Thursday, July 2, 2009

Alexander Hamilton: Thinking about the American Revolution

“That he possessed intellectual powers of the first order, and the moral qualities of integrity and honor in a captivating degree, has been awarded him by a suffrage now universal. If his theory of government deviated from the republican standard he had the candour to avow it, and the greater merit of co-operating faithfully in maturing and supporting a system which was not his choice.”
— James Madison on Alexander Hamilton, 1831

Alexander Hamilton was the first Secretary of the Treasury, an economist, and a political philosopher. Amongst the Founding Fathers, he was an outstanding constitutional lawyer and a co-author of the Federalist Papers, which were an exposition of the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. He rose above his illegitimate birth in the West Indies and provided this young nation with a steady hand to true financial independence.

He served as a soldier and battlefield leader during the Revolutionary War in New York. For a period of time, he was General George Washington’s Chief of Staff. He served in the New York and Confederation Congress where he was an ardent supporter of a strong, centralized government for this new nation. His view of this centralized government was based on a monarchy and aristocratic legislature; a very anti-democratic view!

"The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct permanent share in the government... Can a democratic assembly who annually revolve in the mass of the people be supposed steadily to pursue the public good?"
— Alexander Hamilton

While many consider him as being out-of-step with the republican ideals of most of the Founding Fathers, he none the less gave voice to the goal of forming a new and independent nation. Let’s look at some of his ideas in more detail…

Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804)

"Let Americans disdain to be the instruments of European greatness! Let the thirteen States, bound together in a strict and indissoluble Union, concur in erecting one great American system, superior to the control of all transatlantic force or influence, and able to dictate the terms of the connection between the old and the new world!"
— Alexander Hamilton, Federalist Papers, No. 11

Hamilton was an admirer of the British political system which was characterized by a strong, centralized government – the Parliament. He made efforts to move our federalist, republican government towards a stronger central structure, especially when he saw the many problems that arose from the strongly state-centered model that existed under the Articles of Confederation. The central government of the time was unable to directly raise taxes or field an army without the action of the individual states. This led to the country’s war debts not being replayed with many soldiers had not being paid for their service in the Continental Army.

"All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and wellborn, the other the mass of the people...The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct, permanent share in the government. They will check the unsteadiness of the second, and as they cannot receive any advantage by a change, they therefore will ever maintain good government.”
— Alexander Hamilton

From his early days in the Confederation Congress, he saw the need for a major revision of the Articles of Confederation. He developed a proposal for this revision that would include a strong federal government which could levy taxes and raise an army. He also included Montesquieu’s concept of the separation of powers that would balance the executive, legislative and judicial branches with equal powers; each would have their sphere of influence. After leaving the Confederation Congress, he served in the New York legislature and became one of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention.

During the Constitutional Convention he delivered a set of powerful speeches in support for a major revision of the structure of the government. He wrote astute summaries of the discussions that eventually were structured into the new U.S. Constitution that was written by Thomas Jefferson. Due to politics within the New York delegation, in which two of the members withdrew from the Convention, Hamilton was deprived of a vote on the final form of the Constitution. He did, however, deliver several high-impact speeches in support and ratification of the adoption of the new Constitution.

"Men give me credit for some genius. All the genius I have is this. When I have a subject in mind. I study it profoundly. Day and night it is before me. My mind becomes pervaded with it... the effort which I have made is what people are pleased to call the fruit of genius. It is the fruit of labor and thought."
— Alexander Hamilton

His vision of this new federal government differed from the other federalists and Founding Fathers. He believed that the President and elected Senators should serve for life contingent upon “good behavior” — essentially creating a monarchy and aristocracy, like the English. He also believed that the President should have an absolute veto power over all legislation. These points were not accepted by the rest of the Convention due to their dedication to the premise that all governmental and congressional officials should be elected by the people on a regular basis. All three branches were to have equal power with the checks and balances to keep any branch from becoming too powerful. This was the overwhelming belief of most of the Convention delegates.

"Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of man will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint."
— Alexander Hamilton

So, why do we hold Hamilton in such high regard? For one thing, he was an eloquent advocate of ratification by the various state legislatures. In support of this process he undertook the writing of the Federalist Papers with James Madison and John Jay. Hamilton, however, was the author of fifty-one out of the eighty-five sections of the Papers. This was a ‘tour de force’ and helped assure the ratification of the new U.S. Constitution. He accomplished this feat by virtue of his personal dynamics and the force of his arguments.

"It has been observed that a pure democracy if it were practicable would be the most perfect government. Experience has proved that no position is more false than this. The ancient democracies in which the people themselves deliberated never possessed one good feature of government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure deformity."
— Alexander Hamilton, Speech in New York, urging ratification of the U.S. Constitution

Another reason that we hold Hamilton in such a positive note relates to his performance within President Washington’s cabinet. Hamilton was Secretary of the Treasury and worked to put the new government on a firm financial footing both at home and abroad. He founded the U.S. Mint, the first national bank, and set up a system of tariffs, taxes, and excises. In essence, he gave this new nation a solid standing within the international community; we were on the road toward fiscal responsibility.

"Jefferson was not entirely wrong to fear Hamilton's vision for the country, for we have always been in a constant balancing act between self-interest and community, market and democracy, the concentration of wealth and power and the opening up of opportunity.”
— About Hamilton. Quoted in The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama

"If the end be clearly comprehended within any of the specified powers, and if the measure have an obvious relation to that end, and is not forbidden by any particular provision of the Constitution, it may safely be deemed to come within the compass of the national authority."
— Alexander Hamilton, Opinion on the Constitutionality of the Bank

On the downside, Hamilton was a manipulative and power broker behind the scenes. He was constantly interfering in the diplomatic activities of Jefferson’s State Department. He was given a wide-ranging freedom to act as Washington’s chief advisor; he even wrote the President’s “Farewell Address” the American people. He was also a divisive force within his political party, the Federalists. He harbored a extreme dislike for John Adams and Aaron Burr as well as for Thomas Jefferson of the Democratic-Republican party. During the 1794 Presidential Campaign, he tried to manipulate the voting in the Congress to prevent John Adams, Washington’s Vice President, from gaining the Presidency. It didn’t work. Later in the campaign of 1800, he again tried to prevent both Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson from gaining the Presidency; again he failed. His conflict with Aaron Burr eventually led to a confrontation that resulted in a duel between the two men: Hamilton was shot and killed as a result.

"I have resolved, if our interview is conducted in the usual manner, and it pleases God to give me the opportunity, to reserve and throw away my first fire, and I have thoughts even of reserving my second fire.”
— Alexander Hamilton, Letter written the night before his duel with Aaron Burr

Where does this leave us? We can only conclude that Alexander Hamilton was a brilliant constitutional lawyer and crusader for the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. He was an accomplished banker who founded the U.S. Mint and set this new nation on a stable financial status. He helped to bring stability to government to bring it out of the chaos of the Confederation. He argued for a Constitution that was stated generally enough that it could be modified, as needed, by future generations. It has worked!

"Constitutions should consist only of general provisions; the reason is that they must necessarily be permanent and that they cannot calculate for the possible change of things."
— Alexander Hamilton

He was a human… He had both positive and negative traits. I believe we benefited from his positive contributions and he suffered from his negative traits. He was prevented from becoming President because he was not a natural American citizen. He was a dedicated supporter and servant to this nation at its formation. For these actions, Alexander Hamilton, you will be remembered.

"This I can venture to advance from a thorough knowledge of him, that there are few men to be found, of his age, who has a more general knowledge than he possesses, and none whose Soul is more firmly engaged in the cause, or who exceeds him in probity and Sterling virtue.”
George Washington on Alexander Hamilton (1781)

Next Time: We will continue to consider the contributions of Benjamin Franklin in the founding this great country. Join us for that discussion…

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