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.
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.
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
John Adams (1735 - 1826)
Adams was the Massachusetts Revolutionary and
Federalist president whose public appeal never matched his political and intellectual
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
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.
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).