Poor Alexander Hamilton! Once the darling of conservative Republicans, he has now fallen drastically out of favor. Some conservative activists are even seeking to take Hamilton's portrait off the ten-dollar bill and replace it with the image of Ronald Reagan. This effort tells us just how much the Republican Party has changed in the past hundred years, and how problematic Hamilton's reputation has now become.
A century ago Mark Hanna and the Republican Party and many other Americans lionized Hamilton as they did no other Founder. Not only had Hamilton single-handedly created American capitalism, but as John T. Morse, the editor of the American Statesmen series, declared in 1898, "he was the real maker of the government of the United States." When a Hall of Fame honoring distinguished Americans was established at New York University in 1900, Hamilton was the first person selected. Theodore Roosevelt admired him. Even Herbert Croly, the Progressive reformer who was the first editor of The New Republic, called him "a sound thinker, the constructive statesman" who sponsored a "vigorous, positive, constructive national policy ... that implied a faith in the powers of an efficient government to advance the national interest."
Hamilton was undoubtedly a big-government man, but since he also seemed to favor big business, the conservative Republicans during the first part of the twentieth century continued to praise him. One of his biographers early in the twentieth century called him the "first American business man." "For as a man," wrote Robert Warshow in 1931, "he was not noble; as a politician, he was not an eminent success; as a statesman, apart from financial measures, he was not superior. But as a business man, not in all his period was any man to match him, nor in all the years of American history can any figure dwarf him in this, his natural field."
With Republicans embracing Hamilton the businessman (it was the Coolidge administration that put him on the ten-dollar bill), the Democrats were naturally drawn to Thomas Jefferson, Hamilton's lifelong enemy. Indeed, the earlier conflict in the 1790s between these two Founders seemed to many Democrats to presage the continuing struggle of American history between the forces of aristocracy and the forces of democracy. If Hamilton spoke for the interests of business, then, said the Democrats, Jefferson spoke for the mass of the people.
In such a conflict the spokesman for the few could scarcely stand against the spokesman for the many. Franklin Roosevelt knew the significance of symbols, and, against all the logic of the New Deal, he made Jefferson, the great minimalgovernment president, a Democratic Party icon. When the Republicans relegated Jefferson to the little-used two-dollar bill, Roosevelt retaliated by placing him on the popular nickel and on the first-class three-cent stamp. With the New Deal's championing of Jefferson, climaxing with the building of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington in 1943 (which contains nary a Jeffersonian word about the beauties of small government), Hamilton's reputation went into decline. It was not to be revived until the decades following World War II. In the 1950s and the early 1960s, Hamilton was celebrated for his nationalism, for his administrative genius, for his financial expertise, and for his hard-headed realism in foreign affairs. But someone as skeptical of the people as Hamilton was could scarcely replace Jefferson as a symbol of America's democratic heritage.
Perhaps the recent criticism of Jefferson's slaveholding and racial attitudes offers an opportunity for some positive re-appraisals of Hamilton. He was opposed to slavery, after all, and worked to end it in his home state of New York. In a land of immigrants, moreover, he was the only one of the leading Founders who was not born in what became the United States. Still, it seems unlikely that Hamilton can ever acquire a warm place in the hearts of most Americans. Wall Street may erect a statue in his honor, but it is doubtful that an elaborate Hamilton Memorial will ever arise in the District of Columbia. Tens of thousands flock to Washington's Mount Vernon, to Jefferson's Monticello, and even to Madison's Montpelier, but very few bother to visit Hamilton's home, the Grange, hidden on a back street in the northern part of Manhattan.
Many present-day liberal Democrats might find Hamilton's vision of a positive Leviathan state very appealing, but they would surely be turned off by his realpolitik view of the world, and by his desire to maintain a large standing army and to build a strong military state, and by his doubts about democracy. ("Democracy," he remarked in 1804, was "our real Disease," which was poisoning the American "Empire.") And most Republicans, for all their enthusiasm for Hamilton's vision of a powerful military machine, do not want a Leviathan state that manages the economy and taxes people. For the foreseeable future, then, Hamilton seems to have few friends among those who would use the Founders to further their particular causes. Perhaps he was right when he lamented, a few years before his death at the hands of Aaron Burr, that "this American world was not made for me."
