The Conqueror by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Book IV. "Alexander the Great"
It was the autumn of 1786. New York had risen from her charred and battered ruins. There were cows on her meadows, a lake with wooded shores as merely traditional, groves, gardens, orchards, fields, and swamps; but her business houses and public buildings were ambitious once more, her spires more lofty and enduring, her new dwelling-houses, whether somewhat crowded in Wall Street and Broadway, or on the terraces of less busy streets, or along the river fronts and facing a wild and lovely prospect, were square, substantial, and usually very large. And every street was an avenue of ancient trees. Mrs. John Jay, with her experience of foreign courts, her great beauty, and the prestige of her distinguished husband, was the leader of society, holding weekly receptions, and the first to receive the many distinguished strangers. Although society was not quite as gay as it became three years later, under a more settled government and hopeful outlook, still there was quiet entertaining by the Hamiltons, who lived at 58 Wall Street, the Duers, Watts, Livingstons, Clintons, Duanes, Jays, Roosevelts, Van Cortlandts, and other representatives of old New York families, now returned to their own. Congress was come to New York and established in the City Hall in Wall Street. It had given the final impetus to the city, struggling under the burden of ruins and debt left by the British; and society sauntered forth every afternoon in all the glory of velvet and ruffles, three-cornered hats recklessly laced, brocades, hoopskirts, and Rohan hats, to promenade past the building where the moribund body was holding its last sessions. The drive was down the Broadway into the shades of the Battery, with the magnificent prospect of bay and wooded shores beyond. Politics, always epidemic among men and women alike, had recently been animated by Hamilton's coup at Annapolis, and the prospect of a general convention of the States to consider the reorganization of a government which had reduced the Confederation to a condition fearfully close to anarchy, the country to ruin, and brought upon the thirteen sovereign independent impotent and warring States the contempt of Europe and the threat of its greed.
A group of men, standing on a corner of Wall Street and the Broadway, were laughing heartily: a watch was dragging off to jail two citizens who had fallen upon each other with the venom of political antithesis; the one, a Nationalist, having called Heaven to witness that Hamilton was a demi-god, begotten to save the wretched country, the other vociferating that Hamilton was the devil who would trick the country into a monarchy, create a vast standing army, which would proclaim him king and stand upon the heads of a people that had fought and died for freedom, while the tyrant exercised his abominable functions.
The men in the group were Governor Clinton, Hamilton's bitterest opponent, but sufficiently amused at the incident; William Livingston, Governor of New Jersey, now with but a few hairs on the top of his head and a few at the base, his nose more penetrating, his eye more disapproving, than ever; James Duane, Mayor of New York; John Jay, the most faultless character in the Confederation, honoured and unloved, his cold eyes ever burning with an exalted fire; and John Marshall of Virginia, munching an apple, his attire in shabby contrast to the fashionable New Yorkers, the black mane on his splendid head unpowdered and tossing in the ocean breeze.
"I like your Hamilton," he announced, "and I've come to the conclusion that I think with him on all matters. He's done more to educate the people up to a rational form of government during the last seven years than all the rest of us put together. He's shone upon them like a fixed star. Other comets have come and gone, whirling them forward to destruction, but they have always been forced to turn and look at him again and again, and he has always shone in the same place."
"Sir," exclaimed Clinton, who was flushed with rage, "are you aware that I am present, and that I entirely disapprove of Mr. Hamilton's attempt to reduce the States to a condition of ignominious subserviency to an ambitious and tyrannical central power?"
"I had heard of you, sir," replied Marshall, meekly, "and I am glad to have the opportunity to ask you what your remedy is for the existing state of things? You will admit that there must be a remedy, and quickly. If not a common government with a Constitution empowering it to regulate trade, imposts, reduce the debt, enter into treaties with foreign powers which will not be sneered at, administer upon a thousand details which I will not enumerate, and raise the country from its slough of contempt, then what? As the personage who has taken the most decided stand against the enlightened and patriotic efforts of Mr. Hamilton, I appeal to you for a counter suggestion as magnificent as his. I am prepared, sir, to listen with all humility."
Clinton, whose selfish fear of his own downfall with that of State supremacy was so well known that a smile wrinkled across the polite group of gentlemen surrounding him, deepened his colour to purple under this assault, and stammered: "Sir, have I not myself proposed an enlargement of the powers of Congress, in order to counteract the damnable policy of Britain? Did not your Hamilton harangue that crowd I sanctioned till he got nearly all he asked for?"
