Reflections on the anniversary of America’s most tragic duel…
Early in the morning of July 11, 1804, the Vice President and the former Secretary of the Treasury stood on the Plain of Weehawken – a wild land in New Jersey, where the laws were different from civilized New York, across the water – and they had their interview, like many a pair had before them, on that “field of honor.”
There was a time in American history when every product of our education system (yes - public, private, and homeschooled alike!) knew the participants in our most famous duel. Children were raised with this lesson as a moment of color, in a history class too full of dates and names to memorize; it was (and remains) a gripping story, a contest of wills with a tragic end.
Every American once knew the name of Aaron Burr, the grandson of America’s primary evangelist and founder of Princeton University. Aaron Burr, orphaned young and raised in privilege by relatives, shot through college in his teens and became a respected lawyer, served honorably in the War of Independence, and built an amazing political career in the nascent nation in the 1790s, becoming vice president in that wild ride that was the election of 1800.
And every American once knew the name of Alexander Hamilton, too. No, not just because his handsome visage adorns our ten dollar bill and the occasional public statue, but because there was a time when teachers still taught his accomplishments… perhaps hoping not only that students would understand their country better through his story, but that (dare we hope) his amazing story might also inspire the children of today to follow in his footsteps, in both public service and private ambition.
Ah, but such hopes are stymied by the diluted curricula of the modern American school. Hamilton is an afterthought today, just one more in a crowd of “dead white males” that’s shunted aside, to make more room for the mix of global warming fear mongering, sex ed, and recycling awareness that have become omnipresent in the modern American syllabus.
Who then was this noble founder, killed by a dueler’s bullet on that long distant morning, so long ago and far away? And why, after all these years, should we care?
Alexander Hamilton, Indispensable Man of the Founding Era
While there had been an undercurrent of hostility building up in the Colonies since the early 1760s, what we today think of as “revolutionary fervor” really didn’t begin in earnest up and down the coast until about 1773 and 1774, when the first Continental Congress was called, and the five-year coastwise boycott began to inspire actual thoughts of rebellion against Hanoverian kings who had been violating the colonists’ rights as Englishmen for years. The Stamp Act, martial law in Boston, the closure of our ports and the decertification of colonial legislatures – all these and more affronts were culminating in a growing American hostility to the Crown.
It was during this historic moment that Alexander Hamilton, a scholarship-funded pauper, arrived in New York from the Caribbean to study, first at Elizabethtown Academy (his first formal education of his life; he had been homeschooled by his impoverished mother until her death when he was about eleven), and then at Kings College (now Columbia University).
Young Hamilton was a great Anglophile when he arrived, but – though he never lost his appreciation for much or even most of the English system – he soon came to appreciate the patriot cause. When Bishop Samuel Seabury wrote his famous loyalist tracts under the pen name A.W. Farmer (for A Westchester Farmer, since many political articles were written under pseudonyms in those days), his columns found a ready opponent in the eloquent hand of “A Sincere Friend to America.” These long and powerful rhetorical responses to one of America’s most prominent loyalists took their place in the history of prominent revolutionary writings alongside the tracts of established politicians like Adams and Jefferson; when he wrote them, Hamilton was just an unknown teenager (when someone proposed to his dean, Myles Cooper, that young Hamilton might be the author of these powerful articles now sweeping the colony, the dean dismissed the idea as impossible; he was just a kid!).
While still a student, Hamilton and his friend Robert Troup started a patriotic discussion group on campus (the forerunner of the Philolexian Society), then soon joined a militia unit, the Hearts of Oak, in 1775 (he was eighteen). As war broke out in 1776, he founded a small artillery company, serving as its self-taught captain. He was present at the dawn of our revolution, and never wavered in his valiant military support of our budding nation from then on.
