Happy Birthday To My Dead Boyfriend, Alexander Hamilton

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.

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Hamilton:

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

More:

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.

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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.

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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.

Brilliant.

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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.

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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.

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38 Responses to Happy Birthday To My Dead Boyfriend, Alexander Hamilton

  1. Lisa says:

    I’ll take a break from Forgotten NY (I have wasted TWO WHOLE DAYS there, and I’m still not through. I may lose my job.) to tell you an Alexander Hamilton story.

    I was in 5th grade in the spring of 1976, so we were INUNDATED with the whole Bicentennial thing. EVERYTHING we did had to have some sort of Bicentennial “theme.” It was CRAZY.

    I remember a group of 6th graders from another school (in another town) came to our school to do a play. I don’t remember the name of the play, but OF COURSE it had to do with the Bicentennial. I was all GOD WHEN WILL IT BE 1977?! until the kid who played Alexander Hamilton hit the stage.

    It was love at first sight. I stared at him the whole play. Ever since then, when I hear the name “Alexander Hamilton” all I can see is that cute 6th grade boy from Crab*Orchard, IL. Every time.

    And coming here every day, that’s a LOT. :)

  2. red says:

    Lisa – hahahahaha Your memories of the Bicentennial are so similar to mine! I am laughing out loud. the whole: man, this is getting old now – WHEN WILL IT BE 1977? so true!

  3. Lisa says:

    Our high school’s yearbook from that year was done on fake parchment paper so that it would look “colonial.” Well, now it looks like “nothing” because that paper doesn’t hold ink and all the pictures have faded.

    The whole Bicentennial thing was insane.

  4. red says:

    hahahaha

    I think every summer stock theatre in America did 1776 that summer.

  5. Grace says:

    Wow. You really like the guy, you really really like him

  6. red says:

    Lisa – by the way – Love Actually was on last night and i watched it. I thought of you. Awesome film. You know who really got to me with this past viewing? Emma Thompson. That scene where she’s listening to Joni Mitchell – and weeping and trying to get it together – was just so moving!

  7. Lisa says:

    She’s awesome in that movie. The scene right before that? Where she opens the gift? KILLS ME. She KNOWS he bought Mia that necklace, knows it in her bones, and the emotions that go across her face don’t even need words to make me cry. I love her.

  8. red says:

    Totally. It’s just killer. Because she has to keep it togehter in front of the kids – she can’t just start weeping. Man. So good!

    My favorite moment, though, has to be the octopus kid in the car. I guffaw every time they cut to that scene.

  9. red says:

    Grace –

    How can you tell???

    :)

  10. Tainted Bill says:

    Well…it was the first time I’d ever been to a historical exhibit with someone who knew more about the subject than I did.

    If you’re into Franklin, they have an exhibit going on in Philly at the National Constitution Center.

  11. red says:

    Bill – and you are a book-reading masterful historical geek! The breadth of your knowledge is kinda breathtaking.

    That was a really fun day.

    Thanks for the tip on Franklin!

  12. Mr. Bingley says:

    Also. He’s a bit hot.

    I seem to recall that particular aspect of his caused him a bit of trouble…

  13. red says:

    Bingley – hahaha

    Yeah, I think if I went back in time I would have a lot of competition for his undivided attention!!

  14. JFH says:

    By the summer of 1804, history had pretty much passed them by.

    Yeah, but one of their portraits is sitting in my wallet and the other one is only famous for killing the guy who’s portrait is sitting in my wallet.

    Politics aside, Hamilton was WAY ahead of his time in terms of finance and banking.

  15. red says:

    JFH – Sure – It’s cool how that happens. Could Hamilton have guessed that his damn DESK would be on display 200 years later in the NY HIstorical society?

    I think Hamilton saw beyond the moment more than Burr did – his last letters suggest that – but they could have no idea how we would see them now. And yes – to them – it was as though their big moment had passed them by.

    Ironic, ain’t it?

    Hamilton seemed to be sort of the bad-boy of the founding fathers for a couple centuries – not as popular as the other guys – and now I think his reputation is resurging back into prominence a bit – which is great.

  16. red says:

    I grew up in a John Adams focused family – He was “our” guy – I grew up knowing about him, the most – out of all the founding fathers. And so … thru osmosis or something … I always had this weird feeling of Hamilton – like he was scary. Abigail Adams’ words about him echoedd in my brain.

    It’s been nice to recently learn more about him – and see all sides of this thing. Or at least try to.

  17. Happy birthday to my hero, Alexander Hamilton

    Jan. 11, 1755 was the birthday of one of the greatest founding fathers — surely the most precient of them. More than any of his peers, he produced volumes of work at tremendous speed with amazing sight into the future.

  18. Cullen says:

    He definitely saw beyond the moment. If only he had been able to see past a pretty face with a sob story.

  19. red says:

    I guess that just makes him like many many men throughout human history, cullen! :)

    One of my favorite little facts about Hamilton is that when working as a lawyer in New York – he became hamstrung by the fact that all of the laws in New York State were not compiled, or written down in one place – there was no “law book” for the state. So he sat down and wrote it. Of course – in like, a weekend. hahaha

    But it’s that attitude that I find so wonderful about him. “Hmmm … there’s a lack … well, let me not whine about it … let me just rectify the situation!”

