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rhetoric Alexander Hamilton

The political rhetoric of the Founders of the American Republic has received scant attention from scholars. The relative neglect is understandable. On the one hand, the very concept of rhetoric has, in modern times, all but lost its classical signification, and has come to mean empty verbosity or ornament. On the other, the political achievements of the Foundersthe winning of independence, the establishment of a durable federal Union on republican principles, the creation of a system of government which is itself bound by law-were of such monumental proportions as to make their methods of persuasion seem of pedantic and picayune consequence. And thus, though every student of the epoch is at least vaguely aware that the general level of public discourse in late eighteenth-century America was extraordinarily high, perhaps unprecedentedly so, we tend to regard the way the Founders spoke and wrote as only incidental to what they did. I would contend, on the contrary, that it was their commitment to and practice of open, dispassionate, informed, and reasoned discussion of public questions which made their achievements possible. Their rhetoric, in other words, was not a mere by-product of their accomplishments: rather, their accomplishments were the product of their rhetorical interchange.


In the most general proper sense of the term, rhetoric is the art of persuasion through written or spoken language. In the classical and eighteenth-century usage, however, it meant persuasion according to certain formal rules. The Founding Fathers studied and practiced the art in accordance with the Aristotelian model, and at the risk of boring those of you who know far more about the subject than I do, I shall begin by pointing out a couple of the implications inherent in that model.[1]

First, Aristotle ruled out the relationship of rhetoric to pure knowledge, insisting instead that, since it was founded upon opinion rather than upon absolute truth, it was concerned only with matters of probability. I shall clarify that point later. For now, what is important is that consciousness of that limitation of the art was of immense value in the building of American republican institutions, for it meant that public discourse could not be conducted in terms of ideological certainties of the sort that perverted the French Revolution and, indeed, most other revolutions. Instead, discussion of public questions was at its best a trial-and-error process of moving toward ever-greater probabilities of truth without succumbing to the fatal sin of gnosticism, the belief that one has arrived at absolute Truth.

Second, though the rules required that persuasion be based on reasoned argument, they permitted two additional forms of “proof’ besides logical proof. These were ethical proof, which was designed to win from the audience a favorable attitude toward the author or speaker, and emotional proof, which was aimed at putting the audience in a receptive frame of mind. Given the Founding Fathers’ understanding that men are governed by their passions-that is, drives for self-gratification-and by habits and sentiments, and that reason is normally the servant rather than the master of the passions, this meant that their rhetoric and their view of the nature of man could complement and reinforce one another. It also meant that they were enabled to (as they were obliged to) work toward raising the level of public sentiments as well as the level of public understanding. This was put simply and clearly by the celebrated author of the 1767 Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, John Dickinson. In his seventh letter Dickinson quotes at length from speeches that Lord Camden and William Pitt had given in Parliament, praises the “generous zeal for the rights of mankind that glows in every sentence,” and analyzes what it was that made their rhetoric so powerful: “Their reasoning is not only just-it is, as Mr. Hume says of the eloquence of Demosthenes, ‘vehement.’ It is disdain, anger, boldness, freedom, involved in a continual stream of argument.”[2]

Historians, in dealing with the Founding Fathers, have paid too much attention to the “justice of their reasoning” and not enough to their “vehemence.” If a proper balance were brought to a study of the writings of the Founders, I believe, the result would be an enormous contribution to our understanding of them. If I were outlining such a study, I would suggest a rhetorical analysis of a half-dozen patriotic tracts written between the 1760’s and 1776: Dickinson’s Letters, John Adam’s Novanglus Letters, James Wilson’s Considerations on the…Authority of the British Parliament, Thomas Jefferson’s Summary View of the Rights of British America, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, and the Declaration of Independence.

I would also suggest that the student be sensitive to certain nuances of eighteenth-century political writing which have eluded most investigators. One concerns the meaning of words. The meaning of many crucial words has changed so radically that, without an Oxford English Dictionary at one’s side, one is likely to commit grave errors of interpretation. In a moment I shall offer some fairly dramatic examples of the ways that meanings have changed; meanwhile, a related subtlety is that there were then, as there are now, a variety of code words in common currency. For instance, there was the phrase “Great Man.” In one of my early books I missed entirely the connotations of the phrase: having noticed that it was frequently used to describe the financier of the Revolution, Robert Morris, I misread it to mean that even Morris’ enemies viewed him with a touch of awe. Much later I learned that it had been used by English Oppositionists as a contemptuous description of Sir Robert Walpole, then applied to the corrupt and wealthy aristocrats who dominated English politics in mid-century. It was the Oppositionists’ ideological heirs in America, anti-Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans, who applied the term to Morris-as they did also to Hamilton and Washington-and they were using it as a form of condemnation.[3] Finally, there are literary conventions which can sometimes be revealing. For example, pre-Revolutionary political tracts abounded in typographical variations- the use of italics, all capital letters, and extravagant punctuation-designed to achieve emphasis, indicating that the authors were thinking in terms of speech to small, tangible audiences. Upon the emergence of a truly national politics and the large, impersonal audience that that implied, typographical variations were abandoned, indicating that the writers now intended their words to be read rather than heard.[4]


