New York Man
May 9, 2004
By Julia Vitullo-Martin
ALEXANDER Hamilton was New York's guy at the nation's founding. Without Hamilton the American republic as we know it might never have come to be. Nor would New York have become New York.
Few statesmen in American history have understood as profoundly as Hamilton that ours is a commercial nation. "Enterprise is our element," he once wrote.
While Thomas Jefferson and his fellow Southern aristocrats were proposing a small democracy of simple yeoman farmers, Hamilton argued for the opposite: an extended commercial republic of thriving cities and international trade.
Hamilton recognized that the best way of ensuring a stable republic over time was for every American to be able to pursue individual economic happiness.
While he advocated free markets, he also believed in strong central government, "energy" in the executive and independence in the judiciary. After all, government was necessary because the "passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without restraint." And only a central government could restructure the fragile young republic's onerous war debts, establish a sound currency, maintain order, regulate conflicts among the states and engage in foreign wars when necessary.
Like many other New Yorkers then and now, Hamilton was born elsewhere - in the Caribbean - and came here to make his fortune. Because he saw his opportunities and took them, he has handed biographer Ron Chernow very good, indeed sometimes racy, material. He was a social climber who knew how to parlay one introduction into another.
As George Washington's aide-de-camp during the revolutionary war, he met and successfully wooed Elizabeth Schuyler, from a distinguished old New York family, despite what Chernow calls his "murky origins." (Hamilton's father deserted him when he was a child, and his mother was imprisoned for adultery.)
Hamilton built on the Schuyler family's connections to develop a prosperous law practice after the war. He worked at an extraordinary pace, seldom taking a day off.
He was a gifted polemicist, the driving force behind "The Federalist," the renowned essays that ultimately helped secure acceptance of the Constitution by the states. So much did he write over his lifetime that Chernow contends he "must have produced the maximum number of words that a human being can scratch out in 49 years."
He contributed time and money to charities and churches. He co-founded New York's first bank, the Bank of New York, and helped establish the New-York Evening Post, the predecessor of this, the city's oldest surviving newspaper. Still, like contemporary New Yorkers, he believed in looking good. Chernow says, a little disapprovingly, he was given to "foppish dress."
Yet his principles were noble. He was a passionate abolitionist at a time when one in every five New York City households owned slaves. Even as his old antagonist, the slave-holding Jefferson, was pronouncing slavery an "abomination" that should be abolished, Hamilton was actually doing something about it.
He never owned slaves, and, as one of the original members of the New York Manumission Society, he wrote a searing report that urged members to free their slaves within seven years. In his legal practice he donated his services to defending and freeing blacks who had been kidnapped and sold into slavery.
As President Washington's first secretary of the Treasury he became the "main architect of the new American government," says Chernow. This is an admirably written book about an admirable man whose end was sordid and tragic - killed by Aaron Burr in a duel across the Hudson River from the city that had shaped him as he had shaped it.
Julia Vitullo-Martin is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
©2004 New York Post
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