  20. red says:

    Speaking of Hamilton’s penchant for the ladies – here’s a poem he published under a pseudonym in a newspaper when he was 15 years old:

    Coelia’s an artful little slut
    Be fond, she’ll kiss, et cetera – but
    She must have all her will;
    For, do but rub her ‘gainst the grain
    Behold a storm, blow winds and rain,
    Go bid the waves be still.

  21. Cullen says:

    How amazing was he? How amazing was it that he rose to the level that he did from his beginnings?

    Everything about Hamilton spells out the American dream and meritocracy. I wish we had someone like him today.

  22. Jen says:

    Gaaaahhh! I’m STILL reading his biography. What an amazing American. So true about his rise to power/fame because of merit. What an amazing man. It just boggles my tiny little mind that people like him can know so much, do so much, and see ahead to things that are beyond the scope of possibility at the time.

  23. red says:

    Jen – are you reading the huge Chernow biography? I still haven’t read that one yet!!! It’s on my shelf just TAUNTING me.

  24. Mr. Bingley says:

    red, I find that poem very interesting. I wonder if he came across a copy of William Percy’s Sonnets to the Fairest Coelia during his schooling in Nevis or St. Croix.

    SONNET XII.

    Coelia, of all sweet courtesies resolue me,
    For vvished grace hovv must I now be doing,
    Since Ops, the complet’st frame which did absolue thee,
    Hath made each parcell to my sole vndoing?
    Those vvires, vvhich should thy corps to mine vnite,
    Be raies to daze vs from so neere approach,
    Thine eyne, which should my nighted soule reproach.
    Those ruddie plumes embrevv’d vvith heauenly foods,
    When I would sucke them turne to driest currall,
    And when I couch betweene her lillie buds,
    They surge like frothie water mounts aboue all:
    Surelie, they were all made vnto good vuses,
    But she them all vntowardly abuses.

    Neat stuff!

  25. red says:

    Bingley – awesome! So racy!!!

  26. Another Sheila says:

    Sheila, have you read the Hamilton bio by … ohhhh, what’s his name … the guy who writes for National Review??? Richard Brookhiser. I came across some excerpt of it somewhere, some time ago, that made me want to pick it up. I know next to nothing about AH, but what I do know makes me want to know more. Wondering what your opinion is on that bio vs. others out there.

    Also, he was gay???

  27. red says:

    Sheila –

    hahaha No, he wasn’t gay! That’s a paraphrase of one of my favorite lines from Heathers – where the father weeps at his son’s funeral: “I love my dead gay son”.

    Such a stupid funny moent – in the context of the film. I am always saying “I love my dead gay” this or that.

    Sorry for any confusion!

    I have not read the bio you suggest … I read the one by Willard Sterne Randall – I like his writing a lot – he wrote biographies of Jefferson, Washington and others as well.

    And at some point this year I’ll read the Ron Chernow one.

    Maybe somebody else on this thread has read that particular biography?

  28. Mr. Bingley says:

    I can’t believe you haven’t read the Chernow one yet, red. It seems like years ago I was schlepping it around to bars…
    What have you been doing? ;)

  29. red says:

    Bingley – i know, i know. It’s absolutely shameful. It’s just so HUGE and it came out AFTER my Alexander Hamilton orgy earlier that year – when I read 2 or 3 biographies of the dude in a row – so I took a bit of a Hamilton break.

    I have the hardcover, too – which I love.

    This’ll be the year!!!

  30. Cullen says:

    Chernow’s was the first (and currently, only) Hamilton bio I’ve read. I’ve read the Federalist Papers many times. I’ve read Founding Brothers and a slew of other Revolutionary War-era books. Based on your comment above, Sheila, I’m going to have to find the Randall book.

    And I, too, love that line from Heathers.

  31. red says:

    Cullen – isn’t it just so ridiculous??? (the line from Heathers?) God. And the way he does it – just classic.

    I promise I will read the Chernow, I promise I will read the Chernow … Like I said, it TAUNTS me from my bookshelf!! :)

  32. Jen says:

    I haven’t read any historical biographies before, but the Chernow book is SO good. I’m only about 25% through it. It is incredibly (INCREDIBLY) detailed, but still very interesting.

  33. Another Sheila says:

    Ohhhhh, man … I feel really stupid. Although it has been a million years since I saw Heathers. I almost didn’t ask the question, but I’m so glad I did, in spite of the humiliation!

  34. red says:

    sheila – hahahaha Don’t feel humiliated!!! :)

  35. Dave E says:

    On the one hand, you have to respect Hamilton as a visionary. On the other hand, geez…a little reality check, dude. Back to the first hand, the SOB is hotter dead than most of us alive….lol. Gotta give him some credit for that.

  36. The Crossing

    For family movie night last night the Mannions watched the old Disney comedy, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, about which there is not much to say except that how did Caesar Romero keep such a great head of hair? Last week we watched The Crossing, a mo…

  37. Gordon says:

    What’s Your Damage Heather!?! Love your references! BTW… good perspective on Hamilton as well!