Hamilton: The Man Who Invented America

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Nov 5, 2018

Alexander Hamilton: You know the name, but what do you know about the man? Joseph Tartakovsky, senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, details how Hamilton took a country with no past and envisioned its future.

This video was made in partnership with the American Battlefield Trust. Learn more about Alexander Hamilton and America's Battlefields at Battlefields.org.

Check out Joseph's book: The Lives of the Constitution: Ten Exceptional Minds that Shaped America’s Supreme Law

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The speed by which the United States became a unified nation is largely a result of Alexander Hamilton’s tireless efforts.

  • In 1782, Alexander Hamilton laid out the choice before the young country in a six-part essay, as part of “The Federalist Papers.” We could become a “noble and magnificent” federal republic or we could stumble ahead as a “number of petty states, with the appearance only of union.”View Source
  • President Washington named 34-year-old Hamilton to be the first Secretary of the Treasury. He served in the post for almost six years.View Source
  • Hamilton saw the disorder that resulted from a weak national government in the Revolutionary War, and sought to make the national government effective.View Source
  • Hamilton’s task as Secretary of the Treasury was to put a country that owed $80 million and only brought in $4.4 million back on sound financial footing. He succeeded.View Source
  • Historian Leonard White writes that Hamilton was not only the “greatest administrative genius of his generation” but “one of the great administrators of all time.”View Source

After witnessing the horrors of slavery in his youth, Alexander Hamilton became one of America’s fiercest abolitionists. 

  • Sugar plantation slave auctions were a regular feature of life in the Caribbean in the 1700s.View Source
  • On Alexander Hamilton’s home island of Nevis, slaves outnumbered white settlers 12 to 1.View Source
  • Many slaves died on the way to the Caribbean. Those who survived were separated from their families and sold to local plantations.View Source
  • The inhumanity he witnessed as a young man strongly impacted Hamilton, who grew to become a fierce abolitionist. In 1785, Hamilton became one of the founders of the abolitionist New York Manumission Society.View Source
  • Related reading: “The Lives of the Constitution: Ten Exceptional Minds that Shaped America’s Supreme Law” – Joseph TartakovskyView Source

Alexander Hamilton was orphaned and destitute by age 14, yet he became one of the most influential men in American politics. 

  • Alexander Hamilton was born on January 11, 1755 on the island of Nevis in the British West Indies.View Source
  • Ron Chernow writes in his biography of Hamilton: “While other founding fathers were reared in tidy New England villages or cosseted on baronial Virginia estates, Hamilton grew up in a tropical hellhole.”View Source
  • Alexander Hamilton was abandoned by his father at an early age.View Source
  • Hamilton’s mother died of yellow fever when he was 14, leaving him destitute.View Source
  • Hamilton took a job as clerk for a local merchant. Recognizing his talents, the merchant raised funds to send Hamilton to college in the colonies.View Source
  • John Adams referred to Hamilton as the “bastard brat of a Scotch Pedler.”View Source

Alexander Hamilton distinguished himself as a soldier, statesman and abolitionist, and his efforts helped forge a strong, united country.

  • After an extremely difficult upbringing, Alexander Hamilton arrived in New York in 1773 to attend King’s College, the forerunner of today’s Columbia University.View Source
  • When the war began, Hamilton dropped out to join the Continental Army and quickly came to the attention of George Washington, who made him his staff officer.View Source
  • Fellow officers later remembered “Call Colonel Hamilton” as Washington’s instinctive utterance when important news arrived.View Source
  • Hamilton was a trusted aide to Washington, and became involved in every aspect of running the war.View Source
  • Hamilton distinguished himself in command and in the field.View Source
  • Hamilton took the idea of nationhood seriously. Although he advocated for a strong federal government, he believed in the importance of state governments and worked tirelessly—and successfully—to help the young country succeed.View Source

Alexander Hamilton’s life—one of the most significant in American history—came to a tragic, needless end at the hand of a political rival.

  • Alexander Hamilton was killed in a duel with the Vice President of the United States, Aaron Burr, ending a long and bitter political feud.View Source
  • Hamilton supported Thomas Jefferson in his run against Aaron Burr for the presidency and campaigned against Burr in New York’s gubernatorial race.View Source
  • In Europe, duels had been fought since the middle ages over personal honor. In America, duels were first used to settle political disputes.View Source
  • Dueling was outlawed in New York, and opposed by Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, but Hamilton went ahead with the duel.View Source
  • Hamilton fired his pistol harmlessly into the air. But Burr took careful aim, shot and mortally wounded Hamilton, who soon died at the age of 49.View Source

While Washington was America’s guiding star and Jefferson its visionary, Hamilton was the pragmatist, the man who got it done.

