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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Alexander Hamilton (1757–1804)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Daniel Coit Gilman (1831–1908)
HAMILTON’S distinction among the founders of the government of the United States is everywhere acknowledged. Washington stands alone. Next him, in the rank with Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Jay, and Sherman, Alexander Hamilton is placed. Among these illustrious men, no claim could surpass Hamilton’s. He was a gallant soldier, an eloquent orator, a persuasive writer, a skillful financier, a successful administrator, and a political philosopher practical as well as wise. He is worthy to be compared in political debate with Pitt, Burke, Fox, and Webster; in organization with Cavour and Bismarck; in finance with Sully, Colbert, Robert Morris, and Gladstone. “My three friends,” said Guizot to a young American many years ago, pointing to three portraits which hung upon the walls of his library,—Aberdeen, Hamilton, and Washington. Even his opponents acknowledged his powers. Thus, Jefferson called Hamilton “the Colossus of the Federalists,” and Ambrose Spencer said he was “the greatest man this country ever produced.” James Kent, an admirer, used terms of more discriminating praise. Allibone has collected similar tributes from Talleyrand, Guizot, and Gouverneur Morris, Story, and Webster. Yet Hamilton was severely criticized during his life by his political enemies, and he encountered attacks from the newspapers as severe as those which befall any of our contemporaries. Lodge says of him that he was “pre-eminently a leader of leaders; he could do the thinking of his time.” No single sentence could express more completely the distinction of his genius: “He could do the thinking of his time.” Fortunately, a good deal of the “thinking of his time” is now irrevocably fixed in the Constitution, the laws, the administration, and the institutions of this country, and the name of Hamilton now stands above reproach “among the immortals.”  1
  His public life began precociously and ended prematurely. Before he was of age, his powers were acknowledged and his reputation was established. Before he was fifty, all was over. Born in Nevis, one of the smallest of the West Indies, the son of a Scotch merchant and a French mother, he was sent to this country for his education; and unprotected by family ties, with small pecuniary resources, he entered Columbia College, New York, in 1774. From that time onward for thirty years he was pushed forward to one influential station after another, and he was adequate to the highest of them all. Beginning his military service as a captain of artillery, he was soon afterwards aide-de-camp and secretary to General Washington, with the rank of lieutenant-colonel. At a much later period of his life (1797) he was commissioned as a major-general, and served two years as inspector-general at the head of the United States army. In political life he was always prominent, first as a receiver of Continental taxes, then, successively, as a member of the Continental Congress (1782), the New York Legislature (1786), the Annapolis Convention (1786), and finally of the Constitutional Convention and of the ratifying convention in New York. Equal but hardly greater service was rendered to the country by this extraordinary patriot in the Treasury Department of the United States, of which he was Secretary for five years, under Washington, from 1789 to 1794.  2
  The memoirs of Hamilton have been edited by several hands. Shortly after his death, three volumes of his works were printed. Subsequently, John C. Hamilton the son published a memoir in two volumes; and many years later he wrote in seven volumes a ‘History of the United States, as it may be read in the writings of Alexander Hamilton.’ A complete edition of Hamilton’s works was edited by Henry Cabot Lodge in nine octavo volumes. In addition to the memoir just referred to, by J. C. Hamilton, there are several biographies, of which the most recent and valuable are those by John T. Morse, Jr. (2 vols., 1876); Henry Cabot Lodge (American Statesmen Series, 1882); and George Shea (second edition, 1880). All the standard histories of the United States—Bancroft, Hildreth, Schouler, Von Holst, Curtis, Fisk, etc.—may be consulted advantageously.  3
  It is easy to form an image of the person of Hamilton, for there are several portraits in oil and a bust in marble by Giuseppe Cerrachi, besides the “Talleyrand miniature.” All these have been frequently engraved. But as valuable in another way is the description by Judge Shea of Hamilton’s personal appearance, as it was remembered “by some that knew and one that loved him.” This sketch is so good that it would be a pity to abridge it.
