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Alexander Hamilton: New Yorker

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Alexander Hamilton: New Yorker

Autumn 1996
New York

Alexander Hamilton was a quintessential New Yorker. Here he finished his education and wrote his first polemics, joined the army, and got the Treasury Department up and running. His last house stands in Harlem; his grave is at the top of Wall Street. And his vision of America represents a typical set of New York concerns and interests—expansive, commercial, go-getting. However much America dislikes New York City, it is touched by it in a hundred ways, from the arts to the media to the Stock Exchange. But the most important influence that ever crossed the Hudson came from Alexander Hamilton.

Like many New Yorkers, Hamilton came from somewhere else. Born on the Caribbean island of Nevis, probably in 1757, he was taken as a child to St. Croix, where he was apprenticed as a clerk to the merchant house of Beekman and Cruger in the town of Christiansted. David Beekman and Nicholas Cruger, themselves transplanted New Yorkers, traded North American lumber, livestock, and foodstuffs for Caribbean sugar, molasses, and rum. Young Hamilton kept track of cargoes and prices, and often made decisions in his elders’ absence. At times he chafed at the work: “I contemn the grov’ling and condition of a Clerk,” he wrote a friend when he was 12 years old; “I wish there was a War.” But he must have done a good job, because in 1773 Cruger sent him to the mainland to be educated, paying for his protégé’s support with two loads of sugar.

The original plan was to send him, after a year’s preparation, to the College of New Jersey at Princeton. The young scholar had definite ideas about how he was to be taught: he wished to matriculate “with the understanding that he should be permitted to advance from Class to Class with as much rapidity as his exertions would enable him to do.” But Princeton would not agree to this enterprising plan, so he enrolled instead at King’s College (the future Columbia) in New York. King’s College, then on Church Street, had only three professors, including its president, Dr. Myles Cooper. It had a good library, however, and it would let the young immigrant study at his own pace. He learned Latin and Greek, polished his island French, and read prodigiously.

For many of the foreigners soon to become involved in the American Revolution—Tom Paine and the Marquis de Lafayette, most notably—America was a haven of virtuous simplicity from the corruptions of old Europe. For Hamilton, by contrast, America was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for sophistication and activity. The sugar islands of the Caribbean were mere maritime plantations, worked by armies of slaves, with a small layer of freemen (the white population of Christiansted when Hamilton lived there was only 800). Though New York had slaves too, it was a bustling hub of coastal and oceangoing shipping, with a population of almost 25,000—smaller than Philadelphia, but growing fast. It was probably the most cosmopolitan settlement in the 13 colonies. The only considerable town not founded by Britons, it still had a sizable Dutch population, though the Dutch who had founded it had lost control of it more than a century earlier. In the seventeenth century a governor told a visiting Jesuit that 18 languages were spoken there. A wide variety of religious worship flourished: Anglican, Reformed, Presbyterian, Quaker, Lutheran—even Catholic, Methodist, and Jewish. Like a Balzac character coming to Paris, Hamilton was arriving sur la scène.

The politics of the approaching revolution soon consumed his attention. The First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in the summer of 1774. That winter, Hamilton engaged in a pamphlet war with Samuel Seabury, a Tory clergyman in Westchester, who was his elder by almost 30 years. Hamilton’s productions breathe libertarian fire: “The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records. They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the Divinity itself, and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.” They also show a mind already preoccupied with American prosperity and power: “There seems to be [in Britain] a jealousy of our dawning splendor. . . . The variety of our products, the rapidity of the growth of our population, the industry of our countrymen, and the commodiousness of our ports, naturally lead to . . . suspicion.”

Hamilton’s first controversies displayed what would be enduring character traits, good and not so good. He blithely tells Seabury to study the law of nature. “I would recommend to your perusal, Grotius, Pufendorf, Locke, Montesquieu, and Burlamaqui. . . . If you will follow my advice, there still may be hopes of your reformation.” As an adult—Hamilton was still 17—his know-it-all mode would become less insulting, though only slightly less. But the young disputant also showed fair-mindedness and great gallant courage. Dr. Cooper was a Loyalist, and in May 1775 a mob of patriots gathered at the gates of the college to break into his house. Hamilton harangued them to desist and, when they would not, led Cooper to safety through the backstreets.

