Front Page Titles (by Subject) PUBLIUS (1778) - The Revolutionary Writings of Alexander Hamilton
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PUBLIUS (1778) - Alexander Hamilton, The Revolutionary Writings of Alexander Hamilton 
The Revolutionary Writings of Alexander Hamilton, edited and with an Introduction by Richard B. Vernier, with a Foreword by Joyce O. Appleby (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2008).
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Hamilton’s adoption of the nom de plume “Publius” reflects his reading while serving as a member of General Washington’s staff from 1777 to 1778. He used an Army pay-book as a commonplace book, filled with notes from his wide readings in subjects from finance to history. A particular favorite was Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, whence he derived the name later associated with The Federalist Papers. Publius Valerius was the heroic figure who established republican government in Rome after Lucius Brutus overthrew the tyrant Tarquin the Proud.
These essays were prompted by claims that Samuel Chase (1741–1811), a Maryland member of the Continental Congress, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and later associate justice of the Supreme Court, conspired with a confederate to corner the flour market, with the inside knowledge that the French fleet was due to arrive. My research has turned up no clear evidence of his guilt, but he was dumped from the Maryland congressional delegation, and it seems as though his associates certainly thought him guilty.
The story, however, may be more complicated than appears from Hamilton’s tract. Because the Congress lacked tax powers, and because requisitions on the states were unevenly complied with, Congress began issuing paper money to pay its expenses in June 1775. What began with a two-million-dollar issue had, by 1778, become a torrent of paper, one million dollars a week. As inflation began to gallop, Congress searched desperately for expedients to preserve the value of its notes, and the press was filled with stories of peculation and lack of patriotism by war profiteers. One might, in other words, suspect that to some degree it was more convenient to scapegoat the speculators and engrossers who were responsible for rising prices than to lay the blame on the only resource the government had.
Hamilton’s essays appeared in the New York Journal, and the General Advertiser, October 1778.
Poughkeepsie, October 19, 1778.
There are abuses in the state which demand an immediate remedy. Important political characters must be brought upon the stage, and animadverted upon with freedom. The opinion I have of the independence of your spirit convinces me you will ever be a faithful guardian of the liberty of the press, and determines me to commit to you the publication of a series of letters, which will give you an opportunity of exemplifying it.
The following is by way of prelude. You may depend I shall always preserve the decency and respect due either to the Government of the United States, or to the government of any particular State; but I shall not conceive myself bound to use any extraordinary ceremony with the characters of corrupt individuals, however exalted their stations.
To the Printer of the New York “Journal.”
While every method is taken to bring to justice those men whose principles and practices have been hostile to the present revolution, it is to be lamented that the conduct of another class, equally criminal, and, if possible, more mischievous, has hitherto passed with impunity, and almost without notice. I mean that tribe who, taking advantage of the times, have carried the spirit of monopoly and extortion to an excess which scarcely admits of a parallel. Emboldened by the success of progressive impositions, it has extended to all the necessaries of life. The exorbitant price of every article, and the depreciation upon our currency, are evils derived essentially from this source. When avarice takes the lead in a state, it is commonly the forerunner of its fall. How shocking is it to discover among ourselves, even at this early period, the strongest symptoms of this fatal disease.
There are men in all countries, the business of whose lives it is to raise themselves above indigence by every little art in their power. When these men are observed to be influenced by the spirit I have mentioned, it is nothing more than might be expected, and can only excite contempt. When others, who have characters to support, and credit enough in the world to satisfy a moderate appetite for wealth, in an honorable way, are found to be actuated by the same spirit, our contempt is mixed with indignation. But when a man, appointed to be the guardian of the state and the depositary of the happiness and morals of the people, forgetful of the solemn relation in which he stands, descends to the dishonest artifices of a mercantile projector, and sacrifices his conscience and his trust to pecuniary motives, there is no strain of abhorrence of which the human mind is capable, no punishment the vengeance of the people can inflict, which may not be applied to him with justice.
If it should have happened that a member of Congress has been this degenerate character, and has been known to turn the knowledge of secrets to which his office gave him access to the purposes of private profit, by employing emissaries to engross an article of immediate necessity to the public service, he ought to feel the utmost rigor of public resentment, and be detested as a traitor of the worst and most dangerous kind.
October 26, 1778.
The Honorable ——, Esq.