"But he knew better than to ask for too much, in the conditions," replied Marshall, suavely. "May I suggest that you have not answered my humble and earnest questions?"
"I answer no questions that I hold to be impertinent and unimportant!" said Clinton, pompously, and with a dignified attempt to recover his poise. He swept his hat from his head; the New Yorkers were as punctilious; Marshall lifted his battered lid from the wild mass beneath, and the popular Governor sauntered down the street, saluted deferentially by Nationalists and followers alike. When he had occasion to sweep his gorgeous hat to his knees, the ladies courtesied to the ground, their draperies taking up the entire pavement, and His Excellency was obliged to encounter the carriages in the street.
"If Clinton were sure of figuring as powerfully in a national government as he does in the state of New York, he would withdraw his opposition," said Livingston, contemptuously. "He has been Governor for nine years. New York is his throne. He is a king among the common people, who will elect him indefinitely. Were it not for Hamilton, he would be New York, and the awful possibilities lying hidden in the kernel of change haunt his dreams at night. You embarrassed him in a manner that rejoiced my heart, Mr. Marshall. I beg you will do me the honour to dine with me to-night. I beg to assure you that your fame is as known to me as were I a Virginian."
"I'll accept the invitation with pleasure," replied Marshall, whose manners were all that his attire was not. "I shall be glad to talk with you on many subjects. To-morrow I shall pay my respects to Mr. Hamilton. His has been a trying but not a thankless task. He has addressed himself to the right class of men all over the country, winning them to his sound and enlightened views, giving them courage, consolidating them against the self-interested advocates of State sovereignty. That he has so often neglected a legal practice which must bring him a large income, as well as sufficient personal glory, out of a sincere pity for and patriotic interest in this afflicted country, gives New York deep cause for congratulation that she was in such close communication with that Island of his youth. I wish that fate had steered him to Virginia."
"Surely you have enough as it is," said Duane, laughing: "Washington, yourself, Patrick Henry, Jefferson, Madison, Randolph. Spare us Hamilton. We shall need him badly enough. The Clinton faction is very strong. That the Hamilton embraces the best spirits of the community means that it is in the minority, and needs the unremitting exercise of his genius to counteract the disadvantage in numbers."
"I think that what I admire most in Hamilton," remarked a newcomer, a small dark man of vivid personality, "are his methods of manipulation. He picks out his own men, Duer, Troup, Malcolm, has them sent to the legislature, where they blindly and indefatigably obey his behest and gain the consent of that body to the convention at Annapolis, then see that he is elected as principal delegate. He goes to Annapolis ostensibly to attend a commercial convention: while its insufficient numbers are drowsing, he springs upon them an eloquent proposal for a national convention for reforming the Union, and forces it through before they know what they are about. Certainly Mr. Hamilton is a man of genius."
"Do I understand. Mr. Burr," said Jay, from his glacial height, "that you are impugning the purity of Mr. Hamilton's motives?"
"No, sir," replied Burr, whom an archangel could not have rebuked. "In the present condition of things all methods are justifiable. Hamilton is great but adaptable. I respect him for that quality above all others, for he is quite the most imperious character in America, and his natural instinct is to come out and say, 'You idiots, fall into line behind me and stop twaddling. I will do your thinking; be kind enough not to delay me further.' On the other hand, he is forced to be diplomatic, to persuade where he would command, to move slowly instead of charging at the point of the bayonet. So, although I have no sympathy with his pronounced monarchical inclinations, I respect his acquired methods of getting what he wants."
"What do you mean by pronounced monarchical inclinations?" snorted Governor Livingston, who could not endure Burr.
Burr gave his peculiar sardonic laugh. "Will you deny it, sir?"
"Deny it? I certainly am in Mr. Hamilton's confidence to no such extent, and I challenge you to indicate one sentence in his published writings which points to such a conclusion."
"Ah, he is too clever for that; but his very walk, his whole personality expresses it, to say nothing of the fact that he never thinks of denying his admiration of the British Constitution. And did he not defend the Tories after the evacuation, when no other lawyer would touch them? I admired his courage, but it was sufficient evidence of the catholicity of his sentiments."
