Thomas Jefferson, that American Sphinx, is perhaps Alexander Hamilton’s only rival within the high pantheon of the founding generation for enigma. Hamilton’s character recalls Giambologna’s The Rape of the Sabine Women, a spiraling marble Renaissance masterpiece resident in Florence’s Piazza Signoria, featuring three intertwined figures that can only be captured conclusively from a host of vantage points. We can ask, as did Douglas Ambrose inThe Many Faces of Alexander Hamilton: The Life and Legacy of America’s Most Elusive Founding Father:
Was he a closet monarchist or a sincere republican? A victim of partisan politics or one of its most active promoters? A lackey for British interests or a foreign policy mastermind? An economic genius or a shill for special interests? The father of a vigorous national government or the destroyer of genuine federalism? A defender of governmental authority or a dangerous militarist?
All complex persons with mixed motives require balanced interpretation. Napoleon, Sherman, Savonarola, and Castlereagh, are respectively known as either a Corsican ogre or Colossus of the Nineteenth Century, merchant of terror or Uncle Billy, heretic or prophet, and traitor or representative, all depending on whether one is listening to the Anglo-Americans or French, Southern separatists or Northern victors, papist or purist, or Irish Catholics or English Protestants. In each case, a very different narrative can be framed. This is the case at present with Hamilton. Yet Hamilton is at least different in degree, necessitating particular caution and circumspection before coming to characterological conclusions.
With respect to Hamilton, one might come across Henry Cabot Lodge’s hagiography, which sympathizer John Morse Jr. finds to be an important volume due to Cabot’s understanding of Federalism. Yet, Morse reveals Hamilton and George Cabot, an ancestor of Henry Cabot, to have been intimate friends. Morse then goes on to say, “Knowing well that, if Mr. Lodge was very naturally inclined to make a hero of Hamilton, he at least practiced a strictly intelligent and reasonable worship.” This does not render Lodge’s biography nugatory. If, however, it is the only source of speculation on Hamilton, one will come away with a highly stylized, and ultimately flawed, understanding of the subject. On the other hand, exclusively reading J. P. Boyd’s Number 7: Alexander Hamilton’s Secret Attempts to Control American Foreign Policy would cause comparable skew in the other direction. Thus, the lesson is to read both partisans and detractors. Political sympathies, however, are not the only forces to balance against one another. There is also the issue of zeitgeist. Historical personages are prone to being celebrated or denigrated to the extent that their symbolism is congruent or incongruent with the writer’s own time, and the sentiments, policies and positions then valued. Reading Lodge, Nathan Schachner, Boyd, Richard B. Morris, Robert W. T. Martin, Ambrose, John L. Harper, and John Ferling, begins to cut across political poles and pendulous swings. In doing this we replace the search for that rare unbiased and comprehensive source with a collection of sources, the biases of which oppose one another.
The principle of triangulation, as one might call this multiplication of perspective through pursuing diversified sources, can also be applied to original source writings of Hamilton and his contemporaries. Of course, it is important to read original writings from Hamilton, such as his many Federalist papers, and the writings of his partisans, such as James McHenry. Additionally, sympathetic but more objective associates like George Washington can provide balance. Also, Hamilton’s character cannot be rendered without knowing the opinions of Aaron Burr, James Monroe, or Jefferson; the latter of whom wrote:
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 and given him bread, but heaped its honors on his head.
With Hamilton, there is no question of ability, as there was no doubt of his ambition and genius. Further still, there are elements of his life and conduct that force the student of historical biography to jettison essentialist thinking, for Hamilton defies dichotomies such as good or evil, patriot or tyrant. For instance, looking to his marriage, a detractor can charge Hamilton with hypergamy and adultery, but without credibly being able to cast Hamilton in the role of a rake. Putting aside inquiries into his personal life, across his brilliant political career there are some critical junctions, the deep investigation of which affords particular insight into Hamilton’s inner character: (1) The Newburgh Conspiracy; (2) congressional investigations into his conduct as treasury secretary; (3) the election of 1800; (4) his attempted character assassination of John Adams; and (5) his efforts to suppress domestic rebellions. Through the aforementioned triangulation of sources and perspectives, these five pivotal moments within the nation’s history emerge as best positioned to elucidate Hamilton’s inner nature. Therein, we may find the necessary portals into the inner man, specifically to determine whether he was Catiline reincarnate or simply an American Machiavelli.
