Alexander Hamilton: His Ideal Republic

Transcript From a Lecture Series Produced in Partnership With Smithsonian

Alexander Hamilton, fully as much as Thomas Jefferson, believed wholeheartedly that the most natural form of government was a republic in which everyone would have the freedom to exercise their natural rights.

Portrait showing Hamilton at age 15
Portrait showing Hamilton at age 15

Hamilton and Jefferson At Odds

“As to my own political creed, I give it to you with utmost sincerity,” Hamilton wrote:

I am affectionately attached to the republican theory. I desire above all things to see the equality of political rights, exclusive of all hereditary distinction, firmly established by a practical demonstration of its being consistent with the order and happiness of society.

And again:

We all, with equal sincerity, profess to be anxious for the establishment of a Republican Government, on a safe and solid basis. It is the object of the wishes of every honest man in the United States; and I presume I shall not be disbelieved when I declare, that it is an object, of all others, the nearest and most dear to my own heart. The means of accomplishing this great purpose, become the most important study which can interest mankind.

See also: Thomas Jefferson’s Books

painting of Thomas Jefferson, full-length portrait, lifting from the table the Declaration of Independence with his right hand
Thomas Jefferson, full-length portrait, lifting from the table the Declaration of Independence with his right hand

It’s important to hear Hamilton saying that, and at such length, because from that point onward, no two individuals among the Founders could have appeared so utterly and antagonistically different as Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.

Jefferson was tall, gangly, physically awkward; Hamilton was small, lithe, swift. Thomas Jefferson was born to a Virginia plantation family, even if that plantation belonged to the distant Piedmont rather than the Tidewater. Alexander Hamilton wasn’t even born on the North American continent, and his family, unlike Jefferson’s but quite a great deal like Robert Morris, gave him very little time with books.

Hamilton was born on January 11, 1757, on the island of Nevis, in the British West Indies. His father, James Hamilton, had some vague connections to some even more vague noble families of Scotland. His mother was Rachel Faucett Lavien, of French Huguenot descent.

Hamilton’s Childhood

Unhappily for young Alexander, their second son, Rachel was married not to James Hamilton but to Johan Michael Lavien, a planter on the island of St. Croix whom she had married in 1745, and then deserted in 1750 for the embraces of James Hamilton. Rachel Lavien eventually succeeded in getting a divorce from her lawfully wedded husband, but not for the purpose of marrying James Hamilton.

Hamilton set up a lackadaisical business on the island of St. Croix, and then, with the excuse of business matters on yet another island, St. Kitts, James Hamilton took ship and never reappeared.

Undismayed, Rachel Lavien set up her own retail business, and farmed her son Alexander out to the merchant firm of Beckman & Cruger at the tender age of 12. Far from suffering by this, Alexander Hamilton flourished.

He had a ready intelligence, read whatever he could lay hands upon, and by the time he was 14, his employer, Nicholas Cruger, was leaving orders and sales in his hands. But he was also bored. “I condemn the groveling condition of a clerk, or the like,” he complained, “and would willingly risk my life, though not my character, to exalt my station. I mean to prepare the way for futurity.”

Hamilton’s Education in America

But in 1772, Hugh Knox, a Scots-Irish Presbyterian missionary educated at the New Jersey Presbyterian college located in Princeton, arrived in St. Croix. He took the 15-year-old Hamilton under his wing, and discovering what gifts the boy had, determined that he would be sent to Princeton for an education. Hamilton’s haphazard pattern of reading did not promise much success at Princeton, nor did the admissions interview he had with Princeton’s president, John Witherspoon, since Hamilton cockily proposed that Witherspoon allow him to test into whichever class his attainments would entitle him and advance from class to class with as much rapidity as his exertions would enable him to do.

See also: James Madison’s Vices

Witherspoon and the Presbyterian domines who oversaw the college would have none of it. But rather than back down, Hamilton took off for New York City, where he applied to the president of the rival King’s College—now Columbia University—on the same terms, and this time was admitted. And, as he had expected, Hamilton conquered the curriculum at King’s College in just two-and-a-half years.

photo of painting of George Washington
Hamilton served on George Washington’s military staff.

