by I.K. Mullins
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In order to switch between pages of Part I. A Summary of the Key Ideas and Facts in Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, please use tabs located beneath this message (i.e., 1. Childhood and Early Years, 2. Education and Early Writings, Moving to America, 3. The Revolutionary War, etc.).
1. Childhood and Early Years
Chernow’s book begins with the story of Hamilton’s family in the Caribbean. In the 1740s, Hamilton’s mother, Rachel Fawcett, was married to sugar planter John Lavien, who often beat her. He even had Rachel imprisoned for a short period. Rachel then left Lavien and moved to the islands of Nevis and St. Kitts in the Caribbean, where she met James Hamilton. They lived together for almost fifteen years while she remained formally married to Lavien.
James Hamilton, Sr. was a Scottish nobleman. The fourth of eleven children, he had no chance of inheritance and struggled to make a living. James Hamilton and Rachel Lavien had two sons: James and Alexander. James was born in 1753. According to Alexander Hamilton’s testimony, he was born on Nevis, an island in the British West Indies. Even though the year 1757 is generally accepted as his birth year based on what Hamilton and his family claimed, Chernow argues in his book that Hamilton was born in 1755.
Alexander was about ten years old when he and his family moved back to the island of St. Croix. There, James Hamilton, Sr. discovered that Rachel was still married to John Lavien. As a result, James Senior returned to Nevis and St. Kitts, leaving Rachel and his sons behind. Even though Alexander wrote to his father for the rest of his life, he never saw him again.
Lavien used divorce proceedings in order to disinherit Rachel and her children. He arranged the trial that labeled Hamilton’s mother as a woman with “whore-children.” Rachel died of a fever in 1768, and Lavien received the divorce decree after her sudden death, leaving fourteen-year-old Alexander and his brother James penniless. They were placed under the guardianship of Rachel’s first cousin Peter Lytton, an unsuccessful businessman who had gone bankrupt. In July of 1769, Lytton was found in bed dead in a pool of his own blood. Questions about his death remained unanswered. Hamilton’s aunt, uncle and grandmother also died during Alexander’s youth.
In order to survive, the teenaged Alexander had to work as a clerk in the offices of wealthy merchant Nicholas Cruger. Cruger traded all over the Caribbean and with the British colonies that later became the United States. Cruger noticed Alexander’s intelligence and business talents. At the age of fifteen, Alexander kept expense and profit ledgers, communicated with local authorities and merchant ship captains, and coordinated business efforts between the captains, planters and government officials. Chernow points out in his book that this business experience allowed Hamilton to develop a detailed understanding of the inner workings of business and economics.
Analysis and Comments
In his book, Chernow vividly describes the violence and cruelty that Hamilton witnessed on the islands when he was very young. For example, Chernow writes in his book about a slave owner who administered 365 lashes to a male slave and 292 to a female slave. He also comments that Hamilton may have had to inspect and price slaves because they were treated as imported commodities. Chernow wonders if these scenes of brutality accounted for Hamilton’s pessimism about human nature.
What is more, Hamilton’s upbringing may indicate that Hamilton searched for a father figure, which he probably later found in George Washington. Chernow’s investigation of the mysteries of Hamilton’s birth and the background of his family life also reveals how Hamilton had to struggle in order to integrate himself into the uppermost circles of American public life.
Chernow’s observations offer a valuable insight into how Hamilton’s early life experience raised his awareness of the unfairness and inequality that so many people have to deal with. When Hamilton’s life is compared with the privileged life of Thomas Jefferson, the reader can better understand how Hamilton’s early life experience made him so different from Jefferson, and made Hamilton realize the important role that government and governmental institutions have to play in building a fair and civilized society.
2. Education and Early Writings, Moving to America
Hamilton’s formal education as a child was minimal. After his mother died in 1768, he had to take his first job as a clerk in the offices of wealthy merchant Nicholas Cruger. Hamilton wanted to attend school, but he figured that his dream of getting education was unattainable because of his improper birth and lack of money. Luckily for Hamilton, both Reverend Hugh Knox, a minister at the local Presbyterian Church, and Cruger recognized Hamilton’s business acumen. They convinced him to leave St. Croix for New York City.
The teenaged Hamilton was already really good at writing. He had even published several letters and poems in a local newspaper in St. Croix. When a hurricane devastated the island, Hamilton wrote a very persuasive letter to a local periodical describing the impact of the hurricane. His letter inspired local businessmen to create a subscription fund in order to send Hamilton to North America to get an education. As Chernow observes in his book, Hamilton was able to write “his way out of poverty.”
Knox wanted Hamilton to attend the Presbyterian-run College of New Jersey. Later, the College became known as Princeton University. Cruger used his influence to secure an interview for Hamilton at the College of New Jersey. In October of 1772, Hamilton left St. Croix. After boarding a ship heading to New York, Hamilton did not feel any desire to ever return to the Caribbean. Upon his arrival to New York, he became determined to make the United States his new home.
Because Knox and Cruger realized that Hamilton needed a crash course to get ready for the academic rigors of the College of New Jersey, they arranged for him to first study Latin and Greek at the Presbyterian Academy in Elizabethtown, New Jersey. At the Academy, Hamilton had an opportunity to meet many notable intellectuals. He also befriended many of the trustees, including the headmaster. Hamilton studied for several months and was considered prepared for entering the College by the summer of 1773.
