You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The War Between Adams and Hamilton

The Adams Papers: Volumes I through IV, Diary and Autobiography of John Adams
L. H. Butterfield, editor
(Harvard; $30)

The Papers of Alexander Hamilton: Volumes I and II
Harold C. Syrett, editor
(Columbia; $25)

In 1950, when the Princeton University Press brought out the first volumes of Julian Boyd’s edition of the Jefferson papers. President Truman asked the National Historical Publications Commission to consider a publication program for other American heroes. The next year the Commission recommended special attention to the papers of five persons—Franklin, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Hamilton and Madison. The Commission’s report provided a stimulus both to scholarship and subsidy, and the results, when completed, will vastly enlarge the documentary record of our history. Today the Franklin papers are being published at Yale, and the Madison papers at the University of Virginia. Now, with these first volumes of the Adams and Hamilton papers. Harvard and Columbia are making their contributions to this notable reconquest of our past.

Both these sets are superb technical jobs. They are splendidly printed, and the editing is full and meticulous without becoming intrusive or pedantic. The general reader is more likely to find, of the volumes so far published, the Adams papers more interesting than the Hamilton papers. This is partly because Adams, with his fuss and crotchets, is a more human figure, partly because the Hamilton volumes only go to 1781 and thus cover only the bare start of Hamilton’s public career, partly because L. H. Butterfield, with a genial conception of his editorial responsibility, introduces his first volume with a sparkling and sympathetic essay on the Adamses. Harold Syrett, who evidently has a more austere view of the editorial task, keeps his comment severely technical. I hope that he does not hold to this practice, because I am sure that he has things of interest to say about Hamilton, and he should feel free to say them.

It is appropriate that the papers of these two ancient antagonists should begin publication the same year—and in a year which is much concerned with the character of American conservatism. The two men cordially disliked each other for reasons philosophical as well as personal. Hamilton’s savage polemic against Adams in 1800 (“the unfortunate foibles of a vanity without bounds, and a jealousy capable of discoloring every object... the disgusting egotism, the distempered jealousy and the ungovernable indiscretion of Mr. Adams’ temper,” etc., etc.) is extremely familiar. Charles Francis Adams, in editing John Adams’ autobiography, softened and even suppressed some of his grandfather’s retorts; but Dr. Butterfield has now restored them in all their magnificent and incoherent outrage. “Although I have long since forgiven this Arch Enemy,” Adams wrote, “yet Vice, Folly and Villany are not to be forgotten, because the guilty Wretch repented, in his dying Moments. . . . Born on a Speck more obscure than Corsica, from an Original not only contemptible but infamous, with infinitely less courage and Capacity than Bonaparte, he would in my Opinion, if I had not controuled the fury of his Vanity, instead of relieving this Country
from Confusion as Bonaparte did France, he would have involved it in all the Bloodshed and distractions of foreign and civil Wars at once.”

Both Adams and Hamilton were, of course, Federalists. Both accepted the view of human nature propounded by Hume in a quotation cherished by Hamilton: “In contriving any system of government. . . every man ought to be supposed a knave; and to have no other end in all his actions, but private interest. By this interest, we must govern him, and by means of it, make him cooperate to public good, notwithstanding his insatiable avarice and ambition.” But at this point their paths sharply diverged. Hamilton was the first great modernizer in our history. He believed that the development of his adopted country required a national government and an industrial economy; and his politics consisted in transferring authority to the centralizers and income to the entrepreneurs. Adams was essentially almost as much of an agrarian as Jefferson. He detested the new capitalism (“A bank that issues paper at interest is a pickpocket or a robber . . . an aristocracy is growing out of them that will be fatal as the feudal barons, if unchecked”) and he wanted an America that would be stable, responsible and unchanging.

Adams was thus more consistent than Hamilton in his belief in the knavery of men. Hamilton was ready to repose confidence in the “rich and well-born” on the ground that,” as they cannot receive any advantage by a change, they therefore will ever maintain good government.” He believed that “no plan could succeed which did not unite the interest and credit of rich individuals with those of the state.” Adams, on the other hand, found little to choose between the greedy rich and the hungry poor. “There is no reason,” he wrote, “to believe the one much honester or wiser than the other”; in a homogeneous system, “equal laws can never be expected: they will either be made by numbers, to plunder the few who are rich, or by influence, to fleece the many who are poor.” Adams therefore argued that the constitution of society must take into account the divisions created by the unequal distribution of property and provide safeguards for both classes by giving each a chamber of the legislature.

They were sharply contrasting figures—the staunch, irascible, honest Yankee lawyer with his instinct for the past, and the ambitious, lucid, bold West Indian adventurer with his instinct for the future. And the contrast illuminates a chronic dilemma of American conservatism: does conservatism mean a belief in keeping things as they are? or does it mean a faith in the “rich and well-born” even if such faith may be a means of change? Adams’ philosophy would have probably produced social responsibility but economic stagnation; Hamilton’s has produced social irresponsibility but economic progress.

In the absence of a feudal background, there could have been no place in America for Adams’ conception of a political order founded on economic castes. Hamilton, though finding himself a “stranger” in America and concluding at the end of his life that “this American world was not made for me,” had nevertheless the clearer view of the American destiny. Our national energies took the Hamiltonian course, which meant an expanding and inventive economy accompanied by an often witless faith in the superiority of the “rich and well-born” (and, in counteraction, a retort to Hamiltonian government charged with Jeffersonian purpose). And it can be argued that the Hamiltonian tradition, despite its contempt for the mass, has done more for people by its effect in increasing output and raising living standards, than the Adams tradition, with all its desire to vindicate the place of the poor, could ever have done.