A Biography of Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804)

Some concluding thoughts

The outpouring of public grief at the news of Hamilton's death was immense. Weeping masses crowded the front yard of the house in which he died. A pall fell over the whole city as it forgot Hamilton's errant ways and mourned the loss of an esteemed and beloved citizen. Messages of condolence arrived from all over the country and all over Europe. Hamilton was given a funeral with full military honors, and the greater part of the city turned out to pay their sorrowful respects. Foreign ships docked in the harbor lowered their standards and dressed in mourning.

In the course of his career, Hamilton had been many things to many people, but what mattered most to him, and to history, was what he had been to the United States: the gadfly for a stronger government, the passionate supporter and judicious expounder of the new constitution, the builder of the national infrastructure under that new constitution. While in office, Hamilton understood that his mission stretched far beyond simply paying the war debt. He created a system which would propel an underdeveloped country to predominance on the world stage in an unprecedented and startlingly short period of time. His legacy was national credit and credibility. As an intellectual exercise the Hamiltonian system was formidable; its actualization--getting legislation passed, coordinating and administering the work of hundreds of employees and agents all over the country, monitoring the flow of revenues and expenditures, and the sheer competency of its execution--was nearly a superhuman feat. Through his immense foresight and administrative genius Hamilton achieved what he had envisioned almost from the time he stepped onto American soil.

And yet, while the country lamented the architect of their national honor, Gouverneur Morris, who was to deliver his friend's eulogy, mused to himself in his diary about the difficulties in painting an honorable portrait of the statesman: "The first Point of his Biography is that he was a Stranger of illegitimate Birth. Some mode must be contrived to pass over this handsomely."

And therein lies the contradiction. Hamilton was never allowed to rise above the suspicion and contempt, however concealed, that his origins fostered in his adopted country. His efforts on behalf of the United States, in many ways to him a personal vindication, perhaps even a bid at redemption, he ultimately saw as a failure, as he revealed in a letter to Morris in February of 1802:

"Mine is an odd destiny. Perhaps no man has sacrificed or done more for the present constitution than myself... Yet I have the murmurs of its friends no less than the curses of its foes for my reward. What can I do better than withdraw from the Scene? Every day proves to me more and more that this American world was not made for me."
It is a seemingly incongruous statement by one who helped make America.

When Alexander Hamilton chose to withdraw from the scene, his system was still essentially intact. President Jefferson, in whose America he felt even more a stranger, was committed to promoting commerce as essential to national prosperity, and did not shy away from making use of Hamiltonian policies. Had Hamilton been able to view things more clearly, perhaps he would have understood the enduring nature of his work after all.