He 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.”