Sunday, July 15, 2018

What I learned about Alexander Hamilton

       This week marks a solemn event: 214 years ago, on July 14, 1804, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr faced off in their now infamous duel in which Hamilton was mortally wounded. They met early in the morning on the banks of the Hudson River in Weehawken, New Jersey, as dueling was illegal in New York and mostly frowned upon and rarely prosecuted across the river. Attending the annual meeting of the Alexander Hamilton Awareness (AHA) Society in New York City, I discovered some things I didn't know or only had limited information on regarding this very important Founding Father. 

The Burr- Hamilton duel

       Today we call them "duels", but in several letters exchanged between the two men, it was referred to as an "interview". Most people today would shudder to think that their upcoming job interview might be fatal- and this one was for Hamilton. Agreeing in advance to "throw away" his shot, Hamilton deliberately missed Burr... but Burr- the sitting Vice President of the United States- shot directly at Hamilton, severely wounding him in the abdomen, the bullet piercing his liver and lodging in his spine. Hamilton lay in agony for over 30 hours at the home of his friend William Bayard, Jr., where he passed away the next day. 

       Hamilton and Burr had much in common. They had both fought in the American Revolution, both practiced law as attorneys in New York- and sometimes even shared the same court cases. Yet over time, Hamilton came to distrust Burr, who'd defeated Hamilton's father-in-law Philip Schuyler for the Senate seat in New York. In the year 1800, Burr nearly defeated Thomas Jefferson for the Presidency, a contest in which Hamilton threw his support to Jefferson. Four years later, Burr sought the governorship of New York- another battle in which Hamilton opposed his candidacy. Again Burr lost- and his hatred for Hamilton grew to immeasurable heights. After Hamilton disparaged Burr in a private meeting with friends, Hamilton's comments made their way to Burr, enraging him to the point where he insisted on a duel.

Aaron Burr

       Hamilton was highly perplexed with this development- as his own son Philip (his first) was killed in a duel just three years earlier, defending his father's honor. When Philip was killed he was just 19 years old- and his mother Eliza was pregnant with her eighth child, who she later named Philip in his honor. In the Burr- Hamilton duel, the same pistols were used- and it was fought at the same spot along the Hudson where Philip had been killed. Young Philip's death was so traumatic to Hamilton, he was said by friends to be severely depressed for months afterwards. His daughter was so disturbed by Philip's death, she had a nervous breakdown and never recovered, basically an invalid for the rest of her life.

       Alexander Hamilton was just 47 1/2 years old when he died. The nation was in mourning; thousands of people followed the procession to his funeral. He was buried on the grounds of Trinity Church in lower Manhattan, a large white marble monument marking his grave. His wife Eliza was so distraught, she could not attend the funeral service. Eliza dearly loved her husband- and spent the next 50 years dedicated to keeping his memory alive, insisting that his personal papers be preserved so that the nation would understand his many achievements. 

The author as Alexander Hamilton in 2014 at the reenactment of the Battle of the Brandywine

       Alexander Hamilton was, in my opinion as an historian, the most gifted of the Founding Fathers. His writings and speeches from an early age reflected his profound and thorough understanding of numerous disciplines, including finance, banking, investments, commerce, human rights, law, the workings of government and many other topics. He was George Washington's most trusted aide-de-camp during four critical and tumultuous years of the American Revolution and fought bravely- and successfully- at the climactic final battle of Yorktown. Later when he served as our nation's first Secretary of the Treasury, Washington trusted his recommendations and decided to follow Hamilton's guidance despite protests from Jefferson, Attorney General Edmund Randolph and many others. As brothers-in-arms on the battlefield, Washington and Hamilton survived the war together. in the following years, Washington used Hamilton's guidance as the young republic struggled to overcome its massive debt burden, bickering among the states and many crises which ensued. 

