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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.
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.
In order to get his first set of financial plans through Congress, Hamilton was ultimately forced to make a concession to the South by agreeing to the location of the national capital contiguous to Virginia, but from this he learned no lesson. His plan for the Bank of the United States, the measures he proposed for fostering manufactures, flew—without any concessions—straight in the face not only of the Southerners, but of all the farmers who formed the vast majority in the United States. He outraged Jefferson by saying to him that corruption was an essential aspect of effective rule. Jefferson’s reiterated accusation that Hamilton was subverting the federal government through a bribed “corrupt squadron” was only a paraphrase of one of Hamilton’s often-stated contentions: federal financial institutions would stabilize the nation by cementing to the central power rich men whose prosperity would depend on federal authority.
One of Washington’s greatest gifts to the founding of the United States was his perpetual concern with quelling dissension, drawing to the national standard every individual who could thus be drawn. This had been essential to winning the Revolutionary War since, in the long run, the British could only triumph by dividing the patriot cause. His Excellency so controlled his young military aide that Hamilton got into no controversies of any sort, committed no indiscretions, while serving officially at headquarters. But as soon as Hamilton stepped into a private role—whether it was through unguarded statements at a drinking party in Philadelphia, or in his yearning for an army revolt, or his sometimes hysterical leadership in Congress—his fierce aggressions appeared.
As the President, Washington became the head of a government completely untried, supported by only a small majority of the people, with two of the thirteen states still unconvinced and staying outside. An administration that would pull together, that would create ever mounting national unity was the overwhelming need, and this Washington established so effectively that Jefferson wrote, on arriving to become Secretary of State, “The opposition to our new Constitution has almost totally disappeared.… If the President can be preserved a few more years, till habits of authority and obedience can be established generally, we have nothing to fear.”
Before Congress authorized the Cabinet, Madison, who was in the House of Representatives, was Washington’s closest adviser. To the Cabinet, Washington appointed the best men he could find, including Jefferson and Hamilton, who had previously not known each other. Madison, who was close to both, brought them together, eager to encourage what he assumed would be, under Washington’s broad wing, a warm and fruitful partnership. Jefferson and Madison rescued Hamilton’s first set of financial schemes by arranging the deal concerning the national capital.
Then came Hamilton’s utterly unconciliatory recommendation for the Bank of the United States, which seemed to Jefferson’s and Madison’s Virginia constituency a naked power play in favor of men they saw as foreclosures of mortgages. Jefferson and Madison, still thinking in terms of cooperation, went along until the bill had passed Congress and was on the President’s desk for signature. Then Madison, suddenly taking alarm and seeing no other way to prevent the signing, turned about-face on the doctrine of “implied powers,” which he had supported in The Federalist. He tried vainly to persuade Washington to veto the bank as unconstitutional, since the establishment of such institutions had not been specifically provided for.
Thus began the famous fight, between Jefferson and Madison on one side, Hamilton on the other. Hamilton already had a newspaper, supported by Treasury advertising, that was his personal organ. With Madison’s conniving, Jefferson gave Philip Freneau a job in the State Department that left him time to edit an anti-Hamiltonian newspaper. Freneau, also a born fighter, went for Hamilton like an angry hornet. Hamilton retaliated. As the charges and countercharges went back and forth, Washington became not only upset but puzzled. Convinced that there was no real basis for controversy, he could hardly believe that his two ablest Cabinet ministers were at each other’s throats.
Washington wrote both Hamilton and Jefferson in almost identical terms: “Without more charity of the opinions and acts of one another in governmental matters; or some more infallible criterion by which the truth of speculative opinions, before they have undergone the test of experience, are to be forejudged than has yet fallen to the lot of fallibility, I believe it will be difficult if not impracticable to manage the reins of government or keep the parts of it together… My earnest wish and my fondest hope therefore is that, instead of wounding suspicions and irritable charges, there may be liberal allowances, mutual forebearances, and temporizing yieldings on all sides. Under the exercise of these, matters will go on smoothly and, if possible, more prosperously.”
