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Alexander Hamilton

The Man Who Modernized Money

By Laura Wolff Scanlan | HUMANITIES, January/February 2006 | Volume 27, Number 1

In 1773, a wealthy Caribbean businessman saw promise in a West Indian orphan named Alexander Hamilton. With his passage paid for with two loads of sugar from this patron, the sixteen-year-old Hamilton set sail for North America, his ship docking in Boston Harbor just a few months before a group of rebels dumped tea into the sea there.

The young Hamilton traveled to New York to attend New York's King's College, where he was soon swept up in the patriots' cause, delivering electrifying anti-British speeches in the college courtyard. As the colonies moved closer toward revolution, he joined an artillery company and wrote revolutionary propaganda. Four years later, at twenty, Hamilton rose through the ranks to become a top aide to General George Washington.

After distinguishing himself in the American Revolution, Hamilton worked to make his adopted country his own. He became a representative to the Continental Congress, primary author of the The Federalist, and the first Secretary of the Treasury under President George Washington. He created the Bank of the United States, the Bank of New York, the New York Manumission Society. He organized the Coast Guard and started a newspaper, the New York Evening Post. While generally remembered as the man who died in a duel with Aaron Burr, Hamilton left an imprint on American institutions still present two centuries after his death.

"It's phenomenal that this man, who died in his forties, could have had so many ideas that would become true for the America that we know today," says James Basker, president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute and professor of English at Columbia University.

Alexander Hamilton's legacy is the focus of an NEH-supported traveling exhibition, "Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made Modern America." Organized by the American Library Association, the New-York Historical Society, and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, two sets of the exhibition will tour forty libraries and National Park sites nationwide over the next three years. Photo panels will chronicle the different periods in Hamilton's life: West Indian immigrant, American patriot, lawmaker, and economist.

"In this exhibition, we wanted to show the startling degree to which, of all the founders, Hamilton had the most modern ideas--the power of the press, the need for a strong federal government and a strong treasury, a national banking system, a stock market and trade, and a mixed economy, not one only focused on farming," says Basker. "While a number of notable books have shed new light on his achievements, this exhibition will make this remarkable man--who is seen by millions every day on the ten-dollar bill--real in a way that is exciting and accessible to everyone."

Many of the Founding Fathers came from Virginian plantations or sturdy New England families, but Hamilton was the only founder who was an immigrant. He was born on the British Island of Nevis; his family moved to St. Croix when he was eight. By twelve, he had been abandoned by his father and lost his mother to tropical fever. Hamilton supported himself by working as a clerk in a merchant's trading station. His brilliance with numbers and strong work ethic came to the attention of Nicholas Cruger, a wealthy businessman. At fourteen, Hamilton was put in charge of charting ships' courses, tracking freight, converting currencies, and keeping the books. Shortly thereafter, Cruger sent Hamilton to New York to receive a formal education with the hope that Hamilton would return to the island to manage Cruger's business. He never did.

Richard Brookhiser, author of Alexander Hamilton: American and co-curator of the exhibition writes, "The thread that runs through every chapter, and every aspect of Hamilton's life, is his identity as an American. Like that of many Americans after him, this identity was adopted. Hamilton's immigrant origin was no bar to his advancement."

He joined the Continental Army and rose to the rank of colonel. He watched as General Washington and his officers struggled to keep the Continental Army clothed, armed, and fed. Under the Articles of Confederation, the loosely organized country could not raise taxes. The army was dependent on the individual generosity of the thirteen colonial legislatures.

"Hamilton saw that a decentralized government was helpless and incompetent at doing what needed to be done," says Basker.

Hamilton's army experience helped to shape his ideas about the need for a strong centralized government. In his spare time, he read the works of European thinkers and economists--Adam Smith, Samuel Von Pufendorf, and Malachy Postlethwayt. By the war's end, he had outlined a plan for a federal government with strong central power. But in order for his plan to work, the Articles of Confederation would have to be revised or discarded.

Hamilton got his chance when he became one of the three New York delegates to the Constitutional Convention. He advocated for a concentration of power in the federal government-for senators and a national governor who would serve for life, based on good governing. His ideas received no support and had little influence on the other delegates.

Although they did not share Hamilton's federalist vision, the delegates had trouble devising a constitution. They disagreed on states' rights, representation, and slavery. With the existing government bankrupt and on the verge of collapse, a compromise had to be reached. After the other two New York delegates left in anger--they opposed any federalist provisions--Hamilton stayed behind and signed the final draft of the Constitution as an individual. Like other delegates, he recognized that the document, while imperfect, stood a good chance of being ratified by the states.

"The most important thing Hamilton did was after the Constitution had been adopted by the convention, but before it was ratified. That was the real fight," says Basker.

Hamilton returned to New York, a strongly antifederalist state, to lobby for the Constitution. Hoping to turn the tide in favor of ratification, Hamilton, along with John Jay and James Madison, wrote The Federalist, a series of essays. Hamilton wrote more than two-thirds of the eighty-five essays, which were published in New York newspapers in 1787 and 1788 under the nom de plume Publius. In the first essay, Hamilton wrote, "The vigor of government is essential to the security of liberty." Newspapers throughout the colonies began reprinting the essays, and little by little, opposition began to evaporate. All thirteen colonies approved the Constitution.

