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Alexander Hamilton

 

THE AMERICAN CONSTITUTION

There is one man in the political history of the United States whom Daniel Webster regarded as his intellectual superior. And this man was Alexander Hamilton; not so great a lawyer or orator as Webster, not so broad and experienced a statesman, but a more original genius, who gave shape to existing political institutions. And he rendered transcendent services at a great crisis of American history, and died, with no decline of popularity, in the prime of his life, like Canning in England, with a brilliant future before him.

He was one of those fixed stars which will forever blaze in the firmament of American lights, like Franklin, Washington, and Jefferson; and the more his works are critically examined, the brighter does his genius appear. No matter how great this country is destined to be,--no matter what illustrious statesmen are destined to arise, and work in a larger sphere with the eyes of the world upon them,--Alexander Hamilton will be remembered and will be famous for laying one of the corner-stones in the foundation of the American structure.

He was not born on American soil, but on the small West India Island of Nevis. His father was a broken-down Scotch merchant, and his mother was a bright and gifted French lady, of Huguenot descent. The Scotch and French blood blended, is a good mixture in a country made up of all the European nations. But Hamilton, if not an American by birth, was American in his education and sympathies and surroundings, and ultimately married into a distinguished American family of Dutch descent. At the age of twelve he was placed in the counting-house of a wealthy American merchant, where his marked ability made him friends, and he was sent to the United States to be educated. As a boy he was precocious, like Cicero and Bacon; and the boy was father of the man, since politics formed one of his earliest studies. Such a precocious politician was he while a student in King's College, now Columbia, in New York, that at the age of seventeen he entered into all the controversies of the day, and wrote essays which, replying to pamphlets attacking Congress over the signature of "A Westchester Farmer," were attributed to John Jay and Governor Livingston. As a college boy he took part in public political discussions on those great questions which employed the genius of Burke, and occupied the attention of the leading men of America.

This was at the period when the colonies had not actually rebelled, but when they meditated resistance,--during the years between 1773 and 1776, when the whole country was agitated by political tracts, indignation meetings, patriotic sermons, and preparations for military struggle. Hitherto the colonies had not been oppressed; they had most of the rights and privileges they desired; but they feared that their liberties--so precious to them, and which they had virtually enjoyed from their earliest settlements--were in danger of being wrested away. And their fears were succeeded by indignation when the Coercion Act was passed by the English parliament, and when it was resolved to tax them without their consent, and without a representation of their interests. Nor did they desire war, nor even, at first, entire separation from the Mother Country; but they were ready to accept war rather than to submit to injustice, or any curtailment of their liberties. They had always enjoyed self-government in such vital matters as schools, municipal and local laws, taxes, colonial judges, and unrestricted town-meetings. These privileges the Americans resolved at all hazard to keep: some, because they had been accustomed to them all their days; others, from the abstract idea of freedom which Rousseau had inculcated with so much eloquence, which fascinated such men as Franklin and Jefferson; and others again, from the deep conviction that the colonies were strong enough to cope successfully with any forces that England could then command, should coercion be attempted,--to which latter class Washington, Pinckney, and Jay belonged; men of aristocratic sympathies, but intensely American. It was no democratic struggle to enlarge the franchise, and realize Rousseau's idea of fraternity and equality,--an idea of blended socialism, infidelity, and discontent,--which united the colonies in resistance; but a broad, noble, patriotic desire, first, to conserve the rights of free English colonists, and finally to make America independent of all foreign forces, combined with a lofty faith in their own resources for success, however desperate the struggle might be.

All parties now wanted independence, to possess a country of their own, free of English shackles. They got tired of signing petitions, of being mere colonists. So they sent delegates to Philadelphia to deliberate on their difficulties and aspirations; and on July 4, 1776, these delegates issued the Declaration of Independence, penned by Jefferson, one of the noblest documents ever written by the hand of man, the Magna Charta of American liberties, in which are asserted the great rights of mankind,--that all men have the right to seek happiness in their own way, and are entitled to the fruit of their labors; and that the people are the source of power, and belong to themselves, and not to kings, or nobles, or priests.

In signing this document the Revolutionary patriots knew that it meant war; and soon the struggle came,--one of the inevitable and foreordained events of history,--when Hamilton was still a college student. He was eighteen when the battle of Lexington was fought; and he lost no time in joining the volunteers. Dearborn and Stark from New Hampshire, Putnam and Arnold from Connecticut, and Greene from Rhode Island, all now resolved on independence, "liberty or death." Hamilton left his college walls to join a volunteer regiment of artillery, of which he soon became captain, from his knowledge of military science which he had been studying in anticipation of the contest. In this capacity he was engaged in the battle of White Plains, the passage of the Raritan, and the battles at Princeton and Trenton.

