Hamil-Burrns: A Twisted Tale

I’ve written before about how John Adams maintained a lifelong hatred of Hamilton, even after Hamilton’s death.  Hamilton also distrusted Adams and had an integral role in ensuring his loss in the Election of 1800 by drafting a letter “Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, Esq. President of the United States.”  A few months before Hamilton’s letter was released, he criticized Adams and his administration in a private July 1, 1800 letter to Maryland politician Charles Carroll.  Hamilton said of Adams:

“That this gentleman ought not to be the object of the federal wish, is, with me, reduced to demonstration. His administration has already very materially disgraced and sunk the government. There are defects in his character which must inevitably continue to do this more and more. And if he is supported by the federal party, his party must in the issue fall with him. Every other calculation will, in my judgment, prove illusory.

Doctor Franklin, a sagacious observer of human nature, drew this portrait of Mr. Adams:—“He is always honest, sometimes great, but often mad.” I subscribe to the justness of this picture, adding as to the first trait of it this qualification—“as far as a man excessively vain and jealous, and ignobly attached to place can be.”

Hamilton’s reference was to a July 1783 letter from Ben Franklin that has an interesting and twisted history of its own.

On July 22, 1783, Franklin wrote to Robert Livingston complaining of Adams’ persistent and public hostility to the French and warning that his attitude could have grave political consequences:

“I ought not however to conceal from You, that one of my Collegues is of a very different Opinion from me in these Matters. He thinks the french Minister one of the greatest Enemies of our Country; that he would have straitned our Boundaries to prevent the Growth of our people; contracted our Fishery to obstruct the Increase of our Seamen; and retained the Royalists amongst Us to keep us divided—that he privately opposes all our Negotiations with foreign Courts, and afforded us during the War the Assistance We received, only to keep it alive that We might be so much the more weakened by it. That to think of Gratitude to France, is the greatest of Follies, and that to be influenced by it, would ruin us. He makes no Secret of his having these opinions, expresses them publickly, sometimes in presence of the english Minister, and speaks of hundreds of Instances which he could produce in proof of them. None however have yet appeard to me, unless the Conversation and Letter above mentioned are reckoned such. If I were not convinced of the real Inability of the Court to furnish the farther Supplies We asked, I should suspect these Discourses of a person in his station, might have influenced the Refusal; but I think they have gone no farther than to occasion a Suspicion that We have a considerable party of Antigalicans in America, who are not Tories, and consequently to produce some Doubts of the Continuance of our Friendship. As such Doubts may hereafter have a bad Effect, I think We cannot take too much Care to remove them: and it is therefore I write this to put you on your Guard (beleiving it to be my Duty, tho I know that I hazzard by it a mortal Enmity) and to caution You respecting the Insinuations of this Gentleman against the Court, and the Instances he supposes of their Ill Will to us, which I take to be as imaginary as I know his Fancies to be that the Count de V[ergennes] and myself are continually plotting against him, and employing the News writers of Europe to depreciate his Character &c., but as Shakespear says “Trifles light as Air” &c.  Persuaded however that he means well for his Country, is always an honest Man, often a Wise one, but sometimes and in somethings absolutely out of his Senses.”

Robert Livingston then sneakily provided Franklin’s confidential letter to Abigail Adams via Elbridge Gerry in order to keep her informed about what Franklin was saying about her husband.  (This proves that you don’t need email or social media to get in trouble  about indiscreet past correspondence).  In his letter to Mrs. Adams, Gerry wrote:

Inclosed is an Extract of an official Letter from Doctor F—to Mr. Livingston Secretary of foreign affairs dated July 22d., which is calculated to give a private Stab to the Reputation of our Friend; at least it appears so to me. By the Doctors Observation that by writing the Letter “he hazzarded a mortal Enmity,” I think it evident, he did not intend the Letter should be seen by Mr. Adams’s particular Friends, but that Mr. Livingston should make a prudent Use of it to multiply Mr. Adams’ Enemies. Mr. L. could easily do this, by not communicating to Congress the paragraph: but being now out of Office,the Doctor’s Craft is apparent. You will please to keep the Matter a profound Secret, excepting to Mr. Adams, General Warren and Lady; and let the Channel of Communication be likewise a secret.

