I’d like to turn back to the Federalist Papers for this next series of posts, and in particular to the first article in the series, which helped established what was at stake for Americans in their evaluation of the proposed Constitution and arguably set the tone for the many essays that followed. I do this because I find it’s evaluation of the challenges facing the United States in the late 1780s, and those inherent in the ratification process of the Constitution, to be distinctly sober and pragmatic. Unlike the soaring language of Thomas Jefferson, or the earnest, deep-seated sincerity of George Washington, Federalist #1 is a very grounded piece of literature, and though the conclusions it offers are at times oversimplify the reality of 1780s America, its voice is one of caution and moderation, and yet also of confidence. Considering its author, the redoubtable Alexander Hamilton, this should come as no surprise.
A political realist whose unsentimental worldview often made his contemporaries uncomfortable, Hamilton was also supremely self-possessed and held a clear vision of his country’s future that he was, more often than not, unwilling to compromise. For this and other reasons, Hamilton was really the odd duck of the Revolutionary generation. Though he was both an immigrant and a self-made man, traits which later generations of American politicians wouldn’t have hesitated to use to their advantage, he spent most of his adult life attempting to distance himself from his rather course upbringing, and to cultivate an air of self-assured gentility. Like Jefferson his life was a study in contradictions, and yet the two men could not have been more different. He was a pragmatist who lost his life in a duel over perceived insults. He was a foreigner who became a passionate American nationalist. Perhaps because he wasn’t a native he was able to perceive the challenges that America faced more clearly than many of his colleagues. And perhaps this is why his voice stands out among the Founders, and why I’d like to take a moment to examine just a small portion of his life’s output and the peculiar point of view it embodies.
Because I’ve already discussed at length the circumstances leading up to the drafting of the United States Constitution and the publishing of the Federalist Papers, and because the details of Hamilton’s biography are perhaps not as well-known as certain other of the Founding Fathers, I’ll take this opportunity to provide a brief overview of his life up to 1787 and the first appearance of Federalist #1 in the New York newspapers.
As I said, Alexander Hamilton was not born in what’s come to be known as the Thirteen Colonies but rather came into the world on the tiny island of Nevis, one of the Leeward Islands in the British Caribbean. His exact year of birth is somewhat uncertain, given that he tended to claim it as 1757 while certain documents place it instead as 1755. Whatever the year, Hamilton was born out of wedlock to a woman of French Huguenot (Calvinist Protestant) descent, Rachel Faucette, and James A. Hamilton, fourth son of a Scottish landowner and a notoriously unlucky businessman and merchant. Because of his legal status as a bastard he was denied entry into the Anglican-run school on the island, and so his early education instead consisted of private tutoring. Sometime after relocating with his family to St. Croix in the Danish Virgin Islands, James left Rachel and their two sons, claiming that he wished to spare her the charge of bigamy after her husband, a prominent Danish merchant, made it known that he intended to sue her for divorce. Though she attempted to support her children by keeping a store in Christiansted, the island capital, Rachel passed away in 1768 after contracting a fever, leaving Alexander and his younger brother James effectively orphaned.
Hamilton was then remanded to the custody of his cousin, Peter Lytton, who not long after committed suicide. Orphaned again, he and his brother were then separated and apprenticed, Alexander to merchant Thomas Stevens and James to a local carpenter. As a clerk in the merchant firm of Beekman and Cruger, Hamilton got his first taste of the financial world in which he would later make his name, and for a five-month period in 1771 was effectively left in charge of the business while its owner was at sea. In 1772, after an essay he wrote that detailed the devastating hurricane that thrashed Christiansted in August of that year was published in the Royal Danish-American Gazette, community leaders took an interest in his further education and put together a modest fund so that the youth might travel to the American mainland and attend one of prestigious colleges located there. He subsequently left the Caribbean for Boston in the fall of 1772, never to return.
Though initially intent on enrolling at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), Hamilton ultimately attended King’s College (now Columbia University) in New York City, and during his years there first became acquainted with the ongoing dispute between the colonies and the Crown. In 1774, at age 19, he published his first political writings, a lengthy refutation of a Loyalist critique on the actions of the First Continental Congress then meeting in Philadelphia. Hamilton’s approach was highly methodical, systematic, and confident, set the tone for his later literary efforts, and placed him firmly in the emerging radical Patriot camp. This political affiliation was further consummated in 1775 when, after news arrived of the first engagement between British and American troops in Massachusetts, Hamilton and many of his fellow students formed a volunteer militia company known as the Hearts of Oak. After capturing several British field pieces (cannons) located at the Battery on the southern tip of Manhattan Island, the Hearts of Oak became an artillery company, and thereafter served in the battles of White Plains and Trenton with Hamilton as their captain. In 1776, after refusing similar offers from various Continental Army commanders, Hamilton agreed to serve as General George Washington’s chief of staff. It was during these years of service that he met and married Elizabeth Schuyler, daughter of one of the most prominent landowning families in New York. By marrying Elizabeth, Hamilton was able to transcend his status as an immigrant by becoming a part of the highly factional, clannish politics of the Empire State. As a member of the Schuyler family he found himself with any number of enemies and allies who would come to shape and define his political life for years to come.
