Alexander Hamilton is a fascinating study in contrasts, and I hope that over the last couple of years, the numerous scribbles I’ve put together on the man would give you that feeling as well. Hamilton was a man who was born into some of the worst conditions of his time, but achieved greatness. A man who loved General Washington, but nit-picked with him (and even quit his staff job) over relatively trivial matters. A man who adored his wife almost to distraction – he would write, “My Angel! I told you truly that I love you too much. I struggle with an excess which I cannot but deem a weakness and endeavor to bring myself back to reason and duty…” – and yet entangled himself in at least one costly affair…and maybe others.
Today we visit another such contrast, displayed at the Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787.
The Convention’s first few weeks could be called (in the most general sense) a brainstorming session. There was Edmund Randolph’s presentation of the Virginia Plan in late May, which was a radical departure from the existing Articles of Confederation. Had you been fortunate enough to be sitting in the assembly on June 15th, not only would you have been enormously uncomfortable in the stifling heat and humidity, you would have heard New Jersey’s William Patterson offer up the “New Jersey Plan”, which should get some keyboard-time in the future.
Then there was a day off (the 16th), the day of worship (Sunday the 17th) and “Alexander Hamilton” day on June 18, 1787.
It was then that this 32-year-old visionary stood up and offered his ideas. For six hours he offered them up and, in doing so, inadvertantly drove a stake into the ground that would follow (and often haunt) him for the remainder of his short life. As we know, the proceedings of the Convention were supposed to be sealed until all of its attendees were dead, but Hamilton’s speech was leaked to the public.
In some sense, it’s a minor miracle that Hamilton was even a delegate to the Convention. While he certainly deserved to be there, it was a case of “who you know, not what you know.” Alexander represented New York, which was governed by George Clinton. Clinton loathed Hamilton’s political views, was a supporter of strong states’ rights, and detested any power given to a central government. So he tried to load the New York delegation with men of his ilk…men like Robert Yates and John Lansing (who we’ve seen before on these pages). But Hamilton had a strong ally who happened to also be his father-in-law. Philip Schuyler was an incredibly wealthy man, and owned the allegiances of numerous powerful landowners in New York. He had lost the governor’s election to Clinton ten years prior, so Schuyler was politically connected as well. He made sure a voice opposing Clinton’s (one Alexander Hamilton) was present at the convention.
Anyways, I digress a bit, though I think it’s valuable to have a bit of context.
Hamilton’s “sketch” (as he called it) called for an executive (called a “governor”) elected for life (assuming good behavior and subject to recall), an upper house with Senators elected for life, a lower house elected by the people for 3-year terms, and an elected-for-life judiciary. State governors would be appointed by the national government. The lower house would be the originator of all laws, while the executive held the veto power.
Now some of these things look pretty familiar to us. The three-pronged executive, judicial, and legislative branches are what we have now, as is the bicameral legislature. The same holds with the judiciary – our Supreme Court justices are appointed for life. But for delegates just 5 years removed from a fight for independence, the “for life” provisos for the executive and upper house looked way too much like a British monarchy.
In his defense, Alexander Hamilton had put together a cohesive system with solid checks and balances (that I haven’t detailed). In fact, John Quincy Adams, reading Madison’s notes on Hamilton’s speech a half century later, remarked that it was, in theory, a better constitution than that which was adopted. But our 6th President also hit on the gold when he added that Hamilton’s ideas were “energetic, and approaching the British Constitution far closer, and such as the public opinion of that day never would have tolerated.”
Alexander Hamilton’s speech was probably opposed by 90% of his hearers that day, though no one spoke up in protest. Maybe the delegates believed that if no one discussed it, it never really happened.
I know less of Hamilton than many, and less of history than most. But I think that in this “idea” phase of the Convention, Hamilton’s ideas (while certainly on the disagreeable fringe of where the delegates wanted to go) were viable. Put ideas on the table, let the discussion build, and create a consensus of how a new government should work. But instead, this speech became the “wild outlier”, the statistical aberration that, when maliciously leaked to the public, dogged Hamilton to the end of his days.
In his biography of Hamilton, Ron Chernow describes this six hours of Hamilton’s life as “brilliant, courageous, and, in retrospect, completely daft.” In her book covering the convention, Catherine Bowen writes, “Alexander Hamilton at the Federal Convention cuts a disappointing figure…”
I think his speech presents another of those contrasts. Hamilton, the man who staunchly defended the Constitution in its final form. The Founder who tirelessly penned 50+ essays explaining why the system adopted was so good for the country. The New Yorker who almost single-handedly brought about ratification in his home state (where the opposition owned the political machine). In contrast, the man whose idea of “government in the United States” as presented at the Constitutional Convention went completely off the reservation.
Recommended Reading: James Madison – Yeah, go figure. Just one paragraph on Hamilton’s speech, but just about the best synopsis.
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