Hamilton’s influence permeates our nation to this day

Last in a series on Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow. Previously, we discussed these topics:

  • central government vs. states’ rights:

https://billcornishwordpresscom.wordpress.com/2017/07/18/hamilton-early-lessons-still-apply/

  • religion:

https://billcornishwordpresscom.wordpress.com/2017/07/24/hamilton-on-religion-belief-in-god-as-moral-authority/

  • politics:

https://billcornishwordpresscom.wordpress.com/2017/07/31/politics-continuing-what-hamilton-and-his-peers-started/

  • slavery, the judiciary:

https://billcornishwordpresscom.wordpress.com/2017/08/14/slavery-and-the-judiciary-hamiltons-far-reaching-views/

  • populism, journalism:

https://billcornishwordpresscom.wordpress.com/2017/08/29/the-pendulum-swings-a-little-left-and-a-little-right-returning-to-the-center-each-time/

  • military, Congress, personality:

https://billcornishwordpresscom.wordpress.com/2017/09/09/hamilton-a-strong-military-run-by-civilians/

 

Hamilton left a rich and varied legacy. As one of the most influential Founding Fathers, his thoughts and decisions continue to affect life in the United States to this day.

Make a good idea great

Hamilton was not the master builder of the Constitution: the laurels surely go to James Madison. He was, however, its foremost interpreter … (p. 355)

 

A prolific writer throughout his life, Hamilton’s most famous work is also probably his best: The Federalist Papers, a collection of 85 essays published in 1788 that promoted the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Hamilton wrote most of the essays and edited the rest, overseeing the entire project.

http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/documents/1786-1800/the-federalist-papers/

 

In similar fashion, Hamilton did not create America’s market economy so much as foster the cultural and legal setting in which it flourished. (p. 345)

 

Like Benjamin Franklin, Hamilton saw America as the place for entrepreneurs and business success. “He believed that government ought to promote self-fulfillment, self-improvement and self-reliance.” (p. 345)

But a capitalist society requires laws that enforce contracts, respect private property, arbitrate legal disputes, and offer patents and other protections to promote invention. This was Hamilton’s genius, establishing a society to accomplish these goals.

“Hamilton had a storehouse of information that nobody else could match.” (p. 346)

Banking

Hamilton finely interwove his bank and public-debt plans, making it difficult to undo one and not the other. (p. 349)

hamilton book

His banking and public debt programs were so detailed, that once Congress approved them, it became impossible to undo them. Before they were accepted, Hamilton had to overcome fierce objections from Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and John Adams, who saw banks as little more than a way for rich people to exploit the poor. They favored an agrarian society based on farming and bartering prevalent in the South, as opposed to the urban lifestyles that required money to buy things in stores that were increasing in the North. “Jefferson and Adams detested people who earned a living shuffling financial paper …” (p. 346)

Hamilton, as our first treasury secretary, saw the need for a central bank and a uniform currency among all the states to “expand the money supply, extend credit to government and business, collect revenues, make debt payments, handle foreign exchange and provide a depository for government funds.” (p. 347)

He also saw the need for private banks and credit as part of the public money system, based on models in several European countries, which he researched extensively. “It was in the nature of Hamilton’s achievement as treasury secretary that each of his programs was designed to mesh with the others to form a single interlocking whole. His central bank was no exception.” (p. 349)

Foreign policy

… (Hamilton and President George Washingtron) had established forever the principle of executive-branch leadership in foreign policy. (p. 499)

 

This came about with the Jay Treaty, an unpopular agreement approved by the Senate in 1795 to avert war between the United States and Great Britain that gave Britain far too many advantages, opponents claimed. It did, however, prevent war and promote U.S. neutrality overseas. Hamilton was a behind-the-scenes negotiator for the treaty.

