We hear a lot of laments about the ways that our present-day political leaders have gotten smaller in character, especially when compared to the larger-than-life founders of the country more than two centuries ago. One explanation for this shrinkage is that we today know too much about our leaders—their eating habits, their sex lives, even the cut of their underwear—and it is all the fault of too many ambitious and nosy journalists. According to some observers, bitter partisan politics and the excesses of the media over the past several decades have exposed a series of scandals and in the process have cut our leaders down to size and made them ordinary just like the rest of us. And the more ordinary they have become, the wider and more terrifying has become the gap that separates us from the so-called Founding Fathers of the late eighteenth century. We assume there were giants on the earth in those days.
Maybe, but those giants certainly had some of the same problems as our present-day Lilliputian leaders. The books under review focus on some of the principal figures of the early Republic—on their character, their partisanship, their scandals, and their clashes with zealous newspapermen. They may help us get a more accurate perspective on our own time. We may believe that we today have had our fill of political partisanship, media excesses, and sex-related scandals involving the highest officers of our government. But if we examine these books on the beginnings of our national history two hundred years ago, we find that partisanship, scandal-mongering, and scandals, including sex scandals, involving high government officials were even more prevalent then than now. Not only were there more scandals and more bitter partisan politics, but the press was far more abusive and scurrilous than it is today. And the consequences of getting mixed up in scandals andscandal-reporting were much more serious and deadly two hundred years ago than now. Political leaders were involved in numerous duels over what they said about one another, and newspapermen were prosecuted and imprisoned for what they wrote about government officials. In the last decade of the eighteenth century Americans were more fiercely divided than they would be until the time of the Civil War. Compared to the frenzied and divisive politics in the era of the Founding Fathers, our own turn-of-the-century political scene seems remarkably stable, staid, and respectable.
The first decade or so under the new American Constitution was not a time of ordinary politics; in fact, the entire period was wracked by a series of crises that threatened to destroy the national government that had been so recently and painstakingly created. The new expanded republic of the United States was an unprecedented political experiment, and everyone knew that. No similarnational republic in modern times had ever extended over such a large extent of territory. Since all theory and all history were against the success of this republican experiment, the political leaders worried about every unanticipated development. Most political leaders in the 1790s had no great faith that the Union would survive. Even the first president, George Washington, suggested at the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention that the new federal government would not last twenty years. In such uneasy and fearful circumstances politics could never be what we today regard as normal.
The parties that emerged in the 1790s—the Federalists and the Republicans—were not modern parties, and competition between them was anything but what some scholars used to call “the first party system.” No one thought that the emergence of parties was a good thing; indeed, far from building a party system in the 1790s the nation’s leaders struggled to prevent one from developing. The Federalists under the leadership of George Washington, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton never saw themselves as a party but as the beleaguered legitimate government beset by people, allied with France, out to destroy the Union. Although the Republicans under the leadership of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison did reluctantly describe themselves as a party, they believed they were only a temporary one, designed to prevent the United States from becoming a Federalist-led, British-backed monarchy. Since neither the Federalists nor the Republicans accepted the legitimacy of the other, partisan feelings ran very high, making the bitter clash between Hamilton and Jefferson, for example, more than just personal. Indeed, the 1790s became one of the most passionate and divisive decades in American history.
Since the Founding Fathers neither wanted nor could foresee the development of a modern party system, they continued to think of the recruitment of political leadership in traditional terms—as belonging to men of substance and character. Unlike today, where a politician’s reputation and social status are usually a consequence of his or her political office, the eighteenth century generally believed that one’s social position and reputation were necessary prerequisites to political office-holding. In other words, important offices of government were supposed to be held only by those who had already established their social and moral superiority. They at least ought to be “gentlemen,” and preferably gentlemen of talent and education. Since educated and socially established gentlemen were “exempted from the lower and less honourable employments,” wrote the Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson, they were “rather more than others obliged to an active life in some service to mankind. The publick has this claim upon them.”
In short, public offices, as Jefferson put it in 1779, were thought to be “burdens to those appointed to them, which it would be wrong to decline, though foreseen to bring with them intense labour, and great private loss.” This sacrifice for the public good was what the Founding Fathers usually meant when they talked of “virtue.” Since office-holding was seen as an obligation, educated and talented gentlemen did not run for high political office in the way candidates do today; instead, they were supposed to be called to positions in government by the people. Any overt campaigning or electioneering for office cast doubt on the candidate’s character, his “virtue,” and tended to disqualify him for service.
Since early modern governments lacked most of the coercive powers of a modern state—a few constables and sheriffs scarcely constituted a police force—officeholders had to rely on their social respectability and their reputation for character to compel the obedience of ordinary people and maintain public order. It is not surprising therefore that officials were acutely sensitive to public criticism of their private character. “Whatever tends to create in the minds of the people, a contempt of the persons who hold the highest offices in the state,” declared the conventional wisdom, whatever convinced people that “subordination is not necessary, and is no essential part of government, tends directly to destroy it.”