Enough of preaching: it is time to start practicing. I have been speaking of a study that someone should make; let us turn to one that I have made, of the rhetoric of Alexander Hamilton. As we do so, we immediately face three formidable obstacles, all of which arise from Hamilton’s historical reputation. It is commonly alleged that Hamilton was contemptuous of public opinion; that he created a system based upon greed, in disdain of public spiritedness; and that he was hypocritical, saying one thing in private and another in public. These allegations, if true, would make analysis of his rhetoric pointless, save perhaps as an exercise in the study of duplicity. Each must therefore be considered before we proceed.

The first allegation rests mainly on a misreading of Hamilton’s language. After the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794, Hamilton said in a letter to Washington that he had “long since…learnt to hold popular opinion of no value.” if those words are read in their twentieth-century sense, they are pretty damning, and they seem conclusive; and that is the sense in which historians have read them. Richard H. Kohn, for instance, though usually a careful scholar, quotes Hamilton’s remark, adds that President Washington “knew he could not govern on such principles,” and cites with approval Secretary of State Edmund Randolph as saying that “Hamilton’s ideas ‘would heap curses upon the government. The strength of a government is the affectation of the people.”[5]

But let us consider Hamilton’s language more carefully. The operative words are “popular” and “opinion.” I do not have space here (even if I knew enough) to do full justice to the etymology of the word “popular” or to the historical distinction between it and the word “public,” but I can summarize briefly. In its ancient forms and in its seventeenth and eighteenth century usage, “popular” comprehended everybody; in meaning, though not in its roots, it was akin to “common” or ”vulgar.” it also had a specific political connotation, namely left-wing (significantly, Hamilton’s remark was apropos political attacks in Philip Freneau’s left-wing newspaper, The National Gazette). “Public,” by contrast, was derived from the same root as the word pubic, meaning manhood; it referred individually to those who had attained the full status and responsibilities of manhood and referred collectively to the political society or body politic itself. Interestingly, “virtue”-which Montesquieu and others regarded as the actuating principle of a republic-was also derived from a root word meaning manhood. Thus the phrases “public virtue” and “republican virtue,” which had considerable currency in eighteenth century America, were somewhat tautological, whereas “popular virtue” would have been a contradiction in terms, the component words being mutually exclusive. As for the word “opinion,” it was used in at least three distinct ways in the eighteenth century. One was the Aristotelian usage, as a technical term associated with probability, with the assembly and the courts, and thus with rhetoric. More frequently, it was used in the present sense, meaning belief or prejudice. Still a third usage signified confidence, esteem, high regard. Following an essay of David Hume’s, Hamilton had indicated in the Constitutional Convention that he used the term in the third sense. In other words, he was saying in 1794 that he held it of no value to be well-regarded by the rabble and by rabble-rousers-or, to phrase it differently, that statesmanship is not a popularity contest.[6]

That is a far cry from expressing contempt for what the public thinks and believes. Hamilton made his meaning clearer in the rest of his letter to Washington: after saying that he had learned to hold popularity of no value, he added that his reward for service to the public would be in “the esteem of the discerning and in internal consciousness of zealous endeavours for the public good.” Historians have somehow managed to omit that part of his letter, just as they have managed to ignore the fact that Hamilton probably expended more energy, thought, and words trying to create and guide an informed public opinion than did any of his contemporaries.

The second allegation, that Hamilton’s policies represented an effort to build a political system on greed rather than on civic virtue, stemmed from more complex roots. It originated in the charges of his political enemies. Some (William Maclay, for example) were economically interested in discrediting Hamilton; others (Jefferson and Madison, for example) were politically interested in doing so; still others (John Taylor of Caroline, for example) were ideologically interested in doing so. But that view of Hamilton has also been expounded by an impressive array of modern scholars, including E. James Ferguson, Gerald Stourzh, J. G. A. Pocock, and, most recently, Drew R. McCoy. The eighteenth century, as these historians have pointed out, witnessed the development of a school of political theory that espoused what Pocock calls “the movement from virtue to interest” as the activating principle of government: it began with Bernard de Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees (1714), holding that private vice was the wellspring of public virtue, and ran through Adam Smith and his often-quoted passage which begins, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard of their own interest.” According to McCoy, the “powerful, economically advanced modern state” which Hamilton envisaged “would stand squarely on the worldly foundations of ‘corruption’ that Bernard Mandeville had spoken of.”[7]

