Monday, January 31, 2011

Alexander "the Great" Hamilton: The Indispensible Aide

The following talk, based on the New-York Historical Society's exhibit of Alexander Hamilton, was delivered on August 1, 2006.

Given the esteem in which I hold my colleagues from Aquinas College and Calvin College, I am proud to conclude this series on Alexander Hamilton -- based on the exhibit by the New-York Historical Society, organized by the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies, and hosted by Spring Lake District Library.

Who is this man with the sharp eyes and chiseled nose on our $10 bill?

Jason Duncan opened three weeks ago with an overview of Hamilton’s “strange and amazing life.” He “overcame huge odds” (proving that truth is stranger than fiction). “None of the Founding Fathers came from such unpromising origins.” He was born illegitimate, was orphaned by age 12, and grew up on a couple of Caribbean island that enriched themselves on rum sugar cane and the sweat of the slave’s brow. Who would have expected anything great on the American stage? Indeed, “three years before the outbreak of the American Revolution, Hamilton was an illegitimate orphan working in the Virgin Islands as a merchant’s clerk." His break came when he was sent as a teenager to New York to attend what would become an Ivy League university, Columbia. He performed brilliantly in every endeavor thereafter -- well, just about every endeavor. He did not fare so well in his duel with Aaron Burr.

John Pinhiero spoke two weeks ago of one of the great divides in American thought and culture: the Hamiltonian versus the Jeffersonian answer to the question: How shall we then live together. There are two very different ways of ordering freedom in a republic.

Jim Bratt spoke last week about Hamilton’s religious outlook, placing it in the perspective of more general intellectual, moral, and spiritual currents in the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment and Great Awakening.

A fascinating figure, Hamilton. He always ranks among the top five Founding Fathers; is arguably the foremost political figure in American history who never attained the presidency; and is perennially recognized as our nation's first economist.

In the course of this series, we have been exposed to extreme views of Hamilton -- ranging from the flatteringly positive to the scurrilously negative. Much of the negative press about Hamilton was his own fault. In the struggle to put forth his vision for the new republic, he made as many political enemies as any Founder did. Among his most vocal critics was John Adams, who referred to Hamilton as "the foreigner" and called him "the most restless, impatient, artful, indefatigable, and unprincipled intriguer in the United States, if not the world." Adams, never one to fall into the error of understatement, was even more complimentary when he called Hamilton, “the bastard son of a Scottish peddler.”

Jefferson did not like Hamilton either -- in fact, couldn't stand him. They were outright political enemies by the time they were serving together in Washington's cabinet.

It didn't boost Hamilton's reputation that he became the most notorious adulterer among the Founders. His own letters reveal that he carried on with Maria Reynolds in a seedy affair that had the approval of her husband -- but only to blackmail the treasury secretary in a weak moment.

Nor did his death at the age of 49 commend him. There was still so much that his demons of ambition were prodding him to accomplish. But Hamilton had the worst kind of enemy, a mortal enemy. The former treasury secretary suffered the most spectacular death of any of the Founders, shot by the vice president of the United States in a duel. He then lingered for 31 agonizing hours before mercifully dying. The same pistol that killed Alexander had previously killed his son Phillip -- also in a duel. Too weird.

On the positive side, we think of Alexander "the Great" Hamilton as a war hero at the Battle of Yorktown; as the principal author of the Federalist Papers; and as the trusted aide to George Washington for two decades, first during the War for Independence where he demonstrated how precocious he was (he was only 20 years old when he was promoted to colonel on Washington’s staff), then during Washington’s presidency, where he served officially as the Treasury secretary, but unofficially became a rival to Jefferson who was at State. (That may have been the longest sentence I've ever composed.) Hamilton was able to exercise considerable influence over Washington's policies, but the two men had a stormy father-son-like relationship.

The title of this talk, by the way, is a play on the title sometimes used for George Washington -- “the Indispensable Man” to America’s founding. Hamilton, we know, was Washington’s indispensable aide. This evening I’d like to talk not so much about how Hamilton was Washington’s aide, as how he is ours. After all, the America he helped create is our America. That’s why the exhibit is subtitled, “The Man Who Made Modern America.” Hamilton “left behind ideas and institutions that have lasted for centuries.” Whether we like Hamilton or not, if we have not grappled with him, we have not really grappled with the origins of modern America.

"In this exhibition, we wanted to show the startling degree to which, of all the founders, Hamilton had the most modern ideas--the power of the press, the need for a strong federal government and a strong treasury, a national banking system, a stock market and trade, and a mixed economy, not one only focused on farming…."

"It's phenomenal that this man, who died in his forties, could have had so many ideas that would become true for the America that we know today," says James Basker, president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute and professor of English at Columbia University.

