Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Alexander Hamilton’

During the first decade the United States lived under the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton (on the left) was a political force.  In fact, one could go so far as to say he was the second-most powerful man in the country, a rung or two below President Washington.  A good number of men loved and respected him (including the first President), and a good number loathed and reviled him (including the second, third, fourth, and fifth Presidents) .  But no one could argue with the presence and influence the country’s first Treasury Secretary enjoyed.  If you’ve spent any time on the pages of Today’s History Lesson, you know that to be true.  His legacy, now nearly two-and-a-half centuries in length, still lives with us.

During the second decade, Hamilton’s power began to dwindle.  Some of that was his own fault, some not.  Clearly, the Federalist party (to which Hamilton belonged) was falling out of favor, wilting under the pressure of an Anti-Federalist party led by Jefferson and Madison.  Federalists were under constant attack and in those days, before the “gentleman’s press” had come into being, those attacks were vicious and in numerous cases, untrue.

But Hamilton’s own indiscretions hadn’t helped his situation.  His affair with Maria Reynolds had been made public in the late 1790s, causing him to offer up a well-intentioned, but ill-advised public apology.  Then there was the even more ill-advised attack on President Adams (a fellow Federalist), published in the newspapers shortly before the 1800 election.  At this point, he was still hated by Anti-Federalists, but a good number of Federalists were keeping their distance as well.

By 1804, Hamilton was doing very well in his law practice, but struggling mightily for political significance.  The upcoming governor’s race in New York provided Hamilton with chance to gain some ground.  Aaron Burr (on the right above), the current Vice President, had decided to run for the position.  Of course, the feud between Hamilton and Burr needs no introduction around here.  Hamilton was incredibly worried that Burr would win, so he drafted a letter to his close friend Rufus King, currently the ambassador to England, asking him to run.  Hamilton knew that King might not be able to win the election outright against the firmly entrenched Clinton machine, but maybe he would siphon off enough “Burr” votes to prevent his arch-enemy’s victory.

On the day he wrote the letter, February 23, 1804, Hamilton became the center of attention again, and again, for all the wrong reasons.  The “Clinton machine”, led my New York governor George Clinton (another bitter rival of Hamilton’s), began circulating the report that, way back in 1787 (during the time of the Constitutional Convention), Hamilton and John Adams (then the ambassador to England) had negotiated with King George III to create an American monarchy with one of George’s sons as king.  In return, England would give up Canada, Nova Scotia, and other land holdings.

The story was utterly false.  Yes, both Hamilton and Adams had made statements in the past that, taken on their own, could be seen to favor a monarchical government.  But each man’s overall body of work clearly showed that neither, under any circumstance, wanted to return to that form of rule.  And having England in control of America in any way, shape, or form, was anathema to both men.  But the timing of the story was perfect, as Hamilton was beginning to gain a bit of political traction via his law practice.

Without letting go of his current work, Hamilton began tracing threads to determine the story’s originator.  He was a man that, above all else, treasured his own honor.  People began to detect the smell of gunpowder in the air and pistols at ten paces.

Hamilton was in the thick of it again.  Dates are a bit fuzzy, but I’m going to try put together a proper conclusion to this story on the proper day.

Recommended Reading:  Duel:  Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Future of America – A good composite read on the feud between these two powerful men.  It starts a bit slowly for my tastes, but finishes with a flourish.

Read Full Post »

James Callender.  The name probably means little to you.  The name meant nothing to me until I started reading about this country’s Founding Fathers a few years back.  But you would certainly know the type of man he was if I gave you just a one-word description.  That word, first used by Theodore Roosevelt in the early 20th century (as I learned on Jeopardy a few days ago), is “muck-raker”.  Wait, is that two words?  One word?

Whatever, James Callender was a muck-raker.  In his biography of Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow describes him as a “hack writer“, an “ugly, misshapen little man who made a career of spewing venom.”   He spent most of his life doing it and, as we’ll soon see, his life ended in muck.  That’s the kind of guy he was.