The First Bank of the United States in Philadelphia

       Alexander Hamilton- more than any other human being- is responsible for the financial and economic survival of America. Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution- which gives Congress powers to tax and levy duties to generate revenue, pay down and issue debt, regulate commerce and other functions- has Hamilton's fingerprints all over it. Article I, Section 8 is the lifeblood of the Constitution- and without Hamilton, it would not have been written so effectively and successfully as a critical tool for the struggling nation. More than any of the Founding Fathers, Hamilton fully understood that the country could not survive without generating revenue- and he created the financial system- including the First Bank of the United States (precursor to the Federal Reserve System), along with a solid framework for commerce and the securities markets to thrive. Hamilton also knew that the nation needed a strong manufacturing base- a critical piece of a diversified economic framework- and thus foreshadowed what we now call "modern portfolio theory". The "portfolio" was the U.S. economy- and Hamilton helped it diversify successfully away from a strong dependence on agriculture and into what we now know as a fully modern, efficient economy.

"Alexander Hamilton" by John Trumbull

Alexander Hamilton: Architect of the American Financial System by Gene Pisasale 

       I have a special link to Alexander Hamilton. At the AHA meeting in New York, I was both pleased and honored to see my book "Alexander Hamilton: Architect of the American Financial System" on the shelves available for purchase at Federal Hall, a National Memorial site where Washington took the oath of office in April 1789. The book is the result of my Master's Degree in American history which I completed in 2017- almost exactly 260 years after Hamilton was born. Without Hamilton, the nation may have struggled for years, possibly decades. Instead, it became the strongest, most successful country on Earth. Absent his recommendations and policies, America today would be a very different place- likely far weaker and more vulnerable to financial crises and attacks from enemy nations. So now, as a grateful nation we should all say "Thank you"

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

America: A Look Back Over 242 Years

       "America is great because she is good."
                                                     --Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835)

       In 1831, French historian Alexis de Tocqueville was sent to America by his government to study our prison system. Over the next year, he toured several states and parts of Canada observing the way people lived, how they conducted business and how our government functioned. His efforts were focused somewhat less on the prison system and much more on the attributes of the American way of life. His now famous quote is simple, yet so comprehensive in its scope. He had come from Europe, where Kings and Queens still ruled and social stratification kept the ruling class and wealthy citizens dominant over the vast majority of people. In short, for de Tocqueville- America was a very special place.

Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America

       In America, de Tocqueville experienced a society in which- at least according to its Constitution- most people had a chance to achieve and live a good life, with basic human rights and opportunity to succeed without an overbearing government or aristocracy holding them back. Slavery was the glaring exception- millions of blacks, mostly in the southern states, lived in servitude to plantation owners who controlled their fate and held strong influence over the workings of the American government. Thirty years after his visit, the scourge of slavery would ignite a horrendous Civil War which nearly destroyed what President Abraham Lincoln called "the last best hope of Earth."

Wall Street, New York with Federal Hall in the 1830s

       In his book America: The Last Best Hope, former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett describes the beginnings of our nation, our struggle for independence and the many subsequent challenges that America faced. Throughout his two-volume work, Bennett highlights the one undeniable fact: despite its many flaws, America truly is unique among the nations of the world, benefiting from the insights of wise men who created a republic which- 242 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence- is still strong, millions of people every year attempting to come here to enjoy the many freedoms and blessings we sometimes take for granted.

America: The Last Best Hope by William J. Bennett

       TIME Magazine now has a special edition out titled "Founding Fathers: The American Visionaries Who Created a Great Nation." Like de Tocqueville, the editors of TIME recognize the special nature of our country, our system of government and what has over more than two centuries become the most successful and admired nation on the planet. To the Founding Fathers, to all those who have served our country in uniform, in government and throughout all levels of society, here's wishing you all a very happy, safe and splendid Fourth of July. 

Friday, June 29, 2018

What is America's role in the world?

