Channelling George Washington: The General and Alexander Hamilton


Mr. Fleming is a former president of the Society of American Historians. This is the latest in a series of articles, "Channelling George Washington."

“You’ve been very patient with this old coot, as he unburdens his mind of his worries about our unpredictable country.  Is there anything you’d like to talk about?

“Alexander Hamilton. I’ve been fascinated with him for a long time.”

“A complicated subject.  No doubt you know about the various ways in which Ham worked for me, starting as my aide and ending with his service as second-in-command of the provisional army we threw together in 1798 to deal with the Quasi-War with France.”

“I’ve read about all of it.  I’d love to know what you thought of him.”

“He was an invaluable assistant, not only for his energy and ability as a writer, but as an agreeable dinner companion.  At times I thought of him almost as a son. But I soon learned that was a misleading emotion.  Ham was incapable of deep loyalty to any man.  I think it had something to do with his youthful disappointment in his own father, who was an utter failure as a businessman and, it would seem, as a husband.  His wife banished him from her bed and board, something for which Ham never forgave her.  Do you know that in the tens of thousands of words Ham wrote in his lifetime, there’s not a single mention of his mother?”

“I was struck by Hamilton’s comment on your death.”

“I remember it wasn’t entirely complimentary.”

“He said you were ‘an aegis very essential” to him.  Some people say that means he saw you as a man he could manipulate. But he might have meant you were his protector. Aegis means shield, in the original Greek.”

“I’m inclined to the latter.”

“He also said he was indebted to you for many kindnesses.”

“No doubt you’ve read about our first serious quarrel, in 1781?

“You lost your temper when he left you waiting for him while he chatted with Lafayette.”

“I was getting worn out by our endless war without much hope of victory.  I apologized for my angry rebuke the moment I calmed down.  But Ham had decided he wanted a chance to win fame at the head of a regiment and rejected my apology.  I was more than a little irked by what seemed tantamount to desertion but I finally relented and gave him what he wanted.  By that time the miracle we call Yorktown was in progress, and Ham performed brilliantly in the charge that forced the British to surrender.  I congratulated him.”

“He promptly left the army and became a congressman.”

“After studying law long enough to pass the bar.”

“There you had another clash?”

“A very serious one.  It revealed Ham’s tendency to risk extreme solutions.  It started with good intentions on his part.  In 1782, he joined Jemmy Madison to push for a law that gave Congress the power to levy some taxes, so it could pay the army the millions in back pay it owed the men, as well as half pay for life which they had promised to the officers.  Ham discovered what I too was learning.  A congressman’s word is worth nothing—not even the cost of the paper it occasionally gets printed on.  They didn’t like the army in the first place.  Old Sam Adams and his cousin John and their fellow New Englanders were spooked by the word regular.  They heard “standing army”—a supposed threat to the nation’s liberties.  Once Ham digested this message, his contempt for Congress rapidly exceeded mine.”

“What did he do?”

“He and Robert Morris, the Superintendent of Finance, and a few other people decided they should encourage the soldiers to threaten to revolt if they didn’t get their money.  That was supposed to scare the politicians into approving a tax.  Ham told Morris and the others that I could handle the threat with no difficulty.  Ham was out of touch with the army.  The officers were being influenced by my old enemy, General Horatio Gates, the man who tried to ruin me at Valley Forge.  One of his aides produced a series of broadsides that were little short of a call for another revolution.  In one of them, the writer pointedly said the men should pay no attention to anyone recommending moderation.  That shaft was aimed directly at me.”

“How did you stop them?”

“I wish I could say my performance was carefully planned.  But there are times when you experience the presence of a Guiding Spirit.  This was one of them. After a few paragraphs urging the men not to disgrace their legacy of honor and obedience, I looked out at their faces and saw I was getting nowhere.  I pulled out a letter I’d just received from a Virginia congressman, telling me that some of the delegates were ready to do something for the army.  When I started to read it, the words kept blurring.  I put on a pair of spectacles I’d recently obtained from Philadelphia, to help my failing vision.  It was the first time I’d worn them in public.  A bit self-conscious about confessing a weakness, I told the men I was afraid I’d not only grown grey but almost blind in the service of our country.  The words were aimed at that vicious jibe about taking no advice from a moderate voice.  I was sarcastically reminding them that a moderate could still be a patriot.  I was amazed by the impact of those words.”

“What  happened?”

“A murmur ran through the listeners, a mixture of a sob and a gasp.  I saw tears on the cheeks of some officers near me.  Others were brushing away tears.  Those words had changed everything.  After I read the letter I withdrew, General Knox persuaded the men to unanimously approve a motion condemning the incendiary broadsides.  The crisis was virtually over.”

“What did you say to Hamilton, afterward?”

“I wrote him a rather angry letter, telling him an army was a dangerous instrument to play with.  He told me he had acquired an indifferent opinion of the honesty of the country.  That’s a viewpoint he never changed.  We remained estranged for the better part of the next year.”

“What brought you together again?”

“Our shared conviction that we had to have a stronger federal government.  Ham led the fight in New York and nearby states.  Jemmy Madison, with my backing, pushed it in Virginia and the South.  We soon had a constitutional convention that Ham attended.  But he once more revealed his tendency for extreme solutions.  He called for a president and senate elected for life.  He went home in a huff when Jemmy Madison, whom everyone knew had my backing, prevailed and became the father of the Constitution.  Ham told his friends he considered the final document worthless.  But he decided it was better than nothing and supported it.  In collaboration with Jemmy, he wrote brilliant articles in its defense.”

“They became the Federalist Papers?”

“They gave their name to our first political party and had a lot to do with persuading key states to ratify the Constitution.  Everyone assumed I would be the first president and I realized I had to accept it and try to make this new office an essential part of the government.  Next, I took another large gamble and invited Ham to be my secretary of the treasury.  I really wanted Robert Morris, whose reputation as a merchant was second to none.  But he preferred to return to making money.  Again, I discovered that Guiding Spirit, which had directed me so often in moments of difficulty, had helped me make the right choice.  The appointment gave Ham a chance to win fame—a prize he valued more than anything else in this world, beyond riches and beautiful women.”

 “Was that because people like John Adams called him “the bastard brat of a Scotch peddler?”

“I think so now, after imbibing some of the purported wisdom of the great Sigmund Freud, discoverer of the unconscious.  We didn’t indulge in such speculations in 1789.  The Treasury was Ham’s greatest performance.  His proposal to pay all our debts, state and local, at par and the creation of the Bank of the United States to fund them by selling shares to investors rescued us from the humiliation of national bankruptcy and swiftly achieved an amazing prosperity.”

“You agreed with Mr. Hamilton that these programs—especially the bank—were justified by the Constitution’s implied powers?”

“Absolutely. Mr. Jefferson’s—and to my dismay, Mr. Madison’s—opposition to that idea was sheer folly, an attempt to perpetuate a retrograde version of America.  My determination to create a presidency with powers equal to Congress is the primary example of the Constitution’s implied powers, from which all others flow.  Tom J’s hostility to that idea still haunts the country.  It’s given birth, as I said a few evenings back, to that current monstrosity, the imperial Congress.”

“Careful, Mr. President. Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Madison may be listening.”

“I’ve discussed it with Jemmy—while Tom was off talking to Plato or one of his other philosophic friends—and he now agrees totally that both Ham and I had it right.  It’s ironic that an outsider like Ham saw that America was destined to surpass Britain as an industrial colossus.  Together we laid the groundwork for the country we have today.”

“Did Hamilton agree with your decision to declare the United States neutral in the war between Britain and Revolutionary France?“

“Totally. Unlike Mr. Jefferson, who agreed I had the power to do it, but could never reconcile himself to the results of the policy.”

“What were some of the results?”

“A terrific argument erupted between the backers of neutrality and the worshippers of the French Revolution.  It brought mobs into the street, some of them screaming for my head.  But Ham stood by me and wrote a series of blazing essays for the newspapers, defending my presidential powers.  They’re forgotten now, but they had a huge impact at the time.”

“Did Mr. Madison agree with Mr. Hamilton on this issue?”

“To my intense regret, he did not.  He deserted me for Mr. Jefferson.  They soon formed another political party and Jemmy became their leader in the House of Representatives.  I sent John Jay to England to negotiate a treaty that resolved our outstanding differences and prevented an outbreak of war between us.  Jemmy tried to destroy the treaty, which among other things, cleared the British out of the Northwest Territory once and for all.  I had signed it and the Senate had ratified it!  Jemmy was perverting the Constitution he had created in the name of raw partisanship.  I never spoke to him for the rest of my life.  But we’ve become friends again here in Elysium.”

“After you left office, the Jeffersonians leaked to the press the story that Hamilton had committed adultery with a woman named Maria Reynolds.  He admitted it.  Did that change your mind about him?”

“Only to this extent:  his interminable public confession—I think it was ninety-five pages—was something I would never have let him publish, if I had still been president.  He should have ignored the smear, the way John Adams and I ignored the slanders flung at us.

“Did you defend Mr. Hamilton?”

“In a way.  I sent him a silver service, with a note saying I was still a firm believer in his integrity and patriotism.  I made no mention of his adultery, of course.”

“What did you think of the essay Mr. Hamilton wrote in 1800, condemning President Adams as an unstable maniac, and urging Federalists to cast their votes for the man running for vice president?  I think it was one of the South Carolina Pinckneys.”

“Charles Cotesworth Pinckney.  John Adams might have won the election, if Ham had  swallowed his detestation of the man (which Johnny reciprocated in spades, as you know).  It was another sad example of Ham’s erratic political judgment.  He made Mr. Jefferson, of all people, president.”

“Four years later, Mr. Hamilton joined you in Elysium.”

“I greeted him as a friend and colleague.  But the duel with Mr. Burr was another reckless act.  Ham was convinced that the New England states were going to secede in protest against Mr. Jefferson’s purchase of Louisiana.  Ham wanted to be the general that restored the union.  But he couldn’t manage that, if he refused to confront Burr’s challenge.  In pursuit of ultimate fame, he abandoned his wife and seven children to penury.  Thank heaven they were rescued by the charity of friends.”

“At least his poverty proved he was an honest man.”

“But not a well balanced one, alas.”

“I once wrote an essay entitled ‘If Burr Had Missed.’”

“A fascinating idea. What did you conclude?

“The military disasters of the War of 1812 would have made Mr. Hamilton president.  He would have refused to resign after two terms, and served until his death in 1830.  In that time, we might have fought a war or two with Mexico.  He was very much in favor of what he called ‘squinting, at least,’ toward South America.”

“I fear that might have been all too likely. Again, that Guiding Spirit who seems to protect the United States of America may have chosen a better path for Ham—and the nation.  He managed to depart with his fame as a founding father more or less intact.  Contemplating it is his chief pleasure here in Elysium.”

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Jonathan Dresner - 10/25/2010

I particularly like the way Fleming's precious musings are 'confirmed' by Washington, and Washington's positions are confirmed by Madison posthumously. Plato being unworthy of discussion even in the eternal afterlife is an added bonus, especially since Plato was, like Fleming's imagined Washington, an advocate of a strong executive, no friend of democracy or legislatures.