Alexan­der Hamil­ton

The Amer­i­can found­ing fa­ther wasn’t quite as heroic as the hit West End mu­si­cal might sug­gest, ar­gues Tom Cut­ter­ham

BBC History Magazine - - Contents - Tom Cut­ter­ham is a lec­turer in US his­tory at the Uni­ver­sity of Birm­ing­ham

Two mid­dle-aged men in de­cline, em­bit­tered by po­lit­i­cal de­feat, driven by pas­sion­ate ri­valry and trapped by an ide­ol­ogy of per­sonal hon­our, stand to face each other with their pis­tols drawn. It is the sum­mer of 1804, on the west bank of the Hud­son river across from New York City. By the next day, one of these men will be dead. More than 200 years later, he will also be the hero of a wildly pop­u­lar mu­si­cal, an icon with a ded­i­cated fan-base. One du­el­list was an ad­vo­cate of women’s rights, voted for slav­ery’s im­me­di­ate abo­li­tion, and helped cre­ate the Demo­cratic party. The other was Alexan­der Hamil­ton – and this is his story.

Hamil­ton, it must be ad­mit­ted, is hav­ing a bit of a mo­ment. As the star of the epony­mous West End mu­si­cal, which trans­ferred from an award-win­ning Broad­way run last win­ter, he has been trans­formed into a pop-cul­ture sen­sa­tion, and (if my stu­dents at the Uni­ver­sity of Birm­ing­ham are any guide) an in­spi­ra­tion for new in­ter­est in late 18th-cen­tury Amer­ica. That makes it all the more im­por­tant, then, to shine a spot­light on the side of Hamil­ton the mu­si­cal tends to avoid.

The eve of rev­o­lu­tion

An in­tensely mo­ti­vated man, Hamil­ton rose from dif­fi­cult be­gin­nings – raised by his unmar­ried mother on the Car­ib­bean is­land of Ne­vis, un­til she died when he was 13 – to be­come sec­re­tary of the trea­sury in Ge­orge Washington’s first cabi­net, one of the found­ing fathers of the new United States. A mi­grant within the Bri­tish em­pire who came to New York on the eve of rev­o­lu­tion, he be­came an ad­vo­cate for forg­ing a new, Bri­tish-style state in North Amer­ica: one that would hold its own among the Euro­pean pow­ers. In lead­ing the new repub­lic down the path of em­pire,

Hamil­ton played a ma­jor part in mak­ing the United States that we know today.

Hamil­ton’s life as both a rev­o­lu­tion­ary and a leader of the newly in­de­pen­dent na­tion was de­fined by three re­la­tion­ships. The first and most im­por­tant was his re­la­tion­ship with the army. When armed con­flict fi­nally broke out in the colonies in 1775, Hamil­ton joined a mili­tia unit and be­gan mil­i­tary train­ing. By the time the Bri­tish in­vaded New York City the fol­low­ing year, he was the cap­tain of an ar­tillery unit com­mis­sioned by the provin­cial congress. In 1777, he joined Gen­eral Washington’s staff and served there un­til – af­ter nu­mer­ous de­nied re­quests – he was given the chance to lead men into bat­tle at the siege of York­town in Oc­to­ber 1781.

That vic­tory was the last ma­jor ac­tion of the war, but it was far from the end of Hamil­ton’s en­gage­ment with mil­i­tary mat­ters. As it did for many young men of the rev­o­lu­tion, ser­vice in the Con­ti­nen­tal Army pro­pelled Hamil­ton far higher, in terms of re­spectabil­ity, sta­tus and power, than he could have dreamed be­fore the war be­gan. When the fight­ing ended, such men suf­fered a re­newed anx­i­ety about their place in so­ci­ety. For Hamil­ton, now serv­ing as a con­gress­man in Philadel­phia, the army was a top pri­or­ity. In 1783, it very nearly led him into sup­port­ing a mil­i­tary coup.