Now let’s take a look at three areas where Hamilton is indispensable to our understanding of modern America (with due acknowledgment to James Basker, Forrest McDonald, Ron Chernow, and other Hamilton scholars).


Alexander Hamilton made – and continues to make – two great contributions to our American understanding of political order:

1. At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, as the dominant mind on the Committee of Style along with Gouvernor Morris, Hamilton helped shaped the Preamble with its incisive argument for ordered liberty.

2. After the convention, he wrote some 50 of the Federalist papers, expounding on the meaning of the Constitution and arguing for its ratification.

Where did his ideas come from? Many came from his years of military service. Hamilton, who rose to the rank of colonel in the Continental Army, watched as General Washington and his officers struggled to keep the army clothed, fed, and armed. Under the Articles of Confederation, the loosely organized confederation of states could not raise taxes. The army was dependent on the individual generosity of the thirteen legislatures.

"Hamilton saw that a decentralized government was helpless and incompetent at doing what needed to be done," says Basker.

Hamilton's army experience helped shape his ideas about the need for a strong centralized government. In his spare time, he read the works of European thinkers and economists--Adam Smith, Samuel Von Pufendorf, and Malachy Postlethwayt. Already in the late 1770s he began toying with the idea of revising the Articles of Confederation. But war's end, he had outlined a plan for a federal government with strong central powers. But for his plan to work, the Articles would have to be dramatically revised or discarded. Not uncharacteristically, he wrote the resolution calling for the Constitutional Convention.

Hamilton got his chance when he became one of the three New York delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. He argued for a concentration of power in the national government – for senators and a national governor who would serve for life, based on good governing. His ideas received no support and had little influence on the other delegates. But Hamilton served on the Committee of Style and influenced the ideas and language of the Preamble.

Compare the early draft: “We the People of the States of New-Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode-Island….”

[Hold up the $10 bill and reference the words, "We the People." ]

With the final version: “We, the People of the United States, in order to
- form a more perfect union,
- establish justice,
- insure domestic tranquility,
- provide for the common defence,
- promote the general welfare, and
- secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity
do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

These 52 words are the work of a genius who understood the political philosophy of ordered liberty. Ironically, a majority of Americans in 1787 did not want to be governed by the document.

If adopting the Declaration of Independence was the supreme Jeffersonian moment in American history, with its emphasis on liberty; then ratifying the Constitution with its Preamble was the supreme Hamiltonian moment in American history, with its argument for ordered liberty.

Take a step back and think about what Hamilton’s efforts mean to the human condition…. [See my Afterword in The American Cause]

Although they did not share Hamilton's federalist vision, the delegates had trouble devising a constitution. They disagreed on states' rights, representation, and slavery. With the existing government bankrupt and on the verge of collapse, a compromise had to be reached. After the other two New York delegates left in anger--they opposed any federalist provisions--Hamilton stayed behind and signed the final draft of the Constitution as an individual. Like other delegates, he recognized that the document, while imperfect, stood the chance of being ratified by the states.
"The most important thing Hamilton did was after the Constitution had been adopted by the convention, but before it was ratified. That was the real fight," says Basker.

Hamilton returned to New York, a strongly antifederalist state, to lobby for the Constitution. Hoping to turn the tide in favor of ratification, Hamilton, along with John Jay and James Madison, wrote The Federalist, a series of essays. Hamilton wrote more than two-thirds of the eighty-five essays, which were published in New York newspapers in 1787 and 1788 under the nom de plume "Publius." In the first essay, Hamilton wrote, "The vigor of government is essential to the security of liberty." Newspapers throughout the colonies began reprinting the essays, and little by little, opposition eroded. The thirteen colonies approved the Constitution.


Hamilton's experiences in St. Croix also influenced his economic visions. He took the view that for the new republic to survive and flourish, the economy needed to be divided between agriculture and manufacturing. "As a pre-adolescent, Hamilton saw that on the islands, they manufactured nothing for themselves; they had to import everything," says Basker. "During the Revolution, any supplies needed by the colonies, guns or uniforms or anything manufactured, needed to be acquired from the French or Dutch or had to be taken from captured British supplies. So he knew that America would have to have its own manufacturing or it would always be dependent on other countries."

This was in contrast to Jefferson's hope for a republic of free-holding yeoman farmers, and would lead to political skirmishes between the rivals.

[Hold up the $10 bill and point to the image of the Treasury Building.]

As the first treasury secretary, Hamilton inherited a bankrupt nation. The war debt was crushing. In 1790, he published his "Reports on Public Credit," a plan to assume domestic and foreign debt, pay off federal war bonds, and create a national mechanism for collecting taxes.