The tumult soon became war. In August 1775, after the battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill in Massachusetts, a drilling company Hamilton and a friend had organized spirited a dozen cannon from the Battery under the guns of a British warship. The following March he was appointed a captain in the New York provincial artillery. Summer brought independence, but it also brought the British to New York. Hamilton fought in all the losing battles, from Long Island to White Plains, by which the British captured the city (they would hold it to the end of the war), as well as the desperate victories of Trenton and Princeton. In the last engagement, he fired his cannon at enemy soldiers holed up in Nassau Hall. So he got into Princeton at last.

Hamilton had a busy war, serving on George Washington’s staff, quarreling with him (Washington, he wrote, was “neither remarkable for delicacy nor good temper”—criticisms that could sometimes be applied to himself), then reconciling. In his spare time, he married Elizabeth Schuyler, a member of one of the premier Dutch Hudson Valley families, and thanks to this connection, and his talents, he was sent by New York State to Congress in 1782, where he served for eight months. At war’s end, Hamilton was one of the small group of officers to whom Washington emotionally bade farewell at Fraunces Tavern.

The war had been hard on the city: during the British occupation, a third of it burned down, and it lost over half its population. But it quickly bounced back, and by the end of the 1780s it was passing Philadelphia as a center of shipping. Hamilton established himself in the city as a lawyer, working and living at 57 Wall Street. In a characteristic burst of energy, he had crammed for the bar in a matter of months; the study guide he drew up for himself became the basis for an early nineteenth-century legal textbook. Among his many clients were former Loyalists, whom he defended against vengeful post-war state laws. Some of his arguments against such laws anticipated the doctrine of judicial review, though like a good lawyer, he took care to advance other, less sweeping ones as well. Years later, Chief Justice John Marshall said that “Hamilton’s reach of thought was so far beyond” his own that, compared to Hamilton, he felt like a candle “before the sun at noonday.”

Hamilton could not give himself wholly to the law, however. His expansive pre-war vision of America’s future, it became clear, was not something that would come about automatically. The new government could not pay its soldiers or its debts to foreign creditors: Congress could not levy taxes but could only request payments from the states. “Power without revenue is a bubble,” Hamilton complained, and when the states would not allow Congress to collect a 5 percent tariff on imports, he began casting about for plans of reform. In 1786, with the help of his father-in-law, Hamilton became one of the New York delegates to a convention of the states in Annapolis, whose main accomplishment was a call (which Hamilton wrote) for a second meeting in Philadelphia. He was named a delegate to that meeting too.

But he did not shine at the Constitutional Convention. “When he comes forward, he comes highly charged with interesting matter,” wrote a fellow delegate; but he added, “his manners are tinctured with stiffness, and sometimes with a degree of vanity, that is highly disagreeable.” His main service to the new system was done back in New York, where he lined up fellow New Yorker John Jay and Virginian James Madison, whom he had met in Congress, to wage a newspaper campaign on the Constitution’s behalf, using the collective byline “Publius.” Hamilton wrote the first article returning home on a sloop from Albany, where he had been arguing cases before the state supreme court, and he ended up contributing more than 50 of the 85 pieces. Though the bottom level of eighteenth-century American journalism was a catch basin of partisan liars—often liars for hire—the top, paradoxically, was ornamented by works such as The Federalist.

Hamilton’s fundamental point, made early in numbers 9 and 11, refutes a chestnut of republican theory: that free states must be small (and, implicitly, homogeneous). The democracies of Greece and the republics of Renaissance Italy had all been city-states; but Rome, which began as a republic, slid into empire as it grew. Hamilton stood the argument on its head, and he did it, characteristically, both in terms of politics and economics. “The ENLARGEMENT of the ORBIT” of a republic guaranteed its freedom, order, and prosperity. “An infinity of little, jealous, clashing, tumultuous commonwealths [would be] the wretched nurseries of unceasing discord and the miserable objects of universal pity and contempt.” But “a vigorous national government . . . would baffle all the combinations of European jealousy to restrain our growth,” while “the veins of commerce in every part . . . will acquire additional motion and vigor from the free circulation of the commodities of every [other] part.”