The Newburgh Conspiracy
In Newburgh, New York in 1783, the infamous Newburgh Conspiracy was hatched wherein discontent among the rank and file infantry was to be harnessed to threaten the civil government, then in arrears. Hamilton’s role therein betrays, at the very least, an instance of impetuosity and poor judgement. It seemed that Hamilton utterly lacked the virtue that induced such admiration of George Washington by George III, namely, the unequivocal subordination of military power to civilian authority. Then, as always, Washington would not allow the military to menace the civilian authority under whose auspices it served. Once Hamilton realized as much, he reversed course, distancing himself from what may well have been something between complicity and acquiescence. As Morris states:
Verily, Hamilton had learned a lot from the way in which Washington had handled the Newburgh crisis, and considering Hamilton’s own devious role in that incident, his loud professions of virtue could easily have been prompted in part by a haste to clean his own muddied boots.
At worst, it looked as though Hamilton urged Washington to weaponize the disaffected, but not disbanded, army against the Continental Congress. Going still further, according to Ferling, Hamilton’s “fingerprints were all over the Newburgh Affair.” A reading of Ferling’s reconstruction shows Hamilton seducing members of the Continental Army, those with pretension to higher power who at the same time were sympathetic to the army’s dissatisfaction. Ferling puts this incident in context by studying the relationship between Washington and Hamilton. Ferling dismisses the approximation of a father-son relationship, such as that which seems to have truly been present between Washington and Lafayette. Instead, Ferling sees Hamilton as having no lost love for Washington, essentially using him opportunistically as a ladder upon which to climb to prominence and power. Washington, in turn, recognized Hamilton as a Machiavellian man who brooked no limit to his power, a man who brazenly pulled strings to bring about whatever outcome he deemed necessary, a man who would use most means to achieve his ends. Despite the degree to which this relationship was paternal or contentious, Washington certainly constrained the most dangerous excesses of Hamilton’s nature. So long as Hamilton operated either under the aegis or constraint of Washington’s superior moral compass, he furthered the ends of the republic.
Hamilton’s appointment as the first secretary treasurer placed the new nation’s purse within his grasp. Given his willingness to subvert rules, laws and precedents, his contemporaries in the emerging opposition party assumed intrigue:
Convinced that Hamilton had aided and abetted corruption as Treasury Secretary, one of Jefferson’s first acts as president was to order his Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin (1761-1849), to search the department’s files for incriminating evidence.
Even more interesting is the reaction to the evidence of their own investigation:
That the convictions held against Hamilton were so strong as to prove immutable in the face of contrary evidence indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of Hamilton’s character. Jefferson, and likely also Madison and others who would come to overtly identify as Republicans, saw in Hamilton the archrival – the Samson in the field. They mistook Hamilton’s different vision of government for treasonous malevolence. The student of Hamilton is apt to make the same mistake. Stephen Brock speaks to this issue:
It is easy to interpret every aspect of Hamilton’s policy as part of a grand design to enrich a capitalist class at the expense of the people, but such a simplified view displays neither justice to the man nor an understanding of his problems. Politically the great desideratum was to attach to the national government enough powerful interest to make it effective; this rests upon three sensible assumptions, that the union could not be preserved without strong central government, that government could not be strong unless people wished it to be so, and that a material stake in good government was more valuable than vague well-wishing.
These are the complex motivations for assumption, and for Hamilton’s actions as treasury secretary. One must note that, for all his pursuit of power and glory, Hamilton did not fiscally capitalize on his office.
