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Alexander Hamilton: precocious & preeminent.

Richard Brookhiser, the author of Rediscovering George Washington (1996), has intruded again upon the specious present, holding up for praise the character and achievements of Alexander Hamilton.(1) "He is a great man" Brookhiser writes, "a great American" not simply because he was a political prodigy who became, at thirty-two, America's first Secretary of the Treasury, or because of his preeminence among the other cabinet officers, the de facto first minister of the founding administration. The key to Hamilton's greatness, according to Brookhiser, was magnanimity. As the architect of comprehensive programs of economic growth and national institution building, Hamilton designed "ways to bring light to the talents of other men as well as himself." His pathbreaking policies, though not populist, "would enable his countrymen to become conscious of their resources" and thereby enrich not only their own lives but also the lives of their communities and the nation as a whole.

Unlike many who claim a Horatio Algerlike rise from obscurity, Hamilton really was the proverbial self-made man. Born in 1757 (or perhaps 1755), the illegitimate son of a feckless Scot and another man's wife, he spent his early years in the slave and sugar culture of the West Indies. His father abandoned his errant mother when Hamilton was nine, and young Alexander was then apprenticed to an export-import merchant at Christiansted; two years later, his mother's death left him on his own. He immigrated to the colonies when he was fifteen and was educated at King's College (now Columbia University). Within two decades this enterprising young man rose from utter obscurity to become one of the most celebrated American statesman in the history of the republic. Having learned early on to love Plutarch, Hamilton, it seems, was ever guided by Demosthenes: "Wise politicians march at the head of affairs," rarely awaiting "the event, to know what measures to take; but the measures which they have taken, ought to produce the event."

Hamilton's nationalist measures regarding economic and foreign policy--implemented over opposition by the states' right party of Jefferson--helped to fuel the economic boom enjoyed by the administrations of Presidents Washington and Adams. Hamilton had carefully designed his legislative program to give energy and credibility to the new Constitution and prosperity to its economic institutions. He, more than anyone, had breathed life into the constitutional experiment with his contributions to The Federalist Papers. Thomas Jefferson himself, ever the jealous author, called them "the best commentary on the principles of government which was ever written." But unlike Jefferson, who preened himself on his authorship of the Declaration of Independence, Hamilton wrote his portion of The Federalist (two-thirds of the total) anonymously. No one who has read carefully in the history of state and congressional legislative irresponsibility, and studied the catastrophic inflation of the era of the Articles of Confederation, can fail to be impressed by the economic prosperity set off by the Hamiltonian economic plan for the new republic.

But this was only the middle chapter of Hamilton's life. By the time of his death in 1804--the result of a duel with Aaron Burr --Hamilton was acknowledged by the judiciary and the Bar of New York as its first lawyer and the most effective advocate of a free press in New York. To him and his colleagues at the bar and the bench had also fallen the task of developing the new commercial law, absolutely indispensable to the effective functioning of growth-oriented free markets. Hamilton's commercial vision of diversified American economic opportunity was of a piece with his first principles of political economy. As Brookhiser reminds us, he was not only a political economist in the tradition of David Hume and Adam Smith, he was also a commercial entrepreneur, helping to found the Bank of New York (a success), an immense manufacturing enterprise on the banks of the Passaic River (a failure), and, of course, the New York Post (another success) of which he was the premier journalist.

Even in the austere testimony of the great judges of that era, Hamilton was regarded as an inspired lawgiver, the supreme advocate of the new Constitution. Chancellor Kent, the American Blackstone, thought him without peer: "He rose at once to the loftiest heights of professional eminence, by his profound penetration,... the firmness, frankness, and integrity of his character." Ambrose Spencer, a distinguished judge in New York, was often in conflict with Hamilton, but he nonetheless regarded him as "the greatest man this country has produced. I saw him at the bar and at home. He argued cases before me. In creative power Hamilton was infinitely [Senator Daniel] Webster's superior. It was he, more than any other man, who thought out the Constitution of the United States and the details of the government of the Union." These representative judgments about Hamilton's character and achievements by his peers in New York suggest the exalted place that Hamilton occupied in the minds of many contemporaries. As Brookhiser reminds us in his compelling narrative, Hamilton, an immigrant to Manhattan, became quintessentially a New Yorker: bright, inquisitive, enterprising. He is the New Yorker whose contribution to the founding of the republic put New York at parity with what Brookhiser called "the glory that was Boston and the grandeur that was Virginia."