Then came the wars of the French Revolution. Jefferson, regarding the upheaval as a continuation of the American struggle for liberty, was determined to support France in her conflict with aristocratic England. Stressing not the reforms but the excesses of the French Revolutionaries, and, in any case, led by considerations of national finance to favor cooperation with the greater naval power, Hamilton preferred the British cause. The result was a major controversy within the United States which deeply disturbed Washington. He believed that the correct role for the United States was an even-handed neutrality, and appealed to both Jefferson and Hamilton to keep the nation free from foreign entanglements that might lead to war.
Was Washington right in his belief that, with good will on both sides, the controversies that wracked his administration were unnecessary? There are reasons to think so. Despite daily donnybrooks and opposite brinkmanships, Hamilton and Jefferson were forced by the realities of the situation to agree that keeping out of the Anglo-French wars was greatly to the American advantage. And Jefferson, as President, continued Hamilton’s financial measures, including the Bank of the United States.
Why then fight; why did not Washingtonian unity prevail? It is difficult, when the facts concerning Hamilton are in, not to see a trail leading back to the Leeward Islands.
Although Jefferson could be adept, and sometimes devious, in defending himself and what he considered the interests of the people who were his constituents, he was not a dedicated fighter. He had been a failure as wartime governor of Virginia. When he became President, he ran the country not by controversy but by manipulation. And Madison, despite a tendency to vociferous outrage, would rather read a book and think a thought than take part in a row. It was Hamilton who relished hand-to-hand fighting.
A really first-class fight requires, of course, already existing differences that can be incited. The divide along which the Hamilton-Jefferson belligerence developed had long worried Washington, whose election as commander in chief had in part grown out of it. (Since the Revolution was then being fought in New England by an exclusively New England army, Continental rivalry required a Southern, preferably Virginian, commander.) The South and the Northeast were naturally suspicious of each other, in part because of opposing economic interests. Endeavoring to reconcile all differences, Washington had hoped to hand on to his successor a profoundly united nation. He failed, and surely the major blame for this failure can be attributed to Hamilton, who exacerbated conflicts and suspicions that were, as generation followed generation, to eventuate in the Civil War.
All myths to the contrary, President Washington was not led by his Secretary of the Treasury. Nor was he—at least until the very end of his battered second term—a partisan of the Federalists. Yet his value to Hamilton was immense.
Having suffered through the Revolutionary command (neither Jefferson nor Madison had been with the army), Washington realized how greatly the emerging nation needed, in order to be self-sufficient, a sound, central financial structure. His attitudes toward Hamilton’s innovations were thus admiring and supportive. This persuaded Hamilton’s opponents that they would have to reduce Washington’s prestige in order to overthrow Hamilton. The tactic boomeranged. Hamilton and his supporters were enabled to reassure the American people by claiming identity with the long-time leader who was resolutely loved.
The seven years between Hamilton’s appointment as Secretary of the Treasury and Washington’s retirement from the Presidency were, indeed, enchantingly fulfilling, the most fulfilling of Hamilton’s career. Washington was to him no longer the all-controlling father he had been as commander in chief. Hamilton was now more truly self-confident; the scene was now much larger; Hamilton now possessed his own special field of knowledge.
As when he had been commander in chief, President Washington felt no desire to lead Congress. Although that body was now an integral part of the process over which he presided, he was so devoted to the separation of powers that he believed the President should not interfere with the functions of the legislators. His clear constitutional duty was to point out areas that required action and to decide, at the end of the legislative process, whether he would sign into law the bills that had been passed. Beyond that he was unwilling to go. This left a power vacuum into which Hamilton leaped, setting up, before Jefferson realized the possibility, his own block in Congress. For a while, Hamilton led Congress, and throughout Washington’s Presidency, he remained puissant among the legislators.
