Presentation on theme: "Alexander Hamilton: American Visionary The Bill of Rights Institute Milwaukee, WI August 24, 2010 Artemus Ward Department of Political Science Northern."— Presentation transcript:
Alexander Hamilton: American Visionary The Bill of Rights Institute Milwaukee, WI August 24, 2010 Artemus Ward Department of Political Science Northern Illinois University
Hamilton as American Case Study Alexander Hamilton is largely misunderstood and underappreciated among the American founders. Hamilton was so brilliant, so outspoken, and so sure of himself that he not only quickly rose to prominence but he also engendered the wrath of many throughout his political career. Yet his story from child immigrant, to Revolutionary War hero, to political powerhouse and then to disgraced public official and murder victim is the quintessential American story and is an essential case study in understanding both the promise and the pitfalls that American society offers.
The Quintessential American Immigrant Hamilton was a self-made man in every sense of the word. He was born on the island of Nevis in the British West Indies, the illegitimate son of a poor Scottish merchant and a woman of French descent. His father deserted the family when Hamilton was a baby and his mother died when he was 11. Through his own ambition and help from a local merchant he travelled to America, studied at Columbia University in New York city (then King’s College), and became active in the revolutionary cause.
Revolutionary War Hero In New York Hamilton publically denounced British tyranny. He formed an artillery company which fell under the command of General George Washington. Washington asked him to join his personal staff and promoted him to the rank of lieutenant colonel. Hamilton was 20 years old. Hamilton provided valuable counsel to Washington but lobbied hard for a field command. After quitting and being coaxed back by Washington he finally led a decisive attack against the British at Yorktown and was present when Lord Cornwallis surrendered to the Americans, effectively ending the war.
Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, by John Trumbull in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, Washington DC. October 19, 1871 General Cornwallis sent his second in command, General O’Hara, to offer his sword, which was received by General Washington’s second, General Lincoln. French on left; Americans on right. George Washington in front of troops & flag on right. Count de Rochambeau in front of troops on left. Alexander Hamilton standing third from right.
Constitutional Framer Hamilton married into a prominent New York family, began practicing law, and was chosen to represent New York in continental affairs. He teamed with James Madison in pressing for a Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation. At the Constitutional Convention he listened while Madison’s Virginia Plan and Paterson’s rival New Jersey Plan were presented. He then advocated his own plan, praising the British system and using the word “monarch” as where Madison had used the term “executive.” Hamilton favored: a strong central government with an elected monarch and senate who would serve for life but were subject to impeachment and removal. His House of Representatives would be elected by universal male suffrage every three years. He recommended a Supreme Court of twelve justices, which like his monarch and senate would serve for life subject to impeachment and removal. While Hamilton’s proposal was never considered by the delegates, it had the effect of making Madison’s Virginia Plan seem more moderate by comparison (indeed some scholars have argued that this was Hamilton’s true intent all along) and it was Madison’s plan that was revised and adopted as the American form of government. Hamilton supported the compromise and was appointed to the committee on style to draft the finished document. Hamilton signed it and the names of the states were written in his hand. All the other delegates signed with the exception of the two other New York delegates. As a result Hamilton’s signature is the only one from New York.
Constitutional Defender Hamilton set out to lobby for approval of the Constitution through a series of anonymous articles first published in newspapers and later as a bound volume known collectively as The Federalist Papers. Hamilton supervised the entire Federalist project. He dreamed up the idea, enlisted the participants (John Jay and James Madison), wrote the overwhelming bulk of the essays (52 of 85), and oversaw their publication. Using the pseudonym “Publius” Hamilton wrote on the executive, the judiciary, some sections on the Senate, the military, and taxation. To this day The Federalist Paper are a key primary source for interpreting the U.S. Constitution.
