A Biography of Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804)

The Quasi War with Adams (1789-1800)

Meanwhile, Adams was nourishing a healthy dislike for Hamilton. It seemed that everywhere Adams turned, the Federalist party leader was behind the scenes undercutting his political ambitions. Hamilton, to whom Adams contemptuously referred as "his puppyhood," had maneuvered electoral votes in the 1789 election so that Adams would not accidentally become president over Washington, a position which Adams had felt himself equally deserving. In the election of 1796, knowing Adams' unpopularity and the need for a southern Federalist on the ticket, Hamilton had preferred Charles Pinckney as the party candidate. As votes were not at that time distinguished between presidential and vice presidential candidates, electors' votes had to be cast strategically to ensure that the right man got the top spot. Hamilton had directed Federalist electors to vote equally for Adams and the southerner, which could easily have derailed Adams' bid for the executive. Hamilton's strategy was not directly aimed against Adams at that point, but was calculated to win southern support for the Federalists, and to lessen Jefferson's chances for the presidency. Nevertheless, Adams deeply resented Hamilton's meddlings in his political career, and was equally incensed when, after the finally ascended to the presidency, Hamilton sent him unsolicited recommendations on foreign policy issues.

As inspector general, Hamilton found himself in a disappointingly familiar position having to plead and prod the government into providing for a neglected army: "Symptoms bordering on mutiny for the want of pay have been reported to me . . . And discontents less turbulent have been communicated from several other quarters."

Subsequent events soon ended the annoyance. In February of 1799, Adams abruptly decided to send a peace emissary to Paris, canceling out his earlier pledge not to send another minister to France after the indignities of the XYZ affair. Before the mission got underway, word of the overthrow of the Directory by Napoleon reached American shores. Hamilton, Pinckney, and other Federalists advised Adams to delay the mission until further reports of the situation in France were heard.

Adams, who had begun to suspect a "plot" involving Hamilton and his supporters to influence negotiations with France, dismissed McHenry in a rage, and resolved to send the peace envoy regardless of the opinions of other Federalists. Adams' decision dealt a blow to party unity--the chief executive was now at odds with the rest of the Federalists. With the peace mission underway, the Quasi War with France diminished, soon thereafter, Adams ordered the army disbanded; and Hamilton resigned as inspector general in July of 1800.

People vs Croswell (February 1804)

When he ascended to the presidency, it was Thomas Jefferson's turn to feel the sting of printed venom. In 1803, rankled by attacks in Federalist papers, Jefferson decided to make use of the Sedition Act to "restore the integrity of the press." Toward that end, he wrote to Republican governors instructing them to initiate selective prosecutions of Federalist newspaper publishers who were printing anti-administration pieces.

Harry Croswell of Hudson New York, the publisher of a small paper called The Wasp, was one of Jefferson's victims. Croswell was indicted for seditious libel against president Thomas Jefferson after running a story reporting that Jefferson had paid newspaper publisher James Callender to run pieces hostile to the Washington administration. After a request to introduce the truth of the story as a defense was denied, Croswell was found guilty by the New York Court of General Sessions.

Croswell appealed to the New York Supreme Court, and enlisted the help of attorney extraordinaire Alexander Hamilton, who, overwhelmed with other cases, had been unable to take the Croswell case the first time around. Hamilton at first tried to chase down James Callender to appear as a witness for the defense, but Callender was found face down in a puddle, suspiciously dead.

People vs Croswell , considered among Hamilton's finest courtroom performances, played to a standing room only crowd. It was a precedent-setting case having the possibility of changing New York law to allow truth as a defense against libel charges. In a six-hour closing argument, Hamilton passionately defended the freedom of the press, likening the current trial to cases brought by the infamous British Star Chamber, which body was "cruel" and "tyrannical," and robbed the people of their liberty. Liberty of the press must be defended, Hamilton argued, when the truth is reported with good motives, regardless of the target.

After the trial the attorney for the prosecution, Ambrose Spencer, said of Hamilton: "In power of reasoning, Hamilton was the equal of Webster; and more than this can be said of no man." In spite of his stellar performance, however, Hamilton was not able to overturn the initial verdict. The defeat was extremely disappointing to him. Unfortunately, Hamilton did not live long enough to see his arguments revived and transformed into a law in 1805 permitting truth to be used as a defense in cases of libel. The law was further enshrined as an article in the New York state constitution sixteen years later.