The Election of 1800
Though electioneering antics were evident in the election of 1796 in which Hamilton took part, the election of 1800 was so infamous as to elicit several book length narratives and peer reviewed investigations. While many of these sources focus on John Adams as incumbent and Jefferson as insurgent, Elkins and McKitrick’s The Age of Federalism ably documents Hamilton’s particular machinations. Like other Arch-Federalists, Hamilton wanted a change of guard. Hamilton attempted to oust the uncontrollable and unpredictable Adams in favor of the more pliable Charles Pinckney. He toured New England to survey public opinion, finding that:
Though the greatest number of strong minded men in New England are not only satisfied of the expediency of supporting Pinckney, as giving the best chance against Jefferson, but even prefer him to Adams; yet in the body of that people there is a strong personal attachment to this gentleman, and most of the leaders of the second class are so anxious for his re-election that it will be difficult to convince them that there is as much danger of its failure as there unquestionably is, or to induce them faithfully to cooperate in Mr. Pinckney, notwithstanding their common and strong dread of Jefferson.
Elkins and McKitrick use the term cabal in describing the attempt to thwart Adams’ reelection, though the word would be far too strong had it not been for what followed. If Hamilton had accepted that his efforts were unsuccessful, this would have amounted to a defensible wielding of political influence for personal gain and party good. Yet, he went further. Hamilton contacted John Jay, then governor of New York, “imploring him to reconvene the existing legislature and persuade it to enact a new law for choosing electors by district, which he thought might bring a Federalist majority.” The circumspect Jay ignored the missive, leaving it lie in his drawer. Drawing the distinction between Jay and Hamilton in this circumstance provides a compelling contrast. Unlike Hamilton, who was so unscrupulous and indiscreet as to make the request, Jay had the discretion to reject and suppress what was clearly capable of imperiling the infant nation’s constitutional process.
Character Assassination of Adams
As seen in many biographies of Hamilton and Adams, and as documented by Harper and by Elkin and McKitrick, Hamilton’s attempted character assassination of Adams stands high even among the heightened and hyperbolic events of America’s 1790s. As Harper details, the “calamitous attack on President John Adams is impossible to excuse, [and] difficult to explain.” In that this decision “backfired, destroying his reputation,” it has been called, “the most lunatic political act of his life.” As quoted by Elkins and McKitrick, the Aurora announced:
The pulsation given to the body politic, by Hamilton’s precious letter, is felt from one end of the union to the other. Never was there a publication so strange in its structure, more destructive in its purposed end. It has confirmed facts that were before known, but held in doubt. It has displayed the treachery, not only of the writer, but of his adherents in the public counsels; and while it has thrown much false glare on the character of Mr. Adams, it has given some new and faithful traits also; but it has thrown a blaze of light on the real character and designs of the writer and his partisans.
There was in this letter of Hamilton’s a thoroughgoing rehearsal of deficiencies, both petty and substantive, all of which were supposed to relate to Adams to the end of casting doubt on his fitness for office. The author employed a range of pretenses as foils for his true motivation, which was nothing other than “private resentment.” In deescalating the quasi-war, instead of pressing it forth towards formally declared and vigorously prosecuted hostilities, Adams had obviated the need for the army Hamilton positioned himself to head; and in doing so Adams had deprived Hamilton of the opportunity war afforded for advancement. War had raised Hamilton from obscurity; and it was war which was to elevate Hamilton beyond the reaches of his peak powers. If he accepted deescalation, Hamilton might have maintained the power to which he had attained. However, pressing forward with this scheme to replace Adams, Hamilton, as Harper documents, fell in the estimation of fellow federalists such as Robert Troup. More than this, the letter proved something of a Rorschach test, wherein some of Hamilton’s own foibles and follies were projected, unsuccessfully, upon Adams, as can be seen in a letter from George Cabot to Hamilton:
I am bound to tell you that you are accused by respectable men of Egotism, & some very worthy & sensible men say you have exhibited the same vanity in your book [letter] which you charge as a dangerous quality & great weakness in Mr. Adams.