Knox and Cruger arranged for Hamilton an interview with Dr. John Witherspoon, the president of the College of New Jersey. The interview did not go well because Hamilton asked to be admitted to the college as a special student and to be allowed to proceed through the courses of study at a faster pace. Witherspoon denied his request.
Hamilton then turned his attention to King’s College in New York City, which was later renamed as Columbia University. Myles Cooper, the president of King’s College, granted Hamilton’s request for independent accelerated study. Hamilton did move through his academic courses quickly. He even paid college professors to provide him with personal instruction. Initially, Hamilton was thinking about becoming a doctor. This is why he took as many science courses as possible. However, Hamilton changed his mind after he began studying history and philosophy. He spent many hours writing and debating.
Even though Hamilton had a respect for King George III and Parliament, he also supported the American struggle for independence. At King’s College, Hamilton became a passionate supporter of the colonies’ claims against Great Britain. In 1774, he published a pamphlet in New York City; it was entitled A Full Vindication of the Measures of the Congress. For his pamphlet, Hamilton used the pseudonym “A Friend to America.” The purpose of the pamphlet was to rebut a newspaper article that had attacked the Continental Congress. In his pamphlet, Hamilton defended the delegates in Philadelphia and argued that Britain had no right to attack the liberties of the American colonies. In 1775, Hamilton then wrote another pamphlet, “A Farmer Refuted.” In this pamphlet, Hamilton wrote that violence might be needed to make Great Britain listen to the colonies’ demands.
Analysis and Comments
In his book, Chernow thoroughly examines Hamilton’s college years in New York. He discusses Hamilton’s oratory skills, including his first speech against the British sanctions on Massachusetts. Chernow also discusses how Hamilton felt about the people he left behind in St. Croix. Indeed, Hamilton felt indebted to Knox and his cousin Ann Lytton Venton Mitchell. Ann helped support Hamilton when he attended preparatory courses and college. Hamilton corresponded with them irregularly, though, and he never saw them again after moving to America. When Hamilton was dying, he dictated a letter to his wife, Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton. In the letter, he asked that she should provide for Ann after his death.
Hamilton’s experience of getting an education and moving ahead with his life brings a new meaning to the “It-takes-a-village” proverb. It demonstrates that a child or a young person with no financial means can develop his or her best abilities and talents, get a good education and pursue a successful career when community or a network of strong supporters takes an active role in contributing to the rearing of the child.
Whereas Hamilton had very difficult childhood experiences with his family, he was intelligent enough, talented enough and skillful enough to reach out and connect with the people of wealth and social influence who then supported him and helped him get a good education.
The same applies to our modern world with its growing social and economic inequality, in which a good education is very expensive and connections are crucial to one’s success. Which is why I think that Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton should be a must-read for any young man or woman who was not born with a silver spoon in his or her mouth and who wishes to get some timeless insights into navigating the complex world of economic divide and inequality. Of course, as Hamilton’s life demonstrated, support and connections can be truly beneficial for an economically disadvantaged person only when the person is intelligent, talented and willing to study and work very hard.
3. The Revolutionary War
After the Revolutionary War began, Hamilton and several other King’s College men coordinated a volunteer musket drill unit. With the help of veteran professors, Hamilton trained a group of young college boys to shoot and fight. In 1776, he left King’s College and joined a New York militia unit in order to fight against the British.
Hamilton began his military service as an artillery captain. He was given command of a company of approximately 100 men. As a captain, Hamilton demonstrated excellent organizational and leadership skills. His men were always well fed and paid, and their weaponries were properly maintained. Hamilton’s company participated in many battles in the fall of 1776. In January of 1777, his company served as part of the force at the Battle of Princeton.
Hamilton’s excellent service drew the attention of General George Washington, who served as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. Immediately after the Battle of Princeton, Washington invited Hamilton to become one of his aides. Hamilton accepted the invitation and became one of Washington’s aides-de-camp. This appointment was the beginning of a twenty-two-year bond between the two men.
Hamilton was promoted to the rank of lieutenant-colonel at the age of twenty-one. He served on Washington’s staff for four years. His responsibilities included drafting letters for General Washington addressed to congressmen and governors, and coordinating supplies and munitions movements. Washington grew fond of Hamilton and came to rely on him heavily.
In the spring of 1778, Hamilton assisted Washington when the British evacuated Philadelphia. He also assisted Washington at the Battle of Monmouth in June 1778. After the battle, Hamilton was assigned to chase the traitor, Benedict Arnold.
Analysis and Comments
While serving as George Washington’s aide-de-camp, Hamilton used various opportunities to develop the leadership skills necessary to be a public figure. His service also gave him an opportunity to form a strong and lasting friendship with Washington.
Aside from these advancements, historians continue to ask questions about his personal life choices made during that period of time. For example, on December 14, 1780, Hamilton married Elizabeth Schuyler, the daughter of the American general Philip Schuyler, even though for several years, he had been openly saying that he would never marry. Conveniently, Hamilton’s marriage to General Schuyler’s daughter brought Hamilton wealth and more military connections.
In July 1781, Washington gave Hamilton command of an infantry battalion. In October 1781, Hamilton and his battalion fought at the Battle of Yorktown. Soon after the battle, Hamilton left the army. He returned home to his wife Elizabeth, who was at that time pregnant with their first child.
