Friday, May 20, 2016

A Full Vindication of the Measures of Congress, Part II: Confidence and Deliberation

            In spite of his age, the shortness of his residence in America, and his inexperience with formal political discourse, Alexander Hamilton’s A Full Vindication of the Measures of Congress demonstrates a remarkable degree of sophistication in tone and content. Published in December, 1774, when the young Caribbean immigrant was not yet 20 years old, the pamphlet sought to address the recent written agitations of “A Westchester Farmer,” anonymous critic of the First Continental Congress. In spite of the fact that he had arrived on the continent but two years earlier, Hamilton waded into a political conflict that had been simmering since at least the mid-1760s with a confidence that bordered on arrogance. Seeking to foil “the Farmer” at every turn, he deployed, in A Full Vindication, a mix of structure, repetition, logic, rhetoric, and flattery, all buttressed by a healthy dose of haughty, youthful bravado. It is alternately polished and transparent – between accounts of the economic disposition of the British Empire and rather naked appeals to the pride of New York’s farmers – yet it never loses a sense of strong coherence and energy. Indeed, what seems to define A Full Vindication is the manner by which Hamilton was able to combine such seemingly disparate elements in a way that did not appear sporadic or uncoordinated. His answers to the arguments of his opponent were clearly laid out, reiterated often, accompanied by facts and figures on trade between Britain and its colonial possessions, and augmented by rhetoric that sought to exaggerate certain elements, draw attention to others, and remind the reader again and again of the significance of the debate at hand. It is undoubtedly the work of a young man – though one of uncommon gifts – and it is undoubtedly the work of Alexander Hamilton.

            Before delving into what either of those statements means, however, the prudent course would suggest a brief discussion on a few points of fact. The First Continental Congress to which “A.W. Farmer” (as Hamilton referred to his opponent) was so vehemently opposed was not the first of its kind to be summoned by the various colonies of British North America. The Albany Congress (convened in June, 1754) and the Stamp Act Congress (convened in October, 1765) laid the groundwork for subsequent efforts at inter-colonial cooperation by establishing a precedent for summoning delegates from across British North America in order to formulate a united response to common complaints. Though the former proved generally ineffectual, the latter resulted in the publication of a Declaration of Rights and Grievances – which declared that the British House of Commons had no right to tax those it did not represent – as well as the establishment of a boycott on all British manufactured goods being imported into the colonies. When the British government responded to American protests against further attempts to tax the colonies with a series of draconian punishments, a third convention was summoned to meet in Philadelphia in September, 1774. This so-called “Continental Congress,” attended by delegates from twelve colonies, adopted another statement of principles and protest (in this case referred to as the Declaration and Resolves) and establishing another boycott on the importation and consumption of all British goods. Unless the offending acts of Parliament were repealed by September 10, 1775, this non-importation agreement was to be joined by a pact among the participating colonies not to export any American products (produce, timber, fish, etc.) to Britain, Ireland, or the British West Indies.

Though the majority of the twelve delegations present in Congress supported the non-importation campaign, the response from the diverse demographics across the dozen colonies affected was generally somewhat mixed. Samuel Seabury, under the name A Westchester Farmer, was among those who wrote critically of the efforts of Congress. A native of Connecticut, graduate of Yale, and longstanding member of the Anglican clergy in America, Seabury had been ordained as a priest in Britain while studying there in the 1750s. He proved himself, upon his return to the colonies and the subsequent emergence of tensions between local governments and the British Parliament, a strong supporter of the traditional prerogatives of the Crown. To that end, Seabury penned two anonymous letters in 1774 decrying the actions of the delegates recently convened at Philadelphia, the first of which was entitled Free Thoughts on the Proceedings of the Continental Congress. Therein, in a style of plain, direct prose, he castigated the members of Congress for having usurped the prerogatives of the people they claimed to represent, and for dealing a severe blow to the lives and livelihoods of the farmers and merchants of New York with their continental boycott. “O shame to humanity!” Seabury declared, “Hold up your heads, ye Committee-men of New-York! Deny the charge if ye can. But remember, the instant ye deny it, ye forfeit all pretensions to truth or conscience.” Though Alexander Hamilton was not aware that Seabury was the author of Free Thoughts when he penned his reply, he and many others rightly suspected that A.W. Farmer came from among the colony’s loyalist-dominated Anglican clergy.

