A Biography of Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804)

The Foreign Policy of Finance

Hamilton had never made a secret of the fact that he admired the government and fiscal policies of Great Britain. Indeed, his own fiscal plan--a funded debt and national bank--were textbook English policies with Hamiltonian modifications to suit the special circumstances of the United States. The fact that there had been an acrimonious break and a lengthy war with Great Britain left no residue of animosity with Hamilton. To him it was a simple matter of fact that Great Britain was the most politically and economically stable kingdom on the globe, and that it would be eminently prudent to pursue good relations with her. Just as important to Hamilton in the forging of a strong relationship were the cultural similarities between the two countries: "We think in English," he told George Beckwith, the unofficial British envoy, "and have a similarity of prejudices, and of predilections."

James Madison did, however, reserve special animosity toward Great Britain. To him, England represented all that was corrupt in the world--the greed of a mercantile economy, the prejudice of a one-church state, the threat of a monarchical government. During the first session of congress in 1789, Madison had advocated a discriminatory tonnage duty against countries lacking commercial treaties with the United States, which was primarily aimed at Britain in retaliation for Britain's restrictions on American commerce in the West Indies, and her refusal to relinquish western posts. The tariff achieved some of Madison's wider objectives as well, including limiting the number of credit purchases of luxuries from Britain, which made Americans the more beholden to their former mother country. Madison favored instead a stronger alliance with Britain's antagonist, France, and Secretary of State Jefferson felt much the same way about foreign relations.

In Hamilton's view, a Franco-American alliance at the expense of relations with Britain would be a disaster to his economic plan. Hamilton would have agreed with Madison that, since Americans were the leading consumers of British goods, impaired commerce between Britain and the United States would be more harmful to the former--he had used that argument when supporting the measures of the Continental Congress in 1774. On the other hand, Hamilton saw that Madison's strategy would do great harm to his short-term goals by reducing revenues from the impost and excise taxes upon which his system depended.

Fearing the consequences of a trade war with Britain, Hamilton communicated to Beckwith, in a series of meetings, his wish to see improved relations and a commercial treaty between the United States and Britain.

The propriety of Hamilton's meetings with Beckwith, and later with official British minister, George Hammond, has been a matter of intense debate among historians. The conferences took place covertly, and without the knowledge of the Secretary of State (although the early Hamilton/Beckwith meetings occurred before Jefferson accepted his appointment); however, the talks themselves were never understood by either party as official or binding, and besides, Hamilton was culling information from the British agents for Washington on the latter's request. Hamilton's efforts to secure an alliance with Great Britain were suppressed by Washington in 1792, and relations between the two countries continued to sour. Hamilton continued to advocate better relations, and eventually achieved his aim with the controversial Jay Treaty of 1795.