When the army encamped at Morristown, in the gloomy winter of 1776-1777, his great abilities having been detected by the commander-in-chief, he was placed upon Washington's staff, as aide-de-camp with the rank of lieutenant-colonel,--a great honor for a boy of nineteen. Yet he was not thus honored and promoted on account of remarkable military abilities, although, had he continued in active service, he would probably have distinguished himself as a general, for he had courage, energy, and decision; but he was selected by Washington on account of his marvelous intellectual powers. So, half-aide and half-secretary, he became at once the confidential adviser of the General, and was employed by him not only in his multitudinous correspondence, but in difficult negotiations, and in those delicate duties which required discretion and tact. He had those qualities which secured confidence,--integrity, diligence, fidelity, and a premature wisdom. He had brains and all those resources which would make him useful to his country. Many there were who could fight as well as he, but there were few who had those high qualities on which the success of a campaign depended. Thus he was sent to the camp of General Gates at Albany to demand the division of his forces and the reinforcement of the commander-in-chief, which Gates was very unwilling to accede to, for the capture of Burgoyne had turned his head. He was then the most popular officer of the army, and even aspired to the chief command. So he was inclined to evade the orders of his superior, under the plea of military necessity. It required great tact in a young man to persuade an ambitious general to diminish his own authority; but Hamilton was successful in his mission, and won the admiration of Washington for his adroit management. He was also very useful in the most critical period of the war in ferreting out conspiracies, cabala, and intrigues; for such there were, even against Washington, whose transcendent wisdom and patriotism were not then appreciated as they were afterwards.

The military services of Hamilton were concealed from the common eye, and lay chiefly in his sage counsels; for, young as he was, he had more intellect and sagacity than any man in the army. It was Hamilton who urged decisive measures in that campaign which was nearly blasted by the egotism and disobedience of Lee. It was Hamilton who was sent to the French admiral to devise a co-operation of forces, and to the headquarters of the English to negotiate for an exchange of prisoners. It was Hamilton who dissuaded Washington from seizing the person of Sir Harry Clinton, the English commander in New York, when he had the opportunity. "Have you considered the consequences of seizing the General?" said the aide. "What would these be?" inquired Washington. "Why," replied Hamilton, "we should lose more than we should gain; since we perfectly understand his plans, and by taking them off, we should make way for an abler man, whose dispositions we have yet to learn." Such was the astuteness which Hamilton early displayed, so that he really rendered great military services, without commanding on the field.

When quite a young man he was incidentally of great use in suggesting to influential members of Congress certain financial measures which were the germ of that fiscal policy which afterwards made him immortal as Secretary of the Treasury; for it was in finance that his genius shone out with the brightest lustre. It was while he was the aid and secretary of Washington that he also unfolded, in a letter to Judge Duane, those principles of government which were afterwards developed in "The Federalist." He had "already formed comprehensive opinions on the situation and wants of the infant States, and had wrought out for himself a political system far in advance of the conceptions of his contemporaries." It was by his opinions on the necessities and wants of the country, and the way to meet them, that his extraordinary genius was not only seen, but was made useful to those in power. His brain was too active and prolific to be confined to the details of military service; he entered into a discussion of all those great questions which formed the early constitutional history of the United States,--all the more remarkable because he was so young. In fact he never was a boy; he was a man before he was seventeen. His ability was surpassed only by his precocity. No man saw the evils of the day so clearly as he, or suggested such wise remedies as he did when he was in the family of Washington.

We are apt to suppose that it was all plain sailing after the colonies had declared their independence, and their armies were marshaled under the greatest man--certainly the wisest and best--in the history of America and of the eighteenth century. But the difficulties were appalling even to the stoutest heart. In less than two years after the battle of Bunker Hill popular enthusiasm had almost fled, although the leaders never lost hope of ultimate success. The characters of the leading generals were maligned, even that of the general-in-chief; trade and all industries were paralyzed; the credit of the States was at the lowest ebb; there were universal discontents; there were unforeseen difficulties which had never been anticipated; Congress was nearly powerless, a sort of advisory board rather than a legislature; the States were jealous of Congress and of each other; there was a general demoralization; there was really no central power strong enough to enforce the most excellent measures; the people were poor; demagogues sowed suspicion and distrust; labor was difficult to procure; the agricultural population was decimated; there was no commerce; people lived on salted meats, dried fish, baked beans, and brown bread; all foreign commodities were fabulously dear; there was universal hardship and distress; and all these evils were endured amid foreign contempt and political disintegration,--a sort of moral chaos difficult to conceive. It was amid these evils that our Revolutionary fathers toiled and suffered. It was against these that Hamilton brought his great genius to bear.

At the age of twenty-three, after having been four years in the family of Washington as his adviser rather than subordinate, Hamilton, doubtless ambitious, and perhaps elated by a sense of his own importance, testily took offence at a hasty rebuke on the part of the General and resigned his situation. Loath was Washington to part with such a man from his household. But Hamilton was determined, and tardily he obtained a battalion, with the brevet rank of general, and distinguished himself in those engagements which preceded the capture of Lord Cornwallis; and on the surrender of this general,--feeling that the war was virtually ended,--he withdrew altogether from the army, and began the study of law at Albany. He had already married the daughter of General Schuyler, and thus formed an alliance with a powerful family. After six months of study he was admitted to the Bar, and soon removed to New York, which then contained but twenty-five thousand inhabitants.