With such a lofty, if anonymous, personage in mind, Hamilton spent three weeks in late 1774, crafting a deliberate, step-by-step refutation of the various claims and accusations made by Seabury’s Westchester Farmer against the actions of the First Continental Congress. In spite of being the product of an intellect still very much in the process of formation, it demonstrated on its author’s behalf a remarkable degree of coherence and rhetorical energy that belies the youth of the penman and the ostensibly dry nature of the subject under discussion. There are a great many specific points, passages, or excerpts that attest to the extraordinary competence therein displayed – to which further attention will be paid shortly – yet the impact of the piece and the skill inherent in its creation is perhaps best appreciated by first surveying the whole of the thing. To that end, there are several recurring elements or themes that Hamilton made use of in A Full Vindication that give evidence of the freshman pamphleteer’s approach to discourse, his understanding of his audience, and his political and philosophical sympathies.

Foremost among these elements is Hamilton’s highly structured approach to debate. While attention to proper composition is a common trait among many examples of political commentary from the Revolutionary Era – owing no doubt to the education received by many of the Founders which prioritized rhetoric and logic – Hamilton’s use of the same remains notable chiefly because of his age and inexperience. Though he had been studying in the colonies since very near his arrival in the autumn of 1772 – first at a grammar school in Elizabethtown, New Jersey, and then under tutor Frances Barber – his time at Kings College had as yet been very brief. And previous to this formal schooling the greatest part of his education had been self-administered via the books he had inherited from his mother’s estate. That he should have acquired the knowledge, let alone the confidence, to put into practice tested methods of written discourse after such a disjointed education would seem to indicate the prodigious nature of Hamilton’s talents. A Full Vindication, far from the emotional, undisciplined screed one might expect from a teenager anxious to make a name for himself, clearly lays out and follows through on a series of arguments with composure, determination, and a close attention to detail.

When attempting, for example, to demonstrate that the measures enacted by the late Congress constituted “good policy,” Hamilton first defined the essential components of the concept itself (paragraph twenty-nine) and thereafter proceeded to explain how each of them weighed upon the fitness of a non-importation agreement to achieve the ends desired by the affected colonists (paragraphs thirty, thirty-one, and forty-seven). A framework of argument thus established, Hamilton thereafter began to quote at length (beginning in paragraph forty-nine) specific passages from the two letters published under the name A.W. Farmer and providing responses and refutations that relied on logic, the exposure of contradictions, and appeals to the economic disposition of the British Empire and the American colonies. This pattern – argument and counter-argument, claim and repudiation – continued through to paragraph one hundred seventeen of one hundred twenty-five. Over the course of this extended back-and-forth, Hamilton delved into discussions of, among other things, the practical effects of British taxation on American farmers, the ability of Britain to support itself and its colonial dependencies absent American produce and markets, and the potentially beneficial effects of the colonies being forced to develop their domestic manufacturing capacities. No doubt Hamilton intended that every contradiction A Full Vindication offered to the arguments of Seabury’s Westchester Farmer would chip away at some small portion of the latter’s legitimacy so that by the pamphlet’s conclusion any validity formerly possessed by the pseudonymous Loyalist would appear entirely baseless.

Accompanying the very structured argumentative format seen throughout A Full Vindication is a highly didactic method of communicating certain ideas. This method takes the form of repetition, of words, phrases, and concepts, as a means of reinforcing their importance and continually reminding the reading audience of the practical terms of the ongoing debate. One notion in particular, of profound importance to the larger debate then raging about the true nature of the British Empire, appears at numerous points during the course of Hamilton’s various claims and declarations. The arguments of the “restless spirits” who publicly opposed the actions of the Continental Congress were faulty, Hamilton claimed, because at base they insisted that the dispute between the American Colonies and the British Parliament was, “Founded entirely upon the petty duty of three pence per pound on East India tea [.]” This was plainly untrue, so A Full Vindication declared, because, “The whole world knows it is built upon this interesting question, whether the inhabitants of Great Britain have a right to dispose of the lives and properties of the inhabitants of America, or not.” The above excerpted passage appeared in the second paragraph of A Full Vindication, and though it was accompanied by other supposed falsehoods that critics of Congress had endeavored to perpetuate, the reappearance of the same argument in the pages that followed marked it out as of particular importance to the broader message of Hamilton’s novice pamphlet. Indeed, similar expressions can be found in paragraphs eight, eighty-two, eighty-three, and one hundred four, each of which repeat the fundamental claim that the dispute between the colonists and their British cousins was not over certain specific taxes but concerned the theoretical right of taxation that Britain claimed to possess.

