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The is my final post in the Hamilton Musical series: a very personal selection of Hamilton’s writings from 1798 to 1804 that reminds me what I like so much about the man.
“I cannot make every body else as rapid as myself”
To Eliza from Philadelphia, 12/10/1798:
I expected with certainty my beloved Betsey to have left this place to day. Our business has consumed more time than was necessary. But that is not my fault. I cannot make every body else as rapid as myself. This you know by experience. Tis a consolation however that we cannot be detained much longer. It is difficult for Sloth itself to spin it out beyond this day & I shall fly to you the moment I can.
Adieu My Angel
AH (More here)
The French Assembly’s decree: “an act of hostility against mankind”
During the Adams administration (1797-1801), French privateers captured hundreds of American merchant ships on the high seas, sometimes right outside New York Harbor. In “The Stand,” a six-part series written in early 1798, Hamilton argued that the United States must retaliate. The beginning of the Quasi War with France is usually dated to July 1798, when Congress rescinded its treaties with France and authorized attacks on French privateers in American waters.
This review of the actions of the French revolutionaries is from “The Stand,” No. 2 (4/4/1798). Mutatis mutandis (and not many mutanda!), his statements apply to all political and religious fanatics.
It appeared from cotemporary testimony, that one of the first acts of that assembly which dethroned the king [September 1792], was in a paroxism of revolutionary frenzy, to declare itself “a committee of insurrection of the whole human race, for the purpose of overturning all existing governments.” This extravagant declaration surpasses any thing to be found in the ample records of human madness. It amounted to an act of hostility against mankind. The republic of America, no less than the despotism of Turkey, was included in the anathema. It breathed that wild and excessive spirit of fanaticism, which would scruple no means of establishing its favorite tenets; and which, in its avowed object, threatening the disorganization of all governments, warranted a universal combination to destroy the monstrous system of which it was the soul.
The decrees of the 19th of November and 15th of December 1792, were modifications of the same spirit. The first offered fraternity and assistance to every people who should wish to recover their liberty, and charged the executive power to send orders to their generals to give that assistance and to defend those citizens, who had been or might be vexed for the cause of liberty. The last declared that the French nation would treat as enemies any people who, refusing or renouncing liberty and equality, were desirous of preserving, recalling, or entering into accommodation with their prince and privileged casts.
The first was a general signal to insurrection and revolt. It was an invitation to the seditious of every country, in pursuit of chimerical schemes of more perfect liberty, to conspire under the patronage of France against the established government, however free. To assist a people in a reasonable and virtuous struggle for liberty, already begun, is both justifiable and laudable; but to incite to revolution every where, by indiscriminate offers of assistance before hand, is to invade and endanger the foundations of social tranquility. There is no term of reproach or execration too strong for so flagitious an attempt.
The last of the two decrees is not merely in spirit—it is in terms equivalent to a manifesto of war against every nation having a prince or nobility. It declares explicitly and formally, that the French nation will treat as enemies every people, who may desire to preserve or restore a government of that character.
It is impossible not to feel the utmost indignation against so presumptuous and so odious a measure. It was not only to scatter the embers of a general conflagration in Europe—it was to interfere coercively in the interior arrangements of other nations—it was to dictate to them, under the penalty of the vengeance of France, what form of government they should live under—it was to forbid them to pursue their political happiness in their own way—it was to set up the worst of all despotisms, a despotism over opinion, not against one nation, but against almost all nations. With what propriety is the interference of the powers, ultimately coalesced against France, in her interior arrangements, imputed to them as an unpardonable crime, when her leaders had given so terrible an example, and had provoked retaliation as a mean of self-preservation?
These decrees preceded the transactions which immediately led to rupture between France and the other powers, Austria and Prussia excepted.
It is idle to pretend, that they did not furnish to those powers just cause of war. There is no rule of public law better established or on better grounds, than that whenever one nation unequivocally avows maxims of conduct dangerous to the security and tranquility of others, they have a right to attack her, and to endeavor to disable her from carrying her schemes into effect. They are not bound to wait till inimical designs are matured for action, when it may be too late to defeat them.
