Machiavellian or mastermind? Visionary or villain? Laudatory or lynch-worthy? The questions about the first US Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton, have always been divisive, because there's some truth behind each perspective, and your opinion of the man may ultimately come down to your current political affiliations.
The men and women of late-18th and early-19th Century America questioned or applauded Hamilton for his positions on issues that are, at their core, still many of the same ideas that Americans vote for and against every second year. In opening the debate on the interpretation of the powers that the US Constitution placed with the Federal government, he framed the question of Federalism, which continues to trouble Americans today and was the root of the Civil War. The man impacted all generations of Americans, and by working to ensure the country's place as an industrial giant, he changed the future internationally. Alexander Hamilton used his indubitably brilliant mind to reach through history and touch everyone in various ways.
So why should such an influential man be so abused by history? To many, he was a symbol of what America came to be the antithesis of. He distrusted the people to govern themselves, questioned American 'exceptionalism' and was pessimistic most of the time. Try running a candidate for public office who says that the United States and its citizens ain't that great after all; in any of the country's states, from California to North Carolina, from Florida to Ohio... that politician will lose. He will not only lose the election, he will get creamed, laughed at and spat upon.
Hamilton, who fought for the US Constitution, came to be accused of trying to tear down the government and install himself as a despot. He was scorned. The West Indian who never saw Europe and fought as a Patriot in the American Revolution came to represent the Anglophile tendencies of some Americans, just after a war was fought to rid the nation of British influence. So he was made into a villain. The illegitimate man born in poverty came to represent the aristocracy. And so he is remembered.
Learn to think continentally.
However, the story of old Hammie is ultimately the story of a man who could not find his place in life. He did not feel his contributions to his adoptive nation were recognized, and often felt persecuted. He was confused by women, and had trouble with them. He did not understand his enemies, and was angered by them. The facets of his mind were very diverse, and he shifted interests rapidly - at various times, he devoted himself to poetry, monetary policy, hunting, taxation, law, the abolition of slavery and Constitutional politics. He was constantly changing settings - his lives in the West Indies, Philadelphia, Albany and New York City were all very different. He had different arch-enemies every few years - George Clinton, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Aaron Burr to name a few. It's as if he couldn't get comfortable in one place or one position for too long; perhaps he could never be fulfilled. Alexander Hamilton was forever drifting, like a rolling stone.
'I Was Born... in a Crossfire Hurricane'
Well, a man has to start somewhere. Many of America's founders got their starts in regal estates or on wealthy plantations, but Hamilton pulled the short straw and ended up the poor son of a French Huguenot, Rachel Faucette, and a hapless son of Scottish nobility, James Hamilton in the West Indies. Due to a previous, extremely unhappy marriage, Rachel was unable to marry James, but they went ahead and had two boys. The first was given the first name of his father, and the second was named Alexander. At around the age of ten, Alexander found himself without a father when the elder James Hamilton abandoned the family. As the family moved to the isle of St Croix, they experienced a string of sad occurrences that would make Lemony Snicket sniffle. Young Alexander's beloved mother died, and then two successive guardians died shortly afterwards.
However, as improbable as it sounds, he experienced a streak of luck when a terrible hurricane hit the Caribbean on 31 August, 1772. Throughout all of his hardships, he had become an incredibly bright person, with intelligence that far outpaced his age. The hurricane exposed this intelligence when he published a dramatic account of the storm. When some of the folks on the island (who had just been hit by a hurricane and had their own lives harshly disrupted) saw this piece of writing, they pooled their money to send the boy to the British colonies on the mainland for an education.
In Another Land
A poor boy moves to a strange nation. One would assume that he would be slow to adjust, but Hamilton did not take long. He first arrived in Boston in late 1772, but left quickly for New York City to pick up the money for his education. He made friends with influential people there quickly. After a while, he decided to pick a university where he could study. With his network of contacts, Hamilton could have gone to virtually any college he wished. Oddly, he chose King's College (later called Columbia) in Manhattan, an institution dominated by monarchists and British loyalists. He apparently wasn't influenced by them, though, for on 6 July, 1774, a little while after the Boston Tea Party1, he delivered a stirring patriotic speech to the radical Patriot militant group The Sons of Liberty. His status in the Patriotic community rose steadily after this.