One of the dark­est mo­ments of Hamil­ton’s early po­lit­i­cal ca­reer is known to his­to­ri­ans as the New­burgh Con­spir­acy. Of­fi­cers feared the army would be dis­banded be­fore they were paid, and once that was done they would lose all in­flu­ence on pol­i­tics. The so­lu­tion, some be­lieved, was to take mat­ters into their own hands. Hamil­ton urged Gen­eral Washington to “guide the tor­rent, and bring or­der, per­haps even good, out of con­fu­sion”. What he did not say was stop the tor­rent. But just the threat of mil­i­tary takeover was enough to give Hamil­ton and his al­lies in Congress the lever­age to ap­prove lump sum pay­ments for the of­fi­cers. That same year, those of­fi­cers set up a brother­hood, the So­ci­ety of the Cincin­nati, in a bid to main­tain the sta­tus and power they had gained in the army.

The gen­teel patriot

Hamil­ton and his fel­low of­fi­cers in the So­ci­ety of the Cincin­nati pre­served the bonds of friend­ship they had built dur­ing the war. But Hamil­ton had de­vel­oped an­other set of re­la­tion­ships that did much to shape his be­liefs and ac­tions. Although his child­hood was hard, Hamil­ton fell early into the up­per ech­e­lons of New York so­ci­ety. It was only with the help of wealthy friends like the prom­i­nent politi­cians Wil­liam Liv­ingston and John Jay that he could at­tend King’s Col­lege, be­come an ar­tillery cap­tain, and ul­ti­mately find his place on Washington’s staff. When he mar­ried El­iz­a­beth Schuyler, the daugh­ter of a pow­er­ful New York landowner, Hamil­ton ce­mented his po­si­tion in Amer­ica’s repub­li­can elite.

It didn’t take long for Hamil­ton to learn to think like a gen­tle­man – one who be­lieved him­self su­pe­rior to or­di­nary peo­ple. Even in Novem­ber 1775, at the very be­gin­ning of the rev­o­lu­tion, he was writ­ing to Jay about “the un­think­ing pop­u­lace,” who needed care­ful man­age­ment by their bet­ters. “When the minds of these are loos­ened from their at­tach­ment to an­cient es­tab­lish­ments and cour­ses, they seem to grow giddy and are apt more or less to run into an­ar­chy,” Hamil­ton opined.

Over the course of the rev­o­lu­tion, and espe­cially with the war over, this anti-demo­cratic prej­u­dice only grew stronger. Like many other gen­teel pa­tri­ots, Hamil­ton be­lieved that most Amer­i­cans were un­ruly and dan­ger­ous, and prone to “li­cen­tious­ness” if given too much power. In New York, he ar­gued for re­stric­tions on the demo­cratic leg­is­la­ture, and at the con­sti­tu­tional con­ven­tion in 1787 he shocked even some fel­low gentle­men with his plans for a pow­er­ful ex­ec­u­tive and se­nate serv­ing for life. “Noth­ing but a per­ma­nent body,” one del­e­gate recorded him say­ing, “can check the im­pru­dence of democ­racy.”

If the army and the new na­tion’s gen­teel elite were two sides of the tri­an­gle that framed Hamil­ton’s world view, the third was his deep in­ter­est in fi­nan­cial mat­ters. He had learned the tech­niques of ac­coun­tancy as a boy in the Car­ib­bean, and con­tin­ued an in­ten­sive pro­gramme of self-ed­u­ca­tion through­out the rev­o­lu­tion. When Washington made him trea­sury sec­re­tary in 1789, Hamil­ton could claim to be one of the na­tion’s lead­ing eco­nomic minds. He had al­ready helped set up two banks. His third, the Bank of the United States, would be his mas­ter stroke. By con­sol­i­dat­ing the na­tional debt, Hamil­ton helped place the fu­ture of the coun­try in the hands of wealthy cred­i­tors – men, like his fa­ther-in-law, who could be trusted to look af­ter its true in­ter­ests.