Consequently, magistrates and officeholders often invoked the common law of seditious libel against calumnious attacks on their personal character on the understandable grounds that such “speaking evil of dignities and reviling the rulers of the people” undermined their capacity to govern. Under the common law of seditious libel, which most of the states continued to recognize in the decades following the Revolution, truth was no defense; indeed, the truth of what was said only aggravated the seditious character of the libel. The freedom of the press guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution applied only to the federal government and meant in the opinion of many that Congress could not regulate the press in any way. The states, however, were left free to apply the common law of seditious libel.
Gentlemen were acutely sensitive to criticism because they were usually very anxious about their individual reputations or what they called their “honor.” Probably nothing separates the traditional world of the Founding Fathers from today more than its concern with honor. Honor was the value genteel society placed on a gentleman and the value a gentleman placed on himself. Honor suggested a public drama in which gentlemen acted or avoided acting for the sake of their honor. Honor subsumed self-esteem, pride, and dignity, and was akin to glory and fame. It was a stimulus to ambition, which was thought to be an exclusively aristocratic passion. Everyone had appetites and interests, but only the great-souled, the extraordinary few, had ambition—that overflowing desire to excel, to have precedence, and to achieve fame. The traditional cult of honor presumed a world very different from the democratic world that emerged in the nineteenth century and from our own; it was a hierarchical world in which a few could still unabashedly claim a moral superiority over the rest.
This gentlemanly superiority lay behind the code of dueling. Dueling was the means by which gentlemen protected their reputations or their honor among other gentlemen. Indeed, for some dueling was the ultimate recognition of the distinctive status of a gentleman. The law’s remedy for insults may have been good enough for ordinary people and some public officials, but, as one eighteenth-century American put it, “there are those of a different character who know how to resent and punish men for ill usage, without troubling a magistrate or a court of justice.”
The politics of the early national period, as the historian Joanne B. Freeman has brilliantly demonstrated, can be properly understood only within this culture of personal reputation and honor.* Although political parties were emerging in the 1790s, politics still remained very much an aristocratic matter of individual loyalties and enmities subsumed by the gentlemanly code of honor. Dueling, Freeman argues, was not simply designed to maim or kill an adversary; instead, it was an elaborate political ritual in which men displayed their bravery, military prowess, and willingness to sacrifice their lives for their honor. The challenges and responses and the negotiations among principals and their seconds and friends often went on for weeks or even months. The duels were often timed for political effect, and their complicated rituals and public exchanges in newspapers were designed to influence a broad public. There were many duels, most of which did not end in exchanges of gunfire. Alexander Hamilton, for example, was the principal in eleven affairs of honor during his lifetime, but he actually exchanged fire in only one—his last, fatal, duel, with Aaron Burr.
During the 1790s the growth of parties and the proliferation of newspapers were eroding this politics of honor and individual character. In 1799, six months before his death, Washington despaired of what he saw happening. Political parties, he said, had taken over the choice of leaders, and men of character and distinction were no longer needed. The Republican Party could now “set up a broomstick and call it a true son of Liberty; a Democrat, or give it any other epithet that will suit their purpose, and it will command their votes in toto!” And even worse, said Washington, the same was true of the Federalists. Any Federalist character well supported by the party would do as a candidate.
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.
Because he could take his aristocratic lineage for granted, Burr never had the same emotional need the other Revolutionary statesmen had to justify his gentlemanly status by continually expressing an abhorrence of corruption and a love of virtue. Certainly Burr made little pretense of being public-spirited in the fulsome way the other Revolutionaries did. Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, and other Founding Fathers always made a great deal of their virtue and disinterestedness and devotion to the public good. It was said of Burr that the only virtue he ever had was not claiming any.
Burr remained remarkably free of the strain of opposition Whig and classical republican thought that so colored the ideas of Hamilton and the other Revolutionary leaders, and this made all the difference in his behavior from theirs. He assumed that someone with his pedigree and his talent was due high political office as a matter of course, and in a traditional ancien régime manner he thought that public office was to be used to maintain his position and influence. Beyond what politics could do for his friends, his family, and him personally, it had little emotional significance for him. Politics, as he once put it, was “fun and honor & profit.”
We are apt to forget just how prominent a political leader Burr was. He was at one time or another attorney-general of New York, US senator, vice president (at a time when you had to be somebody to be vice president), and an aspirant for the presidency. Not only did he receive the same number of electoral votes as Jefferson in the election of 1800, but in the election of 1796 he received thirty electoral votes, which put him fourth after John Adams (seventy-one), Jefferson (sixty-eight), and Thomas Pinckney (fifty-nine), all of whom, unlike Burr, had accomplished some great service to the country. The remaining forty-eight votes were distributed among nine other candidates, only one of whom received as many as fifteen.