He arrived in the United States, having left Scotland, in the early 1790s.  Well, “left” is something of a euphemism…”got out of town in a hurry” is more apt, fleeing the country to escape a sedition rap from the British government.  It didn’t take him long to anger folks on this side of the pond, either.

He got in with Republican interests early on, landing a job with Benjamin Franklin Bache’s newspaper, the Aurora.  Firing darts at Federalists like Washington, Adams, and Hamilton made him really good friends with Republicans like Jefferson.  In fact, our third President called Callender “a man of genius” and “a man of science fled from persecution.”

It was all tea and crumpets when James Callender released History of 1796, a pamphlet which exposed to the public a scandal involving “the prime mover of the federal party.”  He enticed his audience by writing that “we shall presently see this great master of morality, although himself the father of a family, confessing that he had an illicit correspondence with another man’s wife.”  He then went on to publish all the papers concerning Alexander Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds.  These were the accounts Hamilton had given to James Monroe, Frederick Muhlenberg, and Abraham Venable.

As we remember, these three men approached Hamilton because they believed the Treasury Secretary was involved in some sort of financial corruption with James Reynolds.  When he buried them with the details of the affair and the extortion, the men left knowing that Hamilton, while acting immorally, was not acting illegally.  Of course, Callender paid no attention to niceties like the truth, and published the corruption stuff anyways.

But Callender was an equal-opportunity muck-raker.  In 1802, he broke another story, this one about the relationship between President Jefferson and one of his slaves, Sally Hemings.  It was probably at this time that Jefferson’s opinion of James Callender changed from that of a man of science to “hypochondriac, drunken, penniless, and unprincipled.

And then there was the court case in 1803.  The People vs. Croswell involved Harry Croswell, a publisher charged with libel who claimed that Thomas Jefferson had paid Callender to defame President George Washington.  Of course, that meant that James Callender would likely be called to the witness stand.  He never made it.

On July 17, 1803, his body was found in the James River.  Apparently, he was in a drunken stupor and drowned in three feet of water…or did he?  History is unclear.

Read Full Post »

In our world, there are lots of famous pairs.  There are a lot of things that just work really well together, like they were meant to be.  And as we start the fifth year of Today’s History Lesson, let’s name some.

Chocolate and peanut butter.
Donnie and Marie.
Spaghetti and meatballs.
The Lone Ranger and Tonto.
Calvin and Hobbes.
Blue Falcon and Dog Wonder.
Abbott and Costello.
Sonny and Cher (ok…admittedly, they worked slightly less well together).
Starksy and Hutch.
Brooks and Dunn.

You get the picture.  In the political world, there have famous pairings, too.  We immediately think of duos like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, or maybe John and Abigail Adams.  Lexington and Concord.  Valley Forge and Baron von Steuben.  Republicans and tax breaks for the wealthy…I jest, I jest!!!  Hmmm…Democrats and deficits…there, does that even it out?  Anyways, we could go on and on, but I’ll focus instead in one.

George Washington and Alexander Hamilton.  We’ve talked about both of these immensely influential Founders on many occasions, but it’s time we put them together.

Hamilton and Washington were a team for the better part of twenty-five years.  Washington, the first President, was the calm, steady leader.  Hamilton, the first Treasury Secretary, was the impetuous, forceful subordinate.  It fact, it’s very safe to say that during Washington’s first term (and much of his second), Alexander was the second most powerful man in America.  He was more powerful than Vice President Adams.  He was more powerful than Secretary of State Jefferson.

Hamilton’s influence made him a lot of enemies, and Washington’s deference to Hamilton made a great many exceedingly jealous.  Thomas Jefferson, in particular, came to believe that Washington was little more than a marionette, dancing on the strings manipulated from above by a power-maddened Hamilton.

