Alexander Hamilton: GPS

“Alexander Hamilton: First Secretary of the Treasury; Soldier, Orator, Statesman, Champion of Constitutional Union, Representative Government and National Integrity.”

So reads the inscription at the base of the James Earle Fraser statue of Alexander Hamilton that stands on the south patio of the Treasury building in Washington D.C.  The statue portrays a young, vigorous, and confident Hamilton.  It is a fitting tribute to the complex and versatile man who worked so tirelessly for his adopted country.

On the more conspicuous north patio fronting Pennsylvania Avenue stands another Fraser statue, this one of Thomas Jefferson’s Treasury Secretary, Albert Gallatin.  The story behind these two statutes is told by Stephen Knott in his revealing book, Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2002).  They are part of the larger story of Hamilton’s twentieth century fall from grace.  The statues are representative of the ideological battle that led to Hamilton’s marginalization in the public and scholarly eye as an allegedly authoritarian and militaristic presence at the Founding who was, so the story goes, finally vanquished by the Jeffersonian victory in 1800.  Knott shows how Progressives and Democrats, including FDR, not only sided with Jefferson but also saw the political merits of using Jefferson as a unifying national symbol.  Knott traces Hamilton’s ups and downs in the nineteenth century as well, making his work a much needed companion piece to Merrill Peterson’s The Jefferson Image in the American Mind.

Knott believes that Hamilton has been very unfairly treated since the first Jeffersonian ascendancy.  Only during the period of Republican dominance after the Civil War did Hamilton come close to receiving his due.  Knott exposes as false many of the still prevalent “myths” surrounding Hamilton, such as the claim he once referred to the people as a “great beast.”  Knott acknowledges that Hamilton was a controversial figure, whose views on democracy in particular were out of step with his own time and with ours, but suggests that “beneath his highly colored reputation, Hamilton was the most forward looking of the framers responsible in many ways for creating the innovative institutions that have flourished for over two centuries.”

Knott notes the positive trend in recent Hamilton scholarship.  This trend really began in the 1970s with fine and influential books by Gerald Stourzh and especially Forrest McDonald.  Ron Chernow’s massive 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton (New York: Penguin Press, 2004) represents a splendid culmination of this trend.  Chernow masterfully tells the story of Hamilton’s prodigious accomplishments as Treasury Secretary, stressing Hamilton’s grasp of the essentials of a modern financial system.  Chernow may understate the extent to which Jefferson, hardly a Luddite, had a relatively coherent alternative vision of “capitalism” but he makes a compelling case that Hamilton’s grasp of economic fundamentals far exceeded his peers and rivals.  Chernow’s biography is notable also for the way in which in brings to life Hamilton the private man.  The Hamilton who was so warmly loved and admired by family and friends was polished in his manners, generous in his habits, and supremely engaging in company.  Chernow also provides a poignant portrait of Elizabeth, Hamilton’s devoted wife, who survived him by some fifty years.

Karl Walling’s impressive Republican Empire: Alexander Hamilton on War and Free Government (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1999) extends earlier work on Hamilton’s republicanism by Stourzh andHarvey Flaumenhaft.  Walling dispels the myth of Hamilton the monarchist by constructing a republican constitutional spectrum with “vigilance” and “responsibility” as its two poles.  Jeffersonian republicanism stressed popular vigilance as the key to the preservation of liberty, whereas Hamilton’s republicanism stressed the need create institutions that enhanced responsibility, the placing of power in one or a few hands to harness ambition and to increase accountability.   Walling focuses on Hamilton’s realization that a free government must be “fit for war” as well as “safe for liberty.”  On a related point, Walling shows, in his account of Hamilton’s strategic thinking in the late 1790s, that Hamilton’s assessment of the French threat was reasonable, thereby providing a rebuttal to the longstanding charge that Hamilton was a dangerous militarist who used the specter of France to amass an army that he intended to use to suppress Jeffersonian democracy.

No account of Hamilton would be complete without mention of the event that seems so incredible today: Aaron Burr, the sitting Vice-President of the United States, killing Hamilton, the former Secretary of the Treasury, in a duel.  It was once fashionable to discuss the duel in terms of Hamilton’s erratic personality or his fragile sense of self or even his death wish, all of which were traceable to his disordered childhood.  Joanne Freeman’s highly engaging Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the Early Republic (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001) opens up a new and persuasive alternative.  The duel should not surprise us.  Duels were still common at the time and especially among military men such as Hamilton and Burr.  They were part of an elaborate culture of honor that held a gentleman’s reputation to be something worth preserving at all costs, including the risk of a duel.  Hamilton and Burr followed precisely the rituals of an affair of honor and when they could not resolve the matter to each other’s satisfaction they resorted to dueling pistols.  The goal of each party in such an affair was to prove his honor by showing his willingness to risk all.  It was not necessary to kill.  If there was a surprise in the duel at Weehawken, it is that Burr seems to have deliberately chosen to kill Hamilton.

These new perspectives on Hamilton have not only given us a new and more accurate account of Hamilton but they have also made possible a richer and more nuanced approach to the history and the political thought of the Founding period.  Hamilton will likely remain a controversial figure but there is no longer any excuse for using him as a mere villainous foil in the story of the rise of American democracy.

Peter McNamara teaches political theory at Utah State University. He specializes in early modern and American political thought.  He is the author of Political Economy and Statesmanship: Smith, Hamilton and the Foundation of the Commercial Republic and the editor of The Noblest Minds: Fame, Honor and the American Founding, and, most recently (with Louis Hunt), Liberalism, Conservatism and Hayek’s Idea of Spontaneous Order.