April/May 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 2
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.”
Hamilton evidently showed the letter to Hugh Knox, a local clergyman who sometimes doubled as editor of the Royal Danish American Gazette , and Knox published it. It caused a sensation. The Danish governor of the island inquired as to who had written the letter, which had been published anonymously, and a group of island residents, notwithstanding the devastation of the hurricane, raised a fund to finance the young author’s further education in North America. He was on his way and would never see the West Indies again.
Hamilton’s second piece of luck was when he was turned down by Princeton, then known as the College of New Jersey. In the late eighteenth century it was usual for youths to enter college at the age of fourteen or so. Hamilton was already seventeen when he arrived in America and would have been eighteen when he entered as a freshman. (There is some controversy regarding Hamilton’s age. Contemporary records indicate he was born in 1755, but Hamilton himself said he was born in 1757. Chernow’s opinion is that he shaved off two years so as not to seem older than his classmates.)
Hamilton, always sure of his own prodigious abilities, asked to advance as rapidly as possible, rather than have to attend for four years in order to get a bachelor’s degree. The trustees of Princeton turned him down, and so he went to King’s College, now Columbia, instead. Because of this, he studied not in the rural fastness of Princeton, but in the heart of what was already the most commercial-minded city in the country, where his commercial instincts could flourish most abundantly. Except for a brief stint in Albany, New York City would be his home for the rest of his life. And being in New York in the early 1770s, as the crisis with the mother country deepened relentlessly, put Hamilton, still a teenager, in the thick of the dispute.
New York, deeply involved in commerce with Britain, had a large Tory population (and the head of King’s College was the rabidly Tory Reverend Myles Cooper), but endless handbills, broadsides, and pamphlets on both sides poured from the city’s presses. On July 6, 1774, the Sons of Liberty held a rally on the Common, now City Hall Park, then near King’s College, and Hamilton attended.
Soon he was speaking. Only nineteen and looking young for his age, Hamilton, an American of less than two years’ standing, grasped the Patriot cause and made it his own. He endorsed the proposal for a boycott of British goods, saying that such tactics would “prove the salvation of North America and her liberties,” while warning that otherwise, “fraud, power, and the most odious oppression will rise triumphant over right, justice, social happiness, and freedom.”
It was an astonishing performance, to say the least, and the crowd was stunned into silence before breaking into sustained applause. “It is a collegian,” people whispered to each other, “it is a collegian.” At a stroke, Hamilton was recognized as a force among the more radical elements in the city and became a prolific author of pamphlets and articles.
With the outbreak of war, he became a captain of artillery in the New York militia, and he soon proved himself as adept at war as he was at Patriot propaganda. Once again, luck came his way. George Washington noticed when Hamilton ably provided artillery cover while Washington’s troops crossed the Raritan River in their retreat across New Jersey. He noticed again when Hamilton helped win the battles of Trenton and Princeton. Washington learned of Hamilton’s gifts as a writer and speaker, and on January 20, 1777, he wrote a note to Hamilton asking him to join his staff as an aide-de-camp. Soon, the extra-ordinarily competent young captain—by then a lieutenant colonel—was Washington’s most trusted and indispensable aide.
In that position, he came into close contact with everyone who was anyone in the American cause, including Robert Morris, who is remembered as the “financier of the Revolution.” Hamilton began a long correspondence with Morris about financial matters. In 1789, when the newly inaugurated President George Washington asked Morris to become the first Secretary of the Treasury, Morris, intent on making money, declined Washington’s offer. He recommended Hamilton instead, and Washington was happy to appoint his old comrade in arms. Through yet another stroke of luck, Hamilton, still only 34, now had his opportunity to fundamentally shape the future of his adopted country.
And he proceeded to shape it so that the American economy could be not only an engine of wealth but an engine of economic opportunity as well. Alexander Hamilton’s own journey from utter obscurity to greatness was not the first only-in-America story, to be sure (Franklin was half a century older than he), but it made possible a million other such stories, from John Jacob Astor’s to Bill Gates’s.