This is a post written in 2008, years before “Hamilton” mania overtook the world – and don’t get me wrong, I’m so glad it did. I almost can’t believe it’s happened. Thank you Lin-Manuel Miranda. To all of you newcomers, I say, Welcome to a worthy lifelong obsession. Also: Better late than never.
On this day, in 1755, Alexander Hamilton was born in the British West Indies. He was illegitimate (as John Adams sneered: “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 1787 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.
A couple years ago, the New York Historical Society had a massive Alexander Hamilton exhibit and Bill and I went. 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 had to walk away because the urge to touch it was too overwhelming. 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.” Those words went over like a BOMB exploding through the colonies. WHAT IS HE SAYING? WHAT IS HE TALKING ABOUT? IS HE THE DEVIL?
Alexander Hamilton made a six hour speech at the 1787 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. It was an insane speech, all things considered. His allies thought he had lost his mind. Another delegate to the Congress described Hamilton as “praised by everybody but supported by none”. 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,
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.)
He went way too far out with some of his ideas, but that was his role, historically, and I see him in that context. You always need someone like that, someone to be imaginative, bold, push the boundaries OUT. He, as an immigrant, was not attached to any one state in his loyalty. It made a huge difference. He stands out, because of this. There was literally no pause between thought and action with this guy (and that’s why he got into so much trouble.) But great men usually have a fatal flaw in their makeup. If they didn’t have it, they wouldn’t be great at all.
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 the Founders. He saw the world we live in now. He did not see a Utopia. He saw reality. Or, he believed so strongly in that reality that he worked himself to the bone to bring it to pass. At that time, the colonies basically were still an agrarian society, where land was power and prestige. Jefferson couldn’t really imagine any other kind of world. Hamilton did and could. He saw ahead to the industrial revolution. He knew 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 along the lines of: “Alexander Hamilton is frightening.” “Hamilton is dangerous and must be stopped.” Etc.
It is 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”m 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 the one I go to most often for a re-read – and John Jay contributed 5 essays), eventually known as The Federalist Papers. 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.
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 (this is something he had been pondering for years). He wanted it to be run by private citizens, not the government. The bank had the power to issue paper money. Hamilton opposed the government running the printing presses to produce money. 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 his 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 the last article of the Constitution – the one about Congress being able to make “all laws which shall be necessary and proper”. Hamilton felt 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.
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.
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 Abigail about it, Jefferson’s side of it, Washington’s side of it. If you don’t know all the ins and outs of the debate, I highly recommend delving in. It was truly an incredible time in our nation’s history.
And about the duel. The thought of a “glorious” death permeates his personal letters from when he was a teenager. (“I wish there was a war.”) There are times when he is so cynical about his fellow man (due, in part, to his horrific upbringing) that he wants to end it all. He loses hope. He plunges from the heights into despair. Much of what happened to him came out of this death-wish (maybe even a sense that he probably would not make it to old age, all things considered). While he was here on earth, he acted like he could HEAR the clock ticking down on his time left. There were times when he behaved in an absolutely incomprehensible manner (the Reynolds pamphlet. It’s like Mary Astor’s sex journal. You read it and think, “Dude, why … WHY … are you publishing this?? Just say ‘Yup. I transgressed and was also a victim of extortion.’ Don’t walk us through it with purple prose like ‘She led me up to the darkness of the bedroom …'” Like: STOP.) A blaze of martyrdom seemed to appeal. He behaved with reckless abandon. He wrote a screed on John Adams, while Adams was president, saying that Adams was mentally incompetent, not fit for office. Political suicide. It was so wrongheaded that you gasp at Hamilton’s self-destructiveness. It was the death knell for his career. His makeup was such that he followed his impulses – and when he was on? He was on like nobody else. But when he misjudged a situation? He messed up big. His battle with Burr was fierce and long-standing. Honor was a huge deal to Hamilton. He could not let an insult stand. He could not. Maybe because of his illegitimacy, his harrowing early life. He was very very sensitive to any slight. He felt disrespected by Washington. His resentment grew during his time as secretary. He wanted to see ACTION in the war, not just sit and be a clerk, and write 150 letters a day. There is one famous incident where Hamilton kept Washington waiting for 5 minutes, because he had to talk to somebody else, and Washington was very angry and told Hamilton so publicly. Hamilton was so insulted by this that he asked to be released from his duties immediately. It was a total breach for him. He could not be insulted. If you insulted him by throwing a tiny arrow his way, he would respond with 25 cannon balls.
