The Source of Their Mutual Hatred In Their Own Nasty Words
One of the only good things to come out of this pandemic was Hamilton: An American Musical coming to Disney+ a full year before it was set to debut in theaters.
In this episode, Jess and I took a deep, irreverent dive into one aspect of Hamilton’s life that the musical barely touched on – his relationship with John Adams. Specifically, the gloriously intense mutual HATRED that these two had for each other, in their own nasty words.
The seeds of their animosity were planted during the Revolution, when Adams was already an established (and loud) voice of independence, and Hamilton was new to the scene, twenty years younger than Adams and eager to fight for his glory. At this point Adams did a couple things that Hamilton never forgot; he proposed that the Continental Army reenlist men every year (which Hamilton thought would lead to major attrition) and worse – he pondered that maybe the Commander in Chief himself should be replaced every year.
As Adams would learn, you don’t mess with Washington. Especially when his beloved Hamilton is involved.
The Elections of 1789 and 1796
During the nation’s first election, Hamilton was terrified that the weird-ass process of making the top vote-getter the president and the runner-up the vice-president might somehow result in Adams becoming president over Washington. So Hamilton did a little stealthy electioneering to make sure this didn’t happen. When Adams later found out about this, he was livid.
The hate flower of the Adams-Hamilton relationship really blossomed eight years later after Adams was elected president. Suddenly, Hamilton found himself without the easy access he previously had to influence the nation’s policies. And in one of the dumbest moves Adams ever made, he kept every member of Washington’s administration…men who were fairly loyal to Hamilton. That left Alexander a wide open backdoor to the executive branch.
It was around this time that Adams found out how Hamilton had worked to make sure he would not be president, and he wrote to Abigail:
“Hamilton I know to be a proud spirited, conceited, aspiring mortal always pretending to morality, with as debauched morals as old Franklin who is more his model than any one I know. As great an hypocrite as any in the U. S. his intrigues in the election I despise. That he has talents I admit. but I dread none of them. I shall take no notice of his puppyhood but retain the same opinion of him I always had and maintain the same conduct towards him I always did, that is keep him at a distance.”
Adams calling Hamilton a puppy is priceless – and would have been dueling words if this letter had become public – but the most interesting thing about this letter is the idea that Adams would actually be able to keep Hamilton at a distance. World events would make that impossible.
France’s help during the Revolutionary War was critical to the United States’ victory over Britain, but when France wanted help later in return, the US not only insisted on staying neutral in the endless wars between France and Britain, but also signed the Jay Treaty with Britain that France felt was way too pro-British. That led to France aggressively intercepting US ships on the seas, and they became a very real threat that had to be dealt with.
An American peace commission (influenced by Hamilton) was sent to negotiate with France, but three secret French agents (later known as X, Y, and Z) demanded a bribe to grease the wheels. When word of this spread in the United States, the country was ready for war. And John Adams was ready for the glory that would come along with being a wartime president. And if he could find a way to pull that off without actually involving the US in a war? Even better.
Preparing for war meant raising an army, and there was only one man in the United States with experience in that – George Washington. Washington had retired from public life, but Adams appointed him as commander-in-chief of the Army anyway, without even asking him. Washington accepted, demanding that Hamilton be his #2. Adams petulantly resisted this and finally caved.
Now, instead of keeping Hamilton at a distance, Adams had made him the de facto commander of the United States Army and perhaps one of the most powerful men in the world. Adams feared that if Hamilton got his army, they would need a second one to disband the first.
Peace with France was achieved without the need for a war, and Hamilton’s army was disbanded.
Note: In the episode, I imply that the Quasi-War was happening during France’s Reign of Terror, but the head-severing era in France had died down a few years before the XYZ Affair.
The Election of 1800
Furious with Adams for considering Hamilton a member of a British faction, Hamilton began his campaign to make sure that Adams would lose the Election of 1800, even if it meant getting Jefferson and the opposing Democratic-Republican Party elected instead.
This resulted in the publication of a massive letter (or “extended tantrum” according to biographer Ron Chernow) that detailed everything Adams ever did wrong and exaggerated Adams’s unfitness for the office of president.
Here are some of the things Hamilton said about Adams that could fit right in with 2020 politics:
- The President “does not possess the talents adapted to the administration of government, and that there are great and intrinsic defects in his character, which unfit him for the chief magistrate.”
- The President “has certain fixed points of character which tend naturally to the detriment of any cause of which he is the chief, of any Administration of which he is the head.”
- The president has “a vanity without bounds, and a jealousy capable of discoloring every object.”
- “By his ill humors and jealousies he has already divided and distracted the supporters of the Government; that he has furnished deadly weapons to its enemies by unfounded accusations.”
- The President “has made great progress in undermining the ground which was gained for the government by his predecessor, and that there is real cause to apprehend, it might totter, if not fall, under his future auspices.”
- The President presumes that “every citizen who is his enemy, is the confederate of one or another of those foreign powers.”