4. Becoming a Lawyer and Drafting the Constitution
In 1781, Hamilton left the military. He spent several months getting ready to pass the New York bar exam. At that time, would-be lawyers had to serve a three-year internship before taking the bar exam. Hamilton requested that the New York Supreme Court offer him special treatment and grant him special waivers so that he could become a lawyer without serving a three-year internship. The Court granted his request because Hamilton had served as George Washington’s aide during the war.
Hamilton did not begin practicing law immediately after he successfully passed the bar exam. Instead, he turned his attention to the new nation’s financial hardships, which can be outlined as follows:
- Huge war debts had amassed. Yet, under the Articles of Confederation, Congress did not have the power to collect taxes from the states in order to raise money to pay its debts. As a result, some states acknowledged Congress’s tax requests, while others states did not, and the national economy suffered.
- Several different types of currencies were circulating throughout the United States: currency issued by Congress, currency issued by some individual states and money printed by private banks.
- Inflation was very high.
In 1781, Hamilton proposed to Congress’s Superintendent of Finance the creation of a national bank in order to regulate the country’s finances. In May 1782, Hamilton was appointed to the position of Receiver of Continental Taxes in New York. Soon after his appointment, Hamilton was elected to Congress as a representative of the State of New York. From October of 1782 until August of 1783, Hamilton served in Congress. He participated in the drafting of the peace treaty between the United States and Great Britain.
In November, 1783, after eight months as a U.S. congressman, Hamilton returned to New York. He then established a legal practice in his Wall Street home. Hamilton’s legal practice turned out to be very profitable as Hamilton represented many of New York’s wealthiest businesses and individuals, as well as Tories who had sided with the British during the Revolutionary War.
Many New Yorkers blamed Hamilton for betraying his countrymen for the sake of earning profit from wealthy loyalists. In response, Hamilton said that the nation should adopt the policy of “forgive and forget” in order to keep loyalist merchants’ money and business in the United States.
In 1786, Hamilton was chosen to represent New York State at a national convention that took place in Annapolis, Maryland. The objective of the convention was to amend the Articles of Confederation. Only a few of the delegates from the other states attended the convention. Without a majority of the states, the Articles could not be amended. Hamilton called for a second convention. The second convention was to be held in Philadelphia in 1787. The delegates took the invitation to the second convention more seriously. During that convention, they drafted the Constitution that would create the framework for a new government.
Whereas Hamilton attended most of the 1787 Philadelphia Convention, he did not participate much in developing the draft of the new document. Hamilton reasoned that the nation needed a new and stronger central government in order to correct the mistakes that were made in the government outlined in the Articles of Confederation. In Hamilton’s opinion, government had to serve three purposes:
- To promote commerce, agriculture, as well as wealth
- To encourage domestic happiness and peacefulness
- To be stable and powerful enough to be respected by foreign governments
Yet, most Americans, including the delegates, felt closer to the ideas of such philosophers as Montesquieu and Locke, who advocated government that derived its power from the people in order to guard personal property. Hamilton called for a new national government that had far-reaching political authority. He argued that state governments should be eliminated entirely so that the country could become a union in which there were no states at all.
Because Hamilton’s ideas about the role of government differed so strongly from the widespread philosophies of his time, many delegates considered Hamilton a radical who supported the notion of a traditional strong national government. Hamilton realized that creating the union without the states was impossible because so many Americans favored the rights of the states over a strong national government. He drafted a proposal for a national government that would centralize power and at the same time allow states to keep many of their rights and individuality.
Hamilton envisioned the new American government divided into three branches:
- An executive branch
- A legislative branch
- A judiciary branch
Such a division of the government would provide checks and balances so that no one branch would become too powerful.
Whereas the system proposed by Hamilton mirrored the British system, it also resembled the form of American government that the delegates in Philadelphia had agreed on. The delegates abandoned the Articles of Confederation and drafted a new document to outline the new government. Even though Hamilton disagreed with some aspects of the new government, he nevertheless signed the Constitution for two reasons:
- He thought that the new Constitution was a move in the right direction.
- He was concerned that the entire union could collapse if the new Constitution were not approved.
After the convention was over, Hamilton travelled back to New York, where he wrote and published a series of essays intended to encourage the people of New York to ratify the new Constitution. Hamilton co-authored these essays with James Madison and John Jay. They used the pseudonym “Publius” for their work, and the collection of their essays became known as the Federalist Papers. The Federalist Papers convinced Americans to ratify the Constitution.
The Federalist Papers include five sections:
- The first section addresses the benefits of a strong national government.
- The second section identifies the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation.
- The third section—written entirely by Hamilton—addresses the strengths of the new Constitution.
- The fourth section supports the new Constitution against claims that it violates “Republican principles.”
- The fifth section explains the structure of the new government.
Analysis and Comments
In his book, Chernow presents thoroughly researched materials, emphasizing that Hamilton played a major role in convincing the nation to adopt the Constitution. Chernow’s book brings to light Hamilton’s role in establishing a national government and highlights his greatest achievement, The Federalist Papers, the series of newspaper essays that Hamilton organized to defend the proposed Constitution.
To understand Hamilton’s aspiration for a central government, one should remember that Hamilton’s approach was strongly influenced by his beliefs that originated from the works of David Hume, an eighteenth-century English philosopher. Hume believed that a nation could function only in the presence of strong government institutions.
