America’s Long Journey: Washington, Randolph, and Hamilton

 

Washington, Randolph, and Hamilton

Politics is a great disrupter of friendships. Sometimes, as in the case of Adams and Jefferson, the friendship can be re-established, but that’s rare. Mostly, a breach becomes permanent, especially when both sides feel wronged. That happened between Washington and Jefferson, as we shall see, and in 1795 it happened between Washington and Edmund Randolph, his second Secretary of State. In both cases, Alexander Hamilton was involved. When Jefferson resigned, Washington named Randolph to his post, and it was as Secretary of State that Randolph got into trouble.

Two of the four men in Washington’s initial cabinet were men of genius: Jefferson as Secretary of State and Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury. To be his Attorney General, he choose Edmund Randolph, not a genius but a patriot of solid worth, known to Washington for many years.

Randolph, like Washington, and like Jefferson (Randolph’s second cousin), was a part of a small aristocracy. The Randolph family were extensive and influential. By the 1790s, Edmund had been one of Virginia’s representative to the Continental Congress, Governor of Virginia, and leader of Virginia’s delegation to the Annapolis Convention that created the constitution. He had served Washington as his aide-de-camp for a short while in 1775, and then handled several legal matters for him.

In short, Washington knew him, and shared his background as one of Virginia’s inner circle. So it was all the more devastating when he became convinced that Randolph had betrayed him and had, in fact, betrayed the country. But, did he?

We will go into the long duel between Jefferson and Hamilton in due course. Here we need only say that the two men were at loggerheads from first to last. Both men had Washington’s ear, and, at first, his trust. But as time went on, Washington more and more often chose Hamilton’s course over Jefferson’s, and in 1793 he accepted his Secretary of State’s resignation and named Randolph, the Attorney General, to replace him.

Randolph, like Washington, had tried to remain neutral between the two men, but as Secretary of State he found Hamilton encroaching on his duties and prerogatives, for instance in the matter of the Jay Treaty, where Hamilton devised the approach and wrote the instructions, leaving Randolph, who after all was the Secretary of State, only nominal responsibility. When in due course he got to see the treaty Jay had negotiated, he objected to provisions that would disrupt the trade of neutral countries, particularly U.S. shipping to France, and tried to get Washington to disown it. Washington was considering his advice when the British sent him some letters their navy had captured.

Written by French minister Joseph Fauchet, the dispatches accused Randolph of asking for money from France to influence the administration against Great Britain, and the letters implied that Randolph had exposed the inner debates in the cabinet to Fauchet, and told him that the Administration was hostile to France.

Upon receiving the letters, Washington decided to sign the treaty, and a few days later, in the presence of the entire cabinet, Washington handed Fauchet’s letter to Randolph and demanded that he explain it. The charge was false, but Randolph was speechless. He resigned on the spot. Because of embarrassment at having been indiscreet? Because of indignation at being accused? We don’t know, and historians don’t tell us. All we know is that he resigned, and later secured a retraction from Fauchet, and still later published A Vindication of Mr. Randolph’s Resignation. But he was out of the cabinet, and outside Washington’s circle of trusted friends and officials.

It was a sad injustice. Randolph was guilty, at most, of indiscretion. What Washington didn’t know was that Hamilton was doing exactly the thing that he accused Randolph of doing, and had earlier accused Jefferson of doing. He was divulging private discussions within the administration to one of the two European powers, only in his case it was Britain rather than France, and in his case, he didn’t get caught in his lifetime.

The dispatches of George Hammond, the British Minister to the United States, were published in the 1920s, and at that time we learned that Hamilton had told him of secret cabinet discussions over whether or not to join several European nations in a League of Armed Neutrality.

The Cabinet intended that decision to be kept secret. Instead, Hamilton gave it to the British government. It was a far grosser indiscretion than any committed by Randolph.

Hamilton, like so many great man in public life, was capable of petty and disreputable actions, and his partisanship for the British led him not only to undermine his fellow officials but to undermine his government’s policies whenever he disagreed with them.

It was fortunate for Hamilton, and unfortunate for Randolph, and, earlier, Jefferson, that Washington never knew.

 

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