Burr in the 1790s was regarded as a distinguished and promising figure. Yet no political leader of his prominence in the period ever spent so much time and energy so blatantly scheming for his own personal and political advantage. And no one of the other great Revolutionary statesmen was so immune to the ideology and values of the Revolution as Burr was. Burr’s behavior seemed to threaten the great Revolutionary hope—indeed, the entire republican experiment—that some sort of disinterested politics, if only among the elite, could prevail in America. And because of this threat, Hamilton and Jefferson together eventually brought him down, Hamilton by condemning his character at every opportunity and supporting Jefferson for president in 1800 instead of him, and Jefferson by pushing him out of the Republican Party and charging him with treason in 1807.
Roger Kennedy in his book has taken on the thankless task of trying to rehabilitate Burr’s reputation and elevate him to the “Pantheon of the Founders.” He attempts to do this by comparing the characters of Hamilton and Jefferson with that of Burr. He rightly claims that the lives of the three men were entangled and can only be understood in relation to one another. Because Kennedy presumes that the reader already knows a great deal about the lives of Jefferson, Hamilton, and Burr, he approaches his task in a scattershot manner. He often ignores chronology and jumps about, seemingly as the spirit moves him, from subject to subject, for example, in one chapter, from “party and faction” to “emulation, rivalry, and ambition” to “the west and slavery” to “the character of Burr.” The book is also strangely written, constantly straining for intimacy with the reader. At one point in describing Washington he writes that “one came into his presence with diffidence, but, having checked our ties and hair, let us come somewhat closer to him.”
Kennedy seeks to defend Burr by extolling his inherited aristocratic status, without realizing that this may be the source of Burr’s problem. Burr, he says, has been falsely accused of having no fixed political principles, but in fact he was a coalition-builder, a pragmatic machine politician ahead of his time who organized and deployed crowds for political purposes. Sometimes Kennedy seems desperate to get us to recognize that Burr’s tastes and talents were at least equal to those of the other Revolutionary leaders. He was, he writes, more courageous militarily than Jefferson, and his dreams of promoting expeditions in the West were no more grandiose than those of Jefferson and Hamilton. Like Jefferson, he was fascinated with architecture, and, like Jefferson but unlike Hamilton, he was curious about ancient Indian mounds. Historians have not been fair to Burr. All three of these Revolutionary leaders were accused of improper sexual behavior, but, complains Kennedy, only Burr “is set down in standard texts as a philanderer.”
Kennedy has a response for every question about Burr’s behavior. Why didn’t Burr ever write anything serious about politics or even draft a thoughtful letter about political philosophy or the Constitution? Kennedy’s answer is that the early deaths of his theologically minded parents and grandparents soured him about all matters of “ideology.” Why did Burr’s contemporaries mistrust him? Probably, says Kennedy, the reason was that he was too much the eighteenth-century gentleman and possessed too “aristocratically cool [a] view of the proper demeanor for a public man” for their taste. As for the fatal duel, Hamilton deliberately provoked Burr into it “in a desire to kill his evil twin, his doppelgänger, or, by being killed, to kill Burr’s career.” Burr would have had to have “withdrawn in sackcloth to a monastery” to prevent the duel.
But Kennedy’s most important defense of Burr is the farsightedness of the man. While Jefferson was telling his daughters to stick to their knitting, Burr was providing his daughter with an education fit for a man. He was in fact a “protofeminist…, venturing where none of the other Founders dared go.” Women respected Burr, says Kennedy, because he respected them. He eagerly read Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women, and wondered why other Americans had not discovered the book’s merit. Moreover, he was an abolitionist; indeed, “he treated people of African descent as respectfully as Europeans, and, alone among the Founders, Burr had Indian friends.” In the 1790s Burr, along with Hamilton and John Jay, organized a “civil rights movement” in New York State. It was no easy matter, because, writes Kennedy in one of his more dubious judgments, “slavery was as deeply entrenched in New York as in Virginia, and probably more profitably.” Kennedy can be so iconoclastic and provocative that his book becomes very entertaining reading. It is probably the best defense of Burr that we are ever likely to get.
Equally entertaining among the works dealing with the early Republic is the historical novel Scandalmonger, written by the columnist William Safire. As Kennedy correctly points out, “Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson inhabited a world in which paid character assassins were set against each of them.” These “character assassins”—newspapermen paid to write invective about public figures—are the subject of Safire’s novel.
