Alexander Hamilton

As one reads the writings of Alexander Hamilton, it is impossible to escape a sense of regret that he was not born within the limits of the thirteen colonies in British America. The most distinguished statesman of the United States should have been a son of their soil, a product of their civilization, a result of their formative influences. It was a strange freak of chance or destiny which placed so magnificent an intellect in the head of a child to be born illegitimately, of obscure parentage, on the insignificant island of St. Kitt’s. Many a mother, under the like embarrassing circumstances, would have so managed the infantile career of the unwelcome little waif that the world would have lost, nor have ever known it. one of the grandest and most useful brains of this hemisphere. One may fancy that Dame Nature, humorously inclining to amuse herself with a grotesque practical joke, devised the notion of dropping this overshadowing mind into this tiny, neglected, and remote nook. It was a perilous jest, which might easily have become a costly blunder; but, fortunately, matters were rectified by Hamilton himself, who, finding himself, as we know by his own boyish confession, troubled with a “prevalent ambition ” at about the age at which children are more wont to be troubled with getting their permanent teeth, wisely established himself in New York. He had been there but a short time, and was getting well advanced in his “ teens,” when he published the earliest of those writings which have justly been deemed worthy of preservation as being of real historical value. Nor did many years elapse before he began to instruct his countrymen, indeed to illumine the coming generations, with some of the most profound treatises on government and finance, and some of the ablest state papers, which have ever been written in any age or country.

New York and London : G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 1886.

But though this brilliant and precocious fugitive from little St. Kitt’s became one of ourselves only through the process of immigration, there was nothing more striking in his history than the rapidity and thoroughness with which he became Americanized. I do not remember to have seen this fact anywhere so brought out as it ought to be, for the utter transformation whereby this child of a French mother by a Scotch father, born and reared in a tropical settlement, became an integral part of an entirely different people was nothing less than wonderful. We recognize Washington, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Pickering, as distinctively American ; all, save perhaps Washington, may be regarded as types quite as much as individuals ; and while large numbers of their countrymen resembled one or another of them in moral and mental traits, it is obvious that they could have sprung from no other race, and could have found their special development amid no other surroundings or social influences. Lafayette was a young man when he came to this country, in a condition of extremely receptive enthusiasm; yet his perfect Frenchness was not even visibly modified here. Gallatin remained an Americanized Swiss all his life, and could never get rid of his foreign accent. But Hamilton was at once fully and absolutely an American, and almost, as much a type as were those eminent men above named. He seems never to have thought of himself, nor to have been regarded by any one else, in any other light. His position, feelings, ideas, sympathies, all his habits of thought, his ways of considering questions, his points of view, could not have been more national if his ancestors had come over in the Mayflower. If we read his writings, especially all his correspondence, which is the best evidence on such a question, with an especial view to studying this aspect of nationality in mind and character, we cannot but be greatly struck by it. He feels, thinks, and speaks not as one who has cast in his lot with a people whom he admires and understands, but as himself being absolutely and in fact one of those people. Thus he always so regarded himself as an American that he felt no protestations necessary; he forgot, and made others forget, that he could have any other character. Every line in these eight volumes of his writings bears evidence of this perfect assimilation, extraordinary even in a country in which assimilation seems the order of nature. It is no contradiction of this to say that he probably owed to his French blood a vivacity and a power of making himself agreeable and attractive in society which few Americans enjoyed; neither to say that of all the Americans of his day he was far the most cosmopolitan. It may be added that he, Franklin. and Gouverneur Morris were the only Americans who were cosmopolitan at all. The trait did not mark our great men in that time. Even John Adams could not acquire it, though he had such extensive experiences on the Continent and in England, regions which Hamilton never in his life had the good fortune to visit. Nor could Jefferson get it, though half of his heart was always with France, and though he prided himself on the comprehensiveness of his knowledge, the scope of his sympathies, and the liberality of his views, which he conceived to embrace all civilized human kind. But Hamilton’s cosmopolitanism was due to the expansiveness of his intellect and grasp of his mind, which were too large to accept the limitations established by the thoughts and ways of any one people. With him cosmopolitanism was a purely mental characteristic.