How far it may have been wise in a particular government to have taken up the gauntlet, or if in its option, to have left France to the fermentations of the pernicious principles by which its leaders were actuated, is a question of mere expediency, distinct from the right. It is also a complicated and difficult question—one which able and upright men might decide different ways. But the right is still indisputable. The moment the convention vomited forth those venomous decrees, all the governments threatened were justifiable in making war upon France.
Neither were they bound to be satisfied with after explanations or qualifications of the principles which had been declared. They had a right to judge conscientiously whether reliance could be placed on any pretended change of system, and to act accordingly. And while the power of France remained in the same men, who had discovered such hostile views, and while the effervescence of the public mind continued at its height, there could not have been, in the nature of things, any security in assurances of greater moderation. Fanaticism is a spirit equally fraudulent and intractable. Fanatics may dissemble the better to effect their aims, but they seldom suddenly reform. No faith is due to the reformation which they may affect, unless it has been the work of time and experience. (More here)
Jefferson and Hamilton on immigrants
On December 8, 1801 – after being in office for nine months – Thomas Jefferson had his secretary deliver to Congress his first annual message. The infuriated Hamilton responded with an eighteen-essay series, “The Examination,” 12/17/1801-4/8/1802. In Nos. VII and VIII, he’s attacking Jefferson’s suggestion that immigrants immediately be given citizenship. The Naturalization Act (passed in 1798 as one of the Alien and Sedition Acts) had increased the time required for immigrants to become American citizens from five to fourteen years.
Jefferson wrote in his message to Congress:
I cannot omit recommending a revisal of the laws on the subject of naturalization. Considering the ordinary changes of human life, a denial of citizenship under a residence of fourteen years, is a denial to a great proportion of those who ask it; and controls a policy pursued, from their first settlement, by many of these States, and still believed of consequence to their prosperity. And shall we refuse to the unhappy fugitives from distress that hospitality which the savages of the wilderness extended to our fathers arriving in this land? Shall oppressed humanity find no asylum on this globe? The Constitution, indeed, has wisely provided that, for admission to certain offices of important trust, a residence shall be required sufficient to develop character and design. But might not the general character and capabilities of a citizen be safely communicated to every one manifesting a bona fide purpose of embarking his life and fortunes permanently with us? with restrictions, perhaps, to guard against the fraudulent usurpation of our flag? an abuse which brings so much embarrassment and loss on the genuine citizen, and so much danger to the nation of being involved in war, that no endeavor should be spared to detect and suppress it. [First message to Congress, here]
Hamilton replied in “The Examination,” No. VII (1/7/1802):
The next exceptionable feature in the Message, is the proposal to abolish all restriction on naturalization, arising from a previous residence. In this the President is not more at variance with the concurrent maxims of all commentators on popular governments, than he is with himself. [Jefferson’s own] Notes on Virginia are in direct contradiction to the Message, and furnish us with strong reasons against the policy now recommended. [Lengthy excerpt from the Notes omitted here] …
The pathetic and plaintive exclamations by which the sentiment is enforced, might be liable to much criticism, if we are to consider it in any other light, than as a flourish of rhetoric. It might be asked in return, does the right to asylum or hospitality carry with it the right to suffrage and sovereignty? …
But we may venture to ask what does the President really mean, by insinuating that we treat aliens coming to this country, with inhospitality? Do we not permit them quietly to land on our shores? Do we not protect them equally with our own citizens, in their persons and reputation; in the acquisition and enjoyment of property? Are not our Courts of justice open for them to seek redress of injuries? And are they not permitted peaceably to return to their own country whenever they please, and to carry with them all their effects? What then means this worse than idle declamation? (More here)
And in “The Examination,” No. VIII (1/12/1802)
The safety of a republic depends essentially on the energy of a common National sentiment; on a uniformity of principles and habits; on the exemption of the citizens from foreign bias, and prejudice; and on that love of country which will almost invariably be found to be closely connected with birth, education and family.