Jef­fer­son be­lieved that Hamil­ton was a would-be Julius Cae­sar whose poli­cies would lead the coun­try to­wards tyranny

Along with the French Rev­o­lu­tion, which he thought a trav­esty, Hamil­ton’s fi­nan­cial pro­gramme drew the bat­tle-lines of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics in the 1790s. Thomas Jef­fer­son, the sec­re­tary of state, came to be­lieve his col­league was a threat to the repub­lic it­self, a would-be Julius Cae­sar whose poli­cies would lead the coun­try to­wards tyranny.

Jef­fer­son was far from Hamil­ton’s only op­po­nent. It was the men and women of ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties in the Ap­palachian west who posed the great­est threat to his new fis­cal regime, when they re­jected his re­gres­sive tax on whiskey and be­gan to or­gan­ise lo­cal re­sis­tance move­ments. In 1794, af­ter three years of con­flict and failed col­lec­tions, the govern­ment sent an army to crush the “in­sur­gents” in the west. Hamil­ton rode with them, to make sure the flame of rev­o­lu­tion was prop­erly ex­tin­guished.

A fed­eral army march­ing on its own cit­i­zens, to en­force a new tax which would go to pay the in­ter­est on debts owed to an elite class of in­vestors – that mo­ment summed up Hamil­ton’s Amer­ica, as viewed through the eyes of most or­di­nary peo­ple. It was in re­sponse to poli­cies like these that they be­gan to form ‘Demo­cratic So­ci­eties’, dis­si­dent net­works which be­came the grass roots of Jef­fer­son’s op­po­si­tion move­ment. Hamil­ton en­vis­aged a thriv­ing com­mer­cial and in­dus­trial na­tion, but one where power was cen­tralised in the hands of men like him­self.

By the late 1790s, with Washington in re­tire­ment and John Adams in the White House, Hamil­ton was out of po­lit­i­cal of­fice too. But he still wielded sub­stan­tial in­flu­ence, in­clud­ing among Adams’ own cabi­net. As the United States veered close to war with France (af­ter re­fus­ing to re­pay debts to the French), Hamil­ton worked be­hind the scenes to en­gi­neer a rapid ex­pan­sion of the fed­eral army. Pro­moted to the rank of ma­jor gen­eral, Hamil­ton pushed his al­lies in the cabi­net to raise new taxes for mil­i­tary spend­ing – which re­sulted in a re­newed out­break of in­sur­rec­tion in the west. Hamil­ton’s thirst for mil­i­tary power helped to sow di­vi­sions in the Adams govern­ment that ul­ti­mately led to both men’s po­lit­i­cal eclipse.

Sub­tle in­triguer

Even be­fore these events, Abi­gail Adams had warned her hus­band that Hamil­ton was a dan­ger­ous man, “as am­bi­tious as Julius Cae­sar, [and] a sub­tle in­triguer”. Nor was it just his po­lit­i­cal schem­ing that up­set peo­ple. In 1791, he had an af­fair with a younger woman while El­iz­a­beth was away with the chil­dren. Then the woman’s hus­band started chas­ing him for money. The af­fair be­came a spec­tac­u­lar na­tional scan­dal six years later, when Hamil­ton was forced to make it pub­lic in or­der to clear him­self of a cor­rup­tion charge. It left an in­deli­ble stain on his rep­u­ta­tion. So when he be­came de facto head of the army a year later, Abi­gail told John: “He has so damned him­self to ev­er­last­ing in­famy, that he ought not to be head of any­thing.”

In the elec­tion of 1800, Hamil­ton and Adams’ Fed­er­al­ist Party was turfed out of of­fice. Even in New York, where Hamil­ton and his fam­ily had al­ways had their power base, the ris­ing tide of egal­i­tar­ian op­po­si­tion was over­whelm­ing. Or­di­nary farm­ers and work­ers were sick of wealthy gentle­men con­trol­ling the repub­lic in their own in­ter­ests. Yet to Hamil­ton’s dis­gust, they voted a mem­ber of that elite, Thomas Jef­fer­son, into the White House. Even more galling was the suc­cess of his great po­lit­i­cal ri­val Aaron Burr, who be­came Jef­fer­son’s vice pres­i­dent. Burr had al­ready bested Hamil­ton in leg­isla­tive wran­gling over his Man­hat­tan Com­pany Bank. At the elec­tion, Burr helped bring about the Fed­er­al­ists’ dis­in­te­gra­tion in New York. Hamil­ton found him­self, fi­nally, in the po­lit­i­cal wilder­ness.