The quiet manner in which Hamilton laid entirely aside, far remote from sight or memory of himself or others, the fact that he was not sprung of old American stock, was not an autochthon of the North American colonies, is only one among several evidences of a peculiar trait in his character. In just, the same way, his writings indicate that he neither spoke nor apparently thought at all of his social origin. Who he was, what he might be expected to be according to the principles of descent and heredity, were questions which he so tranquilly ignored that the few persons who ventured to ask or to answer them did so covertly, and whispering among themselves. He simply stepped into a position among those who were socially and intellectually the best and foremost people ; and in doing so did not seem to be challenging a right, but only to be appearing where he naturally belonged. What he, in this easy and careless fashion, took for granted was granted, at once and by everybody. No one ever doubted that he belonged where he placed himself. He did not present as credentials the status of any ancestor, near or remote; he only easily offered himself, his own brains and his own breeding. No one ventured to say that these were not perfectly satisfactory. Almost, if not quite, his only remark concerning his father occurs in a paper wherein, in the course of some business arrangements, he had to speak of certain pecuniary assistance rendered to the old gentleman : he then says, “ Though, as I am informed, a man of respectable connections in Scotland,” etc. Was there ever shown a more utter indifference to the source of one’s being, — to one’s antecedents, as the phrase is ? No man, not even Lord Thurlow, was ever more frankly ready to start with himself, so to speak; and Hamilton was a man of such force, such impressiveness, and in matters of detail so perfectly finished that the world let him start and stand as and where he chose, quite as a matter of course and without question or comment. In precisely the same way, when little more than a boy, he never seems to have thought that his juvenility was a matter of the slightest consequence, as in a certain sense it was not. He spoke and wrote what he thought, on the one hand without humility, and on the other hand equally without that conscious assumption which almost always marks the efforts even of the ablest youths. The value of his thoughts, opinions, and arguments was intrinsic in them, and had nothing whatsoever to do with the greater or less number of years during which he happened to have been in the world, — a matter which, as he never thought of it himself, so also other people generally seem to have forgotten, except in the way of occasional admiration. A striking instance of tins is found in his temporary alienation from Washington. There is something imposing in the spectacle of this stripling indulging in a quarrel with the great and impressive commander in chief, and describing it in a letter, perfectly temperate and dignified in tone, as if it had been in every respect a falling out between persons equal in all else save the mere matter of military rank.

Since the first generation of citizens of the United States passed away, it has become a lamentable and growing habit of the country to breed small politicians with that exuberant fecundity with which tropical swamps beget noisome reptiles. Now and again a real statesman towers among the unwholesome and insignificant groups, like an oak loftily overtopping the expanse of stunted and too often noxious underbrush. At last, the henchman and the heeler, the wire-puller and the manipulator of primaries, have attained such consequence that they close around and destroy the statesman before he can develop his independent proportions, just as the poisonous ivy can strangle in its fatal embrace the young tree which might otherwise grow to noble size. A century ago these dramatis personal were unknown among the villains upon the stage of public affairs. Then the political “ machine ” was uninvented, with the countless other more praiseworthy machines which restless Yankee ingenuity has since devised and carried to excellence approaching perfection. It is true that in those days even cabinet officers could conduct mean intrigues, and could slander and covertly backbite not only each other, but Washington himself. The times were not ideal, but the prizes of the public service were not sufficiently valuable to compensate for any great squandering of time, labor, or virtue. Even the public men most open to criticism in that earlier and simpler era, reversing the proportions of our day, devoted probably three fourths of their energy to advance what they deemed the public welfare, and allied their political fortunes with broad doctrines of policy and genuine principles of statecraft. Nor was it because a policy or principle seemed likely to be popular that they adopted it, but because they believed in it; so that their allegiance to political creeds grew out of and illustrated their intellectual constitution. If one seeks evidence of this, it may be found not alone in their public acts and writings, but in their private correspondence. Of Hamilton this statement is peculiarly true. If he was ambitious to rise, at least it was not by jostling and displacing others that he endeavored to get to the front. It was the prevalence of principles and policies in which he honestly had faith which he first sought to secure ; his own power he regarded only as the natural and logical sequence of the success of these; and it was hostility to these, not hostility to himself personally, which he conceived to be a just cause for political antagonism upon his part. All his letters show a singular absence of the purely personal element in his valuation of men, and in his advice in matters of candidacy.

