Sunday, March 29, 2015

Alexander Hamilton Returns


It’s no mistake that people are discovering Hamilton again, that least known, most difficult to appreciate, and perhaps the most personally conflicted, of America’s Founding Fathers. Less a politician than a matchless administrator, Hamilton was a leader who actually seems to have believed the things he said, a man who did not use his time in government to feather his own nest.  He was self-made, without family or fortune, but with a unique, nuts and bolts understanding the new science of economics and the realities of international trade, of money and banking. The men Hamilton worked beside, men like Washington and Jefferson, were American aristocrats, slave owners, whose power base lay in land. Jefferson, particularly, took an almost feudal view of the future, imagining a new nation comprised of large landowners ruling over laboring classes of sharecroppers and slaves.

Hamilton’s political enemies, busy calling his patriotism into question, conveniently overlooked the fact that a large part of his character was almost Quixotic. Far from being a man obsessed with self-interest, he often behaved like a knight strayed in from some earlier age. At the start of the Revolution, he gave his hard-won college money to outfit a rebel artillery company. He crossed the Delaware with the remains of George Washington's army as a foot-sore captain, freezing and hungry beside his men. During the war, he was the kind of officer who led from the front, and also the kind who intervened when his soldiers, still hot from battle, wanted to summarily execute their prisoners.  As an aide-de-camp, he served his boss George Washington selflessly and tirelessly, becoming the perfect secretary/assistant to a beleaguered general with no other such brilliant props upon which to lean. After the war, in his new incarnation as attorney, he was not afraid to defend ex-loyalists whose property had been illegally seized by vengeful neighbors. Hamilton also advocated for ordinary men, one a humble ferry owner, whipped and bullied by a local landlord. Law, Hamilton said, should be dealt alike to all citizens, whether rich or poor.

For a brief time, he even may have dreamed, during the heady first years after America’s founding, that we could have a “pure” government, one without party, because servants of this new republic would be genuinely ‘public-spirited’. After all, if a person wished only the common good—as opposed to only ‘good’ for ones’ friends-- by use of the ancient tools of common law, common sense and ordered debate--pragmatic, mutually agreeable solutions must, naturally, emerge. ‘The People’ (as then defined) could govern themselves, not only without the aid of a king or dictator, but without special interest groups, too. 

But Hamilton was also an outsider, an immigrant, a “come here,” a fact his enemies never forgot or forgave. Worse, he was born illegitimate. An orphan, he arrived on these shores as a charity child. He was called, slightingly, a “Creole,” or, with franker hostility, by John Adams, “the bastard brat of a Scots peddler.”  Interestingly, this is the trope which has moved Hamilton back into public consciousness. Lin-Manuel Miranda, a multi-talented first generation American, is making a big splash with a hip-hop opera at The Public Theater in NYC.  I learned about this exciting theater piece around the time I’d begun re-editing a decade old “in-the-drawer” book—The Master Passion—but this unforeseen enthusiasm, and its success, truly delighted me. After all, someone young, gifted and vocal also wanted to make some art out of the life of this colorful, fascinating genius. 

Hamilton has been in my life since I was ten. I’d early learned that he’d worked against slavery, and that, like the wandering lost prince of all the fairy tales, he’d come to the ‘Kingdom’ with nothing but the brilliant head on his shoulders. As a teen, he'd fought for freedom. He’d won the respect of a legendary commanding general and won the hand of a local 'princess'. He’d spent the rest of his life devising ways to help his adopted country become well-governed, rich and happy. He'd fought like a tiger to get his brilliant—but far-less well-informed and/or insightful 'founding brothers'—to understand and assist his plans.

I won't go into Funding & Assumption or his many other financial plans here. The simplest way to explain Hamilton's importance to America is that if he hadn’t created a system to unite those thirteen bickering colonies by getting them to pay the debts incurred to fighting men—and to the businessmen who’d backed the war of independence—there would be no United States today.  Then as now, nation or family, paying the bills is essential to safety and security, the firm base from which all creative endeavor and industry flows.

Unavoidably, Hamilton was also a man of his time, one scarred by a childhood full of violence, poverty and humiliation. He was a true genius and as result could be vain, brash and impatient with slower minds. He injured and embarrassed his family and friends with a sordid love-affair. His insecurities and his anger toward the enemies who dragged him through the mud caused the political missteps which destroyed his own Federalist party. The duel in which Hamilton died might have been avoided by a more circumspect man, one more assured of his status as a 'gentleman'.

Beyond all, he remains--to me and to others--a true tragic hero, a great man destroyed by fatal flaws. If Alexander Hamilton hadn’t come here, hadn’t fought in the Revolution, or practiced law and set still important precedents, hadn't been one of those critical first creative, hard-working public servants,  there probably would be no United States today.

A few good books on a large subject:


Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow ISBN: 1594200092 Penguin, 2005

The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 21 volumes, Harold C. Syrett, Ed., Columbia University, 1987

Founding Brothers by Joseph L. Ellis, ISBN: 9780375405440, Knopf, 2000

Hamilton by Forrest McDonald, ISBN: 9780393300482, W.W. Norton, 1988

Alexander Hamilton and the Constitution, by Clinton L. Rossiter, Harcourt, Brace, ISBN: 9780151042159, 1964

~~Juliet Waldron