But George Washington’s trust in Hamilton was built on years of experience in close proximity to the man.  Whether you like Hamilton or hate him (or are completely indifferent), you must know that Washington was a pretty good judge of people, and he knew Hamilton better than most.

Their collaboration began on this day in history…March 1, 1777.  George Washington was a General…in fact, he was the General of the army.  Alexander Hamilton was an artillery company Captain, who had distinguished himself in the Battle of White Plains and the Battle of Trenton.  His leadership abilities and good performance under pressure (and under fire) had made him something of a desirable commodity.  General Nathanael Greene had requested his services.  Henry Knox (at that time a Brigadier General) had also sought out Hamilton to be an aide.  Hamilton had refused both, preferring to earn his Revolutionary glory on the field of battle.

But when General Washington invited Hamilton to join his staff as an aide-de-camp, it was an offer he simply couldn’t refuse.  He accepted the General’s offer and joined his staff on this day with the elevated rank of Lieutenant Colonel.  And that’s where this “dynamic duo” got its start.

Speaking of Captains, our son learned today that he has been promoted to the rank of Captain.  Congratulations to him!!

Read Full Post »

Well, it’s been quite a while since I last put fingers to keyboard, but I’ve got a good excuse.  We took a vacation to Clearwater Beach, Florida.  I actually took the laptop with me, figuring I’d have time for a bit of work and maybe bit of typing.  Such was not the case.  The weather was absolutely perfect (bright sunshine, blue skies, beautiful beaches, and temperatures in the 70s), the condo was fabulous, and there were plenty of things to do.

I love to eat fish, and being on the Gulf meant there was plenty to be had…all of it was great.  But then we found The Gondolier, an East Coast chain that specializes in pizza.  Their food was outstanding…so good in fact that on our last evening, we simply went back there a second time.  Had we tried that place first, we may have eaten every meal there.  If we go back to Clearwater (and that’s a pretty serious possibility), we may do just that.

The long and short of it is that the laptop stayed mostly parked on the dresser.  But now we’re back to reality (and single-digit temperatures), so I’m hoping to get going this year.  Last year averaged fewer than eight pieces per month, so I’d like to improve on that.

“On January 20, 1791, a bill to charter the Bank of the United States for twenty years virtually breezed through the Senate.”

It’s a pretty simple statement taken from Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, and one that’s easy to just gloss over because we’re so used to banks in the 21st century.  We have banks of every shape and size on nearly every corner.  We can bank online, at the teller window, in the lobby, at an ATM machine, or on a smartphone.  Banks are as common as grocery stores.

In the 18th century, that was not the case.  And while there are people today that don’t trust banks and bankers, 18th-century opinions against the banking system was almost violent.  For Founders like James Madison and John Adams, their political differences found common ground in their opposition to banks.  Jefferson wrote, “I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries as long as they are chiefly agricultural…”  He would describe banks as “an infinity of successive felonious larcenies.”

For those against, banks were seedbeds of corruption and vice, turning honest men into money-hungry, money-grabbing monsters.  I think of a bank as a place to store our money safely and earn a bit of interest.  Men like our third President, through the lens of the 1780s, saw it as an oppressor of the poor and a creator of a class-based society…somewhat ironic considering Jefferson’s adherence to slavery despite his vocal abhorrence of the practice.

Some would say that Jefferson and Madison and Adams and those on their side were somewhat backwards in their stance.  Sure, America was largely agrarian now.  But was agriculture the only industry with a future in brand-new America?  Manufacturing and heavy industry, while not a major force at the time, would certainly increase in importance.  They required large amounts of capital to get started…the kind of capital only a bank could hold.  Furthermore, a national bank would help establish credit with other countries as well as manage and reduce the nation’s outstanding debt.

