The Conqueror by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Book IV. "Alexander the Great"
The talk in the drawing-room of Mrs. Croix that night was of little else but the Secretary's Report. Mrs. Croix, so said gossip, had concluded that this was the proper time for the demise of her recalcitrant officer, and had retired to weeds and a semi-seclusion while Mrs. Washington pondered upon the propriety of receiving her. Her court cared little for the facts, and vowed that she never had looked so fair or so proud; Hamilton, that she shone with the splendour of a crystal star on the black velvet skies of the Tropics. She wore, this evening, a few yards of black gauze which left bare a crescent of her shining neck and the lower arms. Her bright hair was arranged in a mass of ringlets, after a fashion obtaining in Europe, and surmounted by a small turban of gauze fastened with a diamond sun. Many of the men who visited her habitually called her Lady Betty, for she was one of those women who invite a certain playful familiarity while repelling intimacy. Hamilton called her, as the fancy moved him, Egeria, Boadicea, or Lady Godiva.
Clinton came in fuming. "It is not possible," he cried, "that the Congress can be so mad as to be hoodwinked by this deep political scheme for concentrating the liberties of the United States under the executive heel. 'To cement more closely the union of the States and to add to their security against foreign attack!' Forsooth! This assumption plan is nothing more nor less than another of his dastardly schemes to squeeze out of the poor States what little liberty he left them under the Constitution. He could not obtain at Philadelphia all he wished for, but now that Washington has given him both reins, he laughs in our faces. I regret that I ever offered him my hand."
"Then our party in Congress will fight him on political grounds?" asked Mrs. Croix.
"You may put it that way if you choose. It certainly will not be blinded by his speciousness and aid him in his subtle monarchism. 'Contribute in an eminent degree to an orderly, stable, and satisfactory arrangement of the Nation's finances!' 'Several reasons which render it probable that the situation of the State creditors will be worse than that of the creditors of the Union, if there be not a national assumption of the State debts!' And then his plan of debit and credit, with 'little doubt that balances would appear in favour of all the States against the United States!' My blood has boiled since I read that paper. I have feared apoplexy. He is clever, that West Indian,--do they grow many such?--but he did not select a country composed entirely of fools to machinate in."
"My dearest Governor," whispered Mrs. Croix, "calm yourself, pray. Only you can cope with Mr. Hamilton. You must be the colossal spirit without the walls of Congress to whom all will look for guidance. If you become ill, the cause is lost."
Clinton composed himself promptly, and asked Elbridge Gerry, of Massachusetts, which, section of the Report he expected to attack first. There were no Federalists present.
Gerry shrugged his shoulders and shot a narrow glance of contempt at the Governor. "Give me time, your Excellency, pray. Mr. Hamilton's paper has the thought of a decade in it. It merits at least a week of thought on our part. I never could agree with him in all things, but in some I am at one with him; and I acknowledge myself deeply in his debt, insomuch as he has taught me, among thousands of others, to 'think continentally,' I certainly agree with him that to pay to present holders the full value of their certificates, without discrimination, is a matter of constitutional law, a violation of which would be a menace to the new government. I shall support him on that point at the risk of being accused of speculation."
Stone, of Maryland, was striding up and down, but a degree less agitated than the Governor of New York.
"The man is cleverer than all the rest of us put together!" he exclaimed. "Let us not forget that for an instant. A greater thought than this of assumption has never been devised by man. If it be carried into execution,--which God forbid,--it will prove a wall of adamant to the Federal government, impregnable to any attempt on its fabric or operations."
"Oh, is it so bad as that?" asked Gerry. "Every fort falls if the siege be sufficiently prolonged. I apprehend no such disaster, and I confess I see much promise in at least two of Mr. Hamilton's schemes. After all, the redemption of the country is what we must look to first."
"You are a trimmer. Cannot you see that if the whole revenue of the States be taken into the power of Congress, it will prove a band to draw us so close together as not to leave the smallest interstice for separation?"
"But do you meditate separation?" asked Mrs. Croix. "Surely that would be as great a crime as Mr. Hamilton's monarchical manoeuvres--if it be true he practises such."