As tensions between the colonies and Britain rose, New York City patriots found themselves without a champion of the written word to articulate their cause. Of course, at that time, there were no TV attack ads and no bumper stickers. The primary tool used to sway public opinion was the pamphlet. Hamilton quickly became the leading Patriotic pamphleteer in New York. This was his first journey into the mire of public controversy. He got a bit bogged down there, and he would eventually become arguably the foremost pamphlet writer of his time.
Street Fighting Man
Everywhere I hear the sound of marching, charging feet, boy
'cause summer’s here and the time is right for fighting in the street, boy
But what can a poor boy do
Except to sing for a rock 'n' roll band
'cause in sleepy London town
There's just no place for a street fighting man
-The opening of 'Street Fighting Man' by the Rolling Stones
The above quote explains Hamilton's situation fairly well (except the rock and roll part; Hamilton enjoyed a good piano concerto and a classical jam session now and then, but rock and roll wouldn't happen for a while). He was essentially a poor young man (with some good connections) who had a sense that he should do something about the injustices he believed were being perpetrated by Britain on his new homeland. He got caught up in the march of the Patriots and took to fighting with them.
With his powerful friends, though, Hamilton ended up leading the marching, charging feet of the soldiers. He left his studies and became an artillery captain in the New York Provincial Army, efficiently and impressively commanding some 68 men. His wartime experience would prove that, unlike some prominent political figures, he was not only an intellectual Patriot. He talked the talk and walked the walk and chewed bubble-gum all at the same time. During his busy time in the military, he managed to churn out a series of Patriotic essays entitled The Monitor.
During the winter of 1776-1777, Hamilton was noticed by a Virginian General named George Washington, who invited him to come into his staff as an aide-de-camp. Hamilton preferred being in the thick of the action but saw the value of hitching his star to Washington's, and reluctantly accepted the job. Hamilton used his organizational skills and flair for details (bordering on the anal-retentive sometimes) to be leader of the staff - which Washington called his 'family'. In fact, Hamilton made up a surrogate family from people he met during the war - the Marquis de Lafayette, Baron von Steuben, James McHenry and John Laurens were all special friends. Washington himself would come to be like a father to the young man.
Like Washington's second brain, Hamilton wrote letters, issued orders and basically served as a Chief of Staff, but without the title. Occasionally he got to see some action. He participated in the Battle of Monmouth and eventually helped strike a decisive blow against the British at Yorktown. He happened to witness the historic moment when American General Benedict Arnold was exposed as a traitor, and was sent to chase after him. Perhaps most important to Hamilton was that he met and married Eliza Schuyler during this time. She was a kind, steady soul who happened to be a member of one of New York's most powerful political families. They were married on 14 December, 1780.
On 16 February, 1781, after about four years of service, Hamilton and Washington had an altercation, and he decided to resign his post. After he served another stint as an officer in the military, the war ended and Hamilton needed to get another job.
Hamilton, who was a skilled orator and extremely pedantic, seems to have been well-suited for the profession of law. After studying and receiving a law degree, he did not get to practice law. He was made New York tax collector, and then spent some time lobbying the New York assembly about the virtues of a strong central government. He wanted to amend, or perhaps do away, with the Articles of Confederation, which were the government in the United States following the Revolution. The Articles were a system that handed most of the power to the states with a very weak sort-of-President. Hamilton was then elected as a New York delegate to the Continental Congress, but he didn't do very much really, and returned in 1783 to practice law. For a short time, he tempted the wrath of the Revolutionary majority for daring to defend British loyalists in court. He rather bravely fought against their persecution.
In 1786 he took a seat in the New York assembly, and was sent to a convention in Annapolis to work out a trade dispute. It was there that he first met Virginian James Madison. It was also where a resolution (authored by Hamilton) was passed that called for another convention to be held in Philadelphia to fix the Articles of Confederation.
Start Me Up
After a government is toppled, a revolution is only half complete. The other half is setting up a permanent new government, and Hamilton was interested in all parts of this American revolution. New York sent him as a delegate to what would become known as the Constitutional Convention. He was uncharacteristically quiet there, but occasionally spoke out against slavery or whatever was on his mind. Eventually, the other two New York delegates left in protest. When a new Constitution was written up, Hamilton's name was the only one in the New York row.
