James A. Hamilton: Mousetraps, Memory and a Forgotten Secretary of State
In 1869, James Alexander Hamilton published a memoir. The third son of Alexander Hamilton was a Columbia-educated district attorney, colonel, writer and diplomat who addressed many aspects of his "varied life" in The Reminiscences of James A. Hamilton.i But while The Reminiscences have often been used as a source in the biographies of the father, they have never been used to tell the story of the son. A selection of Hamilton's papers and correspondence made it into the published work but the archives of the New York Public Library holds the James A. Hamilton papers; a complete, non-digitized collection of his life.
These boxes are packed full of correspondence with with leading figures of antebellum America, analyzing the most important issues of the day. Yet it is the defense of James' father's legacy and his largely forgotten tenure as Secretary of State that stands out. There are three figures in particular, William Coleman, Martin Van Buren and John Quincy Adams, whose correspondence with James illustrates how powerful memories are in shaping interpretations of the past.
In a bizarre twist of fate, James Hamilton reached the pinnacle of his political career in Andrew Jackson's presidential administration. With Van Buren bogged down in his obligations as governor of New York, Jackson swiftly appointed Hamilton as acting Secretary of State. This office provided James with many opportunities to advance issues important to him, for example, the national bank, relations with Eastern Europe and personal scores to settle. During his time as Secretary of State, Hamilton was involved in the appointment of cabinet members, banking policy and the reorganization of the treasury department. But his appointment remains a seemingly odd choice to us today: why would the son of Thomas Jefferson's most ardent enemy draft Jackson's inaugural address? Jackson was crafting an image of himself as the heir to the Jeffersonian Republicans, the defender of individualism and agrarian interests. Yet the correspondence between Jackson, Hamilton and Van Buren illustrates that it was the primacy of the Constitution and a hatred of nullification that underscored their unlikely alliance.
As William Coleman, the editor of The New York Evening Post and friend of Alexander Hamilton noted, "[Y]ou have, I believe, the ears of Jackson more than any other individual; and why do you not avail yourself of the great opportunity it gives you."ii No opportunity was quite as personal to James as the chance to deal with a rumor about his father that had been bothering him for some time, a rumor that reached back nearly 30 years. After Jefferson's election in 1800, some New England Federalists, including the prominent Gouvernor Morris, toyed with the idea of secession. Before his death in 1804, Alexander Hamilton opposed these views and shot down any notion of the Constitution as a breakable contract. But with the rise of secessionism in the antebellum era, some leading figures attempted to connect Alexander Hamilton to this position, either to lend the secessionist project greater credibility or to tarnish the legacy of the father and the current political position of the son.
Correspondence between Van Buren and Hamilton links the rumor back, unsurprisingly, to the Adams family. Van Buren, quick to stir the pot, advised: "you have certainly a right to use all lawful weapons to get at the means necessary to do justice to your father's memory."iii Van Buren, as the head of Jackson's political machine, detested Quincy Adams and had good reason to encourage a rift between the founding Federalists' offspring. After all, Alexander Hamilton and John Adams notoriously loathed each other, despite being members of the same party. He continues
"You should not suffer the imputations of Mr. Adams to afflict you. Certainly not for the present, for the declaration of an old gentleman acknowledging himself particeps criminis that a nameless somebody told him that your father agreed to a attend a convention, cannot with just minds, be regarded as sufficient to impair his patriotism." iv
After the highly contested election of 1824, in which Quincy Adams narrowly and controversially defeated Jackson, the political climate became even more fraught with tension and intrigue. Not only did Van Buren want to keep James away from a man he disliked but he wanted to pre-emptively strike at a potential rival. Rather than risk a Federalist resurgence, it was better to keep Quincy Adams and James Hamilton as separate as possible.
But James was "afflicted," for far more personal reasons. Not only did he take the attack on his father as an attack on himself but also the rumor's subject matter, which all documentation proved to be unfounded, deeply disgusted his political sensibilities. So, as soon as he entered into office, Hamilton sent a letter to Quincy Adams requesting a meeting, ostensibly to discuss the transition between administrations. But it was clear that Hamilton wanted to question Quincy Adams about any potential involvement in the nullification rumor's circulation. From their later correspondence and Hamilton's analysis in his memoir, the meeting was a success, in which Quincy Adams denounced any belief that Alexander Hamilton was involved in a secessionist project. Hamilton observed that Quincy Adams was "was a man of strong feeling, perhaps I may justly say resentments." v
James, who was also a man of "strong feeling," could have been describing himself. His archive is full of evidence that supports the extent of personal and emotional connections that existed between generations in the early national period. Whereas some of the letters surrounding this rumor were published in The Reminiscences, the full story can only be understood by reading all the available materials. Much like Shakespeare's play within a play, archives can be a mousetrap of sources, a memory within a memory: Hamilton's retrospective writing during Reconstruction contains letters from the antebellum period, which were largely influenced by figures and events of the early national era. Archives then become more than a storage unit for dusty documentation. The James A. Hamilton Papers are in and of themselves pieces of history largely invested in an earlier generation's choices. Hamilton's analysis is both of subject and historian, document and documenter. The observations and relationships in his memoir and his papers reflect, if nothing else, a fear of being misremembered, or even worse, forgotten.
Nora Slonimsky is a doctoral candidate in history at the CUNY Graduate Center where she studies print culture, federalism, and intellectual property in the early national period.
i The full title is Reminiscences of James A. Hamilton: or, Men and Events, at Home and Abroad, During Three Quarters of a Century (New York: C. Scribner & co., 1869). James Hamilton was born on April 14th, 1788 and died September 24th, 1878.
ii William Coleman. February 19, 1829. Letter. From the New York Public Library, The James A. Hamilton Papers (Accessed June-August, 2012)
iii Martin Van Buren. December 30, 1826. Letter. From the New York Public Library, The James A. Hamilton Papers (Accessed August, 2012)
iv Martin Van Buren. February 1829. Letter. From the New York Public Library, The James A. Hamilton Papers (Accessed August, 2012)