The case is persuasive. Though Hamilton never read Mandeville, as far as I am aware, he did read and on several occasions quote from David Hume’s essays in a similar vein, and he read and was influenced by Adam Smith. Moreover, in 1783 he clearly advocated the consolidation of national authority through appeals to the interests of public creditors and financial and commercial groups, and in 1784 he said flatly that “the safest reliance of every government is on mens interest.” I myself have been guilty of writing that Hamilton’s program as Secretary of the Treasury depended upon tying the interests of public creditors to the fate of his measures.[8]

But I was wrong, and so are the others. Two things happened to Hamilton between 1783 and 1789 which radically altered his thinking on this subject: he learned from observing and participating in state politics that state governments could be more effective in employing avarice to win political support than could a national government, and he learned from study of the principles of natural law that morality, in the long run, was a more stable foundation for government than was economic self-interest. Despite the abundance of charges, there is no evidence whatsoever that Hamilton used the lure of personal gain in seeking congressional support for his measures. Moreover, he expressed himself clearly on the subject in a remarkable private document he wrote in 1795. In drafting his plan for assuming the state debts, he admitted, he had taken into account the tendency of assumption “to strengthen our infant Government by increasing the number of ligaments between the Government and the interests of Individuals… Yet upon the whole it was the consideration upon which I relied least of all.” Even on purely practical grounds, had this been “the weightiest motive to the measure, it would never have received my patronage.” And, he added in a marginal note to himself, “such means are not to be resorted to but the good sense & virtue of the people.”[9]

The third common allegation against Hamilton, that he was hypocritical in his public utterances – and most particularly, that he spoke contemptuously of “the people” in private and sang a different tune for public consumption – is likewise without foundation. It is true that, in his youthful disillusionment with the way the Revolutionary War was going, he expressed his disgust with the people. In 1779 he wrote his intimate friend John Laurens that “the birth and education of these states has fitted their inhabitants for the chain, and… the only condition they sincerely desire is that it may be a golden one.” The next year he wrote Laurens that “Our countrymen have all the folly of the ass and the passiveness of the sheep in their composition …. The whole is a mass of fools and knaves.” In maturity, however, he arrived at a different and more balanced view and expressed it in public and private alike. I shall return to that later. Meanwhile, the measure of his duplicity, or lack of it, is to be found in comparing his public writings, from The Federalist Papers through the 1790’s, with his private correspondence. Such comparison reveals a record of virtually perfect consistency. The truth is that Hamilton was, as Fisher Ames said of him, “the most frank of men”; and, as he said of himself in a letter to an intimate friend, “what I would not promulge I would avoid….pride makes it part of my plan to appear truly what I am.” Indeed, his passion for candor more than once led him to transcend the boundaries of prudence-as he did, for instance, in publishing the details of his sexual affair with Maria Reynolds so as to protect the integrity of the office he had filled.[10]


Hamilton’s rhetoric may be fruitfully examined by considering separately his employment of each of the Aristotelian forms of proof. Thorough analyses of two of his performances have been made along those lines: Bower Aly’s study of Hamilton’s speeches in the New York ratifying convention, published in 1941, and Larry Arnhart’s study of the rhetoric of The Federalist, delivered before the Midwest Political Science Association in 1979. Some of what I have to say in the following pages draws on these two studies.

Logical proof, as opposed to ethical and emotional proof, carries the greatest portion of the burden in Hamilton’s rhetoric. In the Aristotelian system, logical reasoning is of two broad kinds: deductive, which means reasoning from general propositions to arrive at particular conclusions, and inductive, which means reasoning from a number of particular observations to arrive at general propositions. The principal device of deductive reasoning is called a syllogism, and it is something we all employ even if we have never heard the word. A syllogism consists, in order, of 1) a major premise, 2) a minor premise, and 3) a conclusion, as in this example: 1) no man is immortal, 2) John Smith is a man, and 3) therefore John Smith is not immortal.

But deductive reasoning in rhetoric, though having the same structure as that in other forms of logic, is not quite the same in substance. In rhetorical reasoning, one uses a special kind of syllogism called an enthymeme. The main difference between a pure syllogism and an enthymeme is in the nature of the major premise. In a pure syllogism the major premise is absolutely true, as in “the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle equals the sum of the squares of the other two sides.” In an enthymeme, the major premise is based instead upon the reputable beliefs of the audience, which are only probably and relatively true, as in the statements “people are creatures of habit,” or “honesty is the best policy.”