By relying on a rhetorical device of this nature, Hamilton served to impart a deliberate and methodical character to A Full Vindication. Rather than sweep back and forth across the hazy spectrum of theoretical philosophy, as some of his more academic-minded colleagues were inclined to do, he never strayed too far from the topic at hand before returning once more to a simple declaration of what he knew to be the root of the present crisis. This resort to repetition, at chosen intervals, doubtless permitted Hamilton to venture into discussions of topics less immediate to a consideration of the validity of the non-importation agreement decreed by Congress without fear of losing the attention of his audience. Not only did this likely imply a degree of discipline on the part of the author of A Full Vindication, an impression which no doubt strengthened its potential acceptance, but it also seemed to acknowledge the limitations of the pamphlet’s desired audience. As Seabury adopted the pen-name “A Westchester Farmer” in order to ingratiate himself with New York’s sizeable agricultural population (Westchester Country at that time being largely rural), so Hamilton showed a conspicuous awareness of the nature and temperament of his readership by continually reminding them what, at base, was really being discussed. The moderately educated, or indeed uneducated, farmers of New York might reasonably have found themselves at sea amid the facts and figures Hamilton dispensed concerning the disposition of the Irish textile industry, the productive capacity British Canada, and the resource needs of the West Indies. Relating these tangents back to the aforementioned claim – the “us vs. them,” taxes vs. the right to tax disagreement – was no doubt intended to alleviate any potential confusion and make it as clear as possible that the position adopted by Congress had a very straightforward basis in logic that was supported by any number of practical economic arguments. This strong sense of the disposition of his audience seems also in evidence in the basic structure Hamilton chose for A Full Vindication.

Of one hundred twenty-five paragraphs total, the first seventy-six of Hamilton pamphlet are addressed to a presumed general audience and concern themselves mainly with refuting the claims put forward by A.W. Farmer in strongly logical terms. Rather than attempt to discredit his chosen opponent by relying on invective, or by calling into question his character or his motivations, Hamilton evidently chose in this section to restrict his arguments against the expressions of his Loyalist foe mainly to those that undermined their basis in rational thought. To the assertion, for instance, that Britain was inclined to respond favorably to petitions against the taxes recently levied upon the colonies because Parliament had in the past lifted similar taxes in response to repeated requests, Hamilton declared that said imposts were previously repealed only, “Because these acts were found to militate against the commercial interests of Great Britain.” It was not out of a sense of tenderness that the Stamp Act, the Sugar Act, or the Townshend Duties had been rescinded, he avowed, but rather in reaction to united American resistance to the same in the form of commercial boycotts. The preservation of British industry had been the only motivation for previous instances of British mercy; the relevant Parliamentary debates had made this quite clear, and to claim otherwise was an unaccountable folly. Arguments of this type predominate in the first half of A Full Vindication, and bring to bear against the claims of the Westchester Farmer a veritable fusillade of hard-headed, pragmatic assertions about the true strength of the united American colonies, the delicate balance inherent in administering a complex global empire, and the ruthless self-interest that lay at the bottom of all British decision-making. As an introduction to a new voice on the colonial American political scene, such an effective resort to the logical deconstruction of an opponent’s position doubtless left its mark on those who read it. Hamilton’s fondness for realpolitik, discussed at length in previous weeks, was unusual among the political discourse of the period, and seems to have formed an essential component of his earliest foray into public debate.

Similarly characteristic of Hamilton’s approach to political discourse, heavy use of emotionally-charged rhetoric is the dominant element of the second half of A Full Vindication. Though the arguments that followed his declaration that he was, “Now to address [himself] in particular to the Farmers of New York,” (paragraph seventy-seven) still made use of practical economic examples as evidence for the validity of the boycott proposed by Congress, pragmatism was far outweighed by emotional appeals, haughty exaggeration, and no little degree of fearmongering. As his later career would prove, Hamilton was certainly not above making use of such tactics in order to manipulate the perceptions of his audience. His share of the Federalist Papers, for example, show a remarkably sophisticated grasp of the anxieties of the American public and a willingness to tweak their fears, aspirations, or aversions. A Full Vindication gives evidence of this exact tendency, though in a form far less polished – one might even say clumsier – than Hamilton would later achieve. In the aforementioned seventy-seventh paragraph, he managed to decry Seabury’s attempt to masquerade as a farmer – “He is some ministerial emissary,” he declared, “That has assumed the name to deceive you, and make you swallow the intoxicating potion he has prepared for you” – while attempting to both flatter the same constituency and appeal to their sense of pride. “I have a better opinion of you than to think he will be able to succeed,” Hamilton informed his pastoral readers, and further added, “You would be a disgrace to your ancestors, and the bitterest enemies to yourselves, and to your posterity, if you did not act like men, in protecting and defending those rights you have hitherto enjoyed.” Though such a nakedly sycophantic expression may not have succeeded on its own in swaying the pamphlet’s intended audience, the combination of rhetoric with grounded, logic-laden arguments doubtless provided a sense of balance and equilibrium that neither component could have achieved alone. By thus appealing to his audience’s clinical and emotional aspects, Hamilton doubtless greatly increased the likelihood that one or another of his arguments would hit home.