- “As the president nominates his ministers, and may displace them as he pleases, it must be his own fault if he be not surrounded by men, who for ability and integrity deserve his confidence.”
- When The President ignores his advisors, “he is very apt to fall into the hands of miserable intriguers, with whom his self-love is more at ease, and who without difficulty slide into his confidence, and by flattery, govern him.” So he doesn’t listen to anyone who disagrees with him, and he cozies up to people who flatter him at the expense of national security.”
- “It is a fact that he is often liable to paroxysms of anger, which deprive him of self command, and produce very outrageous behavior to those who approach him. Most, if not all his ministers, and several distinguished members of the two Houses of Congress, have been humiliated by the effects of these gusts of passion.”
The letter probably did little to hurt Adams, who was unlikely to win re-election anyway. But it definitely made Hamilton look terrible and it helped to kill the Federalist Party. As Adams said, Hamilton and company “killed themselves and…indicted me for the murder.”
Hamilton’s Superabundance of Secretions
Adams lost the Election of 1800 to Jefferson, and Aaron Burr became the new vice president. Under new rules, the vice president was allowed to kill Alexander Hamilton. Okay that’s not true, but a few years later, Burr and Hamilton got into their famous duel and only Burr walked away.
Adams’s reaction to Hamilton’s death was pitch perfect. He said, “His most determined enemies did not like to get rid of him, in that way.” He also wrote, “Vice, folly, and villainy are not to be forgotten because the guilty wretch repented in his dying moments.”
Adams had no problem speaking ill of the dead. In a way, Adams won their feud by living 22 years longer than Hamilton and spending all those years continuing to smear Hamilton’s reputation.
In a letter to Benjamin Rush just two years after Hamilton’s death, Adams shared a wild pseudo-medical theory about Hamilton’s afflictions, that men like Hamilton were “overspread by vapors ascending from the lower faculties. Adams went on to explain that the collected part of the semen raises and inflames and becomes a dust or a gas and ascends the spinal duct to the brain. And, according to Adams, if those fumes go to the brain, then you get mad kings and conquerors and whatever Alexander Hamilton was. But if instead of going to the brain, they descend upon the anus and conclude in a fistula, then all is fine.
The fistula theory may be based on Louis XIV, who had an anal fistula operated on by his doctor in 1686. Jonathan Swift suggested the release of fluids through that fistula caused the warmongering king to leave “the rest of the world for that time in peace.”
Applying that theory to Hamilton, Adams wrote:
“What a pity it is that our Congress had not known this discovery, and that Alexander Hamilton’s project of raising an army of fifty thousand men, ten thousand of them to be cavalry and his projects of Sedition Laws and Alien Laws and of new taxes to support his army, all arose from a superabundance of secretions which he could not find whores enough to draw off? And that the same vapors produced his lies and slanders by which he totally destroyed his party forever and finally lost his life in the field of honor.”
Adams and Hamilton had much in common, perhaps too much when it came to their impulsive personalities, and there were certain things about each other they could never get past. Adams thought Hamilton was an intrusive, conniving, perverted, foreign threat. Hamilton saw Adams as an angry, out of touch, inept, and vain.
In 1819 Adams wrote, “The inquiring mind in future times will find reasons to diminish the glories of some and to increase their esteem of others. Some characters now obscured under a cloud of unpopularity, will come out with more luster.”
He couldn’t have known than in 200 years, the two figures who would come out with the most luster would be himself – thanks to the inquiring mind in future times of David McCullough and the HBO documentary based on his biography, and, of course, Alexander Hamilton, thanks to Ron Chernow’s biography and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical masterpiece based on it.
So Lin-Manuel Miranda really didn’t have room to include John Adams in his 3-hour musical and that’s fine, but here’s one picture I love:
It’s Paul Giamatti, who played Adams so well in the HBO series, backstage at Hamilton, squaring off with Lin-Manuel Miranda.
My quarantine dream is for Miranda to write a duet for them, even if they have to sing it over Zoom.
But until that happens, we have the series and the musical, and all of their wonderful letters dripping with hate.
As we mention in our episode, some things require help and should not be attempted alone.
Listen to the episode to hear more, and subscribe now on Apple, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to fine podcasts.
For more scandalous Hamilton and Adams action, listen to Season 1, Episode 3: The Scandalmonger’s Revenge.
Sponsor: One Day University – the country’s best professors present their greatest classes. Join live classes every weekday from home, or watch their 400+ past talks in their video library on demand. Our listeners get one month FREE with the promo code PLODDING. Sign up here.
Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
John Adams by David McCullough
“From John Adams to Benjamin Rush, 11 November 1806,” Founders Online, National Archives
“Letter from Alexander Hamilton, Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, Esq. President of the United States, [24 October 1800],” Founders Online, National Archives
The Essential Hamilton: Letters and Other Writings, Edited by Joanne Freeman