A Phony ‘Phocion’: Alexander Hamilton and the election of 1796

William Loughton Smith

On October 14, 1796 the Philadelphia-based Gazette of the United States newspaper ran the first of 25 “letters” that would forever change the nature of presidential campaigns. Bearing the pseudonym of the ancient Athenian orator ‘Phocion,’ the letters presented a systematic and, at times, bitterly personal argument against Thomas Jefferson’s candidacy for President of the United States. Over the next several weeks, the letters questioned Jefferson’s philosophical temperament for the office, charged him with harboring sympathies with the Jacobin revolutionaries in France, accused him of hypocrisy on slavery, and even hinted at his now-accepted relationship with Sally Hemings, a mixed-race slave in the Jefferson household. After their newspaper run, the essays were printed as a pamphlet and widely circulated on the campaign trails by supporters of Jefferson’s main election rival and the eventual winner, John Adams. In recent years, a number of scholars and popular writers have confidently asserted that ‘Phocion’ was in fact Jefferson’s longtime political rival Alexander Hamilton. The 18th century equivalent of an “attack ad” that Hamilton is presumed to have produced is now widely cited as an effective and even principled form of political campaigning.

Phocion has an identity problem though, as his association with Hamilton is based on an inexplicably sloppy historical error.

Almost all of these mistaken attributions actually derive from the same source: Ron Chernow’s highly acclaimed 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton. In declaring Hamilton the author of the essays, Chernow notes that “these essays have inexplicably been omitted from Hamilton’s collected papers and biographies.” Declaring them authentically and “unmistakably Hamiltonian in style,” he praises them as “mocking, brilliant, prolix, bombastic, sometimes hairsplitting – but also characteristic in their obsession with Jefferson and the sanguinary turmoil of the French Revolution.” As evidence of this identification, he declares that the essays simply sound like Hamilton. In one instance they replicated a metaphor from Hamilton’s known Catullus essay of September 29, 1792, leading Chernow to believe that he has simply recycled an older passage. Proceeding as if his case has been proven, Chernow asserts that Hamilton and Phocion are one in the same person. He then deploys this conclusion as his basis for analyzing the 1796 campaign. The essays, he concludes, “contain the most withering critique that Hamilton ever leveled at Jefferson as a slaveholder, and they hint heavily at knowledge of the Sally Hemings affair.”

This assertion is historically crucial to another of Chernow’s more dubious and yet also repeated claims, namely that Hamilton was an abolitionist. As I demonstrated at this link, Hamilton’s anti-slavery reputation has been severely exaggerated by his biographers and Chernow is among the primary culprits. Though a moderate manumissionist, Hamilton actually took part in the buying and selling of household slaves on behalf of his in-laws from New York City’s aristocratic Schuyler family. He also wavered on the issue of slavery when it came before the Confederation Congress and left almost no written thoughts about the institution in his voluminous journalistic career other than a couple of vague references to the condition of slavery in the abstract.

Phocion is different though as it tackles slavery directly. It blasts Jefferson’s philosophical nods to “emancipat[ing] the blacks to vindicate the liberty of the human race” without following through. Instead, “at another [moment] he discovers that the blacks are of a different race from the human race and, therefore, when emancipated they must be instantly removed beyond the reach of mixture lest he (or she) should stain the blood of his (or her) master, not recollecting what from his situation and other circumstances he ought to have recollected – that this mixture may take place while the negro remains in slavery.” Jefferson, the Phocion letter concludes, “must have seen all around him sufficient marks of this staining of blood to have been convinced that retaining them in slavery would not prevent it.” It then proceeds to work through a devastating dissection of a passage in Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia where he attributes a number unfavorable characteristics to the inherited traits of black skin color. It similarly assails Jefferson’s proposed yet never acted-upon emancipationist plan for its attached scheme of colonizing former slaves abroad. Phocion thus potentially ranks among the earliest examples of the anti-colonization literature as it relates to American slavery.