Another hallmark of the Hamiltonian style of debate present in A Full Vindication is the overwhelming sense of the author’s confidence in his own abilities and the rightness of his convictions. Never a shrinking violet, America’s inaugural Treasury Secretary was often cited – and frequently despised – for the self-assured manner in which he conducted his public affairs, and his written discourse gives ample evidence of the high estimation he perennially afforded himself and the contempt with which he frequently viewed his opponents. Hamilton’s first venture into public debate was no exception. In fact, his customary hauteur appears if anything augmented by the youthful bravado one might reasonably expect from an adolescent prodigy who feels as though they have something to prove. While a similar sentiment was likely not beyond an older, more poised Hamilton, it may thus reasonably be chalked up to youthful impudence when in the first paragraph of his first published pamphlet he declared of the attempts of Loyalists like Samuel Seabury to cast doubt upon the efforts of the First Continental Congress,

The impotence of such insidious efforts is evident from the general indignation they are treated with; so that no material ill-consequences can be dreaded from them. But lest they should have a tendency to mislead, and prejudice the minds of a few, it cannot be deemed altogether useless to bestow some notice upon them.

With these two sentences alone, Hamilton dismissed his opponent out of hand, declaring that they were of no consequence and thus not to be feared, and then deigned to offer his insight as though it was particularly magnanimous of him to do so. For a young man of 18 or 19 years this represents an impressive assertion indeed.

A passage in paragraph ninety-nine demonstrated a similar degree of self-possession, whereby Hamilton declared, “By this time I flatter myself you are convinced that we are not disputing about trifles. It has been clearly proved to you that we are contending for everything dear in life [.]” Rather than formally submit his case to the prudence and good judgement of his readers, as many among his contemporaries often explicitly did, Hamilton stated three-quarters of the way through his first piece of public discourse that he had succeeded, and that his case had been “clearly proved.” Then, in paragraph one hundred six he affirmed in response to a claim of A.W. Farmer’s he fancied he had just refuted, “The gentleman who made the objection must have known these things as well as myself; but he loves to crack a jest, and could not pass by so fair an opportunity.” So convinced was Hamilton of his own talents, the cogency of his arguments, and the success of his inaugural venture into written debate, that he felt comfortable diminishing the knowledge of his anonymous opponent by stating that their errors must surely have been in jest. By appearing to give A.W. Farmer the benefit of the doubt, he was in fact doing anything but. Paragraph one hundred eighteen was perhaps the most casually dismissive of all. It states, in its entirety,

By Him–but, with your leave, my friends, we’ll try, if we can, to do without swearing. I say, it is enough to make a man mad to hear such ridiculous quibbles offered, instead of sound argument; but so it is–the piece I am writing against contains nothing else.

With feigned gentility Hamilton declared a wish to avoid offending the sensibilities of his readers by taking God’s name in vain, though the efforts of his opponent to call into doubt the intentions of Congress inclined him very much in that direction. While thus seeming to apologize for his near-resort to profanity, he managed to slip in an exceedingly casual dismissal of Seabury’s no doubt sincere admonishments. “It is enough to make a man mad to hear such ridiculous quibbles,” he explained, in two words summing up all that his opponent had to say and tossing it (and him) effortlessly aside.

            This kind of aggressive rhetoric was not altogether uncommon among 18th century pamphleteers and political commentators. As the satire dispensed with mischievous glee by Benjamin Franklin or the fiery invective that was Thomas Paine’s stock in trade demonstrates, the literary world of the Revolutionary Era was not without certain ungentlemanly aspects. Men, and more than a few pseudonymous women, were perfectly willing to manhandle their opponents in an attempt to appease or appeal to an audience that appreciated a public feud as well as any serial viewed of modern reality television. Indeed, the delivery of a cutting insult was for many a skill to be cultivated; a tool by which one could more effectively diminish their opponent and make their point. With this in mind, Alexander Hamilton’s willingness to cunningly dismiss or deride Seabury’s A.W. Farmer was not altogether so remarkable for the period. That being said, absolutely worth noting is the tender age at which Hamilton sought to stake his claim to this particular literary tradition. If A Full Vindication is any kind of proof, brio was not something he earned with his accomplishments. He was not a confident debater and a deliverer of stinging written reposts in 1774 because he was flush with success. At 18 years old, fresh off the boat and doubtless still stinging from a childhood deprived of many basic comforts, Alexander Hamilton was nobody. And yet, all logic to the contrary, the confidence was there. Later achievements doubtless augmented, channelled, and directed it, but its source was evidently internal. To understand this is to understand something fundamental about one of the single-most influential members of the Founding Generation. 

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