The student of history feels, then, as he studies the works of the men who were busied with the birth and childhood of our republic, that he is among great statesmen. They were so. The fact is beyond a question. They were men of large ability, generously developed by the rare responsibilities of the formative era in a country too young and too poor to have nourished selfishness ; they were substantially honest; they were, for men in public life, exceptionally disinterested; they generally had honorable purposes and high aims. One has only to read their writings to be convinced upon these points. These writings, indeed, it may be supposed, are read much less than they ought to be ; for in their respective sets of eight, ten, or a dozen clumsy octavos they look far from alluring. Yet, seriously, a large part of them will very well bear reading. Especially is this true of the Hamilton volumes and those of Jefferson. Beyond question Hamilton’s are the most broadly valuable. We may read the others in order to gain a knowledge of the history of the times ; we may read his not only for this purpose, but also to gather knowledge useful in all ages so long as modern civilization and modern habits of polity and of business shall endure. A large proportion of his public papers bear upon questions of finance, internal taxation, tariff, protection, encouragement of manufactures, commerce, national banking, a multitude of subjects not less important to-day than when they were freshly written ; and these topics cannot now be discussed in satisfactory shape by any one of our publicists unless he is familiar with all that Hamilton had to say on the subject in hand. What Hamilton did say is liable to be undervalued now, because it will seem to many persons trite and familiar. So it is; for no small part of what he taught has entered into and informed the views of the American people upon matters of public policy ; and such a criticism would be like that of the gentleman who went to see Hamlet played, and came away remarking that Shakespeare was a fellow of no originality, for the whole play was only a string of quotations. The Tables of Contents in these eight volumes may rattle dryly on the ear. but the perusal of the pages themselves will be found surprisingly agreeable, even by the " general reader ” who shall have the enterprise to undertake it. For those who do so Hamilton possesses one great advantage : he wrote admirable English, and had a style which is read with ease and pleasure. In this he excelled his contemporaries. Washington, if one could wish to speak unkindly of him, would narrowly escape being called illiterate; if we do not sneer at what he wrote, it is out of our great respect for what he did, and because he had the help of other men’s pens in his lifetime, supplemented by the aid of very loyal and helpful editors and biographers since his death. Adams, when writing what he did not expect to publish, wrote like a plain man of sense, and readably enough; but no human being can now force a way through the stilted dullness and stale erudition of the lucubrations which he designed for the enlightenment of his much-to-bepitied readers in his own generation. Jefferson is very agreeable, and more modern in some respects than were his contemporaries; yet he inundates his subject with such a torrent of words as deprives us of the pleasure to be derived from confidence in the accuracy of his statement or the soundness of his thinking. Madison, less open to direct criticism, is dry and tedious. But Hamilton is read with rapidity and pleasure. His style is vigorous and masculine, and but little defaced by the tiresome elaboration and propriety of the day. The singular clearness of his mind illumines his language ; he neither wastes words nor leaves anything obscure. Many of his papers deserve study on rhetorical grounds, as examples of exposition and argument. He furnishes some of the finest specimens in existence of that most effective of all the forms of argument, the argument through statement. After he has arrayed his facts he seems to have left nothing further to be done ; his mere statement of his position often embodies both its explanation and its defense. It was this faculty which made it impossible for Hamilton’s opponents, numerous and industrious as they were, to prevail against the schemes which he proposed to Congress. He had such a way of enlisting reason in his service that discussion seemed superfluous. Perhaps it may be said that his arguments came disguised in the clothing of facts. In logic, in rhetoric, or in controversy, there is no higher art, no more formidable skill. It is a curious as well as a very useful and instructive study to compare his papers, in this especial point of view, with the documents of the other side, notably with those prepared, certainly with no slight eloquence and plausibility, by his arch opponent, Jefferson. Hamilton forces conviction to-day as he did in his own time.

Probably the student of Hamilton’s writings will regard it as a fair judgment rather than an outgrowth of partiality to set him at the head of all statesmen of the United States, and among the few very greatest of the world. He had a native aptitude for the problems of statesmanship ; it was the kind of work which his mind was created to do. By way of furnishing a scale to measure this, it may be said that it involved, as one department or faculty only among many, such a capacity for constitutional law that in this respect Marshall did not surpass him, though Marshall left a monumental reputation reared upon this sole basis. One has the consciousness of strength, of power, in his way of thinking ; his brain seems to work in an atmosphere so clear that every fact and every argument must stand out in sharply cut outlines; there can be no distortion. neither any error in perspective, in relationship or proportion, where all is pure lucidity. There is also extraordinary grasp and breadth, — nothing is so remote as to escape just appreciation ; there is fullness of knowledge which makes contradiction hopeless, and with this there comes as a detail a singular accuracy of information extending to every minute part of the business. He never seems ingenious or subtle, never surprises the reader by bringing him to an unexpected conclusion through byroads. He is seen always to travel along the straight turnpike. What escape then remains from implicit confidence in the result ? Such was and still is the state of mind in which Hamilton leaves his reader. Of all the men of that day, Jefferson alone can be compared with Hamilton in controversial ability or in skill with his pen, and Jefferson is only near enough to provoke comparison, not to profit by it. For he was less accurate, less clear, less honest in thought, and less simple in exposition ; ingenious and sophistical when it serves his turn, he fails to give the impression of having grasped truth so surely. But he had what Hamilton lacked, — the capacity to attract and persuade the masses, to gather a devoted following among the people at large. Hamilton, in respect of sheer intellect, stands easily preëminent : but when he left state papers, financial and constitutional topics, he could not talk humanitarianism and socalled philosophy as Jefferson could. One conceives that he thought this style a trifle disingenuous, and too much interlarded with humbug. Suffrage substantially universal without universal intelligence established a condition of the constituent body by no means well adapted for Hamilton’s success. Perhaps this lack of control over the people is to be regarded as a shortcoming in a statesman ; if so, it was in Hamilton a serious defect.