If Phocion’s letters were authentically Hamilton’s words as Chernow believes and as others have asserted on his authority, this passage would easily stand out as the boldest antislavery argument he ever put to paper.

Unfortunately for Chernow’s case though, Alexander Hamilton was not the author of the Phocion letters.

That distinction instead belongs to William Loughton Smith, an arch-Federalist congressman from South Carolina. It is easy to see where Chernow was led astray. On October 15, 1796 – the day after the first Phocion letter ran in the Gazette – Republican campaign operative John Beckley brought it to the attention of Jefferson’s chief political lieutenant James Madison, speculating that Hamilton had made “his first appearance under signature of Phocion.” Had Chernow bothered to read the accompanying footnote in Madison’s edited papers, he would have noticed that this identification was mistaken. As the 1790s political world quickly realized, the author was in fact Hamilton’s congressional ally Smith.

Beckley’s mistake quickly revealed itself in the subsequent Phocion letters to the Gazette. Their author took to referring to Hamilton by name in the third person, as well as heaping on effusive praise of him. These blatant self-promoting practices are deeply uncharacteristic of any of Hamilton’s other known pseudonymous newspaper essays. Yet Phocion used the example of “the spirited and truly patriotic HAMILTON” as a point of contrast with Jefferson, arguing that the former had dutifully “retired” from public life whereas the Sage of Monticello sought only to extend his clinging to a political career with further offices.

On November 10 the Charleston City Gazette reported that Phocion was a “member of Congress from South Carolina, who has on all occasions been lavish of his abuse of Mr. Jefferson.” The Philadelphia Aurora, a well known anti-Federalist organ, all but named Smith as Phocion, noting that “somebody talking of it said Mr. S—- borrowed the leading ideas from Gulliver’s address to the King of the Struldbruggs.” In a later issue, the City Gazette noticed the borrowed passages from Hamilton’s 1792 Catullus essay and alluded to another instance where Smith had similarly lifted lines from Hamilton out of the Federalist papers. Here the author quoted Catullus “without the usual inverted commas” to indicate its source. “Who does not know that the person that committed a similar plagiarism upon the Federalist in defending the treaty here in the summer of 1795?” Elsewhere, clues in the text revealed a familiarity with the workings of Congress despite the author’s initial denial of an affiliation with that body – a likely rhetorical tactic to obscure his immediate identity.

With the conclusion of the series in November and its republication as an anonymous standalone pamphlet, all suspicions turned to Smith. John Adams revealed Phocion’s identity to his wife Abigail in a letter on December 7, 1796, noting “Cousin Smith is Said to have written Phocian and Murray the Pieces from Maryland.” By late December, Smith was referenced openly in the press as the credited author or culprit, usually depending on which political party the paper supported. The episode stuck to Smith’s name for the remainder of his political career. The Republicans quickly dubbed him “Phocion Smith,” recalling the episode again in 1799 when Adams nominated him for a diplomatic post in Portugal. Smith, for his part, embraced the name and, after leaving his diplomatic post in 1801, continued to publish a series of political essays under the name Phocion in the Charleston Courier. When these later Phocion essays were collected and published as a book in 1806, its publisher announced in the preface that Smith had “not affected to disavow or conceal his being the Author of these Papers” and credited him in full as their author. Historians accordingly accepted Smith as the author of the 1796 Phocion letters long ago, and the historical literature largely forgot about the early uncertainty of their authorship now that his identity was settled. This is the explanation for why they were “inexplicably omitted” for Hamilton’s collected writings, as Chernow wondered. They were not in fact the work of Hamilton’s pen.

Incidentally, the Phocion pieces did originate from a source that was closely aligned with Hamilton’s emerging wing of the Federalist Party. From a perch on the Ways and Means Committee, William Loughton Smith had served as something of a personal henchman in the House for Hamilton’s legislative agenda from his days as Secretary of the Treasury. The two conferred regularly on Federalist political and electoral strategy, and Smith shared in Hamilton’s deep disdain for not only Jefferson but all things French. Though no letters survive between the two specifically mentioning the Phocion episode, it stands to reason from their ongoing political kinship that Hamilton approved of the positions that Smith staked out as well as his devastating attacks on Jefferson’s candidacy.