Having grown up in the Caribbean slave culture where black slaves outnumbered white masters by a margin of ten to one, Hamilton must have developed an early intuition of the advanced views he exhibited as a young man. In 1777, while serving on General Washington's staff, Colonel Hamilton and his friend Henry Laurens sponsored a plan to raise black battalions in South Carolina and "to give them their freedom with their muskets." Hamilton argued that the then prevailing prejudice against blacks "makes us fancy many things that are founded neither in reason nor experience." Instead, Hamilton based his argument about blacks upon the equality principle: "their natural faculties are probably as good as ours" merely suppressed from "want of cultivation." This view he set out unselfconsciously and forthrightly in a letter to John Jay, the President of the Continental Congress. Hamilton was but twenty-two, into his third year as the central figure of the Commander-in-Chief's general staff. Hamilton could not be moved from his anti-slavery position; he went on to advocate it in anti-slavery circles in New York after the revolution.

There is so much more to this precocious immigrant--the luminous intellect he developed in but four years of formal education, the bravery he exhibited in the Battle of Monmouth, the battlefield leadership he showed with his brigade. Sword drawn, he was the first over the parapet and into the redoubt at the ultimate victory of Yorktown.

Now, if Brookhiser's thesis that Hamilton was a great man is borne out in the fascinating pages of his analytical narrative, whereto, we must ask, has the great man disappeared? Into whose vortex has history swallowed him up, and by what mechanism? It is too plain to point to the Adams family and the venerable tradition of their gifted historians and friends. Therein we find variations on a theme played out by the dyspeptic and volatile President John Adams, whose jealousy of Hamilton allowed his Christian conscience to let loose with the immortal epithet by which he characterized the West Indian immigrant: the "bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar." It would also be too straightforward to point to the astonishing power of the Jeffersonian hagiographers whose inspiration has been drawn from the prodigious scholarly work of C. M. Wiltse, Merrill Jensen, and Dumas Malone, among others. These were indefatigable scholars who took their cue from their idol himself, Mr. Jefferson, who declared Hamilton a "true colossus" but whose career Jefferson said, "from the moment ... history can stoop to notice him," issued in "a tissue of machinations against the liberty of his country."

Hamilton most assuredly had his flaws, and, like his talents, they were outsized. But still, if Brookhiser is right in describing him as a great man, why have historians concentrated on his errors and flaws rather than his remarkable achievements? In fact, Brookhiser's account of Hamilton's legacy is nothing less than the authentication of a great deed of statecraft-- of nation-building. Moreover, no reasonable scholar can dispute the fact that most of Hamilton's plan as Secretary of the Treasury had been well-crafted. Paradoxically, while he rebuilt the wellsprings of the wealth of his adopted nation, he manifestly cared nothing for riches himself. Born poor, he died poor. His ambitions were for fame, sought in the leadership of his country, designed in policies aimed at creating a unified nation--rich, powerful, well-respected.

Even his antagonists conceded, and Jefferson lamented, that Hamilton had founded the lasting financial institutions of his country, thereby giving life to the fragile fabric of the Constitution and the Federal Union, mobilizing the requisite energy in the executive to raise the federal government from the lethargy of the Articles of Confederation. He originated the tax system, the banking system, even the detailed procedures of the tariff and customs measures, which financed the new federal government. Over Jefferson's and Madison's resistance he oversaw the consolidation and refinancing of the enormous and debilitating public debt, which led, at the creation of the republic, to a vibrant organism of a solvent government--all but nullifying for a time, under the aegis of President Washington, the centrifugal forces of state autonomy. Hamilton also formulated the arguments for the liberal construction of the implied powers of the Constitution which were relied upon by our greatest Chief Justice, John Marshall, who held Alexander Hamilton to be, after Washington, the first man of his age. Next to Hamilton, Marshall felt himself to be but a candle "beside the sun at noonday."

It was not surprising that President Washington asked Hamilton to be his first Chief Justice, a position he declined. In the words of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, the leading scholar-politician of a later era, Hamilton "was the embodiment of nationality." This was a decisive idea at the crucial moment when "the principle of nationality meant nothing." And "there is no single man to whom" the idea and the building of American nationality "owes more than to Hamilton." It is hard to grasp the revolutionary importance of the idea of American nationality. It is a notion so commonplace today. But one cannot emphasize enough that, until the arrival of President Washington, Secretary Hamilton, and their Federalist protagonists, almost all power was concentrated in the individual states. Most loyalties of the ruling squirearchies of the former colonies were pledged to their state-based privileges, power, and slaves--all safely protected by the state legislatures they tended to dominate. There is insufficient space to spell out the scholarship on this point except to notice Hamilton's chief adversary, Thomas Jefferson in Congress at Philadelphia, writing wistfully of his longing to return to his "country"--namely, Virginia.

