John Adams on Alexander Hamilton
Digital History ID 206
During the 1790s and early 1800s, the United States confronted many of the same problems that have confronted newly independent nations in Africa and Asia in the twentieth century. Like other nations born in anticolonial revolutions, the United States faced severe challenges in building a sound economy, preserving national independence, and providing a place for a legitimate political opposition.
The textbook picture of the past tends to be calm and dispassionate, but in real life, events were confusing and unpredictable. The nation's first two decades under the Constitution were rife with conflict, partisan passion, and threats of disunion and civil war.
In a bitter letter written to Benjamin Rush two years after Vice President Aaron Burr (1756-1836) shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, former President Adams offers a savage attack on the former Treasury Secretary's character. Adams draws a comparison between the early years of the new republic and the history of the Roman republic. Adams, like many Americans of the founding generation, believed that the Roman republic, which provided a model for such American institutions as the Senate, had collapsed because of the malevolent designs of scheming men and the public's lack of virtue. He is haunted by a fear that the new American republic is doomed to follow the same fate.
I am half inclined to be very angry with you for destroying the Anecdotes and Documents you had collected for private Memoirs of the American Revolution. From the Memoirs of Individuals, the true Springs of events and the real motives of actions are to be made known to posterity. The patriot in the history of the world, the best understood, is that of Rome from the time of Marius to the birth of Cicero, and this distinction is entirely owing to Cicero's Letters and Orations. Then we see the true character of the time and the passions of all the actors on the state.... Change the nations and every anecdote will be applicable to us....
The [Roman] triumvirate of Caesar, Pompey and Crassus and the other of Octavius, Anthony and Lapidus, the first formed by Caesar and the last by Octavius, for the purpose of worming themselves into empire...have analogues enough with Hamilton's schemes to get rid of Washington, Adams, Jay, and Jefferson and monopolize the power to himself.... You inquire what passed between W[ashington] and Hamilton at York Town. Washington had ordered or was about to order another officer to take the command of the attack upon the redoubt. Hamilton flew into a violent passion and demand the command of the party for himself and declared if he had it not, he would expose General Washington's conduct in a pamphlet. Thus you see
Its proper power to hurt each creature feels
Bulls aim their horns and also lift their heels. Hamilton's instrument of offence were libels, not true libels according to the New York doctrine, but lying libels.
Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute
Additional information: John Adams to Benjamin Rush
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