The opinion advanced in the Notes on Virginia is undoubtedly correct, that foreigners will generally be apt to bring with them attachments to the persons they have left behind; to the country of their nativity, and to its particular customs and manners. They will also entertain opinions on government congenial with those under which they have lived, or if they should be led hither from a preference to ours, how extremely unlikely is it that they will bring with them that temperate love of liberty, so essential to real republicanism? There may as to particular individuals, and at particular times, be occasional exceptions to these remarks, yet such is the general rule. …
By what has been said, it is not meant to contend for a total prohibition of the right of citizenship to strangers, nor even for the very long residence which is now a prerequisite to naturalization, and which of itself, goes far towards a denial of that privilege. The present law was merely a temporary measure adopted under peculiar circumstances and perhaps demands revision. But there is a wide difference between closing the door altogether and throwing it entirely open; between a postponement of fourteen years and an immediate admission to all the rights of citizenship. Some reasonable term ought to be allowed to enable aliens to get rid of foreign and acquire American attachments; to learn the principles and imbibe the spirit of our government; and to admit of at least a probability of their feeling a real interest in our affairs. A residence of at least five years ought to be required.
If the rights of Naturalization may be communicated by parts, and it is not perceived why they may not, those peculiar to the conducting of business and the acquisition of property, might with propriety be at once conferred, upon receiving proof, by certain prescribed solemnities, of their intention to become citizens; postponing all political privileges to the ultimate term. To admit foreigners indiscriminately to the rights of citizens, the moment they put foot in our country, as recommended in the Message, would be nothing less, than to admit the Grecian Horse into the Citadel of our Liberty and Sovereignty. (More here)
On controlling spending: “It is certainly possible to do too much as well as too little”
In “The Examination,” No. XI (2/3/1802), Hamilton replies to Jefferson’s proposal that all government funds be appropriated in strictly limited amounts for very specific purposes. (See here; search “In our care too of the public contributions”). Hamilton took this as a criticism of the Washington and Adams administrations, and demonstrated the folly of Jefferson’s proposal by taking it to extremes. Suppose that in providing for transportation of an army, funds for oats and hay were separately appropriated: under Jefferson’s proposal, if no oats were to be found, the army could not apply the oats appropriation to buying hay. Hamilton uses this point to condemn Jefferson as an ivory-tower philosopher:
In all matters of this nature the question turns upon the proper boundaries of the precautions to be observed; how far they ought to go; where they should stop; how much is necessary for security and order; what qualifications of general rules are to be admitted to adapt them to practice, and to attain the ends of the public service. It is certainly possible to do too much as well as too little; to embarrass, if not defeat the good which may be done, by attempting more than is practicable; or to overbalance that good by evils accruing from an excess of regulation. Men of business know this to be the case in the ordinary affairs of life: how much more must it be so, in the extensive and complicated concerns of an Empire? To reach and not to pass the salutary medium is the province of sound judgment: To miss the point will ever be the lot of those who, enveloped all their lives in the mists of theory, are constantly seeking for an ideal perfection which never was and never will be attainable in reality. It is about this medium, not about general principles, that those in power in our government have differed; and to experience, not to the malevolent insinuations of rivals, must be the appeal, whether the one or the other description of persons have judged most accurately. Yet discerning men may form no imperfect opinion of the merits of the controversy between them, by even a cursory view of the distinctions on which it has turned. (More here)
You might think Hamilton is advocating pragmatism, but to me it looks as if he’s advocating that one continually monitor the facts and, if necessary, change one’s opinion on specific points (not principles). From “The Examination,” No. XVI, 3/19/1802:
The President, as a politician, is in one sense particularly unfortunate. He furnishes frequent opportunities of arraying him against himself—of combating his opinions at one period by his opinions at another. Without doubt, a wise and good man may, on proper grounds relinquish an opinion which he has once entertained, and the change may even serve as a proof of candour and integrity. But with such a man, especially in matters of high public importance, changes of this sort must be rare. The contrary is always a mark either of a weak and versatile mind, or of an artificial and designing character, which, accommodating its creed, to circumstances, takes up or lays down an article of faith, just as may suit a present convenience. (More here)
Hamilton sums up the achievements of the Washington and Adams administrations
One of the points that most aggravated Hamilton was that Jefferson acknowledged that the United States was in great shape … and then gave no credit whatsoever to the Washington and Adams administrations. “The Examination,” No. XVIII (4/8/1802) is Hamilton’s summary of what his actions as secretary of the Treasury achieved, and what others working with the first two presidents achieved. This is a long excerpt, but worth it: presenting the big picture and looking for the reasons behind events is one of Hamilton’s major talents.
