Quoting the founding fathers in support of your own political goals is always a risky game. Sometimes the quotes are inaccurate. Sometimes the original context is completely misconstrued.
The quotation in question comes from a letter Hamilton sent to his friend and fellow Federalist Party member Theodore Sedgwick as the presidential election of 1800 between John Adams (the Federalist) and Thomas Jefferson (the Democratic-Republican) was heating up:
I will never more be responsible for him by my direct support—even though the consequence should be the election of Jefferson. If we must have an enemy at the head of the Government, let it be one whom we can oppose & for whom we are not responsible, who will not involve our party in the disgrace of his foolish and bad measures.
Hamilton here is referring to President John Adams, who he despised, even though the two men were in the same Federalist Party. Further, Hamilton realizes that his opposition to Adams may result in his handing the election to Thomas Jefferson, their Democratic-Republican rival, but it's all vindicated in the name of principle. The #NeverTrump movement is appropriating this quote to draw a favorable historical comparison to the own virtue of their cause, refusing to support Trump even if it means handing Clinton the presidency.
But the full story paints quite a different picture. Though Hamilton despised Adams, Hamilton hardly advocated for his own party's loss like the #NeverTrump crowd currently is. Moreover, Hamilton's vindictive attitude towards Adams was instrumental in both his party's and his career's destruction.
Here's the historical comparison the #NeverTrump crowd is drawing upon. It's not a good one.
The Alexander Hamilton-John Adams Feud
Hamilton was no doubt a brilliant man whose contributions to the modern American financial system have been canonized by his placement on the $10 bill. He was also one of the most ideological and passionate Federalists, planting himself as a leader of the party and as an influential member of George Washington's presidential cabinet.
Hamilton was no fan of Washington's vice president, John Adams. Though they were in the same party, Hamilton saw Adams as far too moderate on the issues of the day. Adams, in turn, saw Hamilton as wild-eyed and insane. Adams' was suspicious of Hamilton's ideas on banks, debt, and interest. Moreover, Hamilton seemed hawkish for a war with France, while Adams preferred a diplomatic approach.
Hamilton and Adams had their ideological differences. But Hamilton's biggest beef with Adams was summed up perfectly by historian Joseph Ellis: “Hamilton wanted to run the Federalist Party and he knew that Adams couldn't be controlled.” Hamilton, if he could not be president himself, preferred a Federalist president who would be more malleable to Federalist (read: Hamilton's) ideas. Adams was a roadblock, so he tried and failed to block his nomination for president in 1796. From there, the Adams and Hamilton rivalry descended into hateful vindictiveness.
There are some parallels between the #NeverTrump position and Hamilton's position here. Both movements personally and politically did not like the leaders of their parties. Both wanted someone else leading the ticket, specifically someone who would be more loyal to the ideological program.
But those similarities don't go far. #NeverTrump is opposed to a Republican victory, openly admitting that a Clinton win is preferable over a Trump win, or at least seeing no distinction between the two. That was not Hamilton's position. While Hamilton hated Adams and was determined to stop his victory, he in no uncertain terms did not want Thomas Jefferson to win the presidency either. But Hamilton, having lived two centuries ago, benefitted from having a viable third option that voters in 2016 don't have. It was not a symbolic third party candidacy that we're accustomed to today.
To understand Hamilton's thinking, we need to understand how the electoral college worked in 1800.
The Election of 1800 and Hamilton's Risky Gamble
In the early years of the Republic, electors from each state were constitutionally required to vote for their top two choices for president; the candidate with the most electoral votes became president and the candidate with the second-most became vice president.
However, parties still formed presidential/vice presidential tickets. This created complex strategies where parties would instruct some electors to cast their second vote for someone else, in order to avoid a tie and guarantee that the presidential nominee actually received a couple more votes than the vice presidential nominee. (This had the potential to back fire: in 1796, Adams won, but confusion among who should vote for who led to his rival, Thomas Jefferson, actually winning second place and thus the vice presidency.)