The honor of being a hero of a public panegyric is what you could hardly have aspired to, either from your talents, or from your good qualities. The partiality of your friends has never given you credit for more than mediocrity in the former; and experience has proved that you are indebted for all your consequence to the reverse of the latter. Had you not struck out a new line of prostitution for yourself, you might still have remained unnoticed and contemptible—your name scarcely known beyond the little circle of your electors and clients, and recorded only in the journals of C——ss. But you have now forced yourself into view, in a light too singular and conspicuous to be overlooked, and have acquired an undisputed title to be immortalized in infamy. I admire the boldness of your genius, and confess you have exceeded expectation. Though from your first appearance in the world you gave the happiest presages of your future life, and the plainest marks of your being unfettered by any of those nice scruples from which men of principle find so much inconvenience, yet your disposition was not understood in its full extent. You were thought to possess a degree of discretion and natural timidity which would restrain you from any hazardous extremes. You have the merit both of contradicting this opinion, and discovering that, notwithstanding our youth and inexperience as a nation, we begin to emulate the most veteran and accomplished states in the art of corruption. You have shown that America can already boast at least one public character as abandoned as any the history of past or present times can produce.
Were your associates in power of a congenial temper with yourself, you might hope that your address and dexterity upon a late occasion would give a new and advantageous impression of your abilities, and recommend you to employment in some important negotiation, which might afford you other opportunities of gratifying your favorite inclination at the expense of the public.
It is unfortunate for the reputation of Governor Johnston, and for the benevolent purposes of his royal master, that he was not acquainted with the frailties of your character before he made his experiment on men whose integrity was above temptation. If he had known you, and had thought your services worth purchasing, he might have played a sure game, and avoided the risk of exposing himself to contempt and ridicule. And you, sir, might have made your fortune at one decisive stroke.
It is matter of curious inquiry, what could have raised you in the first instance, and supported you since in your present elevation. I never knew a single man but was ready to do ample justice to your demerit. The most indulgent opinion of the qualifications of your head and heart could not offend the modest delicacy of your ear, or give the smallest cause of exultation to your vanity. It is your lot to have the peculiar privilege of being universally despised. Excluded from all resource to your abilities or virtues, there is only one way in which I can account for the rank you hold in the political scale. There are seasons in every country when noise and impudence pass current for worth; and in popular commotions especially, the clamors of interested and factious men are often mistaken for patriotism. You prudently took advantage of the commencement of the contest, to ingratiate yourself in the favor of the people, and gain an ascendant in their confidence by appearing a zealous assertor of their rights. No man will suspect you of the folly of public spirit—a heart notoriously selfish exempts you from any charge of this nature, and obliges us to resolve the part you took into opposite principles. A desire of popularity and a rivalship with the ministry will best explain them. Their attempt to confine the sale of a lucrative article of commerce to the East India Company, must have been more unpardonable in the sight of a monopolist than the most daring attack upon the public liberty. There is a vulgar maxim which has pointed emphasis in your case, and has made many notable patriots in this dispute.
It sometimes happens that a temporary caprice of the people leads them to make choice of men whom they neither love nor respect; and that they afterward, from an indolent and mechanical habit natural to the human mind, continue their confidence and support merely because they had once conferred them. I cannot persuade myself that your influence rests upon a better foundation, and I think the finishing touch you have given to the profligacy of your character must rouse the recollection of the people, and force them to strip you of a dignity which sets so awkwardly upon you, and consign you to that disgrace which is due to a scandalous perversion of your trust. When you resolved to avail yourself of the extraordinary demand for the article of flour which the wants of the French fleet must produce, and which your official situation early impressed on your attention, to form connections for monopolizing that article, and raising the price upon the public more than one hundred per cent.; when by your intrigues and studied delays you protracted the determination of the C——tt——e of C——ss on the proposals made by Mr. W——sw——th, C——ss——y G——n——l, for procuring the necessary supplies for the public use, to give your agents time to complete their purchases; I say when you were doing all this, and engaging in a traffic infamous in itself, repugnant to your station, and ruinous to your country, did you pause and allow yourself a moment’s reflection on the consequences? Were you infatuated enough to imagine you would be able to conceal the part you were acting? Or had you conceived a thorough contempt of reputation, and a total indifference to the opinion of the world? Enveloped in the promised gratifications of your avarice, you probably forgot to consult your understanding, and lost sight of every consideration that ought to have regulated the man, the citizen, the statesman.
I am aware that you could never have done what you have without first obtaining a noble victory over every sentiment of honor and generosity. You have therefore nothing to fear from the reproaches of your own mind. Your insensibility secures you from remorse. But there are arguments powerful enough to extort repentance, even from a temper as callous as yours. You are a man of the world, sir; your self-love forces you to respect its decisions, and your utmost credit with it will not bear the test of your recent enormities, or screen you from the fate you deserve.