One of the most striking points Hamilton makes here is this: even though the U.S. had unforeseen, extraordinary expenses for defending against Indians and the French, suppressing two rebellions, paying the Barbary pirates, making reparations to British merchants under the 1783 Treaty, and building a navy … according to Jefferson’s own secretary of the Treasury, the U.S. debt (foreign and domestic, new and old) would be paid off in 15 1/2 years. That’s five years earlier than even Hamilton had planned on when he proposed the plan to pay off the debt back in 1790.
Jefferson asked in his message:
Would the honest patriot, in the full tide of successful experiment, abandon a Government which has so far kept us free and firm, on the theoretic and visionary fear that this Government, the world’s best hope, may, by possibility, want energy to preserve itself? I trust not. I believe this, on the contrary, the strongest Government on earth (More here).
The President, on the threshhold of office, at the first opportunity of speaking to his constituents, in his very inaugural speech; full of a truth, which the most rancorous prejudice cannot obscure, and not sufficiently reflecting on the inferences which would be drawn, proclaims aloud to the world, that a government, which he had disapproved in its institution and virulently opposed in its progress, was in the full tide of successfull experiment. In the last address he again unconsciously becomes the panygerist of those whom he seeks to depreciate. The situation in which (humanly speaking) we have been preserved by the prudent and firm councils of the preceding administrations, amidst the revolutionary and convulsive throes, amidst the desolating conflicts of Europe, is there a theme of emphatic gratulation. It shall not be forgotten, as the solitary merit of the address, that we are reminded of the gratitude due to heaven for the blessings of this situation. Amidst the spurious symptoms of a spirit of reform, it is consoling to observe one, which, in charity, ought to be supposed genuine. But it would not have diminished our conviction of its sincerity, if the instruments of Providence in the accomplishment of the happy work, had not been entirely overlooked; since this would have been evidence of a willingness to acknowledge and retract error—to make reparation for injury. But tho’ they have been overlooked by the Message, the American people ought never for a moment to forget them. Their efforts and their struggles, their moderation and their energy, their care and their foresight; the mad and malignant opposition of their political adversaries; the charges of pusillanimity and perfidy lavished on the Declaration of neutrality; the resistance to measures for avoiding a rupture with Great Britain; the attempt to rush at once into reprisals; the cry for war with the enemies of France, as the enemies of Republican liberty; all these things should be forever imprinted on the memory of a just and vigilant nation. And in recollecting them, they should equally recollect that the opposers of the salutary plans to which they are so much indebted, were and are the zealous partizans of the present Head of our Government; who have at all times submitted to his influence and implicitly obeyed his nod; who never would have pursued with so much vehemence the course they did, had they known it to be contrary to the views of their Chief: nor should it be forgotten that this Chief in the negociation with the British Minister, conducted by him as Secretary of State, acted precisely as if it had been his design to widen, not to heal the breach between the two countries; that he at first objected to the Declaration of neutrality; was afterwards reluctantly dragged into the measures connected with it; was believed by his friends not to approve the system of conduct, of which he was the official organ; was publicly and openly accused by the then agent of the French Republic with duplicity and deception, with having been the first to inflame his mind with ill impressions of the principles and views of leading characters in our Government, not excepting the revered Washington; that this Chief, at a very critical period of our affairs in reference to the war of Europe, withdrew from the direction of that department peculiarly charged with the management of our foreign relations, evidently to avoid being more deeply implicated in the consequences of the position, which had been assumed by the Administration; but on the hollow pretence of a dislike to public life and a love of philosophic retirement. Citizens of America—mark the sequel and learn from it instruction! You have been since agitated to the center, to raise to the first station in your Government, the very man who, at a conjuncture when your safety and your welfare demanded his stay, early relinquished a subordinate, but exalted and very influential post, on a pretence as frivolous as it has proved to be insincere! Was he, like the virtuous Washington, forced from a beloved retreat, by the unanimous and urgent call of his country? No: he stalked forth the Champion of Faction, having never ceased in the shade of his retreat, by all the arts of intrigue, to prepare the way to that elevation, for which a restless ambition impatiently panted.
