On this day, in 1755, Alexander Hamilton was born in the British West Indies. Happy birthday to one of the most compelling (to me anyway) founding fathers that we have. He was illegitimate (or – as John Adams called him: “the bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar”)- his illegitimacy was a stain on his birth he strove to wipe away for the rest of his short life.
Take mankind in general, they are vicious – their passions may be operated upon. Take mankind as they are, and what are they governed by? Their passions. There may be in every government a few choice spirits, who may act from more worthy motives [but] one great error is that we suppose mankind more honest than they are. Our prevailing passions are ambition and interest. Wise government should avail itself of those passions, to make them subservient to the public good.
Hamilton’s also the one who said, at the end of his 6-hour long speech at the Constitutional Convention: “Decision is true wisdom.” This is part of the reason why he is one of the most important members of that founding generation – but it is also the reason that people found him terrifying. Abigail Adams warned her husband, “That man is another Bonaparte.”
There is a contradictory dynamic within him that I find so compelling.
Also. He’s a bit hot.
Here’s a big post I wrote a while back about one of my pet obsessions: the election of 1800. Some awesome information there about this man. Nobody was neutral about him. He was a polarizing kind of guy.
This past year, the New York Historical Society had a massive Alexander Hamilton exhibit and Bill McCabe and I went – it was so so terrific. It was one of those events in New York when I was so excited to see all of it that I actually felt a bit nervous. You know what really got me? His DESK. I love actual objects … the stuff historical figures actually touched, used … He sat at that desk …Here’s a re-cap of our trip to the museum. Bill said something funny like, “I think this might be the first time I’ve gone to an exhibit like this where I’m with someone who knows MORE than I do about the topic.”
The following is a letter the 17-year-old Alexander Hamilton wrote to his father, describing the hurricane that hit St. Croix on August 31, 1772 – one of the worst in the recorded history of the island. A couple of days later, Hamilton showed a copy of this letter to Reverend Knox (a very important person in the story of Alexander Hamilton – a real father figure to the boy.) Knox was so impressed with the prose that he arranged to have it published in the “Gazette”. The letter was so well-received that Knox set the wheels in motion to send Hamilton to the colonies, so that he could get a college-level education. This move changed Hamilton’s life. Here is the letter. It’s riveting:
It began at dusk, at North, and raged very violently ’till ten o’clock. Then ensued a sudden and unexpected interval, which lasted about an hour. Meanwhile the wind was shifting ’round to the southwest … it returned with redoubled fury and continued so ’till near three o’clock in the morning. Good God! What horror and destruction. It’s impossible for me to describe or you to form any idea of it. It seemed as if a total dissolution of nature was taking place. The roaring of the sea and wind, fiery meteors flying about it in the air, the prodigious glare of almost perpetual lightning, the crash of the falling houses, and the ear-piercing shrieks of the distressed were sufficient to strike astonishment into angels.
A great part of the buildings throughout the island are leveled to the ground, almost all the rest very much shattered, several persons killed and numbers utterly ruined, whole families running about the streets unknowing where to find a place of shelter; the sick exposed to the keenness of the water and air without a bed to lie upon or a dry covering to their bodies; and our harbors entirely bare. In a word, misery, in all its hideous shapes, spread over the whole face of the country …
As to my reflections and feelings on this frightful and melancholy ocassion …
Where now, oh! vile worm, is all thy boasted fortitude and resolution? What is become of thine arrogance and self-sufficiency? Why dost thou tremble and stand aghast? How humble, how helpless, how contemptible you now appear. And for why? The jarring of elements — the discord of clouds? Oh! impotent presumptuous fool! Death comes rushing on in triumph, veiled in a mantle of tenfold darkness … On his right hand sits destruction, hurling the winds and belching forth flames: calamity on his left threatening famine, disease and distress of all kinds. And oh! thou wretch, look still a little further. See the gulf of eternal misery open. There mayest thou shortly plunge — the just reward of thy vileness. Alas! whither canst thou fly? Where hide thyself?
