Honor Above All

From illegitimacy, Alexander Hamiliton rises to power, driven by ambition and his moral code

HUMANITIES, May/June 2007, Volume 28, Number 3

Bitter that his talents were being wasted, Alexander Hamilton wrote to his friend Edward Stevens, “To confess my weakness, Ned, my ambition is so prevalent that I disdain the groveling conditions of a clerk to which my fortune condemns me. I would willingly risk my life, though not my character, to exalt my station. . . . Oh, how I wish there was a war.”

At fourteen, Hamilton, who was working as a clerk for an American trading company in St. Croix, could articulate his thirst for achievement and peg his ambition to a high moral code. “What a remarkable letter,” says Yale historian Joanne Freeman, a contributing scholar to Alexander Hamilton, a new NEH-funded film. “The most striking thing about Hamilton is his concern with character, reputation, and honor. The statement can be a theme to his life.”

The film is produced by Twin Cities Public Television and Middlemarch Films, and airs on PBS’s American Experience on May 14. It uses the writings and correspondence of Hamilton and his contemporaries and the comments of modern Hamilton scholars to understand Hamilton’s motivations.

“We look at the country in the 1790s, when it was getting started during the Washington administration,” says Catherine Allan, the film’s executive producer. “It was a volatile period, and Alexander Hamilton was right in the center. He was brilliant, talented, heroic, and a visionary.” He was also relentless in his politics and carried a chip on his shoulder. His propensity for speaking his mind led to eleven “affairs of honor,” the final one being the duel with Aaron Burr that ended Hamilton’s life.

“Hamilton is literally the forgotten founder, or the bad guy, lumped in with Aaron Burr,” says Freeman. “He was an organizer, and he was a thinker, and the things that he did concerned vast plans for the nation.”

Hamilton was an administrative genius who laid the groundwork for the development of modern America. He was the first secretary of the treasury, shaping policies that created the country’s economic structure, including the creation of America’s first national bank, the predecessor of today’s Federal Reserve. He founded the Coast Guard, was a leading force behind the creation and ratification of the Constitution, and was the principal author of The Federalist Papers. “To an astonishing degree,” says Allan, “Hamilton was responsible for the rise of America to national and urban greatness.”

Any telling of Hamilton’s story must begin with the circumstances of his birth and childhood. Born in 1755 on Nevis, a tiny island in the Caribbean, Hamilton was the only founder born outside the American colonies. According to the social order of the eighteenth century, he was illegitimate because his mother was a divorced woman who was not legally married to his father. Thus, Hamilton was not allowed to attend a Christian school and had no right of inheritance. “It’s hard for us to transport ourselves back to a time in the eighteenth century when everything revolved around birth, and breeding, and pedigree,” says Ron Chernow, a Hamilton biographer who appears in the film. “I think that the illegitimacy had the most profound effect psychologically on Hamilton. It was considered the most dishonored state, and I think that it produced in Hamilton a lifelong obsession with honor.”

Hamilton’s family moved to St. Croix when he was ten. Soon after his father failed in the sugar trade and abandoned the family, his mother died of yellow fever. His only inheritance from his mother’s estate was books because they weren’t deemed valuable. He devoured them, especially the stories of the ancient Greek and Roman statesmen, men of fame and honor.

Hamilton began working at the trading company in St. Croix, where he impressed his employers by learning exchange rates for international currencies and becoming a skilled trader. He also wrote articles for the island’s newspaper and published poetry and sermons. Recognizing his talents, several influential people on the island established a fund to send him to the colonies for an education. In 1773, Hamilton arrived in New York City and enrolled at King’s College, now Columbia University.

Hamilton entered college just as the colonies were beginning to revolt against British rule. He was soon in the thick of it, sympathizing with the colonists and writing pamphlets. He joined the revolution and formed his own artillery company in New York, which survives today as the oldest unit in the U.S. Army. Hamilton’s industry and organizational abilities caught the eye of General George Washington, who invited the young soldier to join him as aide-de-camp. At age twenty-one, Hamilton was handling Washington’s writings and correspondence.