Hamilton considered the British system to be the best form of government. It consisted of a strong monarch, an assemblage of aristocrats known as the House of Lords and an assembly of commoners known as the House of Commons. In the British system, the people were allowed to participate in government via representation in Parliament. At the same time, national unity and centralized power were established under the king or queen.
Hamilton’s vision of a United States government demonstrated his preference for the British system. He proposed that the Congress should be divided into the Senate, which would be equivalent to the British aristocratic upper chamber, and the Assembly, the lower chamber that would be represented by the votes of the American people. According to Hamilton, senators would be elected for life and assemblymen would be elected every three years.
I would like to further compare Hamilton’s vision of the role of “commoners” in the political system and his vision of government, which placed aristocrats above the commoners, with that of George Washington. (By definition, American aristocrats are people who consider themselves to be members of the upper class superior to others solely because of their financial standing.) George Washington considered the common people who formed the militias that he was in command of to be “an exceedingly dirty and nasty people [evincing] an unaccountable kind of stupidity in the lower class of these people.”
For example, in Violent Politics, William Polk writes that General Washington “was so anxious to sideline [the fighters he despised] that he came close to losing the Revolution.” He might have actually lost the war if France had not greatly intervened and “saved the Revolution.” Until the French intervention, Revolutionary battles had been fought and won by guerrilla units, whereas Washington’s British-style army “was defeated time after time and almost lost the war.”
In my opinion, Hamilton’s vision of the government has prevailed in the modern United States. I am referring to a modification of Hamilton’s vision in which corporations and private financial institutions play the role of aristocracy, with their political power and influence greatly exceeding the political power and influence of the common people. Of course, in today’s global economy, the same can be said of any other developed country of the world.
Chernow’s review of Hamilton’s legal practice makes me think that Hamilton was a visionary who was way ahead of his time when it comes to a “from-the-government-to-business” career path. Hamilton’s service as a U.S. congressional representative allowed him to expand his political and business network, which in turn probably helped his legal practice attract wealthy clients. If Hamilton had been a regular lawyer without an extended political and business network, it is highly unlikely that his newly established legal practice would have attracted “big money.”
Today, the “government-to-business” path is followed by many political figures who move to the private sector and work for the wealthy after they serve in the U.S. Congress and other government branches. It is their political connections that make them so valuable for corporations, and the scope of services they offer to the corporate world greatly surpasses that of legal consultation and representation. Dozens of former senators receive lucrative compensation from corporations and special-interest organizations for their attempts to defend and promote the interests of corporations and wealthy individuals, using their connections with the government in which they served in the past.
5. Treasury Secretary
In 1790, when George Washington became the first President of the United States, he selected Hamilton to be his first Secretary of the Treasury. Washington’s decision was based on his knowledge of Hamilton’s organizational skills, business experience, knowledge of banking and markets, as well as his general broad scope of knowledge. Even though Hamilton served in this capacity for only five years, he became the principal architect of the government’s economic policies. In order to address the problems of an economically weak nation, Hamilton promoted a monetary system intended for paying down the national debt. Furthermore, he developed policies oriented toward free trade.
Chernow further demonstrates in his book that Washington supported Hamilton, even though Hamilton had a great number of opponents and was a subject of investigation in his capacity as Treasury Secretary. For example, it became publicly known that Hamilton was paying blackmail to a husband and wife complicit in an extramarital affair that he was involved in. Although Hamilton payed blackmail with his own money and not the government’s, this incident made many people angry with him. At the same time, Chernow comments in his book that Washington sent Hamilton a wine cooler as a gift to express his support for Hamilton. In Washington’s opinion, Hamilton was being mistreated.
Hamilton’s congressional opponents also tried to exhaust him by demanding extensive reports on the activities of the Treasury Department, giving him very short delivery dates. Hamilton worked extremely hard to fulfill their demands. In fact, his reports were so detailed that Congress was exhausted from scrutinizing them.
While serving as Treasury Secretary, Hamilton prepared five reports that laid the foundation of American economic policy. In the first and the fifth reports, which were called Reports on the Public Credit, Hamilton reasoned that the United States government should take on the debts of all the states. Hamilton also encouraged Congress to pay not just the principle, but also the interest on the debts the United States owed. He was convinced that these actions would provide stability and credibility for the U.S. economic system.
Hamilton also authored a report intended to convince Congress to create a national bank in order to control the country’s finances. His next report was prepared to persuade Congress to draft a Mint Act in order to create a national mint and a stable national currency. In his work On the Subject of Manufactures, Hamilton reasoned that the United States ought to shift the greater part of its economy from agriculture to industry. He thought that manufacturing could bring more money into the United States.
Hamilton’s most prominent deeds as Treasury Secretary can be outlined as follows:
- Hamilton developed a stable national monetary system, nationalized the debt and brought the states together.
- He dedicated his efforts to overcoming the reluctance to change that was typical for many people of that time as they disdained credit systems, stock markets and banks, and insisted that manufacturing was the least productive economic activity.
- He created the capital markets that later became the driving mechanism of American capitalism.
After Washington’s first presidential term was over, Hamilton left the cabinet and returned to his New York law practice in order to improve the state of his family finances. Although Hamilton had left the office and was no longer employed by the government, Washington continued to depend on him, sending to Hamilton inquiries for help, as well as advice. Hamilton always provided Washington with detailed answers.