It made Hamilton’s role easier that the President admired his fiscal plans and operations, while his opponents lacked the financial know-how to interfere in more than a bumbling and usually ineffectual manner. Another opening for Hamilton in his pursuit of power was provided by the fact that Washington thought of his Cabinet as a unified body. Each secretary was given for administrative purposes his own specialty, but major decisions were made, under the President’s final authority, by the Cabinet as a whole. This allowed Hamilton, who was endlessly energetic, intelligent, hardworking, and full of determination, to move across the board, interfering in particular with foreign policy. When he could not operate openly, he went underground, communicating behind Washington’s and Jefferson’s backs with the British minister.
Hamilton, however, preferred to move with the maximum of visibility. Part of his satisfaction came from having all eyes upon him while, as an individual champion, he achieved, or seemed to achieve, heroic deeds. Jefferson was at first so far behind in these lists that it was Hamilton himself who made the Virginian a public figure by selecting him as the most conspicuous target of his resounding attacks.
Those were the years when Hamilton’s youthful fantasies came almost altogether into being. Powerful men were his sycophants; women adored him; and if he made a flood of enemies, that was, as long as he could overcome, an integral part of his triumphant dream. Then the music stopped.
After Washington’s retirement from the Presidency, Hamilton’s life proceeded in directions which he could not traverse with pride or even with personal satisfaction. He had reached an eminence which demanded that he become, if there were not to be a letdown, the next President of the United States. But his warrior approach had made him so unpopular that even his greatest admirers realized he could not hope to achieve a top post in an elective government. To compound his plight, he had, in his determination to shine alone, failed to attract to himself followers of possible presidential stature. Where Jefferson, succeeded by his intimates Madison and Monroe, was to exert power in the Presidency for twenty-four years, Hamilton had no surrogate. When Washington announced his retirement, the Federalists nominated, to run against Jefferson, the archetypical New Englander John Adams, who owed nothing to Hamilton and was repelled by the West Indian’s sword-waving flamboyance. After Adams had succeeded to the Presidency, Hamilton was reduced to the mean expedient of plotting behind the President’s back with members of the Cabinet.
Then there arose the fascinating possibility that Hamilton might find escape from a “groveling” situation through the phenomenon he had longed for in his first known letter-a war. And from his point of view the right war-against France. The pendulum of foreign policy having swung toward England, the French were threatening to attack the United States. Congress voted to enlist a federal army. By intriguing mightily, Hamilton secured the post of second in command, which was in fact more than that, since Washington, the titular commander in chief, was far beyond his prime. Hamilton, who never achieved any deep satisfaction from his lucrative practice of the law, abandoned everything to live with and preside over the embryo army. He inscribed such masses of “routine and even petty and trivial” orders that the indefatigable editors of the normally exhaustive Hamilton papers decided that to print more than a few samples would be a waste of time, ink, and paper.
Hamilton had visions of leading the army against the Spanish Southwest and perhaps even annexing part of South America to the United States. But Adams had never really wanted the army-he thought a navy a better defense-and had been outraged at being maneuvered into appointing Hamilton, whom he deeply distrusted. The more orders the major general sent out in a mounting frenzy, the fewer soldiers there were to be efficiently organized. And then Adams, without consulting his Cabinet, which he now realized had been infiltrated by Hamilton, made peaceful overtures to France, abolishing the threat of war and exploding forever Hamilton’s visions of military glory.
In 1799 the Federalists renominated Adams. In pain and outrage, Hamilton wrote a voluminous attack on Adams—more than fifty printed pages. Yet he preferred his Federalist rival to his ancient enemy Jefferson; he ended by urging his readers to vote for Adams anyway. He was, indeed, so upset by the indications of a Jeffersonian victory that he suggested to John Jay, the governor of New York, a method for stealing that state’s electoral votes. Jay indignantly refused.
After Jefferson had won the election, the failure of the Constitution to distinguish between votes in the Electoral College for President and Vice President opened up a possibility for frustrating the will of the people by seating in the Presidency not Jefferson but the vice-presidential candidate, Burr. Of the two, Hamilton despised Burr more; he opposed a Federalist drift toward using this loophole.
After Jefferson was seated, the Northeastern Federalists considered his Presidency so overwhelming a menace to all that was good and decent that they discussed taking their states out of the Union. Now Hamilton fought for the Union, helping to suppress the move toward secession. As part of this campaign, he intervened successfully to prevent Burr from becoming governor of New York.
Hamilton was still powerful in his own party in his own region; he still had his law practice to fill his mind to the extent that things which did not basically interest him could—but how small was the stage compared not only to what he had dreamed of, but to what he had once achieved!
The interaction of Hamilton’s temperament with his formative experiences had not prepared him to create or enjoy a satisfactory private life. Although he yearned to escape from his storm-tossed ambitions to a warm and peaceful home, no walls that he could build were long impermeable to outside tempests, nor, even at home, could he keep from engendering troubles. Throughout his life, he continued to write his wife Betsey in the high style of romance and perfect love which had characterized his letters during their courtship. Again and again and again he stated that his one wish was to desert the great world to be forever at her side. Although Betsey insisted that she adored her husband, the evidence hardly points to a contented marriage.
Betsey became an extreme neurasthenic, grasping desperately, like a shipwrecked sailor, at supports that she feared were not steadfast enough to keep her head above the waves. She was often sick from nerves, and she was further separated from her husband’s active life by a long succession of pregnancies. Apart from miscarriages, with which she was regularly threatened, she bore eight children.
After her husband’s death, Betsey’s health seems to have improved: she lived to be ninety-seven, a most redoubtable old lady. During her fifty years of widowhood, her husband was all her own: he could escape her no longer. Summoning various men to be his biographers, she repelled them all by her possessive effort to dictate what they should write. She even engaged in a lawsuit with one of her dead husband’s most intimate colleagues to gain possession of papers which she believed would enhance her husband’s reputation. Not until Hamilton had been dead for thirty-six years and Betsey was very old was a biography of Hamilton written—by their son, John C. Hamilton. It was reverent in approach and exaggerated in claims.
That the living Hamilton had been a dedicated and accomplished pursuer of women was implied by the documents of his young manhood and became standard gossip during his years of fame. How much Betsey heard or suspected, the records do not tell, but we know that two situations were forced on her attention. A close friendship went on, for all their relations and friends to see, between her husband and her dashing sister Angelica, who wrote Betsey in 1794, “I love him very much and, if you were as generous as the old Romans, you would lend him to me for a little while.” Did Betsey believe Angelica’s further statement that the wife need not “be jealous” since all the sister wanted was to “promote his glory” and enjoy “a little chit-chat"? In any case, the wife remained emotionally dependent on the sister.
Hamilton himself made as public as anything could possibly be what he asserted had been his affair with Maria Reynolds. He had engaged in financial dealings with this lady’s disreputable husband which came to the knowledge of his political enemies. They concluded that James Reynolds had been serving as the Secretary of the Treasury’s agent in buying up, at a low price, certificates which Treasury policy would make valuable, the owners to be swindled having been identified from Treasury records. To demonstrate that he had not been engaged in peculation but had, in fact, been paying blackmail, Hamilton published a pamphlet displaying a liaison with Reynolds’ wife. The accepted judgment on his behavior is that expressed by Allan Nevins in the Dictionary of American Biography: the revelation “had the merit of a proud bravery, for it showed him willing to endure any personal humiliation rather than a slur on his public integrity.”
Assuming only sex and blackmail were involved, Nevins’ explanation would be the basic one. But overtones inevitably sound in the ears of someone who has from the start followed Hamilton’s dilemmas. All that the situation had required of Hamilton was that he demonstrate enough factual information about the liaison and the resulting blackmail to convince the public. But Hamilton included in his pamphlet, which ran to ninety-five pages, the entirely unnecessary statement that he entertained Maria in his own home, and quoted entire love letters in which his paramour expressed the extremities of passion for him, and an almost suicidal despair when he neglected her. As one reads on and on, a feeling grows that there was a personal need behind all this quoting. Was Hamilton, probably unconsciously, identifying Maria with his mother? Was he trying to overcome unslaked humiliations by putting himself, as publicly in the great world as had been his disgrace in his childhood environment, triumphantly in the role of his mother’s lovers who had incited his impotent jealousy and rage when he had been a child? Not everyone was convinced, then or now, that Hamilton was in fact guilty of infidelity rather than some activity he was hiding. His contemporary tormentor, James Thompson Callender, wrote, “Those letters from Mrs. Reynolds are badly spelt and pointed [punctuated]. Capitals also occur in the midst of words. But waiving such excrescences, the style is pathetic and even elegant. It does not bear the marks of an illiterate writer.”
When I myself was making preliminary survey of the Hamilton material, before I realized that any questions had been raised about the Reynolds affair, I was struck by the resemblance between the perfervid style attributed to Maria and that authentically used by Hamilton in his love letters to his fiancée and then wife. The modern historian, Julian Boyd, has pointed out that, despite urgings and expressed doubts, Hamilton kept hidden from all reliable eyes the originals of the letters he was willing to publish so widely. If Hamilton did write these love letters to himself, the implication of childhood fantasy is overwhelming.
There is no reason to believe that whatever love affairs Hamilton did have brought him anything but temporary surcease. And his legitimate family life mounted to a double tragedy. He had brought up his eldest son, Philip, according to his own ideas. And at the age of nineteen, Philip, having himself picked the fight, challenged to a duel a political enemy of his father’s. Probably close to the spot on the Jersey Highlands where the father was to be mortally wounded, Philip received a fatal wound. We are assured by Hamilton’s grandson, Allan McLane Hamilton, who was in his own lifetime famous as a doctor for the insane, that the shock of Philip’s death drove Hamilton’s second child—she was named Angelica after her aunt—over the edge into an insanity from which she never recovered, although she lived to be seventy-three.
Hamilton had, of course, his circle of male admirers politicians and businessmen of ability, wealth, and influence who accorded him all the esteem that, as a scorned and then disinherited youth, he had so passionately desired. But he could not translate this admiration into what he even more desired: power. Power not for its own sake, not for the license it gave to destroy, but for the opportunity to create order and system, to build. He had a vision of the perfect state, a vision orderly when he could hold onto his passions, and for a time it had seemed that he could turn that vision into reality. He could not foresee that his conceptions, which he believed had been defeated, would rise again, achieving in later generations dimensions in many ways above his most ambitious dreams. Before his living eyes the nation was dissolving into what he considered chaos—and he had lost the power effectively to intervene.
The French statesman Talleyrand became intimate with Hamilton during two years of exile in America and then returned to France to dominate, as Napoleon’s foreign minister, European international affairs. He wrote, “I consider Napoleon, [the British statesman, Charles James] Fox, and Hamilton the three greatest men of our epoch, and if I were forced to decide between the three, I would give without hesitation the first place to Hamilton. He divined Europe.”
Should Hamilton have settled in the Europe he had divined? Had it been an evil wind that had blown him from the Leeward Islands to a continent where the people, those vicious clods who had been his enemies since childhood, could prevent a man of vision from grasping the power he needed to achieve personal glory and also bring into being what he knew was best for everyone?
In 1802, Hamilton wrote his friend Gouverneur Morris, “Mine is an odd destiny. Perhaps no man in the United States has sacrificed or done more for the present constitution than myself; and contrary to all my anticipations of its fate … from the very beginning, I am still laboring to prop the frail and worthless fabric, yet I have the murmurs of its friends no less than the curses of its foes for my reward. What can I do better than withdraw from the scene? Every day proves to me more and more that the American world was not made for me.”
A long-envisioned way out was left to him. He had written John Laurens, a friend now dead these twenty-two years, “I have no other wish than as soon as possible to make a brilliant exit. ” Aaron Burr had sent him a duelist’s challenge. Although Hamilton admitted that dueling was the worst way of determining the justice of a quarrel, such encounters were part of the military, the ceremonial, the chivalric world. He would expose his body to Burr’s bullet, but himself fire in the air.
On July 11, 1804, a bullet entered Alexander Hamilton’s liver. The next day he died in great pain.