Hamilton led the Federalist forces at the state ratifying convention in Poughkeepsie in the summer of 1788. One ploy was to threaten that if the state declined to ratify, New York City would secede and join the new government on its own. When adoption was assured, the city’s artisans—coopers, tailors, furriers, hatters, brewers, and shipwrights—held a parade in honor of the Constitution and its most prominent local champion. The lead float was a model ship christened the Hamilton, manned by 30 seamen and pulled by ten horses. It made “a fine appearance, sailing with flowing sheets and full sails, down Broadway.” Hamilton did not see it—the Poughkeepsie convention was still in session—but Nicholas Cruger, the man who first shipped him to New York, did. It was an excellent return on his two shiploads of sugar.

Hamilton would never be more popular personally. But his true work as a statesman began when President Washington tapped him to be secretary of the treasury. Since the capital was in New York, Hamilton didn’t have to move. The Senate confirmed his nomination on September 11, 1789, a Friday. On Sunday he arrived for work in his office on Broadway, below Trinity Church.

By modern standards, the Treasury Department was small-time—the secretary worked at a plain pine table covered with green cloth—but it was the largest department of the executive branch of the government. Henry Knox, secretary of war, had 12 civilian employees; Thomas Jefferson, secretary of state, had six, plus two chargés d’affaires in Europe. Hamilton had 500, mostly customs collectors scattered through the country’s ports. He bombarded them with instructions and questionnaires in order to compile statistics on trade and revenue. He also oversaw loans to cover the government’s operating expenses.

This was the kind of detail work he had been doing since his days at Beekman and Cruger. But Hamilton also had a vision for restructuring America’s finances, and ultimately, its character. The first element of Hamilton’s scheme was for the federal government to assume state debts—mostly Northern—still outstanding from the war, and to treat all creditors equally, whether they were the original holders of the debt or speculators who had bought debts at a discount. Hamilton did not want to discriminate among creditors, for he believed that “opinion is the soul” of credit, and he wanted the world to have a high opinion of the new government’s willingness to pay. When the 20,000-word plan was read to the House on January 14, 1790, it was greeted with baffled silence.

Months of politicking ensued, until, as Jefferson wrote, “Hamilton was in despair. As I was going to the President’s one day, I met him in the street. He walked me backwards and forwards before the President’s door for half an hour. He painted pathetically the temper into which the legislature had been wrought. . . . I told him that I was really a stranger to the whole subject. . . . I proposed to him, however, to dine with me the next day, and I would invite another friend or two.” The friend he invited was James Madison, who had gone back into Congress and was one of the leaders of the House. The deal agreed to by them, and by other politicians in other meetings, was to move the capital first to Philadelphia, then to the Potomac, in return for Southern support for assumption and non-discrimination. “In this way,” remarked Jefferson, “there will be something to displease and something to soothe every part of the Union, except New York, which must be content with what she has had.” When the plan was moved in Congress, Rufus King, a senator from New York and an ally of Hamilton’s, burst into tears. Hamilton thought moving the capital was “bad . . . but it will preserve the funding system.”

Hamilton unveiled the rest of his design after the government had gone to Philadelphia: a plan for a national bank, and a plan to encourage manufacturing. The Report on Manufactures was as ambitious a public statement as The Federalist. The first had been statecraft as soulcraft, a program for encouraging republican virtue by designing the republic’s political institutions. The second was economics as soulcraft—an argument for the personal and moral blessings of a diverse and bustling economy. “[M]inds of the strongest and most active powers for their proper objects,” wrote Hamilton, “fall below mediocrity, and labor without effect, if confined to uncongenial pursuits. [But] when all the different kinds of industry obtain in a community, each individual can find his proper element, and can call into activity the whole vigor of his nature. . . . The spirit of enterprise . . . must be less in a nation of mere cultivators, than in a nation of cultivators and merchants; less in a nation of cultivators and mechants, than in a nation of cultivators, artificers and merchants.” In the mythic, shorthand history of America, Hamilton appears as the friend of rich businessmen, which he was. But he was also the friend of the tradesmen and workers who had marched with the Hamilton down Broadway. Though he had been willing to abandon New York as the nation’s capital, he was faithful to the spirit of enterprise that it embodied. The boy from St. Croix who had chafed at the condition of a clerk and exulted to find himself in the big city wanted to remake the country in his, and its, image.

