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The American World Was Not Made For Me
The Unknown Alexander Hamilton
December 1977 | Volume 29, Issue 1
It made Hamilton’s role easier that the President admired his fiscal plans and operations, while his opponents lacked the financial know-how to interfere in more than a bumbling and usually ineffectual manner. Another opening for Hamilton in his pursuit of power was provided by the fact that Washington thought of his Cabinet as a unified body. Each secretary was given for administrative purposes his own specialty, but major decisions were made, under the President’s final authority, by the Cabinet as a whole. This allowed Hamilton, who was endlessly energetic, intelligent, hardworking, and full of determination, to move across the board, interfering in particular with foreign policy. When he could not operate openly, he went underground, communicating behind Washington’s and Jefferson’s backs with the British minister.
Hamilton, however, preferred to move with the maximum of visibility. Part of his satisfaction came from having all eyes upon him while, as an individual champion, he achieved, or seemed to achieve, heroic deeds. Jefferson was at first so far behind in these lists that it was Hamilton himself who made the Virginian a public figure by selecting him as the most conspicuous target of his resounding attacks.
Those were the years when Hamilton’s youthful fantasies came almost altogether into being. Powerful men were his sycophants; women adored him; and if he made a flood of enemies, that was, as long as he could overcome, an integral part of his triumphant dream. Then the music stopped.
After Washington’s retirement from the Presidency, Hamilton’s life proceeded in directions which he could not traverse with pride or even with personal satisfaction. He had reached an eminence which demanded that he become, if there were not to be a letdown, the next President of the United States. But his warrior approach had made him so unpopular that even his greatest admirers realized he could not hope to achieve a top post in an elective government. To compound his plight, he had, in his determination to shine alone, failed to attract to himself followers of possible presidential stature. Where Jefferson, succeeded by his intimates Madison and Monroe, was to exert power in the Presidency for twenty-four years, Hamilton had no surrogate. When Washington announced his retirement, the Federalists nominated, to run against Jefferson, the archetypical New Englander John Adams, who owed nothing to Hamilton and was repelled by the West Indian’s sword-waving flamboyance. After Adams had succeeded to the Presidency, Hamilton was reduced to the mean expedient of plotting behind the President’s back with members of the Cabinet.
Then there arose the fascinating possibility that Hamilton might find escape from a “groveling” situation through the phenomenon he had longed for in his first known letter-a war. And from his point of view the right war-against France. The pendulum of foreign policy having swung toward England, the French were threatening to attack the United States. Congress voted to enlist a federal army. By intriguing mightily, Hamilton secured the post of second in command, which was in fact more than that, since Washington, the titular commander in chief, was far beyond his prime. Hamilton, who never achieved any deep satisfaction from his lucrative practice of the law, abandoned everything to live with and preside over the embryo army. He inscribed such masses of “routine and even petty and trivial” orders that the indefatigable editors of the normally exhaustive Hamilton papers decided that to print more than a few samples would be a waste of time, ink, and paper.
Hamilton had visions of leading the army against the Spanish Southwest and perhaps even annexing part of South America to the United States. But Adams had never really wanted the army-he thought a navy a better defense-and had been outraged at being maneuvered into appointing Hamilton, whom he deeply distrusted. The more orders the major general sent out in a mounting frenzy, the fewer soldiers there were to be efficiently organized. And then Adams, without consulting his Cabinet, which he now realized had been infiltrated by Hamilton, made peaceful overtures to France, abolishing the threat of war and exploding forever Hamilton’s visions of military glory.
In 1799 the Federalists renominated Adams. In pain and outrage, Hamilton wrote a voluminous attack on Adams—more than fifty printed pages. Yet he preferred his Federalist rival to his ancient enemy Jefferson; he ended by urging his readers to vote for Adams anyway. He was, indeed, so upset by the indications of a Jeffersonian victory that he suggested to John Jay, the governor of New York, a method for stealing that state’s electoral votes. Jay indignantly refused.
After Jefferson had won the election, the failure of the Constitution to distinguish between votes in the Electoral College for President and Vice President opened up a possibility for frustrating the will of the people by seating in the Presidency not Jefferson but the vice-presidential candidate, Burr. Of the two, Hamilton despised Burr more; he opposed a Federalist drift toward using this loophole.
After Jefferson was seated, the Northeastern Federalists considered his Presidency so overwhelming a menace to all that was good and decent that they discussed taking their states out of the Union. Now Hamilton fought for the Union, helping to suppress the move toward secession. As part of this campaign, he intervened successfully to prevent Burr from becoming governor of New York.