Hamilton described the two kinds of premises, as well as deductive reasoning as he practiced it, in Federalist 31. “In disputations of every kind,” he said at the beginning of that essay, “there are certain primary truths or first principles upon which all subsequent reasonings must depend. These contain an internal evidence, which antecedent to all reflection or combination commands the assent of the mind… Of this nature are the maxims in geometry, that ‘the whole is greater than its part;’” and so on. “Of the same nature are those other maxims in ethics and politics, that there cannot be an effect without a cause; that the means ought to be proportioned to the end; that every power ought to be commensurate with its object; that there ought to be no limitation of a power destined to effect a purpose, which is itself incapable of limitation.”[11]

A couple of aspects of this description want special notice. One is that Hamilton tends, in the passage quoted, to treat the two kinds of premises as equally valid. Doing so was an effective rhetorical device as well as a reflection of his personality-he was nothing if not positive and forceful- but he knew the difference. The first kind was what, elsewhere, he called “geometrically true,” the other what he called “morally certain.” The second subtle aspect of the passage quoted is that there is a progression in his examples of “maxims in ethics and politics,” from one which nobody would question to one that many members of his audience might challenge. The listing itself is almost a process of deduction. That, too, was both an effective rhetorical device and a reflection of his personality.

As for Hamilton’s inductive reasoning- that is, reasoning from experience, observation, or example- he always employed it, his mixture of inductive and deductive varying with the audience. Temperamentally, he distrusted the deductive and preferred the inductive. “A great source of error,” he wrote early in his career, “is the judging of events by abstract calculations, which though geometrically true are false as they relate to the concerns of beings governed more by passion and prejudice than by an enlightened sense of their interests.” In Federalist 20, echoing a sentiment shared by most of the Founding Fathers, he and Madison said that “Experience is the oracle of truth; and where its responses, are unequivocal, they ought to be conclusive and sacred.” In any event, as Arnhart has pointed out, he made clear to his audience whether he was using one or the other or both by introducing his arguments with such phrases as “theory and practice conspire to prove.”[12]

I shall not go into a detailed analysis of all the rhetorical techniques Hamilton employed in his logical proof. Aly has done so at great length: in regard to speech after speech, Aly points out where Hamilton has employed dilemma, antecedent probability, analogy, exposure of inconsistency, reduction to absurdity, causal relation, turning the tables, and other devices. For those who are interested in pursuing the matter further, I recommend Aly’s work.

But there are three additional aspects of Hamilton’s method of using rhetorical logic which, while compatible with the Aristotelian model, were unique to him. One was that his approach was always positive, never negative. As the editors of his law papers put it, “His habit of thought even when acting for the defense was affirmative; in other words, he was always carrying the war to the enemy.” That habit reflected his personality, but it was also a deliberate choice of rhetorical strategy and tactics. In this regard, it is instructive to observe the brief notes Hamilton recorded from Demosthenes’ Orations (which he studied while in the army). “‘Where attack him, it will be said? Ah Athenians war, war itself will discover to you his weak sides, if you will seek them.’ Sublimely simple.” And again, “As a general marches at the head of his troops, so ought wise politicians, if I dare to use the expression, to march at the head of affairs; insomuch that they ought not to await the event, to know what measures to take; but the measures which they have taken, ought to produce the event.” In addition to being effective, this positive style had a special advantage that is related to the inner logic of rhetorical reasoning. The speaker or writer is limited, in attempting to persuade his audience, by the fact that the premises from which he can argue are restricted to what the audience already accepts as an established truth. Hamilton’s practice of seeking the enemy’s weak sides and seizing the initiative “to produce the event” enabled him to broaden the range of acceptable premises, and thus to educate as well as to persuade his audiences.[13]

The second of Hamilton’s special qualities was an intuitive sense of the heart of a subject combined with an awesome capacity for mastering its details. As William Pierce wrote of him in the Constitutional Convention, “he enquires into every part of his subject with the searchings of phylosophy…there is no skimming over the surface of a subject with him, he must sink to the bottom to see what foundation it rests on…and when he comes forward he comes highly charged with interesting matter.” His speeches and writings were characteristically long, for he was rarely content to rely upon only one approach to an argument, even when he was confident of winning in a single stroke. His celebrated opinion on the constitutionality of the bank affords an excellent example. He disposes of Randolph’s and Jefferson’s arguments in six brief but devastating paragraphs – piercing immediately to the heart of their position, showing the false premise on which it rests, indicating the appropriate premise, and drawing from it the only reasonable conclusion. But then he goes on for another 15,000 words, ringing every imaginable change on the argument. The beauty of this technique is again its educational value: it goes beyond successful persuasion in the particular instance and establishes new foundations for further persuasion on the morrow.[14]