After the Constitutional convention, the product had to be ratified by the states. It gave Hamilton the opportunity for a political fight - something he savoured. His weapon was the pen, and his army consisted of one Virginian, one New Yorker and himself. With the help of James Madison and John Jay, he wrote The Federalist Papers under the pseudonym 'Publius'. In them, he advocated support for the Constitution, definitively explaining every detail of the government. They were published in the New York newspapers, though Virginia was inundated with copies of the essays as well, courtesy of Madison. In the end, there were 85 essays published - 51 by Hamilton, 29 written by Madison and five by Jay. The Federalist Papers has become one of the most influential political documents in American history, having been quoted some 291 times in US Supreme Court decisions by the year 2000. Even today, it is the best guide to the American political system's conception. Consequently, New York City became a predominately Federalist area, though upstate New York was still anti-Federalist.
When the New York ratifying convention came around, Hamilton had a seat in it, but there were more anti-Federalists than Federalists. Through his genius and some clever stalling techniques, Hamilton almost single-handedly got the Constitution ratified in New York. When Hamilton went back to New York City, he was treated as a hero. That day, a parade was held, largely in his honour - a testament to how the power of the words of 'Publius' had convinced New Yorkers of the Constitution's merits.
'I'm a Man of Wealth and Taste...'
George Washington was elected as the first President of the United States, and Hamilton took the job of Treasury Secretary in the new Cabinet. The Secretary of War was Henry Knox and the Secretary of State was, to Washington's later regret, Thomas Jefferson. Hamilton was the principal advisor of President Washington. Over time, Jefferson and his allies became convinced that Washington was a puppet of Hamilton, to which this Researcher says 'poppycock'. Washington overruled and rebuked Hamilton when they disagreed. It just so happened that they agreed more often than not because their political ideologies matched up well.
Hamilton was a busy boy at the Treasury Department - the most important department at that time, which grew to be several times the size of the State and War Departments combined. Hamilton wrote a summary on American debt for the US Congress, recommending that the Federal government assume the debts of the states from the war and use tariff income to pay for them. James Madison, now floor leader of the House of Representatives, and Thomas Jefferson, who were now allies, opposed this plan but ended up endorsing it in exchange for Hamilton's support in putting the permanent US capital near Virginia. Hamilton also worked to encourage manufacturing, instituted a controversial national bank and started the Coast Guard. His economic and fiduciary strategies worked well and helped start the nation off on a sound footing. To help pay for some of his programmes, he had to enact a tax on distilled spirits - called the whiskey tax.
Hamilton proved to be a political juggernaut during Washington's term in office. He was much beloved by New England and Middle Atlantic merchants, but hated by southerners. In fact, almost all of his proposals were hated by southerners and liked by northerners. It wasn't because he was trying to harm southerners that he pushed these pieces of legislation, it just so happened that they hated most ideas he thought would be successful. While he was becoming the 800-pound gorilla of American politics, he was also waxing polemic. He deserves as much blame as anyone for the rise of political parties in America, because his divisive policies exposed the rifts between the American people. Those who preferred a strong national government, including Hamilton, would call themselves Federalists, and the Jeffersonians who preferred for the power to rest with the states, called themselves Republicans.
Martha Washington occasionally was able to observe Alexander Hamilton's ability to flirt with and charm women. In his honour, she named her fat, horny tomcat 'Hamilton'.
In 1794 Philadelphia, the human-tomcat Hamilton began an affair with a woman named Maria Reynolds. Her husband blackmailed him, and eventually he broke off the liaison for fear of political problems. The public was not aware of the affair for some time. Without burdening the reader with too many details, it must be said that this affair was a very bad idea for such a smart man.
You Can't Always Get What You Want
I feel that I merit them2 in no degree, and expressions of indignation sometimes escape me in spite of every effort to suppress them.
-Hamilton, in a letter to Washington
Most people don't know that America fought a war in 1792. Madison and Jefferson virtually declared political war on Hamilton. Madison and Jefferson may have been the inventors of the talking point - they repeatedly and consistently accused Hamilton of being a monarchist and in favour of aristocracy. Always sensitive about public personal attacks on his character, Hamilton was compelled to always return fire with an endless supply of pamphlets with Roman pseudonyms authoring them. He didn't like personal attacks and wanted the issues to be debated. However, he didn't get that.
