A review of Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth, by Stephen F. Knott and Alexander Hamilton: A Life, by Willard Sterne Randall and Hamilton: Writings, edited by Joanne B. Freeman
In 1792 the republic of France made Alexander Hamilton a citizen and pronounced him a friend of humanity. Although Thomas Paine, George Washington, James Madison, Jeremy Bentham, and Thaddeus Kosciusko received identical honors, the award to Hamilton is striking. News of Hamilton's strongly adverse opinion of the French Revolution apparently had not made it to the French government.
But his opinion of that Revolution aside, why should we be surprised that Hamilton would receive such honors and in the company of the likes of Paine and Madison? Just consider Hamilton's resume. As a teenager he became deeply involved in advocating the American cause against Great Britain. He fought alongside Washington during the American Revolution. He was active throughout his life in local, state, and especially national politics, agitating for a new Constitution, urging its ratification, and serving as Washington's first Secretary of the Treasury. Later, a successful lawyer, he argued in a landmark case for freedom of the press. He started a newspaper and involved himself in educational projects, including lending his support to a school to educate what are now called Native Americans. Staunch in his opposition to slavery, during the Revolution he supported a plan to free slaves who fought for America and, after the war, was a prominent member of a manumission society. Was Hamilton a friend of republicanism? Surely. A friend of humanity? Certainly. How is it then that throughout American history he has been traduced as an autocrat, a monarchist, a militarist, a plutocrat, or some sinister combination of these?
Stephen Knott answers this question in his important book Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth. Knott's book seeks both to explain and to vindicate. To some extent mirroring Merrill Peterson's The Jefferson Image in the American Mind (1960), Knott traces the rise and fall of Hamilton's reputation, pointing up the flimsy and sometimes non-existent evidence used to damn Hamilton and his policies. The book concludes with a brief outline of Hamilton's political ideas designed to put "Hamiltonianism" in a truer light.
Knott's account begins with the tremendous outpouring of grief in New York City and the nation at the news of Hamilton's death. The grief was, however, by no means universal. Prominent Jeffersonian Republicans kept conspicuously quiet, some fearing that Hamilton's death in a duel at the hands of Republican Aaron Burr might be put to political use. Knott argues that Hamilton's great rival Jefferson, who lived another 22 years, devoted that time to a bold attempt to anathematize Hamilton, to put him forever beyond the political pale. Initially, Jefferson portrayed his old adversary as personally corrupt; but after many investigations, Jefferson gave up on this and shifted to the charge that Hamilton was an alien force in American political life, perhaps personally honest but anti-republican, "monocratic"—a man of large, perhaps Caesarian ambitions. Jefferson's satire of Hamilton stuck in the American mind. Over the years new ideas and new circumstances added layers to this destructive myth.
After the Civil War, Hamilton's reputation made a substantial comeback among Northern, especially Northeastern, Republicans. The conflagration seemed to them, at least, to vindicate all Hamilton's warnings about the necessity of an energetic national government and the dangers inherent in Jefferson's democratic nostrums. A version of Hamilton's economic program became national policy and America's steady march to world economic preeminence seemed to vindicate that policy. The most vital moment in this revival, according to Knott, was when Hamiltonianism melded with the Progressive movement in the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. Though T.R. did consider Hamilton guilty of "the unforgivable fault of distrusting the people," he admired him as a fellow devotee of the "strenuous life" and as an advocate of national power. Hamilton would continue to ride high among Republicans until the 1930s. Calvin Coolidge warned in 1922 that "when America ceases to remember [Hamilton's] greatness, America will no longer be great," and declared that "when great tests have come, when supreme choices have been made, the American people have always stood with Washington, with Hamilton, and with Marshall." In 1923, Warren G. Harding dedicated a small, captivating statue of Hamilton on the grounds of the Treasury Department, whose Secretary, Andrew Mellon, another Hamilton fan, was the master of ceremonies.
