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Posts Tagged ‘George Clinton’

During the first decade the United States lived under the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton (on the left) was a political force.  In fact, one could go so far as to say he was the second-most powerful man in the country, a rung or two below President Washington.  A good number of men loved and respected him (including the first President), and a good number loathed and reviled him (including the second, third, fourth, and fifth Presidents) .  But no one could argue with the presence and influence the country’s first Treasury Secretary enjoyed.  If you’ve spent any time on the pages of Today’s History Lesson, you know that to be true.  His legacy, now nearly two-and-a-half centuries in length, still lives with us.

During the second decade, Hamilton’s power began to dwindle.  Some of that was his own fault, some not.  Clearly, the Federalist party (to which Hamilton belonged) was falling out of favor, wilting under the pressure of an Anti-Federalist party led by Jefferson and Madison.  Federalists were under constant attack and in those days, before the “gentleman’s press” had come into being, those attacks were vicious and in numerous cases, untrue.

But Hamilton’s own indiscretions hadn’t helped his situation.  His affair with Maria Reynolds had been made public in the late 1790s, causing him to offer up a well-intentioned, but ill-advised public apology.  Then there was the even more ill-advised attack on President Adams (a fellow Federalist), published in the newspapers shortly before the 1800 election.  At this point, he was still hated by Anti-Federalists, but a good number of Federalists were keeping their distance as well.

By 1804, Hamilton was doing very well in his law practice, but struggling mightily for political significance.  The upcoming governor’s race in New York provided Hamilton with chance to gain some ground.  Aaron Burr (on the right above), the current Vice President, had decided to run for the position.  Of course, the feud between Hamilton and Burr needs no introduction around here.  Hamilton was incredibly worried that Burr would win, so he drafted a letter to his close friend Rufus King, currently the ambassador to England, asking him to run.  Hamilton knew that King might not be able to win the election outright against the firmly entrenched Clinton machine, but maybe he would siphon off enough “Burr” votes to prevent his arch-enemy’s victory.

On the day he wrote the letter, February 23, 1804, Hamilton became the center of attention again, and again, for all the wrong reasons.  The “Clinton machine”, led my New York governor George Clinton (another bitter rival of Hamilton’s), began circulating the report that, way back in 1787 (during the time of the Constitutional Convention), Hamilton and John Adams (then the ambassador to England) had negotiated with King George III to create an American monarchy with one of George’s sons as king.  In return, England would give up Canada, Nova Scotia, and other land holdings.

The story was utterly false.  Yes, both Hamilton and Adams had made statements in the past that, taken on their own, could be seen to favor a monarchical government.  But each man’s overall body of work clearly showed that neither, under any circumstance, wanted to return to that form of rule.  And having England in control of America in any way, shape, or form, was anathema to both men.  But the timing of the story was perfect, as Hamilton was beginning to gain a bit of political traction via his law practice.

Without letting go of his current work, Hamilton began tracing threads to determine the story’s originator.  He was a man that, above all else, treasured his own honor.  People began to detect the smell of gunpowder in the air and pistols at ten paces.

Hamilton was in the thick of it again.  Dates are a bit fuzzy, but I’m going to try put together a proper conclusion to this story on the proper day.

Recommended Reading:  Duel:  Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Future of America – A good composite read on the feud between these two powerful men.  It starts a bit slowly for my tastes, but finishes with a flourish.

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There are some who might think I’ve spent way too much time writing about Alexander Hamilton.  Pick a different Founder, you say.  My response is that I will…when I do more learning about them.  Or maybe you don’t much like our First Treasury Secretary, believing him to be the first man to really monkey with the Constitution.  I would point you to the Federalist and argue that, while Hamilton made moves and created financial structures that were controversial in his time, no one better understood the constructs of the Constitution and the limits it placed on the branches of government.

So there!!

Still not convinced?

Oh well, that’s what makes history so intriguing.  Looking back, studying people and events, attempting to put some context around them, and coming to conclusions.  And sometimes, the conclusions we come to are different.

But today is a good day for those of you who are not fans of Alexander Hamilton.  Because even though his influence is felt today here (and all over the world), you can take solace in the fact that he was no longer doing anything under the auspices of the United States Government.  January 31, 1795 was the end of his tenure.

In December of the previous year, a worn out (and somewhat dejected) Alexander Hamilton had told President Washington that he was leaving office.  The reasons were many.  Exhaustion played a role, both in his own life and that of his wife, Eliza.  Then there was the job itself.  Almost since the inception of the Department, Hamilton had battled naysayers.  Members of Congress had railed against him.  They dug through financial dealings line by line, looking for the smoking gun to throw him from office.

The country’s first Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, had waged a one-man war against Hamilton.  He had hounded the President about him, strategized with James Madison to discredit him, and partially funded a newspaper to sling mud at him.  And after more than three years of trying, he simply resigned his office in frustration.  We know that Alexander Hamilton was no saint, but in his dealings from the Secretary’s office, there was nothing but honesty, integrity, and sound judgement.

So while sainthood eluded him, his homecoming to New York in February probably felt heaven-sent.  He was declared the patron saint of prosperity.  He was given a lavish party that overflowed with praise as much as food and drink.  The former Secretary received nine cheers that evening (President Washington and Vice President Adams received three each).  There was much tongue-wagging and speculation about his future.  George Clinton, New York’s governor, had just announced he wasn’t running for reelection, and scuttlebutt said the job was Hamilton’s for the taking.  There were even whispers of higher aspirations…some said he would be the second President of the United States.