It gets a bit repetitive and tedious after this, and it all amounts to some children in a back seat of a car calling each other 'poop head', followed with a spirited bout of 'I know you are, but what am I?'. Washington would be the parent with a severe headache driving, telling the kids to shut up, with Hamilton bitterly saying 'Well, he started it!' Little Tommy would ask daddy in the front seat whom he loved more, and though Washington knew he loved little Alex more, he said he loved them both equally. Washington was quite worried most of the time that he would get distracted and run the car into a maple tree. Of course, this was long before family trips to Disney World, so these brilliant politicians did not have the benefit of this perspective to see how ridiculous they were acting.
In 1792, Washington was re-elected, and Hamilton had his first political conflict with a Republican lawyer named Aaron Burr during state elections in New York. Hamilton still faced criticism from Republicans; the House of Representatives, led by Madison, tried to overwork him by asking for long reports with short deadlines, and they investigated charges of corruption in the Treasury Department. With his usual energetic spirit, Hamilton somehow met the deadlines, and was vindicated beyond doubt. However, the mood eventually got so partisan that in 1793, when Hamilton contracted yellow fever during an epidemic, Jefferson accused him of faking the disease, and different Federalist and Republican methods eventually developed on how to treat yellow fever. However, 1793 was mostly good for Hamilton; for one thing, Jefferson resigned from the Cabinet at the end of the year.
With Jefferson gone, Hamilton exerted a stronger influence on foreign affairs, but allegations that he wanted Britain to control America again surfaced. One story said that he was an agent for the British government because he had been assigned a number to identify him during secret negotiations - 7. One could do worse than be the 18th Century James Bond, of course. In fact, Hamilton preferred Britain as a strong partner to the US because it was best suited to be the principal trading partner to the new nation. Republicans preferred France because of the bond they had formed during the Revolution. When Britain started harassing American ships, Washington sent John Jay as an ambassador to London, and he came back with a treaty that was wildly unpopular, which Hamilton was later forced to defend. Hamilton was sticking his nose into diplomacy, and acting like a Secretary of State.
When a rebellion protesting the unpopular whiskey tax erupted in Pennsylvania, Hamilton had no trouble usurping the role of Secretary of War as well, and accompanied Washington to help put it down with force.
'I'm Moving On'
Eliza Hamilton had a miscarriage shortly after the Whiskey Rebellion, and since Hamilton felt bad about his affair with Maria Reynolds, he wanted to devote more time to family and ended up resigning his post. He must have wanted to remove himself from the partisan rancour, but he also wanted to be near his family, and to earn a decent wage, so he went back to practicing law. Hamilton left behind him a nation with strong finances, a thriving capitalist economy, a record of personal integrity, a strong national government, and a strong executive branch in it.
However, he couldn't stay out of politics entirely. After he supposedly retired, he published 28 essays defending the Jay Treaty, helped author Washington's famous Farewell Address, and was active in the Presidential election of 1796, writing a series of essays attacking both Republican candidate Jefferson and Federalist candidate John Adams. Adams and Hamilton didn't get along very well, despite being in the same party. Oddly, Adams decided to use the same Cabinet that Washington had used, even though it was filled with Hamilton supporters. Hamilton kept quite a bit of influence in the Adams administration through the Cabinet, but feuded with Adams personally.
Just about then, the Maria Reynolds affair surfaced publicly. For whatever reason, Hamilton published a complete, excruciatingly detailed account of the affair. It damaged his career quite a bit and helped speed his decline. Though obviously bothered by this, his wife Eliza (very much the Tammy Wynette of her time) stood by her man.
During the period of the Quasi-War with France, America prepared an army and Hamilton was appointed as its Inspector General, under Washington. Hamilton worked hard at making the army a reputable fighting force, and did most of the work because Washington was old. But alas, Hamilton saw no military glory and the army was disbanded without one battle. This army was unpopular with the people, and the Federalists began to lose ground politically, so they instituted the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts, which were intended to give their party an electoral advantage by curtailing free speech, the free press and immigration. Hamilton, himself an immigrant who tested the limits of free speech at times, supported this measure. It was one of the many lapses of judgment that Hamilton experienced around this time. He was bothered by scandal and a loss of power, and was sinking into a depression. Additionally, Washington died in late 1799, which meant the loss of a great friend, supporter and an advisor. When they worked together or corresponded, Washington served as the steady, experienced person who kept Hamilton from cooking up crackpot schemes and doing silly things. With him gone, Hamilton was free to make silly, stupid choices.
