possibility of remedy, have sought for something more permanent than the popular voice to designate honor.” Some of the nations, he continued, had annexed honor to the possession of land; others, to office; others, to birth; but the policy of Europe had been to unite these, and bestow the highest honors of the state upon men who had land, office, and ancestors. To the landed and privileged aristocracy of birth, Europe, according to the Vice-President, owed “her superiority, in war and peace, in legislation and commerce, in agriculture, navigation, arts, sciences, and manufactures.” In this strain Mr. Adams continued to discourse, week after week, until he had published thirty-one numbers; when the public indignation alarmed the printer, and gave pause even to the impetuous author. Or, to use Mr. Adams’s own language, written twenty-three years after: “The rage and fury of the Jacobinical journals against these Discourses increased as they proceeded, intimidated the printer, John Fenno, and convinced me that to proceed would do more hurt than good.”
For, we must ever bear in mind, in reading of this period, that every utterance of a political nature by a person of note was read in the lurid and distorting light cast over the nations by the French Revolution. From the fall of the Bastille in 1789, to the seizure of the supreme power by Bonaparte in 1799, civilized man was mad. The news from France was read in the more advanced nations with a frenzied interest; for, besides being in itself most strange and tragic, it either flattered or rebuked every man’s party feelings, helped or hindered every man’s party dream or scheme. Each ship’s budget was fuel to party fires, — both parties, — for the news which flattered one enraged the other.
Mr. Adams had made up his mind respecting the French Revolution at once. He knew it to be wholly diabolical. No good could come of it. In these very Discourses, all written as he says to counteract the new French ideas, he did not hesitate to denounce the most vaunted proceedings of the popular party. In his old age, when Bonaparte’s coarse and heavy hand made life more burdensome to nearly every virtuous family in Christendom, he was proud indeed to point, in the seventeenth of his Davila papers, to this sentence: “If the wild idea of annihilating the nobility should spread far and be long persisted in, the men of letters and the national assembly, as democratical as they may think themselves, will find no barrier against despotism.” This, in 1790, when Bonaparte was a yellow, thin little lieutenant of artillery twenty-two years old. He wrote the sentence, as he himself records, in the historic mansion upon Richmond Hill, near New York, at a moment when the view from his windows afforded him another proof of man’s inherent love of distinctions. A deputation of Creek Indians ware encamped within sight and hearing; and even among them there were “grandees, warriors, and sachems.”
Neither this honest Adams nor the more adroit Hamilton—both public-spirited and patriotic—seem to have had any glimmering of the truth, so familiar to us, that institutions, like all things else, having served their turn, grow old, get past service, become obstructive, and die. Their discourses upon government read like the remarks that might be made by a young lobster of ability and spirit against the custom which has long prevailed in the lobster tribe of changing their shells. The ardent representative of young lobsterdom might point to the undeniable fact, that the old shells had answered an excellent purpose, had proved sufficient, had protected them in storm and adorned them in calm. He might further descant upon the known inconveniences of change; the languor, the sickness, the emaciation, the feverish struggle out of the time-honored encasement, and the long insecurity while the new armor was getting hardness and temper. Every word true. The only answer is: The time of year has come for a change; we must get other shells or stop growing. As long as people generally are childlike enough to believe in the fictions upon which kingly authority rests, so long the institution of monarchy assists and blesses them; as the daily mass solaced and exalted Columbus, Isabella, the great Prince Henry of Portugal, and all the noblest and most gifted of that age. But when faith declines and knowledge is in the ascendant, kings become ridiculous, and the most touching ceremonials of the past are an empty show.
Mr. Adams protested he could see no difference between the rich families of Boston and the great houses of a European city. “You and I,” he wrote to his kinsman, Samuel Adams, in October, 1790, “have seen four noble families rise up in Boston, the CRAFTS, GORES, DAWES, and AUSTINS. These are as really a nobility in our town as the Howards, Somersets, Berties, in England.” And when Samuel Adams remarked that “the love of liberty is interwoven in the soul of man,” John Adams, Vice-President of the United States, replied: “So it is, according to La Fontaine, in that of a wolf.”
In 1790, Jefferson could scarcely have found in New York three drawing-rooms in which such sentiments as these were uncongenial with the prevailing temper. Mr. Jay, always in accord with Hamilton, had suggested in 1787 a governor-general of great powers, and senators appointed for life. General Knox, Secretary of War, a soldier and nothing but a soldier, would have swept away at a stroke all the State governments, and established a standing army. With regard to the sentiment of equality which was asserting itself in France with so much emphasis, it was all but unknown in the United States. What Miss Sedgwick records in her autobiography of her father, an important public man of this period, was true then of nearly every person in liberal circumstances in town or country: “He was born too soon to relish the freedoms of democracy, and I have seen his brow lower when a free-and-easy mechanic came to the front door; and, upon one occasion, I remember his turning off the east steps (I am sure not kicking, but the demonstration was unequivocal) a grown-up lad who kept his hat on after being told to take it off.” Gentlemen of the period found no difficulty in yielding assent to the doctrine of human equality when they heard it melodiously read on the 4th of July from the Declaration of Independence; but how hard to miss the universal homage once paid to them as “gentlemen”! Many of them spoke with a curious mixture of wonder, scorn, and derision of what they seemed to think was a new French notion, “the contagion of levelism,” as Chauncey Goodrich styled it. “What folly is it,” asked this son of Connecticut, “that has set the world agog to be all equal to French barbers? It must have its run.”
What a change for Jefferson was the New York of 1790, from such a city as Paris was in 1789! His dearest and deepest convictions openly and everywhere abhorred or despised! The worn-out, obstructive institutions of the past, the accursed fruits of which had excited in him a constant and vast commiseration for five years, extolled on every side as the indispensable conditions of human welfare!
Hamilton and Jefferson met, — the man of action and the man of feeling. Jefferson had brought with him, so far as appears, no prejudice against his colleague. In Paris he had recommended an English suitor, who had claims in America, “to apply to Colonel Hamilton (who was aid to General Washington) and is now very eminent at the bar, and much to be relied on.” Nor is Hamilton known to have had any dislike to Jefferson. Naturally, the man of executive force and the man of high qualities of mind regard one another with even an exaggerated respect. The mutual homage of Sir Walter Scott, poet and man of letters, and James Watt, the sublime mechanic, was not less natural than pleasing. In the presence of the genius who had cheered and charmed his life, and enriched his country’s fame, making mountainous and unfertile Scotland dear to half the world, Watt looked upon his steam-engine as something small, commonplace, material; and, at the same instant, Scott was saying to himself, How petty are my light scribblings compared with the solid good this great man has done the world This is the natural feeling between men of opposite excellences and noble character; who meet, as a sultan of the East might meet a monarch of the West, equals, without being rivals. It was otherwise with these two men, Jefferson and Hamilton. In their case, there were so many causes of antipathy, noble and ignoble, external and internal, that nothing short of thorough-breeding in both could have kept them well with one another.
There is no contest so little harmful as an open one. The English people have originated no governmental device better than the arrangement of their Parliament, by which the administration members sit facing the opposition, and the leaders of the two bodies fight it out openly in the hearing of mankind. These two men should have been avowed opponents, not colleagues, and debated publicly the high concerns respecting which they were bound to differ; so as to correct while exasperating one another; so as to inform, at once, and stimulate the public mind. Hamilton’s fluency and self-confidence would have given him the advantage for a while; but Jefferson would have had the American people behind him, since it was his part to marshal them the way they were to go.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.