17 December 2006 by Published in: General musings 2 comments

Over the course of the last couple of years, I’ve been focusing my pleasure reading (what little of it there is, that is) on the colonial period and on the Revolutionary War. Having grown up in the shadow of Independence Hall, and as a political science major, I find the events leading to the founding of this Republic of ours to be irresistable. As a lawyer, the debate over the best constitutional form of government for this country intrigues me. Consequently, I made a conscious decision to learn more about the details of these events.

For months now, I’ve been working my way through Ron Chernow’s monumental and magnificent 700 page biography of Alexander Hamilton. It’s a very well written and readable book; it’s entirely my fault that it’s taken me months to get through it. I’ve one chapter to go and then it’s finally finished.

I had a basic knowledge of Hamilton’s life and some idea of his contributions to the country, largely as a result of the combination of a major in political science and my law school studies, where The Federalist Papers are required reading. However, I had no idea just how important this man really was to the development of this country.

Although his birth in the British Virgin Islands excluded him from running for president, you would be hard-pressed to find someone who played a more important role in the early days of this republic than Hamilton. It’s pretty clear that Hamilton was the first among equals in George Washington’s headquarters during the Revolution and also during Washington’s presidency. Hamilton wrote most of Washington’s speeches.

More importantly, it was Hamilton’s brilliance and incredible foresight that led to the formation of the government we have today. As the author of most of The Federalist Papers, Hamilton laid out the roadmap for our form of government. His writings also weighed heavily in the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention, and his vision for a strong central government ultimately won out. Had the Jeffersonian view prevailed, this country never could have achieved greatness. Indeed, it likely would have split into two and probably never would have grown.

The other area where Hamilton showed incredible vision was in foreseeing the modern American market economy and in putting into place the infrastructure necessary to implement it. Hamilton foresaw the stock markets and the money markets that drive the great engine of American economics.

Most interestingly, Hamilton plainly saw that the issue of slavery would have to be settled by arms or else it would tear the Union asunder. He made this prediction about 1800, long before sectional tensions really flared. I found that remarkable.

Hamilton was not without faults. He was petty and could never let anything go. He had a tendency to say too much and to be indiscreet, and his refusal to back down ultimately cost him his life. His inability to get along with people like John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe ultimately cost him his political career. His view of government and Jefferson’s view of government were so diametrically opposed that it was impossible for them to get along, and they became bitter, if not mortal, enemies. Their conflict was as fundamental as the conflict over whose view of government’s role would ultimately prevail, and the proof is in the pudding: Hamilton’s vision of government remains the standard to this day.

At the same time, he was a man of immense–almost inconceivable–restless intellect with a true gift for words. In a day when everything had to be written by hand, I challenge anyone to find someone more intensely prolific than was Hamilton.

After reading this book, I come to the conclusion that, among the great men that founded this country, three stand head and shoulders above the rest: Hamilton, Jefferson, and Washington. Washington was first among his countrymen for the role he played, but it’s clear that the driving intellects that led to the creation of this republican form of government were Jefferson and Hamilton. That Hamilton’s views ultimately prevailed only further demonstrate what a visionary and what a brilliant–albeit ultimately flawed–and unique individual he was.

We are fortunate to have had him, even if he did die far too young at the hand of the scoundrel, Aaron Burr.

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  1. Mitch McGlynn
    Tue 19th Dec 2006 at 6:01 pm

    I just finished “Scandelmonger” by William Safire, and reached the same conclusion. Hamilton was a genius. He deserves a little more credit for the success of our country, and Jefferson a little less. If you like Hamilton, Jefferson, Monroe, Madison, Burr, etc. and the politics of that period, you will love this book. Historical fiction at its best- fun to read with plenty of history packed in.

  2. Alton Bunn
    Sun 24th Dec 2006 at 1:36 pm


    If you’re interested in campaigns, I recommend books by Richard Ketchum. His books on Trenton-Princeton and Bunker Hill were excellent. He also has books on Saratoga and Yorktown as well as on New York city during the revolution.

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