       In his Farewell Address written in 1796, President George Washington warned the nation about the dangers of alliances with foreign governments, knowing those relationships could be double-edged swords used to both help- and harm- the young republic. Some historians have considered his words a bit ironic, as the thirteen colonies would almost certainly have lost the Revolutionary War without the assistance of France. In the 222 years since he shared those feelings, America has grown into the leading world power, even though we struggled through numerous foreign wars and a cataclysmic domestic conflict, a Great Depression and several periods when it appeared we had lost our way. By the middle of the 20th century, it was abundantly clear that our nation was not only a beacon of freedom in a chaotic world, but also a great and dependable friend helping dozens of countries in need. It is only by remaining true to long held principles that America has maintained its standing (economic, military, technological) and will continue to garner respect from nations around the globe.

       At what price do we gain respect? When the Marshall Plan was proposed following World War II, many critics complained that America was using taxpayer dollars to rebuild and strengthen other countries, in their view a misguided effort and a waste of precious resources. Yet without the Marshall Plan, many war-ravaged countries might have become even more unstable and vulnerable to aggressive actions from ruthless dictators. The creation of NATO in 1949 further reiterated America's dedication to maintaining peace in a volatile and dangerous world. Many political observers have asked "Should America be the policeman of the world?" The answer is complicated; on one level, simple and another, quite complex.

       It is undeniable that without America's assistance, the two world wars would have ended quite differently. France, Poland, Austria and many other countries would have remained in the grips of brutal dictators. The course of history would have been altered- from one of liberty and rule of law to despotism and widespread human suffering. Quite simply, without America's help, the world would be a much darker place, with hundreds of millions of people living in tyranny. We 'did the right thing.' Do we always do the right thing? It is often not easy- many geopolitical situations complex and fraught with peril. American politicians have made, shall we say, questionable choices in using resources and military might, the Vietnam War being the best relatively recent example. Although our men and women in uniform during that conflict fought hard and served proudly, the justification for war was not clear to many and to the average American, the long term objective was even more elusive. 

       In 1989, President Reagan ignored the recommendations of his advisers and stood at the Brandenburg Gate, saying "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" He knew that it was wrong to keep people locked up in a system which took away their most basic freedoms, to live, to work, to travel. America does not have unlimited resources. We cannot send soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines to fight in every "hot spot" around the world. We can remain true to our 'moral compass'- something hard to find in many leaders of this era. When our leaders stay true to the "core" principles for which the Founding Fathers dedicated their "lives, liberty and sacred honor", America stands tall, engaging productively with allies, opposing enemies and reaffirming its dedication to freedom for all people. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

What Would the Founding Fathers Think of America Today?

       This question has been asked numerous times over many decades, with the disclaimer that, by definition, all of them (George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison and the others) would be stunned by the advances in technology which have transformed society. More fundamentally, the question should focus on three key areas: 1) how the government functions, 2) the rights and personal freedoms of citizens and 3) the overall well being of people in general, along with the safety and security of the nation. On these topics, many historians would expect a wide variance of opinion from this group.

       On the issue of how well the government functions in America today, all of the Founding Fathers would be disappointed seeing how one political party faces off against another, often causing near paralysis in Washington. George Washington never officially belonged to a political party, even though many historians have labeled him a Federalist. In his Farewell Address written in September 1796, Washington warned the nation of the dangers that could arise when political groups fought against each other and geographic or sectional factions tried to gain advantage over people in other regions. 

       Political parties as we know them today didn't exist until Thomas Jefferson ran for President in the year 1800- and we've had them ever since. Jefferson and every President after him has belonged to a political party- and they are here to stay, whether we like them or not. Parties are not the problem; bickering among politicians which avoids resolving serious issues IS the real problem. As the Father of the Constitution, James Madison would likely be surprised at the myriad of laws, regulations and procedures now on the books, at least some of which appear counterproductive and even self-defeating. Seeing the ongoing paralysis of government, Madison, along with Hamilton and the others might strongly support revamping the U.S. House and Senate rules and procedures, as well as nullifying many laws in existence which they would question regarding efficiency and operations of government so as to allow real, practical solutions to problems.

