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The American World Was Not Made For Me
The Unknown Alexander Hamilton
December 1977 | Volume 29, Issue 1
Then came the wars of the French Revolution. Jefferson, regarding the upheaval as a continuation of the American struggle for liberty, was determined to support France in her conflict with aristocratic England. Stressing not the reforms but the excesses of the French Revolutionaries, and, in any case, led by considerations of national finance to favor cooperation with the greater naval power, Hamilton preferred the British cause. The result was a major controversy within the United States which deeply disturbed Washington. He believed that the correct role for the United States was an even-handed neutrality, and appealed to both Jefferson and Hamilton to keep the nation free from foreign entanglements that might lead to war.
Was Washington right in his belief that, with good will on both sides, the controversies that wracked his administration were unnecessary? There are reasons to think so. Despite daily donnybrooks and opposite brinkmanships, Hamilton and Jefferson were forced by the realities of the situation to agree that keeping out of the Anglo-French wars was greatly to the American advantage. And Jefferson, as President, continued Hamilton’s financial measures, including the Bank of the United States.
Why then fight; why did not Washingtonian unity prevail? It is difficult, when the facts concerning Hamilton are in, not to see a trail leading back to the Leeward Islands.
Although Jefferson could be adept, and sometimes devious, in defending himself and what he considered the interests of the people who were his constituents, he was not a dedicated fighter. He had been a failure as wartime governor of Virginia. When he became President, he ran the country not by controversy but by manipulation. And Madison, despite a tendency to vociferous outrage, would rather read a book and think a thought than take part in a row. It was Hamilton who relished hand-to-hand fighting.
A really first-class fight requires, of course, already existing differences that can be incited. The divide along which the Hamilton-Jefferson belligerence developed had long worried Washington, whose election as commander in chief had in part grown out of it. (Since the Revolution was then being fought in New England by an exclusively New England army, Continental rivalry required a Southern, preferably Virginian, commander.) The South and the Northeast were naturally suspicious of each other, in part because of opposing economic interests. Endeavoring to reconcile all differences, Washington had hoped to hand on to his successor a profoundly united nation. He failed, and surely the major blame for this failure can be attributed to Hamilton, who exacerbated conflicts and suspicions that were, as generation followed generation, to eventuate in the Civil War.
All myths to the contrary, President Washington was not led by his Secretary of the Treasury. Nor was he—at least until the very end of his battered second term—a partisan of the Federalists. Yet his value to Hamilton was immense.
Having suffered through the Revolutionary command (neither Jefferson nor Madison had been with the army), Washington realized how greatly the emerging nation needed, in order to be self-sufficient, a sound, central financial structure. His attitudes toward Hamilton’s innovations were thus admiring and supportive. This persuaded Hamilton’s opponents that they would have to reduce Washington’s prestige in order to overthrow Hamilton. The tactic boomeranged. Hamilton and his supporters were enabled to reassure the American people by claiming identity with the long-time leader who was resolutely loved.
The seven years between Hamilton’s appointment as Secretary of the Treasury and Washington’s retirement from the Presidency were, indeed, enchantingly fulfilling, the most fulfilling of Hamilton’s career. Washington was to him no longer the all-controlling father he had been as commander in chief. Hamilton was now more truly self-confident; the scene was now much larger; Hamilton now possessed his own special field of knowledge.
As when he had been commander in chief, President Washington felt no desire to lead Congress. Although that body was now an integral part of the process over which he presided, he was so devoted to the separation of powers that he believed the President should not interfere with the functions of the legislators. His clear constitutional duty was to point out areas that required action and to decide, at the end of the legislative process, whether he would sign into law the bills that had been passed. Beyond that he was unwilling to go. This left a power vacuum into which Hamilton leaped, setting up, before Jefferson realized the possibility, his own block in Congress. For a while, Hamilton led Congress, and throughout Washington’s Presidency, he remained puissant among the legislators.