Hamilton had other views as well on the nature of the new nation. He was stoutly antislavery, having witnessed its brutality in St. Croix. "Here is this kid who had suffered a lot himself, who had no property or fortune. He readily sympathizes with the slaves he sees around him," says Basker. On his arrival in North America, he began giving abolitionist speeches and calling for an end to slavery.

In 1785, Hamilton and others founded the New York Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves, and Protecting Such of Them as Have Been, or May be Liberated. "So the whole premise of racial equality, which is still an issue in our lives today, Hamilton foresaw," says Basker. "He envisioned an era that would bring the end of slavery."

Hamilton's experiences in St. Croix also influenced his economic visions. He took the view that in order for the new republic to survive and flourish, the economy needed to be divided between agriculture and manufacturing. "As a pre-adolescent, Hamilton saw, that on the islands, they manufactured nothing for themselves; they had to import everything," says Basker. "During the Revolution, any supplies needed by the colonies, guns or uniforms or anything manufactured, needed to be acquired from the French or Dutch or had to be taken from captured British supplies. So he knew that America would have to have its own manufacturing or it would always be dependent on other countries."

This was in contrast to Jefferson's hope for a republic of free-holding yeoman farmers, and would lead to political skirmishes between the rivals.

As the first treasury secretary, Hamilton inherited a bankrupt nation. The war debt was crushing. In 1790, he published his "Reports on Public Credit," a plan to assume domestic and foreign debt, pay off federal war bonds, and create a national mechanism for collecting taxes.

James Madison and Thomas Jefferson vehemently opposed Hamilton's plan. The Virginians saw it as unfair to their state. Opposition arose from other quarters as well. To break the deadlock, Hamilton turned to back room politicking and cut a deal with Jefferson. The southern states would vote in favor of his plan in exchange for Hamilton's support in favor of moving the nation's capital from New York to a site on the Potomac River.

Hamilton also secured the establishment of a federal bank and a federal mint. Against long odds, he had placed the nascent United States on solid ground fiscally. Exhausted from the political battles, Hamilton retired from Washington's cabinet in 1795. He remained, however, one of Washington's closest advisors.

In Hamilton's struggle to push forth his vision for the new republic, he made many political enemies. Among the most vocal was John Adams, who referred to Hamilton as "the foreigner" and called him "the most restless, impatient, artful, indefatigable, and unprincipled intriguer in the United States, if not the world." Hamilton did not think much of Adams either. In the 1796 presidential election, Hamilton tried unsuccessfully to manipulate the Electoral College to secure victory for Adams' opponent, Thomas Pickney.

Although Hamilton's support was key to Jefferson winning the presidency over his running mate Aaron Burr in the election of 1800, Hamilton saw his power dwindling. Members of his own Federalist party regarded his support of Jefferson as a betrayal. Jefferson even thought Hamilton was secretly "against the liberty of the country." Wanting to remain in the political fray, Hamilton sought out a vehicle to voice his opinions publicly. He founded the New York Evening Post, which became the federalist's weapon of choice for attacking political enemies

In 1804, Hamilton publicly supported Aaron Burr's opponent in the New York governor's race. "If we have an embryo-Caesar in the United States," wrote Hamilton, "'tis Burr." After years of political mudslinging, Burr finally took offense. On the morning of July 11, 1804, Hamilton met Burr on the dueling grounds at Weehawken, New Jersey. Both men fired their pistols. Only Hamilton was hit. He died the next day.

News of Hamilton's death and the funeral procession through the streets of lower Manhattan were printed in the New York Evening Post. Facsimiles of the newspaper, along with correspondence between Burr and Hamilton leading up to the duel, will be on display. A gallery guide modeled after the present-day New York Post, the original paper's descendent, will be available for students. Headlines in the special issue include "Washington Declines Third Term," "Electoral College Needs an Overhaul," and "Steamy Summer Reading." Copies have been distributed to schools around the country.

"We wanted to make it fun for kids and show them that there were real issues at stake," says Basker. "Kids think history is inevitable, and it isn't. The fight between having a strong federal government or not, the fight between the British and Americans in the Revolutionary War, the fight over slavery--none of them had to turn out the way they did. In this newspaper, we tried to show the pro and con struggle going on at every moment. That history was always contingent."

Hamilton is buried in the Trinity Church graveyard in the shadows of the New York Stock Exchange. His epitaph reads: THE PATRIOT OF INCORRUPTIBLE INTEGRITY, THE SOLDIER OF APPROVED VALOUR, THE STATESMAN OF CONSUMMATE WISDOM, WHOSE TALENTS AND VIRTUE WILL BE ADMIRED BY GRATEFUL POSTERITY LONG AFTER THIS MARBLE SHALL HAVE MOLDERED INTO DUST.

"More than any of his peers, Hamilton shaped and prefigured the America we live now live in," writes Brookhiser. "When you cash a paycheck or vote for president, follow the war against terrorism or criticize the government, read a newspaper, or sit next to someone of a different race on a subway, you are doing something that he foresaw and helped make happen."

Laura Wolff Scanlan is a writer in Wheaton, Illinois.

The New-York Historical Society received $218,000 from NEH to support the traveling exhibition "Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made Modern America." The exhibition opens January 12 at the Poughkeepsie Public Library in New York and at the Prince William Public Library in Virginia.