       Regarding the rights and personal freedoms of citizens, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton might actually agree- that today's government has far too strong an influence on the daily activities of all Americans. From personal choices regarding their own health- the most important issue for all people- to laws and regulations on business, the environment and other areas, most of the Founders would likely be appalled at how much the government today does to influence the lives of every American. Personal liberty to them was paramount; they founded a new nation on the concept. In today's world, they would all act aggressively to change the way government interacts with and guides the actions of people. 

       With respect to the overall well being of the average citizen, the Founders would all be impressed that today, in the year 2018, the majority of Americans are reasonably healthy, enjoy decent housing, education available to all and a variety of conveniences which make their lives much easier than the conditions which existed 240 years ago. Regarding the safety and security of the nation, Washington would perhaps be the most dismayed to learn that the country he presided over is now facing numerous threats- from terrorism, to rampant crime in certain regions and the tidal wave of illegal immigration. Hamilton would be thrilled that the economic, banking and securities systems he put in place have made America the most successful and powerful nation in the world, while Jefferson and Madison would question the influence of wealthy businessmen and corporations in general. Adams, Franklin and the others would question just how strong and safe a nation can be if it cannot protect against nuclear weapons or maintain the integrity of its borders.

       Perhaps all the Founding Fathers would agree on one point: the framework they put in place more than two centuries ago is still working, despite its many flaws. For that, they would all be ecstatic- and quite proud...

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

What is the meaning- and value- of history?

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."  
                                                     --George Santayana

George Santayana

       The above quote by Harvard-trained philosopher George Santayana has been mentioned numerous times over the last fifty years by statesmen, writers, scholars and yes- historians- in an attempt to stress the importance of knowing something about the heritage of one's own country and how it fits into the long flow of history. Yet is is much more than that. Understanding the history of our nation is but a starting point for a long and potentially fascinating journey around the world, a trip that can provide us a connection with other cultures and a glimpse of their importance in the story of us all.

       The first question all historians are faced with is a daunting one: what does history actually mean? The old saying that "History is written by the victors" is only partially true. Each new generation of historians- whether they hail from a large, powerful nation or a smaller player in the world- gets a chance to evaluate the ebb and flow of human history, actions by politicians, kings, tyrants and warlords, along with those of unsung heroes- to determine the importance each played in bringing us all to where we are today. It is a certainty that every President, Prime Minister, scientist, philosopher, artist and inventor will be viewed differently 20... 50... 100 or more years after their own passing from the world stage than they were during their lifetime. Proof of this lies in the fact that Presidents including Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower are now ranked far more favorably than they were when they left office. It is this necessary period of reflection that allows historians- and all people- to gain a greater understanding of the importance and long term ramifications of actions and events. With a longer period for comparison, we get insights we never had before. Those insights themselves will change over time- and that is precisely the meaning of history.

       The second question is much less challenging: what is the value of history? By fully assessing a long series of events, how each one caused certain repercussions while others had minimal impact- we can all make more accurate projections about what is likely to occur in the future. Great historians like James McPherson, author of the classic Civil War narrative Battle Cry of Freedom tell us this story in a unique and effective way so as to bring new insights and new perspectives to us all. Clearly having the benefit of decades, even centuries of human activities to review rather than just a few over a short period of time provides a platform for predictions for the years ahead. Santayana appreciated that, saying: "We must welcome the future, remembering that soon it will be the past and... respect the past, remembering that it was once all that was humanly possible." 

       So let's celebrate our heritage- along with that of other nations- as we gain a richer understanding of the global narrative of emperors and kings, wars, natural disasters, great inventions and the minds which created we appreciate our past... and look forward to our future...