But for James Madison, it went beyond class and oppression and ended at the Constitution.  Alexander Hamilton had authored the idea of the bank using that most famous little piece of our founding charter…Article 1, Section 8.  We know it best as the “necessary and proper” clause.  It gave (and still gives) Congress the power to pass legislation “necessary and proper” to exercise its delegated duties.  Madison didn’t see a bank as “necessary”.  Nice?…maybe.  Convenient?…maybe.  Necessary?…absolutely not.

Madison had argued for the Constitution’s elasticity when writing pieces for The Federalist, but he believed a national bank pushed that elasticity beyond the breaking point.  Many agreed with him.  Hamilton had also argued for flexibility in the Constitution and believed the bank fit nicely under that clause.  And more Senators agreed with him than with Madison, so the bill passed the Senate.

Curious about the bank’s ultimate claim to fame?  How about the party system we enjoy (or loathe, depending on your bent) today?  Yep, it was along the banks of the “banking river” that political parties were born.

Read Full Post »

“For Eliza Hamilton, the collapse of her world was total, overwhelming, and remorseless.  Within three years, she had had to cope with four close deaths:  her eldest son, her sister Peggy, her mother, and her husband, not to mention the mental breakdown of her eldest daughter.”

So begins the epilogue to Ron Chernow’s sweeping and masterful biography of Alexander Hamilton.  The first five years of the 19th century were hard for the wife of our nation’s first Treasury Secretary.  But her life was far from over, and the strength she displayed after the sudden death of Alexander more than matched that of her first forty-seven years.

She worked hard to preserve her husband’s legacy, particularly as the Federalist party faded from prominence and then disappeared altogether in the 1820s.  She gathered his notes and questioned his contemporaries extensively in an effort to keep his achievements alive.  When no one stepped forward to write a biography, she tapped her son John Church Hamilton to perform the arduous task.

She possessed a deep well of forgiveness for her husband’s disastrous affair with Maria Reynolds, but much less so for James Monroe, whom she blamed for leaking the story.  Thirty years after the fact, the former President paid her a visit, hoping that time had taken away the sting of her hurts.  Her cool response was, “Mr. Monroe, if you have come to tell me that you repent, that you are sorry, very sorry, for the misrepresentations and the slanders and the stories you circulated against my dear husband, if you have come to say this, I understand it.  But otherwise, no lapse of time, no nearness to the grave, makes any difference.”

But this devoutly religious widow did more than protect Alexander’s legacy.  She spent much time serving orphans and widows herself, cofounding (in 1806) the first private orphanage in New York, where for many years she was one of its directors.  She worked tirelessly to keep the orphanage funded and keep the financial records straight (a talent she may have learned from Alexander?).

Much of this good work was done while she had little means of support herself.  Alexander had died with a sizeable debt, which flew in the face of Anti-federalist accusations that he “stole from the government coffers” and had secret British-funded bank accounts.  In fact, as a veteran of the Revolution, Alexander Hamilton had refused not only the pension to which he was entitled as an officer, but also the parcels of land promised to officers.  He did this because, as a member of Congress, he wanted no one to accuse him of bias when he addressed the issue of veterans’ compensation.  Following his death, Eliza had received these allocations from President Madison as back payments.

She finally left the Grange and settled with her now-widowed daughter in Washington, D.C.  At 91, she still remained lucid and full of life.  She worked with Dolley Madison to raise money for construction of the Washington Monument, and enjoyed the company of many who stopped at her parlor to marvel at one of the last remaining witnesses to the American Revolution.

She kept her wits until the end, along with her strong faith and her love and devotion to Alexander.  And on November 9, 1854, this 97-year old wonder entered her eternal rest, as the nation her husband worked so hard to bring together catapulted itself toward fracture and destruction.

Eliza was laid to rest next to Alexander, who had departed more than a half century before.

Recommended Reading: Alexander Hamilton

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Well, it’s the last day of February, and that means another year of Today’s History Lesson is about to enter the history books.  I’ll have to do a count of the number of pieces that have come out since March 1st of last year.  Three years.  That’s how long we’ve been together.  Some of the articles have been short, some long.  Some alright, with a few stinkers thrown in for good measure.  Tomorrow begins year four of this little experiment.  I’m not sure how long it will continue, but I know we’ve got a little something for this evening.

