The West Indian Founding Father of our Federal Government
Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
818 pages [Hardback], 2004.
Lantana Public Library Call No.: B Ham
“Safety from external danger is the most powerful director of national conduct. Even the ardent love of liberty will, after a time, give way to its dictates. The violent destruction of life and property incident to war, the continual effort and alarm attendant on a state of continual danger, will compel nations the most attached to liberty to resort for repose and security to institutions which have a tendency to destroy their civil and political rights. To be more safe, they at length become willing to run the risk of being less free.” ― Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist Papers
How extraordinary and yet not at all surprising that one of our most forgotten Founding Fathers, Alexander Hamilton, observed the dynamics of post-9-11 America, the War on Terror, and a very realistic grasp of the way citizens of nations often choose to live.
It’s extraordinary that Hamilton’s observations can still be relevant to us, because for many of us not as well-read in American colonial history or American government, Alexander Hamilton and his legacy remain widely misunderstood, elusive, and ambiguous. Although he’s featured on our $10 bill and was our first treasury secretary and creator of the Federal deficit or national debt, he was vilified as our first “bankster,” plutocrat, monarchist, and war-monger. Hamilton did not lead the Continental Army against the British as Washington did, nor did he write our now famous Declaration of Independence or deliver the Louisiana Purchase to us as Jefferson did. He did not shape the powers of Congress as Madison would from the U.S. Constitution. Hamilton died infamously in a pistol duel with Vice-President Aaron Burr.
Hamilton’s extraordinary achievement was the institutional blueprint of the United States’ Federal government and much of the Executive Branch, our modern banking and financial markets, and a seemingly egalitarian meritocracy, all formed out of and underpinned by the U.S. Constitution. No other single person could have created the first Treasury Department and early customs/taxation system for the new country, chartered one of our earliest federal banks (the federal Bank of New York) and inspired the speculators of Wall Street, negotiated our first trade agreements with the Europeans and the Caribbean and tariff system, as well as founded West Point, our first Coast Guard, Hamilton College (for native Americans), and the Manumission Society to abolish slavery. Much of the Federalist party platform, of course, was influenced by Hamilton while he was alive and even after his death.
Hamilton’s vision of the American Federal system, claims Chernow, was undoubtedly shaped by what he lived under and observed of tyranny and excesses of power. A Creole/West Indian child prodigy born in Nevis/St. Croix, of illegitimate birth, a partly self-taught bilingual orphaned child later apprenticed to a merchant company, Hamilton eventually came to New York as a young immigrant and enrolled at Kings (later Columbia University). But he had come of age in the Caribbean where the most brutal forms of slavery, riots, rule of law and punishment existed, and he strongly believed in limiting and outlawing these in the new American republic, as Great Britain was doing throughout its Empire. Hamilton may likely have seen the oppressive social order and system of his childhood mirrored in the lawless excesses of French Revolution as it descended into a Reign of Terror, and he never romanticized that Revolution as Jefferson did.
Moreover, Hamilton’s vision to remake the debt-ridden, economically distressed colonial confederate state system into a stronger, stable, national system of manufacturing and commerce likely arose during his merchant apprenticeship as a youth and also later while he served American military commanders and the Continental Army in the chronically under-funded American war with the British. Beginning in the mid 1770s, he had a rapidly rising and distinguished military career in the American Colonial War both in the field and as Washington’s aide behind the lines, while educating and training himself in law, classical economics, and also while providing input to the drafting of the Constitution and its ratification at constitutional conventions on behalf of the state of New York. He would also adopt and extend the ideas of his predecessor Superintendent of Finance Robert Morris on public credit when Washington nominated Hamilton as the first Treasury Secretary.
Hamilton evolved into one of the country’s most high-profile and competent administrator and dedicated public servants of his time, loyal to his adopted country to the last. Only Madison is arguably the other great Founding Father who exercised such abilities of implementation. Although the small scale of the Federal government of Hamilton’s and Washington’s day cannot be imagined today, Henry Cabot Lodge was largely correct in observing that “we honor Jefferson, but we live in Hamilton’s country.” MIT economist Simon Johnson observes in his November 2011 article in Vanity Fair, “Debt and Dumb” that Hamilton’s legacy — of a stable, secure, powerful country with a strong Executive branch, with a durable system of U.S. Treasury securities, credit, and power to tax us — remain with us today, and mostly for our betterment — our common defense, infrastructure, and so much more. What a refreshingly bold and accurate observation to make in this day and age, when we have a dysfunctional Congress and Tea Party conservatives and social conservatives, of course, who consider taxes for all and large government as our downfall, and who aim to take power back to the states.
Chernow in this wonderfully written and researched biography makes an extraordinarily convincing case for Hamilton as the founding father of our Federal government, while showing us how Hamilton remained a person of his time, flaws and all. He believed the early republic to be under continual threats of anarchy, disorder, sedition, and even invasion, His relations with with Madison (an early friend but a later critic and political enemy), Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Monroe, Gouverneur Morris, Edward Stevens, and Burr, and others, as well as his wife Eliza and family and intimates, were at times turbulent, alongside with his scandalous misconduct and arrogantly blind, political miscalculations.
Before I read Chernow’s work, I understood little of the historical context of the American Federal government system. I highly recommend this to anyone who wants to understand its historical origins and to understand the modern superpower United States later in the 20th century would become. Moreover, Chernow may also help readers better understand, no doubt, how Thomas Jefferson’s folksy, populist, idealized vision of confederate, independent states and an austerely simple, rustic/agrarian, free America came to prevail for much of 19th century America, culminating, of course, in the American Civil War that nearly toppled the Union and the country.
Chernow also talked further about this work on C-SPAN on May 26, 2004. Enjoy!
Postscript: See also a review of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rap musical/Broadway hit Hamilton, inspired by Chernow’s work.