Book IV. "Alexander the Great"
Chapter XV
 

Hamilton, on his way home, stopped in at the chambers of Troup.

"Bob," he said, "you are to wind up my law business. I am to be Secretary of the Treasury."

Troup half rose with an exclamation of impatience. "Good heavens!" he exclaimed. "Have you not an introductory line in your nature? It has been bad enough to have been anticipating this, without having it go straight through one like a cannon-ball. Of course it is no use to reason with you--I gave that up just after I had assumed that you were a small boy whom it was the duty of a big collegian to protect, and you nearly demolished my not too handsome visage with your astonishing fists for contradicting you. But I am sorry. Remain at the bar and you have an immediate prospect of wealth, not too many enemies, and the highest honours. Five years from now, and you would lead not only the bar of New York but of the whole country. Jay may be the first Chief Justice, but you would be the second--."

"Nothing would induce me to be Chief Justice. I should be bored to death. Can you fancy me sitting eternally and solemnly in the middle of a bench, listening to long-winded lawyers? While I live I shall have action--."

"Well, you will have action enough in this position; it will burn you out twenty years before your time. And it will be the end of what peace and happiness a born fighter could ever hope to possess; for you will raise up enemies and critics on every side, you will be hounded, you will be the victim of cabals, your good name will be assailed--."

"Answer this: do you know of anyone who could fill this office as advantageously to the country as I?"

"No," said Troup, unwillingly. "I do not."

Hamilton was standing by the table. He laid his hand on a volume of Coke, expanding and contracting it slowly. It was perhaps the most beautiful hand in America, and almost as famous as its owner. But as Troup gazed at it he saw only its superhuman suggestion of strength.

"The future of this country lies there," said Hamilton. "I know, and you know, that my greatest gift is statesmanship; my widest, truest knowledge is in the department of finance; moreover, that nothing has so keen and enduring a fascination for me. I could no more refuse this invitation of Washington's than I could clog the wheels of my mind to inaction. It is like a magnet to steel. If I were sure of personal consequences the most disastrous, I should accept, and without hesitation. For what else was the peculiar quality of my brain given me? To what other end have I studied this great question since I was a boy of nineteen--wild as I was to fight and win the honours of the field? Was ever a man's destiny clearer, or his duty?"

"I have no more to say," said Troup, "but I regret it all the same. Have you heard from Morris--Gouverneur?"

"Oh, yes, I had a long screed, in almost your words, spiced with his own particular impertinence. Will you wind up my law business?"

"Oh, of course," said Troup.

The new Congress, made up, though it was, of many of the ablest men in the country, had inherited the dilatory methods of the old, and did not pass an act establishing the Treasury Department until the 2d of September. Hamilton's appointment to this most important portfolio at the disposal of the President was looked upon as a matter of course. It created little discussion, but so deep a feeling of security, that even before the reading of his famous Report business had revived to some extent. This Report upon the public credit was demanded of him at once, but it was not until the recess of Congress that he could work uninterruptedly upon it; for that body, floundering in its chaos of inherited difficulties, turned to the new Secretary for advice on almost every problem that beset it. I cannot do better here than to quote from the monograph on Hamilton by Henry Cabot Lodge, who puts with admirable succinctness a series of facts important to the knowledge of every American:--

In the course of a year he was asked to report, and did report with full details, upon the raising, management, and collection of the revenue, including a scheme for revenue cutters; as to the estimates of income and expenditure; as to the temporary regulation of the chaotic currency; as to navigation laws, and the regulation of the coasting trade, after a thorough consideration of a heap of undigested statistics; as to the post-office, for which he drafted a bill; as to the purchase of West Point; on the great question of public lands and a uniform system of managing them; and upon all claims against the government. Rapidly and effectively the secretary dealt with all these matters, besides drawing up as a voluntary suggestion a scheme for a judicial system. But in addition to all this multiplicity of business there were other matters like the temporary regulation of the currency, requiring peremptory settlement. Money had to be found for the immediate and pressing wants of the new government before any system had been or could be adopted, and the only resources were the empty treasury and broken credit of the old confederacy. By one ingenious expedient or another, sometimes by pledging his own credit, Hamilton got together what was absolutely needful, and without a murmur conquered those petty troubles when he was elaborating and devising a far-reaching policy. Then the whole financial machine of the Treasury Department, and a system of accounting, demanded instant attention. These intricate problems were solved at once, the machine constructed, and the system of accounts devised and put into operation; and so well were these difficult tasks performed that they still subsist, developing and growing with the nation, but at bottom the original arrangements of Hamilton. These complicated questions, answered so rapidly and yet so accurately in the first weeks of confusion incident to the establishment of a new government, show a familiarity and preparation, as well as a readiness of mind of a most unusual kind. Yet while Hamilton was engaged in all this bewildering work, he was evolving the great financial policy, at once broad, comprehensive, and minute, and after the recess in January he laid his ground plan before Congress in his first report on public credit; a state paper which marks an era in American history, and by which the massive corner-stone, from which the great structure of the Federal government has risen, was securely laid.

