Like all men, Alexander Hamilton was not without his human frailties and psychic wounds. He was exceptionally brilliant and persuasive, but also thin-skinned, emotionally volatile, and quick to go on the defensive. He was a man of strong opinions who too-often allowed his passions to govern his reason—sometimes to his own peril. Others described him as brutally honest, arrogant to the point of cockiness, and obsessed with attaining “fame” and “glory.” His honor was everything to him, and he made it known on numerous occasions he would fight to the death to defend it (which he did on July 11, 1804).
Many of these traits indicate Hamilton might have been afflicted with the personality disorder known as “overt narcissism.”
“Though on the surface their self-regard would appear to suggest confidence (if not cockiness), all this bravado masks what in themselves they secretly fear is defective or unworthy,” wrote Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., a therapist and frequent blogger on narcissism for Psychology Today. “Many of them, in their desperate attempts to convince others of their superiority, are highly motivated to achieve much more than most people; this will give them something to really brag about. Narcissists can be among the most boastful of people. (Donald Trump, anyone?)”
In other ways, however, Hamilton deviated from the profile of an extroverted narcissist. One of the defining characteristics of narcissists is that they act in their own self-interest. Hamilton had control of the Treasury Department. He could have made a fortune on what he knew, as some of his subordinates did. But rather than use his office to line his pockets with gold, he resigned from public service in 1796 because his income was insufficient to support his growing family.
“All his endeavors were directed toward establishing the United States as a formidable nation, efforts that have ultimately come to fruition,” wrote Stephen F. Knott in Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth (University Press of Kansas, 2002). “The Hamiltonian blueprint for America, which lay in considerable tension with Jefferson’s hopes for the new nation, consisted in the creation of an integrated economy eventually capable of surpassing that of the European powers in manufactures; a federal judiciary with adequate powers to protect property and liberties from democratic excess; the establishment of a professional army and navy; and an energetic chief executive with commander-in-chief powers that would enable him to repel foreign attacks and suppress domestic insurrections.”
Such goals demonstrate a genuine desire to serve one’s country and the greater good—motives that would never drive a narcissist. Narcissists also distort the truth or out-and-out lie to manipulate others and exaggerate their own worth (i.e. claiming authorship of the Declaration of Independence when in reality they only wrote the first draft as part of a larger committee).
Far from a liar, Hamilton operated from a deep-seated belief that “truth reigns supreme.” As a twelve-year-old on St. Croix, he vowed in a letter to his friend Edward Stevens, “I…would willingly risk my life, though not my Character, to exalt my Station.” In 1774, on the cover page of A Full Vindication of the Measures of the Congress, Hamilton used the slogan, “Truth is powerful and will prevail.” In the actual essay, he stated, “’Tis my maxim to let the plain naked truth speak for itself.” In 1778, he told long-time New York Governor George Clinton, “I look upon the old proverb that honesty is the best policy to be so generally true that I can never expect any good from a systematical deviation from it.” In 1804—just months before his murder—he eloquently argued before the New York Supreme Court (in People v. Croswell) that truth must be a factor in cases of libel. The court (thanks to Jefferson’s meddling) upheld his client’s conviction, but Hamilton’s impassioned arguments inspired the state legislature to change the laws. Thereafter, truth was a legitimate defense in libel cases.
Hamilton’s unwavering policy of truth at all costs is further evidenced in his confessional pamphlet on his adulterous affair with Maria Reynolds, as well as in his blunt denunciations of those he deemed unworthy of the public’s trust (i.e. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Aaron Burr).
“Throughout his career Hamilton was unabashedly honest,” Michael Newton wrote in Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years (Eleftheria Publishing, 2015), “even when he knew that it would be to his own detriment.”
Jefferson, in contrast, espoused one set of principles and lived by another. He championed democracy while weakening press freedoms, the fairness of jury trials, and judicial independence—three essential protections of liberty and justice. He denounced slavery as immoral, yet owned more than one hundred human beings. He decried his opponents as “monarchists” while pursuing tyrannical policies to make himself all-powerful.
According to Zeltzer, this sort of “moral relativism” is typical of narcissistic politicians. “Whether we characterize the personal ‘allowances’ they make as constituting a double standard or outright hypocrisy, these privileged concessions to self clearly broadcast their overblown sense of entitlement,” he wrote in a post titled “Narcissism: Why It’s So Rampant in Politics” on Dec. 11, 2011. “Which is precisely what enables them to regard themselves as sufficiently exceptional to exclude themselves from the rules and standards they impose on others.”
