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Tour de Force

By: Karl Walling
October 9, 2018

hose who have waded through Harold G. Syrett’s chronologically arranged Papers of Alexander Hamilton (1957-73), which include almost everything Hamilton wrote and others wrote to him, must be admired for their dedication, but pitied for the Herculean labor of separating minutia from significant writings. Morton J. Frisch’s inexpensive Selected Writings of Alexander Hamilton (1985), in contrast, is particularly useful for undergraduate teaching, especially when read together with similar anthologies of Hamilton’s political peers: James Madison, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson especially. But, of necessity, Frisch left out much that academic prospectors searching for gold might consider a mother lode. Joanne B. Freeman’s Alexander Hamilton: Writings (2001) covers much the same ground as Frisch, but includes letters and other material shedding light on the odd destiny and character of the noblest, but also most tragically flawed of the American Founders.

Carson Halloway’s and Bradford Wilson’s new Hamilton collection cuts virtually all of Freeman’s biographical sources while adding far more material than Frisch relevant to Hamilton’s thought and practice. This makes their two volumes perfect for graduate students beginning dissertations on Hamilton. And their judicious selections, focusing on material relevant to understanding Hamilton’s efforts to unite public strength and private security under law and the Constitution for the sake of a durable Union, national independence, and political and civil liberty, will save scholars at every stage time and effort. The volumes are expensive, but belong in every academic library.

The volumes are neither a Rosetta Stone nor Cliff Notes. Ultimately, there is no substitute for Syrett’s twenty-six volume collection, but one needs a place to begin—and a tour guide. Carson and Holloway possess the judgment to show us what is important and the self-restraint to keep themselves and their views out of the way. They show us what Hamilton thought; they do not tell us what to think about Hamilton’s thinking.

They divide Volume I into three parts, addressing Hamilton as a young revolutionary, his budding career as a statesman, and his framing and defending a Constitution which was far from his preferred form. In “The Farmer Refuted” (1774) and “A Full Vindication of the Measure of Congress” (1775) we see Hamilton—still a college student—invoking natural rights to justify Congressional sanctions against Great Britain. Hamilton here is already in his most characteristic mode: beginning from first principles and reasoning toward policies most likely to be effective to serve them. In his “Letter to James Duane” (1780) we see Colonel Hamilton concluding that the newly drafted Articles of Confederation were fit neither for war nor peace and issuing perhaps the first call among the Founders for a new constitution, granting Congress full authority to raise troops and money, pioneering executive departments to energize the government, and experimenting with a national bank—all to win the War for Independence. In his first and second “Letters from Phocion” (1784) we see Hamilton as a budding statesman, no less determined to secure the minority rights of defeated Loyalists (and build the Union by binding up the embryonic nation’s wounds) than to vindicate national authority to enforce treaties, including the Treaty of Paris to end war with England. And we see Hamilton on 18 June 1787 making perhaps his most brilliant and indiscreet speech—a self-inflicted wound from which his reputation never recovered—and later setting his misgivings about the new Constitution aside at the New York Ratifying Convention in 1788. We do not­, however see him writing as Publius in the Federalist. Wisely, the editors chose to leave those out, reasoning that they are readily available in many inexpensive, high quality editions.

Volume II continues the effort of showing rather than telling us what Hamilton thought. Part 1 provides a lengthy look at Hamilton as a financial founding father, rescuing the nation’s credit and currency from the inflation and devastation of the War for Independence. As his “Report Relative to a Provision for the Support of Public Credit” (1790) reveals, properly funded, the national debt might become a national blessing, a vehicle to unite creditors behind the new government and enable it to establish deep roots. This was more likely to be the case if the new government assumed the debts of the states. A National Bank might prove no less useful for increasing the money supply and managing the debt—but as shown in his “Opinion on the Constitutionality of a National Bank” (1790), that required establishing the doctrine of implied powers.