The Suppression of Domestic Rebellions
When young and obscure, Hamilton famously longed for a war, knowing that only in such times of flux could men make radical social advances. As a mature founder, Hamilton was bent on war. For instance, as discussed in the previous section, during the quasi-war, to justify heretofore unseen expenditures and armament, he minimized the importance of the nation’s three thousand mile ocean barrier. However, Hamilton did not reserve martial solutions for foreign foes. To the southerners he stoked fears of a slave insurrection, while he presented the specter of anarchic atheism to the religious. For instance, as Newman states, in writing to William Loughton Smith of South Carolina, Hamilton spoke unflinchingly of manipulating public opinion and rousing fears:
The politician will consider this an important means of influencing Opinion, and will think it a valuable resource in a contest with France to set the Religious Ideas of his Countrymen in active Competition with the Atheistical tenets of their enemies.
As one applies heat to metal to make it ductile, Hamilton hoped to apply fear to the people to make them manipulable. As Morris states,
It was characteristic of Hamilton that throughout his life he was wont to prefer military solutions to political ones in times of emergency, whether it was to satisfy the officers and public creditors in 1783, or to put down the wretched whiskey insurrectionaries a decade later, or to settle differences with France arising during President Adams’s administration.
In Morris’s account of the Whiskey Rebellion, Hamilton simply emerges as autocratic, in that he wanted the Federal Government to appear as a leviathan against which no opposition could be mounted. Newman’s account of Hamilton’s role in Fries Rebellion is more sinister, suggesting Hamilton’s willingness to trump up charges and use discontented citizens as tools to augment his martial power.
Some of the readings informing this survey suggest that many have been overly magnanimous in their judgement of Hamilton, as exampled by Lodge for one; but also as seen in the person of James Bryce, author of The American Commonwealth, who delivered, according to Lord Acton, “a panegyric on Alexander Hamilton.” Then there was Talleyrand, who “assured Ticknor that he had never known his [Hamilton’s] equal.” Likewise, Acton attests that Seward calls Hamilton, “The ablest and most effective statesman engaged in organizing and establishing the union;” Macmaster and Hoist thought him the “foremost genius among public men in the new world.” Such hyperbole is justified to the extent that Hamilton is judged on ability alone.
The principle of triangulation, inoculating us against mischaracterizations via the multiplication of perspective afforded by a multitude of sources, is a starting point in studying such a complex character. In a way, this approach is the literary analogue of the psychometric search for convergent evidence. For instance, in attempting to measure intelligence, it is the shared variance of those many intelligence tests that is purported to measure the latent construct of g or general intelligence. In this same way, we can discard one-time descriptions, obvious vituperations of lone detractors, uncharacteristic actions, and so forth, which are not replicated across time, writers, and sources. Alternatively, those features that are so replicated can more confidently be taken as core features of Hamilton’s character. In making such a search, five junctures within Hamilton’s life emerge as windows of analysis, as have herein been reviewed. These must be surveyed personally and fully by anyone attempting to form their own conclusions. Further focus might be given to assumption, Hamilton’s description of Julius Caesar as the greatest man that ever lived, a forensic examination of Hamilton’s role in New York politics, Hamilton’s calculating use of dueling, or Hamilton’s legal battle with the Philadelphia Aurora.
At worst, more amoral than immoral, Hamilton played the part of the Nietzschean superman. “Hamilton,” in the proper estimation of Ferling (2003; page 439), “was an opportunist and a master of intrigue, orchestration, and manipulation.” From the perspective of modern personality science, Hamilton had a strong measure of dark triad traits, with Machiavellianism being more developed either than narcissism or psychopathy, making him deserve J. L. Harper’s appellation of American Machiavelli. Elkins and McKitrick seem to have come to a different conclusion:
There was no question of Alexander Hamilton’s immense ambition, his pride, his acute sense of personal honor, or his propensity for sweeping plans which nobody quite knew better how to execute than himself. He was fascinated by power and the uses of power. And yet one cannot quite project from this a picture of Hamilton as the calculating schemer. The cold Machiavellian, the crafty plotter, the man whose eye is on the main chance—this, for better or worse, was no part of Hamilton’s character. The sheer ardor of the man, the impatience, the impulsiveness, the need to keep moving, all served to inhibit that calculating prudence which might have made a very different person of him.