  • President Washington named 34-year-old Hamilton to be the first Secretary of the Treasury. He served in the post for almost six years.View Source
  • Hamilton saw the disorder that resulted from a weak national government in the Revolutionary War, and sought to make the national government effective.View Source
  • Hamilton’s task as Secretary of the Treasury was to put a country that owed $80 million and only brought in $4.4 million back on sound financial footing. He succeeded.View Source
  • Historian Leonard White writes that Hamilton was not only the “greatest administrative genius of his generation” but “one of the great administrators of all time.”View Source
  • WATCH: Joseph Tartakovsky on Key Figures Who Shaped the ConstitutionView Source

It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that Alexander Hamilton invented the United States of America.

George Washington was the guiding star; Thomas Jefferson, the visionary; and Benjamin Franklin, the sage.  But Hamilton was the pragmatist, the man who got it done. 

This most self-made of self-made men took a country with no past and planned its future.

He was born on January 11, 1755 on the island of Nevis. This was not the Caribbean of your cruise fantasy—quite the contrary. As Ron Chernow writes in his biography of Hamilton, “While other founding fathers were reared in tidy New England villages or cosseted on baronial Virginia estates, [Hamilton] grew up in a tropical hellhole...”

Sugar plantation slave auctions were a regular feature of island life. The spectacle—buyers swinging branding irons as they surveyed the human “merchandise”—made a permanent impression on Hamilton: He was a fierce abolitionist his entire life.

Abandoned by his father at an early age, his mother died of yellow fever when he was 14, leaving the teenage boy destitute. A local judge had to buy him shoes so that he could attend her funeral.

He soon took a job as clerk for a local merchant. Before long, he was running the business—coordinating shipments of mules and codfish, calculating currency exchanges, and advising sea captains on how to deal with pirates. It was an unmatchable apprenticeship in trade, credit, and commerce.

In 1773, he arrived in New York to attend King’s College, the forerunner of today’s Columbia University. Swept up in the revolutionary fervor of his adopted country, he dropped out to join the Continental Army.

He quickly came to the attention of George Washington, who made him a staff officer. The sonless Washington called the fatherless Hamilton “my boy.” Fellow officers later remembered “Call Colonel Hamilton” as Washington’s instinctive utterance when important news arrived.

As Washington’s trusted aide, he was involved in every aspect of running the war, including actual fighting, where he distinguished himself on multiple occasions. But more than anything, it was his dealings with the weak and indecisive Continental Congress that shaped his political views. 

The problem with the Congress, in Hamilton’s view, was that too few members took the idea of nationhood seriously. They quarreled over their narrow interests rather than uniting over the national interest.

As the war was winding down, Hamilton laid out the choice before the country in a widely read six-part essay. We could become a “noble and magnificent” federal republic, he wrote, “closely linked in the pursuit of a common interest…” or we could stumble ahead as a “number of petty states, with the appearance only of union…”

It was clear where Hamilton stood.

The speed by which the United States became a unified nation with a cohesive federal government is largely a result of his tireless efforts before, during, and after the Constitutional Convention.

Washington named Hamilton, still only 34, to be the first Secretary of the Treasury. He served in the post for almost six years. His task was nothing short of Herculean: put the country, drowning in war debt and teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, on a sound financial footing.

He succeeded, and in doing so set the course for America to become the world’s most prosperous nation.

Historian Leonard White writes that Hamilton was not only the “greatest administrative genius of his generation…” but “one of the great administrators of all time.”

There’s no telling what Hamilton might have achieved had he lived a longer life. Instead, he died one of the most pointless deaths in American history.  As hard as it is to fathom today, he was killed in a duel with the Vice President of the United States, Aaron Burr, a man with whom he had a long and bitter political feud.

Hamilton fired his pistol harmlessly into the air. He never intended to kill Burr. To Hamilton, it was an affair of honor. But to Burr, it was something else. The Vice President took careful aim, shot and mortally wounded his rival, who spent some 30 hours in agony before succumbing. Hamilton was 49.

Hamilton lived in a time when the great danger to the national project was a government that was too weak. We live in a time when many believe that the great danger to the nation is from a national government grown too strong.

The ideal, Hamilton would have told us, is somewhere in between. But perhaps America will have to wait for another Hamilton to achieve that happy medium.

I’m Joseph Tartakovsky, senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, for Prager University.

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