Wasn’t Roger Sherman against slavery ? Or is it another sherman?
Real-life people are complex. It’s often interesting to see what shakes out when their principles are in conflict.
Did Washington just get involved?
Check the peg leg. I think it’s Morris.
I always wondered how well that particular clause would work in practice. Surely, if you’re amending the constitution, you can go ahead and amend that part of Article 5.
It’s an extra step, at least. I think it’s more a statement than anything – we’re not going to gang up on each other. If you want to change it, well, does your state want to be responsible for adding the part of the Constitution that says “States can screw each other over”? Your state might be next.
Came across this interesting article on Hamilton and his influences on modern politics.
From that, I can’t help but feel like your depiction of Hamilton’s disdain for the States and his (And Morris’) push for federalism was something far more sinister than what you’ve depicted it as, Nathan. Any thoughts or rebuttals on this?
Yeah, no. The trouble with that article is the author’s trying to make a modern political point, to a present-day progressive audience, by shoehorning historical events into his own modern political context. That might have been useful for his purposes, but not for historical understanding. Also, the author seems to think of financial types as today’s bad guys, which is fine, but then based on that he imputes motivations that these people simply didn’t have two hundred years ago. I tend to grumble when people bend the facts to serve their preferred narrative, even though we all do it. And if he wasn’t so caught up in the “finance is evil” thing, he could have made much the same point without having to fudge any facts at all.
Hamilton wasn’t sinister or nefarious. He certainly wasn’t the only one at the convention who distrusted democracy. On the contrary, “democratic” was a term of derision at the time. In a very real sense, democracy was the very problem they were trying to solve. As we’ll see in the coming pages, one of the central themes of debate throughout the convention was how to harness the virtue of the people, without giving them too much control. It was a common belief that the common man shouldn’t have too much say — not because he’s stupid or foolish, but because he doesn’t have access to enough information to make a wise decision, is constantly bombarded by what we’d call these days “fake news” and cannot readily sift the spin from the facts. The generally-accepted idea at the time was that only the movers and shakers were so situated as to see the big picture and avoid unintended consequences. A significant minority even thought only propertied men could be trusted to make important decisions, but even they weren’t what we’d call “plutocrats” today. It was just one variation on the generally-accepted theme.
In fact, it’s one of the ironies of history that those delegates who were closest to the common man were those who trusted him the least. It was the aristocratic delegates, the ones furthest removed from “we the people,” who spoke out the strongest for popular rights.
In that context, Hamilton was not remotely out of sync. He was not an aristocrat, was in fact closer to the common man than most. His distrust of pure democracy was no more extreme than anyone else’s there.
As for his nationalism, it’s true he was one of perhaps three delegates who thought that way — the other two being Benjamin Franklin and Gouverneur Morris. Everyone else thought of their state as their country. Hamilton thought keeping the states would be a mistake. New York was going to care about what’s good for New York, not what’s good for Georgia. He wanted one national identity, not fragmented parochial interests. Hardly sinister. Seems right up the author’s street, actually.
The author’s main criticism is his claim that Hamilton wanted private banks and corporations to usurp government functions, and the injustice that would result. First of all, the modern banking and corporate world the author clearly dislikes didn’t exist back then. It was a very different system, and even though he briefly acknowledges that these were not in fact private entities but quasi-public (like the present-day Federal Reserve), his criticism seems to presume that they would be essentially private endeavors for private profit. Profiteering’s been a side effect of government since government was invented, and Hamilton may have had an eye to that, but that’s not the ceding of sovereignty that the author wants to allege.
The author conflates “authority” with “sovereignty.” He appears to presume that a role that government could perform is therefore necessarily the exclusive province of government. This is typical of European views of government (akin to “if it’s something people do, then it must be regulated”). And it is also found on the more authoritarian wings of the political spectrum in the U.S. A limited-government type, on the other hand, will say that not all powers belong to the government, and some shouldn’t be granted to the government in the first place. And that was what the Framers all believed. Deciding which powers government should have was a substantial question at the Convention. The Framers’ criticism of Hamilton was that he wasn’t limited-government enough. He (and Gouverneur Morris) wanted too much federal power, for their tastes. It’s ironic that the author, who seems to prefer an authoritarian progressive strong central government, criticizes Hamilton for being authoritarian. Especially as this is one instance where Hamilton appears not to have favored strong central government control.
