Alexander Hamilton’s Dream of the American Republic

From the lecture series: America's Founding Fathers

By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph. D., Gettysburg College

Alexander Hamilton firmly believed that Americans had a right to be free from the control of the British monarchy, which is why he fought valiantly in the American Revolution. His early years in the West Indies had given him a glimpse of what commerce can do in human society. So, what were his thoughts about the new American republic?

Alexander Hamilton's face printed on American currency.
Alexander Hamilton observed that both the British parliament and monarchy were oppressing the people of America. (Image: Sergiy Palamarchuk/Shuttertsock)

Alexander Hamilton continued to refine his notions of the politics of nature. He did not, however, begin with John Locke’s thought experiments about the state of society, but with Sir William Blackstone’s description of human nature. That precluded any idea that kings had some God-given sanction to impose their rule on people.

The Parliament: A British Tool to Oppress the Americans

Hamilton observed that kings were not the only ones liable to become drunk with power. The parliament, fully as much as King George III, was culpable in the oppression of America, and perhaps even more so.

A portrait of  King George III.
George III was the king of England during the American Revolution. (Image: Allan Ramsay/Public domain)

And, merely the fact that it was an elected legislature would do nothing to restrain Parliament from being a more intolerable and excessive species of despotism than an absolute monarchy. There was nothing inherently just, or wise, or virtuous, or fair in legislative assemblies—give them power, and they will become just as drunk.

It is the height of folly to entrust any set of men with power which is not under every possible control. Power has to be dissipated, divided, and distributed in small enough packets to prevent its mutating into the monstrous shapes he had seen it take in the islands of his birth.

This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding Fathers. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Alexander Hamilton’s Thoughts about Commerce

He had seen enough of the way business was done to have none of Adam Smith’s confidence that commerce would automatically ensure a good and happy society. It was not that Hamilton was contemptuous of commerce; after all, he had been a merchant himself. But he had also seen that the great sugar planters, left to themselves, had warped and twisted commerce into a human catastrophe.

Commerce—Hamilton believed—has its fixed principles, according to which it must be regulated. If these are understood and observed, it will be promoted by the attention of government; if unknown, or violated, it will be injured.

Learn more about Adam Smith, mercantilism, and state building.

Young Hamilton: Washington’s Aide-de-camp

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.

Alexander Hamilton in uniform during the American Revolution.
During the American Revolution, Hamilton was promoted to lieutenant colonel and was part of George Washington’s staff. (Image: Alonzo Chappel/Public domain)

Hamilton, the onetime merchant’s boy, turned out to be the ideal aide-de-camp for Washington, handling correspondence, conveying orders to generals years his senior, and carrying out special assignments.

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.

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. In 1782, he was designated by the New York legislature as a member of New York’s delegation in the Confederation Congress.

Alexander Hamilton: A Reader and Thinker

Hamilton 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.

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, where the people were citizens and not merely subjects. Republics varied along a very wide spectrum.

Understanding Republicanism

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 out-and-out democracies, where the people were not only the source of sovereignty, but also 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, and those classical republics offered only a handful of useful rules for guidance.

Learn more about the Roman republic-government and politics.

The Classical Rules of the Republic

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.

Third rule for a republic: 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 guided Thomas Jefferson’s notion of a republic. 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.

Common Questions about Alexander Hamilton’s Dream of the American Republic

Q: When was Alexander Hamilton chosen a member of the Confederation Congress?

In 1782, Alexander Hamilton was designated by the New York legislature as a member of New York’s delegation in the Confederation Congress.

Q: What were Alexander Hamilton’s responsibilities as Washington’s aide-de-camp?

As Washington’s aide-de-camp, Alexander Hamilton handled correspondence, conveyed orders to generals years his senior, and carried out special assignments.

Q: What did Alexander think about the British parliament and monarchy?

According to Alexander Hamilton, the British parliament, fully as much as King George III, was culpable in the oppression of America.

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The English Adventures in North America