I recently received an e-mail from a friend talking about: the title of this post. I responded to Jack’s article thus:
Thanks Jack. Over the years I have studied the Federalist Papers and the folks who wrote them; in particular Hamilton. Yes indeed, they warned of the type of leaders we have today in the form of Barack Obama, and they wrote of how the Constitution was crafted to guard against such leaders. It would seem that few of the voting public learns of such men as Hamilton, Washington, Madison and others of that founding era.
(If another bust is put up on Mt. Rushmore, I would vote for Hamilton.)
Jack came back with:
Interesting, Don. I’d like to hear your case for Hamilton. I always distrusted him a bit as too much of an advocate for central government powers and taxation. He’s also the architect of the “sin tax” on whiskey that led to the Whiskey Rebellion. But maybe that is just my personal issue because I hail from Western Pennsylvania and enjoy a good snort every now and then.
And this is my response to Jack:
* * * *
It’s been a number of years now since I read the great biography Hamilton by Ron Chernow – I actually read it twice. It was in this book that I discovered Hamilton, and a wealth of early American history; and though time has dimmed that discovery, there are some general themes that have stuck in my mind so let me see if I can recall some of them.
The man Hamilton came from humble beginnings as the bastard child of a father that abandoned the family when young Alexander was about 8 years old as I recall. But the young lad showed such worth and promise to the owner-manager of the sugar plantation in a mall Caribbean island that he sent the (by then teenager) to New York City for an education in hopes of him one day taking over the business.
Alexander arrived in NYC about the time of much agitation for independence and became involved in the rebel’s cause.
As the war began, Hamilton quickly came alongside General Washington, and as a young man (I think he was about 19 at the time) became one of Washington’s most trusted aides and advisors. Over the course of the war, Hamilton became Washington’s most trusted advisor. So it impressed me that this man had the ear of the man many have called the indispensable man in American history. Hamilton chaffed at being so closely tethered to Washington and longed to fight the battle on his own merits, but was rebuffed time and again by Washington. Eventually Washington relented and Hamilton was given his own military command and was a key participant in the final victory over the British general Cornwallis at Yorktown.
Following the war, Hamilton became somewhat of a successful business man, or lawyer, I can’t remember which, but kept his hand in the political world of the new nation as well.
When the Constitutional Convention convened in Philadelphia, Hamilton was there as a representative of New York. His contributions there were minimal as he was very much in a minority in that delegation and his efforts, ideas and votes were countered and marginalized by the other two NY delegates who had contrary opinions. His one speech of note left people with the impression that Hamilton favored a monarchial for of government, although I believe his subsequent work on the Federalist Papers and as Secretary of the Treasury belie that view of him though it tarnished his reputation in future years.
Similar to Madison who studied the rise and fall of republics throughout history, and came to the convention armed with much knowledge and history of various forms of political structures, Hamilton studied economic history and philosophy and came to the convention armed with much knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of various economic schemes.
When George Washington was elected as the first president of the new nation he selected two prominent men to key positions in his administration; Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State, and Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury. The two men came into the Washington administration to quite different effect; Hamilton came prepared on day 1 with ideas, plans and staff and set off to structure the American financial and economic landscape according to those ideas and plans. His work was deep and long-lasting, and included setting up of import-export tariff structures, starting up the Coast Guard and a series of costal lighthouses. Among Hamilton’s chief, and most controversial accomplishments was in tackling the massive debt accumulated during the war. This plan made him plenty of enemies, but settled the debt issue and established the faith and credit of the new nation among foreign nations. I’m going to have to revisit his plan someday; the details escape me now, but are worth looking into.
Another of Hamilton’s successes was to counter Jefferson’s fascination with and inclination to side with the French as opposed to the British in foreign affairs. Hamilton made the point that the new American nation was more naturally inclined toward the British in terms of culture, historical heritage, trade and economic structures.
Jefferson’s entry into the Washington administration was quite different; he was months late getting started and came ill prepared with little staff, few ideas and an inclination towards the French in foreign affairs.
Throughout President Washington’s two terms in office, he once more relied heavily on Hamilton as his key advisor as he had done during the war, and there was a fair amount of friction between Hamilton and Jefferson. Washington, more often than not, sided with Hamilton, even in questions of foreign affairs.
I came away from the Chernow book with a great deal of admiration for Hamilton, and a great deal of disappointment with Jefferson. As well, I came away with a greater understanding and appreciation of Washington, the war, the problems with the Continental Congress and the Articles of Confederation. I’m just glad the Washington listened to Hamilton and not Jefferson. I’m not anti-Jefferson; it’s just that during this period he doesn’t appear to have acquitted himself well at all.
I might also point out that Hamilton and Washington fought an 8 year war while suffering often times from an ineffectual, weak and unsupportive Continental Congress. They both learned firsthand the necessity of a strong, but limited, central government.
Along with the Chernow book, I’ve read the Federalist Papers and several books about the Federalist and came away with just an awesome respect for Hamilton and Madison and their grasp of the nature of man and the nature of government. Would that more people these days study these ideas and issues that plague mankind in all eras.
In more recent years I’ve read another history on Hamilton and Jefferson; Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth by Stephen F. Knott. This history is a story of the feud between Hamilton and Jefferson that has persisted to modern times. Quite an interesting read. Another good read by Knott is Rush to Judgment: George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and His Critics.
So there you have it. And thanks for prodding my memory, as dim as it is becoming.
An interesting aside to Jefferson and Hamilton: “We honor Jefferson,” columnist George Will once wryly observed, “but live in Hamilton’s country.”
Don Johnson – November 2013