Bad Blood: Abigail Adams on Hamilton

I’ve posted previously about the enmity and bitterness that John Adams felt towards Alexander Hamilton, even after Hamilton’s death.  Amanda Norton of the Massachusetts Historical Society, has a great blog post summarizing some of the highlights of Abigail Adams’ choice words about Hamilton, which focused on what she saw as his unbounded ambition, his influence over prominent statesmen, and his failed marriage vows.  I’ve included some quotes from Adams’ letters below.

In a December 31, 1796 letter to her husband, Abigail wrote:

“You may recollect, that I have often said to you, H. is a Man ambitious as Julius Ceasar. A subtle intriguer, his abilities would make him dangerous if he was to espouse a wrong side. His thirst for Fame is insatiable. I have ever kept my Eye upon him. He has obtaind a great influence over some of the most worthy and amiable of our acquaintance whom I could name.”

On January 28, 1797, a few months before the Adams administration began, Abigail wrote to John complaining of Hamilton’s cunning in trying to influence the 1796 election.  She remarked about Hamilton’s “wicked eyes,” claiming that “the very devil is in them.”

Mr. Black told me the other day on his return from Boston that Col. H. was loosing ground with his Friends in Boston, On what account I inquired. Why for the part he is said to have acted in the late Election. Aya what was that? Why they say that he tried to keep out both Mr. A–s and J–n, and that he behaved with great duplicity. He wanted to bring in Pinckney that he himself might be the dictator. So you see according to the old adage, Murder will out. I despise a Janus tho I do not feel a disposition to rail at or condemn the conduct of those who did not vote for you, because it is my firm belief that if the people had not been imposed upon by false reports and misrepresentations, the vote would have been nearly unanimous. H–n dared not risk his popularity to come out openly in opposition, but he went secretly cunningly as he thought to work, and as his influence is very great in the N England States, he imposed upon them. Ames you know has been his firm friend. I do not believe he suspected him, nor Cabot neither whom I believe he play’d upon. Smith of S C was duped by him I suspect.  Beware of that spair Cassius, has always occured to me when I have seen that cock sparrow. O I have read his Heart in his wicked Eyes many a time. The very devil is in them. They are laciviousness itself, or I have no skill in Physiognomy.

Pray burn this Letter. Dead Men tell no tales. It is really too bad to survive the Flames. I shall not dare to write so freely to you again unless you assure that you have complied with my request.

In a January 12, 1799 letter, Abigail described the idea of Hamilton having a top ranking position in the army in the Adams administration.  She complained that Hamilton’s nomination to such a position would “ill suit[]” the New England stomach.  She also alluded to his public affair with Maria Reynolds, stating that he was damned to “everlasting Infamy.”

“The Idea which prevails here, is that Hamilton will be first in command, as there is very little Idea that Washington will be any thing more than, Name as to actual Service, and I am told that it ill suits the N England Stomack. They say He is not a Native, and beside He has so damnd himself to everlasting Infamy, that He ought not to be Head of any thing. The Jacobins Hate him and the Federilists do not Love him. Serious people are mortified; and every Uriah must tremble for his Bathsheba”

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.

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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!