Alexander Hamilton, who in recent years has emerged from being one of the least-known founders to being a star of a Broadway musical, was the subject of a panel discussion, “Alexander Hamilton: What You Should Know,” sponsored on April 21 by the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization (AHI) at the Fenimore Art Museum in picturesque Cooperstown, New York. Scores of Hamilton fans and history buffs packed the museum’s auditorium to hear three accomplished scholars, all of whom have published on Hamilton, discuss his role in American public life.
AHI Charter Fellow Douglas Ambrose, Distinguished Teaching Professor of History at Hamilton College, posed questions to Carson Holloway, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, and Bradford Wilson, Executive Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, Princeton University. Holloway and Wilson are co-editors of The Political Writings of Alexander Hamilton (2017). Ambrose co-edited The Many Faces of Alexander Hamilton: The Life and Legacy of America’s Most Elusive Founding Father (2007). He is currently working on a book about Hamilton’s duel with Aaron Burr based on their correspondence (part of the holdings of the Fenimore Art Museum). Questions at the forum focused on such topics as Hamilton’s views on human nature, honor, natural law, religion, slavery, and the principles of the founding.
Alexander Hamilton, Revolutionary War hero, delegate at the Constitutional Convention, author of 51 of the 85 essays in The Federalist, and first Secretary of the Treasury was born in 1755 on the British Caribbean colony of Nevis. His mother Rachel, a teenage bride, had fled her first husband and took up on the island with a Scottish merchant. His father abandoned the family when he was 10, and his mother died three years later. The 17-year-old Alexander Hamilton, whose education consisted largely of his own reading and learning, was working as a clerk, when Hugh Knox, a Presbyterian minister who was visiting St. Croix, recognized his intellectual abilities and directed him to Britain’s North American colonies to obtain a higher education in the liberal arts. After failing to attain admittance to the College of New Jersey (Princeton), headed by the Presbyterian divine John Witherspoon, the young Hamilton ultimately landed at King’s College (today Columbia University). His subsequent career stands as one of the most remarkable stories of a meritocratic age.
Hamilton joined the New York provincial militia in 1775, and the following year, at the age of 21, was appointed as commander with the rank of captain of an artillery company. He saw action in battles in New York and New Jersey. He soon became General Washington’s aide-de-camp and then was promoted to lieutenant colonel. In October 1781, as commander of a New York infantry battalion, Hamilton led a successful assault on British fortifications at Yorktown.
After leaving active service in late 1781, Hamilton studied law and pursued a political career. He was delegate to Congress from 1782 to 1785 and helped establish the Bank of New York and found the New York Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves. Elected to the state assembly in 1786, he was appointed as a delegate to the Annapolis Convention and then to the Philadelphia Convention. The Federalist essays, written over a period of ten months and published in several New York newspapers, aimed at shaping public opinion in support of ratification of the Constitution.
Opposition to the Constitution as well as to Hamilton’s financial plans while serving as George Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury helped to create the United States’ first political parties.
The fatal duel between Burr and Hamilton occurred in the aftermath of the momentous election of 1800, which shifted power from the Federalists to Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party. Hamilton had urged members of the House of Representatives to decide the disputed election in favor of Jefferson over Burr, both of whom had received the same number of electoral votes. After demanding Hamilton explain remarks made about Burr in an Albany newspaper, and after more than a week of negotiations, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. It took place two weeks later, in Weehawken, New Jersey, on July 11, 1804; Hamilton died from Burr’s pistol fire the following day.
Although several collections of Hamilton’s writings have been published, Wilson and Holloway explained that they wanted to expand on Hamilton’s political life and offer his “most enduring political thought” in writings on statesmanship. Hamilton is known as the founder who, more than others, had a nationalist vision and saw a need for central executive authority. He wanted a federal government with energy and vigor to advance national prosperity and to protect the fledgling republic from enemies domestic and foreign. In his own administrative duties, Holloway said, Hamilton displayed formidable attention to detail. Hamilton, Holloway and Wilson maintain, had a consistent political theory, but changing circumstances refracted the principles.
On the question of Hamilton’s political theory resting on an idea of human nature, Wilson replied that Hamilton was accused of being elitist and was “slammed” throughout his life by Jeffersonian Republicans. Tending to be pessimistic about human nature, Hamilton believed that political economy is built on self-interest and that the Republic, to survive, could not bank on virtue. Holloway called Hamilton’s view of human nature “realistic,” with economic interest and love of honor being principal motivating forces. Hamilton had reverence for inherited institutions, and unlike Jefferson, recoiled from the excesses of the French Revolution far earlier than most of his countrymen with the exception of John Adams. In shaping the economy of the Early Republic, Hamilton looked to established institutions such as the national banks in European countries for models.
Although he recognized the distinction between the local and the national, Wilson observed, Hamilton saw the role of the Constitution as empowering the national government. Hamilton stressed executive powers, but at a time when the danger was disintegration, executive power was not the threat it is now. Noting that Hamilton was an urban dweller immersed in a world of international finance and long-distance trade, Wilson observed that “Today, we live in a Hamiltonian world.”
Hamilton’s religious views remain understudied and debated. Ambrose noted that Hamilton’s eldest son, Philip, preceded his father in dying on a field of honor. Philip’s death in 1801 seems to have had a profound effect on Alexander. His religious views were revealed in a letter he wrote to his wife, cautioning her, “Arm yourself with resignation,” and “meet disasters with Christian fortitude.” Holloway suggested that Hamilton’s religious beliefs came out most conspicuously early and late in life. It was the teenage Hamilton’s essay to the Royal Danish American Gazette in 1772 about the hurricane that swept through St. Croix that so impressed Hugh Knox, the minister who would become his great benefactor. Hamilton wrote, as he turned to God for consolation after the devastation, “Where now, oh! vile worm is all thy boasted fortitude and resolution?”
A lively question-and-answer session followed the formal discussion. One member of the audience asked how Hamilton would see our current administration. Holloway replied that Hamilton acknowledged that pure free trade is impossible; like President Trump, he was a nationalist. But Hamilton would see danger in populism. Wilson added that Hamilton would have argued for a governmental role in support of manufacturing. A point of commonality between Trump and Hamilton, said Holloway and Wilson, might be their pronounced commitment to American prosperity and greatness.
In his introductory remarks, Ambrose called the collection of Hamilton’s papers at the Fenimore Art Museum “a national treasure.” Ordinary Americans recognize the importance of Hamilton in the areas of law, constitutional thought, foreign affairs and others, he said. Institutions like the Fenimore Art Museum and the AHI help inform citizens about history, and no prominent member of the founding generation denied the importance of higher education as an indispensable prerequisite to the maintenance of self-government.
AHI Executive Director Robert Paquette thanked the Fenimore Art Museum for hosting such a stimulating event. “What a professional and welcoming group,” he noted. “Danielle Henrici, Director of Education at the Fenimore Art Museum deserves special mention for all her hard work in making the event such a great success. AHI is deeply grateful for the impressive effort put forth by all of the museum’s staff. The event provides a fitting preface to the work of AHI Charter Fellow Doug Ambrose in bringing to public attention in a beautifully illustrated volume the Burr-Hamilton papers at the museum.”
One woman who drove a considerable distance to attend the event summed up the feelings of many at the Fenimore Museum. It was an “Incredible session.”
By Mary Grabar, AHI Resident Fellow