December 17, 1792
"The man now in jail who got me into all this trouble says he has enough on the Treasury Secretary to hang him."
The note from his former clerk startled Frederick Augustus Muhlenberg. Squinting at the familiar, crabbed handwriting, the member of Congress from Pennsylvania -- about to begin his second term as Speaker of the House of Representatives -- read on: "Reynolds claims to have proof showing that Hamilton secretly engaged in speculation in government securities."
Alexander Hamilton corrupt? Muhlenberg's well-ordered Germanic mind refused to entertain the scandalous thought. President Washington's Secretary of the Treasury had been General Washington's courageous aide-de-camp in the War for Independence. He gave unity to the Union by having the Federal government assume the debts of the States. Everyone knew that Hamilton was the Cabinet officer that the great man would rely on most heavily in the second term soon to begin. To suggest that this exemplar of financial probity was enriching himself at public expense was to shake the very foundations of the new Republic. And with war brewing between England and France, such a damning charge against Hamilton, an avowed admirer of the British, would be grist for the mills of the new anti-Federalist faction so entranced by everything French.
Muhlenberg was certain that Jacob Clingman, who had worked in his Philadelphia mercantile house and later served as his assistant in Congress, was honest at heart. The unfortunate young man had become involved with a ne'er-do-well from New York named James Reynolds in a scheme to buy up the claims for unpaid past wages of the Revolution's veterans. After almost a decade, most of the old soldiers thought the claims would never be paid, and were selling them for 10 cents on the dollar. But some speculators, said to know of Hamilton's plan to pay the old debt in full, were avidly seeking the government's list of veterans and the amounts they were owed. Reynolds and Clingman were discovered impersonating claimants and jailed; only Muhlenberg's intercession, attesting to the young man's character, had allowed his former clerk to be free pending prosecution.
The Speaker laid the accusatory note on his desk. Muhlenberg was a "low" Federalist, not as all-out for central power as the Hamiltonian Federalists, but loyal to President Washington. He was relieved that the Republic's leader had consented to be re-elected, the month before, to a second term. Because the Pennsylvanian had long frowned on the emergence of a republican faction with ties to France, he was also glad that Washington was retaining that troublesome faction's leader, Thomas Jefferson, in his Cabinet as Secretary of State. By holding both the pro-French Jefferson and the pro-British Hamilton close to him, Washington could keep the United States united and neutral. Muhlenberg was convinced that the nation, not two decades from its Revolution, was wholly unprepared to fight another war.
But what if the outrageous charge that Hamilton was abusing the public's trust turned out to be true, or even partially true? The stain would not only sully the President's reputation but would discredit the entire new government. The farmers in Pennsylvania's West had already been infuriated by Hamilton's proposal for a whiskey tax, a scheme of Eastern moneymen that would punish Western growers of grain and distillers of its alcohol. The bankers in Boston did not seem to realize that whiskey was a more trusted medium of exchange than banknotes. A financial scandal in Hamilton's department, by adding substance to the republican suspicion that the Treasury Secretary was a secret monarchist, would tear the new nation apart.
A charge of corruption in the Cabinet should be brought directly to the attention of the President, Muhlenberg was certain, but not until the allegations were examined. This brief note slandering Hamilton could be merely a false accusation by some panicked wrongdoer. Did not a brave patriot, a national hero with a financial reputation as spotless as Hamilton's, deserve the benefit of the doubt -- especially against the self-serving hearsay of an accused speculator?
Copyright William Safire February 2000. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of the publisher, Simon & Schuster
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