As a journalist himself, Safire has a good deal of sympathy for these newsmen, and in his novel he presents a more generous account of their personalities and activities than we find in most histories. Since his book is a work of fiction that relies exclusively on the conversations and acts of individuals, it cannot easily do what a work of history can—explain the larger social and cultural context for particular events. Nonetheless, Safire has a historian’s feel for the period and uses history as fairly and as honestly as one could expect; that is, if we can allow a language expert like Safire to get away with having his characters talk about “miscegenation” in 1802, when the term hadn’t been invented yet. Safire was certainly scrupulous about the kind of historical novel he wanted to write. As in his earlier novel about Lincoln, he has tried “to use a dramatic form to simulate past events and bring long-ago lives to life.” Although he has placed real characters in fictional relationships, he has avoided creating imaginary characters and mixing them with authentic historical figures. For many of the principal historical characters, he has used actual quotations, taking words from letters and putting them in conversations. Whenever he has made something up he tells us explicitly in the endnotes. All in all, I think he has done a better job explaining the history of the period than of imagining the inner lives of his characters.
Although Safire deals with several newsmen, including the English immigrant and Federalist writer William Cobbett, he concentrates on the career of James Thomson Callender, the Scottish radical writer who was outlawed by the British government and forced to flee to the United States in 1793. Although most historians have dismissed Callender as an unscrupulous newspaperman, Safire makes the man and his behavior quite understandable—except for concocting an implausible love affair between Callender and Maria Reynolds, the woman who was the mistress of Hamilton and, according to Safire, Burr as well.
Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds was the first of the scandals exposed by Callender. Hamilton had taken up with her in 1792 while he was secretary of the Treasury, and he had actually paid blackmail to her husband in order to keep the affair quiet. When privately confronted by several congressmen, including Senator James Monroe, who suspected Hamilton of misusing Treasury funds, Hamilton confessed to the affair. The embarrassed congressmen seemed to accept Hamilton’s explanation and dropped their investigation.
Rumors of Hamilton’s involvement with the Reynoldses circulated over the next several years, but it was not until 1797 that Callender used documents that he had acquired to charge Hamilton publicly with speculating in Treasury funds. Although it was probably John Beckley, clerk of the House of Representatives, who had supplied Callender with the documents, Hamilton suspected that it was James Monroe, and he pressed Monroe to make a public statement avowing his belief in Hamilton’s explanation of five years earlier. The confrontation between the two men became so heated that it almost resulted in a duel, averted only by the negotiating skill of Aaron Burr. In the meantime Hamilton felt the need to publish a lengthy pamphlet laying out all the sordid details of the affair. Better to be thought a private adulterer than a corrupt public official, even at the cost of hurting his wife. The pamphlet was a disastrous mistake, and it led Callender to gloat that Hamilton had done himself more damage than “fifty of the best pens in America could have said against him.”
Bitterly denounced by the Federalists, Callender now became a regular hired hack of the Republicans, with even Jefferson surreptitiously aiding him with money. Following the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Federalists prosecuted and imprisoned Callender for calling President Adams a “hoary headed incendiary.” The Republicans used his imprisonment and that of other editors to gain sympathy for their cause.
With Jefferson’s election as president, Callender expected some reward for his martyrdom and service to the Republican Party. When none came, he turned against the Republicans and began writing for the Federalist press. In 1802 he accused Jefferson of fathering children with his slave concubine Sally Hemings and of having made sexual advances as a single man of twenty-five toward the wife of an absent friend and neighbor, John Walker.
By this time President Jefferson began to appreciate what his predecessor John Adams had suffered from a slanderous press. “Nothing,” Safire quotes him as saying, “can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper.” Since his opposition to the Federalists’ Sedition Act had been based on his belief that only the states could punish seditious libels, he did not hesitate now to urge sympathetic Republican governors to prosecute abusive Federalist journalists under the common law of seditious libel.
Safire concludes his novel by concentrating on the most famous of these prosecutions, that in 1803-1804 of an obscure New York Federalist editor Harry Croswell. Safire the novelist could not have imagined a more dramatic case. Not only did Hamilton, of all people, take over the defense of Croswell, but he planned on bringing Callender up from Virginia to testify that what Croswell had published about President Jefferson, particularly about his alleged sexual affairs, was true—until he learned that the scandalmonger had recently drowned in three feet of water under mysterious circumstances. Although most people assumed that Callender was drunk and died accidentally, Safire suggests foul play by supporters of Jefferson.
Hamilton’s argument before the court recalled that of Peter Zenger’s lawyer in 1735; it is a defense of freedom of the press that warms the heart of every journalist. Hamilton dismissed all the conventional arguments for the common law of seditious libel as relics of Star Chamber tyranny inapplicable to the new Republic. Since “guard[ing] against the encroachments of men in power is the office of a free press,” newspapermen, said Hamilton, must have the right to publish the truth, “no matter how severely it reflects on government, on magistrates, or individuals.” A year later the New York legislature accepted Hamilton’s argument and changed the common law of seditious libel. By that time Hamilton was already dead at the age of forty-seven.
April 13, 2000