Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton: A Juxtaposition of Attitudes and Motives Toward American Indians

“Of course, Taylor well knew that the cunning Hamilton and his corrupt allies forgot nothing.”[1] The bogeyman of American history, Alexander Hamilton has often been characterized as some sort of monster who sought to prey upon the poor, hapless plebeian masses that blighted his patrician country. And to be fair Hamilton did not always help himself in this regard; as Robert Martin has noted, “In the very last letter he wrote, Alexander Hamilton famously called ‘democracy’ a ‘disease’ and a ‘poison.’ Myriad comments like this one have led many scholars since his death – and many of his contemporaries before it – to see Hamilton as an opponent of republicanism, even a closet monarchist.”[2]

In Jefferson’s Empire: The Language of American Nationhood, Peter Onuf presents Thomas Jefferson’s vision for America’s future, and more specifically, documents Jefferson’s attitude, hope, and ultimate resignation vis-à-vis the American Indians and how they fit into this future in the book’s first chapter, “We Shall All Be Americans.” Jefferson possessed a positive disposition toward the Indians, refuting European conceptions of New World degeneracy and positing their “savagery” resulted from European corruption. That said, he also accepted unless America’s Indian tribes changed their ways they would cease to exist. But Jefferson seemed acquiescent in this acceptance and Onuf does not offer evidence of America’s third president demonstrating concrete care and attention for the Indians beyond paternalistic platitudes.

Of necessity, in describing Jefferson’s view, Onuf contrasts him with Hamilton (and the Federalists by extension). “Taylor’s[3] denunciation of Federalist Indian policy echoed Virginia’s complaints against the king during the Revolutionary crisis…. These would-be aristocrats had the same antirepublican vision of the West’s future that had inspired land speculators before the Revolution….”[4] At issue for Jefferson and Jeffersonian policy is the classic American fear of tyrannical “metropolis” government, as Onuf calls it.[5] Beginning with Jefferson’s Summary View of the Rights of British America, Jefferson and those similarly minded articulated the fear of centralized power with a resultant supplanting of local sovereignty and autonomy.[6] Just as “royal assaults on Virginia’s charter boundaries and changes in land policy that retarded the transfer of land to private hands” were a source of discontent for Jefferson and his state,[7] so too did they see similar motives behind Hamilton and Federalist dealings with Indians. “For a Jeffersonian who remembered why the Revolution had been fought in the first place,” Onuf writes,

history seemed to be repeating itself. In blatant disregard of colonial charter rights, a corrupt imperial government had sought to block western settlement and cultivate Indian clients, the merciless ‘savages’ whom the ministry proceeded to unleash on defenseless frontiers…. Federalists pursued a similar policy, buttressing the consolidating of power in the central government by promoting the pretensions of native auxiliaries on the new nation’s periphery.[8]

But is this an accurate assessment of Hamilton and the government he helped lead?

Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow offers a far more benevolent view of Hamilton’s designs with American Indians by attesting to his earnest love of academia and scholarly endeavor. Recall this was a man of the humblest origins, an immigrant, who had to earn his way via his force of will, intellect, and energy – it is no wonder he would inculcate the pursuit of knowledge and learning among those who were similarly disadvantaged in their origins: “Another leitmotif of Hamilton’s private life was his constant support of educational and scholarly pursuits…. Hamilton was receptive when…approached…in January 1793 to join the board of trustees of a new school in upstate New York to educate white and native American students. The latter would be taught both English and Indian languages. Kirkland[9] wrote in his journal, ‘Mr. Hamilton cheerfully consents to be a trustee of the said seminary and will afford it all the aid in his power.’”[10]

Further distancing Hamilton from the “cunning” machinations frequently attributed to him is the fact Hamilton actually stood athwart the same speculators Thomas Jefferson and John Taylor railed against. Again, Chernow offers examples of the oft unseen side of Hamilton:

Hamilton had championed a humane, enlightened policy toward the Indians. When real-estate speculators had wanted to banish them from western New York, he warned Governor Clinton that the Indians’ friendship “alone can keep our frontiers in peace…. The attempt at the total expulsion of so desultory a people is as chimerical as it would be pernicious.” He was often outraged by depredations perpetrated by frontier settlers against the Indians; in one later speech drafted for Washington, he wrote that government policy had been “inadequate to protect the Indians from the violences of the irregular and lawless part of the frontier inhabitants.” When problems with the Indians arose, he always favored reconciliation before any resort to force.[11]

Where Jefferson and his disciples saw a recidivist encroachment of their territorial rights as Hamilton’s motives, for himself Hamilton was simply behaving nobly. Hamilton not only seems to have possessed a sincere compassion for Indians in an age where such sympathy was decidedly a minority one, much like being anti-slavery, but was known to redress wrongs perpetrated upon them, even by the government officials allegedly profiting from his policies.[12]

Yet there was more than altruism at work for Alexander Hamilton. In his 1802 remarks to the voters of New York, Hamilton decried the financial toll Indian wars under Jefferson’s leadership had taken in the state and country as a whole. Hamilton’s “Address to the Electors of New York” is a spirited defense of his political life’s work and an “antifederalist” bludgeoning. He decries the “public debt,” defends his work as Treasury Secretary, and directly attributes blame of new debt, in part, at Republican wars with Indians. Ever the economic-wonk, he additionally derided New York’s policy of purchasing Indian territory as part of its treaties with local tribes because the purchased land “though resold [had] not yet been productive of revenue.”[13] Thus is evidenced more tangible causes for Hamilton’s legitimate consideration for American Indians: he did not want costly wars or irresponsible buying of lands.

As much as Hamilton desired peaceful relations with America’s indigenous peoples, he was still an American and still desired for the United States to expand, to be great, and for Americans to be protected. Disproving Taylor’s denunciations that Hamilton and the Federalists failed to “[procure] safety” of Americans on the frontier and would rather see “the barbarians…encroach upon us,”[14] consider Hamilton’s letter to James McHenry of October 12, 1799. In reference to the reorganization of the American Army, Hamilton is at pains to ensure protection of frontier Americans. He writes, “The reduction of the garrison at Michilimacnac…has been…influenced by the consideration of the economy…. This number will serve to occupy the point as one of the portals of the country and to cover the few white inhabitants there settled. In a suitable fortification…it may effectively resist Indian attack….” Hamilton also wants Americans, and Indians, to know the United States is present on the frontier, that Americans are safe, protected, and not alone: “The primary inducement to us to keep a post there is as before intimated to retain the occupation of what may be considered as one of the portals of our North Western territory & to avoid the appearance to the Indians of an abandonment of that part of the country.” He wants to secure “reasonable protection to the Inhabitants” and “provide impressive influence on the powerful tribes of Indians.”[15]

Thomas Jefferson and his partisans perceived in Alexander Hamilton (and the Federalists) the Early Republic equivalent of crony capitalists who feasted upon the misery of the downtrodden that dared to be in their path toward ever more accumulation of wealth and concentration of power. They perceived in Hamilton (and the Federalists) “antirepublicans” who would undo the Revolution. The reality, however, was much different: just as Jefferson’s own administration was forced to vindicate Hamilton of any impropriety as Treasury Secretary, so too the historical record exonerates the nation’s architect of “cunning” stratagems to “consolidate power” in the federal government by “promoting the pretensions of native auxiliaries on the new nation’s periphery” through deliberate “unleashing” of Indians on “defenseless frontiers” and the like. He did exhibit a sincere concern for America’s original inhabitants and seek peaceful developments between the Indians and Americans, but simultaneously prepared safeguards for the moment peace was no longer viable. Whereas Jefferson remained aloof toward the plight of Indians, lamenting their self-induced fate, and calling for ever more expansion, Hamilton, surprisingly, was the one exercising caution, care, and discretion. Although Hamilton did not leave anything like Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, the fragments suggest the “American Bonaparte” and the Federalists were actually the proponents of coexistence where Jefferson and the Republicans could only envision extermination, yet desirous of protection of Americans and cognizant of the likelihood of conflict despite Jeffersonian demagoguery to the contrary.


