Hamilton: The Problem Child Founding Father

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“That bastard brat of a Scottish peddler! His ambition, his restlessness and all his grandiose schemes come, I’m convinced, from a superabundance of secretions, which he couldn’t find enough whores to absorb!”

John Adams on Alexander Hamilton

One of the more brilliant of the Founding Fathers, and imagine what it meant to stand out in that august assemblage, Alexander Hamilton’s life in some ways resembled a Greek tragedy where a gifted hero fails due to flaws of character.   A few thoughts on one of the wisest of the Founding Fathers, and also one of the most foolish.

Of all the Founding Fathers, none had a swifter rise from obscurity than Alexander Hamilton.  Coming into this world in 1755 or 1757, like much about Hamilton his true date of birth remains a mystery, he was born the illegitimate son of James Hamilton and Rachel Fawcett Lavien.  His education was very brief and he began working as a clerk at 11 or 13 at Saint Croix.  He came to America in 1772 to obtain a higher education, enrolling in King’s College in New York City.  He quickly became a dedicated patriot, achieving local notoriety by authoring two pro-patriot pamphlets.

With the coming of the Revolution he was commissioned a captain in the New York Company of Artillery.  His good service during the retreat of the Continental Army from New York into Pennsylvania, and his outstanding service commanding artillery pieces during the Trenton-Princeton campaign, came to the attention of General Washington.  In March 1776 Washington offered the post of his aide to Hamilton with a promotion to Lieutenant Colonel.  Hamilton accepted and never looked back.  Not bad for a penniless immigrant who was then either 19 or 21.

A delegate from New York to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, he rapidly went to the forefront of the men crafting the document that is now in its third century of use.  According to a story which may be apocryphal, at the Constitutional Convention  Hamilton offered to pay for a meal for Morris and 12 of his friends if Morris would slap Washington on the back.  Morris did, while greeting Washington.  Washington responded with an icy stare, and Morris afterwords said he would not repeat what he had done for any sum of money.

The story certainly is in character for all three men:  Hamilton the player of pranks, Morris the bon vivant and Washington the grave, in public, statesman.

Hamilton was pivotal in the states approving the Constitution and, along with James Madison and John Jay, gave to the world one of the true masterpieces on government:  The Federalist Papers.

If the federal government should overpass the just bounds of its authority and make a tyrannical use of its powers, the people, whose creature it is, must appeal to the standard they have formed, and take such measures to redress the injury done to the Constitution as the exigency may suggest and prudence justify.

Alexander Hamilton, Federalist 33

 

Among his other gifts, Hamilton was a financial genius. His role as Secretary of the Treasury in the Washington administration was pivotal in the economic development of the early Republic.  His idea to have the Federal government adopt the Revolutionary War debts of the states in order to establish the credit of the new Federal government was a policy of genius.  At a stroke he restored the credit of the country as a whole, made certain the debt would be paid, made America attractive to foreign investors and laid the basis of future American prosperity.  His ideas on the subject were set forth in his first report to Congress on  public credit, 1789, and which may be read here.

The final paragraph of the report is salient for the time in which we live:

Persuaded as the Secretary is, that the proper funding of the present debt, will render it a national blessing: Yet he is so far from acceding to the position, in the latitude in which it is sometimes laid down, that “public debts are public benefits,” a position inviting to prodigality, and liable to dangerous abuse,—that he ardently wishes to see it incorporated, as a fundamental maxim, in the system of public credit of the United States, that the creation of debt should always be accompanied with the means of extinguishment. This he regards as the true secret for rendering public credit immortal. And he presumes, that it is difficult to conceive a situation, in which there may not be an adherence to the maxim. At least he feels an unfeigned solicitude, that this may be attempted by the United States, and that they may commence their measures for the establishment of credit, with the observance of it.

Washington backed this policy, and also agreed with Hamilton’s proposal, albeit with some reluctance over whether it was authorized by the Constitution, to charter the First Bank of the United States.  Washington was quite enthusiastic over Hamilton’s plan to establish a national mint for the coining of silver and gold Federal coins, remembering all too well the worthless paper Continentals issued by Congress during the Revolution.

