The Conqueror by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Book IV. "Alexander the Great"
The bombardment from Freneau's Gazette opened at once. It began with a general assault upon the Administration, denouncing every prominent member in turn as a monarchist or an aristocrat, and every measure as subversive of the liberties of the country. Vice-President Adams received a heavy broadside, his "Discourses on Davila," with their animadversions upon the French Revolution in particular and Democracy in general, being regarded as a heinous offence against the spirit of his country, and detrimental to the political morals of the American youth. But although the Gazette kept up its pretence of being an anti-Administration organ, publishing in the interests of a deluded people, it soon settled down to abuse of Hamilton.
That a large number of the articles were from Jefferson's damning pen few of the Republican leader's friends denied with any warmth, and the natural deductions of history would have settled the question, had not Freneau himself confessed the truth in his old age. What Jefferson did not write, he or Madison inspired, and Freneau had a lively pen of his own. They had promising material in General St. Clair's recent and disastrous defeat by the Indians, which, by a triumph of literary ingenuity, was ascribed to the ease and abundance with which the Secretary of the Treasury had caused money to circulate. But a far stronger weapon for their malignant use was the ruinous speculation which had maddened the country since the opening of the Bank of the United States. It was not enough that the Bank was a monarchical institution, a machine for the corruption of the Government, a club of grasping and moneyed aristocrats, but it had been purposely designed for the benefit of the few--the "corrupt squadron," namely, the Secretary and his friends--at the expense of the many. The subsequent failure for $3,000,000 of one of these friends, William Duer, gave them no pause, for his ruin precipitated a panic, and but added distinction to his patron's villany.
For a time Hamilton held his peace. He had enough to do, steering the financial bark through the agitated waters of speculation, without wasting time on personal recrimination. Even when, before the failure, he was accused of being in secret partnership with Duer, he did not pause for vindication, but exerted himself to alleviate the general distress. He initiated the practice, followed by Secretaries of the Treasury at the present moment, of buying Government loan certificates in different financial centres throughout the country, thus easing the money market, raising the price of the certificates, and strengthening the public credit. He used the sinking-fund for this purpose.
There was comparative peace in the Cabinet, an armed truce being, perhaps, a more accurate description of an uneasy psychological condition. Hamilton had made up his mind not only to spare Washington further annoyance, if possible, but to maintain a dignity which he was keenly conscious of having relinquished in the past. The two antagonists greeted each other politely when they met for the first time in the Council Chamber, although they had crossed the street several times previously to avoid meeting; and if Jefferson discoursed unctiously and at length, whenever the opportunity offered, upon the lamentable consequences of a lamentable measure, and indulged in melancholy prognostications of a general ruin, in which the Government would disappear and be forgotten, Hamilton replied for a time with but an occasional sarcasm, and a change of subject. One day, however, a long-desired opportunity presented itself, and he did not neglect it. He was well aware that Jefferson had complained to Virginia that he had been made to hold a candle to the wily Secretary of the Treasury in the matter of assumption, in other words, that his guileless understanding, absorbed in matters of State, had been duped into a bargain of which Virginia did not approve, despite the concession to the Potomac.
About two months after Congress opened, Washington, as his Cabinet seated itself, was detained in his room with a slight indisposition, but sent word that he would appear presently. For a time, Randolph and Knox talked feverishly about the Indian troubles, while Hamilton looked over some notes, and Jefferson watched his antagonist covertly, as if anticipating a sudden spring across the table. Hamilton was not in a good humour. He was accustomed to abuse in Congress, and that it was again in full tide concerned him little, for he was sure of ultimate victories in both Houses; and words which were powerless to result in a defeat for himself, or his party, he treated with the scorn which impotence deserved. But it was another matter to have his private character assailed day after day in the press, to watch a subtle pen insinuate into the public mind that a woman imperilled her reputation in receiving him, and that he was speculating in secret with the reckless friend whom he had warned over and over, and begged to desist. Freneau sent him three copies of the Gazette daily, lest he miss something, and he had that morning left Betsey in tears. Fenno was fighting the Secretary's battles valiantly; but there was only one pen in America which could cope with Jefferson's, and that was Hamilton's own. But aside from his accumulating cares, it was a strife to which he did not care to descend. To-day, however, he needed but a match, and Jefferson, who experienced a fearful fascination in provoking him, applied it.