Still, it seems that Elkins and McKitrick dissent, only on the grounds of Hamilton’s occasional inability to stay the course. Though he showed lapses in judgement and bursts of impulsivity that sometimes undermined his ends, he did indeed have Machiavellian plots and plans, many of which were successfully executed.
One finds insight into Hamilton’s character among the Adams’s; not John Adams  who was too close to events and too directly affected for clarity of judgement, but in his wife Abigail, who called Hamilton a second Bonaparte; a characterization that was later expanded upon by Henry Adams in a response to Lodge:
You do not of course expect me to acquiesce entirely in your view of A. H. I dislike Hamilton because I always feel the adventurer in him. The very cause of your admiration is the cause of my distrust. . . . From the first to the last words he wrote, I read always the same Napoleonic kind of adventuredom
Douglas Ambrose, “Introduction: the life and many faces of Alexander Hamilton,” in D. Ambrose & R. W. T. Martin, eds., The Many Faces of Alexander Hamilton: The Life and Legacy of America’s Most Elusive Founding Father (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 1-22.
Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, September 9, 1792, Founders Online, founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-24-02-0330.
Catiline refers to Lucius Sergius Catilina, a senator charged with attempted subversion of the Roman Republic. Hamilton defamed Aaron Burr as a Catiline.Nancy Isenberg, Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr (London: Penguin, 2007).
E. J. Larson, A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America’s First Presidential Campaign. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2007); J. Ferling, Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800 (New York: Oxford University Press); J. R. Sharp, The Deadlocked Election of 1800: Jefferson, Burr, and the Union in the Balance (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2010).
J. B. Freeman, “The Election of 1800: A study in the logic of political change,” The Yale Law Journal, 108(8) (1999), 1959-1994; C. O. Lerche, “Jefferson and the election of 1800: A case study in the political smear,” The William and Mary Quarterly: A Magazine of Early American History (1948), 467-491; D. R. Egerton, “Gabriel’s Conspiracy and the Election of 1800,” The Journal of Southern History, 56(2) (1990), 191-214.
George Cabot to Hamilton, November 29, 1800, Founders Online, founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-25-02-0122.
Hamilton’s admiration for Julius Caesar continued throughout his life, giving credence to Jefferson’s account of a visit Hamilton paid to the home of the Secretary of State in Philadelphia probably in the spring of 1791. Hamilton inquired about the portraits hanging on the wall. Jefferson identified the subjects as Sir Francis Bacon, Sir Isaac Newton, and John Locke, claiming them to be his “trinity of the three greatest men the world has ever produced.” Hamilton was unimpressed. “The greatest man that ever lived,” he remarked, “was Julius Caesar.”Morris, Seven Who Shaped Our Destiny, 224.
See especially R. N. Rosenfeld, American Aurora: A Democratic-Republican Returns. The Suppressed History of Our Nation’s Beginning and the Heroic Newspaper that Tried to Report It (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), 273.
The dark triad includes Machiavellianism, psychopathy and narcissism; three traits which seem to cohere together in certain character types. For an example of extensive research on this topic see the following example sources: D. L., Paulhus & K. M. Williams, “The Dark Triad of Personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and Psychopathy,” Journal of Research in Personality, 36(6) (2002), 556-563; S. Jakobwitz & V. Egan, “The Dark Triad and Normal Personality Traits,” Personality and Individual Differences, 40(2) (2006), 331-339; M. Wai & N. Tiliopoulos, “The Affective and Cognitive Empathic Nature of the Dark Triad of Personality,” Personality and Individual Differences, 52(7) (2012), 794-799.
It is said that John Adams’s estimation of Hamilton was much more positive early on in the revolutionary process, prior to the two coming into direct competition. Thereafter the two “hated each other to a degree exceeded by no comparable enmity in the early life of the republic.” Elkins and McKitrick, The Age of Federalism, 793. A composite of Adams’s early estimations with those later formed might approach accuracy.