The Conqueror by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Book V. The Last Battle of the Giants and the End
When the tidings of the New York election reached Philadelphia, the Federals of the House met in alarmed and hurried conference. In their desperation they agreed to ask Hamilton to appeal to the Governor of New York, John Jay, to reconvene the existing legislature that it might enact a law authorizing in that State the choice of Presidential electors in districts. Why they did not send a memorial to Jay themselves, instead of placing Hamilton in a position to incur the full odium of such a suggestion, can only be explained by the facts that during the entire span of the party's existence, their leader had cheerfully assumed the responsibility in every emergency or crisis, and that if the distinguished formalist in the Executive Mansion of New York had a weak spot in him, it was for Hamilton.
When Hamilton read this portentous letter, he flushed deeply and then turned white. The expedient had not occurred to him, but it was too near of kin to his disapproval of a provision which had delivered the State into the hands of an industrious rascal, not to strike an immediate response; especially in his present frame of mind. He was alone with his wife at the moment, and he handed her the letter. She read it twice, then laid it on the table. "It savours very much of fraud, to me," she said. "Why do politics so often go to the head?"
"Sometimes one sort rises as an antidote to another. There comes a time in human affairs when one is forced into a position of choosing between two evils; a time when the scruples of delicacy and propriety, as relative to a common course of things, ought to yield to the extraordinary nature of the crisis."
"Right is right, and wrong is wrong," said Betsey, with her Dutch sturdiness. "This measure--were it adopted by Mr. Jay--would merely mean that the party in power was taking an unconstitutional advantage of its situation to nullify the victories gained by the other."
"The victories you speak of were won by fraud and every unworthy device. I am not arguing that, such being the case, we are justified in turning their weapons upon them, but that for the good of the country the enemy should be suppressed before they are able to accomplish its demoralization, if not its ruin. The triumph of Jefferson and Jacobinism, the flourishing of Democracy upon the ruins of Federalism, too long a taste of power by the States rights fanatics, means, with the weak spots in our Constitution, civil war. Burr has sowed the seeds of municipal corruption, which, if the sower be rewarded by the second office in the gift of the people, will spread all over the Union. That many in the ranks of Democracy are in the pay of France, and design the overthrow of the Government, there is not a shadow of doubt. If Jefferson should die in office, or a tie, in spite of all I could do, should give the Presidency to Burr, there is nothing that man's desperate temper would not drive him to accomplish during the time remaining to him--for he will never be the first choice of the Democrats. Therefore, I shall propose this measure to Jay in the course of the next two or three days, unless upon mature deliberation I alter my present opinion that the grave crisis in national affairs justifies it, or I conceive something better."
"You will violate your higher principles," said his wife, who had matured in a previous era. "And it will be a terrible weapon for your enemies."
"I have now reached that happy point where I am entirely indifferent to the broadsides of my enemies; and I believe that if I conclude to take this step, my conscience--and history--will justify me." "If you succeed," said Betsey, shrewdly. "But Mr. Jay is very rigid, and he lacks your imagination, your terrible gift of seeing the future in a flash."
"It is quite true that I have little hope of persuading Jay; as little as I have of endowing him with the gift of foresight. But, if I think best, I shall make the attempt, and whatever the consequences, I shall not regret it."
Betsey said no more. She knew the exact amount of remonstrance Hamilton would stand, and she never exceeded it. When his fighting armour was on, no human being could influence him beyond a certain point, and she was too wise to risk her happiness. Although he was too careful of her to let her suspect the hideous conflicts which raged in his soul, she was fully aware of his bitter obstinacy, and that he was the best hater in the country. She had many gloomy forebodings, for she anticipated the terrible strain on what was left of his constitution.
There was one person who, through her inherited intuitions, understood Hamilton, and that was Angelica. He had kept her at arm's length, great as the temptation to have a sympathetic confidant had been, particularly after he had withdrawn from the intimate companionship of Washington; she was so highly wrought and sensitive, so prone to hysteria, that he had never yielded for a moment, even when she turned her head slowly toward him and stared at him with eyes that read his very soul. On the evening after the elections he had played and sung with her for an hour, then talked for another with Philip, who was the most promising student of Columbia College, a youth of fine endowments and elevated character. He was the pride and delight of Hamilton, who could throttle both apprehensions and demons while discussing his son's future, and listening to his college trials and triumphs. Upon this particular evening Angelica had suddenly burst into tears and left the room. The next morning Hamilton sent her to Saratoga; and, much as he loved her, it was with profound relief that he arranged her comfortably on the deck of the packet-boat.