Noticed by his superiors, he soon found himself as a member of what was known as “the General’s family” – the cohesive unit of George Washington’s direct aides-de-camp. As commander in chief of the Continental Army from May, 1776 until the war’s end in 1783, Washington needed a team of secretaries to handle correspondence, to carry instructions to his other generals, to assist in the general administration of the army. They were his right-hand men throughout the war, and a number of talented young men cycled through this unit, including John Laurens, Tench Tilghman, and some thirty others (including, briefly, young Aaron Burr). Few were longer-lasting at this taxing role than Hamilton. By the end of his service in Washington’s family, Hamilton was recognized as being able to speak with the full authority of the general himself, and was known to have dressed down incompetent officers when appropriate (such as the famous case that resulted in General Charles Lee’s discharge).
When the Marquis de Lafayette arrived from France, Hamilton – being fluent in French – served as Washington’s key coordinator with Lafayette and his forces… when the Baron von Steuben arrived from Europe, Hamilton was tasked as his minder as well, organizing von Steuben’s training methods into the first training manuals of the Continental Army.
By the end of the War of Independence, Hamilton served admirably in battle – his cannon work at the Battle of Princeton, in which he figuratively decapitated King George by firing on his portrait at Nassau Hall, and his courageous leadership of half the troops at the Battle of Yorktown being particularly noteworthy.
Through correspondence with Congressional financiers Robert Morris and Gouverneur Morris, augmented by careful study on his own throughout the war, Hamilton developed a brilliant financial mind. While choosing law as his career (he wrote what was to become the definitive study guide for students preparing for the New York bar exam), Hamilton’s understanding of economics, particularly of the role that government plays in either enabling or thwarting economic development, became his private passion.
After Yorktown, Hamilton served briefly in the Continental Congress twice, and developed his private law practice during the 1780s, along the way managing to co-found the Bank of New York, all the while preparing for his greatest services yet to this young country:
Working with General Washington, James Madison, and others who recognized the inherent weakness of the Articles of Confederation, he worked to drum up support for their improvement or replacement, ultimately resulting in the Constitutional Convention of 1787.
Following that successful convention in Philadelphia, Hamilton organized his allies James Madison and John Jay in the writing of the Federalist Papers, a masterpiece of political theory and journalism. When Jay had to curtail his contributions to the effort due to illness (Jay only managed to produce five), Hamilton took up his share too, eventually writing about two-thirds of the 85 himself in less than a year (about twice as many as Madison)… all this while continuing to run his law practice, all this while successfully leading the political effort to ratify the Constitution in his adopted home state of New York.
Once the Constitution was ratified at last, and General Washington was elected as the first President under the new government, there was one more key role for Hamilton to fill. Washington sought advice from everyone he respected – Who should be the Secretary of the Treasury? Came the reply, from Robert Morris, the genius who managed to stretch our meager finances through the long war: there was only one man for the job, Alexander Hamilton, whom Washington thought of as artilleryman, strategist, writer, lawyer and philosopher, but whom everyone agreed was the most brilliant financial mind in the colonies as well.
As Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton built our economy from the ground up. His masterful financial plan, implemented in his term as Secretary, involved the redesign of both our system and our attitude about finance. He took a diverse country – where barter was still the norm in many rural areas, where planters were hostile to merchants, where modern banking was feared, where currency was mocked as worthless – and developed a thriving homeland with potential prosperity for all.
Wearing the hat of the Commissioner of Customs (our first Secretaries wore a LOT of hats!), Hamilton organized the ports for a stable import/export process for the first time, so that states couldn’t thwart each other’s commerce by competing on the fields of Customs duty rates and import fees.
Hamilton designed a system of federal assumption of the massive, still-outstanding Revolutionary War debt, so that the nation could begin to pay back foreign debt and built credit on the global scene, enabling international trade with confidence (assumption was his first massive political battle – he won, and it was a success – but it wasn’t to be his last).
Hamilton’s assumption of debt served the key purpose of finally paying back our officers’ and politicians’ debt of honor to our servicemen, as the Articles of Confederation had left the government unable to pay the servicemen who fought, were injured, or even died during the war. One of the key reasons for the Constitution was to facilitate a sturdy enough national government that it could finally pay these bills; Hamilton made it possible at last.