Hamilton and Washington Bond

By the summer of 1775, Hamilton had formed his own ad hoc artillery company, which he commanded all through the disheartening campaigns of 1776, and in February of 1777, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and a place on the staff of George Washington. Hamilton, the onetime merchant’s boy, turned out to be the ideal aide-de-camp for Washington, handling Washington’s correspondence, conveying orders to generals years his senior, and carrying out special assignments.

“There are few men to be found, of his age, who has a more general knowledge than he possesses,” wrote Washington in praising Hamilton, “and none whose Soul is more firmly engaged in the cause, or who exceeds him in probity and Sterling virtue.”

Washington became a sort of surrogate father to Hamilton, just as Hamilton became a surrogate son for Washington, who had no children of his own, and he joined a company of surrogate brothers on Washington’s staff that included John Laurens, Henry Knox, and the adventuresome French volunteer, the Marquis de Lafayette.

photo of the Marquis de Lafayette, French officer and statesman. 1830
Marquis de Lafayette, French officer and statesman. 1851

“They were attached to the Chief and to each other as kindred spirits, brothers alike in arms, in affection, and in accomplishments,” wrote one memoirist many years later, “and might be styled the preux chevaliers of the American Army.”

With the end of the Revolution, Hamilton had earned enough prominence to marry, happily and successfully, into the influential Schuyler family of New York and began practicing law, and in 1782 he was designated by the New York legislature as a member of New York’s delegation in the Confederation Congress.

He had never ceased reading, even during the Revolution, when he scratched out notes on unused pages of the paybook for his old artillery company. Nor had he ceased thinking in terms that moved in very different directions from the man who would become his archrival, Thomas Jefferson.

See also: Alexander Hamilton’s Reports

Defining the Republic

Americans now had themselves a republic. But what was a republic? In the shortest sense, a republic was any form of government in which sovereignty resided in the people, not in a separate ruling class or a king, and where the people were citizens and not merely subjects. But having said that much, republics then varied along a very wide spectrum.

They could be oligarchies, where practical power remained in the hands of a few of the citizens, like the city-states of Renaissance Italy; or they could be, at the other end of the spectrum, out-and-out democracies, where the people—the demos—were not only the source of sovereignty, but actively participated in government through popular assemblies.

Unhappily, there had been only a few examples of successful republics in human history, Rome and Athens being the most widely admired…

Unhappily, there had been only a few examples of successful republics in human history, Rome and Athens being the most widely admired, and those classical republics offered only a handful of useful rules for guidance. So what was a republic according to those rules handed down from the classical past?

  • Well, first among those rules was that a republic must be harmonious; it cannot be divided in purpose. It must be guided by a common vision of the public good.
  • Second rule: a republic must be homogeneous. It must be composed of citizens who are ethnically, economically, and socially more or less equal with each other in wealth and status. America was home to no great lords or nobles. Even the wealthiest of American landowners was comparatively minor when set against the grandees of the British House of Lords.
  • Third rule for a republic, by the classical standards: a republic must be small, if only because harmony and homogeneity break down whenever the boundaries of a republic are drawn to include too many different kinds of people or so much territory that people cannot keep vigil over their fellow-citizens. Montesquieu had warned that it is natural to a republic to have only a small territory, otherwise it cannot long subsist, because the interest of the public is easier perceived, better understood, and more within the reach of every citizen on a small scale.
  • Fourth rule: every citizen of a republic must be independent and self-sufficient enough to be able to occupy a public office. These rules were certainly the rules which guided Thomas Jefferson’s notion of a republic.

