History, History Column

Alexander Hamilton

By Sarah Becker © 2016

History 7-17 (1)“Alexander Hamilton spoke in paragraphs,” 36 year-old playwright, composer, and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda told 60-Minutes.  Miranda’s Broadway musical Hamilton is New York’s hottest new show.  Who-da thunk an 18th century politician of Hamilton’s type capable of drawing record-setting crowds?  Former Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican, did not think him swell.  Jefferson served as Secretary of State from 1790 until 1793.

Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s 1804 dueling partner, serves as the show’s narrator.  The hip-hop, rap-style musical starts: “How does a bastard orphan, son of a whore and Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence comma grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”  The song My Shot is the show’s anthem.

Hamilton, a transplanted New Yorker, was General George Washington’s aide de camp (1777); a Federalist and Secretary of the Treasury from 1789 until 1795.  His is the threatened face of today’s $10 bill, or maybe not.  The musical, which opened on Broadway in February 2015, generates $500 million in profit weekly.

“After so long an experience of your public services, I am naturally led, at this moment of your departure [as Secretary of the Treasury]…to review them,” President Washington wrote in 1795.

“In every relation, which you have borne to me, I have found that my confidence in your talents, exertions and integrity, has been well placed,” Washington said.  “I more freely render this testimony of my approbation, because I speak from opportunities of information wch cannot deceive me, and which furnish satisfactory proof of your title to public regard.”  Like Washington, critics and audiences give Hamilton rave reviews.

“Alexander Hamilton, an illegitimate orphan from the Caribbean, was painfully aware of his lack of status; an outsider trying to fight his way into the inner ranks of society and government,” biographer Ron Chernow explained.  Chernow serves as the musical’s historical advisor.

“Even when Hamilton and Jefferson started feuding, Washington was able to tolerate a quite significant degree of dissent from within his administration,” Chernow said.  Madison exiled himself from Washington’s affection.  Jefferson, too, pulls away.  But Washington never had cause to doubt the personal and political loyalty of Alexander Hamilton.”

“Hamilton was very important in coaxing [General] Washington back out of retirement, convincing him that the American Revolution was incomplete without the Constitutional Convention,” Chernow concluded.  “I think [theirs] was really the most productive partnership of the early years of the republic.”

Washington, having survived the hazards of two wars, felt the Articles of Confederation unnecessarily weak.  The American Revolution concluded January 14, 1784 with the Treaty of Paris and the Articles—sent to the 13 States for ratification in 1777—were loosely structured.  To call the league-like American Confederation of sovereign States the United States of America was a misnomer.

“The disinclination of the individual States to yield competent powers to Congress for the Federal Government—their unreasonable jealousy of that body & of one another—& the disposition which seems to pervade each, of being all-wise & all-powerful within itself, will, if there is not a change in the system, be our downfal (sic) as a Nation,” General Washington wrote in January 1784.  “This is as clear to me as the A,B,C; & I think we have opposed Great Britain, & have arrived at the present state of peace & independency, to very little purpose, if we cannot conquer our own prejudices.”  In the musical Washington and Jefferson, both slave owners, are portrayed by black actors.

Alexander Hamilton also argued for constitutional change.  In 1782, using a pseudonym, Hamilton penned several advocacy articles.  He claimed: “vesting Congress with the power of regulating trade ought to have been a principal object of the confederation for a variety of reasons.  It is as necessary for the purposes of commerce as of revenue.”  Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton communicated often with Alexandria’s Collectors of Customs Charles Lee and John Fitzgerald, as well as Vincent Gray Inspector of the Revenue for the port of Alexandria.

“We never shall establish a National character, or be considered on a respectable footing by the powers of Europe, [unless] the regulation of Commerce is enlarged,” Washington declared.  “I now endeavor…to connect the Western Territory by strong commercial bands.”

The Mount Vernon Compact, a navigational agreement negotiated between Virginia and Maryland resulted.  After the March 1785 Compact was signed, conference delegates further drafted an agreement recommending uniform commercial regulation and uniform currency.  Alexander Hamilton was asked to represent the State of New York at the expanded 1786 Annapolis Convention.

“In 1785 [John Tyler, Sr.] made a proposition in the Virginia legislature for the appt. of Commissrs. to meet at Annapolis such Comsrs. as might be appointed by other States, in order to form some plan for investing Congress with the regulation & taxation of Commerce,” James Madison wrote.  “The attendance at Annapolis was both so tardy and so deficient that nothing was done on the subject.”  The Conventioneers’ 1786 recommendation: that all States send delegates to Philadelphia to “devise such further provisions as shall appear to them necessary to render the constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union.”  Hamilton wrote the Annapolis Convention’s September 14, 1786 report.

The final meeting, the Constitutional Convention was convened for the “sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.”  In May 1787 fifty-five delegates from twelve States met in Philadelphia’s State House (now Independence Hall) to begin the four month process.  Among those assembled: Virginia’s George Washington, George Mason and James Madison; Maryland’s Daniel Carroll; Pennsylvania’s Benjamin Franklin, James Wilson and Robert Morris [Washington’s host]; South Carolina cousins Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and Charles Pinckney, and New York’s Alexander Hamilton.  Eventually the Articles were scrapped and a new Constitution crafted.   Thomas Jefferson, then Minister to France, did not attend.

Since the early days of the Federal Government, the State Department and the Treasury have repeatedly disagreed on the conduct of foreign policy,” Washington Post editor J.R. Wiggins wrote in 1964.  “It is doubtful if on any subsequent occasion this disagreement ever reached the level of the first perilous decade of the American Republic.”

The slavery debate coupled with Hamilton’s post-Revolutionary War debt remedies confirmed the Cabinet conundrum.  “That I have utterly, in my private conversations, disapproved of the system of the Secretary of the treasury, I acknolege [sic] & avow: and this was not merely a speculative difference,” Jefferson wrote on September 9, 1792.

States’ rights: unified federal control.  Jefferson and Hamilton quarreled.  The Secretaries squabbles were fueled by partiality; Jeffersonian newspaper editor Jon Freneau and a partisan press.

“[To] further delineate Mr. Hamilton’s political principles; the room being hung around with a collection of the portraits of remarkable men, among them were those of [Francis] Bacon, [Isaac] Newton and [John] Locke,” Jefferson explained.  “Hamilton asked me who they were.  I told him they were my trinity of the three greatest men the world had ever produced.  He paused for some time: ‘the greatest man,’ said he, ‘that ever lived, was Julius Caesar.’”

Vice President Aaron Burr, weary of Hamilton’s deprecatory New York politics, challenged him to a duel in Weehawken, New Jersey on July 11, 1804.  New York frowned on dueling.  Burr shot Alexander Hamilton dead on the first draw.  Gouverneur Morris orated the funeral.

Who Lives, Who dies Who Tells Your Story is the musical’s concluding song. “America you great unfinished symphony/You sent for me.”  Miranda leaves the multi award-winning Broadway production, his role as Hamilton on July 9.


Columnist’s Note:  Port City Brewing Company, specialists in craft beer, was mentioned in last month’s article, The American Whiskey Trail.  It is my pleasure to inform readers that Port City, in June, received a 2016 RAMMY Award, Regional Food and Beverage Producer of the Year.  Congratulations to all!


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