The undesigned eulogy of the men, who have been slandered out of the confidence of their fellow-citizens, has not been confined to the situation of the country, as connected with the war of Europe. In the view given of the very flourishing state of our finances, the worst of the calumnies against those men is refuted, and it is admitted, that in this article of vital importance to the public welfare, their measures have been provident and effectual beyond example. To the charge of a design to saddle the nation with a perpetual debt, a plain contradiction is given by the concession, that the provisions which have been made for it are so ample, as even to justify the relinquishment of a part no less considerable than the whole of the internal revenue. The same proposal testifies the brilliant success of our fiscal system generally; and that it is more than equal to all that has been undertaken, to all that has been promised to the nation.
The report of the Secretary of the Treasury, as published, confirms this high commendation of the conduct of the former administrations. After relieving each state from the burden of its particular debt, by assuming the payment of it on account of the United States, in addition to the general debt of the nation; after settling the accounts between the states relatively to their exertions for the common defence in our revolutionary war, and providing for the balances found due to such of them as were creditors; after maintaining with complete success, an obstinate and expensive war with the Indian tribes; after making large disbursements for the suppression of two insurrections against the Government [Whiskey Rebellion and Fries’ Rebellion]; after liberal contributions to the Barbary powers to induce them to open to our merchants the trade of the Mediterranean; after incurring a responsibility for indemnities to a large amount, due to British merchants, in consequence of infractions of the Treaty of peace by some of the states; after heavy expenditures for creating and supporting a navy and for other preparations, to guard our independence and territory against the hostilities of a foreign nation [i.e., France]; after the accomplishment of all these very important objects, it is now declared to the United States by the present head of the Treasury, by the confidential minister of the present Chief Magistrate, the most subtil and implacable of the enemies of the former administrations, “That the actual revenues of the Union are sufficient, to defray all the expences civil and military of Government, to the extent authorised by existing laws, to meet all the engagements of the united states; and to discharge in fifteen years and a half, the whole of our public debt”—foreign as well as domestic, new as well as old. Let it be understood, that the revenues spoken of were all provided under the two first administrations; and that the “existing laws” alluded to, were all passed under the same administrations; consequently, that the revenues had not been increased, nor the expences diminished by the men who now hold the reins: and then let it be asked, whether so splendid a result does not reflect the highest credit on those, who in times past, have managed the affairs of the Nation? Does not the picture furnish matter not only for consolation, but even for exultation to every true friend of his country? And amidst the joy which he must feel in the contemplation, can he be so unjust as to refuse the tribute of commendation to those, by whose labors his country has been placed on so fair an eminence? Will he endure to see any part of the fruits of those labors blasted or hazarded, by a voluntary surrender of any portion of the means which are to insure the advantages of so bright a prospect?
In vain will envy or malevolence reply, “The happy situation in which we are placed is to be attributed not to the labors of those who have heretofore conducted our affairs, but to an unforeseen and unexpected progress of our country.” Candor and truth will answer—Praise is always due to public men who take their measures in such a manner as to derive to the nation the benefit of favorable circumstances which are possible, as well as of those which are foreseen. If proportionate provision had not been made, concurrently with the progress of our national resources, the effect of them would not have been felt as to the past, and would not have been matured as to the future.