But Hamilton’s needs were more practical.  He needed money.  For those who accused Hamilton of skimming money from the Treasury, his heavy debt proved otherwise.  Hamilton (like most men who served their country back then) made a meager salary, just $3,500 a year, far less than what he and his large family needed.  He had set aside his law practice (which probably would have made him 10 times his Secretary’s salary) to serve, and paid a large financial price for it.  He had worked tirelessly to clean up the country’s debt, and it was time to do the same for his own.

Alexander Hamilton was ready for private life and private practice, and he would begin on February 1st.  But make no mistake, he would never be far from the public eye and its scrutiny.

Recommended Reading: Alexander Hamilton

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As I type this morning, folks in New York City are preparing for the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.  And if it’s anything like previous spectacles, there will be floats and bands, convertibles with people waving to the crowds, and probably a celebrity or two.  It’s a big deal.  But Macy’s hasn’t been around forever.  Neither has Thanksgiving, for that matter.  And if you had been in New York City 227 years ago, it would have looked nothing like it will this morning on TV.

But there was a parade…of sorts.

The end of the American Revolution and American victory meant that the remaining British soldiers needed to get out of town.  And New York was one of the last major towns where pro-British sentiments were strong.  But things were changing.  As spring warmed to summer in 1783, those who considered themselves loyal to the British Crown began leaving.  Government personnel, businessmen, and families all headed to Canada or back across the Atlantic.  The loss of businesses was particularly hurtful, as lots of money and jobs were removed from New York’s economy.  By the thousands they pulled up stakes and left.

And what’s more, since the British military had taken control in 1776, New York had been under martial law and had been left in a terrible state of disrepair.  Much of the damage done by the fire in September of that year had never been cleaned up.  Fences and trees had been chopped up for firewood.  The skeletal remains of homes and businesses testified to a much better past, while the cattle roaming the streets and piles of garbage were the reality of the present.  Looking at the harbor, one visitor (probably holding his nose) said, “Noisome vapors arise from the mud left in the docks and slips at low water, and unwholesome smells are occasioned by such a number of people being crowded together in so small a compass, almost like herrings in a barrel, most of them very dirty and not a small number sick of some disease.”  It had become a shantytown.

But on November 25, 1783, there was a parade…a military parade.  Evacuation Day it was called.  The day the last of the British soldiers left town, and new ownership arrived.  The incoming group was led by General Henry Knox, whose first act was to raise the American flag on a brand new flag pole (British soldiers had taken down their flag and greased the pole on their way out).  He was followed by General Washington and Governor George Clinton and their guard.

The remaining citizens of New York were ecstatic.  Seven long years under the thumb of the British was more than long enough, and the day was one of celebration.  And now, the last British outpost was under the flag of freedom.  America was truly independent.  Ron Chernow summarizes by writing, “America had been purged of the last vestiges of British rule.  It had been a long and grueling experience – the eight years of fighting counted as the country’s longest conflict until Vietnam – and the cost had been exceedingly steep in blood and treasure.”  Indeed, it has been estimated that upwards of 25,000 soldiers had been killed in the Revolution.  This amounted to about 1% of the nation’s population, a ratio only surpassed by the Civil War.

Macy’s or no, a parade was most appropriate.

Have a wonderful, and safe, Thanksgiving.

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It didn’t take long for the leadership in the newly-freed 13 Colonies to realize that the current charter, the Articles of Confederation, were seriously lacking.  A meeting was planned in September of 1786 in Annapolis, Maryland to address the issues, but only five Colonies were represented.  So they decided to shelve the meeting and try again in May of the following year.

That meeting, which became known as the Constitutional Convention, lasted nearly four months and didn’t just amend the Articles, it wadded them up in a little ball and chucked them from the window into the Philadelphia heat and humidity.

An entirely new government had been created, and those present at the meetings now had to go to their respective homes and sell their constituents on the idea.  In some states, that proved to be a most tedious process, and it didn’t take long to realize that 13 Colonies, united just a few years before under the push for independence, could just as quickly become ugly and divisive over the Constitution.  Those that supported the new government were labeled Federalists, those against it, Antifederalists.

Nowhere was that better seen than in New York.  When Alexander Hamilton (shown above) returned there from Philadelphia, the fight was waiting for him.  Governor George Clinton, no friend of Hamilton’s and a staunch Antifederalist, campaigned hard against ratification.  Marinus Willett, formerly one of the Sons of Liberty, called the document “a monster with open mouth and monstrous teeth ready to devour all before it.”

Hamilton, for his part, responded by taking on the secret identity of Publius and writing The Federalist Papers (with some help from James Madison and John Jay), a series of newspaper articles defending each piece of the Constitution to the New York public.

As the winter of 1787 turned into the spring of 1788, Colonies began achieving statehood by ratifying the Constitution.  And in New York’s legislature, the battle continued.  The Federalist Papers were bound and published, and James Madison distributed hundreds of copies in Virginia to aid with ratification.

But the tone of the argument changed radically when New Hampshire ratified the Constitution as the 9th state in June of 1788.  The new government was now activated, and the debate was not over forming such a union, but rather joining it.  Four days after New Hampshire, the Madison-led delegation passed ratification in Virginia.

Back in New York, Hamilton and his entourage put the screws to the Antifederalists.  With tireless energy, he pushed and prodded the delegation.  And finally, on July 26, 1788, a group of Antifederalists led by Melancton Smith (the leading voice of Gov. Clinton’s opposition) changed their votes.  Ratification in New York had passed, and the Colony had become the 11st State in the Union.

Recommended Reading: Alexander Hamilton – Chernow’s work is all-engrossing and 100% worth the effort.

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