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Remembering the Day That Saved the Free World

       On June 6, 1944, Allied forces under the overall command of General Dwight Eisenhower stormed the beaches of Normandy to take on the German troops entrenched all along the coastline of France. Called "Operation Overlord", the liberation of France with the Allied coastal invasion was the largest armada assembled in modern history, originally planned during the darkest days of World War II when the Nazis were in control of large portions of Europe with a stranglehold that appeared unbreakable. Eisenhower spoke personally with the troops beforehand, telling them all that they were embarked "on a great crusade" to save the world. His speech must have inspired thousands of them.

       The invasion was almost called off due to inclement weather. Eisenhower actually took a big chance with the operation, as he'd been given a brief window of time to launch the attack. Luckily the weather held out and the naval forces were able to land thousands of men on Omaha, Juno, Gold, Utah and Sword Beach. Repelled at first with blistering machine gun and mortar fire, the Allies finally overcame the German positions, albeit with very heavy casualties.

       Today, 74 years later, it is worth pondering what was accomplished that fateful day. The old adage: "If the Allies hadn't won, we'd all be speaking German" is not too far off the mark. The Nazi war machine was overwhelming, brutal and successful in taking control of France, Austria, Poland and several other countries. Although Hitler and his commanders made glaring overcommitments of men and assets that were unsustainable, it is quite possible that, if he had limited his troops to just one or two areas, he could have succeeded. Instead he badly miscalculated in trying to create a vast new German empire which was doomed to fail due to limited resources- and the world benefited from his error.

       The ranks of World War II veterans are thinning rapidly; the youngest person to serve, starting as late as 1945, would today be at least 90 years old. We're losing about 400 WWII veterans every day. One young man wants to make sure their stories are heard. Rishi Sharma- a 20 year old from Redondo Beach, California has made it his mission to interview every living WWII vet. He's traveled to 45 states and Canada and spoken with 870 of them over the last few years. Rishi talks with many of them on the phone, some in person, videotaping their comments to be stored in a "living history" WWII database. Although he realizes it is a nearly impossible task, Rishi persists and is determined to reach as many as he can. He documents his experiences and those of the veterans on his website 

       Tom Brokaw called them "The Greatest Generation." While all our veterans should be thanked and honored for their service, those who fought in World War II- on the beaches of Normandy, in the horrific Battle of the Bulge, in the Pacific Theater at the bloody battles of Midway, Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima, all across Africa and Asia- somehow deserve a very special "Thank you." Without their efforts, hundreds of millions of people around the world might have been forced into lives of desperation and tyranny. Because of them, today... we live in freedom. 

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

President Ulysses S. Grant- A Second Look

       The true test of the value and importance of anything- a book, a piece of music, a work of art, even a person- is time. Often it takes years, sometimes decades to discern the many nuances of actions not apparent at first glance and this period of reflection is necessary to understand those things "unseen" originally, or hidden by the interplay of personalities and tumult of the times in which they were experienced. It is almost a certainty that the actions of statesmen and Presidents will be viewed somewhat differently 20... 50... 100 years after they leave office. If only due to the benefit of a longer term perspective- and the often lengthy gap between initial action and long term consequences- historians and biographers take a "second look" at the actions of Presidents and the secular repercussions of those actions. This is why Presidents like Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower- both rated somewhat poorly immediately after they left the Oval Office- are now typically rated much more favorably, often in the top ten of all Chief Executives. It is with this same perspective that this historian now takes a fresh look at President Ulysses S. Grant.

       Hiram Walker Grant (1822- 1885) had a "colorful" life. After serving with distinction in the Mexican-American War- a conflict he personally opposed- he began drinking heavily and resigned from the Army in 1854. Grant struggled through a few different jobs, but by the outset of the Civil War in 1861 was ready to get back into action and was reappointed as a Colonel of the 21st Illinois infantry. It was during the Civil War that Grant's star began to rise. Showing a fearless attitude pursuing Confederate forces in battle, he became Lincoln's favorite officer. Lincoln recognized Grant's fighting abilities and promoted him because of his many successes on the battlefield, during a period when several other Generals failed to achieve measurable success. Presiding over the crucial victory at Vicksburg and later accepting the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, Grant was lauded as the greatest hero of the Civil War. By 1868, following Andrew Johnson's term, Grant was encouraged as a war hero to run for the Presidency and was selected unanimously for the nomination of the Republican Party.

