Alexander Hamilton: Portrait in Paradox

By John C. Miller | Go to book overview

22.
The Attack upon Hamilton

As organized under the Act of September, 1789, the Treasury was the largest of the departments, consisting of an assistant, controller, treasurer auditor, register and over thirty clerks. In addition, almost one thousand customhouse officers and excisemen were under Hamilton's direction. The Department of State, in comparison, was staffed by only four clerks, a messenger and office keeper; and the War Department boasted only three clerks. Surrounded by this retinue of clerks and customhouse officers, it was natural for Hamilton to regard his department as superior to all others and himself as the highest officer in the government next to the President.

Still, judged by European standards, the Treasury Department made a meager appearance. In 1794, a French visitor, Moreau de Saint-Méry, called upon Hamilton at his office in Market Street. He found "a man in a long gray linen jacket" seated in a room the furnishings of which he estimated to be worth not more than $10. Hamilton's own desk was a common pine table covered with a green cloth; for filing cabinets the Secretary used planks laid on trestles. Saint-Méry came away with the impression that Hamilton was rather overdoing republican simplicity.

If any Federalist merchants or shipowners supposed that Hamilton was their "man" and that he would overlook their infractions of the laws, they were quickly disillusioned. Shortly after taking office, the Secretary of the Treasury instructed the collectors to institute suits against delinquent importers' bonds the very day they became overdue, and collectors who failed to do their duty were summarily removed. A weekly report of collections was demanded of every collector; and although Hamilton stipulated that all complaints should be given a fair hearing, he left no loopholes through which the laws could be evaded. At the same time he devised new and "energetic" methods of collecting the duties. With the practice that had prevailed in some states during the Confederation--relying upon the integrity of individuals to pay their taxes--Hamilton had no patience: when it came to paying taxes, he remarked, honor and patriotism ought to be

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