Hamilton’s Skepticism

But Hamilton had learned from two very different sources that these classical rules, and Jefferson’s satisfaction with them, might not be quite so admirable as they sounded. One of these sources was his reading of David Hume. Hamilton regarded the celebrated Scot, whose Essays and Treatises of 1758 and History of England from the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution in 1688 were enormously popular among Americans as very ingenious and sensible and the least fallible guide of human opinion. And what Hamilton learned from Hume was that governments, including republican governments, cannot be invented out of thin air or pressed into an iron maiden of theory.

Politics should rest on experience, not theory; on practical realities, not ideology.

Portrait of Alexander Hamilton from painting made in 1792 by John Trumbull
This portrait of Alexander Hamilton is after a painting made in 1792 by John Trumbull.

Hamilton also felt with personal keenness that Jeffersonian rules about homogeneity and harmony were most likely to operate to the exclusion, not of the corrupt, but of honest outsiders like himself, who had no land, no inheritance, nothing but talent and ambition to offer the new republic.

“There is a bigotry in politics, as well as in religions,” Hamilton wrote, “equally pernicious in both,” and the moment one begins arguing that only landowners can be virtuous, bigotry sprouts. If, as the great British essayist, wit, and dictionary maker, Samuel Johnson said, “there are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in getting money,” then why restrict virtue only to the hearts of farmers?

The other source which fed Hamilton’s skepticism about elegant but rigid concepts of republicanism was the behavior of the Confederation Congress. Even during the Revolution, Hamilton had been sickened by the folly, caprice, and want of foresight which characterize the general tenor of their actions.

What had been folly in war turned out to be folly in peace, as the states asserted their veto over the impost proposal, all the while spewing out emissions of unsecured paper money and claiming sovereignty over their own portions of the United States war debt.

“Our prospects are not flattering,” Hamilton sighed to John Jay in 1783. “Every day proves the inefficacy of the present confederation, yet we are receding instead of advancing in a disposition to amend its effects.”

Hamilton Drafts the Articles of Confederation

photo of The Articles of Confederation
The Articles of Confederation were originally drafted by Hamilton.

That same month, Hamilton drafted proposals to amend the Articles of Confederation so as to grant the United States in Congress assembled the power of general taxation, only to set the proposal aside for want of support. Even worse, the New York legislature was fulfilling every one of his anxieties about despotism being as much a threat from the many as from the one.

When the legislature set about confiscating the property of onetime Loyalists, Hamilton defended them in court on the grounds that the confiscation was a violation of the protective provisions for Loyalists in the Treaty of Paris. “A number of attempts have been made,” he warned Robert Livingston in the spring of 1785, “to subvert and destroy the rights of private property,” and the specter of Shays’s Rebellion the following year did nothing to relieve Hamilton’s anxieties.

But the cherry on top was the New York legislature’s move, early in 1786, to begin buying up the Confederation Congress’s bonds and notes with $500,000 of paper money.

Now, ostensibly, this was done as an act of charity toward New Yorkers who had been waiting since the Revolution for Congress to redeem the IOUs and securities it had issued for goods and supplies. What it really did was to make Congress a creditor of the state of New York, so that the state legislature had a financial stick to beat Congress with.

See also: Aaron Burr’s Treason

Worse still, in another gesture of phony charity, the New York legislature offered to allow the Confederation Congress to collect the long-desired impost on New York commerce, but only if Congress agreed to dedicate the revenue from the impost to servicing its debt, which of course meant that the impost would end up in the pockets of the New York legislature. From his seat in the state legislature, Hamilton protested:

The United States are intrusted with the management of the general concerns and interests of the community—they have the power of war and peace, they have the power of treaty. Let us not endeavour still more to weaken and degrade the federal government, by heaping fresh marks of contempt on its authority.

It did no good. But if Hamilton could not persuade the Confederation Congress or the New York legislature to come to their senses, he did have one last court of appeal, and that was George Washington.

From the Lecture Series: America’s Founding Fathers
Taught by Professor Allen Guelzo, Ph.D.
LC-DIG-ppmsca-15715; LC-USZ62-11091; LC-DIG-pga-03677; LOC-DIG-ppmsca-17523; NARA.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save