Book IV. "Alexander the Great"
Chapter XI
 

On the following day Hamilton went to Albany to march at the head of a Federal procession with General Schuyler, then returned to "Hamiltonopolis" and such legal work as he was permitted to accomplish; for not only were leaders consulting him on every possible question from the coming elections to the proper seat for the new government, and his duties as a member of Congress pressing, but Edward Stevens, now established as a doctor in Philadelphia, paid him a visit of a week, and they talked the night through of St. Croix and old times. One of the pleasantest results of these years of supremacy was the unqualified delight of his Island friends. Hugh Knox was so proud of him, and of himself and the debt which Hamilton acknowledged, that he wrote explosive reams describing the breathless interest of St. Croix in his career, and of the distinguished gatherings at the Governor's when he arrived with one of their lost citizen's infrequent epistles. Mrs. Mitchell, poor soul, wrote pathetically that she would no longer regret his loss could she love him less. Hamilton wrote to her as often as he could find the time, and Betsey selected a present for her several times a year. Gratitude is the privilege of a great soul, and Hamilton had a full measure of it. Even his father and brother wrote occasionally, respectfully, if with no great warmth; and if their congratulations were usually accompanied by the experimental sigh of poverty, Hamilton was glad to respond, for at this period he was making a good deal of money.

His promised bow to Mrs. Croix he deferred from day to day, pleading to himself the pressure of work, which was submerging; but while he reproached himself for ingratitude, he knew that he dreaded the meeting: the old spirit of adventure within him, long quiescent, tapped alluringly on the doors of his prudence. That she did not write again, even to congratulate him as other friends had done, but added to his discomfort, for he knew that her pride was now in arms, and that she must be deeply wounded. He heard of her constantly, and at the procession in his honour he had seen her, leaning on the arm of General Knox, a dazzling, but angelic vision in blue and white, at which even the bakers, wig-makers, foresters, tanners, and printers had turned to stare. One of the latter had leaped down from the moving platform on which he was printing a poem of occasion by William Duer, and begged her on his knee to deign to receive a copy. She held weekly receptions, which were attended by two-thirds of the leading men in town, and Hamilton's intimate friends discoursed of her constantly. Croix was supposed to have been seized with a passion for travelling in savage jungles, and it was the general belief that his death would be announced as soon as the lady should find it convenient to go into mourning. It was plain to the charitable that he had left her with plenty of money, for she dressed like the princess she looked, and her entertainments lacked no material attraction. The gossip was more furious than ever, but the most assiduous scandal-monger could connect no one man with her name, nor trace her income to other than its reputed source. More than once Hamilton had passed her coach, and she had bowed gravely, with neither challenge nor reproach in her sweet haughty eyes. After these quick passings Hamilton usually gave her a few moments of intense thought. He marvelled at her curious intimate knowledge of him, not only of the less known episodes of his career, but of more than one of his mental processes. It is true, she might have led Troup or Fish into gossip and analysis, but her sympathy counted heavily. She drew him by many strings, and sometimes the response thrilled him unbearably. He felt like a man who stood outside the gates of Paradise, bolting them fast. Still, he could quite forget her in his work; and it is probable that but for chance he never would have met her, that one of the greatest disasters in history would have been averted.

Betsey, who had not been well for some time, went to the northern forests of her old home to strive for "spring" and colour. She took the children with her, and Hamilton, who hated to live alone, filled his deserted rooms with Troup, Fish, and Baron Steuben, whose claims he had been pressing upon Congress for years, practically supporting him meanwhile. The old soldier felt keenly the ingratitude of the country he had served, but in time it made him ample compensation; meanwhile the devotion of a few friends, and the lionizing of society, helped him to bear his lot with considerable fortitude. He spent hours in the nursery of the little Hamiltons, and was frequently seen in the Broadway with one in his arms and the other three attached to his person.