"I hear that Duer is on the verge of failure," he remarked sadly.
"Yes," said Hamilton; "he is."
"I hold it to be a great misfortune that he has been connected with the Administration in any way."
"His connection was quite distinct from your department. I alone was responsible for his appointment as my assistant. There is no necessity for you to shed any hypocritical tears."
"What concerns the honour of the Administration naturally concerns the Secretary of State."
"There is no question of honour. If Duer fails, he will fail honourably, and the Administration, with which he is no longer connected, will in no way be involved."
"Of those facts of course I am sure, but I fear the reflections in the press."
"Keep your own pen worthily employed, and the Administration will take care of itself."
"I do not understand you, sir," said Jefferson, with great dignity.
"I am quite ready to be explicit. Keep your pen out of Freneau's blackguard sheet, while you are sitting at Washington's right hand, at all events--"
Jefferson had elevated both hands. "I call Heaven to witness," he cried, "this black aspersion upon my character is, has been, entirely a production of the imagination of my enemies. I have never written nor inspired a line in Mr. Freneau's paper."
Hamilton laughed and returned to his notes.
"You do not believe me, sir?" demanded Jefferson, the blood boiling slowly to his large face.
"No," said Hamilton; "I do not."
Jefferson brought his mighty fist down upon the table with a bang." Sir!" he exclaimed, his husky voice unpleasantly strained, "I have stood enough from you. Are you aware that you have called me a liar, sir? I have suffered at your hands since the day I set foot in this country. I left the peace and retirement that I love, to come forth in response to a demand upon my duty, a demand I have ever heeded, and what has been my reward? The very first act I was tricked into committing was a crime against my country--"
"Were you in your dotage, sir?" thundered Hamilton, springing to his feet, and bringing his own hand down with such violence that the lead in his cuff dented his wrist. "Was your understanding enfeebled with age, that you could not comprehend the exhaustive explanation I made of the crisis in this country's affairs? Did I not give you twenty-four hours in which to think it over? What were you doing--muddling your brains with French wines?--that you could not reason clearly when relieved of my baleful fascination? Were you not protected on the following day by two men, who were more your friends than mine? I proposed a straightforward bargain, which you understood as well then as you do now. You realized to the full what the interests of the country demanded, and in a rare moment of disinterested patriotism you agreed to a compromise in which you saw no detriment to yourself. What you did not anticipate was the irritation of your particular State, and the annoyance to your vanity of permitting a younger man to have his way. Now let me hear no more of this holding a candle, and the tricking of an open mind by a wily one, unless you are willing to acknowledge that your brain was too weak to grasp a simple proposition; in which case you had better resign from public office."
"I know that is what you are trying to force me to do," gasped Jefferson, almost speechless between rage and physical fear; for Hamilton's eyes were flashing, his body curved as if he meditated immediate personal violence. "But I'll not do it, sir, any more than I or anyone else will be deluded by the speciousness of your language. You are an upstart. You have no State affinities, you despise them for a very good reason--you come from God knows where--I do not even know the name of the place. You are playing a game. You care nothing for the country you were not born in. Unless you can be king, you would treat it as your toy."
"For your absurd personalities I care nothing," said Hamilton, reseating himself. "They are but the ebullitions of an impotence that would ruin and cannot. But take heed what you write, for in injuring the Secretary of the Treasury you injure the prosperity of the country; and if you push me too far, I'll expose you and make you infamous. Here comes the President. For God's sake bottle your spite for the present."
The two men did not exchange a remark during the rest of the sitting, but Jefferson boiled slowly and steadily; Hamilton's words had raised welts under which he would writhe for some time to come. When the Cabinet adjourned he remained, and followed Washington into the library, under cover of a chat about seeds and bulbs, a topic of absorbing interest to both. When their legs were extended before the fire, Jefferson said, as abruptly as if the idea had but just presented itself:--
"Mr. President, we are both Virginians, and had cut our wisdom teeth--not that for a moment I class myself with you, sir--while young Hamilton was still in diapers."