By the time of Coolidge's presidency, however, the intellectual forces that would bring Hamilton low were firmly in place. Herbert Croly's influential Promise of American Life (1909) was very sympathetic towards Hamilton (and critical of Jefferson) but it proved to be the exception. On the whole, Progressive intellectuals had little regard for the New Yorker. Charles Beard's Economic Interpretation of the Constitution (1913) made popular the idea that the Constitution was shaped by the interests of the nation's economic elite. This interpretation paved the way for a reduction of Hamilton to a capitalist tool or, more nefariously, a scheming plutocrat. Knott argues persuasively that it was Claude Bowers's Jefferson and Hamilton: The Struggle for Democracy in America (1925) that set the predominant tone for the 20th century's treatment of Hamilton. Bowers put together a portrait of Hamilton that drew on Jefferson's slanders and supplemented them with dashes of economic determinism, Southern agrarianism, and simple populism. In turn, mainstream historians like Dumas Malone and Julian Boyd took their cue from Bowers. Indeed, Bowers's book caught the eye of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, eliciting his only book review, which wondered (with himself very much in mind) "Is There a Jefferson on the Horizon?" It became increasingly clear to FDR that the symbol of Jefferson was a powerful means for creating a new electoral coalition. Thus was born a cozy, enduring, and lucrative relation between Democrats and pro-Jefferson historians. The latter portrayed the founding as a conflict between Jeffersonian democrats and Hamiltonian plutocrats, while the former, conveniently jettisoning Jefferson's belief in states' rights and limited government, championed with the blessings of academe the New Deal as the American Founding reincarnated. Knott concludes matter-of-factly that a "review of New Deal-era scholarship on Hamilton and Jefferson seems to offer a glaring example of historians in the service of a political movement."
Throughout Hamilton's 20th-century ordeal, one alleged statement of his recurs tellingly: "Your people, Sir,—your people is a great beast." In speeches, in academic histories, school text books, and in the popular press, Hamilton's hatred of the people was said to be summed up by this infamous statement. Yet, did Hamilton ever actually call the people a "great beast"? In an impressive scholarly exposé, Knott shows that the origin of the quotation is Henry Adams's History of the United States During the First Administration of Thomas Jefferson (1889). Adams in turn may have come across the quotation in the Memoir of Theophilus Parsons (1859) written by his son Theophilus Parsons, Jr. The memoir recounts a story told to the elder Parsons by a friend who knew someone who claimed to have been at a dinner with Hamilton where the merits of democracy were discussed. The alleged quotation is, then, really just fourth-hand hearsay put into print more than 60 years after the dinner party, 55 years after Hamilton's death, and 46 years after the elder Parson's death. This slippery remark has served too long as a convenient excuse for neglecting Hamilton's complex views about the character of a democratic people and the merits and applicability of what he called "representative democracy." Among the many difficulties with the rejoinder that Hamilton might have said such a thing is that it would make unintelligible his prodigious, lifelong efforts to persuade the public through reasoned argument.
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Knott reports a revival of interest in Hamilton over the past two decades. Willard Sterne Randall's Alexander Hamilton: A Life is perhaps best seen as part of this trend. The author of lively biographies of Washington and Jefferson, Randall has put together a similarly vivid account of Hamilton. Randall explains that the book grew out of a question he was asked while discussing his Jefferson book: Who was right about America, Jefferson or Hamilton? Randall's brief answer was "Jefferson for the 18th century, Hamilton for more modern times." His Hamilton book, he says, was written to elaborate on this answer. Unfortunately, Randall's Life doesn't make good on his plausible but hardly original thesis. He spends too little time on the 1790s and too much time speculating on curiosities such as Hamilton's wife Betsey's alleged teenage infatuation with dashing British spy John André. To flesh out Randall's thesis one would do better to consult Knott's brief concluding discussion of Hamilton's political principles or the more expansive account in Karl Walling's trenchant Republican Empire: Alexander Hamilton on War and Free Government.
Having said this, Randall's account is not without interest or merit. He is particularly good on Hamilton's service during the Revolutionary War, and in this regard his book provides a response to James Thomas Flexner's Young Hamilton: A Biography (1978), which portrays a neurotic Hamilton trying to come to grips with the psychological damage resulting from his early poverty and abandonment. Randall's Hamilton is more normal and more interesting—a young man on the make to be sure, but showing the competence, coolness, and courage that led Washington to rely so heavily on him. Although both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson questioned Hamilton's war-time courage, Randall shows again and again that Hamilton took risks for the American cause, in battle and in intelligence-gathering. Washington trusted Hamilton to look out not only for his military interests but for his political interests, too. Hamilton's efforts earned him many lasting enemies in the military and in Congress—a point worth reflecting upon. Hamilton wrote soon after Washington's death that he "was an Aegis very essential to me." One must wonder, though, whether Hamilton didn't act as a lightning rod, drawing criticism away from Washington and onto himself: something that may have continued down to the present day.
There is no better place to begin a fresh and eyes-open consideration of Hamilton than the new Library of America collection of his writings compiled by Yale historian Joanne Freeman, the author of Affairs of Honor, a provocative study of, among other things, Hamilton's duel with Burr. This large (over 1,000 pages) and finely presented collection brings together unabridged all Hamilton's contributions to The Federalist, many of his major state papers, as well as important political essays and private correspondence. Hamilton was not without flaws, and his life was not without serious errors of judgment, but in these pages one sees and feels Hamilton the revolutionary, the soldier, the political thinker, the public servant, the man. In short, one finds Hamilton, the friend of republicanism and humanity.