The more significant rub of the matter comes from the slavery issue. A longstanding member of the Charleston political elite, Smith was no abolitionist. He is actually best remembered today for a vicious speech in the House of Representatives in 1790 where he attacked the mixing of the white and black races, denounced all claims that the federal government had any power to interfere with slavery, and urged Congress to ignore the emancipation petitions of Quaker abolitionists. As Smith declared, “In whatever light, therefore, the subject was viewed, the folly of emancipation was manifest.”

Read in this light, Smith’s attack on Jefferson over slavery assumes an entirely different character. It is also one that Chernow is not entirely unaware of, even as he has mistaken the identity of the author. Smith, as Phocion, was not simply taking a principled stand against Jefferson’s hypocrisy when he displayed the Virginian’s divided thoughts and actions on the subject. Rather, he intended this message for specific political consumption in the slaveholding states of the lower south. By attacking Jefferson’s inconsistency on slavery, he sought to highlight that Jefferson had in fact made rhetorical gestures toward emancipation and, more specifically, colonization. These policies were anathema to the slaveholder class of South Carolina, where the Phocion pamphlet was reprinted and heavily circulated. By showing Jefferson as a wavering thinker where slavery was concerned, Smith therefore actually sought to drive a wedge between him and his southern constituency.

Smith’s strategy as Phocion had a specific electoral purpose, and with it Hamilton likely intended for the same outcome at the 1796 ballot box. By showing that Jefferson was inconsistent on slavery, the two Federalists were not trying to undermine his emancipationist reputation so much as they were seeking to establish it on firmer grounds to display before the lower south. In the era before the 12th amendment, members of the electoral college each had two simultaneous votes to cast. The winner was made president, and the vice presidency went to the runner up. Assuming Adams won the presidency as the Federalist candidate, Jefferson would almost certainly emerge in second place on the tide of the Republican electors alone. Seeking to prevent this outcome, Smith actually hoped to use emancipation to peel the electoral college votes of the slaveocracy away from Jefferson, their presumed favorite. If enough electors broke ranks over slavery, they would likely shift next to South Carolina’s Thomas Pinckney – a former governor of the state from one of its leading political families and one of the most prominent southern Federalists. Adams would therefore win the presidency followed by Pinckney as vice president, squeezing Jefferson out of office entirely with a third place finish.

The execution of Smith’s strategy is hardly a divination from its text. He brought slavery more clearly into the picture, but Hamilton spelled out the same electoral math in a memorandum on the eve of the voting. “Pinckney,” he explained, “has the chance of some votes southward and westward, which Adams has not.”

Like Smith, Thomas Pinckney was a loyal Hamiltonian Federalist in his politics. Pinckney was also the heir to a large plantation fortune, and a hardline slaveocrat. Other than his own term in politics, he is remembered today as the architect of an aggressive and vicious suppression of Charleston’s free black community following Denmark Vesey’s alleged slave revolt plot in 1822. In 1796 though, he was Smith and Hamilton’s favored candidate to box Jefferson out of the government (and, possibly, even demote Adams to second if Hamilton got his way owing to their rivalry for control of the Federalist Party)

Phocion’s attacks on Jefferson ultimately helped to propel Adams to victory by 3 electoral votes. Jefferson finished a close second. Internal splits in the ranks of the Federalist electors denied Pinckney the votes to overtake Jefferson, although a handful of South Carolina’s pledged Jefferson electors actually broke ranks from the national Republican ticket and cast their second votes after Jefferson for Pinckney. The first major attack campaign in American history did not fully execute on its intended strategy, but it did tilt the outcome in the Federalists’ favor. Hamilton, for his own stake in the game, ended up yet again subordinating his modest anti-slavery leanings to a political alliance with two avowedly pro-slavery southern Federalists. One of them was the actual Phocion, and the second was the candidate that Phocion and Hamilton alike hoped but failed to propel into national office.