To a certain extent, then, we may wonder that there exists no memorial to Hamilton on the tidal plain of the Potomac next to the neoclassical memorial dedicated by Franklin Roosevelt to Jefferson in 1943. There is some irony in Roosevelt's presiding over this memorial to Jefferson. At that very moment FDR was carrying out by Hamiltonian means a new economic policy (though one that Hamilton might not have approved), sustained by Constitutional arguments that Hamilton and Marshall had advanced. Even more interesting, we can observe FDR forging the vital Anglo-American alliance to win World War II, manifestly a "Hamiltonian Alliance" manque by the concrete test of Hamilton's own far-seeing foreign policy. The first Secretary of the Treasury believed that an Anglo-American entente was indispensable to our vital commercial interests, just as he foresaw that the British navy would help insulate America from the threat of entanglements and dismemberment by the competing great powers of Europe.

Hamilton's great importance to the founding of the United States makes his disappearance from the American pantheon puzzling. According to Joseph Ellis, the distinguished Adams and Jefferson scholar whose book American Sphinx won the National Book Award in 1997,
 Hamilton was the kind of man who might have been put on earth by God to
 refute all the Jeffersonian values. Dashing and direct in his demeanor,
 Hamilton possessed all the confidence of a military leader accustomed to
 command. While perhaps rooted in Hamilton's military exploits during the
 Revolutionary War (another heroic experience Jefferson could not claim),
 this palpable projection of authority called attention to its own
 brilliance. To make matters worse, Hamilton as an opponent was equally
 formidable on his feet and in print [Jefferson was feeble in debate].
 Jefferson recalled his clashes with Hamilton in cabinet meetings as a form
 of martyrdom and warned Madison to draft all attacks against Hamilton
 personally, claiming that Hamilton was a host within himself.

The victory of Jeffersonian historiography (not to say hagiography) in the first half of the twentieth century had a depressing effect on Hamilton's reputation. And the enmity of the Adams clan and their advocates compounded the effect. Yet the historical debate goes on. In their landmark treatise The Age of Federalism (1993), Professors Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick have much to say about Adams's hatred and jealousy of Hamilton, about the animus each held for the other, "most of it less than attractive." It is clear that the Adams family tradition of inextinguishable hatred for Hamilton stemmed in part from Hamilton's trenchant criticism of President Adams at a crucial moment before the election of 1800. Hamilton had argued in a private letter (later disclosed by Aaron Burr, and now quoted from Elkins and McKitrick) that Adams
 "does not possess the talents adapted to the administration of government
 ... that there are great and intrinsic defects in his character which unfit
 him for the office of Chief Magistrate," that in the early stages of the
 Revolution ... Hamilton had begun with "a high veneration for Mr. Adams"
 but with time he had come to "an opinion ... that he is a man of an
 imagination ... eccentric; [not] propitious ... to the regular display of
 sound judgment ...; that to this defect are added the ... foibles of a
 vanity without bounds, and a jealousy capable of discoloring every object."

In this minor excerpt from Hamilton's extensive commentary upon the insufficiencies of Adams's character, we can grasp the gravamen that engendered the hostility of the Adams family and its camp of historians. But Elkins and McKitrick, after exhaustively surveying the original sources and the entire historiography of the founding period, are, on this issue, not without judgment themselves. "Hamilton's case" they opine "had it stopped there, might well have represented the judgment which history itself ought to have settled upon with regard to John Adams." But Hamilton did not let his critique end there. Indeed it went on to excess.

With Brookhiser, we must embrace not only the genius and the virtues of the first Secretary of the Treasury, but also an explication of the character flaws of the "little lion" himself. Hamilton was 5'7", handsome, and winning. He was not only self-confident, but also proud to a fault. He had not only a sense of honor, but also carried his dignity to vanity. He had the gift of tongues joined to an equal gift of the pen, and deployed them with the art of an artillery captain and the intrepidity of a regimental colonel. Prudence seldom constrained his fire.

In the absence of that disciplined restraint that Washington possessed in such abundance, Hamilton's passions--carnal and careerist--often overcame his powerful intellect. As Brookhiser notes, in Washington "for the first time in his life--also for the last--Alexander Hamilton met a man who was greater than himself. Hamilton's understanding was quicker than Washington's, and his analytical powers were greater. But in every other mental or moral quality [especially judgment and prudence], Washington was his equal or superior."

It is true; the force of Washington's example was all-pervasive. "I give in to no kind of amusement myself." General Washington wrote of headquarters, "and consequently those about me can have none." To a certain extent, Brookhiser makes clear, Washington was the gyroscope which, in war and in government, kept Hamilton's genius rotating evenly in orbit. During his short lifetime of extraordinary accomplishment, Hamilton's intense passions, it may be said, were generally well-controlled. But there were several crucial occasions when they burst through the dam, leading to decisive indiscretions: for example, his notorious affair with Mrs. Maria Reynolds (for which he was blackmailed by her husband) and his letter against Adams. Such imprudent behavior joined to his genius often ignited the contempt, envy, and hatred of the Jefferson and Adams phalanxes. Hamilton's were indiscretions that conspired to diminish, even to minimize his popular reputation and to suppress, for long periods, national esteem for his achievements. But this is still insufficient explanation for the near disappearance of Hamilton during most of the twentieth century. There is something more to this story.

