Hamilton vs. Seabury (Hamilton 14)

By 1774, 45-year-old Reverend Samuel Seabury (1729-1796) was a veteran of verbal combat. Assigned to a church in New Jersey from 1754 to 1757, he became embroiled in the debate over whether King’s College in New York (est. 1754) should be nondenominational or run by the Church of England. As an Anglican, Seabury naturally favored the Church of England. His side won.

From 1767 to 1776, as rector of St Peter’s Church in Westchester, he proclaimed the dire need for an American bishop. The New York papers covered opposing sides of that debate with articles such as “The American Whig,” “A Whip for the American Whig,” and “A Kick for the Whipper.”

Rev. Samuel Seabury, and his Free Thoughts, 1774.

Rev. Samuel Seabury, and his Free Thoughts, 1774. The line above the year of printing says, “Hear me, for I WILL speak!”

As the colonists became ever more discontented with British rule, Seabury insisted that he had pledged his loyalty to the crown when he was ordained: the head of the Church of England was the king of England. (You remember the business about Henry VIII’s divorce, right?) In November 1774, under the name A.W. Farmer  – A Westchester Farmer – Seabury published Free Thoughts on  the Proceedings of the Continental Congress. In it, he attacked Congress’s October 1774 resolution to boycott British goods.

Of the three rebuttals to Free Thoughts that quickly appeared, the only one Seabury deigned to answer was the anonymous A Full Vindication of the Measures of the Congress, from the Calumnnies of their Enemies, in Answer to a letter, under the Signature of A.W. Farmer. The Vindication was Alexander Hamilton’s first venture into the political arena. It ran to 35 pages. Seabury replied to the Vindication, and Hamilton responded with The Farmer Refuted, a hefty 78-page work published in February 1775.

Let’s all make a loud, screechy noise and rewind ourselves to 1774. Hamilton isn’t famous and revered: he’s a not-quite-18-year-old college student. Here’s the question to answer, without the benefit of hindsight: what is it about Hamilton’s Vindication that makes such an impact on his fellow colonists? In particular, who do Seabury and Hamilton address, and what sort of arguments do they use?

Samuel Seabury

Seabury’s opening volley is that the colonies are a scene of “confusion and discord,” and that the Continental Congress has “ignorantly misunderstood, carelessly neglected, or basely betrayed the interests of all the Colonies.” His structure is a discussions of the likely short-term and long-term effects of the Congress’s non-importation, non-exportation, and non-consumption agreements.

Sometimes Seabury is very specific: for example, in his projections of what will happen to sales of flax-seed, grain and sheep once the boycott is in force. Sometimes he paints a broader picture: Our feeble efforts won’t harm Great Britain, who commands the seas and will find other trading partners. The prices of staples here in the New York will rise if fewer staples are imported. The debts of us farmers will rise when we’re unable to export our goods.

Seabury is not above trying to get what he wants by crying shame – in fact, it’s his first major argument. Do we really want to assert ourselves in a way that will harm people in Britain and its other colonies?

The manufacturers of Great-Britain, the inhabitants of Ireland, and of the West-Indies, have done us no injury. They have been no ways instrumental in bringing our distresses upon us. Shall we then revenge ourselves upon them? Shall we endeavour to starve them into a compliance with our humours? Shall we, without any provocation, tempt or force them into riots and insurrections, which must be attended with the ruin of many–probably with the death of some of them? Shall we attempt to unsettle the whole British Government–to throw all into confusion, because our self-will is not complied with? Because the ill-projected, ill-conducted, abominable scheme of some of the colonists, to form a republican government independent of Great-Britain, cannot otherwise succeed?–Good God! can we look forward to the ruin, destruction, and desolation of the whole British Empire, without one relenting thought? Can we contemplate it with pleasure; and promote it with all our might and vigour, and at the same time call ourselves his Majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects? Whatever the Gentlemen of the Congress may think of the matter, the spirit that dictated such a measure, was not the spirit of humanity.

