Of all the Founders of the American Republic, the one who has evoked the most contradictory opinions is Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton's French contemporary Tallyrand said "I consider Napoleon, Pitt, and Hamilton as the three greatest men of the our age, and if I had to choose among the three, I would without hesitation give first place to Hamilton." His Federalist colleague Fisher Ames claimed that "the name of Hamilton would not have dishonored Greece in the Age of Aristides."
The approbation of Hamilton was not universal, of course. John Adams characterized him as "the bastard brat of a Scots peddler," and Noah Webster wrote that his "ambition, pride and overbearing temper" destined him "to be the evil genius of this country." The Jeffersonians characterized him as at best an enemy of republican government and at worst a monarchist.
The debate continues. One only need contrast the views of Jefferson's biographer, Dumas Malone, with those of Forrest McDonald, author of the definitive biography of Hamilton.
Richard Brookhiser, senior editor of National Review, columnist for the New York Post, and author of the acclaimed Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington, has now given us a fine new biography of the American Republic's most enigmatic Founder. In Alexander Hamilton, American, Mr. Brookhiser contributes to a fuller understanding not only of Hamilton the man, but also of the United States, which has been shaped so critically by his work.
Mr. Brookhiser's approach is an interesting combination of the chronological and the thematic. In the first six chapters of Alexander Hamilton, American, Mr. Brookhiser examines the high points of Hamilton's life: the impact of his beginnings as an impoverished immigrant to the American colonies from St. Croix; his role in the American Revolution as an aide to George Washington and commander of troops at Yorktown; his critical contributions in framing and defending the Constitution; and his "Plutarchian" struggles with Jefferson and Madison over the character of republican government under the Constitution. But Mr. Brookhiser is at his best in his three chapters that deal with Hamilton and three interrelated themes of republican government: "words", "rights," and "passions."
In a republic, rhetoric is important because of the requirement to shape public sentiment. As the author notes, while Hamilton may not have been the most graceful writer among the founding generation, he was "the most energetic wordsmith." Indeed, we often forget that Hamilton was, for most of his life, a journalist. The Federalist is only a small part of Hamilton's extensive journalistic enterprise on behalf of the financial, legal, and constitutional aspects of republican government.
If words were his means, observes Mr. Brookhiser, rights were his ends. But Hamilton's concept of rights long has been a source of debate and confusion. As a teenager before the Revolution, Hamilton wrote a pair of treatises in which he invoked "natural rights of mankind" every bit as forcefully as Jefferson in his writings. But it is one thing to justify revolution on the basis of an appeal to Nature and Nature's God. It is quite another to establish a government that can transform natural rights into civil rights and protect them against both foreign invasion and the depredations of oppressive governors or willful domestic majorities. Thus Hamilton was inclined on occasion to invoke the rights of government. In his view, "the security of [the rights of government] is inseparable from that of the [rights of individuals]." Indeed, a strong government was the "surest guardian" of liberty.
For Hamilton as for many of the founders, the passions were the enemy of both of individual virtue and republican government. In a regime such as America, the two were inextricably linked. At a minimum, the citizen must control his passions. But the real danger to republican government arose from the passionate attachment of the people to absolute liberty. This danger is captured in the words of the Boston radical Benjamin Hichborn, who claimed that "civil liberty [is] a power in the people at large, at any time, for any cause, or for no cause, but their own sovereign pleasure, to alter or annihilate both the mode and the essence of any former government, and adopt a new one in its stead."
Hamilton understood that while such a passionate attachment to liberty was necessary to those periods characterized by a "resort to first principles," it could not be the basis of good government, without which true liberty is impossible. Hamilton's statesmanship was directed not only toward the creation of institutions that would provide for a government strong enough to protect liberty, but also toward making Americans into virtuous citizens by inducing them, e.g. to pay their debts. Without a virtuous citizenry, self-government cannot survive.
The "rock of America's political salvation" required the establishment of credit, through which private and public morality were linked. This was his goal as Secretary of the Treasury. Habituation to virtuous behavior, which Hamilton hoped would result in virtue itself, required that Americans pay their debts, both public and private. Hamilton understood that the government must set the example, not only for the sake of its own honor and reputation, but also for the sake of its citizens' character.
Mr. Brookhiser does three things in this engaging work. He makes two of these explicit at the outset: to tell Hamilton's story and to probe his world. Thus Alexander Hamilton, American is as much about Jefferson, Madison, Burr, and the rest as it is about Hamilton himself because it is impossible to understand the latter without reference to those with whom he contended.
But Mr. Brookhiser also holds up a mirror to present-day America. Many of the issues that engaged Hamilton and his contemporaries affect us still. As he observes, although we are unlikely to debate the issue of the Louisiana Purchase again, trade and taxation are as central to today's political economy as they were to that of Hamilton's day.
But perhaps the most important recurring theme Mr. Brookhiser addresses is the issue of character. Hamilton and the other founders agreed that the private character of leaders was of critical importance in a republic. For example, had there not been general agreement that Washington's character was above reproach, and that he could be trusted with unprecedented executive power, it is very possible that there would have been no Constitution and no United States as we know it.
Not that any of the founders, including Washington, were perfect. But the idea that corrupt men could administer good government was foreign to Hamilton and most of his contemporaries. Two events in Hamilton's life demonstrate the link between private character and public trust: the Maria Reynolds affair, and the case of Aaron Burr.
Early in the Adams administration, a series of broadsides by James Callender, a pamphleteer allied with Jefferson, accused Hamilton of corrupt speculation while Treasury Secretary. In fact, the man Callender identified as Hamilton's partner in speculation, James Reynolds, was blackmailing Hamilton over an affair with Reynolds' wife.
Hamilton recognized that the charge of speculation, if generally believed, would destroy the financial system that he had worked so assiduously to create. By funding the debt, Hamilton's financial system had established American credit, but the basis of credit is trust. Hamilton went public and in an astonishing pamphlet admitted the adultery but demolished Callender's claim of corrupt speculation, thus preserving the financial system. As Mr. Brookhiser writes, "...character manifests itself in public as well as private life, and of the two the public record was more important. Hamilton considered corruption a 'more heinous charge' against a public servant than adultery."
More revealing yet is Hamilton's relationship with Aaron Burr, whom Hamilton regarded as a dangerous demagogue, a man without principles, motivated only by a naked lust for power. As early as 1792, Hamilton had written: "As a public man [Burr] is one of the worst sort a friend to nothing but as it suits his interests and ambition. Determined to climb to the highest honors of state, and as much higher as circumstances may permit he cares nothing about the means of effecting his purposes...Secretly turning Liberty into ridicule, he knows as well as most men how to make use of the name. In a word, if we have an embryo-Caesar in the United States 'tis Burr." (Does this description bring a contemporary political figure to mind?)
In the 1800 election, Jefferson and Burr won the same number of electoral votes, which threw the election into the House of Representatives. Several Federalist congressmen intended to vote for Burr to deny Jefferson the presidency, but Hamilton wrote a series of letters to the Federalist members urging them to support Jefferson on the basis that while Jefferson's principles were erroneous, Burr lacked any principles at all. "Ambition unchecked by principle...is an unruly Tyrant," wrote Hamilton to one Federalist.
Unlike Burr, Hamilton was guided throughout his career by both his principles and a love of fame, in which liberty, virtue and prudence all coalesced. I would argue that among the founders, only Washington's greatness exceeded that of Hamilton. This seems to be Mr. Brookhiser's view as well, and Alexander Hamilton, American goes a long way toward substantiating this claim.