This post was written by Mariam Touba, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections
What to do if you are a leader of a political party and you fear that your party’s presumptive nominee for the presidency thoroughly lacks the temperament for the office? If he is erratic, animated by “disgusting egotism,” “distempered jealousy,” and “ungovernable indiscretion”? Or that he simply has such “great and intrinsic defects in his character, which unfit him for the office of Chief Magistrate?”
We are not mentioning any contemporary names here, but Alexander Hamilton expressed these views in print of John Adams. And Hamilton had a weapon that modern Americans lack: Before the adoption of the 12th Amendment to the Constitution, a presidential candidate was not differentiated from a vice-presidential candidate on a “ticket.” It was thus possible to make mischief by encouraging presidential electors to throw their weight behind the supposedly secondary, VP candidates.
In 1796, Hamilton had done little more than hope the convoluted electoral process would give preference to the vice-presidential candidate, Thomas Pinckney of South Carolina, over George Washington’s presumed successor, John Adams. However, once now-President Adams learned of Hamilton’s maneuvering, their feud escalated into extreme distrust and name-calling.
Hamilton served as the inspector general of a refurbished army in the Adams administration, but he had left the center of power even before Adams disbanded the new army in 1800. Having been George Washington’s secretary of the treasury and chief architect of policy within the first presidential administration, he came to lament the new state of affairs. It was enough for him to wonder whether leaders of his own Federalist party should risk a schism in the ranks. In privately making his views known to the American minister in London, Rufus King, in January 1800, Hamilton refrains from mentioning names but clearly provides his view of John Adams here:
At home, every thing is in the main well; except as to the Perverseness and Capriciousness of one and the spirit of faction of many.
Our measures, from the first cause, are too much the effect of momentary impulse… Vanity and Jealousy exclude all counsel. Passion wrests the helm from reason.
And, feeling the loss of George Washington who died three weeks earlier:
The irreparable loss of an inestimable man removes a controul which was felt and was very salutary.
Some months later, as Adams began suffering political reverses in his bid for re-election in 1800, he became suspicious enough of Hamilton’s cohorts in his cabinet that he fired them.
Hamilton’s response was to campaign more openly for the likely vice-presidential candidate, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (brother of the 1796 candidate). By late summer, he had taken to penning an anti-Adams circular letter; it was meant for the leaders of his Federalist party, but portions of its biting contents found their way into the opposition Republican newspapers that were urging the election of Thomas Jefferson. Hamilton’s rash reaction—to publish the entire pamphlet, outlining the inside story of Adams’s temper tantrums behind cabinet doors to a stunned public—was widely understood to have demonstrated extravagantly poor judgement.
The bulk of the pamphlet is a critique of John Adams’s flexible diplomacy toward France, a country at war in Europe and determined to inhibit American trade with Britain. By responding to subtle French overtures, Adams had successfully averted war, an accomplishment for which he remained proud. This was also the weakest part of Hamilton’s argument, as, despite his protestations, one could not help but perceive frustrated ambition since Hamilton’s position as head of a new army depended on a hostile foreign threat.
More to the point were the criticisms of Adams’ ungovernable behavior toward his own cabinet members that could only have come from those same ex-cabinet members, “It is a fact that he is often liable to paroxisms of anger, which deprive him of self command, and produce very outrageous behavior to those who approach him. Most, if not all his Ministers, and several distinguished Members of the two Houses of Congress, have been humiliated by the effects of these gusts of passion.”
Hamilton ends with a plea for his own vindication complaining that “Mr. Adams has repeatedly indulged himself in virulent and indecent abuse of me” and has “denominated me a man destitute of every moral principle.”
Alas, after all this abuse, Hamilton meekly concludes his invective, “Yet with this opinion of Mr. Adams, I have finally resolved not to advise the withholding from him a single vote.” His pamphlet, he argues, was merely a plea for respect to be given to those Federalists who prefer Pinckney from “pure motives” and “cogent reasons.” He didn’t, he blithely claimed, want the presidency to go to Thomas Jefferson “whose unfitness all sincere federalists are convinced.” But privately and to his friends, he was willing, even preferring, to see the election of Jefferson, the candidate of the hated and feared opposition.
Hamilton’s diatribe may or may not have contributed to Thomas Jefferson’s historic electoral victory in 1800, but it did receive a gleeful reception from Democratic-Republican operatives. It certainly accelerated the decline of the Federalist party and Hamilton’s viability as a political leader.
As for Adams, he made no immediate public reply to Hamilton’s personal letters and pamphlet. But being John Adams, he did want the last word, and made his views known in newspaper essays in 1809. The lengthy essays recounted in detail the diplomacy involved in negotiating with France, but also took swipes at Hamilton (a “little man” of “indelicate pleasures”) and his 1800 pamphlet. All in all, Hamilton’s preventing his reelection was a big favor to him, Adams concluded, as “it was utterly impossible that I could have lived through one more year of such labors and cares.”
Some of these documents and many others will be on view as part of the New-York Historical Society’s “Summer of Hamilton” beginning on the July 4th weekend.