Hamilton is in the House

by Thomas Vinciguerra ’85CC, ’86JRN, ’90GSAS Published Winter 2015-16
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And yet, more than any other Founding Father, Hamilton has struggled for his place in history. This is due in part to a lingering whiff of dubiousness about the man, starting with his impoverished and illegitimate origins in the foreign climes of the Caribbean island of Nevis. His affair with Maria Reynolds was the great sex scandal of the day. And the unfortunate face-off with Burr in Weehawken is still considered a low point for civility in public discourse.

On a philosophical level, Hamilton has never fully escaped charges of elitism, monarchism, and even warmongering. It hasn’t helped that he never wholly embraced the chief article of American faith — the notion of personal freedom.

“He wasn’t as taken as people like Thomas Jefferson were with the idea of American exceptionalism,” says Stephen Knott, a professor at the US Naval War College and the author of Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth. “He loved this country, but I don’t think he saw us as a shining city on a hill. You don’t see him write with a lot of Jeffersonian rhetoric about this place being a bastion of liberty.”

He was the messenger from a future that we now inhabit.

Compare his statue on the Morningside campus with that of his archrival Jefferson in front of Pulitzer Hall: Jefferson is standing, slightly bowed, courtly, deep in thought. Hamilton is strutting, confident, perhaps even arrogant. He’s got swagger.

Hamilton’s star rose from the time of the Civil War, with its spirit of union, through the Gilded Age, with its spirit of capitalism. President Theodore Roosevelt called Hamilton “the most brilliant American statesman who ever lived.” But with the financial collapse of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed, he fell out of favor. The failure of the banking system was one reason. Another was the effort of a certain president to exalt a certain Virginian.

“I think FDR almost single-handedly put Jefferson into the American pantheon,” says Knott. “He wanted to make him a Democratic standard-bearer, with everything from the Jefferson Memorial to the nickel.”

But now, some of the bloom has come off the Jeffersonian rose. The third president’s notion of a largely agrarian, militarily mild, loosely confederated nation has long ago been cast aside in favor of the urbanized, industrialized mercantilism of an economic superpower. Moreover, Jefferson’s ownership of slaves and the evidence that he fathered children with at least one of them, Sally Hemings, is being scrutinized as never before. As McCaughey says, “When you look at who’s up and who’s down, Jefferson has had a couple of bad years.” By contrast, Hamilton was a member of the abolitionist New York Manumission Society.

Also, a growing number of scholars feel that Hamilton has simply gotten a posthumous bum rap. Certainly the charge of monarchism is nonsense, says Brookhiser.

“The guy fights against Britain; he’s in uniform from 1775 to Yorktown! What more do you want? He literally has horses shot out from under him.”

Joanne Freeman, a Yale University historian who edited the Library of America edition of Hamilton’s writings and was a historical consultant for the Grange project, suggests that in these uncertain times, Americans are grasping for a strong central government — one of Hamilton’s primary visions.

“At this moment, people feel that a lot is on the line,” she says. “This isn’t new. But the stakes feel higher. I think people are scared of terrorists, they’re scared of immigrants, they’re scared of the Chinese economy, they’re scared that America is going down.”

McCaughey adds, “We’re watching Federal Reserve meetings as if they’re going to indicate the Third Coming. In that sense, we’re looking for public figures who seem to have a mastery of the vocabulary and the issues that are involved in government finance — so Hamilton’s your man.”

Then, too, Hamilton’s flight from the impoverished Caribbean to the pinnacle of power is a uniquely American assimilation story that now resonates afresh — as reflected in the multicultural identity of the musical Hamilton’s cast and score. Brookhiser argues further that Hamilton’s vision of a nation of burgeoning commerce that would lift the lives of its citizens remains highly attractive.

“What’s so moving to me is that he wants to improve the odds for other Alexander Hamiltons,” he says. “He wants to maximize opportunities for all different sorts of people.”

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