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“A Second Bounaparty?”: A Reexamination of Alexander Hamilton during the Franco–American Crisis, 1796–1801

From: Journal of the Early Republic
Volume 28, Number 2, Summer 2008
pp. 183-214 | 10.1353/jer.0.0004

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Writing to her husband in the summer of 1798, Abigail Adams, first lady of the United States, believed she noticed something particular in the eyes of Alexander Hamilton. “Oh, I have read his heart in his wicked eyes,” she wrote, “the very devil is in them.” On another occasion, Mrs. Adams noted that Hamilton, already possessed by the Devil and overweening ambition, had the potential of becoming a “second Bounaparty.” Although it is easy to dismiss these invectives as an overreaction based on personal animus, an extensive historiographical tradition has echoed the First Lady’s sentiments toward Hamilton, considering him a bogeyman of the early republic. Nowhere is this interpretation of Hamilton more prevalent than in studies of the Quasi-War with France.1

Arguments over Hamilton’s motivations during the Quasi-War rest on the rather basic dichotomy that he was manipulating the crisis to establish a European-style standing army for the purpose of crushing domestic opposition, while zealously supporting the passage and enforcement of the Alien and Sedition Acts. Hamilton, according to his critics, also controlled Adams’s cabinet as well as former president George Washington, thus forcing the president to place him in de facto command of the military, and thereby fulfilling his all-consuming desire for military glory. Although other scholars posit that Hamilton was one of the few Americans who really understood the situation his actions were designed to fit, a commonly accepted argument accuses Hamilton of menacing designs for the established army.

The historian most skeptical of Hamilton during the Quasi-War is Richard Kohn. His work, Eagle and Sword, which examines the creation of the American military establishment through to the early years of the Jefferson presidency, criticizes Hamilton during the Franco–American crisis, arguing that the nationalists of the 1780s and, later, the Federalist party, led by Hamilton, craved a standing army. The Quasi-War and the establishment of a large standing army with Hamilton at the helm would be in their interests. As Kohn notes, “Hamiltonians wanted the army precisely for the reasons most Americans rejected it: its ability to suppress dissent and intimidate the population.” Hamilton’s personal ambition for military glory, coupled with his desire for a peacetime standing army, causes Kohn to label him the most dangerous man in early America. Kohn is representative of the many unsympathetic interpretations of Hamilton: Stanley Kurtz, Manning Dauer, Adrienne Koch, James Morton Smith, and others have seconded his view. Kurtz offers one of the harshest critiques of the Federalist leader. “[T]here is excellent reason to conclude” he wrote, “that Hamilton contemplated the necessity of using his military machine. Civil War would certainly have followed the attempt to realize his reactionary program.” Even historians who balk at such outright condemnation of Hamilton, in particular Alexander DeConde and Lawrence Kaplan, disparage Hamilton’s words and actions during the Quasi-War. DeConde, in the only book-length treatment of the Quasi-War, posits that Hamilton and the other High Federalists viewed the military as a “political instrument” for maintaining power. Kaplan, in his recent work, argues that Hamilton was concerned with making the United States a dominant world power, but criticizes Hamilton during the Quasi-War, condemning his actions regarding Spanish America as rash and foolhardy.2

Not all historians accept this negative view of Hamilton. Forrest McDonald, Jacob Cooke, and Gilbert Lycan have seen Hamilton as both an advocate of moderation during the crisis and one of the few leaders who understood the situation facing the United States. In his sympathetic biography, McDonald notes that Hamilton was often too busy with his law practice to pay close attention to the crisis, but when he responded to the situation, particularly during the hysteria following the XYZ Affair, “he was one of the few voices calling for moderation in the land.” Cooke, while agreeing with McDonald that Hamilton preached moderation, contends that he did so only after 1797. Gilbert Lycan, in his examination of Hamilton’s foreign policy, also offers a sympathetic perspective on Hamilton, dismissing his involvement in the intrigue he was often accused of, while arguing that during the Franco–American crisis, Hamilton sought above all to avoid conflict. Lycan rejects...

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