“Washington surrounded himself with a group of bright young men of promise and talent, who Washington calls his family,” says Carol Berkin, professor of history at Baruch College and a commentator in the film. “And Hamilton gets picked. What could be more wonderful than to be brought into George Washington’s family?” During this period, Hamilton married Elizabeth Schuyler of Albany, New York, the daughter of one of the wealthiest men in the country. It was considered a good match, for although Hamilton had no money, he showed much promise.

Hamilton worked as Washington’s aide for four years, the whole time begging Washington to let him fight. But Washington considered Hamilton too valuable to give up to battle.

Eventually, Washington relented and allowed Hamilton to join the Continental forces at Yorktown. “Hamilton believes that he had to raise himself above mediocrity,” says Freeman, “and the only way he could see to do that was to win glory on the battlefield as a way to establish himself. Washington finally gives in, and he becomes one of the heroes of the battle.”

After the war, Hamilton returned to New York City a hero. The Hamiltons set up house at 57 Wall Street and began to raise a family. Hamilton studied law, completing the three-year course in six months. He also became a staunch advocate of a strong central government for the new nation, which was then a bankrupt collection of states loosely allied under the Articles of Confederation. He called the confederation “imbecilic,” although he served as an elected member of the Confederation Congress, the weak governing body set up by the states near the end of the war. Hamilton used his position in the Congress to promote the creation of a strong, unified nation on solid economic footing.

“Our job is to make independence work, but what a terrible situation we’re in. The country has galloping consumption; the case is getting desperate,” Hamilton wrote. “I’ve a powerful remedy for this problem—strong government—but if not taken quickly, the patient will die.”

Through constant cajoling and behind-the-scenes maneuvers, Hamilton convinced a majority of the thirteen states to reform the Articles of Confederation. Fifty-four delegates, including Hamilton, convened in Philadelphia in May 1787 and drafted the Constitution, which proposed a strong central government and a president with real authority. But this new Constitution frightened so-called Anti-Federalists, who feared the return of a monarchial rule similar to what they had just overthrown. Hamilton and his Federalist allies faced a struggle to get the Constitution ratified.

Hamilton launched a campaign for ratification. Along with James Madison and John Jay, he wrote a series of articles published in newspapers that explained the Constitution to the American people. These articles became known as The Federalist Papers. “ The Federalist Papers were written almost as a commercial advertisement for the Constitution,” says Freeman.

Hamilton used all his energy and influence to get the Constitution passed. He was a brilliant writer and debater who spoke his mind. In the process, he made political enemies. In response to charges that he was an elitist promoting a tyrannical aristocracy, Hamilton said, “And whom would you have representing us in government? Not the rich, not the wise, not the learned? Would you go to some ditch by the highway and pick up the thieves, the poor, and the lame to lead our government? Yes, we need an aristocracy to be running our government, an aristocracy of intelligence, integrity, and experience.”

Hamilton was a believer in an aristocracy of merit. He envisioned an America where any man could rise to prominence through ability, not simply because of inherited wealth or a family name.

After the Constitution was ratified and Washington was elected the first president, he named Hamilton secretary of the treasury and gave him broad powers to pursue his plans for a financial system for the new country, which included establishing a national currency, developing a national bank, and having the federal government assume debts the states had incurred fighting the Revolutionary War. These ideas were not to everyone’s liking, including the first secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson.

“By some, Hamilton is considered an ambitious man and therefore dangerous,” wrote Washington. “That he’s ambitious, I’ll readily grant you, but his ambition is an admirable one—the kind which prompts a man to excel at everything he attempts.”

“Washington really was a nationalist,” says Berkin. “Because of his experience as head of the army he was not provincial in the way so many of these men were, especially the Virginians. Washington had his eyes opened to the need for what they called ‘a vigorous central government.’ So Hamilton’s programs seemed to him to be the best idea for this young republic.”

