Thursday, June 09, 2011

Who's Afraid of Alexander Hamilton?

So it seems to be a recurring issue in discussions about the founders that Alexander Hamilton is basically the odd ball who was working against the liberty and freedom so cherished by Jefferson and Madison--and later Adams when he reentered the Republican fold. Of course, one needs to always be mindful of the partisan political situation of the 1790s that pitched Hamilton and George Washington himself against Jefferson and his friends. Adams became disliked by both Hamilton's allies and Jefferson's for a specific series of reasons relating to the abortive war with France in 1798-1799. But all of these men were working to address serious issues relating to the fragility and survival of the republic as it came perilously close to war during the 25 year period surrounding the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. Jefferson, not Hamilton (or Washington for that matter), failed to separate himself from the French Revolution when it became obvious to many that that struggle no longer had anything to do with liberty. That disagreement fundamentally colored much of the interpretive invective both figures and their followers hurled at one another. Hamilton was a British sympathizer in the European war (or against the French) and thus a secret monarchist while Jefferson was pro-French and therefore an unstable Jacobin demagogue. When Hamilton was killed in a duel in 1804 (Washington, his great defender, died in 1799) there was no one of his stature left to either defend his ideas and actions or protect his legacy. Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and later Andrew Jackson were content to let Hamilton remain a misguided and dangerous bogeyman rather than critically reexamine their own actions later on to admit at least to themselves where Hamilton may have the better arguments. It's absurd to exalt Jefferson over Hamilton in terms of legacy to the republic (his only post of real prominence was as Washington's Tresury Secretary from 1789-January 31, 1795) when it was President Jefferson who embraced and established a number of terrible precedents in his second term to enforce his misguided policy of embargoing all American commerce (thus requiring the Federal government to rigorously enforce the policy on the borders, which led to wholesale violations of the fourth amendment in the effort to stymie illicit trade). Even Jefferson's Treasury Secretary, Albert Gallatin--the man in charge of enforcement--admitted the policies required to make the embargo work were utterly arbitrary and worse than war if they lasted for very long.

Hamilton, a veteran of the Revolutionary War who fought at the battle of Yorktown as well as serving for several years in the important post of aide-de-camp to General Washington, never had to justify his place as an American in his own day. [He also served in the Continental Congress after the war, had written an influential pamphlet series in the very beginning of the struggle before ditching Columbia for the Continental Army, and was, of course, extremely influential and important in the ratification fight in New York and nationally] Certainly Jefferson would never publicly have questioned Hamilton's motives for fear of having his own Revolutionary experience--being chased away from Richmond as Governor by the British as they captured and ransacked the capital of the Virginia--laid at his feet (for a period he was openly condemned as a coward). Plus, unlike Hamilton, Jefferson never openly went about doing anything, he always worked behind the scenes even to the point--in Washington's opinion--of being blatantly duplicitous. Hamilton, on the other hand, never shut his mouth and was unafraid of saying unpopular things to the people—to the point of being hit in the head with a rock during a particularly close and bitter election in New York City. All of these men had serious issues and made serious mistakes, but trying to pin the failures of the founding on one man alone or even predominantly is silly, absurd, and supremely unfair. Particularly to such a man as Alexander Hamilton.

If you think the mere fact that Jefferson came to hate and despise Hamilton so much is, ipso facto, all the evidence one needs, consider this; Franklin Delano Roosevelt hated Alexander Hamilton--thought he was the original heartless capitalist monster--and loved Thomas Jefferson so much that he built him a huge monument. If simply having worthy admirers makes one ok later on, consider that when Jefferson finally forced Washington to choose between himself and Hamilton, Washington simply let it be known that Jefferson had made that decision for them both already.

Below are what I consider to be the best of the best of Hamilton scholarship that make an irrefutable case for the man's values, courage, brilliance and undying commitment to liberty and freedom. As well there are links to his writings which are almost uniformly excellent. Was he wrong sometimes, occasionally quite disastrously? Absolutely. But only Washington ever came very close to getting most things correct--major things anyway--and yet his errors are also large and glaring. Hamilton, like all of them, was a flawed hero, but a hero all the same.

But whatever else you read, avoid "politically incorrect" guides to American history and such hack job "scholarship" being offered by people like Thomas J. DiLorenzo. Those sources are worse than useless as they are fundamentally dishonest about context, evidence, and any number of other things.

Gerald Stourzsh

Ron Chernow

Forrest McDonald

John Lamberton Harper

Karl-Friedrich Walling

Alexander Hamilton: Writings

The Federalist Papers