Practically, Hamilton wanted the government to subsidize a Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures, which would develop a town at the falls of the Passaic River, to be named Paterson, after the governor of New Jersey. There the society planned factories to produce goods from straw hats to iron wire. It had lined up half a million dollars in private capital from New York and Philadelphia moneymen, and its chief officer, William Duer, was another Caribbean-born New Yorker and a former employee of Hamilton’s at the Treasury Department.

But this time Hamilton did not get everything he wanted. The Virginians who had accepted his plans for the debt—Jefferson, and Hamilton’s sometime collaborator, Madison—had by now become hostile to him and all his works. One reason was ignorance: as Jefferson rightly said, he himself was, and remained, a “stranger to the whole subject.” Another was their loyalty to the agrarian ideal. Jefferson especially did not want a “nation of cultivators, artificers, and merchants.” As he wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia, “Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God. . . . Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example. . . . The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body.” The only laboring in the earth of Jefferson’s estates was done by slaves, of course, yet Jefferson meant these sentiments sincerely. Virginia had been founded in the seventeenth century by Tory squires, and though their descendants became rebels, they remained squires at heart.

A final reason for Jefferson’s and Madison’s suspicions was their deep hatred of England and anyone who admired its ways. At another dinner chez Jefferson, after the capital had moved to Philadelphia, Vice President John Adams observed that the British Constitution, if “purge[d] of corruption”—that is, buying supporters by doling out offices—”would be the most perfect constitution ever devised by the wit of man.” According to Jefferson’s account, Hamilton paused and said, “purge it of its corruption . . . and it would become an impracticable government: as it stands at present, with all its supposed defects, it is the most perfect government which ever existed.” Jefferson was horrified. What else was Hamilton’s Treasury Department, with its swarming customs officials, but a way of introducing corruption into Arcadia? From that moment, Jefferson treated Hamilton as the Great Satan. Congress approved the bank, but the Report on Manufactures fell by the wayside.

Meanwhile, the businessmen Hamilton sought to befriend let him down. Duer diverted the manufacturing society’s funds into speculation, then went belly up. Wild scenes followed, as New Yorkers of every description who held Duer’s paper—”shopkeepers, Widows, orphans . . . even the noted Bawd Mrs. Macarty”—besieged him in debtor’s prison, where he remained for the rest of his life. Ultimately, the debacle was the fault not of Hamilton’s small-minded enemies, nor of his small-minded friends, but of Hamilton himself. He had overreached. So avid was he for his commercial vision that he wanted to further it with subsidies. This was dubious as a matter of economic theory (Hamilton had read Adam Smith but disagreed with him on the question of the invisible hand). It failed in practice because America did not yet have enough businessmen as farsighted as Hamilton. Factory towns would come in the early nineteenth century, but notwithstanding the $500,000 that the Paterson scheme had drawn from private investors, the extensive pools of capital—and capitalists patient enough to invest them for the long term—were not yet ready, and they could not be forced into being at Paterson by Duer, or Congress.

New York did not forget Hamilton in his absence. In 1791 five merchants commissioned John Trumbull, America’s premier painter, to do his portrait. Hamilton wanted a “simple representation” of a “fellow Citizen and friend,” but the merchants wanted something suitable for official display. A copy of Trumbull’s elegant compromise hangs in the offices of the Chamber of Commerce.