I look at my Diary Friday entries – written when I was 17 … and … hide my head in shame.
This is from a letter Alexander Hamilton wrote in 1780.
No wise statesman will reject the good from an apprehension of the ill. The truth is, in human affairs, there is no good, pure and unmixed. Every advantage has two sides, and wisdom consists in availing ourselves of the good and guarding as much as possible against the bad…
A national debt, if it is not excessive, will be to us a national blessing. It will be powerful cement of our union. It will also create a necessity for keeping up taxation to such a degree which, without being oppressive, will be a spur to industry.
“A national debt, if it is not excessive, will be to us a national blessing.” Ah. They are just words. But they went over like a BOMB exploding through the colonies. WHAT IS HE SAYING? WHAT IS HE TALKING ABOUT? IS HE THE DEVIL? hahahaha
Alexander Hamilton made a SIX HOUR speech at the Constitutional Convention … People scrawled down notes of it, because he spoke without notes (except when he laid out his plan for the Government), so whatever we have of that speech is from those notes. How I wish I had been in that room. It was a rousing call to a strong central government, a rousing call for the states to give up their power and their identities – to submerge themselves into America. This obviously did not go over well in some quarters. Another delegate to the Congress described Hamilton as “praised by everybody but supported by none”. Anyway, here are some excerpts from his 6-hour speech in Philadlelphia, 1787.
All the passion we see, of avarice, ambition, interest, which govern most individuals and all public bodies, fall into the current of the states and do not flow into the stream of the general national government … How then are all these evils to be avoided? Only by such a complete sovereignty in the general government as will turn all the strong principles and passions to its side.
In the context of the time, it is not surprising at all that people hated Hamilton, and thought he spoke treasonously. They had just thrown OFF the yoke of a monarch who had “complete sovereignty” … and now Hamilton wanted to put the yoke on again?? This was heresy to this brand new nation.
In every community where industry is encouraged, there will be a division of it into the few and the many. Hence, separate interests will arise. There will be debtors and creditors. Give all power to the many, they will oppress the few. Give all power to the few, they will oppress the many. Both, therefore, ought to have power, that each may defend itself against the other.
Hamilton read aloud from his notes – and what HE proposed as the set-up for the national government is basically what we have to this day (except for the “executive for life” thing.)
I think he went WAY too far out on some of his ideas – but that was his role, historically. I see him in that context. You always need someone like that – someone to be imaginative, bold, to push the boundaries OUT. It reminds me of that great EM Forster quote: “Don’t start with proportion. Only prigs do that.” I believe in my heart that Hamilton was the most far-seeing of all of our founding fathers. He saw the world we live in now. I don’t know how he did, but he did. They all still lived in an agrarian society, where land was power and prestige. Jefferson couldn’t really imagine any other kind of world. Hamilton did and could imagine it. He saw ahead to the industrial revolution. He knew our society’s set-up would change drastically … and he wanted the economy to be flexible enough to deal with those changes. Most of the commentary at the time from his contemporaries (all brilliant men in their own right) is all along the lines of: “Alexander Hamilton is frightening.” “Hamilton is dangerous and must be stopped.” Etc.
I think he was way ahead of his time, almost as though he had dropped in from the future – and people like that always meet resistance.
Here is the ringing first paragraph of Federalist 1, written by Alexander Hamilton, published on October 27, 1787, in the “New York Independent Journal” – the first of 85 essays (written by Alexander Hamilton mostly, but James Madison wrote Federalist 10 – maybe the most famous of all of them, and John Jay contributed 5 essays). The purpose of this onslaught was to put the case for the Constitution before the New York public for its review. Here is the first paragraph of the first essay:
After a full experience of the insufficiency of the existing federal government, you are invited to deliberate upon a new Constitution for the United States of America. The subject speaks its own importance, comprehending in its consequences nothing less than the existence of the UNION, the safety and welfare of the parts of which it is composed, the fate of an empire in many respects the most interesting in the world.