Hamilton’s third special quality is more difficult to describe. He was sensitive to the difference between the two nontechnical connotations of the word opinion: belief, judgment, prejudice on the one hand, approval, esteem, regard on the other. In conventional rhetorical theory, it was opinion in the first sense, belief, that supplied the premises for deductive logical proof; opinion in the second sense, approval, would fall under ethical proof, having to do with the audience’s favorable view of the author or speaker. Hamilton perceived that in the circumstances in which he labored-the attempt to establish a durable republican system of government-the two were so interrelated as to be inseparable. Each supported the other: the tasks of winning belief and approval went hand in hand. As a statesman he was seeking to establish public “credit” in the broad sense of credibility or confidence as well as in the narrow financial sense; indeed, in some respects he viewed the latter as only a means of attaining the former. Moreover -and this is crucial-he understood that opinions derive as much from perceptions as they do from facts. “A degree of illusion mixes itself in all the affairs of society,” he wrote; “The opinion of objects has more influence than their real nature.” Or, as he said in his First Report on the Public Credit, “In nothing are appearances of greater moment, than in whatever regards credit. Opinion is the soul of it, and this is affected by appearances, as well as realities.” There is an extremely subtle point here: one central aim of Hamilton’s public life was to replace the prevailing law of contract, based upon the medieval concepts of just price and fair value, with a modern theory of contract based upon consent in a free market. Thus Hamilton’s attention to the effect of appearances on opinion, like his other two special qualities, was an extension of the dimensions of logical proof, for it broadened the possible range of premises available within the rules of reasoning with enthymemes.[15]

Most of the techniques I have been describing can be illustrated by a brief analysis of one of Hamilton’s greatest performances, the Report on Manufactures presented to Congress in December, 1791. The rhetorical situation was different from what it had been when Hamilton had given his reports on the public credit and the bank. On the earlier occasions the audience agreed with the first premise, that it was imperative to establish a system of public credit; Hamilton’s task of persuasion was to convince Congress that it was desirable to do so in a particular way. In regard to the Report on Manufactures, the body of beliefs shared by most members of the audience, which we may describe in shorthand as the agrarian ideal, was hostile to Hamilton’s objective, the promotion of industry. His task of persuasion was to convince Congress that it was desirable to encourage manufacturing, whatever the means.

He began by isolating and attacking the enemy’s weakest side. The agrarian ideal itself was an impregnable bastion of prejudice, but the economic theory used to justify it-the physiocrat’s rather silly notion that land is the source of all wealth and that the labor of craftsmen adds nothing to the value of things-was highly vulnerable. Hamilton demolished the physiocratic theory by quoting and paraphrasing at length from Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, a work whose free-trade doctrines the audience regarded with great respect. He was careful, however, not to draw any conclusions beyond what his argument demonstrated: all he claimed at that stage was that manufacturing could produce wealth, probably about equally with farming.

Hamilton’s rhetorical strategy so far, that of using one body of acceptable premises to displace another, was effective, but it created a new rhetorical problem. The use of Smith’s work had the advantage of establishing, as a premise for further argument, that the wealth of a nation could be increased. On the other hand, it also had a disadvantage, for Hamilton was advocating active governmental promotion of manufactures, and Smith had championed the doctrine of noninterference-the idea that human industry, “if left to itself, will naturally find its way to the most useful and profitable employment.” To overcome that difficulty, Hamilton again sought the weakest sides of the argument. Smith, as Hamilton paraphrased him, had laid down seven new premises to prove that manufacturing could increase the wealth of a nation- the principle of the division of labor, the advantages of the use of machinery, the possibility of enlarging the labor pool by pulling normally idle people into it, and so on. As Hamilton developed each point, he corrected Smith by using inductive rather than deductive reasoning, which is to say by employing the awesome array of factual data which Hamilton had laboriously gathered for the purpose. By that means he transformed Smith’s premises into his own. To put it another way, he had taken premises acceptable to the audience, from which it was not logically possible to conclude that governmental activism was desirable, and altered them in such a way that it could logically be shown that such activism was not only desirable but in fact necessary.

Now Hamilton brought the cumulative effects of previous argumentation into play. Given the proposition that manufacturing should be encouraged, the fact remained that the United States, as an undeveloped country, was woefully short of the necessary capital. That obstacle was readily overcome, Hamilton said, and he showed how by reviewing his reports on public credit, where he had demonstrated that the public debt could be institutionally manipulated in such a way that, with the support of public opinion, it would be turned into a great pool of liquid wealth or capital. From there to the end of the report, Hamilton had smooth sailing: all he had to do was propose a series of practical steps to be taken to bring about the desired ends.

I described the Report on Manufactures as one of Hamilton’s greatest performances. Historians, however, will recall that Congress did not act on the report; and rhetoricians, armed with that datum, will conclude that the performance was not a great one at all. Let me construct the enthymeme: excellent rhetoric persuades the audience, Hamilton’s report failed to persuade the audience, and therefore the report was not excellent rhetoric. But Hamilton’s audience did not consist exclusively of the members of the Second Congress. In his rhetoric as in his statesmanship, Hamilton was addressing posterity and building cumulatively toward the future. In the course of time, the nation would begin the active promotion of manufactures, and for more than a century Hamilton’s report would provide the rhetorical foundation for such a policy. Indeed, the report itself became a first premise.