All the talk was of Washington and the first administration, Hamilton having carried his point in Congress that New York should be the temporary seat of government; there was jealousy and wrangling over this, as over most other matters involving state pride, but Hamilton believed that should the prize fall to Philadelphia, she would not relinquish it as lightly as New York, which geographically was the more unfit for a permanent gathering, and that the inconvenience to which most of the members, in those days of difficult travel over a vast area, would be subjected, would force them the sooner to agree upon a central and commonly agreeable locality,--one, moreover, which would not meet with the violent opposition of New York. Madison, who had been in favour of Philadelphia, finally acknowledged Hamilton's sagacity and gave him his influence and vote.

That point settled, all eyes were turned to Mount Vernon. The masses took for granted that Washington would respond to every call of duty the public chose to make, and it was inconceivable that anyone else should fill the first term of that great executive experiment. The universal confidence in Washington and belief that he was to guide the Constitution over the more critical of its shoals, had operated more than any other factor in the ratification of that adventurous instrument. It was a point upon which Hamilton had harped continually. That a whole country should turn, as a matter of course, to a man whom they revered for his virtues rather than for any brilliant parts he may have effectually hidden within his cold and silent exterior, their harmonious choice unbroken by an argument against the safety and dignity of the country in the hands of such a man, certainly is a manifest of the same elevation of tone that we infer from the great popularity of the writings of Hamilton and the deference to such men as Jay and Philip Schuyler. But although they had all the faults of human nature, our forefathers, and were often selfish and jealous to a degree that imperilled the country, at least they had the excuse, not only of being mere mortals, but of living in an era of such changes, uncertainty, and doubt, that public and private interests seemed hopelessly tangled. They were not debased by political corruption until Jefferson took them in hand, and sowed the bountiful crop which has fattened so vast and so curious a variation upon the original American.

The Federal leaders by no means shared the confidence of the people in Washington's response to their call, and they were deeply uneasy. They knew that he had been bombarded with letters for a year, urging upon him the acceptance of the great office which would surely be offered him, and that he had replied cautiously to each that he could not share their opinion of his indispensability, that he had earned the repose he loved after a lifetime spent in the service of his country, and had no desire to return to public life. Hamilton, at least, knew the motive that lay behind his evasion; without ambition, he was very jealous of his fame. That fame now was not only one of the most resplendent in history, but as unassailable as it was isolated. He feared the untried field in which he might fail.

One evening, late in September, as Hamilton and his temporary household were entering the dining room, Gouverneur Morris drove down Wall Street in his usual reckless fashion, scattering dogs and children, and pulling his nervous sweating horses almost to their haunches, as he reached Hamilton's door. As he entered the house, however, and received the enthusiastic welcome to which he was accustomed, his bearing was as unruffled as if he had walked down from Morrisania reading a breviary.

"I grow desperately lonely and bored out on my ancestral domain, and long for the glare and glitter, the intrigues and women, of Europe--our educated ones are so virtuous, and the others write such shockingly ungrammatical notes," he announced, as he took his seat at the board. "Educated virtue is beneficial for the country, but we will all admit that politics are our only excitement, and my blood dances when I think of Europe. However, I did not come tearing through the woods on a hot night to lament the virtue of the American woman. I've written to Washington, and he won't listen to me. We all know how many others have written, including Lafayette, I hear. And we all know what the consequences will be if--say John or Sam Adams, Hancock, or Clinton should be our first president. I long for Paris, but I cannot leave the country while she is threatened with as grave a peril as any that has beset her. Would that he had a grain of ambition--of anything that a performer upon the various chords of human nature could impress. I suppose if he were not so desperately perfect, we should not be in the quandary we are, but he would be far easier to manage. As I awoke from my siesta just two hours ago, my brain was illuminated by the idea that one man alone could persuade him; and that was Alexander Hamilton. He likes us, but he loves you. If he has a weak spot, it has yearned over you since you were our infant prodigy in uniform, with your curls in your eyes. You must take him in hand."

"I have mentioned it to him, when writing of other things."

