Alexander Hamilton: Portrait in Paradox

By John C. Miller | Go to book overview

32.
The Effort to Avert Peace

On February 18, 1799, President
Adams sent to the Senate a message nominating William Vans Murray as
Minister to France. It was one of the most stunning surprises in the history of
American foreign policy: the Cabinet, Congress and the country were taken
completely unawares. Although Adams had suggested to the heads of the
departments the possibility of sending a Minister to France on the strength
of the Directory's assurances that he would be properly received, he had
not informed them that he had made up his mind to act. He later defended
his secretiveness by saying that if he had taken counsel with his cabinet,
the members were certain to have opposed the step: "If I had asked their reasons," he remarked, "they would have given such arguments as Hamilton has recorded; for he, it seems, was their recording angel."1

Hamilton and his friends could hardly have received a nastier shock had President Adams draped himself in the tricolor and burst into the Marseilles. To see "Jacobinism" rearing its head in the presidency itself-- there was a spectacle calculated to curl the hair of the rich, the wise and the good. Some outraged Federalists ascribed Adams' aberration to insanity, dotage or a desire to play for the applause of the Republican galleries; Hamilton, having already set down Adams as a man of "freakish humors," was inclined to believe that vanity, jealousy and spite had led the old man astray--"passion wrests the helm from reason." 2

The Federalist senators, finding that the President was not to be dissuaded from opening negotiations with France, finally prevailed upon him to send a commission of three members rather than a single Minister to Paris. Hamilton sanctioned this compromise: in a case of this kind, he thought, there was safety in numbers--safety, that is, for those who opposed peace with France. For Hamilton had no intention of permitting the envoys to go to France. What to John Adams were peace feelers were to Hamilton the tentacles of "the monster" reaching out for yet another victim. Had Adams forgotten, he asked, that these assurances of peace and good will issued from the mouth of Talleyrand, whose name had become a byword for treachery and double-dealing? 3

-493-

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