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The American World Was Not Made For Me
The Unknown Alexander Hamilton
December 1977 | Volume 29, Issue 1
Hamilton had no experience of America until he arrived in New York in 1773 at the age of sixteen. Immigrants can fall in love with their new homes, becoming more vociferous patriots than many birthright inhabitants, but this was impossible for a youth already firmly conditioned to scorn and distrust his fellow man. Hamilton hugged to his breast the sensational opportunities offered by the environment where chance had thrown him, but he never appreciated or bothered to understand that environment. Thus, if he wished to be for once discreet and conciliatory, he did not know how to go about it. Much is explained by a statement he made when, as Secretary of the Treasury, he was at the height of his career and influence: “Though our republic has only been in existence some ten years there are already two distinct tendencies—the one democratic, the other aristocratic.” The people of the United States, Hamilton continued, “are essentially business men. With us agriculture is of small account. Commerce is everything.” How wrong he was in his assessment of the primarily republican and agrarian nation was soon revealed when he and his party were submerged by the Jeffersonian tide.
Had Hamilton cared, he would undoubtedly have learned how to analyze popular opinion. But he did not care. His weapon was the sword. In his romantic dreams it was a physical sword. But neither his body nor his true gifts were martial. The sword he was born to wield was forged in the brain.
Almost all people allow their primitive drives to be suppressed by prudence. Statesmen in particular think thrice before they act. Hamilton inspired wonder and also vicarious satisfaction by the freedom with which he slashed around him. But such a champion is truly valued only on his own side of the battle line. On the far side, sharpshooters squint through their sights to bring him down.
In realizing, during the Revolution, that the difficulties of the emerging United States were increasingly financial and governmental and in seeking apposite solutions, Hamilton was far from alone. In fact, the inexperienced and extremely busy military aide appeared on the scene later than others. But he attracted attention (particularly among historians) by adopting extreme positions and putting on paper what others considered it impolitic to disseminate. Every reform has such outriders, although rarely persons as brilliant as Hamilton. To assess their effect is difficult. They implant presently unpopular ideas in many minds, but at the same time impede the efforts of more practical reformers to proceed step by acceptable step.
Hamilton’s pessimism about human nature did not extend to himself or to those who demonstrated what he considered their ability and integrity by agreeing with what he himself considered revealed truth. He could thus share in the Enlightenment doctrine of progress. Where Jefferson believed in the perfectibility of mankind, Hamilton believed in the perfectibility of the few who were the rightful leaders of mankind. Considering himself the leader of leaders, he was reluctant to make his visions impure by compromising with the imperfect ideas that were acceptable at the moment. Progress, he believed, would demonstrate that he was altogether right. Then a new generation of the most brilliant, able at long last to carry Hamilton’s inspirations to fruition, would follow the torch Hamilton had lighted and kept unsullied.
The man whose youthful ambition had been for “literary pursuits” published in newspapers and often as pamphlets hundreds of political and polemical essays, almost invariably urging his compatriots to action. These sallies covered a wide range of prophetic possibilities. At their most achievable—as in such fiscal and constitutional ideas as he was in his lifetime able to put over-he was in the vanguard, as he had wished Washington would let him be in battle, of columns already forming which were in need of such leadership. In his practical but visionary phasesas in his Report on Manufactures —he was defining the future. But others of his ideas—such as his recommendation at the Constitutional Convention that the President and the senators should be chosen for life by an electorate limited to the prosperous—were too alien to America to have a chance of realization.
Hamilton’s prophecies, whether practical or extreme, sounded together through the same eighteenth-century air, the grievously unpopular and wild discrediting the immediately advantageous and sane. His Report on Manufactures seemed to the agrarian majority to reveal Hamilton as another Lucifer revolting to create a money-changers’ hell. And Hamilton’s speech at the Constitutional Convention encouraged his opponents to diagnose monarchical scheming in his financial panacea which, in fact, exemplified middle-class conceptions that were to prove the greatest enemies of kings in all history.
Hamilton enjoyed inciting contention. When Jefferson showed him portraits of Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, and John Locke, saying that these were the greatest men in history, Hamilton replied that in his opinion the greatest man that ever lived was Caesar. There was no integral reason for his financial recommendations to be coupled with expressions of disdain for the common man. Nor was it necessary for the West Indian from a most dubious background to set up himself and the self-made money-men who were his followers as an American elite in opposition to the traditional aristocracy, as represented by inheritors of land such as Madison and Jefferson. In fact, Hamilton could hardly have sponsored necessary reforms in a manner more divisive.