       Grant served two terms as President, during a period filled with great uncertainty over the direction of the nation and his own personal struggles with scandals- five in total- that rocked his Administration, even though he was largely disconnected from the events. Historians have rated his team- and their associates- as some of the most corrupt to ever hold public office. Grant's first Vice President Schuyler Colfax was accused of accepting deeply discounted shares of stock in the Credit Mobilier company which helped in the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. Shortly after Grant took office, James Fisk and Jay Gould attempted to corner the market in gold with help from Grant's brother-in-law, causing the Panic of 1869. Grant's Treasury Secretary William Richardson was forced to resign over a kickback scandal related to tax collections. From the start to the end of his two terms, it seems that scandal followed Grant wherever he went, even though he was personally viewed as an honest man. The financial Panic of 1873- one of the worst in American history- did nothing to help his reputation and deepened people's suspicions concerning his effectiveness and success as President.

       After he left office in 1877, his reputation tarnished due almost exclusively to the corrupt practices of others, Grant did not have long to live. He went on a global tour around Europe, Africa and Asia which allowed him to meet Queen Victoria and Pope leo XIII. He also dabbled in politics, nearly gaining the nomination of his party in the election of 1880. In 1884- only seven years after leaving the Oval Office- he started experiencing sharp pains in his throat. Being a lifelong cigar smoker and heavy drinker, his personal habits may have played a role in his health deteriorating. Grant was later diagnosed with throat cancer. He went downhill quickly over the next year, losing his voice and dropping in weight by more than 60 pounds. He wanted to write his memoirs to allow his wife and family to survive with the royalties- but did not have much longer on this Earth.

       Determined to write an accurate account of his life, including detailed descriptions of critical Civil War battles, Grant began working on his memoirs after being offered a $25,000 advance by Mark Twain. Grant worked tirelessly over the following months to tell his life story in bold, unadulterated prose, a work that has been recognized as one of the greatest by a American President.

       In a 1962 historian's poll, Grant ranked near "the bottom of his class"- 30th out of 31 Presidents. As often happens over time, perceptions of Presidential accomplishment changed- and Grant is no exception. A 2018 poll ranked Grant 21st out of 45 Presidents- the "upper half" of his peer group- quite an improvement over the five decades. What changed? Recognition of Grant's honest and admirable character, as well as evaluation of his accomplishments during the difficult period of Reconstruction, including passage of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, among many other things. Grant sharply opposed people who tried to intimidate blacks against voting- notably the Ku Klux Klan- and as President authorized mass arrests of persons participating in aggressive, terrorist actions against Negroes. He created what is now known as the National Park System, with the first one- Yellowstone in 1872, so he can be considered America's first conservationist President. Grant also signed the Specie Act of 1875 supporting "hard money"- a move designed to allow the U.S. Treasury to accumulate sufficient gold reserves to accommodate any requests for conversion of paper currency into coin, a move which strengthened public confidence in the U.S. Treasury and America's currency. Grant also appointed four Justices to the U.S. Supreme Court, some of whom wrote precedent-setting opinions and served with distinction.

       Overall, despite the public perception of his links to scandal, Ulysses S. Grant is now viewed much more favorably by scholars and historians. Ron Chernow's book Grant (2017) takes a fresh look at the 18th president, granting him a much better- and fairer- review than many of those written in previous decades. 

       Time changes everything. To his credit, Grant's reputation has improved markedly in recent years. Due to his extensive service to our nation during a very challenging period of our history, Ulysses S. Grant deserves a "second look"- and at least a "Thank you" from all Americans.