It is probably fitting on Thanksgiving to put down some thoughts after reading Willard Sterne Randall’s biography, “Alexander Hamilton: a Life”. Starting and ending with Hamilton’s death in an unfortunate duel with Aaron Burr, the book follows Hamilton’s childhood and career, stopping just this short of a hagiography, a book of hyperbolic praise of its subject.
But, wait a minute. It’s possible that the high praise is well deserved, as you follow Hamilton and his role in the formation of the federalist American that we now are so proud of, on the one hand, and frustrated with, on the other.
Think of the innovations that Hamilton brought to the table: he was the prime author of the Federalist Papers, he developed the concept of a chief executive and an independent judiciary for the country, he fathered the concept of a national bank, chartered by the federal government and having charge of printing paper money, he had the national government take over the states’ debts (which most could not handle) after the Revolutionary War and refinanced this debt in an affordable manner, he bravely maintained an anti-slavery position when this was not popular in any part of the new nation, he was a Congressman and participant in the constitutional convention, he was the first Secretary of the Treasury and set the standard for the role of federal departments and cabinet members, he helped his mentor, George Washington, decide what the role of the president should be, developing the first budget for the new country, and the list could go on and on. (Of course, there were downsides to some of Hamilton’s positions as well – he felt that the British government provided a good model for America, when most patriots still felt Britain the enemy, he favored support of American commercial interests at a time when business was viewed as elitist and less than moral by most Americans, and he was very suspicious of direct vote for high governmental officials.)
And he did all of this after rising from an unlikely background. Born on the Caribbean island of Nevis to a woman whose husband had left her years before and who had lived, unmarried with Hamilton’s father, he suffered from being illegitimate in an era when illegitimacy was an enormous handicap (for instance, you could not receive communion in most churches). His mother was quite poor, and Hamilton went to work at the early age of 13 at a New York based trading coming, eventually living on St. Croix where he rose from being a clerk to having a fair amount of authority over his employer’s business when his employer himself became ill. Taking advantage of the opportunity to go to New York City (still a relatively small, but growing, town) his education being financed by a number of Caribbean residents who recognized his talents, being able to matriculate at Kings College (now Columbia), and through his intelligence and personality (as well as a little luck) being welcome by some of the wealthiest Hudson River landowner families as well as by some prominent city commercial leaders, he became more and more interested in American independence, eventually getting a military commission and working as Washington’s chief aide through much of the war. Even as a young man in his 20s, Washington relied on Hamilton not only for logistical assistance, but for military advice, which was usually successful.
In all of this, Hamilton made his share of political enemies, as you can imagine, both during the revolutionary years (when he was viewed as an upstart by some, even though he spoke for General Washington), and later, when the country was firmly divided between those who believed, like Hamilton, in a strong federal government, and those like Jefferson and eventually Madison, who were supporters of a weaker central government and more states’ rights (so what’s new?).
But politics was, as it is now, very complicated, and made for very unusual bedfellows. James Madison, for example, was a federalist (he was the other author of the majority of the Federalist Papers) before he and Hamilton became political opposites. The most stalwart of the Federalists throughout this period was, perhaps, John Adams of Massachusetts. But, natural allies or not, Hamilton and Adams were consistent political enemies. And Aaron Burr and Hamilton were opponents of each other stemming first from contact during the war years, and later in politics, and Hamilton was instrumental in ensuring that the tie in the Electoral College between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr was resolved in Jefferson’s favor, Burr becoming Vice President. (In this presidential campaign, because of his low opinion of John Adams, the Federalist, Hamilton helped ensure that Adams did not win a second term, which among other things ensured that Hamilton’s Federalist Party disappeared from the American scene.)
Married for years to the daughter of a prominent New York family, Hamilton was separated from his wife and children for long periods of time, and wound up in two sexual liaisons, one with his wife’s older, married, and more sophisticated sister, and one with a young woman, who appeared out of nowhere, probably intent on seducing the well known and respected Hamilton. His admission of the second of these affairs, which he thought would help clear the air and avoid the possibility of political blackmail (sound familiar?) wound up working against him both personally and politically (sound familiar), and it looked like Hamilton would spend the rest of his working life further developing his successful law practice in New York City. But fate worked against him when Aaron Burr challenged him to a duel based on an alleged insult of Burr when he was trying to become the governor of New York. Hamilton was 49.
In addition to reporting the life of Alexander Hamilton, Randall does a good job picturing the country, and especially New York, at the time, and tracing the long, drawn out Revolutionary War, showing its disastrous effect on so much of the country. New York City, for example, a stronghold of loyalist, as opposed to revolutionary activity, apparently saw it’s population fall from about 30,000 to about 5,000, as residents fled the city. The war itself, almost as long as our war in Iraq, took a terrible toll on members of the military – both through military engagements, some of which were particularly awful and cruel, and through lack of the warm clothing, food and supplies, leading to deaths and desertions. The treatment of loyalists after the war is nothing to be proud of either. Forgiveness took some time to develop, forced emigration was rampant, and executions without trial took place more often than you would like to believe.
Sure, we have a lot to be thankful for in this country, with all of our continuing problems. But if you think we reached this stage quickly, or smoothly, or easily, you think wrong. And “Alexander Hamilton: a Life” will help disabuse you of your belief. It is well worth reading.