In the early 1790s Alexander Hamilton, then secretary of the treasury, was accused of conspiring to turn the American Republic into a monarchy. The origin of that theory can be dated, fairly specifically, to April 1791 and a dinner engagement between Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson (then secretary of state), and John Adams (then vice-president).
In the course of a conversation on political subjects Adams remarked that the British Constitution “would be the most perfect constitution ever devised by the wit of man” if only it were purged of its corruption and if the House of Commons had equality of representation.
Hamilton responded with sentiments derived from one of his favorite political writers, David Hume: “purge it of its corruption, and give to its popular branch equality of representation, and it would become an impracticable government: as it stands at present, with all its supposed defects, it is the most perfect government which ever existed.”
Jefferson was horrified by Hamilton’s declaration and from that moment purportedly believed that Hamilton was “not only a monarchist” but that he preferred “a monarchy bottomed on corruption” and, furthermore, Jefferson believed that Hamilton was actively conspiring to erect such a system in the United States.
Jefferson and Madison (who had come to think like him) began to see evidence of Hamilton’s conspiring ways in many of his writings and actions, past and present. Hamilton’s fiscal policy in particular, a policy that aimed to concentrate wealth at the national level by assuming debt through a national bank, was characterized as an elaborate ploy designed to deprive the U.S. people of their liberty. As the Republican Party began to coalesce around Jefferson and Madison, Hamilton was portrayed in the popular press as the head of a “Royal Faction” intent on ending Republican government.
Rumors spread in newspapers that Hamilton was plotting to have the Duke of Kent, a son of George II, crowned as king of the United States. The National Gazette, a paper published in Philadelphia by Philip Freneau (with the backing of Madison and Jefferson), fanned the flames of suspicion, by painting Hamilton as an advocate for monarchy and aristocracy.
In May 1791, Jefferson assembled his evidence of Hamilton’s conspiracy and presented it to President George Washington, charging that Hamilton’s scheme was to “prepare the way for a change from the present republican form of government to that of a monarchy”.
Washington did not believe a word of this and pressed for an end to the accusations. Learning from Washington of the charges against him, Hamilton defended himself in a long letter in which he argued that the real conspirators were his accusers.
Hamilton later spoke of the “unkind whispers” leveled against him and maintained that the “real threat to republicanism came not from Madison and Jefferson’s imagined group of monarchists and aristocrats, but rather from the disorder and anarchy that would result from the destruction or lessening of the influence of the national government.” Hamilton summarized the issue in a fairly accurate way when he wrote: “One side appears to believe that there is a serious plot to overturn the state Governments and substitute monarchy to the present republican system.
The other side firmly believes that there is a serious plot to overturn the General Government and elevate the separate power of the states upon its ruins. Both sides may be equally wrong and their mutual jealousies may be materially causes of the appearances which mutually disturb them, and sharpen them against each other”.
Washington rightly considered the “wounding suspicions, and irritating charges” of conspiracy and counterconspiracy to be harmful to the harmony of the early American Republic, but he was unable to bring the parties together.