Tuesday, June 15, 2004Ron Chernow's excellent biography will hopefully revive public interest in our least known founding father. This would be a welcome change, because no person in American history has had a more profound and long-lasting effect than he has.
Let's just review his amazing career. An illegitimate orphan from the Carribean, he arrived in New York in 1772 and immediately dived into revolutionary politics, where he became a leading pamphleteer in his teens. In 1776 he dropped out of Columbia to join the Continental Army, and within a year he was George Washington's Chief of Staff. He led the decisive assault at Yorktown, and then retired to get his law degree. Concerned with the instability of the country under the Articles of Confederation, he began working for a new Constitution, and was instrumental in calling the Convention at Philadelphia. With the document written, he teamed up with Madison to write the Federalist Papers, the greatest contribution by America to political theory until John Rawls. In those papers he articulated what would become the modern notions of executive power and judicial review. He also led the successful fight for ratification in New York.
At 32, Hamtilton was named the first Secretary of the Treasury, where became Washington's de facto Prime Minister (only Robert Kennedy has rivalled him in influence among Cabinet officers). There he restored financial order to the country, establishing a central bank, assuming state debts, and laying the foundations for American industrial power. He also established the theory of implied powers and the role of the President in the policymaking process. Finally, he was the original exponent of a realist foreign policy (not the Bush kind, the cautious kind). Oh, and he was one of the first major leaders of the abolitionist movement in America.
Out of office in 1794, he retained great influence in the Federalist Party. He feuded with John Adams over the Quasi-War with France. In 1800 he convinced Federalists to support Thomas Jefferson over Aaron Burr in our first major electoral crisis. Burr never forgot, and when Hamilton again blocked him, this time for Governor of New York, Burr dishonorably shot him in a duel (we all know that part). Hamilton was only 47 years old.
So why don't we all laud him as man essential to our present success? Because Jefferson and Adams and their partisans have spent 200 year blackening his reputation. Even men like FDR, who was one of our greatest Hamiltonians, wrapped himself in Jeffersonian rhetoric and assailing Hamilton as an economic elitist and monarchist?
All this also raises another big question. If Hamilton is so great, what are we supposed to think of Jefferson, his biggest rival? I'll compare the two men tomorrow.