Would you like an example? Hamilton and Adams continued to feud, and during the election of 1800, in which Adams faced a tough challenge from Jefferson, Hamilton wrote a long criticism of the Adams administration that damaged the Federalist party terribly. Hamilton was more willing to put Jefferson in office than Adams, and once said 'If we must have an enemy at the head of the government, let it be one whom we can oppose and for whom we are not responsible.' He thought that he could drive the Federalist party to the ground, and then pick up the pieces. Silly.
'I Can't Get No... Satisfaction'
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
-From Shakespeare's Julius Caesar
Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton were not as different as they sometimes seem to be. They were both ambitious, intelligent New Yorkers who were protective of their honour. They always got along very well socially. Since Burr had no steady principles to speak of (which is what irked Hamilton about Burr), his beliefs can't be compared to Hamilton's principles, but at points, it looked like they might have agreed with each other on lots of things. But when Burr tried to deliver New York's electoral votes to the Republicans in the election of 1800, Hamilton proved that they were very much different. Despite Hamilton's efforts, Burr succeeded in delivering New York to the Republicans.
For his efforts, Burr was given the Republican Vice Presidential nomination. The Republican ticket beat the Federalists comfortably in the election of 1800. Oddly enough, though, Jefferson and Burr received the same number of electoral votes, and neither candidate received a majority, so, constitutionally, the outgoing House of Representatives was supposed to pick between Burr and Jefferson. The outgoing House of Representatives was dominated by Federalists, which placed them in a unique position. The Federalists had been crushed in the election, but they got to choose who would be the next President of the United States. Most Federalists were going to back Burr, but Hamilton thought that Jefferson was the lesser of the two evils, and threw what was left of his political influence behind him. Hamilton considered Jefferson to at least be a man of principles and ability, even if they disagreed about most things. Though he liked Burr more personally, he thought he would be dangerous for the country. Hamilton's opinion of Burr would be validated by history, as Burr would eventually go off to try to create some sort of a Mexican empire.
In the end, Jefferson owed his election to the presidency to Hamilton as much as anyone, and his popularity depended largely on the foreign policy success of the John Adams administration and the economic success of Hamilton's programs. Burr ended up as Vice President - a notoriously uninteresting and unimportant job. He was shunned by his own party and disliked by the Federalists, so he increasingly became politically irrelevant. Hamilton also lost almost all of his political lustre, and retreated to a country home north of Manhattan that he called The Grange. He spent more time with his children, but couldn't resist politics. He wrote about local and national politics, and helped found the New York Evening Post, a Federalist newspaper, which became his weapon of choice for resisting Jefferson's popularity. However, one of the first stories that the paper reported was that Hamilton's eldest son Philip died in a duel, defending his father's work as Treasury Secretary. After this, Alexander Hamilton was never the same, more depressed than ever and unable to do much work.
Burr was as politically weak as Hamilton, and they became obstacles to each other's political rebirth. Burr considered creating an alliance of disgruntled Federalists and Republicans to put him into power, and had a goal of creating a breakaway confederacy of New York and New England. Hamilton, who wanted to lead the Federalists himself and wanted the union to be preserved, tried to stop this. Burr tried to stop Hamilton from running the Federalist party once again. Republicans who hated both men stoked the flames of their rivalry, until eventually a melting point was reached. Federalists in New York, seeing no point in nominating their own candidate, backed Republican Burr for the governorship of the state. Hamilton had to back a different Republican candidate that he despised less and campaigned against Burr. He also quietly spoke in private about Burr's lack of principles. Burr was soundly defeated, and would have been even without Hamilton's opposition, but Burr blamed Hamilton for his loss. He now blamed Hamilton for keeping him from both the Presidency and from the Governorship, and when he got wind of insults that Hamilton had privately made of him, he was even more enraged.
