Teamwork Made the Dream Work: Washington and Hamilton

One great example of the legendary collaboration between Washington and Hamilton during Washington’s presidency is in the written correspondence they shared in the summer of 1792.  Washington described concerns that were raised to him about the administration’s policy’s, most of which had been built and enacted by Hamilton himself.  In response, Hamilton (unsurprisingly) drafted a lengthy, 10,000+ word response that addressed each of the objections Washington presented.  I’ve included excerpts of some of the objections and Hamilton’s responses that I found most interesting below along with some commentary and analysis, but I encourage you to read the full letters, available from Founders Online.  You can find Washington’s July 29, 1792 letter here, and Hamilton’s August 18, 1792 response here.

Image from Mount Vernon

Washington wrote to Hamilton from Mt. Vernon about his conversations with others about the state of the government:

“On my way home, and since my arrival here, I have endeavoured to learn from sensible & moderate men—known friends to the Government—the sentiments which are entertained of public measures. These all agree that the Country is prosperous & happy; but they seem to be alarmed at that system of policy, and those interpretations of the Constitution which have taken place in Congress.”

Washington divided the concerns into twenty-one categories, and asked Hamilton to respond to those criticisms “as soon as you can make it convenient to yourself.”  Most of the criticisms focused on financial policy.  Hamilton responded about three weeks later with a lengthy point-by-point defense of the policies he had put into place.

The first and foremost concern Washington expressed was that the public debt was “greater than we can possibly pay” and that the amount of the debt had been miscalculated.  Summing up the criticisms he had heard, he wrote:

 “That the public debt is greater than we can possibly pay before other causes of adding new debt to it will occur; and that this has been artificially created by adding together the whole amount of the debtor & creditor sides of the accounts, instead of taking only their balances; which could have been paid off in a short time.”

First, Hamilton defended the amount of the debt:

“The public Debt was produced by the late war. It is not the fault of the present government that it exists; unless it can be proved, that public morality and policy do not require of a Government an honest provision for its debts.”

Hamilton responded, ridiculing the assumptions of the critics who had spoken to Washington:

“The thirteen States in their joint capacity owed a certain sum. The same states, in their separate capacities, owed another sum. These two sums constituted the aggregate of the public Debt. The public, in a political sense, compounded of the Governments of the Union and of the several states, was the debtor. The individuals who held the various evidences of debt were the creditors. It would be non-sense to say, that the combining of the two parts of the public Debt is adding together the Debtor and Creditor sides of the account. So great an absurdity cannot be supposed to be intended by the objection. Another meaning must therefore be sought for.”

Hamilton also discussed the general benefits of having a public debt:

“The general inducements to a provision for the public Debt are—I   To preserve the public faith and integrity by fulfilling as far as was practicable the public engagements. II   To manifest a due respect for property by satisfying the public obligations in the hands of the public Creditors and which were as much their property as their houses or their lands their hats or their coats. III   To revive and establish public Credit; the palladium of public safety. IV   To preserve the Government itself by shewing it worthy of the confidence which was placed in it, to procure to the community the blessings which in innumerable ways attend confidence in the Government and to avoid the evils which in as many ways attend the want of confidence in it.”

After an extensive justification of his financial policy, Hamilton responded to the political points raised by critics.  One of the objections Washington included was that Hamilton’s ultimate goal was to change the present republican form of Government.  Critics today have sometimes leveled the same criticism of Hamilton.

Hamilton’s response to the charge was very direct:

“To this there is no other answer than a flat denial—except this that the project from its absurdity refutes itself.

The idea of introducing a monarchy or aristocracy into this Country, by employing the influence and force of a Government continually changing hands, towards it, is one of those visionary things, that none but madmen could meditate and that no wise men will believe.

If it could be done at all, which is utterly incredible, it would require a long series of time, certainly beyond the life of any individual to effect it. Who then would enter into such plot? For what purpose of interest or ambition?

To hope that the people may be cajoled into giving their sanctions to such institutions is still more chimerical. A people so enlightened and so diversified as the people of this Country can surely never be brought to it, but from convulsions and disorders, in consequence of the acts of popular demagogues.

The truth unquestionably is, that the only path to a subversion of the republican system of the Country is, by flattering the prejudices of the people, and exciting their jealousies and apprehensions, to throw affairs into confusion, and bring on civil commotion. Tired at length of anarchy, or want of government, they may take shelter in the arms of monarchy for repose and security.”

If you’re interested in reading more on the relationship and collaboration between Washington and Hamilton, here are some suggested reading titles:

 

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