Hamil-Burrn: Hamilton’s Letter on John Adams (Part 1)

Perhaps Hamilton’s most famous and most influential burn was his influential letter “Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, Esq. President of the United States.”  Hamilton wrote the letter in October of 1800.  I strongly encourage everyone to read the full letter on Founders Online, but I’ve compiled my favorite sections for your reading pleasure, with some context.

Hamilton gave the ultimate half-compliment/full-insult, acknowledging Adams’ patriotism, integrity, and possession of some talents, but stating that in the interests of honesty, he had to make clear his view that Adams was unfit to be President both because of his lack of talent, and because of “great and intrinsic” defects in his character.

Not denying to Mr.Adams patriotism and integrity, and even talents of a certain kind, I should be deficient in candor, were I to conceal the conviction, that he does not possess the talents adapted to the Administration of Government, and that there are great and intrinsic defects in his character, which unfit him for the office of Chief Magistrate.

Hamilton then described how he had many opportunities to closely scrutinize Adams, including as a Congressman.  He stated that after close observation, he had determined about Adams that:

“…he is a man of an imagination sublimated and eccentric; propitious neither to the regular display of sound judgment, nor to steady perseverance in a systematic plan of conduct; and I began to perceive what has been since too manifest, that to this defect are added the unfortunate foibles of a vanity without bounds, and a jealousy capable of discoloring every object.”

Hamilton excoriated Adams for his failure to rely on his cabinet members and consult others for advice.  He contrasted Adams’ arrogance with Washington’s thoughtfulness and resolution.

When, unhappily, an ordinary man dreams himself to be a Frederick, and through vanity refrains from counselling with his constitutional advisers, he is very apt to fall into the hands of miserable intriguers, with whom his self-love is more at ease, and who without difficulty slide into his confidence, and by flattery, govern him.

The ablest men may profit by advice. Inferior men cannot dispense with it; and if they do not get it through legitimate channels, it will find its way to them, through such as are clandestine and impure.

Very different from the practice of Mr. Adams was that of the modest and sage Washington. He consulted much, pondered much, resolved slowly, resolved surely.

Hamilton also strongly criticized Adams’ treatment of his cabinet members, particularly of James McHenry, who had originally been appointed Secretary of War by President Washington in 1796, but was asked to resign by President Adams in May of 1800.  Hamilton noted that one of the many charges that President Adams had complained of regarding Secretary McHenry involved McHenry’s praise of President Washington.

The dismission of the Secretary at War took place about the same time. It was declared in the sequel of a long conversation between the President and him, of a nature to excite alternately pain and laughter; pain, for the weak and excessive indiscretions of a Chief Magistrate of the United States; laughter at the ludicrous topics which constituted charges against this officer.

A prominent charge was, that the Secretary, in a Report to the House of Representatives,had eulogized General Washington, and had attempted to eulogize General Hamilton, which was adduced as one proof of a combination, in which the Secretary was engaged, to depreciate and injure him, the President.

Wonderful! passing Wonderful! that an Eulogy of the dead patriot and hero, of the admired and beloved Washington, consecrated in the affections and reverence of his country, should, in any shape, be irksome to the ears of his successor!

McHenry’s description of his meeting with President Adams in a May 20, 1800 letter to his nephew is below:

He requested to see me on the 5th instant. The business appeared to relate to the appointment of a Purveyor, and to disembarrass himself of any engagement on that head. This settled, he took up other subjects, became indecorous and at times outrageous. General Washington had saddled him with three Secretaries, Wolcott, Pickering, and myself. I had not appointed a gentleman in N. Carolina, the only elector who had given him a vote in that State, a captain in the army, and afterwards had him appointed a lieutenant, which he refused. I had biased General Washington to place Hamilton in his list of Major Generals, before Knox. I had Eulogized General Washington, in my report to Congress, and had attempted in the same report, to praise Hamilton. In short there was no bounds to his jealousy. I had done nothing right. I had advised a suspension of the mission. Every body blamed me for my official conduct and I must resign. I resigned the next morning. Mr. Pickering was thrown out a few days after. Mr. Wolcott is retained for a while, only because he is afraid of derangements in affairs of the Treasury. And I predict, should he be elected, (which I think cannot happen) Stoddert and Lee will be dismissed the moment he is persuaded the measure will strengthen him in his seat or answer a present or temporary purpose.

More on Hamilton’s letter and its eventual publication to follow in a post next week.  (Hamilton wrote 14,000+ words, so there’s a lot of shade to analyze!)