A Reviewer's Notebook - 1977/12
DECEMBER 01, 1977 by JOHN CHAMBERLAIN
To Holmes Alexander, who has watched the passing show as a syndicated columnist in Washington for thirty years, our first Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton qualifies as the "second greatest American." (George Washington is the obvious first.) The Jeffersonians will hate the choice, but Mr. Alexander goes a long way toward sustaining it in his biography of Hamilton, To Covet Honor (Western Islands, 395 Concord Avenue, Belmont, Massachusetts, 02178, $12.00).
For myself as a reviewer, I was convinced by Mr. Alexander while I was reading his heroic and tragic evocation of Hamilton’s career, from his illegitimate birth in the West Indies to his death in the duel with Aaron Burr. But maybe the times have something to do with my feelings.
At a younger age I would have put Jefferson and Madison on pedestals fully as high as the one Holmes Alexander reserves for Hamilton. Jefferson, with his purchase of the Louisiana Territory, made us a continental people. He, along with his fellow Virginians, will be associated forever with the Bill of Rights. Hamilton’s own definitive role in shaping our Constitution cannot be denied, but the final document represented a Madisonian "pull back" from Hamiltonian centralization.
When I look at the way the federal government has perverted the general welfare clause of the Constitution and denied the States‘ and individual rights implications of the Ninth and Tenth Amendments, I tremble to think of what might have happened if Hamilton had succeeded in endowing a strong executive with the right to appoint State governors. That sort of thing led to the fatal rigidity of the Old Regime in France.
But if Hamilton must yield to Madison as a Constitution maker, Mr. Alexander clearly establishes the importance of fiscal sobriety and probity if a nation is to endure. If Madison had prevailed over Hamilton on the issue of the public credit, it is doubtful that we would have had a country to enjoy life under a constitution in the first place. Madison was against Hamilton’s plan for the Federal assumption of state debts. But a government born in repudiation would have had little chance of survival. Hamilton’s insistence that the young United States should meet all obligations incurred in fighting for its right to exist saved the union from disintegration at the outset.
Our country did well in the years it abided by Hamiltonian fiscal principles. Now that we are threatened with dissolution from the financial repudiation that is inherent in inflation, we can see all the more clearly the justice of Hamilton’s claim to be second only to Washington as a nation maker. Hamilton’s statement, that "the creation of a debt should always be accompanied with the means of extinguishment," has, in late years, been so honored in the breach that we may be past recovery. Certainly the Madisonian constitution and the Jeffersonian Bill of Rights will be doomed if Hamilton’s anti-inflation principles can’t be restored.
Mr. Alexander plays down the whole question of Hamilton’s ancestry. West Indian records of the Eighteenth Century are so fragmentary, and so contradictory where they do exist, that no one can be sure about anything. Hamilton himself chose his own birthplace and birth date and paternal forebears. Mr. Alexander apparently believes that the less said about Hamilton’s mother, the better. Unwilling to indulge in romantic conjectures, Mr. Alexander takes Hamilton out of St. Croix in the West Indies as soon as possible. He says Hamilton’s father and mother-whoever they may have been-were of little importance in his life. A self-designated New Yorker, Hamilton never had any desire to return to St. Croix, where he got his education, or to Nevis, the British island he claimed for his birth.
Mr. Alexander is on sound ground as an historian in refusing to romanticize. But, as an admirer of Gertrude Atherton’s great historical novel about Hamilton, The Conqueror, it is hard for me to accept Mr. Alexander’s casual dismissal of Hamilton’s origins. Hamilton’s mother may have had dubious sexual morals (the same was true of Hamilton himself) but every researcher agrees that she was something of a bluestocking. The young Hamilton must have got his first-rate brain from someone.
His maternal relatives on St. Croix, who took him in and eventually helped make up a purse to send him to New York and a college education, must have given him something of a home atmosphere. He had good teachers, notably Dr. Hugh Knox; he had ready access to the classics in the homes of wealthy sugar planters; and he learned to write with such power that his description of a hurricane, published in a local paper, impelled a number of people besides his relatives to stake him to his American trip. Moreover, he had had the good fortune to work in Mr. Cruger’s counting house, where he learned something about the value of solid coin.
An Objective Viewpoint
Not the least of the advantages which Hamilton took with him to New York was the "exterior view." Coming from a tropical island outpost of European empire, he had no inborn allegiance to any single one of the thirteen colonies that fought the war against King George HI. He liked living in New York, but it was the cosmopolitan city that fascinated him. He was our first real nationalist. As Washington’s wartime aide (and corresponding secretary), he had to deal with an almost impotent Continental Congress. He was the one man in America who happened to be molded by training and experience to set forth the idea of a solvent republic, able to defend its borders and to encourage local manufactures that would enable it to endure discrimination and blockade. If Hamilton always remained something of a mercantilist, he was not insensitive to the need for a flourishing foreign trade. He would have learned more about political economy if he had lived into the age of Ricardo.
With a strong brain, Hamilton worked from a master plan. As Mrl Alexander points out, quoting from an earlier biographer, the Englishman Frederick Scott Oliver, Hamilton’s "three phases of independence" had to do with finance, foreign policy and industry. First, he wanted to free the nation from "unwarranted gratitude" for wartime loans. Second, he sought freedom from foreign intrigue. And third, he wanted to see his country self-sufficient in a world of warring empires. Since he was a favorite of Washington, he had a unique opportunity to translate his master plan into action. At the end of Washington’s second term he provided the Father of Our Country with his famous Farewell Address. Thus he put his mark on an independent foreign policy that was to prevail until Woodrow Wilson departed from it.
Hamilton might have become rich, but he preferred to take payment in honors. As Major General Hamilton, he might have seized power in 1800. John Adams, who disliked him for being "an intriguant . . . a bastard . . . a foreigner," thought he might have made an attempt at a coup d’etat. But Adams was wide of the mark. After all, Hamilton had used thousands of written and spoken words to prove that the American Revolution differed entirely from the French, and this precluded any adventure in Bonapartism. The man whom Burr killed stands as the greatest example of intellectual honesty in our history.