The Conqueror by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Book IV. "Alexander the Great"
Washington was President of the United States. He had come over grandly from the Jersey shore in a magnificent barge manned by twelve oarsmen in white uniform, escorted by other barges but a shade less imposing. A week later he had taken the oath of office on the new Broad Street gallery of Federal Hall, amidst the breathless silence of thousands, surrounded by the dignitaries of state and three personal friends, Hamilton, Steuben, and Knox. The anti-Federalists were crushed, no longer of dignity as a party, although with ample resources for obstruction and annoyance. The country, after an interval of rejoicing, had settled down to another period of hope and anxiety.
And Hamilton had incurred the dislike of Adams and the hostility of the Livingstons. He had thought it best to scatter the votes for the Vice-President, lest there be the slightest risk of Washington's defeat; and Adams who thought quite as much of himself as he did of George Washington, and had expected to be elected with little less than unanimity, instead of by a bare thirty-four votes, never forgave Hamilton the humiliation. "I have seen the utmost delicacy used toward others," he wrote to a friend, "but my feelings have never been regarded." He knew that Hamilton believed him to have been in sympathy with the Conway Cabal,--a suspicion of which he never cleared himself,--and attributed to the Federal leader the motive of wishing to belittle his political significance, lest he should endeavour to use his power as President of the Senate to hamper and annoy the Administration. Perhaps he was right. Far be it from anyone to attempt a journey through the utmost recesses of Hamilton's mind. He was frank by nature and habit, but he had resolved that the United States government should succeed, and had no mind to put weapons into the hands of Washington's rivals. He believed in Adams's general integrity, patriotism, and federalism, however, and brought him to power in his own fashion. He achieved his objects with little or no thought of personal consequences; and although this has been characterized as one of the great political mistakes of his career, it must be remembered that it was a time for nervousness and exaggerated fears. Washington had enemies; no other man was believed, by the men who did the thinking for the country, to be able to hold the United States together until they were past their shoals, and the method of election was precarious: each elector casting two votes without specification, the higher office falling to the candidate who received the larger number of votes.
The Livingstons had desired a seat in the Senate of the new Congress for one of their powerful family, and Hamilton had given the prize to Rufus King. No gift could have been more justly bestowed; but the Livingstons felt themselves flouted, their great services to the country unrewarded. Their open hostility roused all the haughty arrogance of Hamilton's nature, and he made no effort to placate them. When the great office of Chief Justice of the United States was given to John Jay, instead of to Robert Livingston, they attributed the discrimination to Hamilton's influence over Washington; and the time came when this strong and hostile faction lent themselves to the scheming of one of the subtlest politicians that has ever lived.
The contest for the prizes of the two Houses had been hot and bitter, and Hamilton had never been more active. As a result, the Federalists controlled the Senate, and they had elected four of the six Representatives. Philip Schuyler had drawn the short term in the Senate, and the antagonism of the Livingstons to Hamilton enabled Burr to displace him two years later. The signal mistakes of Hamilton's political career were in his party management. One of the greatest leaders in history, cool and wise, and of a consummate judgement in all matters of pure statesmanship, he was too hot-headed and impetuous, too obstinate when his righting blood was up, for the skilful manipulation of politics. But so long as the Federal party endured, no other leader was contemplated: his integrity was spotless, his motives unquestioned, his patriotism and stupendous abilities the glory of his party; by sheer force of genius he carried everything before him, whether his methods were approved by the more conservative Federalists or not.
Madison, who mildly desired an office, possibly in the Cabinet, he despatched South to get himself elected to Congress, for he must have powerful friends in that body to support the great measures he had in contemplation; and that not unambitious statesman, after a hot fight with Patrick Henry, was obliged to content himself with a seat in the House. Before he went to Virginia he and Hamilton had talked for long and pleasant hours over the Federal leader's future schemes. In all things he was in accord with his Captain, and had warmly promised his support.
It was some weeks before Hamilton had a private interview with Washington, although he had dined at his house, entertained him, and been present at several informal consultations on such minor questions as the etiquette of the Administration. But delicacy held him from embarrassing Washington in a familiar interview until he had been invited formally to a position in the contemplated cabinet. He knew that Washington wished him to be Secretary of the Treasury, but he also knew that that most cautious and conscientious of men would not trust to his own judgement in so grave a matter, nor take any step without weeks of anxious thought. The more deeply were Washington's affections or desires engaged, the more cautious would he be. He was not a man of genius, therefore fell into none of the pitfalls of that terrible gift; he was great by virtue of his superhuman moral strength--and it is safe to say that in public life he never experienced a temptation--by a wisdom that no mental heat ever unbalanced, by an unrivalled instinct for the best and most useful in human beings, and by a public conscience to which he would have unhesitatingly sacrificed himself and all he loved, were it a question of the nation's good. But Hamilton knew whom he would consult, and devoted himself to his legal work without a qualm for the future. As he had anticipated, Washington wrote to Robert Morris for advice, and the reply of that eminent financier, that "Hamilton was the one man in the United States competent to cope with the extreme difficulties of that office," pleasantly ended the indecision of the President, and he communicated with Hamilton at once.