Analysis and Comments
Many historians consider Hamilton to be the greatest and most influential Secretary of the Treasury in U.S. history. They further assert that Hamilton’s background inspired him to promote an energetic economy that would allow aspiring people with education and skills to climb the economic and social ladder, realizing their full potential. He wished to break the aristocratic system supported by such Southern landowners as Jefferson and to replace it with a marketplace that would offer greater opportunities for immigrants, as well as native Americans with low social status.
Was Hamilton’s influence strong enough to turn his vision of the future of the American economy into a reality? Has his vision really shaped the state of today’s American economic and financial systems? Listed below are a few well-known facts that can answer these questions.
- Shifting the greater part of the U.S. economy to industry and manufacturing
The development of the global economy has allowed U.S. corporations to significantly outsource manufacturing to other countries. In 1965, manufacturing accounted for 53 percent of the U.S. economy. In 2004, it accounted for only 9 percent. The loss of the manufacturing industry has led to substantial job losses. And all this has been done in the name of the main value of capitalism: “Profit above anything else.” The very system that Hamilton supported so strongly.
- Paying off the U.S. national debt
In 2016, the U.S. national debt has surpassed 19 trillion dollars, making it the largest debt in the history of the United States.
- Using free market capitalism to decrease economic inequality
Economic inequality keeps on increasing. According to Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, in the United States in 2010, the richest 10 percent of households owned 70 percent of all the wealth in the country, the top 1 percent of households owned 35 percent of the wealth, and the bottom half of households owned only 5 percent. Owners of capital capture an increasing share of the value created by workers. In the United States, the share of income going to wages and other forms of labor compensation decreased from 68 percent in 1970 to 62 percent in 2010. The total amount of this decline is close to one trillion dollars. In 2012, the top 1 percent of households received 22.5 percent of total income, which is the highest number since 1928. The richest 85 individuals in the world (e.g., Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and Carlos Slim) own more wealth than the approximately 3.5 billion people who make up the poorest half of the population of our planet.
- Using free market capitalism to increase economic mobility
Today, economic mobility had noticeably decreased. In 2015, David Grusky, the director of Stanford University’s Center on Poverty and Inequality, and his colleague, Pablo Mitnik, prepared a report on their analysis of the IRS data. Their study revealed that in the United States, about half of parental income advantages are passed onto the next generation in the form of higher earnings. That is, the amount of money a person makes can be predicted by the amount of money the person’s parents made, and this trend becomes more pronounced along the earnings spectrum. (From theatlantic.com: “America is even less socially mobile than most economists thought.”) As Isabell V. Sawhill, an economist at the Brookings Institution says, “It’s becoming conventional wisdom that the U.S. does not have as much mobility as most other advanced countries.”
- Breaking the aristocratic system
In the 21st century, as financial inequality continues to increase at an accelerating pace, inherited wealth dominates the economy, and the power of such wealth increases and creates an oligarchy of the economically powerful. The majority of U.S. senators, the representatives in the House and key executive-branch policymakers belong to the top 1 percent of wealth and net worth in the U.S. Wealthy individuals, corporations and private financial institutions are inclined to assume the role of a new aristocracy capable of influencing governmental policies for their own benefit. In 2014, Martin Gilens, Professor of Politics at Princeton University, and Benjamin I. Page, Gordon S. Fulcher Professor of Decision Making at Northwestern University, published an article entitled “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.” The article incudes a report on the results of their empirical research incorporating data for 1,779 policy issues in the U.S. In their article, Gilens and Page point out that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”
6. Hamilton’s Final Years and the Duel
After Hamilton left the cabinet, his political influence slowly declined. From the year 1797 until his death, Hamilton’s life was weighed down by scandals and political frustrations. In 1797, James Monroe, a congressman from Virginia, accused Hamilton of having an affair with Maria Reynolds in 1791 and 1792. At that time, Hamilton’s wife and children were away in Philadelphia. Monroe also accused Hamilton of trying to bribe Reynolds’s husband in order to silence him about the affair. Hamilton did indeed bribe James Reynolds; however, he stated that the money that he paid was his own money, not that of the government. In response, Hamilton wrote a public statement in which he admitted his affair, but denied that he had used government money to bribe Reynolds.
In 1798, after French naval ships had attacked American merchant ships in the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, President John Adams requested that George Washington retake his post as commander of the U.S. military. Washington agreed under the condition that Hamilton be appointed as his second-in-command. Adams agreed with the condition, and Hamilton eagerly accepted the assignment in the Continental Army, where he served as a major-general. He organized the troops, preparing for war with France. He also submitted to Congress many recommendations on how to improve the military. To Hamilton’s disappointment, in 1799, President Adams sent a peace delegation to France. The delegation’s visit to France ended the hostilities between the United States and France.
In December of 1799, George Washington died. Hamilton then resigned his commission and returned to his law practice in New York City. He selected to work with wealthier clients, as he needed money to pay for his new house in Manhattan. Hamilton also founded a Federalist newspaper, the New York Evening Post.
As the election of 1800 approached, Hamilton found himself opposed to all three presidential candidates: Adams, Jefferson and Burr. Aaron Burr was a former lawyer from New York. Hamilton encouraged Federalists to vote for Charles Pinckney. Pinckney and Adams were defeated in the election, and Jefferson and Burr got an equal number of votes, so they took over the White House.