Instead of trying to enlist Hamilton on behalf of one present-day cause or another, as we are wont to do with the Founders, we might seek to understand this eighteenth-century statesman on his own terms and in his own time. For this reason we must welcome the publication of some of Hamilton's writings by the Library of America, in this remarkably comprehensive volume edited by Joanne B. Freeman. (Of the prominent Founders, only John Adams now lacks a volume in the Library of America, and an Adams collection is in the works.)
Hamilton was born in Nevis in the British West Indies in 1757 (though there is some evidence that it was 1755). His parents--James Hamilton, the younger son of a Scottish laird who had come to the Caribbean to make his fortune as a merchant, and Rachel Lavien--were not legally married, and so Hamilton's birth was illegitimate, a blemish that his later enemies never let him forget. John Adams's sneering comment that Hamilton was "the bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar" was only one of the more colorful reminders of Hamilton's disreputable origins. After his father abandoned the family in 1765 and his mother died in 1768, twelve-year-old Alexander ended up keeping the books for a merchant in St. Croix--yearning all the while for a war in order to escape from what he called his "groveling condition of a clerk ... to which my fortune, etc., condemns me."
This passion for war, jarring as it is to us in the twenty-first century, is an important clue to Hamilton's temperament, and to the aristocratic world in which he lived. But it was not a war that rescued Hamilton from the West Indies; it was the support of patrons. Like so many of the Founders, he first attracted attention by something he had written--a colorful description of a hurricane that was published in a local newspaper in 1772. A Presbyterian clergyman and other West Indian friends decided to send the promising young man to New York for an education. By the next year Hamilton was on his way to America, and he never looked back.
Although he preferred Princeton to King's College (later Columbia) because it was "more republican," the university's President Witherspoon would not let him take the accelerated program that he wanted, and so Hamilton entered King's College as a special student in the fall of 1773. While still a teenager he began to contribute articles on the patriot side of the deepening crisis with Great Britain--including, in 1774 and 1775, two long, impressive pamphlets, one of which is reprinted in this volume. With the outbreak of hostilities between Britain and the colonies in 1775, Hamilton at last had the war for which he had longed. By early 1776 he had become a captain of a New York artillery company.
After serving with distinction as an artillery officer with the Continental Army and impressing his superiors, Hamilton was promoted in March 1777 at the age of twenty to lieutenant colonel and appointed to the staff of the commander-in-chief, General George Washington, as an aide-de-camp. Washington took to the young man at once, and developed a fatherly affection toward him. Yet the relationship must have had its moments of tension, for Hamilton was much too touchy about his honor for it to remain harmonious. Early in 1781 Washington expressed some anger at Hamilton's ten-minute delay in presenting himself, saying, "I must tell you Sir that you treat me with disrespect." Hamilton declared that he was not conscious of any disrespect, but with his hair-trigger temper he resigned on the spot.
An hour later a remorseful Washington tried to patch things up, but the proud twenty-four-year-old Hamilton would have none of it. Hamilton stayed on Washington's staff until a replacement could be found, all the while pleading with the commander-in-chief to give him a field command. When he threatened to resign his commission, Washington finally relented, and at the end of July 1781 he awarded Hamilton the command of a New York light infantry battalion--just in time for the young commander to participate in the siege of Yorktown.
So eager was Hamilton to show his scorn for death and to earn military honor at Yorktown that he openly paraded his battalion in front of the enemy lines, leading one of his subordinate officers later to complain that Hamilton was an officer who "wantonly exposed the lives of his men." Finally, after more pleading, he was given his opportunity for glory, and on October 14, 1781 he led a successful bayonet night attack on a British redoubt. Naturally he was first over the enemy parapet, shouting for his men to follow.