He had the presence of mind though, at least early in his career, to know that Washington (and what he stood for) was very important to America and the union, so he tried to keep his personal feelings out of it. He was very concerned, when he left Washington’s employ, that the real reasons for his departure be kept private (he mentions it in a couple of letters). Washington’s image as a universally beloved leader was more important than Hamilton airing his grievances. Later in life, though, Hamilton was unable to hold his personal feelings back in such situations, and more often than not, he would make his feelings public. None of this was a casual thing for him. Honor, his integrity, his character – his very NAME – was something to be defended to the death. It HAD to be that way.
On July 10, 1804, Alexander Hamilton wrote the following letter to his wife Eliza:
My beloved Eliza
Mrs. Mitchel is the person in the world to whom as a friend I am under the greatest Obligations. I have not hitherto done my duty to her. But resolved to repair my omission as much as possible, I have encouraged her to come to this Country and intend, if it shall be in my power to render the Evening of her days comfortable. But if it shall please God to put this out of my power and to inable you hereafter to be of service to her, I entreat you to do it and to treat her with the tenderness of a Sister.
This is my second letter.
The Scruples of a Christian have determined me to expose my own life to any extent rather than subject my self to the guilt of taking the life of another. This must increase my hazards & redoubles my pangs for you. But you had rather I should die innocent than live guilty. Heaven can preserve me and I humbly hope will but in the contrary event I charge you to remember that you are a Christian. God’s Will be done. The will of a merciful God must be good.
Once more Adieu My Darling darling Wife
Tuesday Evening 10 oClock
Joseph Ellis, in his wonderful book Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, opens the book with the story of the duel between Hamilton and Aaron Burr on the riverside plain of Weehawken. You know, down the street from where I live.
The statue of Alexander Hamilton, right near my house. It hovers above the dueling plain where he took the bullet that would be fatal. It’s a beautiful spot. Observation: This photo was taken when there was still a hole in the downtown skyline. My only complaint is: I wish he were facing New York, not turning his back. He helped create New York.
Joseph Ellis closes his chapter on The Duel with these words:
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.
And finally, here is an excerpt from Ron Chernow’s magesterial biography Alexander Hamilton:
Few figures in American history aroused such visceral love or loathing as Alexander Hamilton. To this day, he seems trapped in a crude historical cartoon that pits “Jeffersonian democracy” against “Hamiltonian aristocracy.” For Jefferson and his followers, wedded to their vision of an agrarian Eden, Hamilton was the American Mephistopheles, the proponent of such devilish contrivances as banks, factories, and stock exchanges. They demonized him as a slavish pawn of the British Crown, a closet monarchist, a Machiavellian intriguer, a would-be Caesar. Noah Webster contended that Hamilton’s “ambition, pride, and overbearing temper” had destined him “to be the evil genius of this country.” Hamilton’s powerful vision of American nationalism, with states subordinate to a strong central government and led by a vigorous executive branch, aroused fears of a reversion to royal British ways. His seeming solicitude for the rich caused critics to portray him as a snobbish tool of plutocrats who was contemptuous of the masses. For another group of naysayers, Hamilton’s unswerving faith in a professional military converted him into a potential despot. “From the first to the last words he wrote,” concluded historian Henry Adams, “I read always the same Napoleonic kind of adventuredom.” Even some Hamilton admirers have been unsettled by a faint tincture of something foreign in this West Indian transplant; Woodrow Wilson grudgingly praised Hamilton as “a very great man, ut not a great American.”