Hamilton organized the nation’s first central bank, the Bank of the United States, encountering his second major political battle. People today – recognizing the damage done by an overgrown Federal Reserve Bank – forget how different the economic climate was in the 18th century. The nation has a surfeit of banks today; we had hardly any back then. Hamilton’s insistence on a national bank – at the nation’s founding – was rightly recognized as a key foundation to the nation’s economic success.
Taken together, Hamilton’s accomplishments as Secretary of the Treasury remade the American economy, building a foundation for prosperity that our struggling nation had lacked ever since the troubles brought on in the wake of the French and Indian War. Our massive economic growth in the nineteenth century owes everything to the work of this young artilleryman from New York.
Alexander Hamilton, American Immigrant
Why then is Hamilton not celebrated in every history class today? Why then is his story unknown, his memory covered in dust, his accomplishments obscured by conscious neglect?
It might have something to do with the circumstances of his birth.
Remember, Alexander Hamilton came to America as a scholarship boy from the Caribbean. A couple of columns he’d written for the local St. Croix newspaper, particularly a stirring piece reporting the damage from a hurricane, brought his name to the attention of the local worthies of the island, who pooled their resources to send him north.
Hamilton was, in John Adams’ colorful but disrespectful phrase, the bastard son of a Scotch peddler… and many a historian and politician, particularly in our nation’s more judgmental first century, discounted his achievements due to prejudice against his inappropriate circumstances.
The Adams caricature isn’t entirely accurate; his French mother was married to James Hamilton when Alexander was born on Nevis, but when James Hamilton learned that a faulty (legally unrecognized) divorce from her villainous first husband would render that second marriage illegitimate, he departed to avoid a charge of bigamy (though utterly unsuspected at the time, James Hamilton likely wasn’t Hamilton’s real father anyway, as later evidence points to merchant Thomas Stevens being the boy’s much more likely biological parent).
With his mother dead of a fever when he was just eleven, and his presumed father long gone, he was apprenticed to the import/export firm of Beekman and Cruger, where he learned the ways of international trade at eleven. It was there that the young lad developed an understanding of commerce, a desire to travel, and a recognition of the world beyond the islands of the Caribbean.
He was such a quick study, when Beekman and Cruger had to travel abroad for business a while later, they confidently left their young apprentice in charge of the business… for six months. He was thirteen (and by all accounts, his management during that long period was perfectly successful).
When the published poems and news clippings of this precocious young lad began to attract attention, the worthies of the island – the Reverend Hugh Knox, merchant Thomas Stevens, his bosses Beekman and Cruger, and others – got together and built a scholarship fund to get the boy off the island and up north to a place that could more readily provide a proper education for him.
It was this fortuitous moment – the recognition of a young orphan’s spark, and the desire to give it a place to develop – that set his miraculous life in motion. He might have grown up and travelled on his own; it’s entirely possible that he would have landed in Europe or America in his twenties, and found success as a result… but without this scholarship placing him in New York in the early 1770s, both his life, and this nation, would have grown along very different paths.
George Washington had other young aides throughout the war; New York had other lawyers. The Constitutional Convention would likely have been held without Alexander Hamilton in the picture. Someone else would have written the study guide for law school students; someone else might have responded to Samuel Seabury’s letters to the editor. Someone else would have translated for the Marquis de Lafayette; someone else would have commanded alongside him at Yorktown. And yes, someone else would have organized the barking commands of Baron von Steuben into a training manual. So much of what Hamilton did could indeed have been done by others.
But would anyone else have come up with the idea for the Federalist Papers? Nobody but Hamilton could have conceived it; nobody but Hamilton could work so hard and produce such an output. His writing skills and productivity are legendary, even today; imagine such prolific writing in an age before the computer or even the typewriter!
Even if the Constitution had been ratified without the Federalist, think how differently our judiciary would have developed without it; the Federalist is the primary contemporary guide for interpretation of the Constitution in court decisions. Without Hamilton, there is no such guide.
And what of the following five years of his life, that duration in which Hamilton stood again at President Washington’s side, organizing a modern, world-class economy from whole cloth as our Secretary of the Treasury?