"He is bold enough about them," snorted Clinton. "I do the man justice to recognize his insolent frankness."
"Those I cannot say I have observed," said Gerry. "Nor do I think that we meditate separation. We are struggling out of one pit. It would be folly to dig a deeper. And Massachusetts has a great debt, with decreasing revenue for interest and redemption. I am not sure that assumption would not be to her advantage. She stood the brunt of the war. It is but fair that she should have relief now, even at the expense of other States whose debt is insignificant; and she is able to take care of herself against the Federal government--"
"The brunt of the war!" exclaimed the Attorney-General of the Cabinet, who, with the Speaker of the House, had just entered, and who had controlled himself with difficulty for several seconds. "I beg to assure you, sir, that Virginia may claim that honour. Her glorious patriotism, her contributions in men and money--they exceeded those of any State in the Union, sir."
Gerry laughed. "I have no means of comparison by which patriotism may be measured, Mr. Randolph," he said. "But we can produce figures, if necessary, to prove our title to supremacy in the other matters you mention. As you have reduced your debt, however, by an almost total repudiation of your paper money--"
"How about Mr. Madison?" asked Mrs. Croix, hurriedly. "He is your fellow-statesman, Mr. Randolph, but he is Mr. Hamilton's devoted friend and follower. Virginia may be sadly divided."
"My fears have decreased on that point," said Randolph, drily. "Mr. Madison's loyalty toward his State increases daily."
"So does his ambition," observed Muhlenberg. "If I am not mistaken, he has begun to chafe at Hamilton's arrangement of his destinies--and a nature like that is not without deep and sullen jealousies. To be a leader of leaders requires a sleepless art; to lead the masses is play by comparison. Hamilton is a magician, but he is arrogant and impatient. With all his art and control of men's minds, he will lose a follower now and again, and not the least important would be--will be--Madison."
"Have you proof?" asked Clinton, eagerly. "He would be of incomparable value in our ranks. By the way, Aaron Burr is working to the front. He is a born politician, if I am not mistaken, and is in a rapid process of education. I feel sure that I have attached him to our cause by appointing him Attorney-General of the Staite. He should make an invaluable party man."
"He will be attached to no cause," said Gerry. "He is, as you say, a politician. There is not a germ of the statesman in him; nor of the honest man, either, unless I am deeply mistaken. He is the only man of note in the country who has not one patriotic act to his credit. He fought, but so did every adventurous youth in the country; and had there been anything more to his interest to do at the time, the Revolution could have taken care of itself. But during all our trying desperate years since--did he go once to Congress? Did he interest himself in the Constitution, either at Philadelphia or Poughkeepsie? What record did he make in the State Legislature during his one term of infrequent attendance? While other men, notably Hamilton, of whom he betrays an absurd jealousy, have been neglecting their private interests in the public cause, he has been distinguishing himself as a femalist, and thinking of nothing else but making money at the bar. I admit his brilliancy, his intrepidity, and the exquisite quality of his address, but I don't believe that an honest man who comes into contact with him instinctively trusts him."
"Oh, let us not indulge in such bitter personalities," cried Mrs. Croix, who took no interest at that time in the temporary husband of her old age. "Surely this coming legislation should compel every faculty. What of the other debts?--of funding? Or, if it is still too soon to talk of these matters with equilibrium," she added hastily, as Clinton turned purple again, "pray tell me that the great question of deciding upon a site for the Capital is nearing a solution. It has been such a source of bitter agitation. I wish it were settled."
"The House may or may not pass this bill for ten years in Philadelphia, and the banks of the Potomac thereafter," growled the Senator from North Carolina. "The Federalists have the majority, and they are determined to keep the seat of government in the North, as they are determined to have their monarchical will in everything. Madison hopes for some fortuitous coincidence, but I confess I hardly know what he means."
Gerry laughed. "When Madison takes to verbiage," he said, "I should resort to a plummet and line."
"Sir!" cried Randolph, limping toward the door in angry haste. "Mr. Madison is one of the loftiest statesmen in the country!"
"Has been. Centrifugal forces are in motion."
"How everybody in politics does hate everybody else!" said Mrs. Croix, with a patient sigh.