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In Mr. Hamilton's Letter on the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, President of the United States, published in 1800, prior to the election of President and Vice President, to take place in December of that year, Mr. Adams is censured for his various measures which resulted
in the institution (in February 1799) of a mission to France, to negotiate a treaty with her government. This last measure, suddenly taken, without the previous knowledge of a single federalist, in or out of the government, occasioned universal surprise. A decided majority of the nation had been roused to a just resistance of French aggressions. Success attended the vigorous measures of the United States; French armed vessels were captured; and our commerce received protection. A continuance of the same spirited measures would naturally increase the public ardour.
In this state of things, Mr. Hamilton expressed his belief, that there was a real alteration in public opinion; and, hence, that a negotiation to restore peace and a friendly intercourse with France, might be more safely and advantageously conducted at Philadelphia than at Paris ; without hazard of dangerous intrigues by any French minister who should be sent to the United States. Mr. Adams takes this occasion to say not only that Hamilton's conceptions of public opinion were erroneous, but intimates that he was incapable of judging correctly in the case ; for which he assigns these reasons6 That he was born and bred in the West Indies, till " he went to Scotland for education, where he spent 6 his time in a seminary of learning till seventeen years “ of age : after which, no man ever acquired
a national "character; then entered a college at New-York, from “ whence he issued into the army an aid de camp.
* these situations he could scarcely acquire the opinions, “ feelings or principles of the American people. "* This quotation presents a statement marked with Mr. Adams's usual incorrectness; and his inference from his assumed facts is on a par with his statement. To exhibit his errors, and at the same time gratify the reader, I will subjoin a sketch of Mr. Hamilton's early Jife.
This eminent man, the son of a Scotch merchant, was born in the island of Nevis, in the West Indies ; and, as soon as he was old enough to be so employed, became a clerk in the counting house of Nicholas Cruger, a merchant from New York, who was settled in the island of St. Croix. Boy as he was, the consciousness of a superior intellect satisfied him that a merchant's store was not the proper place for the exertion of his talents. When past the age of thirteen years, he was sent to New-York for his education. After the
prepa ratory school instruction, he entered the college in that city. The controversy between the British Colonies and the Mother Country employed, at that period, the tongues and the pens of the most eminent men in America. Hamilton, though engaged in his collegiate exercises, was not an unobserving spectator of the passing scenes.
“ In this contest with Great-Britain (says Dr. Mason) “ which called forth every talent and every passion, “ Hamilton's juvenile pen asserted the claims of the “ Colonies, against writers from whom it would dero“gate to say that they were merely respectable. An “ unknown antagonist, whose thrust was neither to be “ repelled nor parried, excited inquiry; and when he
began to be discovered, the effect was so apparently
disproportioned to the cause, that his papers were “ ascribed to a statesman who then held a happy sway “ in the councils of his country, who has since render66 ed her most essential services, and who still lives to 6 adorn her name.f But the truth could not long be
* Letter XII, May 26, 1809, published in the Boston Patriot. f John Jay.
6 concealed. The powers of Hamilton created their “ own evidence; and America saw, with astonish“ment, a lad of seventeen* in the rank of her advo
cates, at a time when her advocates were patriots “ and sages.”+
In the year 1775, after the commencement of hostilities, “ Hamilton attached himself to one of the uniform “ companies of militia then forming in the city for the de“ fence of the country, and devoted much time and at“tention to their exercises. In the early part of 1776, “ he received, from the Provincial Congress of New
York, the appointment of captain of one of the inde“pendent companies of artillery.” “It was while he " was training this company, that, for the first time he “ was seen by General Greene; to whose discerning eye something more appeared in the conduct of the young captain than was ordinarily exhibited in the parade exercises of that office.”So Near the close of the campaign of 1776, Hamilton was introduced into General Washington's family, as an aid de camp. In this situation he continued until the winter of 1780–1. In 1782–3, he was a delegate from the State of NewYork in the Congress of the United States. It was while a member of that body that he saw the letters and communications from our ministers at European courts, and among them those of John Adams, then minister plenipotentiary to the States of Holland, and one of the commissioners for negotiating a peace with Great-Britain. These negotiations were carried on at Paris, to which city Mr. Adams came from the Hague. Mr. Jay, already there, had taken certain decisive preliminary steps, without the concurrence of Dr. Franklin, our resident minister in France, and another of the peace commissioners. Franklin, caressed by the French, was disposed implicitly to obey an instruction
* Col. Nicholas Fish, a fellow student of Hamilton's, informs me that he was about eighteen; and that he saw some of Hamilton's essays before they went to the press.