[1] Peter S. Onuf, Jefferson’s Empire: The Language of American Nationhood(University Press of Virginia, 2000), 43.

[2] Robert W. T. Martin, “Reforming Republicanism: Alexander Hamilton’s Theory of Republican Citizenship and Press Liberty,” in The Many Faces of Alexander Hamilton: The Life and Legacy of America’s Most Elusive Founding Father (New York University Press, 2006), 109.

[3] John Taylor of Caroline, an opponent of Constitutional ratification, he served in the Virginia House of Delegates and United States Senate

[4] Onuf, 44.

[5] By “metropolis” government Onuf means a powerful centralized government that assumes all powers, all loyalties unto itself at the expense of other entities.

[6] Thomas Jefferson, Summary View of the Rights of British America, Yale Law School, The Avalon Project: Jefferson shrewdly likens Americans to the Saxon ancestors of the English to prove respective colonial sovereignty. As these Saxons had possessed rights “given to all men” and departed their native lands “in the north of Europe” for the “island of Britain” they thus became a free and autonomous people. Were these native lands from whence the Saxons originally hailed to proclaim “superiority or dependence” over the peoples of Great Britain as a result of this, “his majesty’s subjects…have too firm a feeling of the rights derived to them from their ancestors, to bow down the sovereignty of their state before such visionary pretensions.” If Jefferson’s analogy were not clear enough he elucidates it in the very next sentence: “And it is thought that no circumstance has occurred to distinguish materially the British from the Saxon emigration.” In other words, what makes the situation between Americans and their colonies any different from some northern European state demanding “dependence” and revoking English sovereignty and autonomy because of the English’s Saxon lineage? The Americans too possess rights, being Men, and having freely chosen to depart their motherland which “chance, not choice…placed them,” they can now claim to be free and autonomous in similar fashion as the English once did.

[7] Onuf, 21.

[8] Ibid., 42.

[9] Reverend Samuel Kirkland, a missionary to the six-nation Iroquois League

[10] Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (New York: Penguin, 2004), 337-338.

[11] Chernow, 337; “Alexander Hamilton to George Clinton, 3 October 1783,” Founders Online, National Archives:; “Draft of George Washington’s Seventh Annual Address to Congress, November 28-December 7, 1795,” Founders Online, National Archives:

[12] See, for example, Hamilton’s “Letter to John J. U. Rivardi, 21, March 1800,” Founders Online, National Archives:

[13] “An Address to the Electors of the State of New York, 21 March 1801,” Founders Online, National Archives:

[14] And yet, as Hamilton and Federalists correctly perceived, more often than not it was Americans encroaching upon Indians, so much so an exasperated President George Washington complained to Secretary of State Timothy Pickering, “I believe scarcely any thing short of a Chinese Wall, or a line of Troops will restrain Land Jobbers, and the Incroachment of Settlers, upon the Indian Territory.”

[15] “Alexander Hamilton to James McHenry, 12 October 1799,” Founders Online, National Archives: The reader is directed as well to Hamilton’s “Camillus” essay, “The Defence No. VII.” Hamilton masterfully weaves realpolitik into the stark reality of the clash of cultures between Americans and Indians on the frontiers of the Early Republic, demonstrating anxiety for all parties: “The recovery of the Western Posts will have many important sides…. It will enable us effectually to controul the hostilities of the Northern and Western Indians and in so doing will have a material influence on the Southern Tribes. It will therefore tend to rescue the Country from what is at present its greatest scourge, Indian Wars. When we consider that these wars have for four years past taken an extra million annually from our Revenue, we cannot be insensible of the importance of terminating that source of expence…. The benefits of tranquillity to our frontier, exempting its inhabitants from the complicated horrors of Savage warfare, speak too loudly to our humanity as well as to our policy to need a commentary.”


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