There remains the task of reviewing briefly Hamilton’s use of ethical and emotional proof and, finally, his style. In regard to the first two I shall depend, for my theoretical underpinnings, largely on Arnhart, for he has put the matter extremely well. For the last I shall return exclusively to my own analysis, for there is an important dimension to Hamilton’s style which he and others have overlooked.

Since the time of John Locke, logicians and rhetoricians have tended to share Plato’s suspicion of traditional rhetoric because of its admission of irrational appeals to the audience. If ethical and emotional proofs are made in adherence to Aristotle’s standards, however, they can in fact contribute to rational discourse. As for ethical proof, Aristotle says that a speaker will be most persuasive if he shows himself to be possessed of prudence, virtue, and good will. The persuasiveness of a speaker’s character, based upon those criteria, can scarcely be dismissed as irrational: it is obviously quite reasonable to judge the reliability of a writer or speaker as being proportionate to his prudence, his virtue, and his good will. Besides, the more an author or speaker establishes his own credentials on those foundations, the more he conditions the audience to expect and demand them of other authors and speakers- and thus contributes to raising the general level of the rationality of the audience, which in turn elevates the rational possibilities available to the author or speaker.[l6]

Hamilton’s use of ethical proof was calculated to obtain just that end. His techniques varied with his audience, of course, as they necessarily must. In dealing with Washington, for instance, the appropriate tone was one of deference – not of flattery, which the president would instantly have regarded as showing an absence of character, but of respect for the presidential office and for the president’s own character. In other words, one gained Washington’s respect by showing respect in a proper manner. Washington was a special case, but in a sense that was the way Hamilton employed ethical proofs in more conventional rhetorical situations. That is to say, Hamilton normally sought to establish his good character among the members of his audience not by reciting his own virtues but by appealing to theirs. He appealed to his audiences to judge his arguments dispassionately, openly, and in a spirit of moderation tempered by zealous concern for the happiness of their country. By urging them to be prudent, virtuous, and possessed of good will, he avoided the necessity of claiming to have those qualities himself; and to the extent that he succeeded, he actually instilled them in his audiences.[17]

As for emotional proofs, they are legitimate in Aristotle’s scheme of things only insofar as the passions with which they deal are rational ones. Now, passions are passions and reason is reason, to be sure; but passions can be short-sighted or prudent, biased or open, hastily formed or carefully considered. After all, there is such a thing as reasonable fear, and in some circumstances to be unafraid is to be unreasonable. Hamilton sometimes appealed to the fears of his audience, as when, in numerous of the Federalist essays, he declared that failure to adopt the Constitution would result in anarchy, tyranny, and war-and when, in essays on the French Revolution, he warned of the perils of emotional or ideological attachment to foreign powers. There are those of us who believe those fears were entirely reasonable. More characteristically, however, Hamilton’s appeals were to noble and positive passions: pride, honor, love of liberty, love of country. There are those of us who believe that stimulation of those passions is likewise reasonable.[18]

Lastly, there is the matter of Hamilton’s literary style. His style changed and improved over the years, as one might expect (though few scholars seem to have noticed); but what is more significant is that it evolved in a direction. Whatever one thinks of the intellectual merits of his earliest political writings, the 1774-1775 polemics entitled A Full Vindication of the Measures of Congress and The Farmer Refuted -unlike most other Hamilton scholars, I regard them as extremely muddle-headed-one is struck by their sophomoric literary quality. The Farmer Refuted, especially, is studded with strained metaphors, pretentious words, Latinisms, citations of authorities (many of whom young Hamilton had obviously not read), and other displays of affected erudition. By 1781-82, when he wrote The Continentalist essays, and 1784, when he wrote the Letters from Phocian, he had discarded most of that excess baggage, but there was still more than was necessary. By 1788, when he co-authored The Federalist, he had almost reached his mature form, but not quite: though he made far fewer classical allusions than Madison did, he was still making unnecessary ones, and though he rarely attempted a consciously ornate metaphor, his unconscious metaphors were sometimes mixed or strained. Thereafter, he had arrived: from 1790 until the end of his life his prose style was straightforward, clear, lean, hard, and energetic.[19]

That course of evolution paralleled the growth of Hamilton’s commitment to making a success of the American experiment in constitutional government. More than most of his countrymen, he doubted that the experiment could succeed; more than any of them, he was dedicated to making the effort. He perceived clearly that political rhetoric of the highest order was necessary to the attempt, for such is essential to statecraft in a republic. Now, we hear a great deal these days about the public’s “right to know.” That is a perversion of the truth, even as modern public relations, propaganda, and political blather are perversions of classical rhetoric. If the republic is to survive, the emphasis must be shifted from rights back to obligations. It is the obligation, not the right, of the citizen of a republic to be informed; it is the obligation of the public servant to inform him and simultaneously to raise his standards of judgment. In adapting his style to his audience, Hamilton was fulfilling his part of the obligation.