The system (it was changed to the current model in 1804) allowed for some manipulative politicking, which was precisely what Hamilton tried to exploit.
Hamilton decided that Adams' running mate, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, was a far more suitable Federalist to hold the White House than Adams. So he put his plan into motion: Hamilton urged every Federalist elector he could find to go against the traditional strategy and vote equally for Adams and Pinckney.
On the one hand, this was a safe and loyal strategy: assuming the Federalist party won the election, it would guarantee one of the two men would become president.
But Hamilton's plan was more devious. He secretly hedged all of his bets on South Carolina, a stronghold of the Democratic-Republicans where Adams was unlikely to get any votes. However, because South Carolina was Pinckney's home state, Hamilton gambled that at least some of the South Carolina electors would cast one of their two votes for Pinckney, thus giving Pinckney a narrow margin over Adams and delivering the presidency to him.
That, in Hamilton's eyes, was how he would thwart Adams and still keep another Federalist in the White House, and in 1800 it was a plausible plan. So as Hamilton sent letters to other Federalists throughout the country, he would often make statements like the quote above to justify his support for Pinckney, not to convey his preference of a Democratic-Republican presidency over a Federalist one. In the heat of the election, Hamilton penned a 50-page manifesto titled “Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams,” ranting about Adams' shortcomings both politically and personally.
Here's the kicker: even after his diatribe against Adams, Hamilton still concludes:
Yet with this opinion of Mr. Adams, I have finally resolved not to advise the withholding from him a single vote....To refrain from a decided opposition to Mr. Adams’s re-election has been reluctantly sanctioned by my judgment.
Because, even in Hamilton's eyes, Thomas Jefferson was worse. In that same chain of letters with Theodore Sedgwick, Hamilton also admits: “To support Adams & Pinckney equally is the only thing that can possibly save us from the fangs of Jefferson.”
Hamilton did not like Adams, and maneuvered to have him taken off the ticket. But in no uncertain terms did Hamilton ever think that Jefferson, who was entrenched in the opposition and actively fought for what he considered dangerous ideas, would be preferable over Adams.
How did Hamilton's plan work? In short, not well.
Hamilton's 50-page diatribe against Adams, which was initially meant to be kept private, somehow leaked to the press, who printed it across the country. The Federalists, the Democratic-Republicans argued, were in disarray, and the backlash hurt both Adams and Hamilton.
Moreover, the Federalists lost the presidential election that year. South Carolina did not support either of the Federalists like Hamilton had gambled. And even if they had won, Hamilton's plan still would not have worked; Adams won a few more votes than Pinckney did. However, Thomas Jefferson and his running mate Aaron Burr ended up in a tie for first, which threw the election to the House of Representatives to select one of the two to become the next president.
Hamilton strongly disliked Jefferson. But he despised Burr, and encouraged his party's members in the House to vote for the former. Hamilton's line of thinking towards Burr is more on par with how #NeverTrump feels about 2016:
“As to Burr, there is nothing in his favor. His private character is not defended by his most partial friends. He is bankrupt beyond redemption, except by the plunder of his country. His public principles have no other spring or aim than his own aggrandizement, per fas aut nefas. If he can, he will certainly disturb our institutions, to secure himself permanent power, and with it wealth.”
Sounds familiar. Jefferson ended up winning the election. Unfortunately for Hamilton, his erratic and vindictive actions throughout the 1800 election severely damaged his influence and his brand among Federalists. He retired from politics. But his personal feud with Burr would go on for several years, ultimately concluding with his fatal duel in 1804.
So what's the lesson here? It's impossible to know for sure, but if Hamilton had been presented with only two options - Adams or Jefferson - there's not much evidence to suggest he would have voted for Jefferson, nor would he have campaigned for Jefferson over Adams, nor would he have remained on the sidelines as a neutral observer. Hamilton recognized that Adams was no true Federalist; but he also believed that Jefferson's agenda was dangerous.
Just keep that in mind next time you quote him.