There is one more observation which cannot be omitted in any remarks upon Hamilton’s writings, and this is the noble tone which pervades them. The reader sees not only patriotism, not only political honesty and of course personal integrity, but he must be struck with a certain high spirit, a loftiness of aim, a pride of consciously pure purpose. Morally, these volumes are elevating. Hamilton was eminently human, a man of strong passions, not wholly devoid of prejudice, occasionally, though very slightly, suspicious. These traits led him into a few mistakes in his judgments of men, a few blunders in matters of policy. Yet amid times of great excitement and of bitter animosities there was only one instance in which he did anything that seems beneath the standard of a perfectly honorable and exceptionally highminded man. When it is frankly said that there is one such instance, it should also be said that probably few men holding public office in any country have had all their doings so fully known as were those of Hamilton. Obscurity never covered any act or word of his which could provoke criticism ; it is undeniable that he had very singular illluck in this respect.

Hamilton had the imperious, or rather the imperial temper. There was about him the atmosphere of command. One perceives it clearly throughout his correspondence, though it does not appear in an offensive way. He never addressed his political associates or followers in a dictatorial form ; yet his letters none the less plainly emanate from the controlling mind. Clearly enough he is one giving advice to those who will take it, and who will do well in taking it. He did not conceal this fact by an intentional art of expression. It was a common understanding between himself and his correspondent that his knowledge was best, his counsel wisest, his insight deepest, and that his friends would recognize the palpable truth. So they generally did. If he could not lead the ignorant masses, at least he governed nine tenths of the intelligent and thinking people in the United States, and rarely did they question, and never revolt. Seldom did he fall into serious error; once only, in his behavior before the election of Jefferson, he lost his judgment unpardonably, and laid himself open to the criticism of the more independent thinkers of his party. Generally he was greatly wiser than the chief men among the Federalists, and notable instances of the sound influence which he endeavored to exercise may be noticed in his letter to Pickering of June 8, 1798, wherein he advises to “ mete the same measure ” to France and to England ; and in his letter to Wolcott, a few days later, wherein he beseeches the party to go cautiously in the matter of the Alien and Sedition laws: “ I

hope sincerely the thing may not be hurried through. Let us not establish a tyranny. Energy is a very different thing from violence,” etc. But these sage counsels, far above the level of Federalist intelligence, unfortunately proved of little avail.

Hamilton retired from public life at the age of thirty-eight years, — for his military service in Adams’s administration was a nominal affair, — and died at the age of forty-seven years. Jefferson was in active public service until he was within a month of his sixty-seventh birthday ; and Andrew Jackson left the presidency eleven days before he was seventy years old. Moreover, Jefferson and Jackson each had for eight years all the power attendant upon the highest office in the nation. The three have exercised greater authority in shaping the political customs and doctrines of the American people than have any other of our public men ; and certainly neither long life nor high office placed either Jefferson or Jackson ahead of Hamilton in this regard. Jefferson gave shape and expression, coupled with a powerful party organization, to what may be called genuine American democracy. Open as he may be to criticism in matters of detail, he was a great statesman, he did good work, and he left the government and the national politics substantially in excellent condition. Jackson wielded the widest influence for harm that has ever been exercised in the country : he led and organized democratic ignorance as Jefferson had led and organized democratic intelligence; he inaugurated the “ spoils system.” which Jefferson, though with somewhat itching fingers, had refused to handle, at least with any real efficiency ; he introduced the low and personal tone into politics, and made the politician succeed the statesman in public affairs. But Hamilton, whose day of power preceded that even of Jefferson, organized much more than a party or a political system: he organized the very government of the United States; he infused into that vast and complicated machinery so wonderful a combination of strength with smoothness of running that those who came after him could neither remodel it nor easily throw it out of gear. His was the constructive intellect, which fortunately came earliest in the order. The student of American history prior to the slavery and civil war period, who wishes to understand the principles of the government, the spirit of the politics, and the genius of the people of the United States, must study the works of Hamilton and of Jefferson and the doings of Jackson, — not his writings ! — for the order of time between these three is the order of logical sequence in our history and in our political development. To borrow a simile from physics, it may be said that Hamilton, with most of the intelligence of the nation at his back, and Jefferson, with the bulk of the population behind him, came into collision ; and the resultant of the two opposing forces sent the American people along the course upon which they have ever since been moving, subject only to such deflections as are attributable to an occasional Jacksonian, or other irruptive influence.