          “He was,” says Judge Shea, “a small, lithe figure, instinct with life; erect and steady in gait: a military presence, without the intolerable accuracy of a martinet; and his general address was graceful and nervous, indicating the beauty, energy, and activity of his mind. A bright, ruddy complexion; light-colored hair; a mouth infinite in expression, its sweet smile being most observable and most spoken of; eyes lustrous with meaning and reflection, or glancing with quick canny pleasantry, and the whole countenance decidedly Scottish in form and expression. He was, as may be inferred, the welcome guest and cheery companion in all relations of civil and social life. His political enemies frankly spoke of his manner and conversation, and regretted its irresistible charm. He certainly had a correct sense of that which is appropriate to the occasion and its object: the attribute which we call good taste. His manner, with a natural change, became very calm and grave when deliberation and public care claimed his whole attention. At the time of which we now speak particularly (1787), he was continually brooding over the State Convention then at hand; moods of engrossing thought came upon him even as he trod the crowded streets, and then his pace would become slower, his head be slightly bent downward, and with hands joined together behind, he wended his way, his lips moving in concert with the thoughts forming in his mind. This habit of thinking, and this attitude, became involuntary with him as he grew in years.”
  But without these portraits, it would be easy to discover in the incidents of Hamilton’s life the characteristics of a gallant, independent, high-spirited man, who never shrunk from danger and who placed the public interests above all private considerations. At times he was rash and unexpected, but his rashness was the result of swift and accurate reasoning and of unswerving will. His integrity was faultless, and bore the severest scrutiny, sometimes under circumstances of stress. We can easily imagine that such a brave and honest knight would have been welcomed to a seat at the Round Table of King Arthur.  5
  Recall his career; a mere boy, he leaves his West India home to get a college education in this country. Princeton for technical reasons would not receive him, and he proceeds at once, and not in vain, to the halls of King’s College, now known as Columbia. Just after entering college he goes to a mass meeting of the citizens “in the open fields” near the city of New York, and not quite satisfied with the arguments there set forth, he mounts the platform and after a slight hesitation carries with him the entire assembly. When the Revolutionary War begins he enlists at once, and takes part in the battle of Long Island, the consequent retreat to White Plains, and the contests at Trenton and Princeton. He makes a brilliant assault upon the enemy’s redoubts at Yorktown. While on the staff of Washington, a reproof from the General cuts him to the quick, and on the instant he says, “We part,” and so retires from military service. His standing at the bar of New York is that of a leader. When the Constitutional Convention assembles, he takes part in its deliberations; and though not entirely satisfied with the conclusions reached, he accepts them, and becomes with Jay and Madison one of the chief exponents and defenders of the new Constitution. Under Washington as President he is placed in charge of the national finances, and soon establishes the public credit on the basis which has never since been shaken. Low creatures endeavor to blackmail him, and circulate scandalous stories respecting his financial management: he bravely tells the whole truth, and stands absolutely acquitted of the least suspicion of official malfeasance. In 1799, when war with France is imminent, Washington, again selected as commander-in-chief, selects him as the first of three major-generals on whom he must depend. Finally, when Aaron Burr challenges him he accepts the challenge; he makes his will, meets his enemy, and falls with a mortal wound.  6
  The news of his death sent a thrill of horror through the country, not unlike that which followed the assassination of Lincoln and Garfield. The story of the duel has often been told, but nowhere so vividly as in the diary of Gouverneur Morris, recently published. His countrymen mourned the death of Hamilton as they had mourned for no other statesman except Washington. Morris’s speech at the funeral, under circumstances of great popular excitement, brings to mind the speech of Brutus over the body of Cæsar. Unless there had been great restraint on the part of the orator, the passions of the multitude would have been inflamed against the rival who fired the fatal shot.  7
  It is time to pass from that which is transient in Hamilton’s life to that which will endure as long as this government shall last,—to the ideas suggested and embodied by the framers of the Constitution in fundamental measures. The distinction of Hamilton does not depend upon the stations that he held, however exalted they may appear, in either the political or the military service of his country. It was his “thinking” that made him famous; his “thinking” that perpetuated his influence as well as his fame, through the nine decades that have followed since his death. Even now, when his personality is obscurely remembered, his political doctrines are more firmly established than ever before. The adjustment of the democratic principles of which Jefferson was the exponent and the national principles which Hamilton advocated still prevails; but as Morse sagaciously says, “the democratic system of Jefferson is administered in the form and on the principles of Hamilton.”  8
