During his short exile from Revolutionary France, a famously corrupt former French Foreign Minister, Talleyrand, glimpsed the ex-US Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton, working by candlelight late at night. Talleyrand couldn’t comprehend why a former cabinet secretary, a finance secretary no less, had to work at all after almost six years in government.
Despite his remarkable achievements, I’ve found that many Article V COS opponents unjustly vilify the man who, while impoverishing himself and family through government service, enriched his nation. The often unhinged hostility of these people and others is only surpassed by contemporary Trump Derangement Syndrome.
Alexander Hamilton was born in 1757 on Nevis, a speck of an island in the Caribbean Sea. As opposed to the orderly New England villages of other Founders and Framers, Hamilton saw in the trading center of Nevis the worst of man’s proclivities. From pirates and crime to auctions in which he witnessed the branding of slaves, one historian, Ron Chernow described Nevis as a “tropical hellhole of dissipated whites and fractious slaves. Early on, a merchant recognized Hamilton’s intelligence and entrusted him at fourteen years of age to clerk his business, in which he excelled. These early lessons in man’s nature, slavery, and business would serve Hamilton well.
Thanks to his intellect, some Nevis merchants combined to pay his way in 1773 to King’s College in New York City.
His earliest writings in 1775 were as radical as those of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and James Wilson. Like any young man, he was long on idealism. He endorsed political decentralization, representative democracy and civil disobedience to secure liberty while simultaneously supporting the centralization of power in a very undemocratically elected Continental Congress. Hamilton wasn’t alone. His muddled thinking typified an unstable period in which the challenges of newly established governments and the necessities of war overwhelmed everyone.
At a time when a small minority of colonists took up arms against Great Britain, young Alexander Hamilton was among them. The idealistic Hamilton sought fame and honor in an often dishonorable social order cut loose from the British Crown. As opposed to modern perceptions, public virtue did not abound during the Revolutionary War. Among the selfless patriots were price gouging merchants who preyed upon the troops defending them, as bands of thugs pillaged the countryside under the pretense of combatting Tories. Perhaps worst of all, the new state governments and Congress alike engaged in an orgy of expropriation, ostensibly to finance the war, but often to enrich some individuals at the expense of the greater good.
He dropped out of college in 1776, and was in the Army from the ages of nineteen to twenty-four, initially as the captain of sixty-eight artillerymen. He wrote, “There is a certain enthusiasm in liberty, that makes human nature rise above itself, in acts of bravery and heroism.” Bravery indeed, and Alexander Hamilton inspired his men through his example and by ensuring that their achievements were recognized and rewarded. His professionalism came to the attention of his superiors. General Washington deep selected him in 1777 to Lieutenant Colonel to serve as his aide-de-camp. There was no better staff officer and administrator in the Continental Army than Alexander Hamilton.
During these Army years he picked up in study where he left off in experience in Nevis: economics. From Malachy Postlethwayt’s Universal Dictionary of Trade and Commerce, Wyndham Beawes’s Lex Mercatoria, Richard Price’s Raising Money for Public Loans and perhaps Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations he studied the theoretical and practical insights into problems facing the American cause. And not just economics. He consumed David Hume. Hume conceded that “Honor is a great check upon mankind. But, where a considerable body of men act together, this check is in a great measure removed.” Legislatures can act as if not one member had any regard for public interest and liberty. So, from the assumption that men are inherently corrupted by lust for power and money, the antidote is to design a government that harnesses passions and directs them toward the common good.
In November 1782, Hamilton resigned his position as tax receiver for the State of New York to represent New York in Congress.
All of these experiences, the corruption, imbecility, incompetence, want of patriotism in Congress and the states further opened Hamilton’s eyes. We cannot underestimate these lessons learned. First among them was that a headless, incompetent Congress got Americans killed. He wrote, “we run the much greater risk of having a weak and disunited federal government, than one which will be able to usurp the rights of the people.”
It is no wonder that many future Federalists were former Army officers.
In 1786, he joined John Jay’s New York Manumission Society. Thanks to its efforts, the last slaves in New York were emancipated by July 4, 1827. The process was the largest emancipation in North America before 1861.
He was a delegate to the Annapolis convention of 1786 and was largely responsible for the federal convention the next year.
On June 18th of the federal convention he launched a strategic assault on the minds of deadlocked delegates. His all-day speech in support of a parliamentary system as an alternative to the Randolph and Paterson Plans shocked his fellow delegates into making the decision to dump the Articles of Confederation and design a new plan of government.
As the motive force behind The Federalist, he defended the Constitution, primarily against NY Governor George Clinton, whose state stood to lose lucrative impost revenue.
At age thirty-four he began service, for five and a half years, as the first Treasury Secretary. As such, he steered the nation from the brink of ruin to a sound financial basis. He produced three major reports on debt, taxes, manufacturing, and a national bank in 1790 and 1791, all with the intent to lead the people into a free, opulent, and law abiding society in a limited republican government.
Three financial historians found that Hamilton all but saved the center of the nation’s economy by inventing the techniques that today’s central banks use to manage crises. In the midst of a 1792 financial crisis, he steadied nerves with a series of creative lender-of-last-resort operations and open-market purchases.
Hamilton was exonerated in 1793 and 1794 of trumped-up accusations by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson over malfeasance in office.
When he read the draft Sedition Act in 1798 – which allowed the jailing of administration critics, he rebuked its authors. “Energy is a very different thing from violence,” he said. “Let us not establish a tyranny.”
The sweep of American history is far more Hamiltonian than Jeffersonian. America is business. At every State of the Union speech, Presidents boast of their Hamiltonian achievements in lively commerce and a powerful military.
Had a dozen men each achieved only one of Hamilton’s accomplishments, history would treat them with the respect due to brave soldiers, patriotic statesmen, efficient administrators, keen political writers, and economic thinkers. But we needn’t disperse our admiration among a dozen men. Alexander Hamilton alone personified these qualities and abilities so critical to the early survival of the American Union.
McDonald, F. (1979). Alexander Hamilton – A Biography. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Tartakovsky, J. (2018 ). The Lives of the Constitution. New York: Encounter Books.