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An Affair of Honor

This clash between an older aristocratic world of individual character and honor and the emerging new democratic world of political parties and partisan newspapers lay behind the turbulence and volatility of the 1790s. Under these changing circumstances newspapers became weapons of the new political parties to be used to discredit and demolish the characters of the opposing leaders, and thus they aggravated the problems created by the lingering code of honor.

With the number of newspapers more than doubling during the 1790s, Americans became the largest newspaper-reading public in the world. Not only were the newspapers reaching out to a new popular readership with their vituperative attacks on federal officials, but, most alarming to many Federalists, like the Reverend Samuel Miller, these newspapers had fallen into “the hands of persons destitute at once of the urbanity of gentlemen, the information of scholars, and the principles of virtue”—men like James Thomson Callender, John Daly Burk, and William Duane, who were recent British and Irish immigrants and not even citizens.

The Federalists concluded that these upstart scandalmongers were destroying the character of the country’s political leaders and undermining the entire political order. Hence in desperation they resorted to the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which more than anything else have tarnished their historical reputation. These acts lengthened the naturalization process for foreigners, gave the president extraordinary powers to deport aliens, and provided the national government with the authority to punish seditious libels against federal officials. This last—the Sedition Act—actually liberalized the common law of seditious libel because it allowed truth as a defense. At the same time the Federalists prepared for a French invasion by beginning to mobilize an army of over 20,000 men and calling Washington out of retirement as commander in chief.

Washington agreed to serve only if Hamilton were to be given the rank of major general and made second in command and in effect the de facto commander of this potentially huge military force. President Adams accepted these conditions only reluctantly, for he believed that Hamilton was “the most restless, impatient, artful, indefatigable and unprincipled intriguer in the United States, if not in the world.” Although Hamilton was probably not prepared to use the army to suppress all domestic dissent, as Jefferson and many other Republicans feared, he was ready to put down with force what he believed were the efforts of Virginians to arm themselves. By 1800 the United States seemed on the verge of civil war; indeed, the “whole system of American Government,” in the opinion of the British foreign secretary, was “tottering to its foundations.”

This is the historical context for understanding the recent writings about some of the principal figures of the early Republic. Since some of the authors of these works seem to have written out of a present-minded concern with scandals and the character of our political leaders, they have not been able fully to re-create or even to comprehend this historical setting; but all of them certainly sense that the times and the men they are writing about were extraordinary. Hamilton in particular seems to fascinate them. Although late-nineteenth-century Americans honored Hamilton as the creator of American capitalism, that honor became a liability through much of the twentieth century. In today’s prosperous climate, however, he seems to be regaining some of the significance he had a hundred years ago.

Yet whatever his reputation, Hamilton has always seemed a larger figure than most other leaders, even to his contemporaries. Despite being short and slight, his extraordinary intelligence and intensity impressed everyone he met. Although Hamilton in a moment of despair in 1802 declared that “this American world was not made for me,” Richard Brookhiser in his succinct and laudatory study has turned him into the quintessential American—the self-made man who shot like a meteor across the American sky. Because Brookhiser’s book covers all the major events of Hamilton’s life in a bit over two hundred very readable pages, it is not a bad place to get introduced to this remarkable man.

Born in the West Indies as an illegitimate son of a Scottish merchant, Hamilton yearned to escape from his “gov’ling” position as a merchant’s clerk—ideally by a war in which he could risk his life and win honor. Friends in the West Indies recognized the boy’s remarkable abilities and sent him at age fifteen to New York for schooling. Then the war that he had wanted came, and he achieved some of the recognition he sought. With his role in the formation of the Constitution and his writing most of The Federalist papers, his brilliance became obvious. At age thirty-two he became the first secretary of the Treasury under the new Constitution.

Although Hamilton put in place the nation’s financial system and made the United States the best credit risk in the world, he was not the promoter of America’s later business culture that he has often been made out to be. Hamilton was willing to grant ordinary people their profits and prosperity, but it was aristocratic fame and glory that he wanted for himself and his country. According to Karl-Friedrich Walling, Hamilton dreamed of America’s becoming one of the great nation-states of the world, a republican empire based on consent and militarily strong enough to stand against any other power.

At first glance Walling’s Republican Empire appears to be a traditional work of political theory, the kind of book much prized by political theorists but disliked by historians. In his opening pages Walling seems to suggest that his argument, like those of so many political theorists, will float above the peculiar historical circumstances of Hamilton’s career and concern itself mainly with tracing the genealogy of Hamilton’s political ideas and fitting him into his proper place in the structure of Western political thought. Was he a classical republican or a Lockean liberal? Or, as theorists now seem to agree, a modern liberal republican? Was he influenced more by Hume or Montesquieu or Machiavelli? It is true that there is no evidence that he ever read Machiavelli. But, writes Walling, “it is unlikely that someone as well read as Hamilton would not have read Machiavelli, and equally unlikely that he would have admitted any debts to the Florentine.” Thus Walling concludes that everywhere in Hamilton’s writings there are indications of Machiavelli’s influence, even if it is only “indirect.”

