by Susan Martin, Processing Archivist & EAD Coordinator
On 30 March 1813, Paul Hamilton wrote to his friend and former colleague William Eustis in Boston. Both men had been serving in the Cabinet of President James Madison at the start of the War of 1812 just nine months before, Hamilton as Secretary of the Navy and Eustis as Secretary of War. But by the time this letter was written, both had resigned.
I found an extensive biography of Paul Hamilton, particularly his early years, in the History of Higher Education in South Carolina (pp. 127-133). He was a South Carolinian, born in 1762 and the only one of his parents’ three children to live past the age of five. He fought with the state militia in the American Revolution while still a teenager. Beginning in 1785, he served in several public offices, sitting for a few terms in the South Carolina legislature before his election to the governorship in 1804. He was a rice planter and slave holder.
His elevation to the federal government came in 1809, when he was appointed Secretary of the Navy by President Madison. Less than four years later, Hamilton regretted accepting the job. He wrote this letter to Eustis while the resignations of both men were still fresh.
We rejoice at the degree of contentment which your letter discloses as having relation to your retirement to private life, in which state if happiness can ever be found on our earth, there alone is it to be met. Would to God that I had learned sooner the verity of this Doctrine, in which case, I would not have been tempted to leave my peaceful tranquil home for the possession of the place I lately held under the general government, the tenure of which (I have experienced) was but chaff before the breath of calumny whispering in the ear of Timidity.
A tortured metaphor, to be sure, but his bitterness is clear. So what had gone wrong?
According to the National Archives’ Founders Online, Secretary of the Navy Hamilton “was increasingly beset by rumors of alcoholism, lax record keeping, appointment of unqualified persons, and extravagant contracts.” Biographer Raymond Walters, Jr. does not mince his words, either, in his 1957 book about fellow Cabinet member Albert Gallatin. He calls both William Eustis and Paul Hamilton “amiable incompetents” (p. 251). Jeff Broadwater, in his 2012 biography of James Madison, says that “Eustis and Hamilton provided sectional balance in the Cabinet and not much else” (p. 147). President Madison apparently met with Hamilton twice to relay concerns about his management of the department and essentially pressured him to resign.
By all accounts, Madison’s Cabinet was a mess. Even Hamilton seemed to agree. In my favorite passage of the letter, he used another metaphor to describe the dynamics of the group, this one much more robust and eloquent.
In a field in which you and I once held a place, there is not much of Harmony. Ice, Oil, Vinegar & Mustard can never form a wholsome [sic] concrete, for any earthly purpose.
Now Hamilton found himself on the outside, and he resented it. With so much going on in the world, he was no longer entitled to privileged information and could only repeat gossip. Who would be appointed minister to Russia to negotiate the end of the war? His guess was as good as anybody else’s.
Hamilton wrote this letter from Washington, D.C., while he waited for the roads to become passable enough for his trip home. His next steps were uncertain. Madison had nominated him as Commissioner of Loans for South Carolina, but he was reluctant to accept. He’d soured on government, but admitted that the $2,000 salary would help pay for the education of his younger children. (He and his wife had eight children, the youngest of whom was only eight.) As he considered the future, he said: “We are creatures of contingencies, and justly has it been written that, ‘no man knoweth what a day may bring forth.’”
Ultimately, the decision was made for him. The U.S. Senate rejected his appointment, and Hamilton retired to private life after all. He died on his plantation in 1816 at the age of 53.
Hamilton’s tenure as Secretary of the Navy was not a complete failure. He is particularly recognized for the passage of the Act Establishing Navy Hospitals in 1811, which appropriated funds for the construction of the first permanent medical facilities for sailors.
For more on Paul Hamilton, I recommend this small collection of his personal papers digitized by the University of South Carolina Libraries. And of course, you can read the rest of this letter and other letters to William Eustis and his wife Caroline at the MHS website.