Alexander Hamilton and the American Revolution I
Source: The Revolutionary Writings of Alexander Hamilton, edited and with an Introduction by Richard B. Vernier, with a Foreword by Joyce O. Appleby (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2008). FOREWORD
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Americans have an unusual relationship to the founding era of their nation. They not only revere their many Founding Fathers but study their lives and writings with great avidity. Curators, scholars, and popular writers respond to this taste with exhibits, books, videos, and conferences. Bicentennial commemorations of the American Revolution began in 1975 and continued annually with reenactments, tours, and TV shows. Alexander Hamilton’s death at the hand of Aaron Burr prompted a major exhibit in New York City in 2005; the tricentennial of Benjamin Franklin’s birth was marked by a year-long celebration in Philadelphia in 2006.
Skeptics can verify this fascination by “googling” George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Marshall, whose names pull up sites in the thousands. Online bookstores follow suit with hundreds of titles, many of which were written in the past decade.
Although most of the issues and values that divided America’s leaders in the nation-building years of the late eighteenth century are remote from those that stir us today, the passions aroused by these old contests persist in the present. Readers often reveal a keen sense of partiality, if not partisanship, toward the revolutionary leaders. When Adams is riding high in popularity, esteem for Jefferson decreases. The same applies to Jefferson and Hamilton. As we move into a season of bicentennials of Marshall’s great decisions, these too will probably provoke criticism of his rivals, Jefferson and Madison.
While clearly a Founding Father of great significance, Hamilton holds a somewhat eccentric relationship to these other central figures. He died young in a scandalous duel; he was never president; and his personal relations lacked the rectitude so noticeable in George Washington. He might have fit in better in the British Parliament, where he could conceivably have found a place, given his birth in the Caribbean colony of Nevis. Yet few American leaders have ever been better loved than Hamilton was by the young Federalists who looked to him to carry them back to their rightful place at the head of the nation until death cut short his brilliant political career.
What Hamilton had was genius, conspicuous even as a teenager. Extraordinary talent always attracts notice. Hamilton collected powerful patrons the way other young men acquire bad debts. His abundant gifts, well wrapped in personal discipline, earned him a passage from the island of St. Croix, where he worked as a shipping clerk, to New York City to study at Columbia, then called King’s College. There Hamilton’s quickness, wit, charm, and diligence won him a new group of enthusiastic backers who felt their faith in him well vindicated by his writings in support of the Patriot cause.
In a few years Hamilton passed from an academic prodigy to the most treasured of George Washington’s aides-de-camp. Making himself nearly indispensable to Washington through his management of headquarters and report-writing, he also put together an intelligence network of spies in New York City, which the British occupied throughout the war. Despite Washington’s reliance upon Hamilton as a secretary of the first order, Hamilton yearned for military action. Elevated to the rank of lieutenant-colonel, he managed to lead both an artillery and an infantry unit in important battles and finished his army career with a daring attack on one of the British positions at Yorktown.
Given to neither the studiousness of Madison nor the wide-ranging intellectual curiosity of Jefferson, Hamilton gravitated to the technical issues of governance. His moment came when Washington organized the first presidential administration under the new Constitution and chose him as secretary of the treasury. No man in the United States was as prepared as Hamilton to use the new federal powers to craft a series of mutually enhancing statutes dealing with taxes, trade, and the revolutionary debt. He possessed a strong political philosophy, congenial to the Federalists who gravitated around Washington but at odds with the increasingly popular democratic sentiments that triumphed with Jefferson’s election in 1801 and the subsequent sweep of successive Congressional elections.
As the writings of this volume so well reveal, Hamilton was a natural rhetorician in the best sense of that word. He wrote to persuade, not to show off, and he mastered that indispensable skill of a popular author: knowing how to clarify complicated issues without yielding to distorting simplifications. His archrival in Washington’s administration, Jefferson, paid reluctant tribute to Hamilton’s gifts when, in urging Madison to take up his pen to answer Hamilton’s newspaper essays, he called him a “mighty host.” In the earliest pieces we see the foundations of that brilliant career being set down and the contours of his core commitments established. We can also begin to see how those commitments were gradually adapted to embrace a more energetic vision of government by the time of the Continentalist essays. Understanding something of Hamilton’s early writings thus serves to illumine some of the reasons for the earliest political and constitutional controversies of the republic.
Hamilton epitomized what Jefferson feared in Federalist politics. When Hamilton had the chance to draft the economic policy for the nation, he relied on what he called the “durable and permanent existence of rich and poor, debtor and creditor.” The wealthy few would develop new enterprises for the poor, whose lives would be regulated through their economic dependence and, if necessary, the master-servant provisions of the Common Law. Convinced of the need for leadership from disinterested and educated gentlemen, Hamilton rejected the notion that ordinary farmers, storekeepers, and tinkerers might just as effectively use their resources for new, unsupervised ventures as wealthy entrepreneurs would. Yet it was the pool of capital and financial stability that Hamilton created that enabled those petty entrepreneurs to prosper when Jefferson became president.
Illustrative of Hamilton’s socially conservative attitudes was his reaction to the idea of trade having the capacity of self-regulation. He rejected altogether the existence of a natural social harmony and called Adam Smith’s conviction, worked out in The Wealth of Nations, that the nation could flourish without “a common directing power,” “one of those wild speculative paradoxes, which have grown into credit among us, contrary to the uniform practice and sense of the most enlightened nations.”
Like a master technician, Hamilton grasped the impinging details of things as disordered as the mishmash of state and national debts left after eight years of fighting the revolution. Even to speak of debts is to impose a stability on what was in fact a jumble of bonds, bank notes, IOUs, and requisitions of fluctuating value that had passed through hundreds of hands. Only a passion for this kind of fiscal management could entice anyone to take on such a staggering task as registering, calibrating, and streamlining this tangle of papers into a stock issue that would make the United States solvent. With supreme confidence in his proposed measures, Hamilton turned a mass of bad debt into an asset by converting the debt into interest-bearing bonds that people wanted to purchase.
The four geniuses of American nation-building—Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, and Marshall—found their way unerringly to their métiers: Madison, the constitution writer; Jefferson, the creator of a democratic polity; Marshall, the architect of liberal jurisprudence; and Hamilton, the fiscal wizard. All had interesting relationships with George Washington, whose great virtues were more personal and moral than intellectual. Their writings and stories reflect the character of the nation itself. It’s hard not to share the public’s delight in learning about them or, as in this case, in reading their own powerful words.