Since he was raised in the West Indies and came to the North American continent as a teenager, Hamilton had little of the emotional attachment to a particular colony or state that the other Founders had. He was primed to think nationally, and from the outset of the Revolution he focused his attention on the government of the United States. As early as 1779-1780, even before the war was over, Hamilton was writing long and thoughtful letters to prominent Americans about the defects of the Confederation and the ways to reform it. Not only did Congress need the power to tax, he argued, but the government required "a proper executive." Congress itself could never exert "energy," a word that he and Washington both came to value. "It is impossible such a body, numerous as it is, constantly fluctuating, can ever act with sufficient decision or with system. Two thirds of the members, one half the time, cannot know what has gone before." These calls for a stronger central government were soon expanded and published in a New York newspaper in a series of impressive essays titled "The Continentalist." (Four of these pieces are included in this volume.)
In 1782, the New York assembly elected Hamilton, at the age of twenty-five, one of its representatives to the Confederation Congress. There he met James Madison of Virginia, and a fruitful collaboration for the strengthening of the national government was born. This partnership led from the stymied efforts to add to the powers of the Confederation in the early 1780s to the Annapolis Convention in 1786, and then to the Philadelphia Convention in 1787, and finally to the production of The Federalist, the eighty-five essays written in New York in 1787 and 1788 on behalf of the Constitution that have become a classic of American political thought. It was Hamilton who conceived of The Federalist and talked Madison and John Jay into helping him. Owing to illness, Jay wrote only five papers. Of the remainder, Madison wrote twenty-nine; Hamilton, fifty-one.
Although the hand of each author can often be uncovered under the pseudonym "Publius," it is remarkable how much the essays assume a consistent tone. The authors were not political theorists, but working politicians. They were trying to express not what they truly believed about the Constitution, but what would best counter the Anti-Federalists' arguments against it. During the convention, Hamilton had declared that the British government was "the best in the world" and that "he doubted much whether any thing short of it would do in America." In the ratification debates in 1787 and 1788, however, he hid whatever doubts he had about the Constitution and made the strongest case for it that he could. Far from being a threat to liberty, as the Anti-Federalists supposed, "the national government," he told the New York ratifying convention, "will be as natural a guardian of our freedom, as the state legislatures themselves." In hiding his true feelings about the Constitution, he was no different from Madison, the so-called "father of the Constitution," who believed at the end of the convention that the final document differed so much from his original plan that it would inevitably fail.
By 1789, when he was thirty-two, Hamilton was on the verge of his greatest accomplishments. He had risen fast and married well--to Elizabeth Schuyler, a daughter of one of the most important families of New York. He impressed everyone he met. Although he was short, about five foot seven, and slight in build, his excitable nature commanded attention, and men and women were readily attracted to him. To Catherine Schuyler, the youngest of the Schuyler sisters, he "exhibited a natural, yet unassuming superiority." With a "high expansive forehead, a nose of the Grecian mold, a dark bright eye, and the line of a mouth expressing decision and courage," he had "a face never to be forgotten." But it was his ready grasp of statecraft that really impressed. The worldly French politician and diplomat Talleyrand, who knew kings and emperors and spent some time in the United States in the mid-1790s as a refugee from the French Revolution, actually ranked Hamilton over Napoleon and William Pitt as the greatest statesman of the age.
In September 1789, President Washington appointed Hamilton secretary of the Treasury. It was almost a pre-ordained choice. Washington's confidants--including Robert Morris, "the financier of the Revolution"--knew that Hamilton was the best man for the job, but it was Washington who most wanted him at the Treasury. Like many Revolutionary army officers, Washington and Hamilton had experienced the war from the center and had developed a continental perspective, and a passion for the union, that neither of them ever lost. Although the two men shared a common outlook on the future of the United States, it was actually Washington's sensitive appreciation of his surrogate son's brilliance, together with his careful handling of Hamilton's extremely high-strung and arrogant nature, that ultimately made their very successful collaboration possible.
As secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton was the most important minister in the new administration, and nearly everyone now counted on him to straighten out the country's finances. In July 1789, the House of Representatives had established a Committee of Ways and Means to advise it on financial matters; but in September, six days after Hamilton was appointed secretary of the Treasury, the House discharged its Committee of Ways and Means, stating that it would instead rely on Hamilton for its financial knowledge. Not until 1795, after Hamilton had resigned from the Treasury Department, did the House re-establish its Ways and Means Committee.
