Alexander Hamilton: Portrait in Paradox

By John C. Miller | Go to book overview

3.
The Struggle Against Inflation

While rags and a lean, hungry look were becoming the emblems of American soldiers, a few citizens, safe behind the lines, were making fortunes by contracting, privateering, engrossing supplies and speculating in commodities. The principal victim of these practices was the army. By withholding supplies from the market, the profiteers and monopolists increased the price of every necessity to such a degree that the troops were deprived of food, clothing, guns and ammunition even when some of these commodities were in abundant supply. Washington pronounced this "tribe of black hearted gentry" to be more dangerous than the whole military might of Britain. "These murderers of our cause," he exclaimed, "ought to be hunted down as the pests of society, and the greatest Enemies we have to the happiness of America. I would to God that one of the most atrocious of each State was hung in Gibbets upon a gallows five times as high as the one prepared by Haman."

But instead of hanging in gibbets, the profiteers rode in chariots, resided in fine houses and, in general, conducted themselves as though the war were being fought for their exclusive benefit. No laws could curb their cupidity or touch their wealth; the weak governments created by Americans during the Revolution were incapable of preventing the practices against which the patriots protested. Only the army, and, occasionally, the mobs of the cities, gave the speculators cause for alarm.

As befitted a gentleman of the sword, Hamilton at this time despised mere moneygrubbers. Honor, patriotism, generosity, self-sacrifice were the qualities Hamilton looked for in his countrymen; he saw no good in avarice or the other selfish passions which he later made the foundation of his political philosophy. In 1778, he declared that the acquisitive instinct would be the ruin of the country: "When avarice takes the lead in a state," he said, "it is commonly the forerunner of its fall," and he found in the United States, even in its infancy, alarming symptoms of this fatal disease. 1 A few years later he saw in avarice, when rightly directed, the means of salvation for the state.

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