"He is only too glad of the excuse to evade a mere mention. You must write to him as peremptorily as only you dare to write to that majestic presence. Don't mince it. Don't be too respectful--I was, because he is the one being I am afraid of. So are all the others. Besides, you have the most powerful and pointed pen in this country. We have spoiled you until you are afraid of no one--if you ever were. And you know him as no one else does; you will approach him from precisely the right sides. Your duty is clear, and the danger is appalling. Besides, I want to go to Europe. Promise me that you will write to-night."

"Very well," said Hamilton, laughing. "I promise." And, in truth, his mind had opened at once to the certainty that the time was come for him to make the final effort to insure Washington's acceptance. He had felt, during the last weeks, as if burrowing in the very heart of a mountain of work; but his skin chilled as he contemplated the opening of the new government without Washington in the presidential Chair.

Two hours after dinner Morris escorted him to the library and shut him in, then went, with his other friends, to Fraunces' tavern, and the house was quiet. Hamilton's thoughts arranged themselves rapidly, and before midnight he had finished his letter. Fortunately it has been preserved, for it is of as vital an interest as anything he ever wrote, not only because it was the determining factor in Washington's acceptance of an office toward which he looked with reluctance and dread, but because of its consummate sagacity and of its peremptory tone, which no man but Hamilton would have dared to assume to Washington.

It ran:--

NEW YORK, September, 1788.

... I should be deeply pained, my dear sir, if your scruples in regard to a certain station should be matured into a resolution to decline it; though I am neither surprised at their existence, nor can I but agree in opinion, that the caution you observe in deferring an ultimate determination, is prudent. I have, however, reflected maturely on the subject, and have come to a conclusion (in which I feel no hesitation), that every public and personal consideration will demand from you an acquiescence in what will certainly be the unanimous wish of your country. The absolute retreat which you meditated at the close of the late war was natural, and proper. Had the Government produced by the Revolution gone on in a tolerable train, it would have been most advisable to have persisted in that retreat. But I am clearly of opinion that the crisis which brought you again into public view, left you no alternative but to comply; and I am equally clear in the opinion, that you are by that act pledged to take a part in the execution of the Government. I am not less convinced, that the impression of this necessity of your filling the station in question is so universal, that you run no risk of any uncandid imputation by submitting to it. But even if this were not the case, a regard to your own reputation, as well as to the public good, calls upon you in the strongest manner, to run that risk.

It cannot be considered as a compliment to say, that on your acceptance of the office of President, the success of the new Government, in its commencement, may materially depend. Your agency and influence will be not less important in preserving it from the future attacks of its enemies, than they have been in recommending it, in the first instance, to the adoption of the people. Independent of all considerations drawn from this source, the point of light in which you stand at home and abroad will make an infinite difference in the respectability with which the Government will begin its operations, in the alternative of your being or not being at the head of it. I forbear to urge considerations which might have a more personal application. What I have said will suffice for the inferences I mean to draw.

First. In a matter so essential to the well being of society, as the prosperity of a newly instituted government, a citizen, of so much consequence as yourself to its success, has no option but to lend his services if called for. Permit me to say it would be inglorious, in such a situation, not to hazard the glory, however great, which he might have previously acquired.

Secondly. Your signature to the proposed system pledges your judgement for its being such an one as, upon the whole, was worthy of the public approbation. If it should miscarry (as men commonly decide from success, or the want of it), the blame will, in all probability, be laid on the system itself; and the framers of it will have to encounter the disrepute of having brought about a revolution in government, without substituting anything that was worthy of the effort. They pulled down one Utopia, it will be said, to build up another. This view of the subject, if I mistake not, my dear sir, will suggest to your mind greater hazard to that fame, which must be and ought to be dear to you, in refusing your future aid to the system, than in affording it. I will only add, that in my estimate of the matter, that aid is indispensable.

I have taken the liberty to express these sentiments, and to lay before you my view of the subject. I doubt not the considerations mentioned have fully occurred to you, and I trust they will finally produce in your mind the same result which exists in mine. I flatter myself the frankness with which I have delivered myself will not be displeasing to you. It has been prompted by motives which you could not disapprove. I remain, my dear sir,

With the sincerest respect and regard,

Your obedient and humble servant,

A. HAMILTON.