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The American World Was Not Made For Me
The Unknown Alexander Hamilton
December 1977 | Volume 29, Issue 1
In order to get his first set of financial plans through Congress, Hamilton was ultimately forced to make a concession to the South by agreeing to the location of the national capital contiguous to Virginia, but from this he learned no lesson. His plan for the Bank of the United States, the measures he proposed for fostering manufactures, flew—without any concessions—straight in the face not only of the Southerners, but of all the farmers who formed the vast majority in the United States. He outraged Jefferson by saying to him that corruption was an essential aspect of effective rule. Jefferson’s reiterated accusation that Hamilton was subverting the federal government through a bribed “corrupt squadron” was only a paraphrase of one of Hamilton’s often-stated contentions: federal financial institutions would stabilize the nation by cementing to the central power rich men whose prosperity would depend on federal authority.
One of Washington’s greatest gifts to the founding of the United States was his perpetual concern with quelling dissension, drawing to the national standard every individual who could thus be drawn. This had been essential to winning the Revolutionary War since, in the long run, the British could only triumph by dividing the patriot cause. His Excellency so controlled his young military aide that Hamilton got into no controversies of any sort, committed no indiscretions, while serving officially at headquarters. But as soon as Hamilton stepped into a private role—whether it was through unguarded statements at a drinking party in Philadelphia, or in his yearning for an army revolt, or his sometimes hysterical leadership in Congress—his fierce aggressions appeared.
As the President, Washington became the head of a government completely untried, supported by only a small majority of the people, with two of the thirteen states still unconvinced and staying outside. An administration that would pull together, that would create ever mounting national unity was the overwhelming need, and this Washington established so effectively that Jefferson wrote, on arriving to become Secretary of State, “The opposition to our new Constitution has almost totally disappeared.… If the President can be preserved a few more years, till habits of authority and obedience can be established generally, we have nothing to fear.”
Before Congress authorized the Cabinet, Madison, who was in the House of Representatives, was Washington’s closest adviser. To the Cabinet, Washington appointed the best men he could find, including Jefferson and Hamilton, who had previously not known each other. Madison, who was close to both, brought them together, eager to encourage what he assumed would be, under Washington’s broad wing, a warm and fruitful partnership. Jefferson and Madison rescued Hamilton’s first set of financial schemes by arranging the deal concerning the national capital.
Then came Hamilton’s utterly unconciliatory recommendation for the Bank of the United States, which seemed to Jefferson’s and Madison’s Virginia constituency a naked power play in favor of men they saw as foreclosures of mortgages. Jefferson and Madison, still thinking in terms of cooperation, went along until the bill had passed Congress and was on the President’s desk for signature. Then Madison, suddenly taking alarm and seeing no other way to prevent the signing, turned about-face on the doctrine of “implied powers,” which he had supported in The Federalist. He tried vainly to persuade Washington to veto the bank as unconstitutional, since the establishment of such institutions had not been specifically provided for.
Thus began the famous fight, between Jefferson and Madison on one side, Hamilton on the other. Hamilton already had a newspaper, supported by Treasury advertising, that was his personal organ. With Madison’s conniving, Jefferson gave Philip Freneau a job in the State Department that left him time to edit an anti-Hamiltonian newspaper. Freneau, also a born fighter, went for Hamilton like an angry hornet. Hamilton retaliated. As the charges and countercharges went back and forth, Washington became not only upset but puzzled. Convinced that there was no real basis for controversy, he could hardly believe that his two ablest Cabinet ministers were at each other’s throats.
Washington wrote both Hamilton and Jefferson in almost identical terms: “Without more charity of the opinions and acts of one another in governmental matters; or some more infallible criterion by which the truth of speculative opinions, before they have undergone the test of experience, are to be forejudged than has yet fallen to the lot of fallibility, I believe it will be difficult if not impracticable to manage the reins of government or keep the parts of it together… My earnest wish and my fondest hope therefore is that, instead of wounding suspicions and irritable charges, there may be liberal allowances, mutual forebearances, and temporizing yieldings on all sides. Under the exercise of these, matters will go on smoothly and, if possible, more prosperously.”