The Federalist Some of Hamilton’s major contributions: Federalist No. 70 presents Hamilton's case for a one-man chief executive: “Energy in the Executive is a leading character in the definition of good government.” He distinguished the President from a king pointing out that the British king was hereditary, could not be removed by impeachment, had an absolute veto over laws, and could dissolve Parliament, declare war, make treaties, confer titles of nobility and bestow church offices. In No. 78 Hamilton defends life tenure for the federal judges so that they can protect minority rights and how the judiciary is the least dangerous branch: “The judiciary…has no influence over either the sword or the purse; no direction either of the strength or of the wealth of the society; and can take no active resolution whatever. It may truly be said to have neither FORCE nor WILL, but merely judgment.” No. 78, also lays the groundwork for the doctrine of judicial review by federal courts of federal legislation or executive acts—a doctrine espoused later by John Marshall in the most important legal case in American history Marbury v. Madison (1803). Hamilton wrote: “no legislative act…contrary to the constitution can be valid.” In No. 84, Hamilton makes the case that there is no need to amend the Constitution by adding a Bill of Rights, insisting that the various provisions in the proposed Constitution protecting liberty (such as habeas corpus and trial by jury) amount to a bill of rights. Of course Hamilton would ultimately lose this argument both in the New York ratifying convention when he needed the votes of antifederalists to secure ratification of the Constitution and in the first session of the U.S. Congress when James Madison proposed a series of Amendments most of which were subsequently passed and ratified by the States and later become known as the Bill of Rights.
Secretary of the Treasury Anticipating ratification of the new Constitution, New Yorkers held a huge boisterous rally and parade where Hamilton was lauded as a hero. He had never been, nor would he ever again be, more popular. Washington selected Hamilton to be the nation’s first Treasury Secretary and he served from He set up a national financial system through a number of legislative enactments including: 1) His First Report on Public Credit (Jan. 1790) where he convinced Congress to assume state war debts. While Jefferson and the antifederalists opposed the plan, Hamilton cut a deal with them by promising to use his influence to place the new Capitol in the South. They agreed and supported his plan for assumption. 2) In his Second Report on Public Credit (Dec. 1790) he called for the creation of a national bank and defended its constitutionality (under the implied powers doctrine and “Necessary and Proper” Clause) to George Washington—against Thomas Jefferson’s strong opposition. Ultimately, the Supreme Court agreed with Hamilton’s view in the landmark case McCulloch v. Maryland (1819). 3) In his Report on Manufacturers (Dec. 1791) he laid the foundation for the American economic system. He argued that government should regulate trade with moderate tariffs – not so much as to discourage imports but enough to raise revenue to support American manufacturing through subsidies. He said that these policies would not only promote the growth of manufacturing but provide diversified employment opportunities, promote immigration into the new nation, and promote invention and innovation for all sectors of the economy. Hamilton was also able to get a tax on whiskey passed and when Pennsylvania distillers refused to pay, Washington and Hamilton led troops to the state to quash the growing Whiskey Rebellion (1794).
Party Leader But Hamilton was more than simply the Secretary of State, as we understand that office today. Instead he was more akin to a British Prime Minister, dominating the Cabinet and essentially running the federal government under President Washington. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and his followers opposed Hamilton’s financial plans, which they viewed as centralizing too much power in the hands of the national government to the detriment of the states. The first political parties formed around these and other disagreements and Hamilton (Federalist) and Jefferson (Republican) became the de facto leaders of opposing political factions.
