Leaving a Legacy

Leaving a Legacy – 18th Century Style

Two American Revolutionaries struggled to tear the Colonies away from British rule, now they are known for their words—not their swords.

John Adams, a short, cranky, pudgy Yankee, swung the First Continental Congress with his intellect and the strength of his common-sense arguments. At 41, Adams, who headed the committee tasked with writing the Declaration of Independence. disrupted his standing and upended his own legacy when he plucked 33-year-old tall, suave, handsome, popular Jefferson of the golden pen from the steno pool (not exactly, but in 1776 the two men operated from entirely different political spheres.) Defining characteristics come from historian David McCullough, whose spent a lifetime “knowing” these two, in part because he got to read their mail.

Adams’ diary tells us the Second President could only start to think when “I sit down at the desk with a piece of paper and my pen.” Thinking being an art in short supply then and even less today. Modern political leaders and writers receive their training from diverse institutions and (hopefully) read from a myriad of books and materials. The Founding Fathers all were familiar with Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Man”: “Act well your part, there all the honor lies.” Honor seems not to be the goal sought by the combined leadership in 2021, more is the pity.

Ironic for a Harvard man and respected lawyer, Adams grew up one of three sons in an impoverished household that owned a single book, the Bible. His mother was illiterate; his father a small-time farmer and preacher, who brought John along when he moderated town meetings, inspiring his son’s interest in community affairs. Seeking to fulfill his desire that his son go to Harvard, Deacon Adams sold a portion of his precious family land. The payoff? Junior discovered books and bragged “I read forever,” giving a foundation to his purpose in life. From this knowledge grew the man whose words swayed the Colonist legislators to stand up to the British and stay the course for seven long, brutal years.

A little Adams bio could aid those who did not dip into McCullouch’s superb take on him. Before he began his political career, he rode the court circuit in Massachusetts, just as Abraham Lincoln did in Illinois. Few remember the principled role Adams played after the Boston Massacre. No American lawyer would stand up to offer legal services to British soldiers charged with the death of Americans. Adams feared that offering legal aid to the British soldiers could destroy his future legal and political career, but Adams took on the case. He said: “If we believe in what we say, somebody’s got to represent them. If you all will not, I will.”

 Instead of sinking his career, the trial brought Adams more popularity after doing what he believed to be right. Adams won election to the Massachusetts Legislature. He did not just take on the Brit’s case on American soil, he proved to the jury that the soldiers were performing their military duty, protecting themselves, acting in self-defense against the mob, without intent to murder. But he remained an ardent critic of Great Britain’s policies.

Adams took another stand unpopular among the landed gentry north and south. He and wife Abigail stood together in their opposition to slavery. Adams became the only signer of the Declaration of Independence to take that stand. In a letter to Abigail after the Continental Congress voted on July 2, 1776: “This will be the most important day in the history of our country.”

Adams grew to regret his selection of Jefferson to write the Declaration. Not because he was not talented, but Adams felt bruised and brushed aside as the spotlight shifted to the younger man who received full credit for the Declaration, despite Adams’ leadership and committee review after the initial draft. Successful passage of the Declaration and the necessary signatures depended on Adams’ oratory that pulled legislators on board[ME1] .

As the Revolutionary War wound down, Adams retired to Braintree, Massachusetts, then served as a Joint Commissioner to negotiate for Peace with Great Britain, then served on a diplomatic mission to France. Adams compensated for his lack of French language skills by studying on board ship crossing the Atlantic. He reviewed and signed the Treaty of Paris, securing recognition of the United States’ independence from Great Britain.

 Later lanky, diplomatic, wine connoisseur, and multi-linguist Jefferson traveled to France to replace Adams as envoi. He served as Adams’ vice president based on the number of votes he received in an era when the President and Vice President were not always of the same political party. Four years later in 1800, Jefferson turned the tables and beat Adams for the Presidency.

Adams can be forgiven for being cranky that as the U.S.’s Second President he did not receive the public adulation of his successor.[ME2]  The two men had one official sit-down, when Jefferson served as his VP. The relationship did not go well because they did not pencil in regular lunch dates, but more likely because they came from different sides of the political spectrum.