Of course, Abigail then sent the letter to John Adams in December of 1783, adding a scathing criticism that Franklin was one of many fools accidentally placed in a position of stature in public opinion of which he was unworthy:

“A Friend of yours in Congress some months ago, sent me an extract of a Letter, requesting me to conceal his Name, as he would not chuse to have it known by what means he procured the Coppy. From all your Letters I discoverd that the treatment you had received, and the suspence You was in, was sufficiently irritating without any thing further to add to Your vexation. I therefore surpresst the extract; as I knew the author was fully known to you: but seeing a letter from G[e]n. W[arre]n to you, in which this extract is alluded to; and finding by your late Letters, that your situation is less embarrassing, I inclose it; least you should think it much worse than it really is: at the same time I cannot help adding an observation which appears pertinant to me; that there is an ingredient necessary in a Mans composition towards happiness, which people of feeling would do well to acquire—a certain respect for the follies of Mankind. For there are so many fools whom the opinion of the world entittles to regard; whom accident has placed in heights of which they are unworthy, that he who cannot restrain, his contempt or indignation at the sight, will be too, often Quarrelling with the disposal of things to realish that Share, which is allotted to himself.” And here my paper obliges me to close the subject—without room to say adieu.”

Hamilton and the US Postal Service

On February 6, 2013, the US Post Office announced that it plans to halt its Saturday mail delivery service in a move to cut costs.   In the face of an $11.5 billion loss in 2012, many sources have been pointing to this development as a the beginning of the end of the USPS.  I think they’re being a little hasty to dismiss an enduring institution, but time will tell.  [Disclaimer: I LOVE the post office.  Stamps, getting mail, postcards, checking the mailbox- I love it all!  Also, Miracle on 34th Street.]

The history of the USPS is tied closely to the history of America.  It was first signed into law by the Second Continental Congress on July 26, 1775, almost a year before the Declaration of Independence!  Benjamin Franklin was selected as the first Postmaster General.  (This was really a continuation of work that Franklin had done under the British regime in Philadelphia.  He had begun the modernization of the system in some areas, but was removed from the position by the British in 1774 because of his revolutionary activities).  When he became President, Washington appointed New Yorker Samuel Osgood (who would go on to form the bank that evolved into Citibank) to be the first Postmaster General under the Constitution.  The Founders recognized the post office as an important tool of innovation, and one that would help modernize the economy and unite the country.

The post office was also part of a political struggle between Hamilton and Jefferson.  Hamilton wanted the agency to be placed within the Treasury Department, while Jefferson wanted it to be placed within the State Department.  The deadlock led to the post office being separated from other executive agencies, and considered a hybrid until 1836.

Hamilton recognized the potential of the post office to bring in revenue for the country.  In his January 16, 1795 Report on the Public Credit, Hamilton proposed that the funds from the post office should be placed into a “sinking fund.”  Hamilton stated:

“It will hardly have been unnoticed that the Secretary has been, thus far, silent on the subject of the Post Office.  The reason is, that he has had in view the application of the revenue, arising from that source, to the purpose of a sinking fund….[Hamilton described the revenue that the Postmaster General estimated could be derived from the Post Office.]…Under this impression, the Secretary proposes that the net product of the Post Office…be applied…to the discharge of the existing public debt, either by purchases of stock in the market, or by payments on account of the principal, as shall appear to them most advisable, in conformity to public engagements; to continue so vested, until the whole of the debt shall be discharged.”

Hamilton was also involved in helping the postal service with legal challenges it faced as it tried to modernize.  In August of 1786,  Postmaster General Ebenezer Hazard asked Hamilton to provide an opinion on how the Post Office should proceed with enforcing contracts with private stagecoaches without the Postal Service losing money or being forced to accept inadequate service.  These companies had contracted with the government to provide stagecoach service, but had been flaunting the legal requirements of the Post Office Ordinance of 1782.  Hamilton brilliantly answered Hazard’s questions and provided a legal opinion for the Post Office to use to inform the private stagecoach companies of the requirements they needed to meet to uphold the contract.

To wrap up- the Post Office is awesome.  It’s one of the oldest institutions in America, and it played an important role in our economic history and in our national infrastructure.  And you may only be able to send letters on Saturday for a limited time- so send those Saturday packages, cards, and letters while you still can!

A smiling mailman holds a Flat Rate Box.

[Image from https://cns.usps.com/go]