"Mr. Hamilton defended the abstract principle of right against wrong in defending the wretched Tories against the persecutions of an unmagnanimous public sentiment," said Jay, witheringly. "I should advise you, young gentleman, to become a disciple of Mr. Hamilton. I can recommend no course which would prove so beneficial." And he turned on his heel.
He had hit Burr. The jealousy born in Albany had thriven with much sustenance since. Hamilton was by far the most prominent figure at the New York bar, and was hastening to its leadership. Burr was conspicuous for legal ability, but never would be first while Hamilton was in the race. Moreover, although Hamilton had not then reached that dizzy height from which a few years later he looked down upon a gaping world, he was the leader of a growing and important party, intelligently followed and worshipped by the most eminent men in the Confederation, many of them old enough to be his father; and he was the theme of every drawing-room, of every coffee-house group and conclave. His constant pamphlets on the subject nearest to all men's hearts, his eloquent speeches on the same theme upon every possible occasion, and the extraordinary brilliance of his legal victories, gave people no time to think of other men. When he entered a drawing-room general conversation ceased, and the company revolved about him so long as he remained. When he spoke, all the world went to hear. For an ambitious young man to be told to attach himself to the train of this conquering hero was more than poor Burr could stand, and he replied angrily:--
"I have the privilege of being true to my own convictions, I suppose. They are not Mr. Hamilton's and never will be. I do not impugn the purity of his motives, but I have no desire to see George Washington king, nor Hamilton, neither. I wish you good day, sirs," and he strode up Broadway to the Fields with dignity in every inch of him.
"This constant talk of Hamilton's monarchical principles makes my gorge rise," said Livingston. "Did he not fight as hard as he was permitted, to drive monarchy out of the country? Was he not the first to sound the call to arms?"
"Hamilton's exact attitude on that question is not clearly understood," replied Duane, soothingly, for the heat of Livingston's republicanism had never abated. "I fancy it is something like this: So far no constitution has worked so well as the British. Montesquieu knew whereof he praised. The number of men in this country equal to the great problem of self-government are in a pitiful minority. The anarchic conditions of the States, the disgrace which they have brought upon us, their inefficiency to cope with any problem, the contemptible depths of human nature which they have revealed to the thinking members of the community--all these causes inspire Hamilton, incomparably the greatest brain in the country, with a dread of leaving any power whatever in their hands. He believes firmly in the few of tried brain and patriotism. I very much doubt if he has considered the subject of actual monarchy for a moment, for he is no dreamer, and he knows that even his followers have been Republicans too long. But that he will fight for the strongest sort of national government, with the least possible power vested in the States--oh, no doubt of that."
"Our people are hopeless, I fear," said Livingston, with a sigh. "This period of independency seems to have demoralized them when it should have brought out their best elements. Well, Mr. Marshall, what say you? You have been modestly silent, and we have been rudely voluble when so distinguished a guest should have had all the floor."
"I have been deeply entertained," replied Marshall, with a grin. "My visit to New York is by no means wasted. I envy Mr. Hamilton; but let him look out for Mr. Burr. There are just five feet seven inches of jealous hate in that well-balanced exterior, and its methods would be sinuous, I fancy, but no less deadly. But Hamilton has had many escapes. What was that atrocious story I heard of a duelling cabal? When the rolling stone of gossip reaches Virginia from New York, it has gathered more moss than you would think."
"It would be difficult to exaggerate that story," snorted Livingston." Hamilton defended his course in regard to the Tories in two pamphlets, signed 'Phocion.' They were answered by a Mr. Ledyard, who signed himself 'Mentor,' and was a conspicuous advocate of the damnable spirit of revenge possessing this country. It is a bold man indeed who enters into a conflict of the pen with Hamilton, and 'Mentor' was left without a leg to stand on. Forthwith, a club of Ledyard's friends and sympathizers, enraged by defeat, and fearing the growing ascendency of Hamilton over men's minds, deliberately agreed to challenge him in turn until he was silenced forever. This atrocious project would undoubtedly have been carried out, had not Ledyard himself repudiated it with horror. Can you show me a greater instance of the depravity of human nature, sir?"
"We are in a ferment of bitter passions," said Marshall, sadly, "and I fear they will be worse before they are better. I only hope that Hamilton will not be swept into their current, for upon his keeping his balance depends the future greatness of this country. I am at your service, sir, for I will confess my two legs are tired."