Hamilton remained with Washington for the duration of his service in the army, and in the process forged a close personal and political relationship with the future president that would prove to be among the most significant of both their lives. After serving in a frontline position at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, a role he pleaded with Washington to let him fulfill, he resigned his commission and was appointed to represent the state of New York at the Continental Congress. There, he occupied himself mainly with advocating for a stronger federal government that could more easily collect the taxes it imposed on the states, or even secure its own independent source of revenue. Hamilton had witnessed, during his time in the army, how ineffective Congress was at funding its various initiatives, and how it impacted the American military effort. Accordingly he believed, along with men like Robert Morris and James Wilson, that the survival of the Union and its stature on the world stage was to be determined mainly in the economic arena. When underpaid Continental soldiers stationed at Newburgh, New York threatened to mutiny in 1783, Hamilton seized upon what he perceived as an opportunity to shock his fellow members of Congress into compliance with his views. Secretly encouraging the officers leading the mutineers to press their demands while also arguing in Congress for a stronger federal government, Hamilton’s plans were ultimately defeated when his mentor and friend General Washington personally addressed the assembled soldiers and effectively defused the uprising.
Frustrated by his lack of progress in converting his colleagues in Congress to his way of thinking, Hamilton resigned in July, 1783 and returned to his adopted home in New York. In the years that followed he took up the practice of law, chiefly defending Loyalists and British subjects who’d had their property seized in the aftermath of the Revolution. He also helped found the Bank of New York, restored his alma mater of King’s College after it had been severely damaged and shuttered during the war, and became a member of the New York state legislature. In 1786 and 1787, Hamilton proved instrumental in organizing first the Annapolis Convention, during which possible amendments to the Articles of Confederation where discussed, and later the Philadelphia Convention, during which an entirely new federal constitution was drafted. In Philadelphia he advocated, as ever, for a strong central government that would not be forced to rely on the states for revenue, and which would possess sufficient authority to enforce its decisions. To this end he proposed electing Senators and a President for life on the basis of good behavior, and even suggested that state governors be appointed by the federal government. These efforts at severely curtailing the authority of the states and creating a system that prized stability over responsiveness earned him ample criticism, and he was for years afterwards pegged as a monarchist by his detractors. In spite of the opposition many of his views met with, and the fact that the final draft of the Constitution was not substantially to his liking, he put his name to it, believing it to be preferable to the existing government under the Articles. He thereafter became one of the document’s strongest supporters during the ratification debate that followed, and recruited fellow New Yorker John Jay and Virginian James Madison to help pen a series of essays defending the new charter and promoting its adoption. Of the 85 articles that resulted Hamilton wrote 51, starting with Federalist #1 on October 27, 1787.
Having said all that, a few key elements of Hamilton’s biography stand out as relevant to a basic understanding of his political persona. One is his at times bloody-minded pragmatism. Unlike many of his colleagues and fellow revolutionaries, who seemed inclined to characterize the formation of the United States as the culmination of human history or the embodiment of Enlightenment philosophical theory, Hamilton was more likely to portray the Revolution and the events that followed in terms of what was possible and what was necessary, how much this would cost and how much of that was required. This may have been due in part to his somewhat shaky childhood. Growing up in obscure tropical outposts of vast empires, losing first one parent, then the other, and then his guardian, facing hurricanes and being thrust into the business world at a young age no doubt taught young Alexander that reality was harsh, and that one’s fondest hopes were best not relied on. In addition, his experiences in the Continental Army, particularly as Washington’s adjunct, surely reinforced in him the need to match ones goals to the circumstances at hand. His time under Washington no doubt also helped to instill in him among his most cherished principles, his nationalism.
Among men who’d served in the army it was a common trait, and one he shared with his mentor. Having experienced the Revolution as part of one of the only truly national bodies in the United States in the 1770s, serving alongside men from New York, South Carolina, Pennsylvania and Maryland, and having to constantly wrangle with Congress for funds and supplies, Hamilton and many of his compatriots came to view the Union as something more than an ideal or a matter of convenience. For them, and certainly for him, the union of the several states was a living, breathing entity, greater than the sum of its parts and in need of preservation and promotion. His subsequent career in Congress, and his frequent attempts to encourage the formation of a stronger federal government and closer ties between the states, is testament enough of Hamilton’s abiding pride in his adopted nation and his desire to see its strength augmented.
And then there is, of course, his seemingly unshakable confidence. What strikes me about this particular aspect of Hamilton’s personality is how early it seemed to manifest. At age 17 he left behind the only home he had ever known in the Caribbean in pursuit of his education; at 19 he was writing essays for publication that were in answer to treatises by men more than twice his age; by his early twenties he was leading an artillery company into battle; by age 30 he was helping to shape his nation’s constitution. It was a whirlwind life, and Hamilton appeared to approach every challenge utterly convinced of his own abilities. In part, I wonder if this was a form of compensation for his status as a foreigner. Though America was by no means the haven of aristocracy that Britain had become, there certainly existed a form of social hierarchy that was based on birth, education, family connections, and wealth. Being by definition an outsider in this world, with no family to rely on, no wealth of his own, and an education that was the product of others’ charity, he perhaps felt the need to continually overawe his potential detractors with displays of cunning, tenacity, bravery, ingenuity and industriousness. As the efforts of his early adulthood met with one success after another his self-assuredness was perhaps magnified, all in service of displacing the poor orphan form the West Indies that had arrived in America in favor of a polished, hard-working, more socially acceptable persona.
But now I see I’ve lapsed into what we called in Grad school, “psychoanalysing dead people.” Without being able to say if any of the conclusions I’ve just drawn are absolutely true, I hope that I’ve been able to convey how unlike most of the other Founding Fathers Alexander Hamilton was, and how his experiences shaped the way he viewed the United States, its purpose, and its future.