NUMBER 7 by Julian P. Boyd. 166 pages. Princeton University. $4.
James Bond, it turns out, was not the most illustrious man to be assigned the number 7 (give or take a couple of zeros) in the records of Her Majesty’s Secret Service. His real-life rival, in stature if not in ingenuity, was not only a zealous informant for Great Britain but also, at the very same time, the U.S.’s first Secretary of the Treasury—Alexander Hamilton.
Teetery Credit. A decade after the Revolution, Britain was still denying U.S. ships access to the West Indies and still treating the new nation, economically, as a colony. The policy of Secretary of State Jefferson was to threaten counterembargoes and demand concessions. Hamilton believed that conciliation and appeasement were the only hope. Outtalked in Cabinet meetings, Hamilton set about negotiating with the British on his own. He justified his interference on the ground that the then teetery credit rating of the U.S. economy required rapprochement with the British at virtually any cost.
In preparing the 17th volume of Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Editor Boyd reconstructed from scattered documents evidence of Hamiltonian double-dealing so “far indeed beyond the limits of honorable conduct in public office” that Boyd has now rushed out his findings in a separate monograph. He does not remotely suggest that Hamilton was in any sense a British agent. He does allege that Hamilton was so passionately opposed to what seemed to him the anti-British bias of his own Government that he conspired with a British agent to change it, confiding to him the deliberations of the U.S. Cabinet itself and engaging in a “calculated and continuing use of deception.”
Hamilton’s go-between was British Major George Beckwith, who was assumed to be Britain’s de facto Minister to the U.S., but who in fact had been a master spy since 1780 when he arranged the defection of Benedict Arnold. The major and the Secretary rendezvoused five times, Beckwith relaying his information to London in coded dispatches that referred to his high-placed source as “Number 7.”
As a Cabinet officer, Hamilton was obligated to inform the President of any confrontations with a foreign representative. But he doctored his reports to further his unilateral policy of entente. When the word from Whitehall was hostile, as in the first rendezvous, Hamilton simply did not report the meeting at all. The memorandums he submitted of later meetings, maintains Boyd, were nothing but “gross misrepresentations.” Hamilton’s indication that the British favored alliance he calls “deliberate distortion,” and his notation discrediting the performance of U.S. Minister to London Gouverneur Morris was “libel.”
Compromised Dignity. It is Historian Boyd’s argument that Hamilton’s machinations “compromised the national dignity and the national interest” of the new republic and weakened its hand in the continuing negotiations with Whitehall. Thus, when an Anglo-American agreement finally emerged in 1794, the U.S. secured almost none of the concessions it had sought, including trade reciprocity in the Caribbean. Its signer, Chief Justice John Jay, was hanged in effigy, and the agreement is still known as “Jay’s treaty.” But Boyd believes that its name, and the effigy, should have been Hamilton’s.