In his book, Chernow discusses in detail the events and slipups of Hamilton’s final years. He also tells the tragic story of the death of Hamilton’s eldest son, Phillip Hamilton, in a duel in defense of his Hamilton’s honor. Phillip was nineteen years old at that time. He had agreed to the duel over an argument with a classmate at Columbia University about the virtues of his father versus the virtues of Aaron Burr. Philip’s death then drove Hamilton’s eldest daughter to insanity.
Under President Jefferson, Vice President Burr had little real political power, so he decided to run for election as Governor of New York. His intention dismayed Hamilton, largely because Hamilton had uncovered a plot by some Federalists in the Northern states to have Burr help them break away from the Union. To jeopardize Burr’s chances in the election, Hamilton wrote and published a series of essays in which he criticized Burr and the idea of dissolution of the United States.
When Burr was defeated by the Democratic-Republican campaign, he blamed Hamilton and challenged Hamilton to a duel. Hamlton accepted. Hamilton, Burr and their seconds met in New Jersey on the morning of July 11, 1804. Hamilton intentionally missed Burr, but Burr fatally wounded Hamilton. Hamilton died in New York the next day. He was forty-seven years old.
Analysis and Comments
In his book, Chernow rebuts certain historians who have speculated that Hamilton was killed in the duel because he wanted to commit suicide. Chernow argues that Hamilton’s attachment to his family was very strong, and that he would not have wanted his family to suffer deeply because of his death.
While discussing Hamilton’s death at Vice President Burr’s hands in their duel at Weehawken, New Jersey in 1804, Chernow suggests that Hamilton’s early death deprived him of the opportunity to write his own history of the events of his lifetime. His main political enemies—Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison and James Monroe—were in charge of U.S. politics for many decades after Hamilton died. Hence, they had the power to write their own interpretation of history without rebuttal from Hamilton.
Hamilton’s widow, who outlived him by 50 years, tried unsuccessfully to repair his reputation against the assaults from Jefferson and Jefferson’s loyalists. One could say with some certainty, however, that Chernow’s book has accomplished her task.
7. Hamilton and Washington
In his book, Chernow emphasizes the strong ideological connection between Washington and Hamilton. He writes that Washington was more in agreement with Hamilton than he was with Jefferson. This is why Washington acted as a political shield for Hamilton.
Hamilton worked under Washington’s guidance through the Revolutionary War and the Constitutional Convention, as well as serving as Treasury Secretary. Chernow questions how much Hamilton’s judgment was really Washington’s judgment. He is inclined to think that Hamilton lacked the judgment that a great president must have, and therefore, that he was destined to be the greatest “number two” in U.S. history.
At the same time, Chernow emphasizes that Hamilton was an intellectual man and a man of action. He writes that Hamilton’s childhood experience taught him to hate the tyranny of the planters and to fear any possible rebellions of the slaves. This contradiction strongly influenced Hamilton’s political views.
Analysis and Comments
Chernow’s observation that Hamilton lacked the judgment that a person would need to be a great president is illustrated by the controversies in Hamilton’s life caused by his own faulty judgments. As Chernow demonstrates, Hamilton had the ability to win followers and also to make powerful political enemies. He had a tendency to overreact to any attacks against him, and his response tended only make matters worse.
Indeed, Hamilton’s political decline really began after Washington died. Without Washington’s influence, Hamilton’s ability to make the right judgment faded. He engaged in several political disputes with Jefferson, Adams, Madison and others. His perception of the situation grew more and more pessimistic, resulting in the loss of his political influence and in the end, his life.
8. Hamilton and His Adversaries
In his work, On the Subject of Manufactures, Hamilton reasoned that the United States ought to shift the greater part of its economy from agriculture to industry. He thought that manufacturing could bring more money into the United States. However, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson disagreed with Hamilton. Jefferson argued that a nation based on business would threaten the republican ideals the country was founded upon.
Hamilton and Jefferson also disagreed on the interpretation of the Constitution. In Hamilton’s opinion, the Constitution permitted everything that it did not explicitly forbid. Jefferson believed that the Constitution forbade everything that it did not explicitly permit. Jefferson and Hamilton’s debates and confrontations laid the foundations for the first political parties in the United States.
Chernow writes in his book about how Hamilton’s ideas were misrepresented by his opponents. Hamilton envisioned a thriving future economy and meritocratic society with a broad marketplace that would accept people of different national origins and backgrounds. Hamilton’s adversaries claimed that his vision was that of a traditional stratified society, like the ones in Europe.
According to Chernow’ research and conclusions, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison used attacks on Hamilton’s system in order to divert attention from the gruesome nature of Southern agricultural system based on slavery, the very system that they supported. They opposed the concentrated wealth of Northern merchants. Yet, Southern slave plantations themselves represented a dreadful form of concentrated wealth.
Moreover, Hamilton’s foreign policy was opposed by the other Founders. Jefferson, Madison and Monroe led the new party known as the Democratic Republicans. Their political party applauded France for the French revolution. Chernow describes in his book how Hamilton’s perception of the French revolution was different from that of his opponents. Hamilton predicted that France might find herself “at length the slave of some victorious . . . Caesar.” Meanwhile, he perceived England with its monarchy as the freest country in Europe. Hamilton wanted the United States to follow the British model, which was going through the early stages of the Industrial Revolution.