"Children do not wear diapers in the West Indies," interrupted Washington, in his gravest accents. "I spent some months on the Island of Barbadoes, in the year seventeen hundred and fifty-one."
"Was he born In the West Indies? I had never heard. But, if I may continue, I have therefore summoned up my courage to speak to you on a subject close to my heart--for no subject can be so close as the welfare of a country to which we have devoted our lives."
He paused a moment, prepared with an answer, did the President haughtily warn him not to transgress the bounds of etiquette; but Washington was staring at the fire, apparently recalling the scenery of the Tropics.
Jefferson continued: "In the length and breadth of this Union there is not a man, not even the most ardent Republican, who has not implicit faith in the flawless quality of your patriotism and in your personal wisdom; but, and possibly unknown to you, sir, the extreme and high-handed measures, coupled with the haughty personal arrogance, of our Secretary of the Treasury have inspired a widespread belief, which is permeating even his personal friends, that he entertains subtle and insidious monarchical designs, is plotting to convert our little Republic into a kingdom. Personally, I do not believe this--"
"I should hope not. You have always seemed to me to be a man of singular wisdom and good sense. Therefore I feel sure that you are as heartily sick of all this absurd talk about monarchism as I am. There is not a word of truth in Mr. Hamilton's 'monarchical designs'; it is impossible that you should not know this as well as I do. You must also be as well aware that he has rendered services to this country which will be felt as long as it remains united. It is doubtful if anyone else could have rendered these same services, for, to my knowledge at least, we have no man in the country who combines financial genius with an unexampled boldness and audacity. He has emphatically been the man for the hour, abruptly transferred from his remote birthplace, it has seemed to me, by a special intervention of Providence; free of all local prejudices, which have been, and will continue to be, the curse of this country, and with a mettle unacted upon by years of doubt and hesitation. I do no other man in public life an injustice in my warm admiration of Mr. Hamilton's genius and absolute disinterestedness. Each has his place, and is doing his part bravely and according to his lights, many of them rendering historic services which Mr. Hamilton's will not overshadow. His are equally indisputable. This unfortunate result of establishing a National Bank was doubtless inevitable, and will quickly disappear. That the Bank is a monarchical device, you, of all men, are too wise to believe for a moment. Leave that for such sensational scoundrels as the editors of this new Gazette and of other papers. I regret that there is a personal antipathy between you and Mr. Hamilton, but I have not the least doubt that you believe in his integrity as firmly as I do."
Jefferson was scowling heavily. "I am not so sure that I do, sir," he said; inconsistent often in his calmest tempers, passion dissipated his power of consecutive thought. "When Mr. Hamilton and I were on friendly terms--before he took to annoying me with a daily exhibition of personal rancour, from which I have been entirely free--he has often at my own table avowed his admiration of the British Constitution, deprecated the weakness of our own admirable instrument, tacitly admitted his regret that we are a republic and not a kingdom. I have his very words in my diary. He is committed out of his own mouth. I not only believe but know him to be a lover of absolute monarchy, and that he has no faith that this country can continue to exist in its present shape. It is for that reason I hold him to be a traitor to the country with which he is merely amusing himself."
"Sir," said Washington, turning to Jefferson an immobile face, in which the eyes were beginning to glitter, "is a man to be judged by his private fancies or by his public acts? I know nothing of Mr. Hamilton's secret desires. Neither, I fancy, do you. We do know that he has resigned a brilliant and profitable practice at the bar to guide this unfortunate country out of bankruptcy and dishonour into prosperity and every promise of a great and honourable future. Pray let the matter rest there for the present. If Mr. Hamilton be really a liar and a charlatan, rest assured he will betray himself before any great harm is done. Every man is his own worst enemy. I was deeply interested in what you were saying when we entered this room. Where did you say you purchased those lily bulbs? My garden is sadly behind yours, I fear. I certainly shall enter upon an amiable rivalry with you next summer."
And Jefferson knew better than to persist.