Alexander Hamilton: Portrait in Paradox

By John C. Miller | Go to book overview

24.
The Proclamation of Neutrality

To an even greater degree than did Hamilton's plans for diversifying the economy of the United States and concentrating power in the federal government, the French Revolution divided Americans and sharpened the lines of demarcation between the rival political parties led by Hamilton and Jefferson. As Jefferson said, the French Revolution "kindled & brought forward the two parties with an ardour which our own interest merely, could never excite."

After 1792, foreign affairs could not be kept out of American politics, for upon the outcome of the struggle being waged upon the European continent Americans believed that their own destiny depended. But whether the course of events in Europe boded good or ill to the United States was a matter of heated debate: whereas some Americans beheld the dawn of a new republican era, others saw the rise of a terrible revolutionary "monster" which, in the name of "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity" threatened to swallow all independent nations that resisted its dominion.

Hamilton took control of the United States Treasury at almost the same time that the Parisian mob stormed the Bastille. These two events symbolized the divergent paths the two countries were entering upon: while the United States stood upon the threshold of a period of order and stability, France was embarking upon an era of revolution, war and dictatorship.

Shortly after the fall of the Bastille, Lafayette sent President Washington the key to the demolished fortress-prison--a gesture by which he intended to signify the solidarity of the French and American peoples in a common love of freedom. Hamilton was at first inclined to receive the gift in that spirit. He told Jefferson that his heart was wholly with the French in their struggle against tyranny and that he felt the same passionate stirrings that had impelled him in 1775 to take up arms against Great Britain. He hoped to see a gradual reform of abuses--order brought into the finances of the government, the economy rehabilitated and representative institutions, preferably upon the model of Great Britain's, introduced. Then, he exclaimed, the revolution might well terminate in the "establishment of free

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