The author bases most of his argument on his retelling of Hogeland’s account of the Newburgh Conspiracy (without linking to it. Here’s the link.) Hogeland’s purpose was to say that Chernow’s biography brushed this event under the rug, and that Hamilton nastily conspired with the corrupt Robert Morris to use the situation to ramp up the national debt so as to fleece the farmers and line the pockets of the investing class.
One, Chernow didn’t exactly brush this under the rug. He called this episode “Hamilton at his most devious.” Nobody I’ve read seems to disagree with this assessment. It was fucking devious. But there’s no actual evidence of a conspiracy. On the contrary, it was just a run-of-the-mill example of political hardball, the way it was played in the 1780s. And it was nobody’s intention to fleece anybody. The whole point of the exercise was to…
Okay, I can’t help myself. Story time:
The battle of Yorktown was won in October 1781, but the peace negotiations dragged on into 1783. Washington’s troops remained in the field that whole time, and Congress hadn’t paid them. Their uniforms had worn out long ago, and they fended off the cold with whatever patchwork of fabric they could find. Soldiers’ families were literally begging in the streets. The troops had every right to think their country had betrayed them. Washington was outraged, thought it was criminal. Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris, and Hamilton’s father-in-law Gen. Schuyler held the Continental Congress in deepest contempt (and had already been speaking out about how its powers had to be increased if the war was to be won). Hamilton had now been advising Washington to side with his soldiers over Congress.
Then things got bad. The troops at Newburgh were commanded by Horatio Gates — a weak man who’d crossed both Washington and Schuyler. Gates’ aide-de-camp handed out an address to the soldiers, telling them to stop asking Congress for money, to rebel, and take what they were owed by force. Washington wrote to Hamilton, saying he sympathized with the soldiers of course, but was afraid the soldiers might overreact and “throw themselves into a gulph of horror.” Washington decided to go to Newburgh.
He arrived while Gates was haranguing his men in a great hall. It was a cinematic moment. Washington entered silently, and the soldiers turned to watch him stride up the aisle. Gates stammered to a stop, and Washington gently asked permission to speak to the men. It would be one of the greatest speeches of his life. Shakespeare’s Henry V couldn’t have done better. Then he pulled out letters from Congressmen who promised to put everything on the line, personally, to support the troops, so long as the troops remained peaceful. He couldn’t make out the writing on one of the letters and put on a pair of reading glasses — the first time he’d been seen to wear them — saying “gentlemen you must pardon me. I have grown weary in your service and now find myself going blind.” When he finished, he simply walked out of the building in absolute silence, as tears rolled down the men’s faces. That was the end of the “conspiracy.” (And he did hold those Congressmen to their word, and things started to get better.)
If Washington had instead taken their side, there is no doubt that he could have assumed military control of the entire country. And we might have devolved into another tin-pot American dictatorship. The fact that he did not do so speaks even more to his greatness.
But what about Hamilton and Robert Morris? Let’s back up.
Starting long before Yorktown, Hamilton had sought to reform Congress into a body with the power to actually run the country. To do this, he said Congress needed the loyalty of the army. If Congress could only do those two things, he was convinced, they would not only win the war but have the foundation of a thriving new free country.
But to do that, they’d need money. He and other nationalists like him recognized that without financing, there’d never be a nation. And they all — not just Hamilton — understood that to mean a government capable of taking on foreign debt and making the payments on that debt without defaulting. Not a nefarious plot to fleece investors, but the most basic fundamentals of creditworthiness. And that’s where Robert Morris came in.
Morris was perhaps the most powerful man in America. He was rich and intelligent, but also driven and passionate. By dint of his natural talents and his personality, he’d been put in charge of pretty much everything to do with finance. Now Morris had the idea to co-opt the rich and powerful, by making the success of the nation be in their own personal interest. And he knew how to play the game.
