How to make a new nation

Title: Alexander Hamilton
Author: Ron Chernow
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-0143034759
Reviewed by: David Lea

While many Broadway musicals have become huge, enduring hits, it is unprecedented for a popular stage show to be performed exclusively in rap and to be inspired by, and based on, an academic biography of a not very well-known historical figure.

Created by and starring actor, composer, rapper and writer Lin-Manual Miranda,1 the Broadway hit Hamilton has now sold US$1bn worth of tickets, and has broken some impressive Broadway box office records.2

Alexander Hamilton is one of the lesser-known Founding Fathers of the American republic in the 1770s. Until the publication of Ron Chernow’s biography (in 2004) and, more latterly, the staging of Miranda’s musical, Hamilton was perhaps best known to many Americans as the face on the US$10 banknote. Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton is a solid work of academic history, superbly researched and well written. Many of the themes of Hamilton’s life would make him a fascinating figure at any time, but his ideas on the best forms of government give his life and work a particularly strong contemporary resonance.

Hamilton’s vision

While Hamilton fought in the American Revolutionary War against British tyranny, he remained anxious over the potential tyranny of the masses and the possibility that the popular vote might result in the creation of a populist despot, writing: “The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right… Can a democratic assembly, who annually revolve in the mass of the people, be supposed steadily to pursue the public good?”3 As Chernow observes: “This was the great paradox of his career: his optimistic view of America’s potential, co-existed with an essentially pessimistic view of human nature.”4 This elitist view of democracy and his belief in the need for a strong, centralised government created political enemies who accused him of monarchist and pro-British sympathies.

But Hamilton’s vision for America itself was perhaps grander than any of his contemporaries. In pressing for strong government for the new republic, he oversaw the creation of some of the most important institutions of a modern state. Under George Washington’s presidency, Hamilton crafted the new republic’s central bank, its tax and budget systems, customs service and coastguard. His vision of America’s potential included grandiose ideas for its territorial expansion: he called for the annexation of all territories east of the Mississippi, including Florida, and he entertained wild fantasies of an American army liberating the Spanish colonies of South America. An “exuberant genius”5 who was “at once [both] thinker and doer”,6 Hamilton was a charismatic and volatile character – and a passionate advocate for the abolition of slavery.

Resilience and close contacts were critical

Hamilton was an outsider. Most of the men who led the American colonies in revolt against Great Britain had deep local roots and were from the land-owning (and, frequently, slave-owning) elite. Hamilton, in contrast, was an immigrant, born outside America on the small British Caribbean island of Nevis. His parents were unmarried at the time of his birth, and his mother died when he was 13 years old. But, in spite of a childhood of abandonment and deprivation (his father abandoned the family), the adolescent Hamilton developed into a “strong, productive, self-reliant human being…”7

His talents and initiative were recognised by a group of local businessmen, who sponsored him to travel to America to study in 1772. By 1775, the simmering tensions between Great Britain and its north American colonies had burst into rebellion and open war, and Hamilton’s studies were abruptly terminated. As a junior officer in the patriot American forces, Hamilton participated in the early battles of the American War of Independence. His abilities were noticed and the American commander-in-chief, George Washington, invited Hamilton to join his staff. The close relationship between the two men was of critical importance to Hamilton’s future career.

Alternative considerations for a post-war constitution

John Adams, a Founding Father, the first vice president of the United States and the second president,8 had predicted that “the most intricate, the most important, the most dangerous and delicate business”9 of the post-war years would be the creation of a central government. After the crushing American victory at the battle of Yorktown in 1781, British military activities in north America came to an end – and the new field of battle became the forming of a new nation of united American states.

Prior to the war, the 13 colonies had united in a loose confederation under “Articles of Confederation”, which established a Continental Congress. Many believed that the rights of the individual colonies or states were paramount and that the “United States” should remain a loose assembly with few overarching powers. During the war, the need to stay united to defeat the common enemy had meant that the weaknesses of the Articles had not been addressed. But, by the end of the war, with no power to tax and no power to force the states to obey its laws, the Continental Congress had no money to pay the men who had fought for it.

A practising lawyer after the war, Hamilton was selected as one of New York’s delegates to attend a Constitutional Convention in 1787 to amend the clearly dysfunctional Articles. The delegates agreed to ignore this mandate and instead to write a new constitution, with the main debate around James Madison’s10 proposals for a balanced central government.

Of all the founders, Hamilton probably had the gravest doubts about the collective wisdom of the masses and wanted elected leaders who would guide them. His alternative proposals envisaged an elected “chief executive” and Senate serving for life. These proposals led to accusations that he wished to establish an American monarchy.

Hamilton part of heated debate

Months of heated negotiation produced the main features of the United States Constitution that prevail today: the “separation of powers”, a two-house legislature, an independent executive and an independent judiciary. A central issue was how states of different sizes, populations and interests should be represented in the Congress. The compromise reached was that all states, regardless of population, should send two representatives to the upper house (Senate), with representation in the lower house based on population. But, how should population be counted in the slave-owning states of the south? Eventually, a morally bankrupt 3/5 compromise was agreed, whereby five slaves would be counted as three freemen.

