The Self-made Founder

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The eighteenth century was an aristocratic age, even in relatively egalitarian America. The elite were the major landowners in the plantation colonies, such as Thomas Jefferson, and the great merchants in port cities, such as John Hancock.

Therefore it is hardly surprising that of all the Founding Fathers, only two were not born into the higher reaches of American society. One was Benjamin Franklin. His father was a Boston chandler and soap maker, what today we would call lower middle class, and Franklin was apprenticed to his older brother to learn the trade of printing. But by the time of the American Revolution, he had become one of the most famous people in the world, not to mention very wealthy. If he was not born into the elite, Franklin had most certainly risen into it by the time of the Revolution.

The other low-born Founding Father, however, Alexander Hamilton, started out life at a social level far below that of Benjamin Franklin. Indeed, in the typically snippy words of his political enemy John Adams, he had been born the “bastard brat of a Scots peddler,” for his parents were not married. He was not even born in what is now the United States, entering the world in the remote and unimportant island of Nevis in the British West Indies. By the time he was 10, his father had deserted the family. By the time he was 12 he was a penniless orphan, earning a precarious living in a St. Croix merchant establishment.

By the time he died, however, he had not only helped mightily to found the American Republic (he was a signer of the Constitution and wrote two-thirds of the Federalist Papers , which have been fundamental constitutional literature ever since), but he had established a financial system that gave the new United States the best credit rating and money supply in the Western world. He was truly the Founding Father of the American economy.

And yet Hamilton, it seems to my admittedly prejudiced eye, has never gotten his due attention from either the nation he served so well or from scholars. He is, to be sure, seen on the ten-dollar bill, and there is a first-rate statue of him outside the Treasury Building in Washington. But there is no official memorial to him in the nation’s capital. And the literature on his great contemporary and antagonist Thomas Jefferson is much larger. There is a bibliography of Jefferson-related materials that runs to no less than 486 pages, but there has been no full-scale modern bibliography of Hamilton at all. This is ironic in that we live today in a world that is far, far closer to the future of America that Hamilton envisioned (and which he helped decisively to make possible), than to Jefferson’s always Utopian, and static, vision of a land full of yeoman farmers. Hamilton foresaw a dynamic economy in which endless opportunities would allow individuals, however lowly their births, to rise as far as their abilities could take them.

Happily, the balance is to be redressed a bit this year, the two-hundredth anniversary of Hamilton’s death in the most famous duel in American history. The New-York Historical Society, a major depository of material relating to Hamilton, is mounting a large exhibition on his life and works this fall. On view will even be the dueling pistols that he and Burr used that awful morning in Weehawken, New Jersey.

And this spring, Ron Chernow’s altogether splendid, full-scale biography will be published. A weighty and meticulously researched tome of more than 800 pages, it nonetheless reads like a great historical novel, because Chernow brings his central character to such vivid life. This is a life not only of Hamilton the politician, lawyer, and technocrat, but of Hamilton the man. Here is the man whose prodigious energies and talents allowed him to write, apparently in a single night, a 15,000-word essay establishing the doctrine of implied powers in the Constitution. Here is also the man with a near-fatal attraction for handsome women (Martha Washington would name one of Mt. Vernon’s randier tomcats “Hamilton.”)

How did someone from such a miserable background rise so far so fast in a society in which birth and family connections were so important? Easy. All that was needed was for Hamilton to (1) be a genius, (2) be a first-rate writer, (3) have a bottomless capacity for hard work, (4) have an endless drive to learn and to understand the world he lived in, (5) possess a great natural talent for forming and keeping deep friendships, and (6) be lucky.

Let’s take a look at a few cases where Hamilton’s career took a decisive turn through chance. Heaven knows he didn’t start off lucky. But that changed in 1772, when a great hurricane swept over the island of St. Croix at the end of August. Hamilton, already an accomplished writer in his mid-teens, wrote a vivid description of the hurricane in a letter. “It seemed as if a total dissolution of nature was taking place,” he wrote. “The roaring of the sea and wind, fiery meteors flying about…in the air, the prodigious glare of almost perpetual lightning, the crash of the falling houses, and the ear-piercing shrieks of the distressed, were sufficient to strike astonishment into angels.”