I would close with a postscript.[20] Despite Hamilton’s efforts, and despite the efforts of other patriotic souls, the level of public discourse degenerated rapidly in the late 1790’s. A plague of unscrupulous scribblers infested the nation, spewing venom, scurrility, deception, and hysteria throughout the land. Hamilton himself was subjected to as much abuse as any man, and possibly more. But he remained true to his principles until the very end.

One of his last and most celebrated cases as a lawyer arose from the frenzied partisan propaganda warfare that had developed. Harry Croswell, editor of a small-town newspaper, published a report that Jefferson had paid the notorious pamphleteer J. T. Callender to slander Washington, Adams, and other public men. The charge against Jefferson was true; but the Jeffersonians, who had stoutly defended freedom of the press when in the opposition, thought a “few wholesome prosecutions” were in order once they came to power. The Jeffersonian attorney general of New York, Ambrose Spencer, brought proceedings against Croswell for libel. On conviction, he appealed, and Hamilton became his counsel in the arguments before the state supreme court.

The key point at issue was that the judge in the trial court had refused to admit testimony regarding the truth of the statement as defense. English common-law doctrine, to which Republicans adhered, held that truth was not a defense. Hamilton scored effectively with a bit of emotional proof, showing that the doctrine itself was questionable since it had originated not in common-law courts but in the odious Star Chamber, as a departure from older law. But he was particularly concerned with the suitability of the doctrine in a republic. Libel, he said, was “a slanderous or ridiculous writing, picture or sign, with a malicious or mischievous design or intent, towards government, magistrates, or individuals.” Intent was crucial, and truth was relevant to determining intent. Truth was therefore a defense, though not an absolute one. If it were used “wantonly; if for the purpose of disturbing the peace of families; if for relating that which does not appertain to official conduct,” it was not acceptable. “But that the truth cannot be material in any respect, is contrary to the nature of things. No tribunal, no codes, no systems can repeal or impair this law of God, for by his eternal laws it is inherent in the nature of things… It is evident that if you cannot apply this mitigated doctrine for which I speak, to the cases of libels here, you must for ever remain ignorant of what your rulers do. I never can think this ought to be; I never did think the truth was a crime; I am glad the day is come in which it is to be decided; for my soul has ever abhorred the thought, that a free man dared not speak the truth.”

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Reprinted with the gracious permission of Modern Age (Spring 1981).


1. In my comments on Aristotelian rhetoric, I have been guided by Larry Arnhart, “The Federalist as Aristotelian Rhetoric,” paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, Chicago, April, 1979. Professor Arnhart kindly supplied me with a copy. I find his argument that the Founding Fathers followed the Aristotelian model entirely convincing, His forthcoming “Aristotle on Political Reasoning: A Commentary on the Rhetoric,” is scheduled for publication by Northern Illinois University Press in 1981. See also Bower Aly, The Rhetoric of Alexander Hamilton (New York, 1941).

2. Forrest McDonald, ed., Empire and Nation: Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, John Dickinson, Letters from the Federal Farmer, Richard Henry Lee (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1962). 4511.

3. Forrest McDonald, We the People: The Economic Origins of the Constitution (Chicago, 1958), 54; Rodger D. Parker, The Gospel of Opposition: A Study in Eighteenth Century Anglo-American Ideology (Ph.D. dissertation, Wayne State University, 1975); Harvey Mansfield, Jr., Statesmanship and Party Government: A Study of Burke and Bolingbroke (Chicago, 1965); Philadelphia Freeman’s Journal, October 10, 1783; George Clinton to John Lamb, June 28,1788, quoted in Aly’s Rhetoric of Hamilton, 164n: Edgar S. Maclay, ed., Journal of William Maclay, United States Senator from Pennsylvania, 1789-1791 (New York, 1890).

4. The change is readily observed by comparing Dickinson’s essays with Lee’s in McDonald, ed., Empire and Nation.

5. Hamilton to Washington, November 11, 1794, in Harold C. Syrett, ed., The Papers of Alexander Hamilton (26 vols., New York, 1961-1979), 17:366; Richard H. Kohn, Eagle and Sword: The Federalists and the Creation of the Military Establishment in America, 1783-1802 (New York, 1975), 172.

6. This analysis is based upon The Oxford English Dictionary, supplemented by many years of study of usages in eighteenth-century political writings. I have been given informative suggestions on earlier usages by my colleague, Professor Michael Mendle.