His Report on Manufactures to Congress on December 5, 1791 revealed Hamilton as the most prescient of the Founding Fathers on predicting the industrial future of the United States:

The manufactures of Iron are entitled to pre-eminent rank. None are more essential in their kinds, nor so extensive in their uses. They constitute, in whole, or in part, the implements or the materials, or both, of almost every useful occupation. Their instrumentality is every, where conspicuous. It is fortunate for the United States that they have peculiar advantages for deriving the full benefit of this most valuable material, and they have every motive to improve it with systematic care. It is to be found in various parts of the United States, in great abundance, and of almost every quality; and fuel, the chief instrument in manufacturing it, is both cheap and plenty.

The most notable example of the flaws in Hamilton’s character  was his affair with beautiful 23 year old Mrs. Maria Reynolds.  Reynolds’ husband was an abusive cad who made a dishonest living by swindling veterans out of their land grants for a fraction of their value.  In 1791 Reynolds presented herself as a damsel in distress fleeing from her abusive spouse.  This was the classic Badger con by which married men are placed in compromising positions, thus exposing themselves to blackmail.  Like many brilliant individuals, Hamilton could be surprisingly gullible at times.  Swallowing her story, Hamilton helped her monetarily, swiftly succumbed to her abundant charms, and she became his mistress.

James Reynolds duly made his appearance in the role of the outraged husband, and Hamilton paid him a thousand dollars in blackmail money over several years for his silence, as he continued to enjoy the carnal pleasures provided by Mrs. Reynolds.  Unfortunately for Hamilton, the maxim that there is no honor among thieves is quite accurate.  When Reynolds was arrested for counterfeiting, he contacted Hamilton’s political adversaries, James Madison and Aaron Burr, and revealed that he could expose a member of Washington’s cabinet as involved in a scandal.  Suspecting that Hamilton was involved, James Reynolds was interviewed on the subject by James Monroe and Frederick Muhlenberg.    After the interview, they contacted Hamilton to hear Hamilton’s side of the story before going to President Washington.  Hamilton admitted the affair, but denied any official misconduct.  Hamilton turned over love letters, he certainly was amazingly indiscrete, that he had written to Mrs. Reynolds.  Satisfied that no public misconduct had been committed by Hamilton, Monroe and Muhlenberg said nothing about the affair.  Hamilton resigned as Secretary of the Treasury in 1795.

In 1797, in one of the more wretched acts of his life, Thomas Jefferson, who had received the love letters from Madison, used the letters against Hamilton in the ongoing Federalist-Republican pamphlet war.  Hamilton responded by publishing a pamphlet of his own, denying any official misconduct but admitting the affair.  His family and the public were shocked, and Hamilton’s reputation never recovered.  Hamilton had great talents and served the country well, but he allowed a pretty face to destroy his political career, shame his family and leave an indelible stain on his reputation.

Out of office he served as defacto head of the Federalists and, during the Quasi War with France, he was appointed by John Adams a Major General and head of the United States Army, an Army, except for a few scattered garrisons, that largely existed only in Hamilton’s fevered imagination.  With the defeat of John Adams in 1800, a defeat Hamilton celebrated as Adams and Hamilton had long hated each other, Hamilton’s Federalists entered a political wilderness which would prove the final resting place for the dying Federalist party.

 

 

Initially the outcome of the election of 1800 was clear-cut enough.  Jefferson defeat Adams, garnering 73 electoral votes to 67 for Adams.  Then the circus began.  When the electoral college met, the Republicans planned that their electors would cast 73 votes for Jefferson and 72 for Aaron Burr.  The reason for this was that under the Constitution as originally drafted, the candidate who received the highest number of electoral votes would be president, and the candidate who came in second would be vice-president.  Each elector could vote for two candidates.  The Republicans bungled the vote, and Burr and Jefferson each received 73 votes!  With a tie the election would be decided in the House of Representatives.