In emulation of Britain's First Lord of the Treasury, Hamilton saw himself as a kind of prime minister to Washington's monarch-like presidency. He sometimes even talked about "my administration." He believed that "most of the important measures of every government are connected with the treasury," and so he felt justified in meddling in the affairs of the other departments, and in taking the lead in organizing and administering the government. He set out to do for America what early-eighteenth-century English governments had done in establishing England's remarkable commercial supremacy and war-making power.
Although Hamilton denied being a monarchist, Gouverneur Morris later recalled that he was "on Principle opposed to republican and attached to monarchical Government." Of course, he had no vested interest in the monarchical claims of blood. But he did value the kind of hierarchical society that sustained monarchy, and his model for the United States in the 1790s was certainly the monarchical government of England. More than any other American, he saw England's eighteenth-century experience as an object lesson for the new government of the United States, and he deliberately set out to duplicate England's great achievements in mobilizing resources for the waging of war.
By the eighteenth century, England had emerged from the chaos and the civil wars of the seventeenth century, which had killed one king and deposed another, to become the most dominant military and commercial power in the world. That this small island on the northern edge of Europe with one-fifth to one-third of the population of continental France was able to build the greatest empire since the fall of Rome was the miracle of the age, even surpassing the astonishing achievement of the Netherlands in the previous century. The eighteenth-century English "fiscal-military" state, in John Brewer's apt term, could mobilize wealth and wage war as no state in history ever had.
More specifically, England's centralized administration had developed an extraordinary capacity to tax and to borrow from its subjects without impoverishing them. Hamilton saw that the secret of the Hanoverian monarchy's success was its system of centralized tax collection and its funded national debt, together with its banking structure and its market in public securities. For a state to wage war successfully, it had to tax efficiently and to borrow cheaply. As secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton aimed to copy Britain's success and to transform the United States into a great power that would eventually rival Britain and the other European states on their own war-making terms.
Hamilton's financial program was truly breathtaking, particularly in light of the inexperience of eighteenth-century Americans with state power. Hamilton worked out his remarkable program in a series of four reports to Congress in 1790 and 1791: on credit (including duties and taxes), on a national bank, on a mint, and on manufactures. These reports, powerfully written and argued, are the source of much of Hamilton's greatness as a statesman. (This edition of his writings includes all but the report on the mint.)
Hamilton proposed that the United States government assume the obligation of paying not just the federal government's debts resulting from the Revolutionary War but all of the states' debts as well--with the expectation that the creditors would be weaned away from the states and attached to the new national government. But instead of the national government's immediately retiring either these assumed state debts or the Confederation's debts, he urged that it "fund" them--that is, transform them into a more or less permanent debt on which annual interest would be regularly paid. At the same time Hamilton proposed the creation of a national bank that could stabilize the credit of the United States and create money. Finally, he projected the eventual development of manufacturing in the United States not just to meet military requirements, but also to create a more diversified and prosperous economy that would be more self-reliant and less dependent on European supplies.
Although Hamilton's financial program was designed with rich people and moneyed interests in mind, it was not intended for their benefit. They would no doubt prosper from it, but that would be incidental to his plans. What he hoped to do was to use the new economic and fiscal measures to tie moneyed men and other influential individuals to the new central government. However much Hamilton contributed to the growth of American capitalism, he was anything but a businessman or an entrepreneur, and he should not be celebrated as the promoter of America's later business culture. He was an eighteenth-century gentleman who, like his fellow New Yorker Aaron Burr, practiced law on Wall Street only out of financial necessity. Hamilton was willing to grant businessmen and other ordinary working people their profits and their prosperity in order to make the country commercially strong, but it was aristocratic fame and glory that he wanted for himself and for the United States. In the eighteenth century, this could best be achieved by the successful waging of war.