The Reynolds Affair In 1791, while Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton became embroiled in a scandal when James and Maria Reynolds conspired to blackmail him for money. They targeted Hamilton because they had heard he was an unscrupulous official who had secretly made tens of thousands of dollars speculating on securities—which was completely false. Maria sought out Hamilton, seduced him, and the two began an affair. James then blackmailed Hamilton for money, threatening to inform Hamilton’s wife if he wasn’t paid. Hamilton paid $1,000 (in installments as he had little money) and then ended the affair. But James persisted and Hamilton continued to pay small amounts for roughly one year. The affair might never have become public had James Reynolds not been charged with defrauding the U.S. government in another con—this time posing as executor of a supposedly deceased war veteran’s estate. Reynolds boasted to Hamilton’s political opponents—including Sen. James Monroe of Virginia—that he had information that Hamilton was corrupt and had engaged in speculation while in office. Monroe and his associates interviewed the Reynolds’s and their associates and prepared a draft letter to deliver to President Washington outlining Hamilton’s alleged corruption. But first they confronted Hamilton. When Hamilton told them the entire story of the affair and produced all the correspondence between himself and the Reynolds’s, Monroe and the others realized that Hamilton was innocent of any political corruption, apologized for invading his privacy, and never sent the draft letter to Washington. But Monroe leaked copies of the documents he had in his possession and soon Madison and Jefferson knew with the latter choosing to believe that not only was Hamilton an adulterer but that he was also a corrupt official and he felt that he had the documents to prove it. Meanwhile Hamilton left Treasury prior to the 1796 presidential election – a sign many took to signal Hamilton’s intention to run for the presidency, though he said it was necessary to return to private law practice to earn money for his growing family. For 4 ½ years the Reynolds affair had remained a well-kept secret confined to Republican rumor mills. Then in the summer of 1796 a Republican operative published the story about Hamilton’s supposed corruption using Monroe’s leaked documents as proof. Hamilton felt that he had no choice but to respond and a year later he published his own detailed account including all correspondence. While it showed he was innocent of public corruption, he fully admitted to being duped into the private affair and blackmail scheme. In the end, the scandal may very well have kept Hamilton from attempting to succeed Washington as President.
General Hamilton and the Franco-American War ( ) After lobbying from former President George Washington, President John Adams reluctantly appointed Hamilton to head the first standing Army in U.S. history during the “Quasi-War” with France. Though the war was an undeclared battle that essentially took place on the high seas, the U.S. prepared for a possible land war. Hamilton was appointed Major-General and took command of the troops from December 1799 to June Ultimately, no land war materialized as Adams negotiated with the French and hostilities ended with the Treaty of Mortefontaine (1800).
Hamilton the Kingmaker: The Disputed Election of 1800 Through a quirk in the electoral process (later corrected by the 12 th Amendment) Jefferson and his running mate Aaron Burr received the same number of electoral votes. While he never actively tried to secure the presidency, Burr allowed the voting between him and Jefferson to go on for 36 ballots in the House without ever indicating that the electorate had clearly wanted Jefferson to be president. Burr’s silence not only prolonged the process and encouraged behind-the-scenes scheming by House members, it ultimately convinced Jefferson that Burr could never be trusted. Hamilton threw the election to Jefferson and remarked that Jefferson was “by far not so dangerous a man” who possessed “solid pretensions to character.” “As to Burr there is nothing in his favour. His private character is not defended by his most partial friends. He is bankrupt beyond redemption except by the plunder of his country. His public principles have no other spring or aim than his own aggrandizement…. If he can he will certainly disturb our institutions to secure himself permanent power and with it wealth. He is truly the Catiline of America.” Note: Catliline was the treacherous and degenerate character whose scheming nearly destroyed the Roman Republic.
The Killing of Alexander Hamilton Burr was so upset at Hamilton calling him “despicable” at a dinner party that Burr challenged him to a duel. Hamilton denied using the word. Burr demanded he retract all criticisms Hamilton had made of him in the past 15 years. Hamilton said that he could not and stood by his critiques which he felt were true. Hamilton fired first, missing on purpose. Burr was startled and then fired back, hitting Hamilton who later died from the wound. Burr was vilified in the press, indicted for murder, and fled for Georgia.
Conclusion Alexander Hamilton’s extraordinary rise from meager beginnings to the heights of military and political power personify the best of the American dream—namely that in America anyone can rise as far as their talents will take them. Yet the scandal that helped keep his political ambitions in check and his bitter rivalry with Aaron Burr that led to his death demonstrate the other side of the American condition: the higher you rise, the bigger target you become for others, which could ultimately have disastrous results. In all, there is a Dickensian quality to his story: the young hero escapes a tawdry life only to be lured back into it by a pair of unscrupulous swindlers and a political sycophant.
References Bowen, Catherine Drinker, Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention May to September 1787 (Boston: Back Bay Books, 1966, 1986). Chernow, Ron, Alexander Hamilton (New York: Penguin, 2004). Ellis, Joseph J., Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (New York: Knopf, 2000). Wood, Gordon, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different (New York: Penguin, 2006).