Few Presidents have failed to accompany their successor to their inauguration, most recent excepted. But John Adams ducked out of DC before Jefferson’s swearing in. While some saw this as the ultimate snub, they did not know the entire story. Adams had rushed home to Massachusetts to Abigail after the death of their son, Charles. Their son’s alcoholism caught up with him. Not information one would broadcast in 1801. His eldest son, John Quincy became an avid reader like his father and accompanied him when he served in Europe, learning the ropes. Eventually he himself served as an American statesman in the 1780s, and subsequently won the White House—a legacy repeated by few others.

If this tickles your fancy to learn more about the Founders, peek into The American Story, Conversations with Master Historians, a 2019 book by David M. Rubenstein featuring interviews with prominent historians, like David McCullough, Jon Meacham, Ron Chernow, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Tyler Branch and Robert Cairo. Or check out McCullough’s John Adams.

Hamilton & Madison & Jefferson: Money, Money, Money!

Money generated heated debate and became the source of America’s first “cut-it-with-a-knife” political division. How to pay for the debts from the Revolution? How to stabilize the young economy and who, if anyone, would be willing to pay to make it so? Money–how to get it, how to grow it, and how to spend it–divided Americans politically in the 1790s (more complicated today with millions more people, billions more dollars, and trillions more debt).

In the Federalist Papers, which Hamilton and Madison wrote together to gain support for the Constitution in 1788, Madison signaled an opening for a central bank. But upon reflection, he denied that the Constitution granted the federal government powers not specifically enumerated there–like a national bank.

Hamilton felt confident that the Constitution DID grant Congress the right to pass any legislation deemed “necessary and proper,” including a central bank. In Article 1, Section 8, of the Constitution continues to be the go-to language Congress relies upon when it sees a need. Madison’s ire rose and he charged Hamilton and Congress with exploiting this power and “leveling all the barriers which limit the powers of the general government and protect those of state governments.”

Madison saw the vote for the national bank as marking Hamilton’s takeover of the delicate balance between executive and legislative power. First Chief Justice John Marshall marked this debate as the beginning of the “complete organization of those distinct and visible parties which in their long and dubious conflict for power have. . .shaken the United States to their (sic) center.”

Fearing Hamilton’s ability to turn a phrase and remembering the intellect of his Federalist partner, Madison swiftly moved to become a strict constructionist when interpreting the Constitution–allowing Congress to assume nothing not strictly mentioned in the Constitution.

The idea of a national bank experienced rough sledding, particularly among Southern legislators. Then the rural population composed 95 percent of the nation, according to the 1790 records. One Virginia planter said he would “no more get caught going into a bank than into a house of ill repute.”

Madison saw the role of the Secretary of the Treasury as a staff role to Congress, not as someone making reports, then drafting legislation to bolster weaknesses or solve deficiencies brought to light in the reports. Under Hamilton’s perspective, as part of the executive branch, he saw his role as being a proactive problem solver, able to give direction and propose policies.

Bank of United States: Opens Deep Rifts

Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury under President Washington

Despite this division, the House approved Hamilton’s legislation 39-20, but it was lopsided with votes from most all congressmen north of the Potomac River with votes in opposition from the Southern contingent. The Senate had already approved it, so the Bank of the United States legislation went to President Washington’s desk.

Madison sought out the President to lobby him to veto the bill. Washington reached out to cabinet members Jefferson and Reynolds, seeking their opinions, which were negative. Washington questioned whether their responses were complete. He did what any self-respecting chief executive would do, he asked Hamilton for a full report. Of course Jefferson and Randolph did provide papers for Washington, but these weren’t nearly as comprehensive. Hamilton took ten days to complete a thesis-sized resonse.

Jefferson amended his criteria to expand the powers of Congress from what he called “just convenient” to truly “necessary.” He didn’t just disagree with the Bank and its central authority, he went much further and did not recognize the supremacy of the federal law over state law, a basic tenant of the U.S. Constitution.

A man who would become the President of the United States in 1801 and who was the prime author of the Declaration of Independence recommended to the chief architect of the Constitution, Madison, that ANY Virginia bank functionary who cooperated with Hamilton’s bank should be found guilty of TREASON and EXECUTED.

Hamilton’s Position Paper: 15,000 Words

” The power of erecting banks and corporations was not given to the general government: it remains then with the state itself. For any person to recognize a foreign legislature (Jefferson referred to the U.S. Congress as a “foreign legislature” to support his position of state supremacy) is an act of treason against the state. And whosoever shall do any act under color of the authority of a foreign legislature whether by signing notes, issuing or passing them, acting as director, cashier or in any other office relations to it, shall be adjudged guilty of high treason and suffer death, accordingly by the judgment of the state courts.”