Part 2 reveals Hamilton’s fears that the greatest danger to national independence, the infant Union, American commerce, and, ultimately, American liberty, was war with foreign powers, England and France especially. In the “Pacificus Papers” (1793) Hamilton distinguishes the American from the French Revolution, supports neutrality as the French Revolution grew into European-wide, and later global war, and defends President Washington’s broad construction of executive power as both constitutional and necessary to an effective foreign policy. In Part 3, we see a different Hamilton, out of power but not yet lost in the political wilderness. Perhaps only Edmund Burke rivaled Hamilton’s understanding of the dangers which the French version of liberty posed to freedom as Americans understood it. Hamilton’s essays, “The Defense” (1796), “The Warning” (1797), and “The Stand” (1798), are Churchillian in their assessment of the gathering storm in Europe. Perhaps too only Hamilton could self-destruct as a party leader as spectacularly as he did in his legitimate but indiscreet “Letter Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, Esq., President of the United States” (1800). And when a tie in the electoral college threw the presidential election of 1800 into the hands of Congress, perhaps only Hamilton again could have set aside bitter rivalry with Jefferson to sway Federalists to throw their weight against Burr, whom he believed had no principles, in favor of Jefferson, whose principles Hamilton deemed merely erroneous and whose practice in office he expected to be temporizing.

Hamilton’s years as elder statesman in the political wilderness after 1800 rarely receive enough attention, so Part 4 is particularly helpful. Yes, Federalists made terrible mistakes in the Adams administration, but their defeat was not inevitable, despite the increasingly democratic character of the American social state. Many of their mistakes resulted from poor organization and poor political communication with the electorate. Hamilton’s proposal for a "Christian Constitutional Society” in his “Letter to James Bayard” (1802) reveals the possibility that American party politics might have evolved in a different direction with the Federalist Party growing into something like the Christian Democratic parties of Europe. Whether it was wise to tie a party to explicitly religious principles deserves serious reflection and discussion; that it was necessary for the political opposition to Jefferson to organize better politically is beyond dispute. Since no founder was a better organizer than Hamilton, it is not inconceivable that a new and improved version of the Federalist Party might have made a comeback. Hamilton, however, did not live long enough to see the project to completion.

In the Appendix—on the death and legacy of Hamilton—our tour guides show us how Hamilton’s friends and allies saw Hamilton. For all his flaws, including risking his life, his family’s security and prosperity, and his country’s need for men of Hamilton’s caliber in his duel with Aron Burr, no statesman of the founding era had greater integrity or sacrificed more for the public good. So it is fitting that the last writing in this volume is a letter from George Washington to Hamilton (1795) upon Hamilton’s retirement from office, praising Hamilton’s prodigious “talents, integrity, and exertions” on behalf of his country.

My praise for this volume could hardly be more fulsome, but there is always room for improvement. These two volumes will enable a new generation to understand Hamilton’s principles, views of human nature, and statecraft far better than before, but one must wonder about what got left on the cutting room floor. Some of Hamilton’s contemporaries and successors admired his legal brilliance most of all. Chief Justice John Marshall, for example, at times appears to be a younger, more politically savvy version of Hamilton because of his willingness to defend broad construction of the Constitution and shrewdness in avoiding unnecessary political brawls. Perhaps a sample of Hamilton’s legal writings would have been appropriate (though Julius Goebel’s Law Practice of Alexander Hamilton (1964) covers this ground well). More concerning are the excerpts from Hamilton’s state papers—his reports on public credit, the national bank, and manufactures especially. But this anthology can constitute no more than an introduction to Hamilton’s thought; scholars will have to go to Syrett’s Papers to see these documents in their entirety.

Sometimes we pay a heavy price for the editors’ self-restraint. Hamilton’s “Defense of the Funding System” (1795) explains his principles and policies as Secretary of the Treasury better than any of his writings, but it is not included—in part because it was written after he left the Treasury and doesn’t fit well with the editors’ chronology. And while there is a short piece from Hamilton on libel law, his most influential discussions of freedom of speech and the press—establishing truth as a defense in libel cases—are in Goebel’s account of his law practice. If there is a second edition of these volumes, it would be helpful for the editors or their students to write short critical bibliographies for each section informing their readers where to look to continue their grand tour through the mind of Alexander Hamilton.