Four years later, Burr and Hamil­ton met at the well-known du­elling-ground in Wee­hawken, New Jer­sey – the same spot where Hamil­ton’s son Philip had been killed in 1801, try­ing to de­fend his fa­ther’s hon­our. Burr had re­cently lost an elec­tion for governor of New York, and was soon to lose his of­fice as vice pres­i­dent. Both men were near­ing 50, full

of the bit­ter­ness of thwarted am­bi­tion. Burr chal­lenged Hamil­ton over in­sults re­layed sec­ond-hand in an Al­bany news­pa­per (Hamil­ton had re­port­edly claimed that Burr “could not be trusted with the reins of govern­ment”.) Nei­ther man would back down. Both were trapped by a no­tion of hon­our that was al­ready be­com­ing old-fash­ioned as a new, more demo­cratic pub­lic cul­ture spread across Amer­ica. Of the two bul­lets fired that day, it was Burr’s that hit home.

The dra­matic tragedy of Hamil­ton’s death shaped, in­evitably, how he came to be re­mem­bered. Ex­trav­a­gantly mourned by New York’s so­cial elite, he left be­hind the ro­man­tic im­age of a man who died for his be­liefs – or at least, for his pas­sion­ate self-be­lief. While Burr went on to en­tan­gle him­self in a trea­sonous ad­ven­ture (rais­ing a pri­vate army on the Mis­sis­sippi, pos­si­bly with the in­ten­tion of in­vad­ing Span­ish ter­ri­tory), Hamil­ton rested in Trin­ity church­yard, ac­counted a man of hon­our, in spite of his in­dis­cre­tions.

Hamil­ton, the mu­si­cal, turns Hamil­ton, the man, into a hero of the Amer­i­can dream: a scrappy up­start im­mi­grant who suc­ceeded out of sheer de­ter­mi­na­tion. He is not with­out the tragic flaw, the hubris, that makes a com­pelling char­ac­ter. Yet Hamil­ton di­verts at­ten­tion from the real man’s un­demo­cratic in­stincts, not to men­tion the long-term and global im­pact of the poli­cies he cham­pi­oned.

Look­ing back from the per­spec­tive of our mod­ern age – where states de­pend upon the power of their fi­nan­cial es­tab­lish­ments, and cap­i­tal in turn de­mands free­dom from demo­cratic con­straint – Hamil­ton’s ac­tions and ideas ap­pear not only prag­matic, but pre­scient. He looks like a re­al­ist, his op­po­nents like utopi­ans. But that ap­proach would miss Hamil­ton’s role in mak­ing the world the way it is. We can only imag­ine how his­tory might have un­folded if he hadn’t got his way dur­ing the for­ma­tive years of the United States. As things stand, for good or ill, we still live in a Hamil­to­nian world.

A paint­ing shows Ge­orge Washington at 1781’s siege of York­town with some of his chief ad­vi­sors, in­clud­ing (far right, on horse­back) Alexan­der Hamil­ton

LEFT: A poster for the an­them of the French Rev­o­lu­tion, which Hamil­ton fer­vently op­posed BE­LOW: Hamil­ton’s mar­riage to El­iz­a­beth Schuyler of­fered him ac­cess to elite New York so­ci­ety BE­LOW LEFT: A gold mourn­ing ring con­tain­ing a lock of Hamil­ton’s...

ABOVE: A badge of the So­ci­ety of the Cincin­nati, the brother­hood of which Hamil­ton was a mem­ber

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.