https://history.state.gov/milestones/1784-1800/jay-treaty

Coast Guard

(Hamilton) asked Congress in April 1790 to commission a fleet of single-masted vessels called revenue cutters that would patrol offshore waters and intercept contraband. By early August, Washington had signed a bill setting up this service, later known as the Coast Guard. (p. 340)

 

Earlier, Hamilton defended the new country by promoting an offshore fleet to protect U.S. commerce. But he feared overbearing ship captains, so he provided detailed instructions urging “firmness tempered with restraint …

“So masterly was Hamilton’s directive about boarding foreign vessels that it was still being applied during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.” (p 340)

Leader, not politician

Hamilton wanted to lead the electorate and provide expert opinion instead of consulting popular opinion. … Hamilton … regularly violated what became the first commandment of American politics: thou shalt always be optimistic when addressing the electorate. (p. 627)

 

As we’ve mentioned before, Hamilton was not the consummate politician. He offered his opinion, sometimes regardless of the consequences or who might be listening. “Alexander Hamilton triumphed as a doer and thinker, not as a leader of the average voter. He was simply too unashamedly brainy to appeal to the masses.” (p. 627)

He never even considered seeking the office of the President of the United States. He served as George Washington’s treasury secretary, a role where his primary passions of financing, banking, money and establishing a new government could flourish.

His death

… he achieved in death what had so often eluded him in life: an emotional outpouring of sympathy from all strata of New York society. (p. 710)

 

Because his public policies often were controversial, Hamilton had many enemies, including Jefferson and Madison at the time of his death. He defended his honor whenever he felt it was violated, even if it made his friends and family squirm.

One such dispute ended in a duel that cost Hamilton his life. Fifteen years of political clashes by Hamilton and Aaron Burr culminated in a duel on July 11, 1804, in New Jersey. Earlier that year Burr ran for governor of New York and lost the election, partly due to Hamilton’s ardent opposition. That was the last straw for Burr, who challenged Hamilton to a duel – not an unusual practice at the time as a way to protect a man’s honor. Hamilton felt he had to accept the duel challenge to protect his own honor.

https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/hamilton/essays/understanding-burr-hamilton-duel

 

… death at forty-nine … The average life expectancy was then about fifty-five, so the dying Hamilton did not seem as young to his contemporaries as he does today, but many obituaries portrayed him as cut down by a bullet in his prime. (p. 713)

 

The first eight U.S. presidents lived an average of nearly 80 years. Even though Hamilton’s political career was waning at his death, he still had plenty of life and enthusiasm in him. Had he lived a longer life, “with his prolific pen and literary gifts, Hamilton would certainly have left voluminous and convincing memoirs.” (p. 713)

His wife

Eliza Hamilton was committed to one holy quest above all others: to rescue her husband’s historical reputation from the gross slanders that had tarnished it. (p. 2)

 

Eliza, Alexander’s wife, outlived her husband by 50 years and died in 1854 at age 97. Born in Albany, N.Y., to a wealthy landowner, she shunned the public spotlight throughout her husband’s life. She was co-founder and deputy director of the first private orphanage in New York City. Eliza had a strong Christian faith that never wavered.

“For many years after the duel, Jefferson, Adams and other political enemies had taken full advantage of their eloquence and longevity to spread defamatory anecdotes about Hamilton … Eliza enlisted as many as 30 assistants to sift through his tall stacks of papers.” (p. 2)

At his mother’s urging, their fourth son, John Church Hamilton, did publish a biography of his father – but not until after Eliza’s death.

Lasting impact

“Well, has justice been done? Few figures in American history have aroused such visceral love or loathing as Alexander Hamilton … He has tended to lack the glittering multi-volumed biographies that have burnished the fame of other founders … 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.” (p. 3-4)

The musical “Hamilton,” with music, lyrics and book by Lin-Manuel Miranda, is attempting to change that. Still popular more than two years after it debuted, the musical has brought to life Hamilton’s life and accomplishments, done with modern language and actors.

https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/07/theater/review-hamilton-young-rebels-changing-history-and-theater.html?mcubz=0

Alexander Hamilton is worth the time to research. Read the book. See the show. You’ll learn plenty about how this country began, and why we are the way we are today.

