There was no love lost between Alexander Hamilton and John Adams. Hamilton famously castigated Adams in a pamphlet published in 1800 entitled, Letter … Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams.
The pamphlet, a 40-plus page attack against Adams’ presidency and his fitness to serve, probably contributed to Adams losing his election to a second term in office in the election of 1800.
At the same time, historians have suggested that Hamilton handled it clumsily. Hamilton probably wanted the pamphlet circulated in small numbers to discreetly urge support for Charles Cotesworth Pinkney over Adams. But because the pamphlet was published prematurely and given wide national circulation, it backfired badly on Hamilton.
Hamilton and Adams belonged to the same political party, and the pamphlet exposed Hamilton as an unscrupulous political manipulator,
As for Adams, he publicly held his tongue about Hamilton’s pamphlet for many years. But his private opinions were anything but kind.
In his autobiography, Adams said he believed Hamilton’s attack on him was motivated not by any concerns over public policy, but simply the result of a long-held personal grudge. During the American Revolution generals Philip Schuyler and Horatio Gates had a long-running rivalry. Gates prevailed and Adams had supported him. Schuyler, however, was Alexander Hamilton’s father-in-law.
Adams wrote in his autobiography:
…whatever Hamilton may have pretended, I am persuaded that the decided part I had acted and the free Speeches I had made in Congress against Schuyler and in favour of Gates, had been rankling in Hamilton’s heart from 1776 till he wrote his Libel against me in 1799. Gates’s Resentment against Jay, Schuyler and Hamilton made him turn in 1799 against me, who had been the best Friend and the most efficacious Supporter he ever had in America.
I had never in my Life any personal Prejudice or dislike against General Schuyler: on the contrary I knew him to be industrious, studious and intelligent: But the New England Officers, Soldiers and Inhabitants, knew Gates in the Camp at Cambridge. Schuyler was not known to many and the few who had heard of him were prejudiced against him from the former French War. The New England Soldiers would not enlist to serve under him and the Militia would not turn out. I was therefore under a Necessity of supporting Gates. Mr. Duane, Mr. Jay, Colonel Harrison &c. supported Schuyler. There is no difficulty therefore in Accounting for Hamilton’s ancient [grudge] any more than his modern Malice against me.
Hamilton as Debauched as Franklin
In his exchange of letters with his wife Abigail, Adams was even more blunt, though he may have underestimated Hamilton’s ability to inflict political harm on him. In January of 1797, just weeks after his election to the presidency, John wrote to Abigail:
Hamilton I know to be a proud Spirited, conceited, aspiring Mortal always pretending to Morality, with as debauched Morals as old Franklin who is more his Model than any one I know. As great an Hypocrite as any in the U.S.
His Intrigues in the Election I despise. That he has Talents I admit but I dread none of them. I shall take no notice of his Puppy head but retain the same Opinion of him I always had and maintain the same Conduct towards him I always did, that is keep him at a distance.
The private criticisms of Hamilton’s lack of morality foreshadowed the sex scandal that enveloped Hamilton later in 1797. It was revealed that Hamilton had had an affair with a much younger woman six years earlier.
Abigail Joins In
In a letter in 1799, with Hamilton perhaps already pondering the attack pamphlet he would write, Abigail wrote to John about Hamilton:
I have not any Confidence in the honour, integrity or patriotism of any Man, who does not believe that. Thou shalt not commit Adultery is a positive prohibition of God. Thou shalt not covet thy Neighbours wife is another, and yet I have been credibly informed that the Audacious publication of that Man has only rendered him more bold, and hardened in iniquity. It only requires a temptation sufficiently powerful to Ambition to lead from the path of political Rectitude; it is a strange way of Reasoning. I would not upon any consideration do a public wrong or injury, but I can be guilty of breaking the most solemn private engagement and that to one whom I am bound by affection, and by Honor to protect, to Love and Respect. I can disgrace and stigmatize my Lawful offspring, and feel neither Shame or compunction, but I would not betray a public trust. I cannot see that I commit any breach of Charity in this comment . . . I hope I am not too censorious, yet upon looking over my Letter, I begin to suspect that I have given myself a pretty free latitude. I believe I had better close before I attack any other, assuring you that I am in full Charity with all Good Men, and that I am your truly affectionate
Renders him more bold, indeed.