Reading Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, I was struck again by how little has changed in the last two hundred years—a point I always tried to hammer home with students. (I’m retired now.)
Much as I admire the handiwork of the Founding Fathers, I have always believed we should take them off their pedestal.
I think, for example, that it would be easy for teachers to draw interesting parallels between the political battles of their era and the battles of our own. The Founding Fathers had their own “Fake News” issues, Pizzagate rumors, financial corruptions, and fears of foreign meddling in elections.
Looking back on that era, most Americans imagine our young nation was led by giants. (That assumes they give the matter any thought at all.) George Washington, James Madison, Ben Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton all played roles in creating a system of government we cherish.
(Don’t forget James Wilson. He was one of the most influential thinkers of all during the Constitutional Convention.)
Yeah, nobody remembers him.
It is my theory, that when it comes to political division, history proves we’re all extras in a Hollywood remake. The title and plot of the movie are the same. Only the actors and director have changed.
Whenever I hear some expert talking about what the Founding Fathers believed—and how we can’t do anything they wouldn’t have done—and, just by chance, how what the Founding Fathers believed is exactly what the modern speaker believes now—I have to wonder. Shouldn’t we remember that the Founding Fathers often disagreed vehemently with other Founding Fathers?
Certainly, Hamilton understood that he lived in no golden era. As an army officer he was horrified to find that contractors were cheating the Continental Army when it came to delivering supplies. “When avarice takes the lead in a state,” he grumbled in 1778, “it is commonly the forerunner of its fall. How shocking it is to discover among ourselves, even at this early period, the strongest symptoms of this fatal disease?”
(Drain the swamp!)
In 1780, he questioned whether Americans were even ready to govern themselves. Our “countrymen have all the folly of the ass and all the passiveness of the sheep in their composition,” he grumbled.
It seems to me, we should make clear to students that the Founding Fathers had their own fiery fights over policy, their ridiculous conspiracy theories and sordid sexual escapades. Hamilton, of course, carried on a lengthy extramarital affair with a young woman named Maria Reynolds. Mrs. Reynolds and her husband—who connived at the affair—used Hamilton’s failings to blackmail the lascivious Founding Father. At the same time Hamilton’s peccadillos were being revealed, like a semen-stained blue dress or an Access Hollywood tape, Jefferson was scuffling to cover up his own lustful sinning. He was deep into a long-term sexual relationship with Sally Hemings, a slave woman, which began when his chattel was fifteen.
(Think Anthony Weiner sending “dick pictures” to teenage girls. Wait. Blot that out of your memory.)
|The Founding Fathers really had no idea what to do about slavery.|
So they punted.
Plus, there was dueling! And not just the famous duel that led to Alexander Hamilton’s demise. Hamilton once challenged James Monroe, the future president, to a duel. A witness to their heated exchange reported that Monroe shouted angrily, “I am ready, get your pistols.”
The man who cooled the potential duelists down?
(Think how much more interesting current political debates might be if Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer were prone to reach for their pistols. I might even start watching C-SPAN.)
The Founding Fathers were as bitterly divided among themselves as our political classes are today. Robert Yates, and John Lansing Jr., two of three New York delegates to the Constitutional Convention (Hamilton being the third), opposed almost every change suggested in the Articles of Confederation. Both left Philadelphia in a huff. Fifty-five men convened that summer. Only 39 agreed to support the final blueprint that became our Constitution.
Reacting to the departure of Yates and Lansing, Washington wrote Hamilton to complain about “narrow-minded politicians…under the influence of local views.” Such men would block “a strong and energetic government” out of naked self-interest. Then they’d claim to have done so in the name of liberty.
Fundamental disagreements divided delegates at the Convention. Franklin argued that members of the executive branch in the new government should serve without pay. Then only “civic-minded” individuals would run for office. Early on, a proposal was put forward to limit the president to a single seven-year term in office—meaning Donald J. Trump would be serving till 2024. This proposal was voted on and adopted. It was not until much later that delegates reconsidered and opted for four-year terms. And we know they failed to set a limit to how many terms a president could serve. They weren’t prescient, any more than George W. Bush or Barrack Obama in our time.