But why should it be pretended that this progress was not anticipated? In past experience there were many data for calculation. The ratio of the increase of our population had been observed and stated; the extent and riches of our soil were known; the materials for commercial enterprize were no secret; the probable effect of the measures of the government to foster and encourage navigation, trade and industry, was well understood; and especially, the influence of the means, which were adapted to augment our active capital, and to supply a fit and adequate medium of circulation, towards the increase of national wealth, was declared and insisted upon, in official reports. Though adventitious circumstances may have aided the result, it is certain, that a penetrating and comprehensive mind could be at no loss to foresee a progress of our affairs, similar to what has been experienced. Upon this anticipation the assumption of the state debts, and other apparently bold measures of the government were avowedly predicated, in opposition to the feeble & contracted views of the little politicians, who now triumph in the success of their arts, and enjoy the benefits of a policy, which they had neither the wi[s]dom to plan nor the spirit to adopt—idly imagining that the cunning of a demagogue and the talents of a statesman are synonymous. Consummate in the paltry science of courting and winning popular favor, they falsely infer that they have the capacity to govern, and they will be the last to discover their error. But let them be assured that the people will not long continue the dupes of their pernicious sorceries. Already, the cause of truth has derived this advantage from the crude essays of their Chief, that the film has been removed from many an eye. The credit of great abilities was allowed him by a considerable portion of those who disapproved his principles; but the short space of nine months has been amply sufficient to dispel that illusion; and even some of his most partial votaries begin to suspect, that they have been mistaken in the object of their idolatry. (More here)
“I should be a very unhappy man, if I left my tranquillity at the mercy of the misinterpretations which friends as well as foes are fond of giving to my conduct”
Hamilton looks back at attacks by his enemies and his friends in a letter to Gouverneur Morris of 2/29/1802. The takeaway from the third paragraph is that Hamilton knows you can’t talk people into acting as you think they ought unless they share the same principles.
As to the rest, I should be a very unhappy man, if I left my tranquillity at the mercy of the misinterpretations which friends as well as foes are fond of giving to my conduct.
Mine is an odd destiny. Perhaps no man in the UStates has sacrificed or done more for the present Constitution than myself—and contrary to all my anticipations of its fate, as you know from the very begginning I am still labouring to prop the frail and worthless fabric. Yet I have the murmurs of its friends no less than the curses of its foes for my rewards. What can I do better than withdraw from the Scene? Every day proves to me more and more that this American world was not made for me.
The suggestions with which you close your letter suppose a much sounder state of the public mind than at present exists. Attempts to make a show of a general popular dislike of the pending measures of the Government would only serve to manifest the direct reverse. Impressions are indeed making but as yet within a very narrow sphere. The time may ere long arrive when the minds of men will be prepared to make an offer to recover the Constitution, but the many cannot now be brought to make a stand for its preservation. We must wait awhile. (More here)
On freedom of the press
Jefferson had been vociferously opposed to the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798), and had pardoned Republican editors imprisoned under the Sedition Act during the Adams administration. But in 1803, he encouraged New York State’s attorney general (a recent convert to the Republican party) to prosecute Henry Croswell. Croswell, who ran a Federalist paper called The Wasp, had attacked none other than James Callender, the author of the History of the United States in 1796. If you don’t remember Callender’s role in the Reynolds affair (and his style of “persuasion”), go read last week’s post.
The indictment against Croswell reads like a thesaurus entry for “very, very bad”:
It is represented that Harry Croswell, late of the city of Hudson, in the county of Columbia aforesaid, printer, being a malicious and seditious man, of a depraved mind and wicked and diabolical disposition, and also deceitfully, wickedly, and maliciously devising, contriving and intending, Thomas Jefferson, Esq., President of the United States of America, to detract from, scandalize, traduce, vilify, and to represent him, the said Thomas Jefferson, as unworthy the confidence, respect, and attachment of the people of the said United States, and to alienate and withdraw from the said Thomas Jefferson, Esq., President as aforesaid, the obedience, fidelity, and allegiance of the citizens of the state of New York, and also of the said United States; and wickedly and seditiously to disturb the peace and tranquility, as well of the people of the state of New York, as of the United States; and also to bring the said Thomas Jefferson, Esq., (as much as in him the said Harry Croswell lay) into great hatred, contempt, and disgrace, not only with the people of the state of New York, and the said people of the United States, but also with the citizens and subjects of other nations. ; and for that purpose the said Harry Croswell did, on the ninth day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and two, with force and arms, at the said city of Hudson, in the said county of Columbia, wickedly, maliciously, and seditiously, print and publish, and cause and procure to be printed and published, a certain scandalous, malicious, and seditious libel, in a certain paper or publication, entitled ‘The Wasp;’ containing therein, among other things, certain scandalous, malicious, inflammatory, and seditious matters, of and concerning the said Thomas Jefferson, Esq., then and yet being President of the United States of America, that is to say, in one part thereof, according to the tenor and effect following, that is to say: Jefferson (the said Thomas Jefferson, Esq., meaning,) paid Callender (meaning one James Thompson Callender) for calling Washington (meaning George Washington, Esq., deceased, late President of the said United States,) a traitor, a robber, and a perjurer; for calling Adams (meaning John Adams, Esq., late President of the said United States,) a hoary-headed incendiary, and for most grossly slandering the private characters of men who he (meaning the said Thomas Jefferson) well knew to be virtuous; to the great scandal and infamy of the said Thomas Jefferson, Esq., President of the said United States, in contempt of the people of the said state of New York, in open violation of the laws of the said state, to the evil example of all others in like case offending, and against the peace of the people of the state of New York, and their dignity. (More here)
In 1804, 47-year-old Alexander Hamilton spoke for six hours on Croswell’s behalf, in front of an audience that included most New York Senate and Assembly members. It was the sort of case he loved, with far-reaching Constitutional implications, and it was one of his last and most brilliant speeches. Chernow’s section on the Croswell case, with comments by those who heard Hamilton’s speech, is well worth reading (pp. 667-71).