Yet many distinguished commentators have echoed Eliza Hamilton’s lament that justice has not been done to her Hamilton/ He has tended to lack the glittering multivolumed biographies that have burnished the fame of other founders. The British statesman Lord Bryce singled out Hamilton as the one founding father who had not received his due from posterity. In The American Commonwealth, he observed, “One cannot note the disappearance of this brilliant figure, to Europeans the most interesting in the early history of the Republic, without the remark that his countrymen seem to have never, either in his lifetime or afterwards, duly recognized is splendid gifts.” During the robust era of Progressive Republicanism, marked by brawny nationalism and energetic government, Theodore Roosevelt took up the cudgels and declared Hamilton “the most brilliant American statesman who ever lived, possessing the loftiest and keenest intellect of his time.” His White House successor, William Howard Taft, likewise embracedf Hamilton as “our greatest constructive statesman.” In all probability, Alexander Hamilton is the foremost political figure in American history who never attained the presidency, yet he probably had a much deeper and more lasting impact than many who did.
Hamilton was the supreme double threat among the founding fathers, at once thinker and doer, sparkling theoretician and masterful executive. He and James Madison were the prime movers behind the summoning of the Constitutional Convention and the chief authors of that classic gloss on the national charter, The Federalist, which Hamilton supervised. As the first treasury secretary and principal architect of the new government, Hamilton took constitutional principles and infused them with expansive life, turning abstractions into institutional realities. He had a pragmatic mind that minted comprehensive programs. In contriving the smoothly running machinery of a modern nation-state – including a budget system, a funded debt, a tax system, a central bank, a customs service, and a coast guard – and justifying them in some of America’s most influential state papers, he set a high-water mark for administrative competence that has never been equaled. If Jefferson provided the essential poetry of American political discourse, Hamilton established the prose of American statecraft. No other founder articulated such a clear and prescient vision of America’s future political, military, and economic strength or crafted such ingenious mechanisms to bind the nationa together.
Hamilton’s crowded years as treasury secretary scarcely exhaust the epic story of his short life, which was stuffed with high drama. From his illegitimate birth on Nevis to his bloody downfall in Weehawken, Hamilton’s life was so tumultuous that only an audacious novelist could have dreamed it up. He embodied an enduring archetype: the obscure immigrant who comes to America, re-creates himself, and succeeds despite a lack of proper birth and breeding. The saga of his metamorphosis from an anguished clerk on St. Croix to the reigning presence in George Washington’s cabinet offers both a gripping personal story and a panoramic view of the formative years of the republic. Except for Washington, nobody stood closer to the center of American politics from 1776 to 1800 or cropped up at more turning points. More than anyone else, the omnipresent Hamilton galvanized, inspired, and scandalized the newborn nation, serving as the flash point for pent-up conflicts of class, geography, race, religion, and ideology. His contemporaries often seemed defined by how they reacted to the political gauntlets that he threw down repeatedly with such defiant panache.
Hamilton was an exuberant genius who performed at a fiendish pace and must have produced the maximum number of words that a human being can scratch out in forty-nine years. If promiscuous with his political opinions, however, he was famously reticent about his private life, especially his squalid Caribbean boyhood. No other founder had to grapple with such shame and misery, and his early years have remained wrapped in more mystery than those of any other major American statesman. While not scanting his vibrant intellectual life, I have tried to gather anecdotal material that will bring this cerebral man to life as both a public and a private figure. Charming and impetuous, romantic and witty, dashing and headstrong, Hamilton offers the biographer an irresistible psychological study. For all his superlative mental gifts, he was afflicted with a touchy ego that made him querulous and fatally combative. He never outgrew the stigma of his illegitimacy, and his exquisite tact often gave way to egregious failures of judgment that left even his keenest admirers aghast. If capable of numerous close friendships, he also entered into titanic feuds with Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Monroe, and Burr.
The magnitude of Hamilton’s feats as treasury secretary has overshadowed many other facets of his life: clerk, college student, youthful poet, essayist, artillery captain, wartime adjutant to Washington, battlefield hero, congressman, abolitionist, Bank of New York founder, state assemblyman, member of the Constitutional Convention and New York Ratifying Convention, orator, lawyer, polemicist, educator, patron saint of the New York Evening Post, foreign-policy theorist, and major general in the army. Boldly uncompromising, he served as catalyst for the emergence of the first political parties and as the intellectual fountainhead for one of them, the Federalists. He was a pivotal force in four consecutive presidential elections and defined much of America’s political agenda during the Washington and Adams administrations, leaving copious commentary on virtually every salient issue of the day.
A complex man – to be studied, discussed, fought about, celebrated. He is still relevant.