If anything, politically-charged violence was more common in their era. A July 4, 1788 clash between supporters and opponents of ratification of the Constitution left one dead and eighteen injured. An opponent of the new government and a foe of an overly-powerful government it created (in his opinion), called it “a monster with open mouth and monstrous teeth ready to devour all before it.”
|Supporters of the new Constitution honor Hamilton's efforts in winning ratification.|
Following ratification, as all history teachers know, the new government struggled with debt left from the Revolutionary War. The Founding Fathers might have feared “factions” in politics but factions quickly coalesced into parties, whether they liked it or not. A sharp divide developed during debate about how to handle the debt. Politicians on both sides accused rivals of nefarious motives. Jefferson believed Hamilton and his minions wished to create a perpetual national debt, “because they find it an engine for the corrupting the legislature.”
If there was debt, taxes would need to be levied to pay for it. Newspapers for Jefferson’s faction—soon to be known as the Democratic-Republicans—complained loudly about the tax placed on whiskey. “The government of the United States,” said one angry editor, “in all things wishing to imitate the corrupt principles of the court of Great Britain, has commenced the disgraceful career by an excise law.”
Tax agents tasked with collecting the duty ran into serious problems in western Pennsylvania, where farmers turned corn into alcohol to ship east for sale and make a living. “They drew a knife on him,” a reporter said of one unlucky tax collector, “threatened to scalp him, tar and feather him, and finally to reduce his house and property to ashes” if he did not agree to cease enforcing the hated tax.
Bone-deep political distrust was common even then. The Democratic-Republican press warned that Hamilton was plotting to make the Duke of Kent, fourth son of George III, the first king of the United States. Even George Washington sometimes faced blistering criticism. The newspaper editor, Benjamin Franklin Bache, lambasted him for failing to side with France against England. “The world,” said Bache of the president, “will be puzzled to decide whether you are an apostate or an imposter, whether you have abandoned good principles or whether you ever had any.” Washington complained in his Farewell Address (but had these lines excised by Hamilton) about newspapers filled “with all the invective that disappointment, ignorance of facts, and malicious falsehoods could invent to misrepresent my politics.”
Another critical question facing the Founding Fathers was how to respond in the face of the French Revolution. John Adams, who was not supportive of the revolutionaries, feared pro-French mobs might attack his home, family and friends. To be safe he ordered a cache of arms and ammunition delivered to his house through back lanes. In one unpublished essay, Hamilton wrote of “wily hypocrites,” and “crafty and abandoned imposters” who filled the pro-French camp.
Certainly, the Founding Fathers were not timid about turning to invective. Adams described Hamilton as “the most restless, impatient, artful, indefatigable and unprincipled intriguer in the United States.” Hamilton slammed Jefferson. Beware, he told a friend, the machinations of the master of Monticello, “the criminal, the ignoble aim of so seditious, so prostitute a character.” Burr described Monroe as, “Naturally dull and stupid, extremely illiterate; indecisive to a degree that would be incredible to one who did not know him.” Abigail Adams (Founding Mother!) chimed in, offering this assessment of Hamilton for her husband’s pleasure. “Oh, I have read his heart in his wicked eyes. The very devil is in them.” At news of a possible duel involving his father—one not fought—Hamilton’s son later wrote that opposition politicians having wine at dinner, toasted, “A speedy immortality to Hamilton.”
As always, greed was a problem. “My soul arises indignant at the avaricious and immoral turpitude which so vile a conduct displays,” James Madison wrote, describing speculators in government bonds. Jefferson warned against crooks in Congress. Even “in this, the birth of our government, some members were found sordid enough to bend their duty to their interests and to look after personal rather than public good.” President John Adams referred to bankers as “swindlers and thieves” and warned that Hamilton had introduced the “gangrene of avarice” into government. Jefferson described the business of high finance in that era as “an infinity of successive felonious larcenies.”
The same kind of personal attacks we see launched today were to be seen in the early days of our Republic. In private, Adams often referred to Hamilton, whose birth was illegitimate, as a “Creole bastard.” He gave credence to a rumor that Hamilton “never wrote or spoke at the bar or elsewhere in public without a bit of opium in his mouth.” Hamilton complained of Adams’s “disgusting egotism” and “distempered jealousy.” Adams labeled Washington “Old Muttonhead,” faulting his intelligence. The poor man “could not write a sentence without misspelling some word,” Adams complained. Washington was “but very superficially read in the history of any age, nation, or country.” As for Franklin, Adams was shocked by his peer’s licentiousness. As for Ben, he had doubts about Adams. “He means well for his country,” Franklin wrote, “is always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes, and in some things, absolutely out of his senses.”
