One of the more bizarre orthodoxies quickly emerging among an entire generation of young conservatives and libertarians over the past decade or so is that Alexander Hamilton represents the beginning of the end of republican liberty in America. Amazingly enough, for a whole set of folks in their early to late twenties, the demonization of Hamilton has simply become a fact of history.
While I fully admit to disagreeing with much of what Hamilton advocated—especially his promotion of nearly unhindered executive power and his numerous proposals for the gross intrusion of politics into economics, industry, and banking—he was and is not the devil.
In the larger scheme of eternity, he probably even would not rate as a minor demon.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that we have to embrace the absurdity of proclaiming Alexander Hamilton as one of the six vital founders who cunningly manipulated the consent of the innumerable “pious dupes” around them.
In reality, we must transcend the demonization as well as the apotheosis offered by the two extreme Thomases of our present day, each Gnostic in his own particular way: DiLorenzo and Pangle.
A real man—neither demon nor angel—Alexander Hamilton served as one of the most interesting men of one of the most interesting generations in all of history.
A bastard from the West Indies who rose the ranks of society through intelligence, personality, and an unwavering commitment to excellence, Hamilton came to the American colonies courtesy of the charity of a number of prominent West Indian businessmen, all of whom respected the young man profoundly. Earning an education in the liberal arts, Hamilton served effectively and heroically in the War for Independence under Washington.
As his many published writings indicate (all demonstrating his brilliance, whatever one thinks of his politics), he was fully a classical republican, desiring a commonwealth based on virtue and not, primarily, on self-interest. Nowhere was this more clear than in his attempts to root out corruption from the early federal government.
Through an alliance with Charles Carroll of Carrollton and several others, Hamilton led the crusade against those who would use their political positions to secure economic advantage.
Taking the name Publius, he wrote on October 19, 1778:
I mean that tribe who, taking advantage of the times, have carried the spirit of monopoly and extortion to an excess which scarcely admits of a parallel. Emboldened by the success of progressive impositions, it has extended to all the necessaries of life. The exorbitant price of every article, and the depreciation upon our currency, are evils derived essentially from this source. When avarice takes the lead in a state, it is commonly the forerunner to its fall. How shocking is it to discover among ourselves, even at this early period, the strongest symptoms of this fatal disease… But when a man, appointed to be the guardian of the state and the depositary of the happiness and morals of the people, forgetful of the solemn relation in which he stands, descends to the dishonest artifices of a mercantile projector, and sacrifices his conscience and his trust to pecuniary motives, there is no strain of abhorrence of which the human mind is capable, no punishment the vengeance of the people can inflict, which may not be applied to him with justice. If it should have happened that a member of Congress has been this degenerate character, and has been known to turn the knowledge of secrets to which his office gave him access to the purposes of private profit, by employing emissaries to engross an article of immediate necessity to the public service, he ought to feel the utmost rigor of public resentment, and be detested as a traitor of the worst and most dangerous kind. [Source: [Pp. 157-158] Publius, October 19, 1778, to The Printer of the New York Journal, reprinted in Richard B. Vernier, ed., The Revolutionary Writings of Alexander Hamilton (Indianapolis, IN: LibertyFund, 2008)]
A week later, he continued:
You are a man of the world, sir; your self-love forces you to respect its decisions, and your utmost credit with it will not bear the test of recent enormities, or screen you from the fate you deserve. [Source: Publius, October 26, 1778, to The Printer of the New York Journal, in Vernier, 161.]
And, again, nearly a month later.
Were I inclined to make a satire upon species I would attempt a faithful description of your heart. It is hard to conceive, in theory, one of more finished depravity. There are some men whose vices are blended with qualities that cast a lustre [sic] upon them, and force us to admire while we detest! Yours are pure and unmixed, without a single solitary excellence even to serve for contrast and variety. The defects, however, of your private character shall pass untouched. This is a field in which your personal enemies may expatiate with pleasure. I find it enough to consider you in a public capacity. The station of a member of C—-ss is the most illustrious and important of any I am able to conceive. He is to be regarded not only as a legislator, but as a founder of an empire. A man of virtue and ability, dignified with so precious a trust, would rejoice that fortune had given him birth at a time, and placed him in circumstances, so favorable for promoting human happiness. He would esteem it not more the duty than the privilege and ornament of his office to do good to all mankind. From this commanding eminence he would look down with contempt upon every mean or interested pursuit. To form useful alliances abroad—to establish a wise government at home—to improve the internal resources and finances of the nation—would be the generous objects of his care. He would not allow his attention to be diverted from these to intrigue for personal connections to confirm his own influence; nor would he be able to reconcile it, either to the delicacy of his honor or to the dignity of his pride, to confound in the same person the representative of the commonwealth and the little member of a trading company. Anxious for the permanent power and prosperity of the state, he would labor to perpetuate the union and harmony of the several parts. He would not meanly court a temporary importance by patronizing the narrow views of local interest, or by encouraging dissensions either among the people or in C—-ss. In council or debate he would discover the candor of a statesman zealous for truth, and the integrity of a patriot studious of the public welfare; not the cavilling [sic] petulance of an attorney contending for the triumph of an opinion, nor the perverse duplicity of a partisan devoted to the service. [Source: Publius, November 16, 1778, to The Printer of the New York Journal, in Venier, 160-161]
After resigning his military commission, Hamilton did, for all intents and purposes, begin (or at least harness) the first real nationalist stirrings in American politics, writing under the name the “Continentalist.” As it turned out, this movement not only became somewhat embroiled in the potential horrors of the Newburgh Conspiracy, but also in the movement toward the calling of a Constitutional convention.
Hamilton, as well remembered, served a critical role in the convention, though he only attended sporadically, and especially in securing the ratification of the Constitution through his many editorials (again, as Publius, but, this time, with James Madison and John Jay).
In the 1790s, he served ably as the Secretary of the Treasury, gaining a firm control of the previously unruly American debt and, consequently, earning the United States a strong international reputation for integrity.
An unfortunate duel with Aaron Burr ended his career all too soon.
None of this brief post is to suggest that Imaginative Conservatives should find nothing wrong with Hamilton. His nationalist longings created immense problems for the United States, to be sure. But, to demonize or deify him is simply bizarre.
He was, as with many others in history, a brilliant but fallen man, especially in his relations with women.
He was, however, neither a radical nor a reactionary. Instead, he was a towering intellect who used almost every single gift he possessed to promote a classical understanding of our emerging Americana res publica.
Certainly not perfect. But better than many, and more interesting than most.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.