+ Doctor Mason's oration on the death of Hamilton. | Letter of December 26, 1823, from Col. Fish. Judge Johnson's Life of Greene.
from Congress, wholly different in spirit from former acts of that body, and unworthy of its well earned public reputation. The object of that instruction was, to submit the terms of the treaty of peace with GreatBritain absolutely to the French court, excepting in the single article of our independence. This instruction was obtained, undoubtedly, through the influence of the French minister to the United States, the Count de la Luzerne, and of the able secretary of legation, Mr. Marbois. Had this instruction been implicitly obeyed, and had the British government concurred with the plans of the French court, the fisheries, the territory west of the Allegany mountain, and the navigation of the Mississippi, would have been lost to the United States. Mr.Jay, with the foresight, wisdom, firmness and patriotism which have always distinguished him, resisted : he laid aside his instructions, and alone commenced the negotiation, in a manner to do honour to an able, upright and independent American citizen. Mr. Adams came to Paris : his views coincided with Mr. Jay's; and, eventually, Dr. Franklin co-operated with them. Peace was made on terms advantageous beyond the most sanguine expectations; notwithstanding which, an attempt was made by the members under French influence-for there was then, as there has been since, a French party in Congress—to censure the commissioners; but it failed; and praise instead of censure was bestowed on them. Hamilton, “ dreading " the preponderance of foreign influence, as the natural “ disease of a popular government, was struck at the
appearance, in the very cradle of our republic, of a party actuated by an undue complaisance to foreign power; and resolved at once to resist this bias in our " affairs ;" “ a resolution (says Hamilton) which has “ been the chief cause of the persecution I have en“ dured in the subsequent stages of my political life.”*
The agency of Mr. Adams in the peace negotiation made a favourable impression on the mind of Hamilton, but not without alloy. A scrutiny of Mr. Adams's several communications to Congress produced in the mind of Hamilton the following result : He says,
* Hamilton's Letter on the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams,
President of the United States.
“I “ then adopted an opinion, which all my subsequent
experience has confirmed, that he is of an imagina“tion sublimated and eccentric ; propitious neither to
the regular display of sound judgment, nor to steady perseverance in a systematic plan of conduct; and I " began to perceive, what has been since too manifest, " that to this defect are added the unfortunate foibles “ of a vanity without bounds, and a jealousy capable of
discolouring every object."* I greatly mistake if the reader has not found, in this Review, abundant confirmation of the correctness of Hamilton's opinion.
It was in the year 1777, that I first saw Hamilton, and perceived his importance in the military family of General Washington. The subsequent acts of his public life, and the eminent and disinterested services he rendered to the United States, inspired me with the highest ideas of his talents and worth. As an Aid de Camp to the Commander in Chief, he saw the principal operations of the main army during four years; but had no command of troops, except of a detachment at the siege of Yorktown, with which he stormed and took a redoubt. A man of genius, however, will promptly grasp any subject; while a common mind is learning the rudiments, which, by slow degrees, are to conduct him to the knowledge of it. When, therefore, in 1798, a small army was to be raised, in adựition to our peace establishment, I had no hesitation as to the person best qualified to command it. Of the citizens of the United States who had seen service, I knew not one to place in competition with him. It was while I was in this state of mind, that the following dialogue took place between Mr. Adams and me.
Mr. Adams.“ Whom shall we appoint commander in chief p_ Colonel Hamilton." Mr. Adams made no reply. On another day, he repeated the same question, and I gave him the same answer: he did not
* The same Letter.