Bitter policy disagreements are nothing new and one Founding Father was often at the throat of another. When Washington threw his support behind the unpopular Jay’s Treaty, the House of Representatives tried to interfere with his ability to conduct foreign policy. First, James Madison, then a member of the House of Representatives, argued that since the treaty touched on commerce between Britain and the United States, the House should vote on ratification. When that plan failed, he suggested the House refuse to appropriate money to implement the agreement. His suggestion—which might have circumscribed the power of not just Washington but all future presidents—was only narrowly defeated by a 51-48 vote.
Feelings were so bitter in regard to Jay’s Treaty that feared opponents might follow the example of the French Revolution, set up guillotines in New York City, and lead supporters of the treaty to their doom. On one occasion, when he attempted to speak to an anti-treaty crowd, Hamilton was greeted by a barrage of stones. After one struck him in the forehead, an ally complained that foes of ratification had endeavored “to knock out Hamilton’s brains to reduce him to an equality with themselves.”
The Founding Fathers were neither sages nor saints. Indeed, they were just as prone to compromise their principles as our leaders today. One particular facet of Jay’s Treaty angered Southern lawmakers. The British were not obligated to pay “damages” for the thousands of slaves they helped escape during the Revolution. Hamilton, who was fiercely opposed to slavery, considered the idea that the U.S. government should consider requiring payment “odious and immoral.”
Nothing ever seems to change. Who among us now will ever forget that moment in debate when Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump took turns accusing each other of being Putin’s puppet?
The Aurora, a newspaper supporting the party of Jefferson, intimated that Washington was a “puppet” controlled by Hamilton. As for Hamilton, the editor of the Aurora claimed the Secretary of the Treasury had lived a life “spent in wickedness and which must terminate in shame and dishonor.”
Noah Webster, of eventual dictionary fame, labeled Hamilton “the evil genius of this country.”
Even worse turmoil followed after Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Alien Act was aimed at diluting the impact immigrants had in American politics. Most immigrants supported the Democrat-Republicans. So Federalists set out to limit their numbers coming into the country and extend the period required to become a citizen to fourteen years. America, one Federalist leader insisted, should no longer “wish to invite hordes of wild Irishmen, nor the turbulent and disorderly parts of the world, to come here with a view to disturb our tranquility after having succeeded in the overthrow of their own governments.” Hamilton was equally blunt. “My opinion is that the mass [of aliens] ought to be obliged to leave the country.”
Of all the laws ever passed by Congress, the Sedition Act stands as one of the worst. And it was the work of several of the Founding Fathers we are supposed to revere. Once it was made law, it was illegal to speak or publish “any false, scandalous, or malicious” words or articles against the President or members of Congress “with the intent to defame…or to bring them…into contempt or disrepute.” Fines could range as high as $2,000, at that time equal to almost four years of pay for average worker. Conviction could mean two years in jail.
Whatever the flaws of our current leaders, we seem to have moved beyond such crude devices for silencing dissent as the Sedition Act. Ann Greenleaf, who edited her husband’s newspaper after he died, was prosecuted for saying “the federal government was corrupt and inimical to the preservation of liberty.” Greenleaf avoided jail time. Her editor did not. He paid a fine of $100 and spent four months behind bars. A second editor spent eighteen months in prison for suggesting that the government was operating in the interests of the wealthy, at the expense of ordinary citizens. A third newspaper man got into trouble after suggesting that President John Adams had a fat butt. James T. Callender, whose newspaper was also unfriendly to Adams, said of the second president: “The reign of Mr. Adams has been one continued tempest of malignant passions.” Callender spent nine months in prison for his trouble.
There are those who believe the Founding Fathers had a purity we now lack. Politics has never been pure. In January 1798, for example, an argument between Matthew Lyon of the Democratic-Republican Party and Roger Griswold of the Federalist Party descended into mayhem. On the floor of Congress, Lyon taunted Griswold for cowardice during the Revolution. To accentuate his point, he spat in Girswold’s face. Griswold responded by pounding his foe with a hickory cane. Lyon countered by battering Griswold with fire tongs. As Chernow writes, the two lawmakers ended up “fighting on the floor like common ruffians.”
