A Man of Singular Ambition

Hamilton: Writings
Alexander Hamilton, Prof Joanne B. Freeman, ed.
A Library of America Volume

loa_hamiltonWhy should we read history?

I should clarify. I’m not asking about textbooks. Nor do I really care about popular histories written by journalists or media personalities. Reading those beats reading no history but they are to the real thing as Danielle Steele is to literature.

I’m talking historical monographs and rooting around in the primary sources. The dry stuff that makes people hate history more than memorizing dates. Why do it? Well, to better understand what you’re talking about for one thing.

Which brings me to the Founding of these United States. Tackle that subject and you get into the political theory behind the system we have and the thinkers who designed it. Among those, none looms larger than James Madison, at least for a certain type of PoliSci professor. Consider Madison: secretary to the Constitutional Convention, co-author of The Federalist Papers and future President of the United States. What’s not to love?

Yet the fact is, one rarely hears Madison’s name outside  sentences that also contain one of two phrases: ‘In Federalist 10,…’ or ‘In Federalist 51,….’ Something’s amiss and it took me spending time with the present volume to put my finger on it.

AH_SawbuckIn school I’d read The Federalist Papers, but in one of those editions that didn’t identify which of the three authors wrote which paper (all were signed Publius at the time of publication, regardless of authorship.) So it was a bit of a shock, wading through the writings of Alexander Hamilton, to realize that the man whose portrait  graces the ten-dollar bill wrote fully 5/8 of The Federalist.

Actually, one wonders with all his writing how he had time for anything else. This volume, all 1033 pages of it, is but a fraction of Hamilton’s collected works. Either modern popular culture sucks up more time than is imaginable or the man’s output was exceptional. Because in addition to all the words, he fathered 8 children, established the Department of the Treasury, founded The Bank of New York, The New York Evening Post and ran a thriving law practice in New York. It’s exhausting just typing it all.

So the man was hyperactive. But it’s more than that. Hamilton’s was an intelligence functioning at the highest level not just theorizing and advocating, but down in the details as well.

Hamilton made his initial mark as an aide to George Washington during the War for Independence (he’d actually called attention to himself as a student at King’s College, now Columbia University, authoring pamphlets defending the colonial position). He subsequently left that post amid a falling out with the General. I’m vague on the details and Hamilton’s resignation/apology letter is, too. He took a field command in which he acquitted himself well at the Battle of Yorktown. At war’s end he began study of the law and rapidly moved into politics and private practice.

Then came the Constitutional Convention and a 32-year-old Hamilton emerged in all his glory. Always commercial-minded (he’d been a clerk in his native West Indies), his interest lay in creating a strong government that would enable business to thrive. He worked within the Convention to shape the form of government. And when the Constitution was sent to the states he became, essentially, Publius, the great advocate. If nothing else, reading Hamilton will demonstrate to you what skilled advocacy looks like. He never loses sight of what he hopes to achieve for his client.

general-us-treasury-11When the Constitution was ratified Washington tapped Hamilton to set up the U.S. Treasury and he became the nation’s first Secretary of the department. Hamilton’s forcefulness was also his blind spot; once he decided on a course of action he was relentless in seeing it through. So he set up the nation’s financial structure which included devising, advocating for and ultimately executing a debt reorganization plan that set the nation’s finances straight while enraging a significant portion of Congress.

It’s fair to say that Hamilton was a little thin-skinned. He’s forever admonishing people for slights against him and he seems to take exception to anyone playing the great American game of getting ahead. In the former department, disagreement, especially political disagreement, is always personally directed at him. As to the latter, he repeatedly uses a phrase, a ‘man of ‘irregular ambition,’ that seems to mean someone who is just nakedly self-interested. Surely no one was more ambitious than Hamilton, who writes regularly of his need to make money and have an impact.

Still, the man figured out lots of important things. American history majors may recall hearing of the three great reports Hamilton produced while at Treasury:the Report on Credit,  the Report on a National Bank and the Report on Manufactures. These three alone would have made the man’s name.

In the first he lays out an argument not just for a nationally chartered bank, but essentially for central banking and a system not unlike the Federal Reserve. He did this about 125 years and at least a dozen bank panics and depressions before the country finally got around to it. The Report on Credit is not just a restructuring proposal, it’s a detailed financial analysis down to the tenth of a cent. I have visions of scraps of parchment and quill pens furiously scribing sums and calculations on them in every direction. The Report on Manufactures speaks to a knowledge of what is actually going on in the economy that should make the typical CNBC pundit (or Sec Treas) think twice before speaking.

The argument for reading history, in the end,  is to put aside your misconceptions and latter-day interpretations. Hamilton has become a sort of saint for certain modern Conservatives when what he actually is the best example of that now essentially extinct species, a Rockefeller Republican. He believed in what’s come to be called a national economic policy. He believed in debt used wisely. He believed in government investment in things that would improve the prosperity of  the country. And he had limited patience for those who argued, as Jefferson did , that the government should be small and do little to nothing.

That last bit is important because when someone with an ax to grind writes ‘history’ anything is possible. Modern partisans of the Democratic Party have an extraordinary ability to explain away the shortcomings of the Virginians in particular. By comparison to the folks who formed the Republican-Democratic party (successor to the Anti-Federalists and forerunner of today’s DP), Hamilton was a moralist.

Let me be fair, though. He was an all-too typical example of a moralist. If he didn’t invent the rough and tumble of partisan politics he at the very least used the tools well. He leaked. He inveighed. He published long pamphlets exculpating his own behavior. He was an adulterer. And he sort of invented the revolving door between the federal government and the private sector. So the things we complain about have always been with us; there was no pristine era of good government and less-than rancorous politics.

But when push came to shove, he’d often do the right thing. He was a founder of the New York Manumission Society. (Madison owned slaves until the day he died as did Jefferson, Washington and Monroe. Only Washington, upon his death, freed his.) He helped found a model industrial/training town at Patterson, New Jersey. He accepted the responsibilities that came with advocating positions.

On that last point, Hamilton advocated for a forceful, military response to the Whiskey Rebellion.  When Washington decided to pursue that course of action Hamilton took leave of his official position and reactivated his commission, leading troops alongside the President. Here’s Hamilton in a letter to his sister, explaining his position in words that seem to apply to no modern political of any stripe : ” In popular governments, ’tis useful that  those who propose measures should partake in whatever dangers they may involve.”

Alexander Hamilton's grave, Trinity Churchyard, New York

Alexander Hamilton’s grave, Trinity Churchyard, New York

Ultimately it’s his thin skin, political maneuvering and moralizing that does Hamilton in. Hamilton’s life was famously cut short in a duel with Aaron Burr. There’s good reason to believe that Hamilton honored the invitation to the ‘interview,’ as they termed it, without actually shooting directly at Burr.

Hamilton lies buried in a marble tomb in the yard of Trinity Church, where Broadway meets Wall Street. It’s sort of an apt intersection even if it’s an accident of time and place.

I finished this volume on a train to New York and detoured past the grave site on the way to the office. Whatever you think of Hamilton, we’ll never see his likes again.

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4 thoughts on “A Man of Singular Ambition

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