It has never been widely recognized that in Abraham Lincoln and in the nationalism of the Union party Alexander Hamilton found, as it were by an invisible hand, his supreme nationalist successor. By force of will and circumstance, Lincoln found himself able to overthrow the slaveholders of the South, which had been led by the Virginia dynasty. The Jeffersonian settlement of 1800, which gave dominance within the national government to the states' rights party of the South, had finally been undone by free elections and by trial of arms. But in a paradox of American historiography, foretold by late nineteenth-century American history itself, the victory of the party of union and emancipation was in fact overturned in the early twentieth century by the academic schools of anti-Reconstruction revisionism and slavery apology led by Professor Ulrich B. Phillips. This school of historians dominated American historiography until the 1950s. Similarly, and not by accident, the slaveholding fantasies of Gone With the Wind and The Lost Cause prevailed in the popular mind. Both the academic and popularized tradition, which demonized Reconstruction and Emancipation and questioned the purpose of the Civil War and the justice of the Union victory, was joined to the post-World War I school of liberal historians, exemplified by the work of Vernon Parrington, among many other able scholars.

The rising liberal historians and their distinguished Jeffersonian counterparts retook the high ground of American politics--recapturing it directly from the bloody field of Union victory and Emancipation. Not until the 1950s were the apologies of Ulrich Phillips and Gone With the Wind brought before the bar of reason, equity, and evidence in the scholarship of Professor Kenneth Stampp's stunning book The Peculiar Institution. And, even more decisively, it was the civil rights struggle itself which finally gave lasting force to the Union victory and permanent meaning to the equal laws of its legacy, the XIIIth, XIVth, and XVth Amendments, which abolished slavery, granted equal protection under the law, and guaranteed the right to vote regardless of race.

It is no exaggeration to see in the triumph of desegregation in the second half of the twentieth century the ghost of Hamilton's anti-slavery impulse prevailing over Jefferson's attachment to the service of his slaves, and the spirit of Hamilton's nationalist program prevailing over the states' rights oligarchies of the South. Even Hamilton's drive for national economic growth, to open up wide opportunities for men and women of diverse talents, prevailed over Jefferson's abstract idealization of the tough and grinding agrarian way of life which, while honorable and primordial, was an insufficient prospect for a great and diverse nation competing in world markets.

This triumph of the Hamiltonian vision, it must be said, was foreshadowed during the nineteenth century in the opinions of Chief Justice Marshall and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, both of whom held up Hamilton next to Washington as the organizing genius of the new constitutional republic. Even for a time after World War II, in the work of Jacob Cooke, Harold Syrett, Clinton Rossiter, and Forrest McDonald, Hamiltonian ideas waxed into the firmament, eclipsing momentarily even the star from Monticello. In the end, these waxings and wanings of the life and work of Alexander Hamilton may be seen as the nocturnal linkages to the outgoing and incoming tides of ideological passion in American politics.

But, in studying such a world-decisive epoch as the American founding, the historian must not only exert every judicious discipline to avoid "presentism"; he must also peer into the past with the eye of eternity to discern in that era the permanent. In order to judge the American founding and "its feverish mentality," the contemporary eye of eternity was given but to a single man, even if one may doubt that any person could ever see his colleagues clearly. In Professor Joseph Ellis's distinctive formulation, "Only Washington seems to have remained immune [to the feverish mentality of the founding], but then he was immune to everything." For it is true that Washington's perennial effort at objectivity was as unimpeachable as the balance of his taciturn judgment. And so, for the definitive ruling in the case of Alexander Hamilton, even Mr. Brookhiser, a master of the period, will yield gladly to the judgment of President Washington. "By some" the founding father declared, Mr. Hamilton "is considered as an ambitious man, and therefore a dangerous one. That he is ambitious I shall readily grant, but it is of the laudable kind, which prompts a man to excel in whatever he takes in hand."

For the millennium, one can almost hear an inspired Richard Brookhiser rephrase the unforgettable epigram of Jefferson's first Inaugural: We were all democrats. Now we shall all become Federalists.

(1) Alexander Hamilton, American, by Richard Brookhiser; Free Press, 256 pages, $25.

Lewis E. Lehrman is the co-chairman of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Lehrman, Lewis E.
Publication:New Criterion
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1999
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