A Biography of Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804)

Identity and Honor: Republicans ascendant

In spite of his own personal turmoil, Hamilton spent his final years ever more obsessed with keeping the nation he had helped to build in the hands of the right men--men of character, trustworthy men who would not send the nation into ruin. Such was his personal identification with the administration that even the slightest changes in his policies pushed him close to the emotional edge. As the senate debated Hamilton's recommendations for paying the unsubscribed debt in 1795, Hamilton wrote to his congressional supporters of being "tortured." "Every moment's reflection increases my chagrin and disgust," he wrote to one friend; to another, he called the senate's rejection of his policy an "unnecessary capricious & abominable assassination of the National honor," that "haunts me every step I take, and afflicts me more than I can express."

Hamilton's reluctance to relinquish control emotionally to the government mirrored his inability to separate the national honor from his own. In many ways it can be said that the honor of the United States was all Hamilton possessed in terms of identity. He had no family identity he wished to claim, and so built one around his work and accomplishments. Throughout the war and during the post-war struggles, Hamilton had frequently admitted to personal mortification at the country's stumblings and failures. The creation of the great nation and the great statesman were tandem and tightly connected events. Despite the fact that his political dealings yielded him no personal satisfaction, and only entrenched him a world of unhappiness from which he regularly pledged to escape, Hamilton could not extricate himself from his party dealings. To Hamilton, "assassination of the National honor," the breakdown of the Federalist system, was synonymous with his own assassination. He needed to save the nation from destruction in order to save himself from a similar fate.

As the leader of the Federalists during the election season of 1800, Hamilton headed a party in crisis. Aaron Burr, the leader of the Republicans in New York, managed to organize a party majority in that state's congressional elections. Hamilton feared that this turn of events would bring his nemesis Jefferson to the presidency.

In addition to his committed stance against a Jefferson presidency, Hamilton was just as opposed to a second Adams term. Adams had made Hamilton's job as inspector general after the death of Washington almost impossible, and the president, who had never made a secret of his hatred for Hamilton, was becoming increasingly outspoken about it. The final straw for Hamilton was most likely when James McHenry sent him a report on a meeting at which Adams had called him a foreigner and a bastard. Indeed, Adams, in addition to perpetuating the myth that Hamilton was the head of a "British faction," made generous use of cruel epithets to belittle him: "Creole bastard," "bastard brat of a Scotch peddlar," were two he was known to have used. Such dredgings of his past--a past he was not responsible for, and which he felt he had redeemed himself--stung Hamilton deeply. Never one to let an insult go by unrevenged, Hamilton resolved to destroy the career of John Adams.

Hamilton revived his proposal from the previous election: that Federalist electors vote equally for Pinckney and Adams. If the tie he expected ensued, Hamilton planned to use his influence in the House to garner the presidency for Pinckney. To ensure Federalist opposition to Adams, Hamilton engaged in some creative character assassination by issuing a confidential circular entitled "Letter from Alexander Hamilton concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, Esq.," which contained an unbridled, vitriolic attack on the character and political shortcomings of the president. As many so-called confidential opinions of the time, Hamilton's circular was publicized, and despite the fact that most Federalists were disillusioned with Adams' leadership, they found the attack outrageous and disruptive, and Hamilton's position within the Federalist party was weakened considerably as a result.

The Republicans were as delighted by the circular as the Federalists were disturbed. The furor weakened the Federalists and gave the Republicans enough fuel to win the election. The vote ended in a tie between Jefferson and Burr. Undaunted by his pariah status, Hamilton began advocating Jefferson for the presidency, despite the fact that the Federalist party as a whole preferred Burr. Hamilton had never trusted the enigmatic and politically malleable Burr, and employed his waning influence in an attempt to prevent Burr from ascending to the top office in the nation.

To this end Hamilton began a scorching campaign against Burr. Burr, he wrote Gouverneur Morris, "has no principle public or private . . . will listen to no monitor but his ambition." Hamilton painted Burr as a nefarious schemer and warmonger. Such was Hamilton's aversion to Burr that, should his party elect him, "I shall be obliged to consider myself an isolated man. It will be impossible for me to reconcile with my notions of honor or policy . . ." The House Federalists balked at voting for Jefferson, but, miraculously, Hamilton managed to convince a few to cast blank ballots. Jefferson, then, won the election.