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Alexander Hamilton: Creating a more perfect union, Part 3


By Gene Pisasale

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

As part of General Washington’s ‘family’ during the American Revolution, the commander immediately recognized not only Alexander Hamilton’s bravery, but his diverse talents in writing, organization and management. The mere fact that Hamilton had gone from abandoned orphan to the staff of the leader in the fight for independence was quite remarkable. So skilled was he in communications and the management of military affairs, it is now recognized that many of the letters to the Continental Congress and other parties signed by Washington from 1777- 1781 were actually written by Hamilton.

Throughout the Revolutionary War, representatives in Congress knew they needed a unifying document that would hold the nation together and focus their energy and resources to accomplish critical goals. The Articles of Confederation were first drafted in 1777 to achieve such a unified effort; they were finally ratified in 1781. Although the Articles provided a unifying theme that allowed the 13 colonies to survive in the struggle for independence, they were deficient in promoting an efficient, well functioning government for America. Well before the Articles were ratified, Alexander Hamilton recognized the many weaknesses and inadequacies within them. He repeatedly expressed the need for strong, centralized authority to successfully steer the course for the new nation.

Several great minds made significant contributions to its replacement- the U.S. Constitution. James Madison, George Mason, Richard Henry Lee, Edmund Randolph, Elbridge Gerry and Roger Sherman were among them. There were men at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia who understood law, business, the powers of government, the natural rights of man, and the horrors of war, but there were was only one who had first-hand experience in all these areas. That man was Alexander Hamilton. While Madison was a brilliant legal scholar, Hamilton was the only person at the Constitutional Convention who had written eloquently about the struggle for independence and the need for a strong, centralized government who had also put his life on the line fighting to establish that government. Hamilton’s extensive experience in the military, business, finance, interstate and international commerce, law, organization and management, along with his superb analytical, writing, and debating skills positioned him as a uniquely talented and innovative contributor in the deliberations.

When reviewing the essential participants in the process leading up to the creation of the Constitution, Hamilton and Madison stand among the most influential in framing the debate and in the final arguments for ratification. While James Madison is typically credited as the “Father of the Constitution”, Alexander Hamilton was its guiding beacon. In a letter to James Duane written in 1780- when he was just 23, still serving as aide-de-camp to Washington, Hamilton displayed a remarkable grasp of the defects in the Articles and made numerous detailed proposals on how to resolve them. In this letter Hamilton shows that, seven years before the Constitution was created, he had a strong understanding of how governmental powers needed to be used, along with how to support those powers well before the debate over the concept of “implied powers” had begun. “The confederation too gives the power of the purse too intirely (sic) to the state legislatures. It should provide perpetual funds in the disposal of Congress… for without certain revenues, a government can have no power; that power, which holds the purse strings absolutely, must rule.”

Even though America had won the Revolution, the United States was an economic basket case. The Articles had completely failed with respect to allowing the nation to pay its bills, issue debt, conduct commerce effectively and survive as an ongoing entity. The nation was about to dissolve in its first major financial crisis. Hamilton brought to the Convention a profound understanding that government is in many ways similar to a business. He knew that it must be run efficiently and effectively- or it will cease to exist as an ongoing entity. Among many other talents, Hamilton had a profound understanding of political economy- what makes human beings act for their own self interest- within a framework that is best for society.

We don’t have transcripts of the proceedings from Alexander Hamilton’s pen, but we can make an educated guess about his concentration in helping to craft the final document. Focusing less on states’ and individual rights, Hamilton argued strongly for the supremacy of centralized government authority to resolve the most critical issues of the day, including the gargantuan government debt and generating revenue for operations. Without this emphasis and resolution, the nation would collapse- regardless of a Constitution. George Washington named Alexander Hamilton to the Committee on Standing Orders and Rules and the group which drafted the final document.

Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution focuses first on the crucial issue of exactly how the government would support its operations- and Alexander Hamilton’s fingerprints appear to be all over it. Ten out of its initial 14 Clauses (71%) discuss issues which Hamilton argued for vehemently over more than six years before the delegates ever met. “The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence…” The importance of Section 8 cannot be overstated: without an ability to funds it numerous functions, there would be no government. After several months of raucous debate and 85 articles termed the Federalist Papers written by Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay supporting it, the founding document for the new nation was finally ratified.

Two years after Hamilton and the other delegates concluded their meeting in Philadelphia, President George Washington asked Hamilton to become the first Secretary of the Treasury. Washington had first requested respected financier Robert Morris to take the job, but Morris demurred, recommending Hamilton instead. Hamilton took office on a momentous date- September 11th- the same day he had aided Washington at the largest land battle of the war. Hamilton served Washington for five years as Treasury Secretary, making bold moves to pay down the colonial debt, get the nation’s financial house in order, regulate commerce and establish a system to generate revenue allowing the government to function. While his moves were often criticized by Jefferson and others, Washington often agreed with Hamilton and moved forward with his recommendations. It is a testament to Hamilton’s abilities that our most revered President trusted him so deeply. Through his policies and initiatives, Hamilton is truly the architect of the American financial system.

After serving his nation for so many years, Hamilton was shot during a duel with Vice President Aaron Burr at Weehawken, New Jersey on July 11, 1804. He died the next day. Hamilton was only 47 years old, yet had accomplished more than almost any man of his generation.

I have an indirect connection to Alexander Hamilton. I live just down the road from the Benjamin Ring House- Washington’s headquarters during the Battle of the Brandywine- where Hamilton served the General during this important conflict. I often reflect upon the fire that burned so brightly in them 239 years ago in a cause that was so uncertain. I wonder if that fire even exists as I encounter kids who’ve graduated from high school who seem to know very little about their own heritage. Without Alexander Hamilton, we would not have the America we know today, a nation that has become the most successful and respected on Earth. As a long-time student of history, I am in awe of what Hamilton, Washington and other patriots accomplished more than two centuries ago. It is my fervent hope that people never forget what these men did… and that the fire will burn for generations to come. For all you have done for our country, I raise a salute. Thank you, Colonel Hamilton.

Gene Pisasale is an historian, author and lecturer based in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. His nine books and historical lecture series focus on the heritage of the Mid-Atlantic region. Gene’s current project is as a “Living Biographer” of Alexander Hamilton, dressed in full Continental Army officer’s uniform. His website is www.GenePisasale.com. He can be reached at Gene@GenePisasale.com.