Robert Morris was no angel (except as an investor). But he was no demon, either. Already the richest man in North America in 1776, he’d nevertheless signed the Declaration of Independence and risked it all. In 1781, he was given massive powers over the government’s finances. He didn’t steal them, they were given to him. Some opposed it, but others said he was the only man who could save the colonies from bankruptcy. He used his own wealth and his own credit to keep the new country afloat. He got the foreign loans so necessary to survival. He used the influence of the biggest businessmen to rein in the out-of-control inflation. But even he couldn’t overcome the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation. And he couldn’t finance the nation out of his own pocket forever.
He proposed a 5% tariff on imports, which would have done it. But Rhode Island killed it, opposed to any transfer of state powers to Congress. (Virginia said yeah, me too.) He tried for other permanent sources of revenue to finance national debt, but now that the peace treaty was in sight there wasn’t much incentive to fund the war effort. All he had to work with were the interested parties: the private individuals besides himself whose bond purchases were funding the country, and the army who needed the cash. And then, around New Years 1783, some officers from Newburgh arrived to present their grievances to Congress.
Morris seized on the opportunity to manufacture a crisis, and force Congress to take action.
The Newburgh officers proposed that Congress pay the soldiers their long-promised pension now, in one lump sum, and call it quits. Congress naturally turned to Morris to help them out. Morris stopped them cold. I’d love to, I’d really really love to, but I can’t pay a penny until you fix this whole revenue problem. You want me to direct the finances of a nation, but without revenue, with a Congress that only has the power to recommend possible suggestions, and an army that’s about to mutiny for lack of pay?
Mutiny? WTF? Congress called the officers back for more testimony, and in so many words they insinuated that mutiny was perhaps in the realm of possibility. Congress started feeling loose in the bowels.
Madison, Rutledge, and Samuel Osgood met with everyone to put together a recommendation. And just when it was to be put to debate… Morris resigned as head of Finance. Congress shat itself.
They granted Morris all the power Congress could delegate, whatever would help him get the army its back pay, with assistance from the states. That wasn’t much power. That wasn’t going to cut it. Meanwhile, Congress kept voting on the lump-sum idea, but it never got passed.
A trio — Hamilton, Robert Morris, and Gouverneur Morris — now come to center stage. All three were nationalists. All three had been working nonstop to turn the colonies into a single country. Without solid credit and finances, including federal assumption of debts, it wasn’t ever going to happen. All depended on this throw of the dice. They saw this as their last shot.
So now, Gouverneur Morris wrote a private letter to Henry Knox back in Newburgh: Don’t trust Congress. With peace looming, the states aren’t going to cough up a dime. They’re all so happy you’re fighting for them now, but as soon as peace breaks out they’d rather let you starve than pay a six-penny tax. But if the army takes charge, who’s to stop you? And the guys with the cash know what side of their bread is buttered, the financial guys will support you completely. There’s no downside to a coup, is what I’m saying.
Knox rejected this blunt call to mutiny with distaste. Damn. Okay. Who else could they turn to…? …Washington?
Unbelievable, but true. And this is where Hamilton came in.
Hamilton wrote to Washington the most cynical, manipulative, conniving little letter. (Of course, Washington saw through it. He knew Hamilton better than anyone, and wasn’t about to let himself get played). Congress is full of weak little bunnies, wrote Hamilton. They’re not influenced by what’s right, but what frightens them. So let’s make them afraid of the army. The trick’s gonna be we have to make the army seem threatening, without letting it actually come to anything. So you should give them a speech that acknowledges their anger but keeps them from acting on it. You’re the only man in the world who can pull it off!
Washington wrote back “nice try. Congress and the States are full of reasonable men. Reason will prevail. Leave me out of it.”
So Hamilton looked for a bunny, and in shy Madison’s ear whispered that peace or no peace, rumor had it the army wasn’t going to lay down its arms until it got paid. Madison was alarmed. The rumor spread.