Although Hamilton's funding programs had been susceptible to compromise, this seemed less likely with the bank. Both Jefferson and Madison believed that the creation of the bank was an unconstitutional usurpation of power; and their objections troubled Washington, who asked his secretary of the Treasury to write a rebuttal. Hamilton spent a week working out what became one of his masterful state papers. He carefully refuted the arguments of the bank's opponents and made a powerful case for a broad construction of the Constitution that has resounded through subsequent decades of American history. He argued that Congress's authority to charter a bank was implied by the clause in the Constitution that gave Congress the right to make all laws "necessary and proper" to carry out its delegated powers. The criterion of the constitutionality of any measure, he wrote, was the end to which the measure related as a means: "If the end be clearly comprehended within any of the specified powers, & if the measure have an obvious relation to that end, and is not forbidden by any particular provision of the constitution--it may safely be deemed to come within the compass of the national authority." Washington was convinced, and in February 1791 he signed the bank bill into law.
Few of his fellow statesmen understood finance or banking--John Adams believed that "every dollar of a bank bill that is issued beyond the quantity of gold and silver in the vaults, represents nothing, and is therefore a cheat upon somebody"--and so Hamilton's state papers sometimes assumed the exasperated tone of the sophisticated Wall Street lawyer explaining the intricacies of banks and credit to country bumpkins. Certainly no one was more confident of his abilities than Hamilton; but at the same time no one was more naive about the political impact of his policies. He seemed truly bewildered that his former collaborator Madison should become his principal opponent in Congress. When he began setting forth his financial program--in emulation of what Great Britain had done in the eighteenth century--Madison began voicing ever more strident opposition, and with the help of his friend Jefferson he began to organize the Republican Party, with the aim of countering what seemed to be Hamilton's monarch-like project. Soon the two former collaborators had become bitter political enemies.
Since Hamilton and Madison had very different ideas of what the new federal government should be, it is not surprising that they should eventually turn on each other. Hamilton envisioned the United States becoming a powerful nation like Great Britain and the other states of modern Europe--a state with a centralized bureaucracy, a professional standing army, and the capacity to wage war on equal terms with other nations. He saw himself as a realist in both domestic and foreign policy. (This is why a modern thinker such as Hans Morgenthau so admired Hamilton.) Hamilton had nothing but contempt for the pie-in-the-sky dreams of the Republican leaders that the natural sociability and the moral sense of people might substitute for self-interest and the force of government as adhesives in holding society together. And he was even more contemptuous of the Jeffersonian belief that republics were naturally pacific, and that economic sanctions of various sorts could replace military might in international affairs. Hamilton must have turned in his grave when in 1807-1808 the Jeffersonians embarked on their grand utopian experiment in "peaceful coercion"--their self-imposed embargo of all international American commerce in a futile effort to bring the European powers to their knees.
Madison was a good Jeffersonian and shared few of Hamilton's views. Madison in 1787 had wanted a strong national government, but the government that he had envisioned, with its bizarre power to veto all the laws of the states "in all cases whatsoever," was one that mainly would protect the rights of minorities and individuals from aggressive and unjust majorities in the states. By hoping that his national government would act as a "disinterested and dispassionate umpire in disputes between different passions and interests" in the various states, Madison had imagined the United States government playing the same super-political neutral role that the British king ideally had been supposed to play in the empire. He certainly had no plans to create a bureaucratic, war-making state like the monarchies of Europe.
Since the United States today more resembles Hamilton's vision of a modern war-making state than Madison's judicial-like world umpire, perhaps we ought to revise our estimate of who precisely deserves the title of "father of the Constitution." In any event, Madison and Jefferson were appalled at what Hamilton was doing, and they sought to use their Republican Party to stop him and his fellow Federalists from foisting a war-mongering monarchy on America. And this struggle over the nature of the national government turned the 1790s into one of the most passionate decades in American history.
Politics in such volatile circumstances could scarcely be normal, and intensely engaged men such as Hamilton sought desperately to protect their reputations from the ever-increasing scurrility and personal abuse of the time. The politics of the early national period, as Joanne B. Freeman, the editor of this volume of Hamilton's writings, has brilliantly demonstrated in her new book Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic, can be properly understood only within this culture of personal reputation and honor. Despite the emergence of political parties in the 1790s, politics still remained very much an aristocratic matter of individual loyalties and personal enmities subsumed by the gentlemanly code of honor. And at the heart of this code lay dueling.