Such being the case, the publication of a new edition of the writings of Hamilton, edited by a well-known scholar in American history, is a matter of no small consequence. For many years not only have these works been “ out of print,” but it has been almost impossible to procure them. The original edition, published by authority of Congress, consisted of about seven hundred copies, of which nearly five hundred were absorbed by members of Congress and officials at Washington; they thus became widely scattered throughout the country, often going into the hands of persons who cared not for them, and allowed them to be lost or destroyed. For many years after the civil war advertisements for copies were inserted in Southern and Southwestern newspapers, but often the would-be purchaser had to wait one or two years before obtaining a set, and then had to pay a very high price. It is a grave misfortune to have such volumes so scarce, and the present edition, though stated to consist of too limited a number of copies, is therefore very welcome. In many important respects it is a better edition than was the preceding. The duties of the editor of such writings are better understood in these days than they were then. Fortunately, that custom is no longer considered excusable which, in the days of Mr. Sparks and his contemporaries, was thought to be proper, namely, to suppress or garble a document out of regard to the supposed respectabilities. If the old-fashioned editor found a paper, a paragraph, a sentence, which he thought had better not have been written, he took the liberty of omitting it, and flattered himself that he had even done a praiseworthy act. when in fact he had been false to his trust and had trifled with the truth of history. Mr. Lodge certainly has not erred in this way; he has supplied such omissions as the timid prudence of Mr. J. C. Hamilton had induced him to make in some instances, — not many, however, it must be admitted. Mr. Lodge has even gone so far as to reproduce the famous Reynolds pamphlet. It is said that after Hamilton’s death his faithful and charming wife industriously secured as many copies of this humiliating publication as she could lay hands upon, and destroyed them. It is much to be regretted that her generous efforts could not have gathered and burned them all; but this was of course impossible, and the subject was of that kind that is always cursed with unconquerable vitality. Mr. Parton ungenerously gave it a renewed and needless notoriety in his life of Jefferson, and now Hamilton’s editor has felt obliged to reproduce it in this collection of his works. The propriety of this was a difficult question, upon which there is likely to be some difference of opinion ; we incline, though not without grave hesitation, to think that Mr. Lodge decided rightly. The scandal had become ensnarled in history, and Hamilton’s behavior helps us to a correct understanding of his character.

An editor more fit than Mr. Lodge for this task could probably not have been found ; for he is saturated with knowledge of the period, and has an admiration for Hamilton, which, however, he evidently does not cherish for Hamilton’s son, the former editor, who is always curtly spoken of as “ J. C. Hamilton.” Indeed, the note on p. 166, et seq., of vol. viii., out of keeping with the scale of annotation generally adopted, seems elaborated with the express purpose of casting a slur upon the alleged inaccuracy of this unfortunate predecessor. In all substantial matters the new editing is very well done. There has unquestionably been as thorough an investigation as possible in the search for new material, and a surprising amount has been found, much of which is valuable and interesting. The pages are burdened with no " dead wood ” which the reader would like to have had cut away. The arrangement is good. As has been said, we are able to feel satisfied that there is neither omitting nor garbling; that we have all that there is just as it came from Hamilton’s pen. The annotation is in the main very satisfactory. One would like sometimes to be told the fate of a scheme or a measure, but an attempt to extend the notes over such matters would have been open to many objections, and probably it was wise to confine them as narrowly as has been done. It is needless to say that they are thorough and accurate; but many of them, it must be confessed, bear marks of haste in composition, and are in poor shape in a literary point of view. Further, there is an unfortunate prevalence of that class of errors which come from careless proof-reading, — errors which will seldom mislead readers, who will note them chiefly as blemishes ; yet they are blemishes which ought not to deface a series of volumes so important and otherwise so admirably prepared. A table of errata is promised for the next and concluding volume, which will doubtless correct the most serious blunders, but which cannot cure a defect that should never have been permitted to occur. This coming volume, the ninth and last, is devoted to the Federalist papers, and will, it is understood, contain the result of the very thorough bibliographical researches which Mr. Lodge is known to have made concerning their authorship.

  1. The Works of Alexander Hamilton. Edited by HENRY CABOT LODGE. Vols. I.-VIII.