Heroes of Progress in America - Charles Morris

Alexander Hamilton,
the Architect of American Finance

In those dark days before the American Revolution, when the colonies were choosing delegates to a congress to offer their protest to the king, an open-air meeting—"the great meeting in the fields," it was afterwards called—was held in New York to select delegates for that colony. Speech after speech was made, but none of the speakers got to the pith of the matter. At length a new speaker appeared on the platform, who seemed to be pushed forward by his friends. The audience looked at him in surprise. A small, slight, boyish fellow, with dark skin and deep-set eyes; what could this boy have to say?

He had much to say. Faltering and hesitating at first, he was soon speaking freely and to the point. He laid down clearly the principles involved, strongly depicted the oppressions of England, and in a burst of fervid eloquence went on to point out the duty of the people, to resist to the last drop of their blood.

"The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments and musty records," declared this wonderful boy; "they are written as with a sunbeam in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of Divinity itself, and no mortal power can erase or obscure them."

As he went on, ardent and glowing with youthful fire, describing "the waves of rebellion, sparkling with fire, and washing back on the shores of England the wrecks of her power, her wealth, and her glory," the whole audience took fire, and cheer after cheer responded to the orator's words. "It is a collegian!" they said, as they looked with wonder on the boyish speaker.

A collegian he was, a student at King's College (now Columbia University), Alexander Hamilton by name. In the College halls he had soared over all his fellows in acuteness of reasoning and fervor of eloquence, and it was to their admiration that he owed this first public appearance. With it Hamilton began his career in the world of affairs, in which he was to occupy a marked position during the remaining thirty years of his life.

Alexander Hamilton was a West Indian by birth, born in the little island of Nevis, of a Scotch father and a French Huguenot mother. This was in 1757. A frightful hurricane desolated the Leeward Islands in 1772, and an account of it was published that attracted wide attention by its force and vivid description. The surprise was greater when it was found to be the work of a boy of fifteen—the same one who at seventeen electrified the great audience in New York.

He was then a counting-house clerk in the island of St. Croix, but his relatives thought that so bright a boy ought to have a chance for the best education, and they raised money and sent him to Boston. From k there he made his way to New York, entered an excellent school at Elizabethtown, N. J., and in 1773 was admitted to King's College. Here he progressed with remarkable rapidity in his classes. He had read and written much while in the West Indies, and now devoured every scrap of learning that came to his hands, wrote hymns and burlesques, defeated all his fellows in the debating hall, was a pious youth who prayed as passionately as he spoke, but among his companions was lively and gay, ready to take part in all that went on.

The clear-minded young West Indian, though a British subject by birth, quickly became infected with the spirit of the colonists, cast his lot with them for good or bad, and became as ardent a "rebel "as the best of them. That speech in the fields was his "coming out "event. He now took to the pen and answered the arguments of the Tory supporters of Great Britain so ably that many thought his writings came from some of the eminent thinkers of the country. When they found who was their author he became famous at once.

From that time forward Hamilton was active and prominent in all the exciting doings of the times. Even in college his patriotic fervor led him to organize a military corps among his fellow students, who called themselves "Hearts of Oak," and wore a green uniform and a leather cap, on which was the motto "Freedom or Death!" With all this he was a busy student, an active writer, a frequent speaker, bold, zealous, yet cool and self-repressed, often seeking to check the patriotic party when it inclined to violence.

Young, ardent, and patriotic, Hamilton had a strong taste for a military life, joined a company of volunteers, and in March, 1776, was made the captain of an artillery company. We are not here interested in his career as a soldier, and will only say that he showed such courage and skill that Washington appointed him his aide-de-camp, and took so strong a fancy to him that he made him his private secretary. During most of the remainder of those terrible years of war Hamilton was Washington's most intimate friend, adviser, and confidant, the great general often conferring with and seeking the advice of his youthful secretary, whose opinion on military matters he highly valued. In after years he came to value Hamilton for like abilities in matters of peace, and remained his warm friend till his death. The voluminous correspondence of Washington during the war mainly fell upon Hamilton, and Troup says of it: "The pen of our country was held by Hamilton; and for dignity of manner, pith of matter, and elegance of style, General Washington's letters are unrivalled in military annals."

Of Hamilton's military career we shall only say that he took part ably in Washington's principal battles, carried one of the British forts at Yorktown, and as a reward for his bravery was selected to receive the surrender of one division of Cornwallis's army. The war done, he spent some time in Congress, where, as one of the members said, "his winning eloquence was the wonder and delight of friend and foe." Resigning within a year, he engaged in the practice of law in New York. He had given little time to legal study, but his quickness and ability were such that he rose at once to the first rank in his profession, his forceful oratory, his fine powers as a reasoner, his close attention to his cases, winning him success from the first.

Such were the chief features of Hamilton's early life. Now we must pay attention to those qualities and powers which were displayed in his later life and on which his great fame rests. He was born with fine political genius and developed an extraordinary ability in finance. In college much of his time was given to a deep study of political economy, financial systems, and swab like practical topics. He was diligently preparing himself for a career of which he could not then have dreamed.

All readers of history are aware of the great difficulty the young government had to raise money to support its army, of the vast sums of paper money that were set afloat, and of the little value this came to have. The money troubles set Hamilton to the study of finance. He wrote on the subject to Robert Morris and proposed a financial scheme for the country that would combine public with private credit and bring all the resources of the people to the aid of the nation. His letters had much to do with the founding of the Bank of North America, afterwards started by Morris. As for the state of the country, he felt bitterly the weakness of the Confederation then existing, and wrote to James Duane a celebrated letter on the needs of the nation, urging the necessity of a new constitution, his opinion being that "Congress should have complete sovereignty in all that relates to war, peace, trade, finance, and to the management of foreign affairs." This letter, written in 1780, was the first step towards the great Constitutional Convention, held in Philadelphia in 1787.