Hamilton actually considered hiring British managers and workers involved in the textile revolution in their country. This was one of his methods for making the United States prosperous and self-sufficient so that the new nation would not have to rely so much on established British capital. In other words, Hamilton wanted to apply British methods to the U.S. economy in order to defeat Britain economically.
Hamilton’s years at the Treasury Department were filled with furious confrontations with Jefferson. Each man’s loyalists wrote abusive newspaper essays about the other. Jefferson, the Secretary of State in Washington’s first administration, even proposed congressional legislation to establish censorship over the Secretary of the Treasury, while Jefferson’s followers fabricated lies, blaming Hamilton for arranging embezzlement schemes.
In his book, Chernow does present both sides in discussing Hamilton’s philosophical battles with Jefferson. Chernow admits that Hamilton had his own limitations. Notwithstanding his brilliant mind and self-confidence, Hamilton lacked a self-restraint that could have helped him keep his political conflicts in perspective. His natural bluntness, along with his sensitivity to insults and his indignation, ensured that Hamilton would acquire many enemies. Sometimes Hamilton doubted if he would ever be recognized as a real American. As Chernow comments in his book, Hamilton demonstrated his best behavior and his best judgement when he was under George Washington’s guidance and supervision.
After all, Hamilton established the strong federal government and the economic system that Jefferson opposed so much. In turn, Jefferson thwarted Hamilton’s efforts to transfer the political leadership to the Federalist elite.
Chernow points out that after Hamilton had left Washington’s employment, he began to treat routine political fights as if they were the end of the world. After Washington’s death, Hamilton engaged in confrontations with Jefferson, Adams, Madison and others that clouded his perspective; these confrontations led to dire consequences for his life.
In 1804, Hamilton wrote a series of essays against another adversary, Aaron Burr. The essays were partly responsible for Burr’s loss in New York gubernatorial race. Burr blamed Hamilton for his loss and challenged Hamilton to a duel in which he shot Hamilton. Hamilton died the next day on July 11, 1804, at the age of forty-seven.
Analysis and Comments
The culmination of Chernow’s book deals with the political war between Hamilton and Jefferson. They continuously fought this war in the White House, Congress and the news media. Their beliefs differed tremendously. Hamilton was convinced that the nation needed businesses, finance, capital, manufacturing, as well as dynamic central governance, in order to become prosperous. Consequently, he promoted ideas of enterprise and competition. On the other hand, Jefferson advocated his vision of a United States that would be rural, egalitarian and regionalized. Hamilton won this battle, but the victory did not bring him the affection of later generations.
Hamilton’s views had also been changing over time. Even though initially Hamilton had progressive views on slavery, Native Americans and Jews, he became much more conservative during the last years of his life. His personal setbacks caused by Jefferson and Jefferson’s loyalists could have played a role in the changes that occurred to Hamilton’s political and social convictions.
The reader learns from Chernow’s book about Hamilton’s ideas of commerce and banking and their violent collision with the political views of Jefferson, who had a strong sentiment against banks, commerce and financial speculation. The reader also learns from Chernow’s book about the great differences in the political views of Hamilton and Jefferson on the size and role of government, conflicts between Northern and Southern states, as well as interpretations of the Constitution. The history lessons learnt from Chernow’s book provide the reader with a broader perspective on all these issues that continue to create disagreements and controversies into the present day.
Jefferson and Madison thought that Hamilton’s system was not an instrument of constitutional government but a mechanism designed to corrupt the legislature, to use the power of money in order to replace republicanism with a pseudo-aristocracy of finance and a pseudo-monarchy with Hamilton as prime minister. Jefferson’s and Madison’s worries did not come to fruition during their lifetimes. However, they do sound like something that is happening today, when wealthy individuals, for-profit corporations and private financial organizations have taken on the role of a new aristocracy with undue influence on governmental policies. Gilens and Page’s research revealed that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”
It looks like Jefferson and Madison foresaw how big commerce and finance could end up attacking democratic values. However, we should keep in mind that Jefferson and Madison supported the Southern agricultural system of wealth and power based on slavery.
I wonder just how much of the political fight between Hamilton and Jefferson was the fight between two systems, which one way or another supported and promoted the interests of the wealthy and the wealthy-to-be, along with economic and political inequality. Today, with all the political fights in Congress that we witness, one should keep in mind that the majority of U.S. senators, representatives in the House and key executive-branch policymakers belong to the top 1 percent of wealth and net worth in the United States.
9. Hamilton and Foreign Policy
As Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton became involved in foreign policy. He encouraged President Washington to send John Jay to England in 1794 to negotiate a settlement that would end a post-Revolutionary War dispute between the two countries. In 1797, Hamilton asked President John Adams to send Jay to Paris again for the same reason.
During Washington’s second presidential term, France and England were expecting the U.S. to involve itself in international affairs. Hamilton convinced Washington to make a milestone decision, asserting that American self-interest made it necessary for the U.S. to refrain from involvement in foreign conflicts. As Chernow observes in his book, the Neutrality Proclamation expressed Hamilton’s views on U.S. foreign policy. Hamilton insisted that it had to be grounded in self-interest.
Analysis and Comments
While Hamilton served as Secretary of the Treasury and for several years after his resignation, he played an important role in designing U.S. foreign policy.
In 1789, when the French Revolution flared up in Paris, Hamilton did not hide how much he was appalled by its brutality. In 1793, France declared war on Spain, Great Britain and Holland. Hamilton was convinced that Washington should publicly announce that the United States would not get involved in the war. In the same year, he persuaded Washington to issue the famous Neutrality Proclamation.
