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.