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The American World Was Not Made For Me
The Unknown Alexander Hamilton
December 1977 | Volume 29, Issue 1
Alexander Hamilton’s contribution to welding the thirteen semi-independent states which had won the Revolution into a unified political entity was greater than that of any other Founding Father, with the possible exception of Washington. But this tells only half the story. The other half is that while Hamilton’s genius built national unity, his psychic wounds caused disunion which was also absorbed into the permanent structure of the United States.
Hamilton’s lack of balance was such that his greatest contributions were realized only when he was working side by side with another statesman, also brilliant but more stable. He had two major collaborators: James Madison and George Washington.
At the Annapolis Convention of 1786, Madison changed into what was almost a new document the overaggressive and overvisionary summons Hamilton had drafted to call up the Constitutional Convention of 1787. And Madison was a collaborator on the Federalist Papers in which Hamilton supported and explicated, with such lasting effect, a Constitution that he had opposed as too mild and in which he was never really to believe. Hamilton’s most impressive solo flight took place shortly thereafter when he dominated New York’s ratifying convention, persuading that crucial but reluctant state to join the other states in the by then already established union.
Washington’s role as what Hamilton called “an aegis essential to me” was divided into two extensive phases. Hamilton’s most important contributions to winning the Revolutionary War were carried out as Washington’s aide. And the achievements which have given Hamilton his greatest fame came, some years later, when he was Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury. Then, he carried to fruition the fiscal reforms he had been advocating in vain for so long: payment of debts to the public creditors; the establishment of long-range federal funds which guaranteed that the government would stay indefinitely financially afloat; the chartering of a private national bank with federal support. He created all the institutions then needed to balance the lopsided agricultural economy, making possible a strong and permanent nation. In his Report on Manufactures, which was too far ahead of its time to receive Washington’s sanction or pass Congress, Hamilton prophesied much of post-Civil War America. And, by a brilliant report to Washington that eventually won almost universal conviction, he established the doctrine of “implied powers,” which unshackled the Constitution from its exact wording, enabling the government that rests upon that Constitution to change with the times, satisfying the needs of new generations as they come and go.
COPYRIGHT ©" 1977 BY JAMES THOMAS FLEXNER
After Hamilton had resigned from Washington’s Cabinet, he made his last major contribution, paradoxically in closer collaboration with his long-time chief than he had been since he had served as a youthful military aide. Putting on paper Washington’s ideas, with which he had become so familiar through years of association, he drafted another of America’s basic documents—Washington’s Farewell Address.
Hamilton was born, almost certainly in 1757, on a British West Indian island, probably Nevis. His childhood experiences have been viewed by his biographers in a distorting light engendered by their affections and their desire to have their hero’s career appear respectable throughout. Around the undeniable fact of his illegitimacy there has been constructed a saga of a warm homelife lived out in affluent surroundings. An impartial reexamination of the evidence turns the accepted story upside down. Not affluence is revealed but scrounging and relative squalor; not warmth within the home but fighting, the expulsion of the father, the betrayal of her illegitimate sons by the sexually wayward mother. Hamilton’s position in the world was thus defined in local court documents—“obscene child.” Having no true home to go to, standing up to obloquy, to silent sneers and surely open taunts from other children in the street, Hamilton learned to fight and to despise his fellow humans, and nurtured an ambition to prove himself immeasurably superior to them all.
As a shift in the grounding alters a projectile’s flight, so the truth about Hamilton’s childhood propels the biographer into previously unscanned skies. It becomes manifest that Hamilton appeared from the Leeward Islands to serve the emerging United States as by far the most psychologically troubled of the Founding Fathers.
Hamilton, who had been as a child, through no fault of his own, considered an outcast, brought with him to America an attitude, fundamental to his thinking, that was not shared by any other of the Founding Fathers: the conviction that the human race was not only unworthy, but to him a personal enemy that must be fought and conquered. This gave rise to his basic pugnacity, the adversary turn of mind that played such a major part in his successes, so major a part in his failures.