Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.
search  
 
Subscribe   Subscribe   MI on Facebook Find us on Twitter Find us on Instagram      
 
 
   
 
     
 

Wall Street Journal

 

Hamilton's Shining House on a Hill

September 15, 2011

By Myron Magnet

It was breathtaking to watch a team of practiced craftsmen coolly jack up Alexander Hamilton’s yellow villa in Harlem in June 2008, lift it over the neighboring church, and wheel it around the corner to a new site commanding an oak-clad hillside in St. Nicholas Park on West 141st Street, still on Hamilton’s original 35 acres. It was more breathtaking still to preview last week the National Park Service’s impeccable restoration, which opens to the public Saturday.

This was Hamilton Grange’s second move; in 1889, a developer offered it free for the taking, and the nearby church, after razing the house’s portico and piazzas, rolled it two blocks down from the top of Harlem Heights, where it overlooked both Long Island Sound and the Hudson River, and shoehorned it in endwise to serve as a rectory. Now restorers have rebuilt its verandahs, put back its light-filled staircase and front door where John McComb (best known for New York’s City Hall) designed them to be, and painted its octagonal drawing and dining rooms their original pale yellow. Once again the dining room’s three rediscovered, mirrored doors are reflecting the bay window’s shape and view at the other end. The 1802 house, an architectural marvel despite its modest size, at long last is a fitting monument to one of America’s greatest Founding Fathers.

In 1773 the 18-year-old Hamilton had arrived in New York as a penniless, illegitimate immigrant from the West Indies to attend King’s College (later Columbia). The city had flourished for 150 years as a tolerant, polyglot magnet for go-getters and now boomed as an entrepôt of the 18th century’s global trade in African slaves, West Indian sugar, American rum and tobacco, and British manufactures. Shortly after Hamilton’s arrival, the Boston Tea Party electrified America, and with the brilliance that had prompted his merchant sponsors to send him north for college, he quickly made himself a key Revolutionary orator and pamphleteer. Then, with that era’s brand of student activism, he joined the militia and, in 1776, the Continental Army. As an artillery officer of cool daring and efficiency, he caught George Washington’s notice, joined his staff as aide-de-camp at age 22, and became for much of the next 16 years his right-hand man in war and peace.

As soldiers starved and froze through the nightmare winter of 1777-78 at Valley Forge, Hamilton, helping Washington shake scraps of food and clothing out of a feckless Congress, devoured tomes of political and economic theory, trying to solve the riddle of such famine in a land of plenty. Even before the war ended, and long before most of his contemporaries, he wrote that America needed a constitutional convention to create a strong national government, empowered to run foreign policy, field a military, borrow funds and levy taxes to supply it, regulate trade, establish banks and coin money. When the war ended, young Col. Hamilton taught himself law in six months, joined the bar, won election to Congress and then the New York Legislature—all, he said, “as a stepping stone to a general convention to form a general constitution,” of which he was a prime mover.

Though he spoke but little at the 1787 Convention, he gladly signed the Constitution it produced that September. During the next 10 months he tirelessly churned out some 50 of the 85 Federalist papers (with James Madison writing most of the rest), a classic of political theory that explains how the proposed new governmental framework would work, combining the energetic executive he sought with ample protections for republican liberty. The splitting up of power into separate departments would provide checks and balances, preventing officials—“reasoning rather than reasonable animals, for the most part governed by their passions,” like all men—from illegitimate usurpations.

When the new government got under way with President Washington’s inauguration in 1789, Hamilton, as treasury secretary, proved the great dynamo of executive energy, inventing America’s new financial system in 1790. “The fabled birth of Minerva from the brain of Jove,” Daniel Webster exclaimed, “was hardly more sudden or more perfect than the financial system of the United States as it burst forth from the conception of Alexander Hamilton.” To provide sufficient money and credit to mobilize the country’s full productive capacity, he reorganized the nation’s and the states’ war debts, established a sinking fund to back new bonds, created a national currency, a mint, a customs service and a national bank—privately controlled, since government, he foresaw, would inevitably inflate the currency rather than balance the budget, sapping that confidence on which credit depends.

Conceiving of economics as soulcraft, he aimed not only to nurture prosperity but also to create a highly diversified economy that would allow the citizens’ “diversity of talents and dispositions” to develop to their full potential, “to cherish and stimulate the activity of the human mind, by multiplying the objects of enterprise.” He also sparked the first constitutional confrontation, when his erstwhile friend James Madison unsuccessfully objected that Congress couldn’t charter a bank, since it was merely “convenient,” not “necessary and proper,” as the Constitution required. The bank’s charter expired during Madison’s presidency, and when he couldn’t finance the War of 1812 without it, and the U.S. defaulted on its national debt, he discovered that it was necessary indeed.

Hamilton could honorably have deflected Vice President Aaron Burr’s challenge to a duel in July 1804, but he went to the fatal encounter seeking atonement (I believe) for having advised his 19-year-old son to accept such a challenge three years earlier, expecting—incorrectly—that his beloved Philip would emerge alive. This time, he knew the vengeful Burr aimed to kill. When he breathed his last at only 49, he had accomplished more than a full lifetime’s worth of good for posterity.

The National Park Service’s small but evocative permanent exhibition in the house’s basement recalls these achievements, and the airy, light-filled villa itself, in its intricate, symmetrical cruciform plan, seems an embodiment of Hamilton’s logical, complex, elegant mind. Evocative too are the objects in those rooms: the mirrored plateau on the dining-room table that reflected candlelight onto the faces of his guests; the dainty, London-made square piano his daughter played as he sang; and reproductions of the silver-plated wine cooler Washington sent him “as a token of my sincere regards and friendship for you and as a remembrance of me,” and of the roll-top desk in his little study, from which he would dictate editorials for the newspaper he founded in 1801, the New York Evening Post, still publishing today.

Yet, walking through these rooms, now as freshly painted as when Hamilton last saw them, who can help wondering, but for the duel, “What if?”

Original Source: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424053111904353504576567001260380950.html?KEYWORDS=myron+magnet

 

 
PRINTER FRIENDLY
 
LATEST FROM OUR SCHOLARS

5 Reasons Janet Yellen Shouldnt Focus On Income Inequality
Diana Furchtgott-Roth, 10-20-14

Why The Comptroller Race Matters
Nicole Gelinas, 10-20-14

Obama Should Have Picked Ebola Czar With Public-Health Experience
Paul Howard, 10-18-14

Success Of Parent Trigger Is UnclearJust As Foes Want
Ben Boychuk, 10-18-14

On Obamacare's Second Birthday, Whither The HSA?
Paul Howard, 10-16-14

You Can Repeal Obamacare And Keep Kentucky's Insurance Exchange
Avik Roy, 10-15-14

Are Private Exchanges The Future Of Health Insurance?
Yevgeniy Feyman, 10-15-14

This Nobel Prize-Worthy Economist Figured Out How To Destroy Terrorism
Diana Furchtgott-Roth, 10-15-14

 
 
 

The Manhattan Institute, a 501(c)(3), is a think tank whose mission is to develop and disseminate new ideas
that foster greater economic choice and individual responsibility.

Copyright © 2014 Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, Inc. All rights reserved.

52 Vanderbilt Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10017
phone (212) 599-7000 / fax (212) 599-3494