Although seen as imperfect, the resulting document was also recognised as a workable compromise. Hamilton’s fellow delegates from New York had already departed, but the remaining state delegates all approved the draft constitution. In a wry diary entry, Washington noted that the constitution was approved by “eleven states and Colonel Hamilton”.11 Although his own proposals had been rejected, Hamilton threw his weight behind the campaign to have the new constitution ratified by all state legislatures.

Many Americans strongly opposed the whole idea of a strong central government: defeating centralised tyranny had been central to the revolution. Those in favour of ratifying the new constitution called themselves “federalists”, and those opposed, “anti-federalists”. A ferocious, vitriolic war of words broke out between the two sides.

The Federalist Papers

A more sober contribution to the battle of ideas was a series of essays, titled The Federalist Papers.12 These essays supported the proposed new constitution but, more importantly, broadened its philosophical basis and gave extensive explanation, analysis and exploration of its practical application and workings. Hamilton wrote 51 of the 85 essays, but he also conceived, initiated and supervised the entire project, commissioned two other contributors ( James Madison and John Jay)13 and oversaw the publication of the essays all over a 10-month period: over 175 000 words.

For a modern politician or academic, working with a computer and with access to internet research, this would be a prodigious achievement; for an 18th century lawyer and parttime politician working often by candlelight and handwriting every draft, it is quite simply extraordinary. Although The Federalist Papers were not widely read at the time, they quickly became an annotated reference manual to the constitution, referred to and quoted repeatedly in legal cases that touch on the constitution.

Astonishing achievements

The ratification of the new constitution, and the subsequent election of Washington as the first president of the United States, provided Hamilton with the opportunity to put his many ideas about nation-building into action. His close relationship with Washington, formed during their wartime experiences together, assisted him greatly. As first secretary to the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton laid the financial foundations of the American state: the establishment of public credit and a national bank, the US mint, an efficient tax system, and an embryonic US Coast Guard.

A duel to the death

During his five-year tenure, he made many enemies. The centralising tendencies of the federal institutions that he established offended those who resented strong centralised power. The establishment of a national bank was seen as encouraging speculation – and it was claimed that Hamilton himself gained financially from corruption and speculation. His forceful personality, razor-sharp intellect and a thin skin, which led him to take all criticism personally, also meant that he was intolerant of those who disagreed with him.

Hamilton fell out with Washington’s successor to the presidency, John Adams, who loathed him, and the next three presidents (Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe) all came from the “antifederalist” camp – even though they retained the centralised institutions established by Hamilton. In the toxic atmosphere of fledgling American politics, it is perhaps not surprising that political rivalries became violent. A long-term feud with Jefferson’s vice president, the opportunistic Aaron Burr,14 led to a duel on the bank of the Hudson River in July 1804. Hamilton was fatally wounded and died the next day.

Often at odds with his own ideas

Over the years, Hamilton’s legacy has fallen in and out of favour. An unrepentant capitalist, his views were at odds with the perhaps more idealistic, agrarian vision of Jefferson and his allies. But they were more in tune with the industrial transformations taking place at this time and, arguably, therefore more in line with America’s future industrial trajectory. Observes Chernow: “He was the clear-eyed apostle of America’s economic future, setting forward a vision that many found enthralling, others unsettling, but that would ultimately prevail… In a nation of self-made people Hamilton… believed that government ought to promote selffulfilment, self-improvement, and self-reliance.”15

Yet, in contrast to these views, Hamilton remained wary of democracy: “Too often, his political vision harked back to a past in which well-bred elites made decisions for less-educated citizens. This contradicted the advanced economic thinking expressed in his vision of a fluid, meritocratic elite, open to outsiders such as himself.”

References:

1. See, for example: http://www.biography.com/people/lin-manuel-miranda-

041416.

2. See, for example: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/28/theater/hamiltonhits-

a-new-high-the-most-money-grossed-in-a-week-on-broadway.html?_r=0.

3. See, for example: http://www.pinzler.com/ushistory/hamjeffpopsupp.html.

4. Chernow, R. (2004) Alexander Hamilton. London: Penguin Books Ltd.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. See, for example: http://www.biography.com/people/john-adams-37967.

9. See, for example: https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-04-02-

0079.

10. See, for example: http://www.biography.com/people/james-madison-9394965.

11. See, for example: http://allthingshamilton.com/index.php/alexanderhamilton/

hamilton-trivia/65-quizzes-and-trivia/135-trivia-hamiltonconstitution.

12. See, for example: http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/documents/1786-1800/thefederalist-

papers/.

13. See, for example: http://www.history.com/topics/john-jay.

14. See, for example: http://www.biography.com/people/aaron-burr-9232241.

15. Chernow, R. (2004) op. cit.

 

Category: Book Reviews, Winter 2017

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