In recent years, American civic culture has suffered deep cleavages. Civil conversations have been poisoned by battles over the meaning of America’s past, and which figures we should revere—and condemn. Even America’s Founding Fathers have come under the microscope, but one—Alexander Hamilton—has been spared such judgments by the massive popularity of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s runaway hit musical, Hamilton. Miranda has made Hamilton by far the most popular Founder, at least for the time being.
Hamilton’s new stature is heartening, though it’s unlikely that it has led to a significantly deeper understanding of his contribution as a thinker and statesman in helping to establish the American constitutional order.
Hamilton came to the American colonies as a young immigrant as the tensions with Great Britain were coming to a head in the mid-1770s. He studied ancient and Enlightenment thinkers at King’s College and developed a Lockean political philosophy that prized natural rights and republican self-government.
In his 1775 Farmer Refuted pamphlet, he argued for universal natural rights. “The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for, among old parchments, or musty records,” he wrote. “They are written, by the hand of divinity itself; and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.” The purpose of government was to protect the natural rights of the sovereign people, who could overthrow an unjust government that failed to fulfill its purpose.
Hamilton was not content with writing about American republicanism. He was a man of action who sought fame and personal honor in a war for liberty. He served in the army of his adopted country, perhaps “to seal with my blood the sentiments defended by my pen.” He used sword and pen in the war as the hero of the Battle of Yorktown and General George Washington’s most trusted staff officer.
Washington facilitated Hamilton’s meteoric rise and fundamentally shaped the trajectory of his statesmanship. Washington gave opportunities to Hamilton and others in the officer corps based on merit and talent, rather than birthright. The general also fostered a continental outlook and forged an American character in the army. At the end of the war, he promoted a strong national Union and urged the national government to adopt greater powers adequate to an independent sovereign nation. These ideas profoundly shaped Hamilton’s thinking.
America’s frustrating wartime experience under the Continental Congress led Hamilton to become a nationalist and firm advocate of a stronger central government. “The fundamental defect,” as he saw it, “is a want of power in Congress” and too much power in the sovereign states. He supported constitutional revision of the Articles of Confederation, the new nation’s first constitution, even before all the states ratified it. In the summer of 1781, he began a series of essays entitled “The Continentalist.” He wrote: “There is something noble and magnificent in the perspective of a great federal republic, closely linked in the pursuit of a common interest, tranquil and prosperous at home, respectable abroad.”
After serving a brief time in Congress, Hamilton became an attorney in New York. His dedication to natural-law justice prompted his courageous defense of the rights of unpopular Tories who had had their property confiscated under New York law. He believed that the laws violated equal justice, the rights of minorities, and the Peace Treaty of 1783. In January 1784, he wrote “Letter from Phocion,” stating that a natural-rights republic “holds the rights of every individual sacred” and “punishes no man without regular trial.” Most famously, he represented a widow in Rutgers v. Waddington, making a case for judicial review when state laws conflicted with national ones, individual rights, and natural law.
During the 1780s, Hamilton joined the antislavery New York Manumission Society. He believed that slavery was a moral evil and a contradiction of any natural-rights regime. During the war, he had backed friend John Lauren’s plan to emancipate slaves in South Carolina if the slaves would bear arms for the patriot cause. Ultimately, though, abolition was not Hamilton’s main cause. He adopted a longer view, one devoted to building a well-governed republic that protected the inalienable rights of all.
In 1786, Hamilton attended the abortive Annapolis Convention to create uniform commercial regulations for the nation. He discussed the problems of the Confederation with a handful of fellow nationalists, including James Madison, and wrote the resolution calling for a Philadelphia convention the following May to “render the constitution of the federal government adequate to the exigencies of the Union.”
Hamilton’s political philosophy has often been misunderstood. He supported a strong national government, but he was no monarchist, later claims of the Jeffersonians notwithstanding. He sought a stronger central government because he believed that a weak government was the greatest threat to individual liberty. A weak government was susceptible to chaos, which opened the path to demagoguery and tyranny. Weakness endangered national security and honor, inviting the great European empires to carve up North America according to their own interests.
