A Biography of Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804)

Jefferson's crusade - May 1792-December 1793

Following the stock market panic of early 1792, Hamilton found himself increasingly under attack by the Republican opposition led by his cabinet-mate Jefferson, and what started out as an annoyance soon made his working conditions close to unbearable. Jefferson's primary mouthpiece was Philip Freneau's National Gazette, which published anti- administration pieces, including ones penned by Madison and Jefferson. Freneau, recruited to the Republican party cause during Jefferson's and Madison's "botany tour," was also employed by Jefferson as a translator for the state department. Hamilton established a Federalist publication--John Fenno's Gazette of the United States--and the newspaper wars commenced.

In addition to his activities in print, Jefferson began a campaign within the government to have Hamilton removed from office. His attacks were unrelenting, and were designed to weaken Hamilton by keeping him continually on the defensive. Jefferson's first attempt to oust the Secretary of the Treasury came in the form of 21 objections he sent to Washington in May of 1792.

Jefferson's 21 Objections (May 1792)

Jefferson confronted Washington with a list of 21 objections to Hamiltonian policies, which Washington forwarded to Hamilton for response. The complaints included concern over the size of the public debt, moral concerns over speculation ("it nourishes in our citizens vice & idleness instead of industry & morality"), the geographical inequities of the funding system, and a monarchical conspiracy "contemplated in the Convention" whose adherents were overrunning the government.

Hamilton responded at length and competently as usual, but protested to Washington: "I have not fortitude enough always to hear with calmness, calumnies, which necessarily include me, as a principal Agent . . . I feel, that I merit them in no degree; and expressions of indignation sometimes escape me, in spite of every effort to suppress them."

In his "objections and answers" to Jefferson's complaints (Washington had not revealed their author to Hamilton), Hamilton began by pointing out that the debt was incurred by the revolution, and not by any actions of the present administration. Taking Great Britain's example, Hamilton stated that their funding system clearly benefits all parts of the economy. Had the United States only made provisions to retire the debt as opposed to funding it, "Our Debt would still have gone from us & with it our reputation & credit."

As to corruption among those who deal in funds, Hamilton's response highlights the difference between his and Jefferson's moral worlds. Whereas Jefferson considered "stock- jobbers" and speculators to be the lowest form of humanity, Hamilton stated, "It is a strange perversion of ideas, and as novel as it is extraordinary, that men should be deemed corrupt & criminal for becoming proprietors in the funds of their Country." Although Hamilton conceded that "jobbing in the funds . . . diverts a certain number of individuals from other pursuits," he points out that, overall, stock acting as capital and properly used serves to promote "industry by furnishing a larger field of employment." Besides, Hamilton continued, "The Debt existed. It was to be provided for. In whatever shape the provision was made . . ." speculation would have occurred regardless.

In response to the sectional inequities of the funding system, Hamilton responded that the owners of the debt come from all states, not just the north. Granted, the majority of the wealth devolved upon the north, however, that is because the greater part of the war was fought in the north, thus the heavier concentration of bonds in the hands of northern creditors. As far as southerners parting with their bonds prior to the funding provision, Hamilton pointed out that they unloaded their property voluntarily "upon fair terms, without surprize or deception." Furthermore, many southern bond holders parted with their assets during the fight for the funding measure because of their confidence that the plan would be defeated. "'Tis their own fault," Hamilton sniffed, "if the purchase money has not been beneficial to them."

Hamilton addressed charges of monarchical conspiracy as a misrepresentation of the many theoretical discussions at the convention favorable to the British constitution. To the accusation that monarchists are overrunning the government, Hamilton sharply replied that, of the current legislators who had attended the constitutional convention "none can be considered as influential but Mr. Madison and Mr. Gerry. Are they monarchy men?"

Closely following his receipt of the 21 objections, Hamilton lashed out at Jefferson in a series of editorials he signed "An American." In the editorials, Hamilton made public the fact that Freneau was on the government payroll: "an experiment somewhat new in the history of political manoevres in this country; a news paper instituted by a public officer [Jefferson], and the Editor of it regularly pensioned with the public money." Strange, Hamilton commented, how this can be done with impunity by a public official. Stranger still that Jefferson, a high government official, would subsidize with department funds a newspaper dedicated to opposing government policies.

Throughout the summer, Hamilton and Jefferson continued their sniper war. Jefferson adamantly contending that Hamilton was promoting monarchy; Hamilton hitting back with increasing venom against Madison and Jefferson, his resentment intensifying as the Republican press impugned his reputation and criticized his work. The hostility in the press was strong enough to alarm even Washington, who wrote to both Jefferson and Hamilton admonishing them to put an end to the "wounding suspicions, and irritating charges" that were splashed across the newspapers. The venerated chief worried that he was losing control of the government, and admitted to Hamilton, "I do not see how the Reins of Government are to be managed, or how the Union of the States can be much longer preserved."

Although both Hamilton and Jefferson professed their deepest commitment to the union in their responses to Washington's entreaties, it did nothing to end the war of words. They were at it again shortly thereafter. Jefferson's response to Washington reveals the depth of his snobbish contempt for Hamilton, which was founded more upon his rival's origins than his political policies:

"I will not suffer my retirement to be clouded by the slanders of a man whose history, from the moment at which history can stoop to notice him, is a tissue of machinations against the liberty of the country which has not only received him and given him bread, but heaped its honors on his head."

Jefferson's statement was at the same time an undisguised jab at Washington, who was the one who had done the greater part of the "heaping."