It’s no mistake that people have discovered Hamilton again, that least known, most difficult to appreciate, and perhaps the most personally conflicted of America’s Founding Fathers. Less a politician than a matchless administrator, Hamilton was a leader who actually seems to have believed the things he said, a man who did not use his time in government to feather his own nest. He was a modern man in many ways, self-made, without family or fortune, but with a nuts and bolts understanding the new science of economics, the realities of international trade, of money and banking. The men Hamilton worked beside, men like Washington and Jefferson, were American aristocrats, slave owners, whose power base lay in land. Jefferson, particularly, took an almost feudal view, imagining a new nation comprised of large landowners who would rule over a laboring class of sharecroppers and slaves.
Hamilton’s political enemies, busy calling his patriotism into question, conveniently overlooked the fact that his character was what contemporaries called "Quixotic", like a knight strayed in from some earlier age. At the start of the Revolution, he gave his hard-won college money to outfit a rebel artillery company. He crossed the Delaware with George Washington as a foot-sore captain, freezing and hungry beside his men. During the war, he was the kind of officer who led from the front, and also the kind who intervened when his soldiers, still hot from battle, wanted to summarily execute their prisoners. As an aide-de-camp, he served his boss George Washington selflessly and tirelessly, becoming the perfect secretary/assistant to a beleaguered general with few other such brilliant props upon which to lean. After the war, in his new incarnation as attorney, he was not afraid to defend ex-loyalists whose property had been illegally seized by vengeful neighbors. Hamilton also advocated for ordinary men, like a humble ferry owner, whipped and bullied by a local landlord. Law, Hamilton said, should be dealt alike to all citizens—whether rich or poor.
For a brief time, he even may have dreamed, during the heady first years after America’s founding, that we could have a “pure” government, one without party, because servants of this new republic would be genuinely ‘public-spirited’. After all, if a person wished only the common good—as opposed to only ‘good’ for ones’ friends-- using the ancient tools of common law, common sense and ordered debate, pragmatic, mutually agreeable solutions would, naturally, emerge. ‘The People’ (as then defined) could govern themselves, not only without the aid of king or dictator, but without special interest groups, too.
But Hamilton was also an outsider, an immigrant, a “come here,” a fact his enemies never forgot or forgave. Worse, he was born illegitimate, and arrived as an orphaned charity child. He was called slightingly, a “Creole,” or, with franker hostility, by John Adams, “the bastard brat of a Scots peddler.” This is the trope which has moved Hamilton back into public consciousness. Lin-Manuel Miranda, a multi-talented first generation American, is making a big splash with a hip-hop opera at The Public Theater in NYC. I learned about this exciting theater piece around the time I’d begun re-editing a 15 year old “in-the- drawer” book—The Master Passion—but this unlikely form of interest truly cheered me. Now, someone young, gifted, and vocal now wanted to talk about my hero, too!
After all, Hamilton has been in my life since I was ten. I’d early learned that he’d worked against slavery, and that, like the wandering lost prince of all the old stories, he’d come to the ‘Kingdom’ with nothing but the brilliant head on his shoulders. As a teen, he fought for freedom. He’d won the respect of the commanding general and gained the hand of a local ‘princess’. He’d spent the rest of his life devising ways to make his adopted country well-governed, rich and happy, fighting like one possessed in order to get brilliant—but far-less well-informed and/or insightful associates—to understand and accept his financial systems. The simplest way to say it: If Alexander Hamilton hadn’t created a plan to unite those thirteen colonies by getting them to pay the debts incurred to fighting men—and to the businessmen who’d backed the war of independence—there would be no United States today. Then as now, nation or family, paying the bills is essential to safety and security, the base from which all creative endeavor and industry flows.
Unavoidably, though, Hamilton was also a man of his time, one scarred by violence, poverty and humiliation. He was a genius and could be vain and brash, impatient with slower minds. He injured and embarrassed his family and friends with a sordid love-affair. He talked too much when he should have remained silent. His insecurities and his anger toward the enemies who'd dragged him through the mud triggered the political missteps which destroyed his own Federalist party. Hamilton might even be thought of as a man who engineered his own death.
Beyond all that, he remains--to me and others--a true tragic hero, a great man beset with fatal flaws. If Alexander Hamilton hadn’t come here, hadn’t fought, practiced law, been one of those critical first public servants, there would be no United States today.
Bibliography ~ partial
Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow ISBN: 1594200092 Penguin, 2005
The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 21 volumes, Harold C. Syrett, Ed., Columbia University, 1987
Founding Brothers by Joseph L. Ellis, ISBN: 9780375405440, Knopf, 2000
Hamilton by Forrest McDonald, ISBN: 9780393300482, W.W. Norton, 1988
Alexander Hamilton and the Constitution, by Clinton L. Rossiter, Harcourt, Brace, ISBN: 9780151042159, 1964