Another Seabury favorite is scare tactics:

We have no trade but under the protection of Great-Britain. We can trade nowhere but where she pleases. We have no influence abroad, no ambassadors, no consuls, no fleet to protect our ships in passing the seas, nor our merchants and people in foreign countries. Should our mad schemes take place, our sailors, ship-carpenters, carmen, sail-makers, riggers, miners, smelters, forge-men, and workers in bar-iron, &c. would be immediately out of employ; and we should have twenty mobs and riots in our own country, before one would happen in Britain or Ireland. Want of food will make these people mad, and they will come in troops upon our farms, and take that by force which they have not money to purchase. And who could blame them? Justice, indeed, might hang them; but the sympathetic eye would drop the tear of humanity on their grave.

Seabury’s closes with a plea for his fellow farmers to petition their (British-approved) general assemblies:

Let me intreat you, my Friends, to have nothing to do with these men, or with any of the same stamp. Peace and quietness suit you best. Confusion, and Discord, and Violence, and War, are sure destruction to the farmer. Without peace he cannot till his lands; unless protected by the laws, he cannot carry his produce to market. Peace indeed is departed from us for the present, and the protection of the laws has ceased. But I trust in God, there is yet one method left, which, by prudent management, will free us from all our difficulties; restore peace again to our dwellings, and give us the firm security of the laws for our protection. Renounce all dependence on Congresses, and Committees. They have neglected, or betrayed your interests. Turn then your eyes to your constitutional representatives. They are the true, and legal, and have been hitherto, the faithful defenders of your rights, and liberties; and you have no reason to think but that they will ever be so. … <snip>

Whatever you may be taught by designing men to think of the government at home [i.e., the British Parliament], they, I am certain, would embrace us with the arms of friendship; they would press us to their bosoms, to their hearts, would we give them a fair opportunity. This opportunity our Assembly alone can give them. And this opportunity, I trust, they will give them, unless we prevent all possibility of accommodation, by our own perverseness, and ill conduct. And then, God only knows where our distresses may terminate.

November 16, 1774 – A.W. Farmer

Seabury’s pamphlet is sharply focused on the proposed boycott of British goods. He addresses himself specifically to farmers (as producers, debtors, and country folk), pitting them against businessmen (as middlemen, creditors, and City slickers). he closes with the dire warning of evils to come.

He is, in fact, both decisive and divisive.

Alexander Hamilton

Vindication of the Measures of Congress, 1774

Vindication of the Measures of Congress, 1774. Full text is here.

Seventeen-year-old Hamilton opens his response to Free Thoughts with with feigned incredulity:

It was hardly to be expected that any  man could be so presumptuous, as openly to controvert the equity, wisdom, and authority of the measures, adopted by the congress … But lest they should have a tendency to mislead, and prejudice the minds of a few; it cannot be deemed altogether useless to bestow some notice upon them.

Having hooked those of his readers who were already inclined to be rebellious, he moves the discussion from specific acts of the Continental Congress to a broad philosophical abstraction: the nature of man and man’s rights. This is my favorite paragraph in the Vindication, and since I didn’t quote it in the “My Shot” post, I’ll do it here:

And first, let me ask these restless spirits, whence arises that violent antipathy they seem to entertain, not only to the natural rights of mankind; but to common sense and common modesty. That they are enemies to the natural rights of mankind is manifest, because they wish to see one part of their species enslaved by another. That they have an invincible aversion to common sense is apparent in many respects: They endeavour to persuade us, that the absolute sovereignty of parliament does not imply our absolute slavery; that it is a Christian duty to submit to be plundered of all we have, merely because some of our fellow-subjects are wicked enough to require it of us, that slavery, so far from being a great evil, is a great blessing; and even, that our contest with Britain is founded entirely upon the petty duty of 3 pence per pound on East India tea; whereas the whole world knows, it is built upon this interesting question, whether the inhabitants of Great-Britain have a right to dispose of the lives and properties of the inhabitants of America, or not?

Then Hamilton proceeds to define his terms (“The only distinction between freedom and slavery consists in this …”), state his principle (“That Americans are intitled to freedom, is incontestible upon every rational principle”), and address what he sees as the major disagreement with Great Britain (“What then is the subject of our controversy with the mother country?”). He runs through the history of the disagreement (“In the infancy of the present dispute …”), and presently makes one of his strongest points in favor of non-importation and non-exportation:

There is no law, either of nature, or of the civil society in which we live, that obliges us to purchase, and make use of the products and manufactures of a different land, or people. It is indeed a dictate of humanity to contribute to the support and happiness of our fellow creatures and more especially those who are allied to us by the ties of blood, interest, and mutual protection; but humanity does not require us to sacrifice our own security and welfare to the convenience, or advantage of others. Self preservation is the first principle of our nature. When our lives and properties are at stake, it would be foolish and unnatural to refrain from such measures as might preserve them, because they would be detrimental to others.