Burr, without a doubt the most unscrupulous major political figure in American history, seized the opportunity to attempt to become president instead of Jefferson.  From February 11-17, 1801 the House cast 35 ballots and seemed deadlocked.  Almost all Federalists supported Burr.    Jefferson received the support of 8 states, by majority vote of each state delegation, one state short of the necessary majority.  The stalemate seemed destined to stretch on indefinitely until Alexander Hamilton stepped in.  Hamilton had no love for Jefferson, but he truly despised Burr, his arch rival in New York politics, who he regarded as a dangerous demagogue.  Hamilton convinced enough Federalists to switch their support for Jefferson, with Jefferson becoming president with the votes of ten state delegations, one more than necessary.

To avoid this fiasco happening again, the Twelfth Amendment was passed in 1804 mandating that the Electoral College cast separate ballots for president and vice-president.

Events in history sometimes seem as if they were written by a novelist, or should I say the Novelist.  Such was the sad case of Philip Hamilton.  Eldest son of Alexander Hamilton and Elizabeth Hamilton, Hamilton graduated at the age of 19 from Columbia, a brilliant student like his father.  It was at a Fourth of July celebration at Columbia that he heard George I. Eacker, a 27 year old lawyer and a political supporter of Aaron Burr, give a speech attacking his father.  Hamilton and his friend Richard Price called Eacker out in a Manhattan theater on November 21, 1801.  Eacker called them damned rascals and they responded by challenging Eacker to duels.  Eacker fought a duel the next day with Richard Price in which neither of the participants was injured, although shots were exchanged.

On November 22, 1801 in Weehawken, New Jersey, the same place where his father would receive his fatal wound from Aaron Burr, Hamilton and Eacker faced each other.  Apparently they faced each other about a minute without raising their pistols, and one wishes that reason had prevailed.  Eacker finally fired, hitting Hamilton in his right hip and left arm.  Hamilton also fired, but this may have been merely an involuntary reaction to the force of the shot that hit him.  Some sources say that Alexander Hamilton had counseled his son to fire in the air before his opponent fired, so that the matter could be settled honorably without blood shed.

Alexander Hamilton collapsed when he heard that his son had been shot.  Philip Hamilton died after 14 hours in agony, his mother and father by his side.  Before he died he professed his faith in Christ.  The physician who attended him, Doctor David Hosack, would do the same for Philip’s father after his own duel.  George Eacker survived the duel only by a smidge over two years, dying of consumption on January 4, 1804.

His duel with Aaron Burr that cut short his life was classic Hamilton.  It was a completely unnecessary piece of folly brought forth by Hamilton’s unwillingness ever to govern his tongue or his pen.  Dying at age 47 or 49, whatever further contributions Hamilton may have made to America will always remain a subject of intense speculation.  He died a convinced Christian:

“I have examined carefully, the evidence of the Christian religion; and, if I was sitting as a juror upon its authenticity, I should unhesitatingly give my verdict in its favor.”

 

 

Poor Alexander Hamilton, the most misunderstood of the Founding Fathers. He was defamed by both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in life, and had his life cut short before he could correct the record. The popular play about him gives a totally false representation of the man. None of this is too surprising. He was always a man ill suited for his time. He could see the industrialization of the US and the growth of the Federal government decades before almost any one else. He derived from his experiences in the Revolution, as did Washington, the evils of a too weak Federal government. His was a voice for the long term, and short term exigencies were always his downfall. Not half the politician that Jefferson was, he had a knack for making needless enemies. His personal scandal helped ensure that his enemies would ever have potent ammunition against him. A Greek tragedy, no, an American tragedy, of a life in many ways.

 

 

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3 Comments

  1. One wonders if Hamilton had survived that despite his own rather disorderly life, he might have had some positive influence in bringing a greater sense of order to our early government. In particular, as a former colonial from the West Indies, it is possible that his judgement and influence could have helped avoid what most historians regard as the unnecessary War of 1812.

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