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Hamilton: A strong military, run by civilians

One in a series on Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow. So far, we have discussed these topics:

  • central government vs. states’ rights:

https://billcornishwordpresscom.wordpress.com/2017/07/18/hamilton-early-lessons-still-apply/

  • religion:

https://billcornishwordpresscom.wordpress.com/2017/07/24/hamilton-on-religion-belief-in-god-as-moral-authority/

  • politics:

https://billcornishwordpresscom.wordpress.com/2017/07/31/politics-continuing-what-hamilton-and-his-peers-started/

  • slavery, the judiciary:

https://billcornishwordpresscom.wordpress.com/2017/08/14/slavery-and-the-judiciary-hamiltons-far-reaching-views/

  • populism, journalism:

https://billcornishwordpresscom.wordpress.com/2017/08/29/the-pendulum-swings-a-little-left-and-a-little-right-returning-to-the-center-each-time/

The military

With unerring foresight, (George) Washington perceived the importance of enshrining the principle that military power should be subordinated to civilian control. (p. 178)

 

Chernow made this statement in a section on financing the military during the Revolution. Hamilton wanted Congress to fund the entire war debt – specifically, officers’ pay. Many military leaders had missed paychecks, as much as six years owed, in some cases, (p. 176) and Hamilton feared mass desertions. He wrote a letter to Washington, the military leader, urging him to use the officers’ anger to push Congress to pay up.

The federal government had little taxing authority at the time. States were paying the bills, often unevenly or not at all, if they didn’t buy in to the federal vision.

Washington did not wish to push that button yet. He wouldn’t support allowing military decisions to control Congress. The elected civilians in Congress controlled the still-forming country’s purse strings, and Washington didn’t want to change that.

While military spending today captures the lion’s share of the federal budget, the civilian president and the elected Congress still set the military’s priorities and pay for whatever they feel is warranted. While military leaders offer crucial insights into national and international situations, civilians still call the shots. Literally.

We can thank George Washington for preserving this system.

 

When it came to law enforcement, Hamilton believed that an overwhelming show of force often obviated the need to employ it: “Whenever the government appears in arms, it ought to appear like a Hercules and inspire respect by the display of strength.” (p. 471)

… the show of force orchestrated by the federal government had made its use unnecessary, just as Hamilton had predicted. (p. 477)

 

Throughout his life, Hamilton defended a strong central government, including the authority to collect taxes and fund a national army and navy.

hamilton book

The Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 proved this out. In its effort to raise money, the federal government approved a liquor tax that proved extremely unpopular – yet it was lucrative. “Shortly after the whiskey tax was passed, federal collectors were shunned, tarred, feathered, blindfolded and whipped.” (p. 468) The worst offenders lived in western Pennsylvania.

Hamilton eventually convinced then-President Washington to deploy federal troops in massive numbers to put down the rebellion, fearing that open rejection of the tax could destroy the new federal government.

It worked. “The military expedition met little overt resistance in the mutinous regions.” (p. 476)

(While the show of force worked militarily, it likely hurt Washington’s Federalist Party politically. Thomas Jefferson in the election of 1800 pledged to repeal the whiskey tax. “So it may be said, with undoubted truth, that the whiskey drinkers made Mr. Jefferson the President of the United States.” p. 478)

Congress

In (Hamilton’s) view, representative bodies did not need to mirror exactly those they represented; men of substance, wisdom and experience could care for the common good. If they came more often from the wealthier, better-educated portion of the community, so be it. (p. 265)

 

Hamilton declared that the vices of the rich “are probably more favorable to the prosperity of the state than those of the indigent …” (p. 265) He saw the Senate “as a check on fickle popular will …”

Hamilton’s main argument was to support a central government, with states’ rights subservient to them. This discussion took place in an earlier post.