Yet despite this unpromising beginning Walling soon settles down to a very detailed and subtle explication of Hamilton’s thinking that takes careful account of concrete historical events and circumstances. Walling argues that Hamilton was not a militarist, willing to settle disputes by force alone, as some contemporaries and some historians have charged. Instead, he promoted the virtue of responsibility, which involves the need to maintain order and security, against Jefferson’s virtue of vigilance, which involves distrust of authority and opposition to government. Walling sees “that the quarrel between the vigilant and the responsible is rooted in the nature of democratic politics,” and that quarrel “tends to become most intense in time of war.” Hamilton took the threat of a French invasion of the United States in 1799 seriously, and thus his efforts at military preparedness, argues Walling, were only the prudent and responsible actions of government. It is only because theFrench invasion did not eventually occur that Hamilton has been made to look excessively militaristic.

Of course, despite Walling’s confidence in Hamilton’s prudence, if that French invasion in support of Jefferson and the Republican Party had actually taken place, Hamilton’s behavior as the de facto commander in chief of the army may well have followed the dictatorial path that many predicted. After 1800, Hamilton and Jefferson switched roles, Hamilton becoming more vigilant and Jefferson becoming more responsible. And so it has gone on ever since, writes Walling, each party becoming responsible when in power and vigilant when in opposition. Only in the last half of the twentieth century, however, has the United States at long last become the great centralized fiscal-military republican empire that Hamilton envisioned.

The other character most written about in these works is Aaron Burr. Largely because he killed Hamilton in their duel, Burr is inevitably linked with Hamilton. But there are other reasons to connect Burr and Hamilton. Both were about the same age; both were charming and remarkably able; both served with distinction in the Revolutionary army; both were proud of their military titles as colonels and used those titles in civilian life; both were successful New York lawyers; and both were attractive to women and had affairs. The two men even resembled one another: both were short and slight of build with similar penetrating eyes. Some historians have claimed that both also suffered from manic depression. They knew each other very well and dined in each other’s houses. Until a few months before their deadly duel, they insisted that they were friends. It is not surprising therefore that popular historians like Arnold A. Rogow and Thomas Fleming have put this dramatically fatal friendship at the center of their recent and very readable narratives.

Historians have often speculated over why the duel took place, some like Robert Hendrickson suggesting rivalry over a woman. Since Burr reacted simply to a report that Hamilton had voiced a “despicable opinion”of him, when others were saying publicly much worse things, his motives for challenging Hamilton seem especially difficult to explain. Of course, Burr was frustrated by his defeat in the New York gubernatorial campaign of 1804 and, according to Charles Biddle, one of Burr’s closest friends, was “determined to call out the first man of any respectability concerned in the infamous publications concerning him.” Certainly Hamilton had worked hard to prevent Burr from assuming the presidency over Jefferson in 1800 and had often spoken harshly about Burr’s character; but he had not been the most important influence in the vice president’s failure to become governor of New York. Rogow and Fleming have their own ideas. Rogow gives some credence to Gore Vidal’s speculation that Hamilton had accused Burr of having an incestuous relationship with his daughter. In his book Fleming suggests that Burr saw his challenge to General Hamilton as a means of reviving his own military reputation in preparation for some sort of venture in the West.

Hamilton’s motives seem a little easier to explain. In despair over his son’s death in an earlier duel, Hamilton was certainly reluctant to fight and in fact said that he was going to throw away his first shot. But the code of honor prevented him from making the kind of apology Burr demanded—especially if he hoped, as he said in his statement written the night before the duel, to preserve his “ability to be in future useful” in the crises of America’s public affairs.

Despite their many resemblances, however, Hamilton and Burr were actually very different, and those differences were crucial. Having been born in the West Indies, Hamilton was sometimes regarded as a foreigner, and he had no pedigree whatever (“the bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar,” sneered John Adams); he had to rely solely on his genius to get ahead. Burr, however, had a notable American lineage. He was the son of a president of Princeton and the grandson of another, the famous theologian Jonathan Edwards, and, said Adams, he “was connected by blood with many respectable families in New England.” Indeed, Adams declared that he had “never known, in any country, the prejudice in favor of birth, parentage, and descent more conspicuous than in the instance of Colonel Burr.” Unlike Hamilton and the other Revolutionary leaders, Burr was born fully and unquestionably into whatever nobility and gentility eighteenth-century America had. Unlike the other Revolutionary leaders, who were usually the first in their families to go to college, Burr had an aristocratic status that was ascribed and inherited, and he never felt he had to earn it.

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