Why should anyone study the life of Alexander Hamilton? According to the Left, studying “dead white males” perpetuates racist, patriarchal, and heterosexual power structures that have subjugated minorities of all kinds since Columbus and his bloodthirsty crew dropped anchor in the New World. And for some on the Right, Hamilton was a precursor to the progressivism of Woodrow Wilson and FDR in supposedly arguing for a large and centralized government unmoored by any constitutional constraints. align=”right” A review of Hamilton: An American Biography, by Tony Williams (Rowman & Littlefield, 208 pages, $19.95)
But as Tony Williams shows in his new book, these critics from both the Left and the Right get Hamilton wrong by equal degrees. In fact, Hamilton was a statesman of the highest caliber and advocated for a “strong, reputable, and honorable nation at home and abroad.” At a time when there is much confusion over the fundamental elements of politics such as nationhood, sovereignty, and consent—all things Hamilton knew almost instinctively—this biography is indispensable.
In clear and concise prose, Williams ably sketches out the broad strokes of Hamilton’s life, giving his readers a full and accurate picture of the man.
He chronicles Hamilton’s rise from poverty and obscurity in the West Indies, born out of wedlock to an absent father (John Adams in his more cantankerous years called Hamilton “the bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar”) and a mother who soon perished due to tropical fever. From these low origins, Hamilton went on to become General Washington’s aide-de-camp, fought at the battle of Yorktown, played a crucial role in getting the Constitution ratified, and served as the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury. His life was cut far too short in a duel by the bullet of the despicable Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s archnemesis whom he called an “embryo-Caesar.”
Hamilton’s life would become the very model of the American dream, a meritocracy that actually delivered on its promises of social mobility. It demonstrated to Americans that in this novus ordo seclorum the natural aristocracy of “virtue and talents” Thomas Jefferson wrote about could triumph over an “artificial aristocracy” based on the wiles of human nature and accidents of birth.
In lieu of examining every facet of Hamilton’s life, two overarching themes in Williams’ biography are especially useful for us today. First, Hamilton put his personal honor and reputation in the service of creating a strong national Union, and second, he rejected the rigid constraints of ideology in favor of a politics of prudence.
Hamilton’s National Union
Securing a national Union for the purpose of establishing “American greatness” was, according to Williams, the “glorious purpose” that animated Hamilton’s political life. In Hamilton’s understanding, the United States must be an economically dynamic nation aimed at achieving prosperity and maintaining peace with all nations.
Whatever disagreements invariably exist between citizens, it was plain to Hamilton—and the founders generally—that a common bond of friendship marked by similar character, traditions, and politics was the vital foundation upon which this perpetual Union would rest. The pluribus (or many) was to be founded upon the American unum (or one).
Hamilton took John Jay’s teaching on the importance of Union in Federalist 2 as self-evident:
Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people…descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs . . . .
The drive to create a formidable national Union that could be respected the world over was powered by Hamilton’s own deep sense of personal honor. Williams writes that in Hamilton’s understanding, “Honor was the measure of a man, the preservation of one’s public reputation. To have honor was to be heroic and manly.” Just as Madison taught regarding the character of office-holders and statesmen in Federalist 51, Hamilton “tied his honor and fortunes to that of America and the national honor.”
For Hamilton, as an “honorable man was free of debt and not dependent on any man,” an honorable nation must have good credit and remain free from foreign entanglements, guided only by its national interests. Independence of action was a vital prerequisite for the perpetuation of a great national Union.
Another necessary part of a national Union was an energetic government capable of protecting and defending the rights of its people. Williams argues that this is why Hamilton counseled for the “creation of a stronger constitutional government.”
In contrast to the confederal government of the Articles of Confederation, the government established by the Constitution needed to feature “energetic government with a strong executive” that “executed its powers and protected the liberties of the people.” Such a government must also have “the power to tax, regulate trade, and establish a national bank to set the nation’s finances on a proper foundation.” Buttressed by a “prosperous economy” and a “powerful military establishment to defend its interests,” the American national Union could exist for as long as the people could keep it.
Hamilton Was No Ideologue
A second useful lesson Hamilton can provide us today is his rejection of political ideology and abstraction in favor of political prudence. Though he grounded his politics on the unchangeable natural law and natural rights principles of the Declaration of Independence, his statesmanship was always guided by the particular circumstances the nation confronted.
At a young age, Hamilton knew that to be useful, the theoretical must be able to inform the practical. While he was still toiling away in the Caribbean, he wrote to a friend that he was “no philosopher” and did not want to waste the rest of his life building “castles in the air.” Hamilton followed that path for the rest of his life.
For example, Hamilton as treasury secretary was not an advocate of a policy of pure free trade. He acknowledged that nations typically promote their own interests first and foremost and thus an equality of exchange between nations was rare. From this premise, he supported import tariffs and other means the American government could use to safeguard and promote its young domestic manufacturing sector.
Williams notes that Hamilton’s Report on Manufacturers charged the American government with “protecting innovation, protecting American manufacturers from foreign competition, and spending money on internal improvements such as roads and canals to facilitate trade and link markets.” While free trade was the internal policy of the United States, trade that promoted American interests above those of other countries formed the cornerstone of the nation’s external trade policy. Changing circumstances—not a strict adherence to a single policy irrespective of reality—would dictate American trade policies with foreign nations.
Williams also addresses an incident that many have used to claim Hamilton was an ideologue. In an hours-long oration at the Constitutional Convention, he supported the obliteration of the states and lifetime appointments for senators and the president. Williams argues that this speech “gave his enemies plenty of ammunition in labeling him a monarchist.”
But there is another interpretation of this event that Hamilton’s detractors overlooked then and now. Williams notes that Hamilton was a “brilliant political thinker and strategist” and could have offered this “radical plan” in order to make “the Virginia Plan seem more moderate and break the deadlock in the convention over” the competing Virginia and New Jersey Plans. Though it cost him politically, Hamilton’s speech likely saved the Union from being torn asunder.
Going so far as to campaign openly for his major political rival, Thomas Jefferson, in the Election of 1800 due to the prospect of the diabolical Aaron Burr becoming president, Hamilton’s political prudence was a key part of his public life.
In Hamilton: An American Biography, Tony Williams succeeds in his stated goal of writing “a consciously popular history aimed at a general audience.” But more than that, he presents a convincing case that America would not have become a great nation without Hamilton’s prudent statesmanship.
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