On the 7th he wrote to the Governor; but, as he had feared, Jay would take no such audacious leap out of his straight and narrow way. The letter was published in the Aurora before it reached Albany, and Hamilton had reason to believe that Burr had a spy in the post-office.
Hamilton executed the orders for disbanding the army, then made a tour of several of the New England States, holding conferences and speaking continually. He found the first-class leaders at one with him as to the danger of entrusting the Executive office to Adams a second time, and favourably inclined to Pinckney. But the second-rate men of influence were still enthusiastic for the President, and extolling him for saving the country from war. Hamilton listened to them with no attempt to conceal his impatience. He pointed out that if Talleyrand had made up his mind that it was best to avoid a war, he would have made a second and regular overture, which could have been accepted without humiliation to the country, and the severance of the Federalist party.
As if Adams had not done enough to rouse the deadly wrath of Hamilton, he announced right and left that the Federalist defeat in New York had been planned by his arch enemy, with the sole purpose of driving himself from office; that there was a British faction in the country and that Hamilton was its chief. He drove Pickering and M'Henry from his Cabinet with contumely, as the only immediate retaliation he could think of, and Wolcott would have followed, had there been anyone to take his place. Franklin once said of Adams that he was always honest, sometimes great, and often mad. Probably so large an amount of truth has never again been condensed into an epigram. If Adams had not become inflamed with the ambition that has ruined the lives and characters of so many Americans, he would have come down to posterity as a great man, with a record of services to his country which would have scattered his few mistakes into the unswept corners of oblivion. But autocratic, irritable, and jealous, all the infirmities of his temper as brittle with years as the blood-vessels of his brain, the most exacting office in the civilized world taxed him too heavily. It is interesting to speculate upon what he might have been in this final trial of his public career, had Hamilton died as he took the helm of State. If Hamilton's enemies very nearly ruined his own character, there is no denying that he exerted an almost malign influence upon them. To those he loved or who appealed to the highest in him he gave not only strength, but an abundance of sweetness and light, illuminating mind and spirit, and inspiring an affection that was both unselfish and uplifting. But his enemies hated him so frantically that their characters measurably deteriorated; to ruin or even disconcert him they stooped and intrigued and lied; they were betrayed into public acts which lowered them in their own eyes and in those of all students of history. Other hatreds were healthy and stimulating by comparison; but there is no doubt that Adams, Jefferson, and Madison fell far lower than they would have done had Hamilton never shot into the American heavens, holding their fields at his pleasure, and paling the fires of large and ambitious stars.
The political excitement in the country by this time surpassed every previous convulsion to such an extent that no man prominent in the contest could appear on the street without insult. Although he never knew it, Hamilton, every time he left the house, was shadowed by his son Philip, Robert Hamilton, Troup, John Church, or Philip Church. For the Democratic ammunition and public fury alike were centred on Hamilton. Adams came in for his share, but the Democrats regarded his doom as sealed, and Hamilton, as ever, the Colossus to be destroyed. The windows of the bookshops were filled with pamphlets, lampoons, and cartoons. The changes were rung on the aristocratical temper and the monarchical designs of the leader of the Federalists, until Hamilton was sick of the sight of himself with his nose in the air and a crown on his head, his train borne by Jay, Cabot, Sedgwick, and Bayard. The people were warned in every issue of the Aurora, Chronicle, and other industrious sheets, that Hamilton was intriguing to drive the Democratic States to secession, that he might annihilate them at once with his army and his navy. The Reynolds affair was retold once a week, with degrading variations, and there was no doubt that spies were nosing the ground in every direction to obtain evidence of another scandal to vary the monotony. Mrs. Croix, being Queen of the Jacobins, was safe, so press and pamphlet indulged in wild generalities of debauchery and rapine. It must be confessed that Jefferson fared no better in the Federalist sheets. He was a huge and hideous spider, spinning in a web full of seduced citizens; he meditated a resort to arms, did he lose the election. As to his private vices, they saddled him with an entire harem, and a black one at that.
When Hamilton heard that Adams had asserted that he was the chief of a British faction, he wrote to the President, demanding an explanation; and his note had that brief and frigid courtesy which indicated that he was in his most dangerous temper. Adams ignored it. Hamilton waited a reasonable time, then wrote again; but Adams was now too infuriated to care whether or not he committed the unpardonable error of insulting the most distinguished man in the country. He was in a humour to insult the shade of Washington, and he delighted in every opportunity to wreak vengeance on Hamilton, and would have died by his hand rather than placate him.
