Death Feud: John Adams’ Obsession with Hamilton’s Legacy

The rivalry between Alexander Hamilton and John Adams during Hamilton’s lifetime is well documented.  During Washington’s presidency, Adams was openly suspicious of Hamilton’s role in the administration and his ambitions. When Adams was running for a second term, Hamilton published a letter to his supporters Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, Esq. President of the United States.  When this letter was published more widely, it damaged Adams’ hopes of winning the election and fractured the Federalist Party. (You can read more about Hamilton’s role in that election here).

But what happened after Hamilton’s death is less known and just as interesting.  While Jefferson reportedly expressed admiration for his former rival after the fatal duel and even enacted a bust of Hamilton opposite his own at Monticello, Adams went on a private quest to sink Hamilton’s reputation.  Adams shared rumors about Hamilton’s romantic indiscretions and ambitions to many powerful people in his private circles, including Dr. Benjamin Rush and Adams’ cousin, William Cunningham.

In 1806, Adams wrote to Dr. Rush of the pamphlet and of Hamilton’s “delirium of ambition.”  In this letter, Adams referred to Hamilton as the “bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar” and spoke of rumors that Hamilton had, before his death, threatened to publish an unflattering memoir of George Washington:

Although I read with tranquility and suffered to pass without adversion in silent contempt the base insinuations of vanity and a hundred lies besides published in a pamphlet against me by an insolent coxcomb who rarely dined in good company, where there was good wine, without getting silly and vaporing about his administration like a young girl about her brilliants and trinkets, yet I lose all patience when I think of a bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar daring to threaten to undeceive the world in their judgment of Washington by writing an history of his battles and campaigns. This creature was in a delirium of ambition; he had been blown up with vanity by the tories, had fixed his eyes on the highest station in America, and he hated every man, young or old, who stood in his way or could in any manner eclipse his laurels or rival his pretensions. . . .

In a decades-long correspondence with his cousin William Cunningham, Adams suggested that Hamilton should have been branded with “everlasting infamy” because of the circumstances of his birth and not given a chance to participate in respectable society,  Adams reportedly wrote (per Cunningham’s quote of an undiscovered Adams letter):

“Conjugal fidelity is the fountain of all virtue. Statesmen, philosophers, and the Christian Religion, unite in representing adultery & fornication, as the worst of crimes; and Hamilton, for his insult to this essence of a good education, deserved to be branded with everlasting infamy.”

Adams was obsessed with Hamilton’s lack of morality, and seemed to take gleeful pleasure in recounting stories of Hamilton’s sexual exploits, particularly rumors about Hamilton’s sisters-in-law.  Adams also wrote about Hamilton’s ambitions ruining the country.  On a September 27, 1808 letter, Adams stated:

” Hamilton’s Ambition, intrigues and Caucuses have ruined the cause of rational federalism by encumbering and entangling it with men and measures that ought never to have been brought forward.”

In an April 1811, Cunningham implored Adams to take back some of the unfounded accusations he had leveled against Hamilton, calling them a “poisoned chalice.”

Should you now refuse to recal the calumny you have spread of Hamilton in secret; or to supply the evidence of your heinous charges, will you not oblige his friends to strip from your hands, before you slip out of life, the poisoned chalice whose contents you have infused into the minds of many around you, to work, like canine madness in the veins, after its propagator has perished?

Adams’ actions came to light in 1823, when a political pamphlet containing the correspondence between Adams and Cunningham from 1803-1812 was published in order to sink John Quincy Adam’s chances of becoming president.  You can read the entire pamphlet for free on Google Books, or read some of the correspondence on Founders Online (highly recommended- this is gripping stuff).

A contemporary review of the correspondence noted:

It appears by Cunningham’s letters to Mr. Adams, that the latter had written two concerning Hamilton, filled with matters of such a character that he would not leave them in Cunningham’s hands : he insisted on their being returned to him, and they were returned : but their contents are intimated in Cunningham’s answers. The accusations are of atrocious vices. One, that Hamilton was totally destitute of integrity. The whole of the world where Hamilton was Known will acquit him of this charge, and with scorn repel the foul calumny.

I had read about Adams’ attacks on Hamilton’s reputation in several biographies of Hamilton, but reading some of the actual correspondence was interesting because it shows how deeply ingrained and consuming Adams’ hatred of Hamilton was even decades after Hamilton’s death and Adams’ retirement from the political scene.  Talk about holding a grudge!

5 thoughts on “Death Feud: John Adams’ Obsession with Hamilton’s Legacy

  1. David J Gill says:

    What was the state or relations between Hamilton and Adams during the years of the Washington presidency? I would suppose that Adams would have been more likely to be in agreement with Hamilton’s views in the policy conflicts between Hamilton and Jefferson? Where did the part company? Is the source of Adams animosity largely the result of Hamilton’s foolish political attack on Adams during the campaign of 1800? (These are rhetorical questions…I’ve got to read the Chernow biography.)

  2. Shelby says:

    Hamilton is almost universally despised, despite recent Broadway successes. His relationship with Washington was often strained, and the question of what Washington appreciated in Hamilton is easily answered in that Hamilton’s admittedly heroic behavior in battle gave him a sense of dashing quality. However, Hamilton was as ambitious a man as any in the first 50 years of the country. He once publicly suggested that Washington desired MORE of a relationship with him(Hamilton) than was professional. Yes, Hamilton said the original GDub was gay for Hamilton.

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