Jefferson and others, however, feared the path the new administration was taking under Hamilton. Hamilton and Jefferson were soon at odds. Hamilton argued for a nation propelled by manufacturing and industrialization, with a strong central government. Jefferson advocated an agrarian society with scant interference from a central government. As a counter to the Federalist Party of Washington, Hamilton, and their allies, Jefferson and his supporters banded together and formed their own political alliance, calling themselves “Republicans.”

After John Adams became the second president in 1796, the two parties attacked each other, with citizens and newspapers joining the fray. The attacks were vicious, and included nasty allusions to Hamilton’s illegitimacy. Jefferson had gained in popularity and had his eye on the presidency. Meanwhile, Hamilton was considered the leader of the Federalists although Adams, also a Federalist, was still president. Fearful that Hamilton might run for president, Jefferson and the Republicans began a smear campaign, leaking information to journalists on their payroll about a decade-old sexual affair of which Hamilton was suspected, and accusing Hamilton of stealing money from the Treasury. To clear his name, Hamilton published a pamphlet in which he admitted his sexual indiscretion but denied financial impropriety, explaining that he had been blackmailed.

“What upsets him is not that he’s being exposed for having an affair,” says Berkin, “but that he’s being accused of profiting as secretary of the treasury from the affair. Much of his defense is devoted to proving that in his public life he was completely honorable.” But Hamilton’s confession of dishonor in his private life scuttled his future in politics.

Hamilton’s political prospects suffered another blow with Washington’s death in 1799. He said of Washington, “He was my aegis—my shield, my armor—essential to everything I have accomplished. No one feels this loss more than I. My heart is filled with gloom.”

Without Washington to protect him, “ Hamilton’s judgment becomes increasingly erratic and he . . . becomes his own worst enemy,” says Chernow. Hamilton was determined that President Adams not be the Federalist candidate in the election of 1800. He issued a fifty-page pamphlet attacking Adams. The attack damaged Adams, destroyed the Federalist Party, and left two Republican candidates tied in electoral votes: Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr.

Hamilton considered both men political enemies, but now he had to support one. The choice was easy. A Hamilton-Burr rivalry had been simmering for fifteen years. Both were from New York, both were lawyers and both were ambitious. But Burr, Hamilton believed, was ambitious for selfish reasons.

“Jefferson or Burr?” wrote Hamilton. “If there be a man in the world I ought to hate, it is Jefferson. But Burr has absolutely no morals, private or public. He listens to nothing but his own ambition.” Hamilton chose Jefferson as the lesser of two evils, a man who, though his adversary, was more likely to act for the good of the nation.

The election of 1800 went from the Electoral College to the House of Representatives, where it remained deadlocked. But then Hamilton convinced one congressman to change his vote, and Thomas Jefferson, the opponent of a strong federal government, became the third president of the United States. Ironically, the capstone of Jefferson’s first term would be the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France. Without the federal financial system created by Hamilton, Jefferson could not have made the deal.

Jefferson’s election left Hamilton defeated politically. He returned to New York, and at age forty-six founded an opposition newspaper, the New York Evening Post, which passionately defended the Federalist cause. But Hamilton’s life continued its downward spiral when his son, Philip, was killed in a duel with a Republican politician.

In 1803, Aaron Burr ran for governor of New York. Hamilton was now a private citizen, but could not resist attacking Burr in writing and at political gatherings. Burr demanded that Hamilton either retract his insults or face him on the field of honor. The two men sparred verbally until it became clear a duel was inevitable. On the morning of July 11, 1804, Hamilton fell to Burr, surviving thirty-one agonizing hours until his death at age forty-nine.

Speaking at his funeral in New York City, Gouverneur Morris, a close friend of Hamilton’s, called on mourners to remember, “How he never sacrificed his principles to court your favor or gain adulation. You have seen him—contending against you and protecting your dearest interests, in spite of yourselves. Because of this you now enjoy the benefits resulting from the firm energy of his work.”

In the end, the illegitimate clerk from St. Croix had lost his life to preserve his honor. His quest for fame and achievement left a legacy of stable government to a nation on the brink of greatness.