New York, meanwhile, had blossomed to her full. Houses had been renovated, and with all the elegance to be commanded. Many had been let, by the less ambitious, to the Members of Congress from other States, and all were entertaining. General Schuyler occupied a house close to Hamilton, and his daughters Cornelia and Peggy--Mrs. Stephen Van Rensselaer--were lively members of society. The Vice-President had taken the great house at Richmond Hill, and General Knox as imposing a mansion as he could find. Washington, after a few months, moved to the McComb house in lower Broadway, one of the largest in town, with a reception room of superb proportions. Here Mrs. Washington, standing on a dais, usually assisted by Mrs. Adams and Mrs. Hamilton, received, with the rigid formality of foreign courts, all who dared to attend her levees. She had discarded the simplicity of campaigning days, and attired herself with a magnificence which was emulated by her "Court." It was yet too soon to break from tradition, and the Washingtons conducted themselves in accordance with their strong aristocratic proclivities. Nor did it occur to anyone, even the most ardent Republican, that dignity and splendour were inconsistent with a free and enlightened Republic, until Jefferson began his steady and successful system of plebeianizing the country.

Washington's levees were frigid; but I have not observed any special warmth at the White House upon public occasions in my own time. The President, after the company had assembled, entered in full official costume: black velvet and satin, diamond knee-buckles, his hair in a bag and tied with ribbons. He carried a military hat under his arm, and wore a dress sword in a green shagreen scabbard. He made a tour of the room, addressing each guest in turn, all being ranged according to their rank. At his wife's levees he attended as a private individual and mingled more freely with the guests; but his presence always lowered every voice in the room, and women trembled with anxiety lest he should not engage them in conversation, while dreading that he might. The unparalleled dignity, the icy reserve of his personality, had always affected the temperature of the gatherings he honoured; but at this time, when to the height of a colossal and unique reputation was added the first incumbency of an office, bestowed by a unanimous sentiment, which was to raise the United States to the plane of the great nations of Europe, he was instinctively regarded as superhuman, rather as a human embodiment of the Power beyond space. He was deeply sensitive to the depressing effect he produced, and not a little bored by the open-mouthed curiosity he excited. A youngster, having run after him for quite a block, one day, panting from his exertions, Washington wheeled about suddenly, and made a bow so profound and satirical that his pursuer fled with a yell of terror.

The President was very fond of the theatre, and invited a party once a week to accompany him to John Street. He entertained at table constantly, and dined out formally and intimately. Congress, he attended in great state. He had brought to New York six white horses of the finest Virginian breed, and a magnificent cream-coloured coach, ornamented with cupids and festoons. For state occasions the horses were covered over night with a white paste, and polished next morning until they shone like silver. The hoofs were painted black. When Washington drove through the city on his way to Congress, attended by postilions and outriders, it is little wonder that he had a royal progress through proud and satisfied throngs.

The Adamses, who had counselled all the usages of foreign courts, but had been outvoted by Hamilton and Jay, entertained but little less than the President; and so did the Schuylers, Livingstons, Jays, and half the town. The Hamiltons, of necessity, entertained far more simply; but Betsey received every Wednesday evening, when her rooms were a crush of fashion and politics, eager for a glimpse of Hamilton and to do court to her popular self. They gave at least one dinner a week, but Betsey as a rule went out with her parents, for her husband was too busy for society.

The world saw little of Hamilton at this time, and Betsey but little more. He worked in his library or office for fourteen hours of the day, while the country teemed with conjectures of his coming Report. A disposition to speculate upon it was already manifest, and more than one friend endeavoured to gain a hint of its contents. Not even Madison, to whom he had talked more freely than to anyone, knew aught of the details of that momentous Report, what recommendations he actually should make to Congress; for none knew better than he that a hint derived from him which should lead to profitable speculation would tarnish his good name irretrievably. Careless in much else, on the subject of his private and public integrity he was rigid; he would not have yielded a point to retain the affection of the best and most valued of his friends. Fastidious by nature on the question of his honour, he knew, also, that other accusations, even when verified, mattered little in the long run; a man's actual position in life and in history was determined by the weight of his brain and the spotlessness of his public character. He worked in secret, with no help from anyone; nor could blandishments extract a hint of his purpose. Against the rock of his integrity passion availed nothing. As for Betsey, between her growing children, the delicacy which had followed the birth of her last child, and her heavy social duties, she would have had little time to assist him had he confided even in her. Moreover, to keep up a dignified position upon $3500 a year cost her clever little Dutch head much anxious thought. It is true that some money had been put aside from the income of her husband's large practice, but he was the most careless and generous of men, always refusing the fees of people poorer than himself, and with no talent for personal, great as was his mastery of political, economy. If General Schuyler often came to the rescue his son-in-law never knew it. Hamilton had a vague idea that Betsey could manage somehow, and was far too absorbed to give the matter a thought. Betsey, it would seem, had her own little reputation, for it was about this time that M'Henry finished a letter to Hamilton, as follows:--

Pray present me to Mrs. Hamilton. I have learned from a friend of yours that she has, as far as the comparison will hold, as much merit as your treasurer as you have as treasurer of the wealth of the United States.