Then Hamilton took the step he had meditated for some time past, one which had received the cordial sanction of Wolcott, and the uneasy and grudging acquiescence of Cabot, Ames, Carroll of Carrollton, Bayard, and a few other devoted but conservative supporters. He wrote, for the benefit of the second-class leaders, who must be persuaded to cast their votes for Pinckney, to vindicate Pickering and M'Henry, and--it would be foolish to ignore it--to gratify his deep personal hatred, the pamphlet called "The Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, Esq., President of the United States." His temper did not flash in it for a second. It was written in his most concise and pointed, his most lucid and classic, manner; and nothing so damning ever flowed from mortal brain. He set forth all Adams's virtues and services with judicial impartiality. There they were for all to read. Let no man forget them. Then he counterbalanced and overbalanced them by the weaknesses, jealousies, and other temperamental defects which had arisen in evidence with the beginnings of the President's public career. He drilled holes in poor Adams's intellect which proved its unsoundness and its unfitness for public duty, and he lashed him without mercy for his public mistakes and for his treatment of his Secretaries and himself. It was a life history on ivory, and a masterpiece; and there is no friend of Hamilton's who would not sacrifice the memory of one of his greatest victories for the privilege of unwriting it.
This was one of his creations that he did not read to his wife, but Troup was permitted a glance at the manuscript. He dropped it to the floor, and his face turned white. "Do you intend to publish this thing?" he demanded. "And with your name signed in full?"
"I intend to print it. I had every intention of scattering it broadcast, but I have yielded to the dissuasions of men whose opinions I am bound to respect, and it will go only to them and to the second-class leaders as yet unconvinced. To their entreaties that I would not sign my name I have not listened, because such a work, if anonymous, would be both cowardly and futile. The point is to let those for whom it is intended know that a person in authority is talking; and anonymous performances are legitimate only when published and unmistakable, when given in that form as a concession to the fashion of the age."
Troup groaned. "And if it falls into the enemy's hands?"
"In that case, what a hideous opportunity it would enclose, were it unsigned."
"Oh, sign it!" said Troup, wildly. He set his heel on the manuscript, and looked tentatively at Hamilton. He knew the meaning of the expression he encountered, and removed his heel. It was months since he had seen the gay sparkle in Hamilton's eyes, humour and sweetness curving his mouth. When Hamilton's mouth was not as hard as iron, it relaxed to cynicism or contempt. He was so thin that the prominence of the long line from ear to chin and of the high hard nose, with its almost rigid nostrils, would have made him look more old Roman coin than man, had it not been for eyes like molten steel. "Politics and ambition!" thought Troup. "What might not the world be without them?"
"Let us change the subject," he said. "I hear that Mrs. Croix makes a convert an hour from Federalism to Democracy. That is the estimate. And a small and select band know that she does it in the hope of hastening your ruin. I must say, Hamilton, that as far as women are concerned, you are punished far beyond your deserts. There is hardly a man in public life who has not done as much, or worse, but the world is remarkably uninterested, and the press finds any other news more thrilling. The Reynolds woman is probably responsible for many remorseful twinges in the breasts of eminent patriots, but your name alone is given to the public. As for Mrs. Croix, I don't suppose that any mere mortal has ever resisted her, but if any other man has regretted it, history is silent. What do you suppose is the reason?"
Hamilton would not discuss Mrs. Croix, but he had long since ceased to waste breath in denial. He made no reply.
"Do you know my theory?" said Troup, turning upon him suddenly. "It is this. You are so greatly endowed that more is expected of you than of other men. You were fashioned to make history; to give birth, not for your own personal good, but for the highest good of a nation, to the greatest achievement of which the human mind is capable. Therefore, when you trip and stumble like any fool among us, when you act like a mere mortal with no gigantic will and intellect to lift him to the heights and keep him there, some power in the unseen universe is infuriated, and you pay the price with compound interest. It will be the same with that thing on the floor. If you could be sure that it would never fall into the hands of a Jacobin, even then it would be a mistake to print it, for it is mainly prompted by hatred, and as such is unworthy of you. But if it finds its way to the public, your punishment will be even in excess of your fault. For God's sake think it over."
Hamilton made no reply, and in a moment Troup rose. "Very well," he said, "have your own way and be happy. I'll stand by you if the citadel falls."
Hamilton's eyes softened, and he shook Troup's hands heartily. But as soon as he was alone, he sent the manuscript to the printer.