7. E. James Ferguson, “The Nationalists of 1781-1783 and the Economic Interpretation of the Constitution,” in Journal of American History, 60:241-261 (1969-1970); Gerald Stourzh, Alexander Hamilton and the Idea of Republican Government (Stanford, 1970): J. G. A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment (Princeton. N.J., 1975), 531; Drew R. McCoy, The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America (Chapel Hill, 1980), 13-47, 133. The Smith quotation is in the condensed version of The Wealth of Nations edited by Bruce Mazlish (Indianapolis, 1961), 15; it is found in Book 1, Chapter 2.

8. First Letter from Phocion, January 1784, in Syrett, ed.. Papers of Hamilton, . 3:494; Forrest McDonald, The Presidency of George Washington (Lawrence, Kansas, 1974). 67.

9. The Defence of the Funding System, July, 1795, in Syrett, ed., Papers of Hamilton, 19:40-41. Regarding Hamilton’s growth and maturity in the 1780‘s, see Forrest McDonald, Alexander Hamilton: A Biography (New York, 1979). 49-94.

10. Hamilton to Laurens, September 11. 1779, June 30, September 12, 1780, to Robert Troup, April 13, 1795, in Syrett, ed.. Papers of Hamilton, 2:167, 347, 428, 18:329; Ames to Rufus King, July 15, 1800, in Charles R. King, ed., The Life and Correspondence of Rufus King, 3:275-276 (New York, 1894) McDonald, Hamilton, 227-230, 237, 243-244, 259, 334-336.

11. Federalist Number 31. in Syrett, ed.. Papers of Hamilton. 4:456. Arnhart analyzes this argument in “The Federalist as Aristotelian Rhetoric,” 15-16.

12. Ibid., 17-18; Hamilton to , December 1779, and Federalist 20. in Syrett, ed., Papers of Hamilton, 2:242. 4:395. Arnhart (p. 19) points out that Publius uses two kinds of experience, that derived from the study of history and that derived from observation of ongoing affairs. He does not point out-what close analysis of The Federalist reveals-that Madison was much more given to citing historical examples, Hamilton to citing current and recent experience.

13. Julius Goebel, Jr., and others, eds., The Law Practice of Alexander Hamilton: Documents and Commentary, 1:3 (New York, 1964); Hamilton’s Pay Book notes, 1777, in Syrett, ed., Papers of Hamilton, 1:390.

14. Max Ferrand Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 (4 vols., New Haven, 1937). 3:89; Opinion on the Constitutionality of an Act to Establish a Bank, February 23, 1791, in Syrett, ed.. Papers of Hamilton, 8:97-134. Aly comments on Hamilton’s practice of ringing the changes on the arguments in his speeches in the New York ratifying convention; Rhetoric of Hamilton. 171 and elsewhere.

15. The quotations in this paragraph are from Hamilton to, December, 1779, and Report Relative to a Provision for the Support of Public Credit, January 9, 1790, in Syrett, ed., Papers of Hamilton, 2:242, 6:97. The generalizations are my own, derived from long study of Hamilton.

16. Arnhart, The Federalist as Aristotelian Rhetoric, 22-24.

17. Hamilton’s approach to Washington varied, of course, with the situation, the circumstances, and the vicissitudes of the relationship between the two men. For examples, see McDonald, Hamilton, 24, 124, 204, 289-296, and the documents cited therein. Both Aly and Arnhart point out that Hamilton’s use of ethical proof was essentially as I have described it.

18. Arnhart, The Federalist as Aristotelian Rhetoric, 25-29; Aly, Rhetoric of Hamilton, 142-145, 157-158; Federalist numbers 1, 9, 15, 30 and others. For one of Hamilton’s many warnings against emotional or ideological attachments to France, see Pacificus No. IV, July 10, 1793, in Syrett, ed., Papers of Hamilton, 15:82-86.

19. The writings referred to may be found ibid., vols. 1, 4, and 5.

20. Documentation of what follows is to be found in Goebel, ed., Law Practice of Hamilton, 1:775-848; the quoted passages are at pages 813. 820-821, and 822.

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2 replies to this post
  1. This is Forrest McDonald (and TIC) at his very best. The business of historians is to know what they are talking about. In this case Forrest had to learn (or re-learn) classical rhetoric, smithies economics, and natural law, among other things, so that he could read the sources with discernment. Historians from Francis Parkman to Admiral Morison knew that one had to walk the land on which events happened in order to feel as well as describe their importance. Imaginative conservatives like Forrest also know the need for connections amongst seemingly discreet bodies of knowledge. Applying what we read here one sees, for example, how shallow most of the "debate" between Jefferson and Hamilton, elsewhere on this site, really is.

  2. I just finished re-reading Forrest McDonald's "Alexander Hamilton: A Biography". We chose his bio as one of the three best on for suggested reading. This article burrowed much deeper than my previous research in understanding why Hamilton was so successful against so many opposers of his key programs. Thank you for republishing this article. It will continue to inform and inspire people. Also see The-AHA-Society for more information…

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