Alexander Hamilton: Portrait in Paradox

By John C. Miller | Go to book overview

15.
The First Secretary of the Treasury

Hamilton was under no illusion that the new government was to be a government of laws rather than of men in the sense that it would function automatically, in the way The Federalist had described, regardless of the men who administered it. He had frequently observed that the success of the government depended upon the quality of the men who occupied the key offices--whether they were the "first characters" in the country or "middling politicians" might spell the difference between the success or failure of the republican experiment.

In view of the importance attached by Hamilton to the presidency, it was to be expected that he would attempt to fill it with the first character in the United States--George Washington. But an office which to most men would have been an eagerly sought honor was to Washington merely another nail in the crucifixion of public service. Enjoying a surfeit of fame, he was unwilling to hazard his dearly bought reputation by embarking upon the sea of trouble he saw ahead. "It is my great and sole desire to live and die, in peace and retirement on my own farm," he said to those who urged him to assume the presidency. His course would be decided, he told Hamilton, by the answer to the question: "Whether there does not exist a probability that the government would be just as happily and effectually carried into execution without my aid, as with it." He was inclined to believe that no man was indispensable and that a government that depended upon a single individual was not likely to endure.

But there was no rest for the Father of His Country as long as Hamilton had need of him--which was as long as breath remained in his body. At the end of Washington's life, Hamilton was trying to draft him for a third term in the presidency. In 1788 Hamilton believed that the late Commander in Chief was as essential to the success of the new government as he had been to the victory of the United States in the War of Independence. "I am not sure that your refusal would not throw everything into confusion," he said. ". . . . Circumstances leave no option." Having contributed to the winning of independence, Washington could not retire with the battle only half won: "It is of little purpose to have introduced a system,"

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