One in a series on Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow. So far, we have discussed these topics:
- central government vs. states’ rights:
- slavery, the judiciary:
- populism, journalism:
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.
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)
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.
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.