Hamilton didn’t play. He met with Philadelphia’s leading lawyer, William Lewis, to review his work, then recruited Mrs. Hamilton to stay up with him the ninth and final night to recopy his writing. Hamilton provided Washington with the ammo for a positive response. His Treasury Secretary no less brilliant than when he joined the General’s military staff at 21, but wiser now in the ways of politics and certainly finance. Washington realized the need to address the economic issues facing his nation if America would rise to fulfill its promise. It’s unlikely he read all 40 pages, but he read enough to feel confident in his support for the National Bank.

He explained how the central bank would enable the federal government to:

  1. Collect taxes;
  2. Borrow money;
  3. Regulate trade among the states;
  4. Support fleets and armies.

Another sore point for Jefferson: he did not want the federal government to have authority to create corporations, possibly thinking it would hamper Virginia’s rural agrarian economy. Hamilton pointed out that well-structured corporations were stronger and more adventageous than the private partnerships then in vogue. By limiting manufacturing opportunities, the new nation could be held hostage by more mature economies, like existed in Europe, depending on them for finished goods.


On July 4, 1791, the public forgot about the earlier controversy with the opening of subscriptions to stock in Hamilton’s central bank. Stock sold out in an hour as a money-hungry mob formed in Philadelphia.

As sales moved to New York, where Madison experienced the bedlam of speculation, he reported to Jefferson by mail, “The bank shares have risen as much in the market here as at Philadelphia,” terming it a “mere scramble for so much public plunder.”

This fever for money, like America had never seen before, took hold. To broaden ownership, Hamilton agreed to sell bank shares in the form of script in major East Coast cities. To broaden ownership, Hamilton agreed to sell bank shares in the form of script. Investors made a $25 down pament and were given a script entitling them to buy a set of shares, paying them off in 18 months. Trading went so well that many doubled their money in a few days–lending to the term–“scriptomania”–long before social media promoted such ideas.

Not every American banking venture in the last 230 years has gone flawlessly and a portion of Americans do not experience the full benefit of the economic engine, but the nation has led the world in gross national product because of the ingenuity of its people and the availability of working capital that got a jump start with Alexander Hamilton. The quest continues.

Come back next Friday to see how Hamilton immersed himself in personal quicksand while competing another massive visionary piece for President Washington.


“Reviewing the Constitution. . .it was not possible to discover in it the power to incorporate a bank.” Broadus Mitchell, Alexander Hamilton: The National Adventure, 1788-1804. New York: MacMillian, 1862, p.9

“necessary and proper” “Leveling all the barriers which limit the powers of the general government. . .” Papers of Alexander Hamilton, Ed Harold C. Syrett et al. vol. 8, p. 113, “Opinions on Constitutionality of an Act to Establish a Bank,” February 23, 1791.

“Complete organization of those distinct and visible parties which in their long and dubious conflict for power have. . . shaken the United States to their (sic) center.”The Reynolds Pamphlet, vol. 10, p. 253, August 1797

“no more get caught goiong into a bank than into a house of ill reprute.” John C. Miller, Alexander Hamilton: Portrait in Paradox. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1959, p. 727.

Madison saw the Secretary of the Treasury more in a staff role. Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton, New York: The Penguin Group, 2004. p. 351. Chernow noted that history has come to support Hamilton’s take on this.

Jefferson did not recognize the supremacy of the federal law over the state law. Chernow, p. 353. See next note for continuation. Papers of Alexander Hamilton, vol 12, p. 85, Letter from Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, October 1, 1791

“and whosoever shall do an act under the color of the authority of a foreign legislature (in this case the U.S. Congress) whether by signing (bank) notes, issuesing or passing them. . . shall be adjudged guilty of high treason and suffer death “Papers of Alexander Hamilton, vol 12, p. 85, Letter from Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, October 1, 1791

Mrs. Hamilton’s role and size of the report. Chernow, p. 353.

Work performed by the Bank, Papers of Hamilton, vol. 8, p. 97

“every power vested in a government is in its nature sovereign. . . Ibid.

A fever for money. . .Hamilton agreed to sell bank shares in the form of script. Chernow, p. 357.

“The bank shares have risen. . . a mere scramble for so much public plunder.”New York Historical Society Quarterly, October 1948, uncovered correspondence between Madison in New York and Jefferson in Virginia.