The Cantankerous Mr. Maclay


Hamilton agreed that if there was a committee vote demanding the papers, he would produce them. Maclay: “I told him any member of Congress had a right to any papers in any office whatever; that as chairman of the committee I had promised to procure what papers were necessary. I deemed this necessary, and of course called for it.” Hamilton asked for a half hour to consider the matter and said he would write Maclay a note. “I parted with him, telling him I should expect to hear from him in half an hour. He said I should. This was before twelve.”

The Senate adjourned at one. Maclay sat a half hour longer waiting for the note, but it did not come. He went directly to the Treasury office. “After being admitted into the sanctum sanctorum I told his Holiness that he had been good enough to promise me a note which was not come to my hands. … He said the papers I wanted were here. I said, ‘What, here in the office?’ He said yes.”

Hamilton then rose, left the room, kept Maclay waiting for a considerable time, and returned with a young aide named Kuhn. The papers, he said, were in the private desk of Mr. Hillegas, a Treasury employee. The desk was locked and bound around with tape. Mr. Hillegas had the only key, and he was in Philadelphia. Maclay expressed surprise that public papers belonging to the Treasury should be locked in a private desk. Hamilton “affected to believe” that Maclay was censuring his conduct. Maclay repeated that the situation seemed very strange. “I suppose, then,” he said, “I must write to Mr. Hillegas for to send over the key before I could see the papers.” Hamilton replied that he could not get them otherwise. “By way, I believe, of getting me out of the room [he] told me to come and see the desk. I walked into the room of the Assistant Secretary, and he there showed me the desk as he said contained the warrants. … A schoolboy should be whipped for such pitiful evasions.” Baron Steuben got his pay and pension thirteen days later.

Maclay became increasingly bitter as he saw Hamilton and his “gladiators” push his revenue and financial measures through the Congress: I can not see that I can do any further good here, and I think I had better go home. Everything, even to the naming of a committee, is prearranged by Hamilton and his group of speculators. I can not even find a single member to condole in sincerity with me over the political calamities of my country. Let me deliver myself from the society of such men, for I verily believe the sun never shone on a more abandoned composition of political characters.

The President, he wrote, “has become, in the hands of Hamilton, the dishclout of every dirty speculation, as his name goes to wipe away blame and silence all murmuring.” And in the ultimate burst of rage: “Republicans are borne down by fashion and a fear of being charged with a want of respect to General Washington. If there is treason in the wish I retract it, but would to God this same General Washington were in heaven! We would not then have him brought forward as the constant cover to every unconstitutional and irrepublican act.”

Jefferson arrived in Norfolk in November, 1789, but delayed four months before starting to New York to assume his post as Secretary of State. Maclay first met him on May 24, 1790, at a session of the Committee on Foreign Affairs. He was not favorably impressed with the man whose political views he was foreshadowing, but his description is a superb piece of reporting: Jefferson is a slender man; has rather the air of stiffness in his manner; his clothes seem too small for him; he sits in a lounging manner, on one hip commonly, and with one of his shoulders elevated much above the other; his face has a sunny aspect; his whole figure has a loose, shackling air. He had a rambling, vacant look, and nothing of that firm, collected deportment which I expected would dignify the presence of a secretary or minister. I looked for gravity, but a laxity of manner seemed shed about him. He spoke almost without ceasing. But even his discourse partook of his personal demeanor. It was loose and rambling, and yet he scattered information wherever he went, and some even brilliant sentiments sparkled from him. The information which he gave us respecting foreign ministers, etc., was all high-spiced. He had been long enough abroad to catch the tone of European folly. He gave us a sentiment which seemed rather to savor of quaintness: “It is better to take the highest of the lowest than the lowest of the highest.” Translation: “It is better to appoint a chargé with a handsome salary than a minister plenipotentiary with a small one.”

In February 1791: “Mr. Jefferson with more than Parisian politeness waited on me at my chamber this morning. He talked politics, mostly the French difference and the whale-fishery; but he touched the Potomac, too, as much as to say, ‘There, oh, [place the capital] there.’” When Jefferson made a deal with Hamilton to support his financial program in return for Hamilton’s agreement to place the capital near Georgetown on the Potomac, Maclay felt that Jefferson betrayed him on two key issues.