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Character Sketches

Character Sketches
Chapter 10: Launching the New Ship of State, 1789 - 1800


George Washington (1732 - 1799)

As both military leader of the Revolution and first president under the Constitution, Washington symbolized the republican ideal of Cincinnatus, the Roman citizen-soldier who only reluctantly abandoned private life to serve his country.

The only serious challenge to Washingtons leadership during the Revolution came in 1777 from the Conway cabal, a group of disgruntled officers, encouraged by some members of Congress, who plotted futilely to oust Washington from command.

In 1782 some Continental army officers proposed making Washington king of America; he was outraged when he heard of it and refused to allow anyone to mention the idea in his presence.

During his retirement from 1783 to 1787, his greatest interest was in linking the Potomac and Ohio rivers by road, and he traveled on horseback 650 miles to examine possible routes.

Quote: My movements to the chair of government will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to his place of execution. (1788)

REFERENCE: Garry Wills, Cincinnatus (1984).


Alexander Hamilton (1757 - 1804)

Hamilton was the political and financial genius of the early Republic whose heroic postures, personal ambition, and taste for aristocratic government made many of his contemporaries fear him, even though everyone recognized his great talents.

Born on the British West Indian island of Nevis, Hamilton came to New York at age fourteen to begin his education. The unfair attacks on him as a bastard arose because his mother had not obtained a legal divorce from her previous husband before establishing her union with Hamiltons father.

He became Washingtons aide-de-camp in the Revolution and rose to lieutenant colonel. Extremely hot-tempered and sometimes vindictive, Hamilton denounced Washington behind his back and resigned from his staff after Washington once rebuked him for lateness.

He feuded with Aaron Burr for years in New York and helped block him from the governorship and, possibly, the presidency. He tried to avoid Burrs demand for a duel, but when Burr made Hamiltons refusal a matter of public honor, Hamilton reluctantly accepted.

Quote: The love of fame, the ruling passion of the noblest minds, prompts a man to plan and undertake extensive and arduous enterprises for the public benefit, requiring considerable time to mature and perfect them. (Federalist No. 72, 1788)

REFERENCE: Gerald Stourzh, Alexander Hamilton and the Idea of Republican Government (1970).


John Jay (1754 - 1829)

Jay was one of the authors (with Madison and Hamilton) of the Federalist Papers. His negotiation of Jays Treaty with Great Britain in 1795 made him a hero to Federalists and a hated symbol of American humiliation to Jeffersonian Republicans.

Although somewhat humorless and vain, Jay had a very high sense of honor. At Kings College (Columbia) he was once temporarily suspended for refusing to reveal the name of a fellow student who had committed vandalism.

Washington offered him his choice of any position in the new government, and Jay chose chief justice of the United States. He carefully cultivated influential British citizens during the negotiation of the commercial treaty with Britain in order to obtain the most favorable terms, but to the Republicans who burned him in effigy, these contacts were proof that he had sold out American interests.

Quote: Further concessions on the part of Great Britain cannot, in my opinion, be attained. If this treaty fails, I despair of another.If I entirely escape censure, I shall be agreeably disappointed. (Letter, 1795)

REFERENCE: Richard B. Morris, John Jay (1975).


John Adams (1735 - 1826)

Adams was the Massachusetts Revolutionary and Federalist president whose public appeal never matched his political and intellectual talents.

He originally considered becoming a minister, but frigid John Calvin repelled him, and he turned to law. During his frequent missions abroad, he lived very frugally and constantly complained of the extravagance of his fellow diplomats like Franklin and Jay.

He thought that Hamilton maneuvered to get him elected to the vice presidency, which he called the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or the mind of man conceived. Although he was prickly and cold in most situations, his diaries and letters to his wife Abigail show his warm, anxious, and generous side.

He renewed his friendship with Jefferson after both left office, and they exchanged numerous letters until they died within a few hours of each other on July 4, 1826. Adamss last words were Thomas Jefferson still lives.

Quote: My reputation has been so much the sport of the public, for fifty years, and will be with posterity, that I hold it a bubble, a gossamer, that idles in the wanton summer air. (Letter to Jefferson, 1813)

REFERENCE: Peter Shaw, The Character of John Adams (1976).


Aaron Burr (1756 - 1836)

Burr was the vice president of the United States who killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel and then organized a mysterious conspiracy to separate parts of the West from the United States.

A grandson of Jonathan Edwards, the Great Awakening preacher, Burr was charming and eloquent but always loved adventure and intrigue. He nearly joined the Conway cabal against Washington and helped organize the Tammany Hall political club in New York.

After killing Hamilton in the duel on July 11, 1804, he first fled but then returned to preside as vice president over the impeachment trial of Samuel Chase before embarking on his western conspiracy.

Burrs plotting was so complicated and confusing that it is still uncertain whether he wanted to set up a new western nation under himself or to form a private army to invade Mexico. Although technically acquitted in his treason trial, he was completely disgraced. He fled to France, where he lived in poverty and tried to get Napoleon to endorse his schemes for an invasion of America.

Quote: Political opposition can never absolve gentlemen from a rigid adherence to the laws of honor.You have indulged in the use of language derogatory to my honor as a gentleman.To this I expect a definite reply which must lead to an accommodation, or the only alternative which the circumstances of the case will justify. (Dueling challenge to Alexander Hamilton, 1804)

REFERENCE: Herbert S. Parmet and Marie B. Hecht, Aaron Burr: Portrait of an Ambitious Man (1967).



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