When journalist James Thomson Callender revealed Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings to the world on Sept. 28, 1802, he also exposed the president for the Janus he really was. Not only did America’s high-and-mighty chief executive own slaves, he also impregnated them to increase their numbers. Jefferson struck back by ordering his agents in Richmond to attack Callender on a deeply personal level. James Monroe’s son-in-law beat Callender about the head with a club and had him jailed for seditious libel, while the editors of the Jeffersonian Examiner called him a drunk and besmirched the memory of his dead wife.
Later, when Hamilton made noise about subpoenaing the scandalmonger to testify against Jefferson in the Croswell trial, Callender met his end under highly suspicious circumstances. Did Jefferson order the hit on his former propagandist? The fishy circumstances of the journalist’s death certainly give that impression.
Yes, the possibility that Jefferson conspired to commit murder shatters our image of the sainted author of the Declaration of Independence, but sometimes idols must be smashed in the quest for truth. Personally, I believe Jefferson was behind at least two other unprosecuted murders as well, which I hope to prove in my work-in-progress examining the Jeffersonian conspiracy against Hamilton.
Far from the hero history has painted him to be, Jefferson had a calculating mind, thrived on intrigue, and would stop at nothing to silence his critics, be they journalists, political foes, or Supreme Court justices. He was smug, self-absorbed, overly sensitive to criticism, considered himself superior to other people, and avoided intimacy by only pursuing married women and sleeping with his slaves. He was, in short, the consummate narcissist—but of a different (and far more dangerous) sort than we generally associate with the word. Jefferson’s constellation of traits makes him a textbook example of what the mental health profession calls a “covert,” “closeted,” or “introverted” narcissist.
“Not all narcissists are openly grandiose and outwardly intrusive,” life coach and author Preston Ni wrote for Psychology Today on Jan. 10, 2016. “This subtype of narcissism is more hidden, and yet can carry the same self-conceit and negative contagion as their extroverted counterpart.”
The way Jefferson collected, recorded, and circulated slanders about his enemies and used proxies to do his dirty work are typical of a covert narcissist. So were his selfish sexual relationships with his wife and Sally Hemings. Though he professed a great love for his wife, he continued to impregnate her despite her doctor’s warnings that another childbirth would kill her. In my books, that’s narcissistic entitlement, not love.
But nowhere is Jefferson’s covert narcissism better illustrated than in his dealings with British envoy Anthony Merry. When Merry arrived at the White House (then called “the presidential palace”), Jefferson greeted him in casual clothes and bedroom slippers—a passive-aggressive demonstration of his contempt for the British. The president’s disrespectful wardrobe choice also signaled his smug superiority. By wearing bedroom slippers to greet the minister, he was covertly communicating that Merry (and Great Britain) were too far beneath his notice to bother dressing up. He reiterated this message by inviting Merry and his wife to a White House dinner party that included the French chargé d’affaires. Since Britain and France were at war, seating the enemies at the same table violated the diplomatic protocols in place at the time. When Merry complained, James Madison increased the offense by referring to it as “a matter of very little moment.” Jefferson’s hostility extended to Mrs. Merry, whom he called a “virago”—a shrew, in other words.
Merry later took his revenge against Jefferson (and America) in two ways: First, he convinced the king to snub James Monroe when he went to London to negotiate with the English over their habit of seizing American ships and personnel for forced service in their Royal Navy. Then, he advocated for British support of Aaron Burr’s scheme to detach the Louisiana territory and Ohio and Mississippi valleys from the United States.
From this, we can conclude that, while Hamilton exhibited some of the characteristics of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, his honesty and lack of self-interest while in the Treasury Department make the clinical diagnosis a stretch. Jefferson, on the other hand, was a classic example of how dangerous power can be in the hands of an introverted narcissist (or an extroverted one, for that matter--Donald Trump, anyone?).
Hi, I'm Nina Mason, an author, investigative journalist, history buff, and self-professed Hamilton fan (not the musical, the historical figure). Herein, I will share interesting tidbits related to my investigation into my belief that the Reynolds Affair and duel with Aaron Burr were part of a larger conspiracy against Hamilton directed by Thomas Jefferson.