Nothing went on in public affairs in which Hamilton did not take a hand. He opposed the persecution of the Tories, and when a mob in New York sought to capture a Tory, Hamilton kept them back by his eloquence until their intended victim escaped. He did not believe in slavery and was a member of the Abolition Society, of which Benjamin Franklin was president. He felt that they ought to live up to their principles, and moved that every member of the society should prove his sentiments by setting his own slaves free.

When the Constitutional Convention, which he had years before suggested, was called, New York sent Hamilton as one of its delegates. He was one of the ablest men there; no speaker was listened to with more attention; and yet with all he had gone through, with all his service in war and peace, this remarkable man was still only thirty years old. At that age most men are just beginning to make their force felt, but Hamilton had won his spurs as a thinker years before, and he stood among that famous body of well seasoned statesmen the peer of them all. His chief speech before the Convention was said by Governor Morris to be "the most able and impressive I ever heard."

He had his plan for a Constitution. It was one that would have given the central government great power. It was opposed by those who were jealous for the dignity and power of the States. The plan finally adopted was a compromise between the various views offered. It differed from Hamilton's plan, but he signed the new Constitution and went back to New York to support it with all the power at his command. It needed to be adopted by the States, and a party in New York bitterly opposed it, being in favor of State independence. Many opposed it in other States, Patrick Henry among those in Virginia, and it was far from sure that this great State paper would be accepted.

In this dilemma Hamilton came nobly to the front. He and two other able men, James Madison and John Jay, wrote and published the most brilliant series of political essays ever written in the United States. These were in support of the Constitution. There were eighty-five in all, of which Hamilton wrote more than fifty. They were afterwards published under the title of the "Federalist," and of the three pens that wrote this famous work, that of Hamilton was the ablest and most convincing.

He supported the Constitution with his voice as well as with his pen. When the Convention for the adoption of the Constitution met at Poughkeepsie, New York, Hamilton was the chief speaker in its favor. The opposition was bitter and obstinate. At first it seemed to carry with it the whole body. But Hamilton's luminous and brilliant speeches gradually broke down its force, and when the vote was finally taken nearly the whole body cast their ballots in its favor. Alexander Hamilton had won in one of the greatest contests of his life. Now came to him another opportunity. The new government was formed. George Washington was unanimously elected the President. He looked around him for a body of skilled advisers to help him in his arduous work. One of the most difficult subjects to be handled was that of finances. The country was practically bankrupt. Only a man of exceptional ability could lift it above its difficulties.

Washington consulted Robert Morris, who had been superintendent of finance and had done much to save the country from ruin. "What is to be done with this heavy debt?" he asked.

"There is but one man in the United States who can tell you," said Morris, "and that man is Alexander Hamilton."

Washington, who probably thought the same thing, at once appointed Hamilton Secretary of the Treasury.

The new Secretary had a tremendous task before him. The young nation had no money and no credit. It was deeply in debt and was practically bankrupt. How was it to be got out of this difficulty? It is doubtful if there was another man then in the country that could have solved this problem with half the quickness and completeness of Alexander Hamilton. He began by a radical measure that startled Congress. He proposed that the general government should assume all the debts of the States. This seemed like adding immensely to a burden that was already too heavy, but Hamilton gave such convincing reasons for it that Congress adopted it.

To pay this debt some plan of taxation had to be devised, A direct tax is always unpopular, and Hamilton proposed an indirect tax, by laying a moderate tariff on imported goods. He also proposed a national bank, like those of England and France. This, too, was adopted, the capital of the bank being made ten million dollars. A mint for the coinage of American money was also established. The next step was the funding of the public debt and the issuing of bonds, a device providing for its gradual payment.

These wise plans had their intended effect. The pressure upon the Government was quickly relieved. Money came in, enabling the government to meet its foreign debts as they became due and to pay its running expenses. As for the internal debt, people were content to take the Government bonds. The credit of the United States was completely restored. When Hamilton withdrew from the Cabinet, five years later, no country had a better fiscal system, and it was all due to him. In the words of Daniel Webster: "He smote the rock of the national resources and abundant streams of revenue burst forth. He touched the dead corpse of public credit and it sprang upon its feet."

When Hamilton left the Cabinet it was to resume his law business, his salary as Secretary barely sufficing to maintain his family. He soon again became the leader of the New York bar. He bought himself a small estate near New York City, which he named "The Grange." It was shaded with fine old trees, the balcony commanded a beautiful prospect, and he spent many of his leisure hours happily in his garden or with his family and friends.

But he could not escape from politics. Washington frequently consulted him. Party interests occupied his attention. Two parties had grown up in the country, the Federal, of which he was the head, and the Democratic, of which Jefferson was the leader. He believed in a strong central government, and would have liked Washington to have the standing and state of a king. Jefferson was a strong advocate of State-rights. This difference of opinion led to much bad feeling between the two when they were together in the Cabinet' and after they had left it.

In New York the leader of the Democrats was Aaron Burr, a brilliant and able man, but not a safe and honest one. After serving as Vice-President under Jefferson, Burr became a candidate for governor of New York in 1704, but was defeated, partly through Hamilton's opposition. A newspaper report said that Hamilton had "expressed a despicable opinion "of Burr and "looked upon him as a dangerous man."

Burr, disappointed and angry, demanded that Hamilton should deny this. Hamilton declined: Then Burr challenged him to fight a duel. In those days, when duels were common, Hamilton would have been looked upon with contempt if he had refused. The duel took place in New Jersey, opposite the city of New York, on July 11, 1804. Hamilton fell before Burr's bullet and died the following day.

Thus died, in sustaining what was falsely called the "code of honor," the greatest statesman and financier of his age.