The Un-Jefferson

A review by Caleb Crain of Alexander Hamilton: Writings, ed. Joanne B. Freeman. Originally published in the New York Times Book Review, 11 November 2001.

Thomas Jefferson has long been the founding father most popular with American writers. He had writerly faults: a tinkerer’s curiosity about nearly everything, the inability to resist a fancy French idea and the misconception that these were intellectual strengths. He also believed that scholarly ladies and gentlemen could live happily and virtuously on farms distant from the corrupting metropolis—an ideal that lurks behind such ventures as Brook Farm, Walden and the MacDowell Colony. Even today, writers under Jefferson’s influence augustly depart for the mountains or the plains, vowing to remain pure, free from the vulgarizing marketplace.

They ought to reconsider. Under the influence of Jefferson’s enemy Alexander Hamilton, they would stay and figure out how to be paid better. Hamilton thought about money in a way that Jefferson, who lived beyond his means, did not and perhaps could not. And Hamilton’s value as a writerly model extends beyond finance. Even more so than Jefferson, who inherited slaves and land, Hamilton made his way in the world by his pen. “Hamilton is really a colossus to the anti-republican party,” Jefferson conceded on one of the many occasions when Hamilton had defeated him in the court of public opinion with a hail of pamphlets. “Without numbers, he is an host within himself.” For a dozen years, Hamilton stood in relation to the presidency roughly as Laurence Tribe or Richard Posner stands to some of the justices in the Supreme Court today: without holding the office, he was kind enough to help do the thinking necessary for those who did. (Washington was grateful; Adams resentful.) His power consisted merely in his words.

“The manner in which a thing is done,” Hamilton once advised a future mayor of New York, “has more influence than is commonly imagined.” Today he is remembered for his deeds—arguing New York into ratifying the Constitution, financing the Revolutionary War debt, founding the first national bank—as the patron saint of capitalism and social orderliness. But it is his manner, at once methodical and dashing, that comes to life in “Alexander Hamilton,” the generous and intelligent anthology of his writings, edited by Joanne B. Freeman, an assistant professor of history at Yale University. The reader finds him, at 17, calculating for his employer whether a shipment of undernourished mules is worth the cost of the pasturage needed to recuperate them, and describing pious humility in a hurricane with boyish glee: “Where now, oh! vile worm, is all thy boasted fortitude and resolution?”

Hamilton was born in the West Indies in 1755 to a couple who were socially respectable but not legally married. When he was 10, his father went bankrupt and abandoned the family. “It was his fault to have had too much pride and two large a portion of indolence,” Hamilton later explained. Three years later, Hamilton’s mother died, and the boy became a clerk in a trading house. For the rest of his life, he would consider capitalism a safety net and honor something to be prickly about. The account of the hurricane was in effect his college application essay; it induced friends to send him to school in America. While an undergraduate at Kings College (later Columbia University), he argued that the colonies ought to be free because enslavement to Britain “relaxes the sinews of industry, clips the wings of commerce, and introduces misery and indigence in every shape.” (Note the distinctive fusion of insurrection and fiscal prudence.) When the Revolution came, he enlisted.

Among the disconcerting facts about Hamilton, when considered in a gallery of founders, is his beauty. Exhibit A would have to be the delicate, precise, off-center sweep of his right arm in John Trumbull’s 1792 full-length portrait. (Exhibit B would have to be his calves in the same painting.) In uniform he must have been irresistible. Here he is, an aide-de-camp to General Washington, explaining England’s tyranny to the woman he was courting: “She is an obstinate old dame, and seems determined to ruin her whole family, rather than to let Miss America go on flirting it with her new lovers, with whom, as giddy young girls often do, she eloped in contempt of her mother’s authority.” Of the difference between the sexes, he told his future bride: “We are full of vices. They are full of weaknesses.” Perhaps she ought to have listened, but one can see why she wouldn’t have.

Hamilton was passionate. When Washington rebuked him for being late, he resigned from the general’s staff on the spot. On behalf of a friend who hoped to raise black troops in South Carolina, he wrote, “An essential part of the plan is to give them their freedom with their muskets.” When he thought he’d been slandered by a minister, he unnerved him with the reassurance that “the good sense of the present times has happily found out, that to prove your own innocence, or the malice of an accuser, the worst method, you can take, is to run him through the body, or shoot him through the head.”

Hamilton preferred to solicit or alarm, rather than take detours into French-style flights of theory. As he once explained to a British diplomat he needed to win over, “We think in English.” (Note the strategic “we.”) It was a matter of political philosophy as well as style. “The safest reliance of every government is on men’s interests,” he once wrote. At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he deliberately outraged the pieties of the day by asserting that self-interest was good. So was force. To survive, the federal government would have to involve the people’s passions, including their avarice and ambition. And the surest way to command passions was to have the power to satisfy them. The new government should be devised in such a way that many people would form the habit of considering it advantageous to support and dangerous to oppose.

To see this government into being, Hamilton wrote most of “The Federalist.” The fastidious Hamilton and the ardent Hamilton forged a style whose power lay in the intimacy with which he knew what he was talking about. “I will not amuse you with an appearance of deliberation, when I have decided,” Hamilton wrote. Instead, the thoroughness of the detail and closeness of the reasoning amounted to force majeure. In 1789 Washington named Hamilton secretary of the treasury, and he rapidly drew up blueprints for financing the debt, erecting a national bank and setting tariffs, taxes and subsidies to encourage manufacturing. Anyone who doesn’t know what a bond is or how a bank works can learn painlessly from Hamilton’s reports. A New York merchant of the 1790s would have appreciated the well-organized number-crunching. But as a slaveholding agrarian landowner, Jefferson was baffled, or affected to be baffled, by the financial terms of art. “Hamilton’s financial system . . . had two objects,” Jefferson wrote later. “1st as a puzzle, to exclude popular understanding & inquiry. 2dly, as a machine for the corruption of the legislature.” Hamilton managed to give America the institutions of capitalism despite him.

Hamilton returned to private law practice in 1795. Two years later, he was accused of financial impropriety with a man named James Reynolds. To deny the charge, he was forced to explain, “My real crime is an amorous connection with his wife.” The confession had dignity, and even some humor, as in the account of an early meeting with Maria Reynolds: “Some conversation ensued from which it was quickly apparent that other than pecuniary consolation would be acceptable.” But the public learned that he had been taken in a badger game and had paid off his blackmailer.

Nonetheless he returned to government in 1798, through maneuvers that put him in command of a new peacetime Army. But in December 1799, Washington died. For two decades, Hamilton had fought his enemies by winning the phlegmatic general to his side of every argument. (In the tug of war over Washington’s Farewell Address, for example, Madison supplied the indigestibly marmoreal prose at the front and the tail, and Hamilton contributed the middle, where the ideas are.) Without Washington, Hamilton fought his enemies directly—and wildly. He was, he admitted to friends, “in a very belligerent humor,” initiating libel suits and hinting at duels, as pettish with testosterone poisoning as one taxi driver cut off by another at the end of a long shift. The late Hamilton threatened too much and flirted too little. In 1800 he assassinated the character of John Adams, his own party’s candidate, while Adams’s re-election was still pending. And in 1804 his disparagements of Aaron Burr provoked a challenge to a duel, in which Hamilton was killed. He enjoyed writing what he really thought more, perhaps, than a politician should.