Last in a series on Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow. Previously, we discussed these topics:
- central government vs. states’ rights:
- slavery, the judiciary:
- populism, journalism:
- military, Congress, personality:
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.
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)
Hamilton finely interwove his bank and public-debt plans, making it difficult to undo one and not the other. (p. 349)
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)
… (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.
(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.
… 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.
… 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)
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.
“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.
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.