Congress was now in the perfect frame of mind for a little persuasion. Now for the army. The army’s IG, Walter Stewart, rode up to Newburgh and met privately with General Gates. Nobody knows what was said. The next day was Sunday, and on Monday morning Gates’ aide John Armstrong (an excellent persuasive writer, later Madison’s Secretary of War during the War of 1812) issued two documents. One was an order for an officers’ meeting to consider the reports from the men who’d gone to the Capital. The other was the address mentioned at the beginning of the story. It was anonymous, and it was a call to action. Congress wasn’t going to help. In a powerful work of rhetoric, it told the men they could either lie down and take it, or stand up for themselves and take what was theirs. Tell the civilians in charge that if they abandon us, then we won’t lay down our arms in peacetime, and we won’t fight for them in war. Hope it doesn’t come to that, but mean it when you say it.
Washington saw a copy of this address, and knew he had to act. He wished everyone would just take a deep breath and cool down, but that wasn’t going to happen. Everyone was too worked up. Fucking Hamilton.
What to do? He knew Congress wanted to do right by the army. He knew the army loved its country. Fucking Hamilton. Fucking Morrises. They were playing both ends against the middle. And he was in the middle.
Washington decided he’d have to go speak to the soldiers. In the meantime, he told friends in Congress to round up any members who actually opposed paying the army, “and scruple not to tell them, if matters should come to extremity, that they must be answerable for all the ineffable horrors” that must follow. In other words, Washington — remember him, he’s that big guy who’s killed more men than you’ve had hot dinners — Washington is going to hold you personally responsible. Maybe re-think that position, pal.
When word got out that Washington was coming, a second anonymous letter went around Newburgh. It was more than a little disingenuous. “Look, that first address was uncomfortable, but necessary. Now everyone knows the stakes. Suspicion is nasty in private life, but in politics it shines a light on the truth for all to see. Stirring everyone up was necessary to wake up the sheeple!” But this letter was dangerous, too. “Hey, the General’s coming to talk with us. If he wanted to oppose us, all he had to do was issue an order to stand down. He’s coming to talk with us. That means he’s on our side! He doesn’t just sympathize with us, he agrees with our plan! He brings legitimacy to our cause!”
Sun Tzu would have loved Washington. Washington’s forte was turning his weakness into his strength. Using the other side’s strength against itself. Hamilton and the Morrises may have put him between a rock and a hard place, setting his loyalty to his men against his loyalty to his country, but that’s the kind of situation where he’d always excelled. He’d just change the rules. There was no rock. There was no hard place.
He walked into the hall, and changed history. Not for the first time, not for the last.
But back to Hamilton. He was a lot of things — and he was no angel — but he wasn’t at all the villain that the article makes him out to be. It wasn’t a conspiracy. Nobody was truly trying to overthrow the government. Nobody seriously suggested the military launch a coup. Nobody was trying to steal government powers or sovereignty. Nobody was trying to fleece the citizenry. Hamilton and the others wanted to strengthen the government, and bring it kicking and screaming into true nationhood, with the power to govern itself, and the financial wherewithal to stay alive. Everybody in this story was a patriot, trying to do the right thing for the nation. Selfish motivations weren’t primary, but co-opted for the greater cause. Or incidental to it. Hamilton and the Morrises were desperate to save their country, and played hardball to do it. It was trickery. It was devious. It was conniving. But it wasn’t nefarious, and it wasn’t a conspiracy.
And if nothing else undermines the author’s premise, just look at the Federalist Papers. Four of them a week, persistently arguing not for the nationalistic system Hamilton originally wanted, but for the republic we got. They were Hamilton’s idea, and he wrote most of them (and collaborated on most of the rest). (One of many things the Hamilton musical gets wrong for the sake of narrative is who turned him down as co-author. It wasn’t Burr. It was Gouverneur.) The Federalist is not the work of the man described in that article.
So yeah, nah.
Ah, the Washington speech. I’d already heard about it and the circumstances behind it from this video, although it doesn’t talk about Hamilton encouraging the almost-mutiny in the first place.
(Also, can you comment on whether the soldiers at the speech were anime fans?)
Does the background in the third panel reference The Tennis Court Oath?
It wasn’t meant to… but one of the nice things about words and pictures is that once you’ve set them loose, everyone else gets to make connections and associations you hadn’t thought of… and you still get the credit!
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