A Thumbnail for the 4th of July — By Juliet Waldron

AhamiltonHe wasn’t born here, but in the British West Indies, on the small volcanic island of Nevis, the son of a strong-willed woman and the younger son of a Scottish Duke. He’s been more or less been (except for his appearance on our Ten Dollar Bill) pushed out of the American pantheon, but here, the day before our national holiday, I’d like to say a few words about Alexander Hamilton.

Hamilton was sent here at seventeen to attend King’s College (now Columbia) by planters who thought such a bright kid should have a chance to become something more than a clerk. (Working in an office, learning the realities of the three-corner trade, had been his only means of support from the age of eleven.) When the Revolution broke out, Hamilton was at first a loyalist, but, fortunately for us, he changed his mind. Soon, the college money went to outfit an artillery company of which he became the captain, a rank earned in our fledgling military because he knew trig, and therefore could use his weapons. BTW 18th Century artillerymen stood on the front lines and took fire, both from the enemy and from the not infrequent explosions of the rusty old French & Indian War cannons they’d commandeered from local armories. Hamilton survived the first years of the war in this way until he came to the attention of George Washington, who was in need of bright young men who knew how to push paper and assist their over-worked commander-in-chief as aides de camp.

On the issue of slavery, Hamilton differed from other prominent founders. During the Revolutionary War, he and his South Carolina planter friend, John Laurens, proposed our Congress declare that slaves willing to bear arms on the Patriot side would be set free, formed into companies and armed to fight. You can imagine the kind of reception this out-of-the-box notion received. He also expressed the then broad-minded belief that blacks’ “natural facilities” were “as good as that of whites.” Later, after the Revolution, he joined John Jay’s New York Manumission society and was active in the cause of ending slavery in that state. He, personally, never owned slaves.

Although there are plenty of other ways in which Hamilton was a man who saw far ahead of his agrarian-minded contemporaries, his fame has steadily diminished. I think this is because neither Left nor Right can completely claim him. He marched to his own drummer, and that drummer was a strong pragmatism—what is now called “the real world solution”—which still doesn’t seem to be very popular among our legislators. He wasn’t drawn to ivory tower thinking, but to what would work—what would make America a great nation. He wanted roads and bridges. He wanted “manufacturies;” he wanted insurance and banks, and all the related industrial development which has carried us into the forefront of nations. Of capitalism, he had no illusions. He knew that wealthy, privileged people might do the “right thing,” but only if they could be motivated by self-interest. He knew how to horse trade and thoroughly understood the concept of “mutually beneficial.”

More than all these things, though, I think he wanted to see America become a meritocracy, where the cream rose to the top. He believed in justice, too, and in his legal career, tried to see it done, and not just available for those who had the coin to pay. As a young man, he defended a small business owner, a ferryman who’d been whipped by a wealthy landowner for refusing to be always at his beck and call. Hamilton never forgot what it had been like to try to make his way in a world governed by privilege, without wealth or family. Surely, this man is a stellar example of “the American Way.”

~~~Juliet Waldron

7 Comments

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7 responses to “A Thumbnail for the 4th of July — By Juliet Waldron

  1. This country has long been obsessed with “meritocracy” which is why there’s a pervasive belief that if you are poor, there’s something not quite good enough about you and that rich people must be full of virtue and intelligence because they’ve risen to the top.

    • Don’t think you take my point. We don’t have a meritocracy–and, in fact, I think we are moving ever closer to a sort of new-feudalism, with wealthy corporate office holders as the modern version of privileged “dukes” and “earls.” This is simply a reiteration of the ancient hereditary class systems of Europe. Hamilton came from outside of the American class system. I believe the uncharitable phenomena to which you refer, at least in this country, actually stems from Yankee Calvinism, where only the “Elected” are “saved.” Therefore, material wealth may be interpreted (under this system) as a sign of God’s favor–and it still is–especially if you happen to be among the rich or powerful. (God loves you simply because you are rich, and not those who are less fortunate.) Hamilton believed that education was the way up and out of poverty and obscurity as, personally, it had been for him. Political spin, originally from Jeffersonians, has left us with a false view of AH. He was NOT privileged; he did NOT profit from the offices he held, a fact which is proved by the fact that his widow had to sell their home and depend upon her own family resources in order to educate their children after her husband died.

      • If I said we Have a meritocracy, I mean only we think we have one. Calvinism doesn’t really counter a belief that people on top deserve to be there. Chris Hayes refers to these things in his book Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy.

    • I don’t believe that for one minute. I think most people in this country think that the rick became rich through some underhanded scheme and fault of character. The rich are considered by others as arrogant, sly and crafty without moral standards.

  2. dellanioakes

    Isn’t that the truth, Mickey!? Happy Fourth, everyone. Juliet, thank you for the interesting historical!

  3. Super article. Thank you. Thank you for your insight and the time you took to write this article.

  4. Hi Juliet,
    Great blog. Very interesting. It is a shame Hamilton didn’t get the recognition he deserved.

    Regards

    Margaret

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