James Madison and Thomas Jefferson vehemently opposed Hamilton's plan. The Virginians saw it as unfair to their state. Opposition arose from other quarters as well. To break the deadlock, Hamilton turned to back room politicking and cut a deal with Jefferson. The southern states would vote in favor of his plan in exchange for Hamilton's support in favor of moving the nation's capital from New York to a site on the Potomac River.

Hamilton also secured the establishment of a federal bank and a federal mint. Against long odds, he had placed the nascent United States on solid ground fiscally. Exhausted from the political battles, Hamilton retired from Washington's cabinet in 1795. He may have retired, but his ideas did not. [See my Afterword in The American Cause.]

[Tell the story of the Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian bragging for their man's rightful place in American history.]


Even though Washington asked Hamilton to head up Treasury, he was too self confident, assertive, and patriotic to restrict his efforts to domestic fiscal affairs. Indeed, a few years into the Washington administration, “the Treasury Department had … been more active internationally than had the State Department…. [Hamilton] understood European affairs better than did his counterpart in the State Department.” With his boss’s blessings, Hamilton debated Jefferson over foreign policy (which must have irritated Jefferson no end), and offered indispensable philosophical counsel and policy recommendations to the commander in chief when it came to foreign affairs.

Hamilton’s view of foreign affairs was shaped by four elements:
1. his realistic view of human nature (he has been called Machiavellian);
2. he was an astute student of history (he knew how difficult it was for republics to survive and left posterity some great lessons of history in the Federalist papers);
3. he participated directly, for more than a decade, in one of the world’s most significant revolutions and in a war for independence against the world’s then-greatest superpower; and
4. he observed the excesses of the French Revolution, which broke out the same year the Washington administration began.

As Treasury secretary, Hamilton was justified in his desire to help shape U.S. foreign policy by six factors:
1. the new republic’s small army and navy were paid for by the Treasury. Early in Washington’s first administration, there were Indian wars to deal with;
2. the new republic was becoming buried by crushing debt and needed to seek credit abroad;
3. revenues had to be raised by taxing international commerce;
4. a commercial treaty with Great Britain was desired by Washington, and Hamilton was in accord;
5. the Whiskey Rebellion: Knox went away on personal business at the moment when the new republic needed him most!
6. Washington explicitly asked Hamilton for an alternate opinion to Jefferson’s when it came to the Proclamation of Neutrality (1793). Hamilton thought that Jefferson had “a womanish attachment to France and a womanish resentment against Great Britain.”

The outbreak of the French revolution coincided with the beginning of Washington's first administration, but by 1793 warfare had engulfed Europe, pitting Great Britain, Prussia, Austria, and Spain against the new French Republic. In the cabinet Jefferson opposed any expression of neutrality while Hamilton supported it. Washington eventually sided with the latter and issued a proclamation of neutrality that barred American ships from supplying war matériel to either side.

Forrest McDonald writes: “In the face of war in Europe, [Hamilton] saw neutrality as the great desideratum, but not because, having known war, he cherished peace. Rather, he understood that war, in the emotional and ideological climate of the United States in the 1790s, would divide the nation against itself and sap the strength of its infant national government. Every year of peace, conversely, would allow the country to grow stronger and its government to become more stable. As a matter of policy, he therefore regarded war as acceptable only if the alternative was national disgrace or the sacrifice of vital national interests, and only if the American people could be counted on to support the war with some measure of solidarity.”

You see these sentiments resurface three years later in Washington’s Farewell Address of 1796, where the out-going president urges Americans to avoid alliances that are not in the nation’s interest. Try to set a good republican example and be friendly to all to the extent possible. There are obvious lessons for today.


Hamilton had a vision. He believed the United States could become the world’s greatest nation ever. He foresaw us becoming a “republican empire”: at home, republican; abroad, first among the nations, with a commercial and military reach able to rival that of any other "superpower" (in Hamilton’s day, Britain and France). He thought our commercial and military reach should be proportionate to the nation’s vital interests. As our vital interests grow, we become richer, stronger, and – more subject to temptation. The temptation is to become imperial at home, dictatorial even. To Hamilton, it was necessary to avoid this temptation at all costs. No previous republic had ever quite succeeded in doing so. Ancient Rome came the closest. But Rome succumbed to imperial designs at home as its military conquered distant lands. In the United States, there would be a tension between the freedom of a republic, and the reach of a global empire. It would take time to grow the new republic. In the 1790s, to use Hamilton’s words to Washington, we were “a Hercules in the cradle.” Hamilton warned: “’Tis as great an error for a nation to overrate as to underrate itself.” Again, useful words for us to remember today.

How different Hamilton’s pragmatic vision is from Jefferson’s idealistic vision.

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