Hamilton left Philadelphia and the Treasury Department in 1795 and returned to the practice of law at a new office on 73 Pine Street. One passerby who saw him bent over his desk was the exiled Talleyrand. “I have just come from viewing a man who had made the fortune of his country,” wrote Talleyrand in astonishment, “but now is working all night in order to support his family.” This little tribute tells us as much about Talleyrand, who never refused a bribe in his life, as it does about Hamilton. A more straightforward compliment, drawing on Talleyrand’s profound understanding of diplomacy, was his remark that Hamilton, who had never been there, nevertheless “divined” Europe.

Hamilton could not keep out of politics entirely. When Madison attacked a treaty with Britain negotiated by his friend John Jay, Hamilton defended it in a series of articles that ran to 100,000 words and that overwhelmed even his allies. “Jove’s eagle,” wrote one of them, hurls his bolts “not at the Titans, but at sparrows and mice.” In 1801 he founded the New York Evening Post, which was, in effect, the Voice of Hamilton. The editor would interview him at night and splice his comments into the editorials and the news columns. No Founder, not even Benjamin Franklin, who was a printer and a journalist, argued his ideas so regularly in the press.

The following year, the Hamilton family moved into a country house, the Grange, which still stands on Convent Avenue in upper Manhattan. Then it was nine miles out of town; Hamilton hunted woodcock on the grounds and pulled striped bass out of the Hudson. He planted 13 gum trees in a circle, to represent the original states, but they were too close together and, in the words of a grandchild, they “languished and died.” Hamilton’s political fortunes had languished by this time, too. The administration of John Adams (1797-1801) was a great disappointment to him, and the triumph of the Jeffersonians thereafter was an even greater one. It was just as well that he had work, family, the Grange, and a still-wide circle of friends. “A garden, you know,” he wrote one of them, “is a very useful refuge for a disappointed politician.”

Hamilton reflects well on New York City, but he is not the only mirror the Founding holds up to it. Though Hamilton’s great intellectual antagonists were the Virginians, he had enemies at home, too. They were New York magnates and politicians who were as interested as Hamilton in finance and business, but only from a local perspective—what would enrich New York and themselves, not the nation. Politically, they professed a belief in states’ rights (which meant states’ power), as well as a rhetoric of devotion to the common man. Their alliance with the Virginians created the Republican (later, the Democratic) Party.

George Clinton, an upstate landowner who for 18 years as governor opposed the Constitution and later, Hamilton’s policies, was one such enemy. Robert R. Livingston, from one of the oldest upstate families, was another. A third was Aaron Burr, who, like Hamilton, lived and worked in New York City. Burr had fought bravely in the Revolutionary War, in many of the same battles as Hamilton; they first met in Brooklyn Heights during the grim summer of 1776. Burr became a successful lawyer, sometimes litigating against Hamilton, sometimes arguing cases on the same side. He, too, founded a bank (ancestor of the Chase Manhattan); he supplied the city for a time with water, pumped from a pond at the site of Foley Square; he started the Society of St. Tammany (better known as Tammany Hall). Burr’s last house, the Morris-Jumel mansion, is a mile north of Hamilton’s Grange. When Clinton and Livingston wanted to replace Hamilton’s father-in-law in the U.S. Senate, Burr was the replacement they chose.

Hamilton had a special animus against Burr, for he sensed that Burr’s ambition was unguided by principle, even mistaken principle. In a conversation he and Burr once had, Burr remarked that “Les grandes âmes se soucient peu des petites moraux” (great spirits don’t bother about petty morals). This was Burr’s credo, or rather his rationalization for having no credo. “If we have an embryo-Caesar in the United States,” Hamilton wrote, “’tis Burr.” He warned his friends against scheming to make Burr, rather than Jefferson, president in 1801, and he warned them again from backing Burr for the governorship of New York three years later. Finally, Burr took offense. On the morning of July 11, 1804, Hamilton left the Grange and crossed the river to Weehawken for their interview. Hamilton fired in the air; Burr did not.

Hamilton was buried, with military honors, in Trinity churchyard. He deserves the resting place, for he was an authentic New Yorker. But so was the man who killed him. The energetic and cocksure visionary, and the blasé and amoral opportunist—they are both us.

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