On another occasion a Federalist pounced upon a Republican as his political foe was walking down a public street and beat his victim with a cane. For good measure, he gave the man’s nose a twist—a preferred insult of that period. The subject of the attack recovered, challenged his assailant to a duel, and shot him dead.
Duels were far more common than most of us remember. Aaron Burr faced off against a man named John B. Church, again a result of heated rhetoric. Burr missed completely with his shot. Church clipped a button off Burr’s coat; but the affair of “honor” ended without bloodshed.
As the presidential election of 1800 approached—and it seemed clear a transfer of power was imminent—Federalists despaired. One party leader grumbled privately about President Adams’ “studied neglect and naked contempt” for the advice of his cabinet. Adams’ age, he added, had “enfeebled his mental faculties.” Oliver Wolcott, Jr., a member of that very cabinet, attacked the president behind his back. “We know the temper of his mind to be…violent and vindictive….The people believe the president is crazy.” Hamilton tore into Adams, as well. “The man is more mad than I ever thought,” he told a friend, “and I shall soon be led to say as wicked as he is mad.” A Delaware Congressman described Adams as one “liable to gusts of passion little short of frenzy, which drive him beyond the control of any rational reflection. I speak of what I have seen. At such moments the interest of those who support him or the interest of the nation would be outweighed by a single impulse of rage.”
Adams was so disgusted by what he saw as the disloyalty of his own political party that he eventually fled Washington for his home in Quincy, Massachusetts. There he remained for seven months. One South Carolina Federalist told friends that on the way north he hoped the president’s horse would run away with him and Adams would break his neck.
As Election Day approached wild rumors circulated. There were stories that Adams had gone insane. Many feared civil war if the Democratic-Republican Party took power. A Federalist was heard to groan “that a civil war would be preferable to having Jefferson.” Hamilton warned that the Virginian was “an atheist in religion and a fanatic in politics.” Clergymen predicted that if Thomas Jefferson took office he would force Christians to hide their Bibles. John Quincy Adams, who later joined the party of Jefferson, said of the winner in 1800, that Jefferson had been “pimping to the popular passions” in a bid to unseat his father. Hamilton feared that an “influx of foreigners” would “change and corrupt the national spirit.” In the end he claimed immigrant votes propelled the Democrat-Republican Party to victory.
When a flaw in the Electoral College system left Burr and Jefferson tied with 73 votes each, it appeared the crafty Burr might steal the top office. The future of the United States hung in an uneasy balance. Many clergymen expressed a willingness to overlook Burr’s lack of morals rather than confront Thomas Jefferson’s “atheism.” Hamilton, no fan of Jefferson, was opposed. “The appointment of Burr would disgrace our country abroad,” he warned. Burr, he told friends, “is sanguine enough to hope everything, daring enough to attempt everything, wicked enough to scruple nothing” and prone to play upon “the floating passions of the multitude.”
In the end, of course, Jefferson prevailed. Adams boycotted his successor’s inauguration in a fit of pique, leaving town early that morning.
“The golden age is past,” Abigail Adams mourned. “God grant that it may not be succeeded by an age of terror.”
In his first Inaugural Address, President Jefferson tried to bridge the bitter political divide. “We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists,” he said magnanimously.
In private, however, he promised a friend he would “sink federalism into an abyss from which there shall be no resurrection.”
On the other side, William Coleman, a Federalist editor, sent the president an angry letter. He accused Jefferson of pulling down a house of virtues and replacing it with “a foul and filthy temple consecrated to atheism and lewdness.”
James T. Callender, who had previously supported Jefferson and gone to jail after attacking Adams, now switched sides. On September 1, 1802, he broke the following story in his Richmond, Virginia newspaper:
It is well known that the man whom it delighteth the people to honor, keeps and for many years has kept, as his concubine, one of his slaves. Her name is Sally…By this wench Sally, our President has had several children. There is not an individual in the neighborhood of Charlottesville who does not believe the story, and not a few who know it…The African Venus is said to officiate as housekeeper at Monticello.