Hamilton answered by letter, for Washington was wedded to the formalities, but he followed it with a request for a private interview; and after the lapse of eight years Washington and Hamilton met once more for a purely personal colloquy.
Washington was occupying temporarily the house of Walter Franklin, on the corner of Cherry Street and Franklin Square, a country residence at which society grumbled, for all the world lived between the present site of the City Hall and Battery Park. Hamilton rode up on horseback, and was shown into the library, which overlooked a pleasant garden. The President, in the brown suit of home manufacture which he had worn at the inauguration, as graceful and erect as ever, although with a more elderly visage than in the days of war, entered immediately, closed the door carefully, then took both Hamilton's hands in his enormous grasp. The austere dignity of his face relaxed perceptibly.
"Oh!" he said. "I am glad to see you!"
"It is not a return to old times, alas!" said Hamilton, gaily; "for what we all had to do then was a bagatelle to this, and you have made the supreme sacrifice of your life."
Washington seated himself in an arm-chair, motioning Hamilton to one opposite. "I wrote Knox," he said, "that I felt as if setting out to my own execution; and I swear to you, Hamilton, that if it had not been for you I doubt if my courage would not have failed me at the last moment. I had a moment of nervous dread this morning before I opened your letter, but I believed that you would not fail me. It is a colossal enterprise we are embarked upon, this constructing of a great nation for all time. God knows I am not equal to it, and although I shall always reserve to myself the final judgement, I expect a few of you to think for me--you, in particular. Then with the Almighty's help we may succeed, but I can assure you that it has cost me many wakeful nights--and cold sweats."
He spoke with his usual slow impressiveness, but he smiled as he watched Hamilton's flashing eyes and dilating nostrils. "You look but little older," he added. "Not that you still look a stripling, controlling your temper with both hands while I worked you half to death; but you have the everlasting youth of genius, I suppose, and you look to me able to cope with anything."
Hamilton laughed. "I am far older in many things, sir. I fear I often seemed ungrateful. I have blessed you many times, since, for the discipline and the invaluable knowledge I gained in those years."
"Ah!" exclaimed Washington. "Ah! I am very glad to hear you say that. It is like your generosity, and I have had many anxious moments, wondering if there might not still be a grudge. But not only were your peculiar gifts indispensable to this country, but, I will confess, now that it is over, I mortally dreaded that you would lose your life. You and Laurens were the most reckless devils I ever saw in the field. Poor Laurens! I felt a deep affection for him, and his death was one of the bitterest blows of the war. If he were here now, and Lafayette, how many pleasant hours I should look forward to; but I have you, and God knows I am grateful. Lafayette, I am afraid, has undertaken too great a business for his capacity, which is admirable; but he is not strong enough to be a leader of men."
"I wish he were here, and well out of it."
"I have not sufficiently thanked you for the letter you wrote me last September. It was what I had earnestly hoped for. My position was most distressing. It was impossible for me not only to ask the advice of anyone, but the temper of the public mind regarding myself. To assume that I must be desired--but I need not explain to you, who know me better than anybody living, the extreme delicacy of my position, and the torments of my mind. Your letter explained everything, told me all I wished to know, made my duty clear--painfully clear. You divined what I needed and expressed yourself in your usual frank and manly way, without the least hesitation or fear. I take this occasion to assure you again of my deep appreciation."
"Oh, sir," said Hamilton, who was always affected unbearably by Washington's rare moments of deep feeling, "I was merely the selected instrument to give you what you most needed at the moment; nothing more. This was your destiny; you would be here in any case. It is my pride, my reward of many years of thought and work, that I am able to be of service to your administration, and conspicuous enough to permit you to call me to your side. Be sure that all that I have or am is yours, and that I shall never fail you."
"If I did not believe that, I should indeed be deep in gloomy forebodings. Jay will officiate as Secretary of State for the present; Knox, as Secretary at War. I contemplate inviting Randolph to act as Attorney-General, and Jefferson as permanent Secretary of State, if he will accept; thus dividing the appointments between the North and the South. What do you think of the wisdom of appointing Mr. Jefferson? He is a man of great abilities, and his long residence abroad should make him a valuable Secretary of State, his conspicuous services acceptable to both sections of the country. It is the selection over which I have hesitated longest, for it is a deep and subtle nature, a kind I have no love of dealing with, but so far as I know it is not a devious one, and his talents command my respect."
"I am unable to advise you, sir, for he is not personally known to me," said Hamilton, who was not long wishing that he had had a previous and extensive knowledge of Thomas Jefferson. "Madison thinks well of him--is a close personal friend. He has rendered great services to the State of Virginia, his experience is wide, and he possesses a brilliant and facile pen--I can think of no one better fitted for the position. His record for personal bravery is not untarnished, but perhaps that will insure peace in the Cabinet."
Washington laughed. "Jefferson would slide under the table if you assaulted him," he said. "It is you only that I fear, as it is you only upon whom I thoroughly rely, and not for advice in your own department alone, but in all. I think it would perhaps be better not to hold collective meetings of the Cabinet, but to receive each of you alone. It is as well the others do not know that your knowledge and judgement are my chief reliance."