Uhm, yeah. That prose would have gotten MY attention – as I scanned the “For Sale” ads for ladies hats and buggy whips surrounding it.
Alexander Hamilton, as Secretary of Treasury, put forth a monumental report to Congress calling for a national bank. He wanted it to be run by private citizens, and not the government. The bank had the power to issue paper money – the federal government should not have that power. Hamilton opposed the government running the printing presses to produce money. He wanted it to be separate, entirely. A quote from his report:
The wisdom of the government will be shown in never trusting itself with the use of so seducing and dangerous and expedient.
The following anecdote (and quote) is pretty much why people were terrified of Alexander Hamilton, and felt that he should be stopped. To give you the proper context: he was answering criticism from his former Federalist Paper collaborator James Madison that this proposed Bank of America was un-constitutional. Hamilton had asked for a federal charter for the bank, Madison said there was nothing in the Constitution saying that the government should fund corporations. Hamilton pointed out that the last article of the Constitution – the one about Congress being able to make “all laws which shall be necessary and proper” – He said that that article was sufficient evidence that a charter would be constitutional.
BUT – the way Hamilton summed it all up was not calculated to assuage his enemies who feared his lust for power. He wrote:
Wherever the end is required, the means are authorized.
Gotcha, Machiavelli. Thanks for sharing. Then he went on:
If the end be clearly comprehended within any of the specified powers, and if the measure have an obvious relation to that end, and is not forbidden by any particular provision of the Constitution, it may safely be deemed to come within the compass of the national authority.
Fascinating – the story of the turbulent national debate about Hamilton’s financial plan for the country is amazing. I’ve read about it from all sides: Hamilton’s side, of course – but then John Adams’ analysis of it, his letters to his wife, Jefferson’s side of it, Washington’s side of it … – If you don’t know all the ins and outs of this debate, I highly recommend you go back and check it out, read a biography of Hamilton, read his financial essays … Truly an incredible time in our nation’s history.
And about that duel.
Joseph Ellis, in his wonderful book Founding Brothers, opens the book with the story of the duel between Hamilton and Aaron Burr on the riverside plain of Weehawken. (Ahem. I live there now. Life is awesome. There’s an Alexander Hamilton Park right down the street from me. Love that.) Ellis approaches the duel with a forensic eye – there is still a mystery at the heart of what happened on that day.
Joseph Ellis closes his chapter on The Duel with these words – and I’ll let these words close this post:
Oliver Wendell Holmes once observed that “a great man represents a strategic point in the campaign of history, and part of his greatness consists of his being there.” Both Burr and Hamilton thought of themselves as great men who happened to come of age at one of those strategic points in the campaign of history called the American revolutionary era. By the summer of 1804, history had pretty much passed them by. Burr had alienated Jefferson and the triumphant Republican party by his disloyalty as a vice president and had lost by a landslide in his bid to become a Federalist governor of New York. Hamilton had not held national office for nine years and the Federalist cause he had championed was well on its way to oblivion. Even in his home state of New York, the Federalists were, as John Quincy Adams put it, “a minority, and of that minority, only a minority were admirers and partisans of Mr. Hamilton.” Neither man had much of a political future.
But by being there beneath the plains of Weehawken for their interview, they managed to make a dramatic final statement about the time of their time. Honor mattered because character mattered. And character mattered because the fate of the American experiment with republican government still required virtuous leaders to survive. Eventually, the United States might develop into a nation of laws and established institutions capable of surviving corrupt or incompetent public officials. But it was not there yet. It still required honorable and virtuous leaders to endure. Both Burr and Hamilton came to the interview because they wished to be regarded as part of such company.
** Hamilton was not gay. This is a reference to the moment in Heathers when the weeping father sobs at his son’s funeral: “MY SON IS GAY AND I LOVE HIM. I LOVE MY DEAD GAY SON!” I am sorry for any confusion.