Hamilton had goals. He wanted to pay back our war debt. He wanted to establish credit so that our commerce could thrive.
As an abolitionist, he wanted a wealthy enough government to be able to eventually buy freedom for slaves. As a war veteran, he wanted a wealthy enough government to finally pay the pensions our servicemen and their heirs deserved.
As a proud patriot of his adopted country, he wanted to build a successful and prosperous nation, with opportunity for all who were willing to work.
And only he knew how to do it.
Without Hamilton’s availability at that moment in time, it is inconceivable that any other potential choice for the job could have shared Hamilton’s vision or ability. In his place, there is a gaping hole in American history, a gaping hole that could result only in a further downward economic spiral, and likely the dissolution of the union through bankruptcy.
If George Washington is known as The Indispensable Man of the American Founding, then surely Alexander Hamilton is the Indispensable Man of the American Economy.
But not everyone champions this record; not everyone is proud to see such success from a penniless immigrant.
There are those in America today who want immigrants to be the modern version of slaves. These people want immigrants to work minimum wage jobs, to keep average wages down through their numbers, voting for their political benefactors, serving the deservedly wealthy as nannies, landscapers, busboys and maids. Such bigotry is built into the very blood of a certain type of American (and no, not just the wealthy… there is elitism in the union shop steward, the ivy league professor, the bureaucrat or politician as well).
Such people are uncomfortable, to say the least, with the very thought of an Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton came from nothing – a penniless foreign wunderkind with nothing but his personal brilliance and drive to support him.
Hamilton was the perfect immigrant – the very best kind of immigrant – one who respected our culture, respected our traditions. He was one who wanted to make the most of his opportunities to be a productive member of society.
He believed so strongly in the American philosophy that he was willing to take up arms in support of our revolution just three years after arriving here. He rose to the top in every field he entered – the law, the pen, the sword, the podium – on his own merit, on his own effort, on his own mind.
The very memory of such a man is a threat to the establishment, to the world where a factory job is passed on from father to son in a stagnant union-run factory town… where a political office is passed on from father to son (whether it be the Clintons and Livingstons of old New York or the Cullertons and Madigans of today’s Illinois)… where race hustlers demand that people be thought of solely as members of groups, from Hispanics kept uneducated through foreign language, to blacks kept uneducated through failed schools, from a welfare state that rewards the wrong choices to a regulatory structure that punishes the right ones.
Alexander Hamilton came here not to change our culture but to embrace it; not to sponge off our society but to contribute to it. He loved his work and he loved his country, and he devoted his entire life in America to doing what he thought best for its future.
On July 11, 1804, his great accomplishments finished and already reaping benefits for our growing and prospering nation, Alexander Hamilton faced the Vice President of the United States on the field of honor. Throwing away his shot, he allowed himself to be killed, leaving as his one final legacy the destruction of the political career of Aaron Burr, political scoundrel and professional chameleon.
This day should still be what it was then – a day of mourning for the tragic loss of the most brilliant of our Founding Fathers.
And since it is not, it should be a day of mourning for an educational system that has lost its way, a government that has lost its fundamentals, and a politics that has lost its focus.
Alexander Hamilton, of Nevis, St. Croix, and New York, Founding Father. Rest in Peace.
Copyright 2015 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based Customs broker and international trade lecturer. His columns appear regularly in Illinois Review.
Since it is impossible to fit even the basics of Alexander Hamilton’s amazing life in a short column, the reader is encouraged to read one or more of the many excellent biographies of the great man. Start with Richard Brookhiser’s, then move on to Ron Chernow’s. Once you’ve read those, check out Forrest MacDonald, Henry Cabot Lodge, Willard Sterne Randall, and more! There is simply no end to the knowledge one can gain about our great nation by studying the life of its most brilliant Founding Father.
Permission is hereby granted to forward freely, provided it is uncut and the IR URL and byline are included. Follow John F. Di Leo on Facebook or LinkedIn, on Twitter at @johnfdileo, or on his own website at johnfdileo.com.