November 16, 1778.
The Honorable ——, Esq.
It may appear strange that you should be made a second time the principal figure of a piece intended for the public eye. But a character, insignificant in every other respect, may become interesting from the number and magnitude of its vices. In this view you have a right to the first marks of distinction, and I regret that I feel any reluctance to render you the liberal tribute you deserve. But I reverence humanity, and would not wish to pour a blush upon the cheeks of its advocates. Were I inclined to make a satire upon the species I would attempt a faithful description of your heart. It is hard to conceive, in theory, one of more finished depravity. There are some men whose vices are blended with qualities that cast a lustre upon them, and force us to admire while we detest! Yours are pure and unmixed, without a single solitary excellence even to serve for contrast and variety.
The defects, however, of your private character shall pass untouched. This is a field in which your personal enemies may expatiate with pleasure. I find it enough to consider you in a public capacity.
The station of a member of C——ss is the most illustrious and important of any I am able to conceive. He is to be regarded not only as a legislator, but as a founder of an empire* A man of virtue and ability, dignified with so precious a trust, would rejoice that fortune had given him birth at a time, and placed him in circumstances, so favorable for promoting human happiness. He would esteem it not more the duty than the privilege and ornament of his office to do good to all mankind. From this commanding eminence he would look down with contempt upon every mean or interested pursuit.
To form useful alliances abroad—to establish a wise government at home—to improve the internal resources and finances of the nation—would be the generous objects of his care. He would not allow his attention to be diverted from these to intrigue for personal connections to confirm his own influence; nor would he be able to reconcile it, either to the delicacy of his honor or to the dignity of his pride, to confound in the same person the representative of the commonwealth and the little member of a trading company. Anxious for the permanent power and prosperity of the state, he would labor to perpetuate the union and harmony of the several parts. He would not meanly court a temporary importance by patronizing the narrow views of local interest, or by encouraging dissensions either among the people or in C——ss. In council or debate he would discover the candor of a statesman zealous for truth, and the integrity of a patriot studious of the public welfare; not the cavilling petulance of an attorney contending for the triumph of an opinion, nor the perverse duplicity of a partisan devoted to the service of a cabal. Despising the affectation of superior wisdom, he would prove the extent of his capacity by foreseeing evils, and contriving expedients to prevent or remedy them. He would not expose the weak sides of the States to find an opportunity of displaying his own discernment by magnifying the follies and mistakes of others. In his transactions with individuals, whether foreigners or countrymen, his conduct would be guided by the sincerity of a man, and the politeness of a gentleman; not by the temporizing flexibility of a courtier, nor the fawning complaisance of a sycophant.
You will not be at a loss, sir, in what part of this picture to look for your own resemblance; nor have I the least apprehension that you will mistake it on the affirmative side. The happy indifference with which you view those qualities most esteemed for their usefulness to society will preserve you from the possibility of an illusion of this kind. Content with the humble merit of possessing qualities useful only to yourself, you will contemplate your own image on the opposite side with all the satisfaction of conscious deformity.
It frequently happens that the excess of one selfish passion either defeats its own end, or counteracts another. This, if I am not mistaken, is your case. The love of money and the love of power are the predominating ingredients of your mind; cunning, the characteristic of your understanding. This has hitherto carried you successfully through life, and has alone raised you to the exterior consideration you enjoy. The natural consequence of success is temerity. It has now proceeded one step too far, and precipitated you into measures from the consequence of which you will not easily extricate yourself. Your avarice will be fatal to your ambition. I have too good an opinion of the sense and spirit, to say nothing of the virtue, of your countrymen, to believe they will permit you any longer to abuse their confidence or trample upon their honor. Admirably fitted in many respects for the meridian of St. James, you might there make the worthy representative of a venal borough, but you ought not to be suffered to continue to sully the majesty of the people in an American C——ss.
It is a mark of comparison, to which you are not entitled, to advise you by a timely and voluntary retreat to avoid the ignominy of a formal dismission. Your career has held out as long as you could have hoped. It is time you should cease to personate the fictitious character you have assumed, and appear what you really are. Lay aside the mask of patriotism, and assert your station among the honorable tribe of speculators and projectors. Cultivate a close alliance with your —— and your ——, the accomplices and instruments of your guilt, and console yourself for the advantage you have lost, by indulging your genius without restraint in all the forms and varieties of fashionable peculation.
[* ]See Douglas Adair, “Fame and the Founding Fathers,” in Trevor Colbourn, ed., Fame and the Founding Fathers: Essays by Douglas Adair (Indianapolis, 1974).