 

“Congress met and adjourned from day to day without doing anything, the parties being too much out of temper to do business together.” (p. 326)

 

Even as far back as 1790, congressmen had trouble working together. This quote was attributed to Thomas Jefferson over the issue of where to locate the national capital. Eventually it was built in Washington, D.C., in the South, with Philadelphia as the temporary home while the Capitol was being built.

At the time New York City was our nation’s capital. “Should the capital be near the population or the geographic center of America? New York was scarcely equidistant from the northern and southern tips of the country …” (p. 326)

Hamilton’s other main issue at this time was federal assumption of states’ debts, which he saw as the most effective way to join the states together into a permanent union. It passed the House, barely, in July 1790, thanks to a back-room deal among Hamilton, Jefferson and James Madison.

Despite their differences, Congressmen eventually did act, and will continue to do so.

Personality

For all his charisma, Alexander Hamilton was essentially an intellectual loner who took perverse pride in standing against the crowd. (p. 251)

 

He was a thinker and a doer, a man with a big-picture vision of the future of the United States that few others saw so clearly. This is likely why he never became president, or even ran for the presidency; he did not care about populism, doing only what he felt was the right thing to do.

In fact, he often opposed populist thinking in support of a centralized federal government, in which a small group of elected representatives would make the decisions that the country needed to survive.

 

A man of irreproachable integrity, Hamilton severed all outside sources of income while in office, something that neither Washington nor Jefferson nor Madison dared to do. (p. 287)

 

Even as Hamilton’s family grew – he and his wife continued to have children while he was treasury secretary – he would not accept any income other than the paltry sum offered by a poor, struggling federal government.

When he finally resigned his federal post, he had debts to pay off. Returning to his private law practice, he took cases that helped pay the bills – but even still, he was most passionate about cases that established Constitutional law, even though many of the people he defended in those cases couldn’t afford to pay him much.

 

But if Jefferson was a man of fanatical principles, he had principles all the same – which Hamilton could forgive. (Aaron) Burr’s abiding sin was a total lack of principles, which Hamilton could not forgive. (p. 422)

 

Hamilton had strong feelings and viewpoints. His political opponents did as well. If they could defend themselves, Hamilton, could respect that, to a point.

Hamilton may have overstated his case against Burr, who eventually killed him in a duel.

In 1791, Burr defeated Philip Schuyler, Hamilton’s father-in-law, for a seat in the U.S. Senate. This marked the onset of an ongoing rivalry between Burr and Hamilton. After six years in the Senate, Burr lost re-election to Schuyler. Bitter about the loss, Burr blamed Hamilton for ruining his reputation and turning voters against him.

In 1800, Burr ran for the U.S. presidency with Jefferson. Because they each received the same number of electoral votes, members of the House of Representatives were left to determine the winner. When the House met to discuss the election, Burr’s rival, Hamilton, vocalized his support for Jefferson and his disapproval of Burr. In the end, Jefferson secured the presidency and Burr became vice president. Burr was incensed, believing that Hamilton had manipulated the vote in Jefferson’s favor.

Nearing the end of his term as vice president, Burr ran for the governorship of New York, but lost. Again, he blamed Hamilton for besmirching him as a candidate, and, eager to defend his honor, challenged Hamilton to a duel. Hamilton accepted, and the face-off took place on the morning of July 11, 1804; it ended when Burr shot Hamilton to death.

The public was outraged. Burr fled New York and New Jersey but eventually returned to Washington, D.C, where he completed his term safe from prosecution. The indictments in the case never reached trial.

In 1807, Burr was brought to trial on charges of conspiracy and high misdemeanor, for leading a military charge against Spanish territory and for trying to separate territories from the United States. Chief Justice John Marshall acquitted Burr on the treason charge and eventually revoked his misdemeanor indictment, but the conspiracy scandal left Burr’s political career in ruins.

https://www.biography.com/people/aaron-burr-9232241