On February 28, 1792, Thomas Jefferson met with George Washington.  The topic of discussion between the nation’s first President and its first Secretary of State was supposed to be about the post office, signed into existence just the week before.  But it turned out that the Secretary of State really wanted to talk about the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury.

In our three years together, it should now be obvious to you that our first Secretary of State (Jefferson) did not like our first Treasury Secretary (Alexander Hamilton).  But in case it’s not yet obvious, let me try this…JEFFERSON COULD NOT STAND HAMILTON.

Hehehe…maybe that’ll do the trick.

Jefferson was absolutely, totally, completely, 100%, cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die convinced that, from his position at Treasury, Alexander Hamilton was paving the way for a return to a British-style monarchy.  And nothing could change Thomas Jefferson’s mind on the matter.  Every little thing Hamilton did was twisted by Jefferson to smack of desiring a king.  Hamilton could have mentioned that he measured a monarch butterfly with a ruler, and Jefferson would have told someone (likely James Madison or Philip Freneau, who ran the anti-Hamilton National Gazette) that Alexander spoke positively of “monarch rule.”

Seriously…it had pretty much gotten to that point.

Now, no legit historian (at least that I can see) really thinks that Hamilton, nor Washington, nor even John Adams (who made more pro-king comments than anyone) wanted a king.  That’s complete hogwash.  We know that Hamilton wrote the bulk of the Federalist Papers, and he alone was the single biggest reason the Constitution was ratified in New York.  He liked elements of the British system of government and even suggested some of them when offering his plan at the Constitutional Convention (we’ve mentioned that before and will discuss it in greater detail in the future), but that’s as far as it went.  Once a Constitution was created and agreed upon, he was behind it completely.

But President Washington listened to Hamilton…a lot.  More than he listened to Jefferson.  There is no doubt that Alexander Hamilton was the second most powerful man in America’s first government.  He was more powerful than Jefferson, he was more powerful than Vice President Adams, and he was certainly more influential than either of them.  And that created jealously.  And let’s face it, Washington was the hero of the Revolution, and he was the unanimous choice as President.  The vast majority of the populace loved him.  He was unassailable.  So, if you can’t rail on the top guy, go after the next guy in line.  And that’s just what happened.

But a bit of balance.  Thomas Jefferson had some legitimate differences with Hamilton.  As a devout agrarian, he believed the Treasury Secretary was setting up a system that favored speculators, gamblers, and industrialists at the expense of farmers.  This talk of stocks and bonds, of banks and financing the public debt, and the “city of the future” didn’t really appeal to Jefferson.  He also had valid questions about the government’s role in these enterprises.  Did the Constitution allow for such activity?  Were people equipped to deal with this?  These were all important issues, worthy of discussion and debate.

But Jefferson didn’t really focus on these issues.  He (and others) simply decided that Hamilton wanted a monarchy and that was that.  Everything was filtered through that prism.  Jefferson warned the President that “the department of the Treasury possessed already such an influence as to swallow up the whole executive powers and that even future presidents…would not be able to make head against this department.”  Of course, the Secretary of State immediately reminded his Commander-in-Chief that he had no political ambitions of his own.

Hehehe…I’m no expert, but other than getting a hundred times more intrusive, a billion times bigger, and a trillion times more expensive, I don’t think government in these United States has really changed all that much in all these years.

And with that, we’ll close the books on our third year.  I’m so grateful to my good friend Michael for creating this venue and giving me the chance to contribute.  Though it’s just me now, his influence lives on in these pages…and always will.  And of course, I’m grateful to all of you.  Your occasional thoughts and your correction of my mistakes sharpen me, as iron sharpens iron.

Thank you.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »