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Ron Chernow: Alexander Hamilton and Early American Political Malice

Ron Chernow, in the New York Times (July 11 2004):

Two hundred years ago today, Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton squared off in a sunrise duel on a wooded ledge in Weehawken, N.J., above the Hudson River. Burr was vice president when he leveled his fatal shot at Hamilton, the former Treasury secretary, who died the next day in what is now the West Village of Manhattan. New Yorkers turned out en masse for Hamilton's funeral, while Burr (rightly or wrongly) was branded an assassin and fled south in anticipation of indictments in New York and New Jersey. To the horror of Hamilton's admirers, the vice president, now a fugitive from justice, officiated at an impeachment trial in the Senate of a Supreme Court justice.

At first glance, the storied Hamilton-Burr duel seems an aberrant, if fascinating, episode in early American history. We prefer to savor the glorious deeds of the Revolution or the resonant words of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. But the truth is that the 1790's and early 1800's were a period of glittering political malice and fierce personal attacks. If political debate had an incomparable philosophic richness, it was no less rabidly partisan than today — and even more bruising. Our modern tabloid press seems almost tame by comparison. There was no pretense of journalistic objectivity and editors flayed politicians with impunity. Under classical pseudonyms, political operatives gleefully murdered reputations — Washington was blasted as a would-be king, Jefferson as a zealous atheist — leaving the founders somewhat scarred and embittered men.

Such invective was perhaps inevitable after a prolonged revolution. Many politicians had honed their skills in attacks on the British and were masters at wielding words as weapons. The intensity of Tory-Whig clashes before the Revolution spilled over into equally nasty quarrels between Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians afterward. Both sides saw themselves as custodians of the Revolution, lending a special venom to their feuds. Amid fears that the democratic experiment would be wrecked by civil war, foreign intrigue or invasion, political discourse was darkly tinged with paranoia.

Perhaps no other founder absorbed such virulent abuse as Alexander Hamilton. Starting out as an illegitimate, orphaned teenage clerk in the Caribbean, he might have seemed headed for obscurity. Then the local merchants on St. Croix, recognizing his outsized talents, paid to educate him at King's College (later Columbia) in Lower Manhattan. After serving as captain of an artillery company, this wunderkind rose miraculously to become aide-de-camp to George Washington, a battlefield hero at Yorktown, a postwar congressman, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, the guiding light of the Federalist Papers, and, when he was 34, the first Treasury secretary.

In this last role, he oversaw a department larger than the rest of the government combined, leaving behind a staggering legacy. He restored public credit in a nation bankrupted by war debt, devised the first tax, budget and accounting systems, installed the customs service and Coast Guard, and conceived the first central bank. At the same time, as chief explicator of the new Constitution — he composed 51 of the 85 Federalist Papers — he transformed the new charter from dead parchment to startling life.

Yet Hamilton was shadowed by merciless slander. Early on, he was reviled as a foreigner, a bastard, a mulatto (no solid evidence here), a cocky upstart and an adulterer. (This last charge would prove all too true when his trysts with Maria Reynolds while Treasury secretary were exposed.) But these slurs were mere curtain-raisers to a shameless campaign of character assassination that only mounted in fury as he put his Treasury programs into place. He was accused of plotting to bring back the British monarchy, of harboring a secret London bank account paid for by the British crown, of improperly speculating in Treasury securities. Not a syllable of this folderol was true, but it was regurgitated hundreds of times....