  In the anxious days of the Confederation,—when the old government had been thrown off, and when men were groping with conflicting motives after a new government which should secure union with independence, national or Continental authority with the preservation of State rights,—Hamilton was one of the earliest to perceive the true solution of the problem. He bore his part in the debates, always inclining toward a strong federal government. The conclusions which were reached by the Convention did not meet his unqualified assent; but he accepted them as the best results that could then be secured. He became their expounder and their defender. The essays which he wrote, with those of his two colleagues Jay and Madison, were collected in a volume known as ‘The Federalist,’—a volume which is of the first importance in the interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. Successive generations of judges, senators, statesmen, and publicists, recur to its pages as to a commentary of the highest value. The opinion of Mr. Curtis, the historian of the Constitution, will not be questioned. “These essays,” he says, “gave birth to American constitutional law, which was thus placed above arbitrary construction and brought into the domain of legal truth.” “They made it a science, and so long as the Constitution shall exist, they will continue to be resorted to as the most important source of contemporaneous interpretation which the annals of the country afford.”  9
  Hamilton’s confidence in the power of the press to enlighten and guide the public was balanced by grave apprehensions as to the fate of the Constitution. “A nation,” he said, “without a national government is an awful spectacle. The establishment of a Constitution, in a time of profound peace, by the voluntary consent of a whole people, is a prodigy to the completion of which I look forward with trembling anxiety.” We who have lived to see the end of a century of constitutional government, in the course of which appeal has been made to the sword, we who live secure in the unique advantages of our dual governments, find it hard even to imagine the rocks through which the ship of State was steered by the framers of the Constitution.  10
  As a financier, not less than as a statesman, Hamilton showed exceptional ability. He had the rare qualities of intellect which enabled him to perceive the legitimate sources of revenue, the proper conditions of national credit, and the best method of distributing over a term of years the payment required by the emergencies of the State. Commerce and trade were palsied; currency was wanting; confidence was shaken; counsels were conflicting. These difficulties were like a stimulant to the mind of Hamilton. He mastered the situation, he proposed remedies, he secured support, he restored credit. From his time to the present, in peace and war, notwithstanding temporary embarrassments and occasional panics, the finances of the government have been sound, and its obligations accepted wherever offered. In the long line of honest and able secretaries who have administered the treasury, Hamilton stands as the first and greatest financier.  11
  His ability was not alone that of a reasoner upon the principles of political economy. He was ingenious and wise in devising methods by which principles may be reduced to practice. The Treasury Department was to be organized. Hamilton became the organizer. While Congress imposed upon him the duty of preparing far-reaching plans for the creation of revenue, which he produced with promptness and sagacity, he also found time to devise the complex machinery that was requisite, and the system of accounts. “So well were these tasks performed,” says Morse, “that the plans still subsist, developing and growing with the nation, but at bottom the original arrangements of Hamilton.”  12
  This administrative ability was shown on a large scale the second time, but in another field. When it became necessary, in view of a foreign war that seemed impending, to organize an army, it was Washington who called to this service his former comrade in arms, the man who had organized the Treasury at the beginning of his first administration. Here, as before, Hamilton’s abilities were employed successfully.  13
  The limits of this article preclude the enumeration of Hamilton’s services in many subordinate ways,—for example, his influence in securing the acceptance of the treaty with England. It is enough in conclusion to repeat the words of two great thinkers. Daniel Webster spoke as follows in 1831:—
          “He was made Secretary of the Treasury; and how he fulfilled the duties of such a place, at such a time, the whole country perceived with delight and the whole world saw with admiration. He smote the rock of the national resources, and abundant streams of revenue gushed forth. He touched the dead corpse of the public credit, and it sprung upon its feet. The fabled birth of Minerva from the brain of Jove was hardly more sudden or more perfect than the financial system of the United States, as it burst forth from the conceptions of Alexander Hamilton.”
  And Francis Lieber, in his ‘Civil Liberty and Self-Government,’ wrote thus in 1853:—
          “The framers of our Constitution boldly conceived a federal republic, or the application of the representative principle, with its two houses, to a confederacy. It was the first instance in history. The Netherlands, which served our forefathers as models in many respects, even in the name bestowed on our confederacy, furnished them with no example for this great conception. It is the chief American contribution to the common treasures of political civilization. It is that by which America will influence other parts of the world, more than by any other political institution or principle…. I consider the mixture of wisdom and daring shown in the framing of our Constitution as one of the most remarkable facts in all history.”

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