Burr had been humiliated by his electoral defeats. He had lost the Presidency, then was not nominated for a second term as Vice President, and finally was defeated in his home state for the Governorship. His pride and sense of honour were greatly diminished. One way to recapture his former glory was to blame Hamilton, and to settle an affair of honour with the man - and he did so, by sending a strongly worded note to Hamilton's law office, asking for a denial or acknowledgement that he had voiced his unfavourable opinion of Burr to others. In the end, this affair of honour was about power and politics, not rumours and dignity. At a time when political parties were little more than personality cults, and the leadership of the Federalist party was open, the stakes were high for Burr and Hamilton.
Naturally, Hamilton accepted a challenge to duel. He was fiercely protective of his reputation, and realistically didn't think that any bullets would be fired if he negotiated intelligently. He did not wish to compromise on Burr's terms, though, and negotiations broke down. Burr's demands were unrealistic, and it almost seems that he was trying to arrange a physical confrontation rather than settling an issue of honour. A duel was set up for the distant future, giving Hamilton enough time to work out his professional and personal affairs.
Hamilton decided that when the duel would come, he would give up his shots, and intentionally miss Burr - not only because he didn't have any desire to kill Burr, but he also thought that it was a gentlemanly thing to do. He was betting that Burr wouldn't shoot to kill, because he would be killing his political future along with Hamilton. Some have said that Burr, already a pretty good shot, practiced shooting targets with pistols before the duel. Oddly enough, though Hamilton believed he would survive the duel, he spent a good amount of time drawing up farewell letters and making arrangements in case he should die. Some say that Hamilton wanted to die as a martyr, and some suspect that he was so depressed that the duel was an act of suicide. However, he wasn't gloomy or scared leading up to the duel, so he was probably just being cautious, as ever.
The duel took place on 11 July, 1804 in Weehawken, New Jersey (New Jersey was known to look the other way on duels and not prosecute the offenders). At 7.00am, the affair commenced. Hamilton's second, Nathaniel Pendleton, asked if the parties were ready, and they said yes. He then said 'Present', and though there is some controversy over who fired first, Hamilton's shot went into the air and hit a tree, as he intended. However, Burr's bullet met its mark, in Hamilton's abdomen. Hamilton was carried to a friend's home in a shocked New York City - the city he loved so much.
Paint it Black
Eliza was summoned from The Grange, and friends, family and clergy trickled past Hamilton. He was lucid for quite a while after the duel, and was supposedly quite eloquent. He forgave Burr and spoke of how he hated duelling, and actually spoke a bit about politics, saying that 'if they break this union, they will break my heart'. Alexander Hamilton died at 2.00am on Thursday, 12 July, 1804. He left behind an incredible legacy, seven children and a loving wife.
His legacy was that of an America with a good start towards becoming a powerful, industrial nation. He also helped bring about the two-party political system, and strengthened the Federal government. He is often considered the father of American capitalism; he was honoured with a statue of him in the heart of New York's financial district, and when his face was put on the ten-dollar bill.
His children were to struggle to survive under the considerable weight of Hamilton's debts, without the income from his law practice. Hamilton did feel badly when he suspected that his family might not be well off if he died. They did not remember that, though. They remembered the nights he devoted to family and the tenderness he showed them in his later years. Eliza lived on 50 years after Hamilton died, and was always protective of her memory of him. She treasured the things that he had left behind, and tried to paint Hamilton in rosy colours for the history books. Because he wasn't around to defend himself, though, his legacy and life were painted in darker tones by his enemies. One of the things that Hamilton left behind for Eliza was a note to be delivered to her in case he died in the duel:
This letter, my very dear Eliza, will not be delivered to you, unless I shall first have terminated my earthly career; to begin, as I humbly hope from redeeming grace and divine mercy, a happy immortality.
If it had been possible for me to have avoided the interview, my love for you and my precious children would have been alone a decisive motive. But it was not possible, without sacrifices which would have rendered me unworthy of your esteem. I need not tell you of the pangs I feel, from the idea of quitting you and exposing you to the anguish which I know you would feel. Nor could I dwell on the topic lest it should unman me.
The consolations of Religion, my beloved, can alone support you; and these you have a right to enjoy. Fly to the bosom of your God and be comforted. With my last idea, I shall cherish the sweet hope of meeting you in a better world. Adieu best of wives and best of women. Embrace all my Darling Children for me.Ever yours