Dueling was an elaborate political ritual. The negotiations of its particulars among principals and their seconds and friends often went on for weeks or even months. These complicated political procedures resulted in many duels, most of which did not end in exchanges of gunfire. Hamilton, acutely conscious of his honor and sensitive to every slight, was the principal in eleven affairs of honor during his lifetime. At one point during the heated struggle with the Jeffersonian Republicans over Jay's Treaty in 1795, he issued two challenges within minutes of each other and, waving his fist in the air, even offered "to fight the Whole `Detestable faction' one by one." Despite participating in all these affairs of honor, however, he actually exchanged fire in only one duel: his fatal duel with Aaron Burr in 1804.
In 1795, Hamilton left Washington's cabinet and returned to his Wall Street practice of law in order to make some money for his family, but he still continued to influence and even to control events in the capital. Washington's successor Adams retained the principal members of his Cabinet, who were more loyal to Hamilton than to the president. When in 1798 it seemed as if France might invade the United States, Adams was pressured into calling Washington out of retirement as commander of an army of tens of thousands. Washington reluctantly agreed, on the condition that Hamilton be made a major-general and the actual organizer and commander of the military forces. Adams was furious that Washington had compelled him to promote over the heads of more deserving men "the most restless, impatient, indefatigable and unprincipled intriguer in the United States, if not in the world to be second in command under himself."
It is Hamilton's behavior in this crisis that historians have most reproved. The Republicans thought that he intended to use the army against them. Hamilton certainly meant to suppress any domestic insurrection with a massive show of force. When rumors spread that Jefferson's and Madison's state was arming, he seemed eager to "put Virginia to the Test of resistance." When an uprising actually occurred in eastern Pennsylvania early in 1799, he told the secretary of war not to err by sending too few troops. "Whenever the Government appears in arms," he wrote, "it ought to appear like a Hercules, and inspire respect by the display of strength."
Hamilton believed that the crisis of 1798 offered an opportunity to create what he had long wanted for the government: a respectable standing army. Such a permanent force would enable the United States both "to subdue a refractory and powerful state" and to deal independently and equally with the warring powers of Europe. But a potent standing army was just the beginning of Hamilton's plans for strengthening the union. He wanted also to extend the judiciary, to build a system of roads and canals, to increase taxes, and to amend the Constitution so as to subdivide the larger states.
Beyond the borders of the United States, Hamilton's aims were even more grandiose. He thought that the war with France would enable the United States, in cooperation with Britain, to seize both Florida and Louisiana from Spain--in order to keep them out of the hands of France, he said. At the same time he held out the possibility of helping the Venezuelan patriot Francisco de Miranda to liberate South America. In all these endeavors, he told Rufus King, the American minister in Britain, in August 1798, America should be "the principal agency," especially in supplying the land army. "The command in this case would very naturally fall upon me--and I hope I should disappoint no favorable anticipation." (Unfortunately this revealing letter is not included in the Library of America volume.) More than anything, Hamilton wanted some of the honor and glory that would come to the United States as it assumed its rightful place in the world as a great power.
All these extravagant dreams collapsed with President Adams's new peace mission in 1799 and the end of the quasi-war with France. Many Americans, including the president, thought that Hamilton and the High Federalists had been bent on establishing a regal government allied with Britain, with Hamilton as its head. There is no evidence for such a view, but Hamilton's plans for an imperial America were certainly out of touch with the realities of his world in 1800. Two centuries later, however, these plans do not seem so bizarre. Hamilton would be right at home in our present-day United States and our present-day world. He would love our government's vast federal bureaucracy, its sprawling Pentagon, its enormous CIA, its huge public debt, its taxes beyond any he could have hoped for, and especially its large professional military force with well over one million men and women under arms spread across two oceans and dozens of countries. America has at last become the kind of superpower of which Hamilton could only dream.
Gordon S. Wood is university professor and professor of history at Brown University.
By Gordon S. Wood