The proclaimed U.S. neutrality became compromised, however, when the French ambassador to the United States began to recruit Americans to fight for France. He also insisted that the United States had to help France under the 1778 Franco-American treaty. Hamilton argued that the United States did not have to do that because the treaty was signed during the Revolutionary War, and it documented an agreement with the king of France, not with the new French government formed during the French Revolution.
Although Washington denied the French ambassador’s request, he did not declare the 1778 treaty void. The French ambassador continued to recruit Americans, and as a result, U.S. tensions with Great Britain grew close to renewed war. In order to prevent war with Great Britain, Hamilton advised Washington to send John Jay, Supreme Court Chief Justice, to London to sign a treaty with Great Britain. The Treaty was signed in the fall of 1794.
The French government viewed the treaty as an Anglo-American alliance against France. Consequently, between the years 1796 and 1800, all formal diplomatic relations between the United States and France were cut off. Moreover, the French Navy detained or destroyed hundreds of U.S. ships. Hamilton then requested that President Adams send John Jay to Paris in order to negotiate a treaty with France. In response, the French government demanded a bribe of a quarter of a million dollars before it would talk about a treaty.
10. Hamilton, Capitalism and Economics
By 1792, the United States had borrowed almost forty million dollars from other countries, as well as from individual investors. In addition to the principal, the country owed fifteen million dollars in interest. While some states paid off their debts, the majority of them did not, creating a big problem for the nation. Hamilton succeeded in establishing his program to pay off the national debt and then he dealt with the banking problem.
Hamilton insisted that a new national bank should be created in order to control the nation’s finances. In 1790, he forwarded a proposal to Congress that called for the creation of a National Bank with total initial worth to be ten million dollars. He proposed that the National Bank would have one central branch and several regional branches all over the country, and capital would be traded from shares sold to the public. According to Hamilton’s plan, the National Bank would be independent from the federal government, and the federal government would have twenty percent of the bank’s total stock. The directors of the National Bank would have to submit weekly transaction reports to the Secretary of the Treasury.
Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson contended that such a bank would be unconstitutional because the Constitution had no explicit provisions for a national bank. In turn, Hamilton argued that the Constitution permitted anything that was not expressly forbidden by the Constitution. President Washington approved Congress’s and Hamilton’s intention to create the national bank.
At that time, several currencies still circulated in the country. Some of these currencies were issued by individual states, some were issued by private banks and the rest were from the old national government defined by the Articles of Confederation. Hamilton wrote a report entitled On the Establishment of a Mint. He convinced Congress to approve the Mint Act of 1791 in order to create a standard national currency.
Alexander Hamilton then wrote his fourth major Treasury report, On the Subject of Manufactures. In this report, he addressed the future of the country’s economy. He argued that manufacturing rather than agriculture needed to be the economic activity of the United States. He reasoned that exporting its manufactures would make the country wealthier and more prosperous than farming would. He proposed high tariffs, as well as interest rates, in order to encourage Americans to buy American-made merchandise. He further encouraged Congress to encourage the building of quality roads and canals that would help with improving transportation.
Hamilton wanted the United States to become a country driven by factories, banks, corporations, stock exchanges. He started a political tradition in which limited government does not compete against private markets but is organized to enhance them and set them free.
Hamilton was a guardian of Wall Street and the creator of its infrastructure. In the 1790s, when he was Treasury Secretary, there were only five securities created by Hamilton, including security of the Bank of the United States and shares of the Bank of New York, as well. (The Bank of New York was the first private bank of New York.)
Analysis and Comments
New governments typically try to cancel debts, but Hamilton encouraged the U.S. government to assume the debts of all the states and to pay them off in full along with the interest. Hamilton argued that if the new government did not pay its creditors in full, then the United States would never be perceived as a stable and reliable nation.
As Hamilton moved on with paying off old debt and creating a new stable currency, he issued about eighty million dollars in federal government bonds and then sold them to merchants and brokers. The merchants and brokers paid for bonds with the new currency that they received for the old Continentals. They also purchased the old Continentals and state debt from the public at a huge discount. Speculation has arisen about whether Hamilton’s friends and Wall Street acquaintances knew at that time that Hamilton would support purchasing the Continentals at their full value from their final holders, while the public was led to think that the Continentals were apparently worthless.
Wall Street is considered to have originated as a financial center in the 1792 Buttonwood Agreement. The Agreement was set among brokers who handled the bonds that Hamilton floated in order to replace the debt created by the Revolutionary War. As the founder of Wall Street, Hamilton created the bond markets, sending waves of financial speculation all over the United States.
Hamilton strongly promoted the concentration of financial power in New York, becoming the architect of the American financial system. The system envisioned and advocated by him has also ultimately made hedge fund managers the richest people in the world.
11. Hamilton’s Family
Hamilton’s relationship with his wife and children is one of the main revelations of Chernow’s book. Hamilton was a loving father. He could expertly write an article on how to bathe a sick child just like he could expertly write his essays on tax policy. He was also strongly dependent on his wife, Eliza Hamilton. Eliza outlived her husband by a half-century. After Hamilton’s death, she became determined to have justice done to his memory. Eliza had gathered a wealth of material and had left it to her children to tell the full story of Alexander Hamilton’s life.