Hamilton discusses the principles that make for good policy (“To render it agreeable to good policy, three things are requisite …”) and the results of becoming enslaved to Britain (“Should Americans submit to become the vassals of their fellow-subjects in Great Britain …”). In my Library of America edition of Hamilton’s works, this first part of the Vindication occupies pp. 10-30: the first two-thirds of the essay.

Only after he’s established the terms of the debate does Hamilton address Seabury’s specific (very, very specific) points, on pp. 30-41. He wraps up his comments on Seabury’s Free Thoughts with:

I say, it is enough to make a man mad, to hear such ridiculous quibbles offered instead of sound argument; but so it is, the piece I am writing against contains nothing else. When a man grows warm, he has a confounded itch for swearing. I have been going, above twenty times, to rap out an oath, by him that made me, but I have checked myself, with this reflection, that it is rather unmannerly, to treat him that made us with so much freedom. Thus have I examined and confuted, all the cavils and objections, of any consequence, stated by this Farmer. I have only passed over such things, as are of little weight, the fallacy of which will easily appear.

Hamilton, like Seabury, opens his pamphlet with “Friends and Countrymen.” But he signs it with “A Friend to America,” rather than “A W[estchester] Farmer.” His aiming at a much wider audience than Seabury did: not a specific profession, location, or social or economic status, but all the colonists.

And that, my dears, is how to blow us all away. Set a hook. Define your terms. State your principles. Show how they apply to the current situation. Wrap it up on a positive note. This is surely the reason Hamilton’s Vindication launched him into the  top rank of the writers of the Revolution and early Republic: the pamphlet makes a logical, reasoned argument on broad principles, and can be read as an independent work even by those who have arrived late to the debate.

Damn. Now that I’ve read the Vindication, I’m going to be angry, nauseous, or both every time I listen to a speech by our current crop of presidential candidates.


  • Seabury was kidnapped by Isaac Sears in November 1775, on the same expedition in which Sears and his men destroyed the printing office of James Rivington, who published both Free Thoughts and A Vindication. (The Sears expedition spurred Hamilton to write to John Jay what became one of his more famous letters, discussing the passions of mobs. It’s good reading for an election year.) In 1776 Seabury fled to Long Island, staying behind enemy lines until the end of the war.
  • Speaking of things that come back to bite you on the ass: In 1783, Seabury was elected first bishop of Connecticut. Church of England bishops in London refused to consecrate him because as a citizen of the new United States, he could not swear an oath of loyalty to King George III. After a few months, Seabury rode off to Scotland, where he was consecrated by a group of dissident Anglican bishops whose predecessors had refused to swear loyalty to William and Mary a century earlier. Their successors had been refusing loyalty oaths to British monarchs ever since, and were happy to consecrate Seabury. For more on Seabury, see the American National Biography (by subscription) and this article.
  • Thomas Paine’s Common Sense came out in January 1776, a year after the Seabury-Hamilton exchange, and changed the terms of debate by focusing on the question: Should these colonies be independent? More here.
  • I’ve occasionally added comments based on these blog posts to the Genius.com pages on the Hamilton Musical. Follow me @DianneDurante.
  • The usual disclaimer: This is the fourteenth in a series of posts on Hamilton: An American Musical Other posts are available via the tag cloud at lower right. The ongoing “index” to these posts is my Kindle book, Alexander Hamilton: A Brief BiographyBottom line: these are unofficial musings, and you do not need them to enjoy the musical or the soundtrack.
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About Dianne L. Durante

I constantly seek out art that's inspiring, thought-provoking, skillfully executed, and/or beautiful so I can share it (in jargon-free language) with others who need and enjoy such art, but don't have time to search for it themselves. As an independent scholar, writer, and lecturer, I focus on art history and history, with forays into food, history, politics, and publishing. My most recent projects are three volumes on Alexander Hamilton, From Portraits to Puddles, Central Park: The Early Years, Innovators in Sculpture (a survey of 5,000 years of art in 2 hours), and videoguide apps by Guides Who Know. Click on the Books & Essays tab for a list of all books. For upcoming projects, see my Patreon page.

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