Callendar labeled her as “Dusky Sally,” and said her son Tom, “yellow Tom,” bore a striking resemblance to the president. (By the time he finished his two terms in office, President Jefferson would be complaining about the newspapers’ “abandoned prostitution to falsehood.”)
Callender, like so many of us, then and now, was battling his own demons. After a night of heavy drinking, in the summer of 1803, his body was found bobbing in three feet of water in the James River.
Fortunately, the Sedition Acts soon fell out of favor. Jefferson did prosecute two Federalist editors, however. Harry Croswell, of New York, ran a paper whose banner bore the motto: “To lash the rascals naked through the world.” When Croswell attacked the Democratic-Republicans in print he was arrested. A jury found him guilty, after a judge instructed them to adhere to the old standard of libel—that it was libel if statements made against a plaintiff were defamatory.
Hamilton, by now returned to private life, served as Croswell’s attorney. If statements were true, he argued, they could not be defamatory. When the jury convicted Croswell, despite this plea, Hamilton decided to appeal the ruling. “The liberty of the press consists, in my idea, in publishing the truth from good motives and or justifiable ends, though it reflect on the government, on magistrates, or individuals,” Hamilton insisted. “Its being a truth is reason to infer that there was no design to injure another.”
“I never did think the truth was a crime,” he added. “I am glad the day is come in which it is to be decided, for my soul has ever abhorred the thought that a free man dared not speak the truth.”
It was, Hamilton pointed out rightly, the primary job of newspapers to hold the powerful to account. “To watch the progress of such endeavours [i.e. the actions of our leaders] is the office of the free press. To give us early alarm and put us on our guard against the encroachments of power. This then is a right of the utmost importance, one for which, instead of yielding it up, we ought rather to spill our blood.”
On appeal, the appeals court split 2-2. Croswell was denied a second trial. In the end, he was never sentenced for his crimes. In April 1805 the State of New York passed a libel law that incorporated Hamilton’s idea. The truth, lawmakers now agreed, was protected under the First Amendment.
Today, we may feel that America has never been more politically divided. Our ancestors in the time of the Founding Fathers would surely disagree. It was a Republican editor, James Cheetham, after all, who goaded Hamilton and Burr into a duel. Cheetham wrote that Hamilton had privately accused Burr of heinous misdeeds.
Cheetham also claimed to have a list of “upwards of twenty women of ill fame with whom [Burr] has been connected.” He had another list of married women Burr had managed to bed. And he had a third list of “chaste and respectable ladies whom he has attempted to seduce.” Even worse, in those days of rampant racial prejudice, Cheetham accused Burr of holding a “nigger ball” at his estate, dancing with a voluptuous black woman, and sleeping with her too.
Burr blamed Hamilton for these attacks and challenged him to a fight. Late in life, Hamilton had become a devoted Christian. He could not kill Burr, in good conscience, he said. When the duel did play out, it is believed he meant to fire his pistol in the air, rather than shoot to kill. Burr had no such compunctions and struck his opponent down. Badly wounded, Hamilton was carried home by friends. As death approached, he remained calm. “I have a tender reliance on the mercy of the Almighty, through the merits of the Lord Jesus Christ,” he told his doctor and family.
Near the end, with the fate of the United States still foremost in mind, he muttered, “If they break this union, they will break my heart.”
In his final letter he told his wife Eliza,
With my last idea, I shall cherish the sweet hope of meeting you in a better world.
Adieu best of wives and best of women. Embrace all my darling children for me.
Burr prevailed on the dueling ground but fled south to avoid prosecution. He was indicted for murder in New Jersey, but presided over the U.S. Senate when it opened on November 4, 1804. He later headed to Europe where he traveled widely and continued to seduce various women.
He returned to the States in 1812. That summer his only grandchild died. His only child, Theodosia, sailed from her home in South Carolina soon after. She vanished at age 29, the victim of storm or pirates. Burr described himself at the time as “severed from the human race.” He became a famous recluse. In 1833, at age 77, however, he married Eliza Jumel, 58, a fabulously rich widow. She herself had been a courtesan and had borne an illegitimate son before marrying a rich wine merchant, Stephen Jumel. Burr now set about spending all her money. Within a year she filed for divorce.
On what grounds: Adultery!