We have only a third-party summary of Hamilton’s speech. Among his points:
The liberty of the press consisted in publishing with impunity, truth with good motives, and for justifiable ends, whether it related to men or to measures. To discuss measures without reference to men, was impracticable. Why examine measures, but to prove them bad, and to point out their pernicious authors, so that the people might correct the evil by removing the men? There was no other way to preserve liberty, and bring down a tyrannical faction. If this right was not permitted to exist in vigor and in exercise, good men would become silent; corruption and tyranny would go on, step by step, in usurpation, until at last, nothing that was worth speaking, or writing, or acting for, would be left in our country.
But he did not mean to be understood as being the advocate of a press wholly without control. He reprobated the novel, the visionary, the pestilential doctrine of an unchecked press, and ill fated would be our country, if this doctrine was to prevail. It would encourage vice, compel the virtuous to retire, destroy confidence, and confound the innocent with the guilty. Single drops of water constantly falling may wear out adamant. The best character of our country [i.e., George Washington], he to whom it was most indebted, and who is now removed beyond the reach of calumny, felt its corrosive effects. No, he did not contend for this terrible liberty of the press, but he contended for the right of publishing truth, with good motives, although the censure might light upon the government, magistrates, or individuals. …
The real danger to our liberties was not from a few provisional troops. The road to tyranny will be opened by making dependent judges, by packing juries, by stifling the press, by silencing leaders and patriots. His apprehensions were not from single acts of open violence. Murder rouses to vengeance; it awakens sympathy, and spreads alarm. But the most dangerous, the most sure, the most fatal of tyrannies, was by selecting and sacrificing single individuals, under the mask and forms of law, by dependent and partial tribunals. Against such measures we ought to keep a vigilant eye, and take a manly stand. Whenever they arise, we ought to resist, and resist, till we have hurled the demagogues and tyrants from their imagined thrones. (More here)
- Cut from the post, but worth reading: Hamilton’s letter to Lafayette of 4/28/1798; notes on protecting the city from disease, 2/26/1798 (re Burr’s Manhattan Company); letter of June 1804 to his sixteen-year-old son James (here and here: “I have prepared for you a Thesis on Discretion …”).
- Examples of cases in which I disagree with Hamilton: letter to John Jay 5/7/1800 (“to prevent an Atheist in Religion and a Fanatic in politics from getting possession of the helm of State”); “The Examination” No. 3 (12/24/1801), advocating a government active in more than just protecting rights – the intervention Hamilton proposes is relatively minor, but the principle is wrong, as I stated at the end of this post (“In matters of industry, human enterprize ought, doubtless, to be left free in the main, not fettered by too much regulation; but practical politicians know that it may be beneficially stimulated by prudent aids and encouragements on the part of the Government.”); letter to James Bayard on 4/6/1802, proposing a Christian Constitutional Society.
- 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 sixty-fourth in a series of posts on Hamilton: An American Musical. My intro to this series is here. 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 Biography. Bottom line: these are unofficial musings, and you do not need them to enjoy the musical or the soundtrack.
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