At the Constitutional Convention, Hamilton was continually frustrated by his role and the course of the deliberations. New York governor George Clinton and his allies in the state assembly sent Hamilton as part of a three-man delegation with two anti-federalists, who outvoted Hamilton at every turn and foiled his nationalist designs. Eventually, they went home and left the state delegation without a quorum or vote. On June 18, 1787, Hamilton delivered a six-hour speech that stretched republican principles as far as they would go, describing an elective executive, a senate for life, and a democratic house. While he sincerely believed in the ideas and principles of his proposed plan, many scholars have reasonably suspected that he introduced it to help moderate the Virginia Plan in the minds of the delegates.
Hamilton signed the Constitution but seemed to offer it only the most lukewarm approbation, saying that it was “better than nothing.” Such a comment belied the role that he played in the ratification debate. He was the most prolific author of the Federalist essays as Publius and the main proponent of the Constitution at the New York ratifying convention. His efforts reflected his belief that Americans faced a deliberative moment to decide the question of whether human beings were capable of establishing good government from “reflection and choice.”
After playing a key role in ratification, Hamilton was instrumental in forging the new government in the Washington administration. As Treasury secretary, he worked with Congress to establish the public credit on a solid footing and create a national bank. More fundamentally, he laid the foundation for private enterprise to thrive in a capitalist economy and for the various players in the national economy—manufacturers, merchants, plantation owners, yeoman farmers, shippers, and artisans—to be integrated into a united whole and enjoy prosperity.
Congressional debate over Hamilton’s plans was spirited, to say the least. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and other critics argued that creating a national bank was not an enumerated power of Congress; doing so violated the Tenth Amendment and improperly exercised power under the Necessary and Proper Clause of Article I, section 8. Hamilton penned a lengthy defense of implied powers and argued that the powers of a bank were related to other powers of Congress under that clause, and thereby constitutional.
Hamilton quickly became Washington’s key cabinet member and advisor. They agreed on almost all domestic and foreign policy; Secretary of State Jefferson and Representative Madison were increasingly shut out and became Hamilton’s political rivals. They formed a political party—despite the universal antipathy to parties as factions—and opposed his centralizing policies at nearly every turn.
Washington and Hamilton agreed to send an army to western Pennsylvania to enforce the rule of law and avert another Shays’ Rebellion when farmers protested a tax on whiskey passed by Congress and signed by the president. On foreign policy, the pair agreed to a 1793 Proclamation of Neutrality and the 1795 Jay Treaty, with the overriding goal of averting war because the new nation was ill-prepared to fight with France or Great Britain. Hamilton’s diligent efforts to defend the national interest by pursuing peace through strength demonstrated that he was no warmonger.
Weary of the partisan rivalries that divided his administration, President Washington reluctantly accepted a second term. By 1796, however, he was unalterably committed to retire to Mount Vernon under his “vine and fig-tree.” Madison had written a 1792 draft of Washington’s “Farewell Address,” which was shelved until 1796. Hamilton rewrote the address as a practical guide to republican political principles. It has endured as one of the key documents of the American Founding.
The “Farewell Address” was Washington’s guide to his fellow Americans about achieving political prosperity. He advised them to cherish the national Union as the “main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize.” He warned them against the dangers of political party as inimical to the public good and unity. He thought the basis of republican government was a virtuous and knowledgeable citizenry. To that end, he promoted education and religion. “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports,” he wrote. Finally, he thought that the United States should steer clear of “permanent alliances;” it should seek to defend American national interests while treating other nations with liberality and justice.
Hamilton spent a lifetime defending his personal honor and the national honor. He perished in a duel while fighting to protect an eighteenth-century ideal that seems anachronistic to Americans today.
Hamilton has never garnered more interest or been as closely examined in the popular imagination as he is now. Yet, we collectively seem to miss the mark on how much he contributed to the shaping of the American republican institutions that support the ideals of liberty and self-government, free enterprise, and civic culture. A better understanding of Alexander Hamilton, and his political principles and statesmanship, could teach Americans important lessons today.
This essay originally appeared in RealClearPublicAffairs.