ADAMS, John. Autograph letter signed ("J. Adams") TO BENJAMIN RUSH, Quincy, Mass., 23 August 1805. 4 full pages, 4to (9 x 7 3/8 in.), closely written. In very fine condition.
ADAMS SCATHING APPRAISAL OF THE LATE ALEXANDER HAMILTON, DEPLORING HIS INFLATED REPUTATION AND RELATING AN INCIDENT INVOLVING HIMSELF, BURR, HAMILTON AND WASHINGTON
An exceptionally rich and outspoken letter, reminiscing with Rush about their service in the Continental Congress during the Revolution and pondering the subsequent reputations of certain contemporaries, including James Madison, Aaron Burr (who, he reports, once called Washington "a man of no talents") and particularly the late Alexander Hamilton (killed in July 1804), whose abilities and accomplishments, he contends, have been grossly exaggerated. Following his defeat in the election of 1800, Adams, "turned to some of the relationships which had meant much to him before and which had been strained by political battles. The first of these was with Benjamin Rush, family doctor and friend," with whom he began to correspond in early 1805" (P. Smith, John Adams, p.1083).
Adams comments on Rush's speculation that Pennsylvania's former state Constitution may be revived, "but," he queries, "for what reason do you call it Dr. Franklin's? I always understood it to be the work of Cannon, Matlock, Young and [Thomas] Paine, and that Franklin, though President of the Convention, had no greater hand in its fabrick than the painted head of a Ship has her pilotage and navigation...." He considers certain resolutions in Congress relative to the alliance with France, and asks Rush to "recollect and write me the particulars." This suggests the need to carefully document the events of the Revolution, and he chides Rush: "I am extremely sorry you relinquished your design of writing memoirs of the American Revolution. The burning of your documents [Rush deliberately destroyed some of his papers from that period] was let me tell you, a very rash action...Truth, justice and humanity are of eternal obligation, and we ought to preserve the evidence which can alone support them. I do not intend to let every Lye impose upon posterity."
He takes strong issue with Rush's inclusion of Hamilton as an important figure of the era: "You rank Colonel Hamilton among the Revolutionary characters. But why? The Revolution had its beginning and middle and its end before he had anything to do in public affairs. Col. [Joseph] Reed, Col. [Benjamin] Harrison and Mr. Edmond Randolph, were secretaries to General Washington before Hamilton was in his Family, as an Aide de Camp or Scribe [Hamilton joined Washington's staff in March 1777]." He himself only heard of Hamilton "after the Evacuation of New York  [when] this boy came forward a bawling advocate for the Tories....Hamilton's zeal in their favour precured him their votes and interest not only in the City of New York but all over the continent as long as he lived." He mentions Hamilton's quarrel with Washington, just before Yorktown: "He quitted the army...in a pet and a miff with Washington. Great art has been used to propagate an opinion that Hamilton was the writer of Washington's best letters and most popular addresses: especially that to the governors of the states [the so-called Circular to the States, see lot 13] or his resignation of his command of the army. This I know to be false..."
"The Revolution began," Adams asserts, "in strict exactness from the surrender of Montreal in 1759. It took a gloomy and dreadful form in 1761 so as to convice me at least that it would be inevitable. It continued, till 1776 when on the fourth of July it was compleated. The parts we acted from 1761 to 1776 were more difficult more dangerous and more disagreeable than all the happened afterwards till the Peace of 1783. I know therefore of no fair title that Hamilton has to a revolutionary character. You say that Washington and Hamilton are idolized by the Tories--Hamilton is: Washington is not. To speak the truth they puffed Washington like an air balloon to raise Hamilton into the air. Their preachers, their orators, their pamphlets and newspapers have spoken out and avowed publickly since Hamilton's death, what I very well knew to be in their hearts for many years before, viz. that Hamilton was every thing and Washington was but a name..."
In regard to Hamilton's role as First Secretary of the Treasury, and his "funding system," he comments that Hamilton could not "have done otherwise," and that the arrangement "was a very lucrative turn of affairs to some people"; in general, he observes, "Hamilton's talents have been greatly exaggerated. His knowledge of the great subjects of coin and commerce...was very superficial and imperfect. He had derived most of his information from Duer...assistant Secretary of the Treasury to Hamilton...So that I see no extraordinary reason for so much exclusive glory to Hamilton." On the subject of a national bank, he states his own pereference for "one national bank with a branch for each state, the whole inexorably limited to ten or fifteen millions of dollars." During his term as President, he adds, "I only advised a few companies of artillery to garrison our most exposed forts," while "Hamilton's project of an army of fifty thousand men, ten thousand of them to be horse, appeared to me to be proper only for Bedlam...."
Then, the former President comments on the rift between himself and James Madison: "When I first took the chair I was extremely desirous of availing myself of Mr. Madison's abilities, experience, reputation and admirable qualities. But the violent party spirit of Hamilton's friends, jealous of every man who possessed qualifications to eclipse him prevented it. I could not do it without quarrelling outright with my ministers [cabinet members] whom Washington's appointment had made my masters, and I gave it up. Yet Hamilton himself intrigued in a curious manner which I may perhaps explain hearafter, if you desire it." (Perhaps an allusion to Hamilton's failed attempt, in the election of 1800, to throw the Presidency to Thomas Pinckney.)
This leads Adams to vivid recollections of the tangled relations between himself, Washington, Burr and Hamilton: "Colonel Burr is another, whom I was desirous of making a Brigadier General. I proposed it to Washington, who said 'he had good reason to believe that Burr would make a good officer: but the question was whether he would not be too good at intrigue.' I have reason to believe that Washington proposed it to Hamilton and that he prevented it. My reason for this belief I will also give you...as I have paper enough...Col. Burr visited me at Phyladelphia..., and asked me whether I had authorized Hamilton to propose to him an appointment in the army? As I had never mentioned or suggested the idea to Hamilton I answered No. Burr said that Hamilton had frequently of late asked him what he thought of an appointment, and whether he could cordially cooperate with Washington. Burr said he answered that he dispised Washington, as a man of no talents and one who could not spell a sentence of common English. I reproved Burr for this sally and said his prejudices made him very unreasonable: for to my certain knowledge Washington was not so illiterate. Burr said he was determined the first time he saw me to ask whether Hamilton had been moved by me, or whether his questions to him were insidious. I explained nothing to Burr and he knows not to this day, that I ever mentioned him or thought of him for appointment. My conclusion is however that Washington had mentioned it to Hamilton, but his jealousy of Burr would not allow him to consent...."
Provenance: Kenneth W. Rendell, 1984.