By Amanda Norton, Adams Papers
Between the $10 bill and a smash-hit musical, everybody seems to be talking about Alexander Hamilton. January marks not only the anniversary of Hamilton’s birth, and his resignation as Secretary of the Treasury in 1795, it also marks the anniversary of the most famous, or infamous, insult hurled Hamilton’s way. It was on 25 January 1806 that John Adams memorably referred to Hamilton as the “bastard brat of a Scotch Pedler.”
John Adams’s hostility toward Hamilton late in life is well known and is usually attributed to the role Hamilton played in the Election of 1800, attacking Adams and contributing to his defeat. But the Adamses, both John and Abigail, had expressed distrust of Hamilton long before then, and Abigail was just as colorful as John was. In 1794 when opponents of his economic proposals condemned Hamilton, Abigail noted that while some of the criticism was unwarranted, it was not entirely unfounded. Alluding to William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Abigail cautioned John, “I have ever thought with respect to that Man, ‘beware of that spair Cassius.’”
The next few years did nothing to improve Abigail’s opinion. Hamilton was widely believed to have unsuccessfully meddled in the 1796 Election, attempting to keep Thomas Jefferson out of the vice presidency, even, or perhaps, especially, if it meant sacrificing John Adams’ candidacy. Hearing of Hamilton’s interference in December 1796, Abigail wrote, “I have often said to you, H——n is a Man ambitious as Julius Ceasar, a subtle intriguer. his abilities would make him Dangerous if he was to espouse a wrong side. his thirst for Fame is insatiable. I have ever kept My Eye upon him.”
The revelation of Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds in 1797 was a breaking point for Abigail, leading to some of her most vitriolic comments. As the Quasi-War with France was building and the United States formed a new army, Abigail could not understand those who wanted Hamilton to be commander-in-chief. “That man would in my mind become a second Buonaparty if he was possessd of equal power,” she wrote to her cousin in July 1798. By January 1799, Abigail was increasingly heated. Learning that her son Thomas Boylston Adams who had been in Europe was to return to the United States on board the ship Alexander Hamilton, Abigail sneered, “I dont like even the Name of the ship in which he is to embark” and in letters written to John on 12 and 13 January, she railed against Hamilton. Abigail firmly believed that Hamilton’s failure to uphold his private marriage vow inevitably made any public vow he made suspect. In a Biblical allusion to King David, she warned that with Hamilton in charge of the army, “Every Uriah must tremble for his Bathsheba.”
While John’s acerbity is well known, Abigail Adams was no more timid in her remarks. Throughout the 1790s, Alexander Hamilton was on the receiving end of her barbs, even though Abigail maintained that she saw no “breach of Charity” in her observations.