“Alexander Hamilton and his Contemporaries” (by Christopher James Riethmüller, 1864).
The name of Alexander Hamilton is well, though somewhat vaguely, known to the few Englishmen who are moderately well acquainted with the history of the United States; and Mr. Riethmüller has done a service to all who care to get a clear notion of one of the greatest events in modern history by writing his life in a short, clear, and interesting way. The book itself is not one of any great research, nor does it appear whether or not there are any materials for a life of Hamilton which it would be worth while to examine at the expense of any considerable amount of labour. Mr. Riethmüller seems to have written his book in England, and from materials accessible to every one, but he has put the result together with a good deal of literary skill and in an amusing form. His book has also the merit of being short. It is all to the point, and contains hardly anything which the reader feels inclined to skip. It has, however, one great defect; it is grievously bare of dates.
Alexander Hamilton appears to have been, in many respects, the most considerable man in the history of the American Revolution. He was born at Nevis, in the West Indies, on the 11th of January 1757, and was the son of a Scotch gentleman belonging to the great Hamilton family, who married a French Huguenot of the name of Faucette. Alexander Hamilton was the only child of the marriage who grew up, and was left an orphan at an early age. After serving as a clerk in one or two merchants' offices, he was at last sent to King's College at New York, where he distinguished himself amongst the students for ability of various kinds. When the revolutionary war broke out, he betook himself to the study of fortification and gunnery, and got the command of a company of artillery, the good discipline of which attracted Washington's attention and led him to form the acquaintance of its captain, then a youth of about nineteen years of age. As the war went on, Hamilton was attached to the staff, and became a lieutenant-colonel and aide-decamp, and, finally, secretary to the Commander-in-Chief. He seems to have shown extraordinary ability in this position, especially when his youth and the extreme importance and delicacy of the business which he had to transact are taken into account. Every sort of negotiation was entrusted to him, and he drew up instructions, proclamations, and, in a word, all the documents which the management of the campaign required. On some occasions he had to assume responsibilities requiring personal qualities of a very uncommon kind. Thus, he gave peremptory orders to General Gates and General Putnam, in the full pride of the victory at Saratoga, as to the reinforcements which they were to forward to Washington; and he contrived to smoothe down the wounded pride of D'Estaing, the French Admiral, when he had been grossly insulted by a protest against his conduct by certain other American officers who charged him with deserting their interests. He also had the credit of dissuading Congress from accepting the invitation, made by the French Government at the suggestion of Lafayette, to join them in undertaking the invasion of Canada. Hamilton pointed out with extreme shrewdness the power which success in this enterprise would give to allies who cared far more for their own interests than for those of the United States. Hamilton also played an important part in the affair of Major André. He was at breakfast with Mr. and Mrs. Arnold at the very moment when Arnold made an excuse to leave the room and go on board an o ship of war, and he used every possible effort to overcome Washington's resolution to execute André as a spy. His want of success appears to have wounded him deeply and Mr. Riethmüller conjectures with much plausibility that the mortification which he then experienced was the real reason of his resigning his position on Washington’s staff shortly afterwards. The extreme triviality of the ostensible grounds of this proceeding certainly confirms this opinion. Washington found fault with Hamilton, using a rather sharp expression, for keeping him waiting for a minute or two; and Hamilton thereupon immediately resigned his position, and could not be persuaded even to receive the explanation which Washington was willing to give. During the remainder of the war Hamilton served as a colonel in the army, and in that capacity distinguished himself greatly, especially at the siege of Yorktown, where he was the first man who entered the redoubt the capture of which led to the capitulation of Cornwallis.
On the conclusion of the war, and at the age of twenty-five, Hamilton betook himself to the profession of the law. He practised at New York, then a place of only 25,000 inhabitants, and rose to eminence in his profession. He did not, however, neglect politics. On the close of the war, the Confederation fell into such confusion that it was nearly dissolved. Congress, as it was then constituted, could do no important act except with the consent of nine States, and the taxes necessary for carrying out Federal objects were raised and levied by the State Legislatures, and not by the central Government. In short, Congress had no power, or none worth speaking of. This was practically felt so deeply that little interest seems to have been taken in its proceedings. When Washington formally resigned the power he had enjoyed during the war, the representatives of seven States only took part in the ceremony; and when the Treaty of Peace with England was ratified, three-and-twenty members only were present, and it was many weeks before the attendance of even that small number could be secured. For several years the credit of the Confederation continued to sink, and it appeared likely to be altogether dissolved. Hamilton, however, by writing and speaking, called public attention to the subject; and after himself devising the scheme of a Constitution which he hoped would give national strength and unity to the States, he took a leading part in the debates in the Philadelphia Convention that at last agreed upon the Constitution which became the supreme law of the United States, and which Mr. Lincoln and others are now doing their best to explain according to their own views. The Convention sat through the summer of 1787, and by the middle of 1788 the Constitution was ratified by eleven States. Delaware adopted it in December 1787, and New York in July 1788. North Carolina and Rhode Island withheld their assent for a considerable time. The matter was hotly debated in New York, and at one moment that great State seems to have been inclined to try the experiment of setting up for itself. Virginia also showed extreme reluctance to come in. Indeed, in all the important States, the difficulties to overcome appear to have been extremely formidable.
Hamilton's original wish was to make the Constitution resemble the British Constitution as nearly as circumstances would permit. He would have reduced the separate States to the position of local governments, and have vested sovereign power in all respects in Congress. He wished the President to hold office for life, and to be removable only on impeachment by two-thirds of the Legislature, and the Senators to hold office during good behaviour, and to be removable only on legal conviction of some legal offence. To this great power he would have given absolute control over the whole population of the Union for all purposes. Every one knows how different was the result actually obtained. Hamilton, however, and the other members of the Convention agreed to sink their differences, to recommend the Constitution unanimously to the nation at large, and to do all in their power to get the different States to accept it. The slowness with which it was accepted shows how great were the difficulties of this enterprise. They were overcome to a great extent by the aid of the public press. Hamilton took a leading share in this, and explained and advocated his principles in a series of essays, collected under the title of the Federalist, which we hope before long to notice independently. It has certainly happened but seldom in the history of the world to a man of thirty to take so prominent a part in affairs of such importance. Mr. Riethmüller, not without justice, compares Hamilton with the younger Pitt, and the comparison is not without foundation. As soon as the Constitution was adopted, it had to be got into working order, and Washington was unanimously elected President. He appointed Hamilton Secretary of the Treasury. In that position Hamilton managed, though not without great difficulty, to prevail on Congress to fund the whole of the debts incurred in obtaining independence, whether the money was originally borrowed by the Confederacy or by the separate States, and without distinguishing, as many of his contemporaries wished to do, between the original lenders and those who had purchased obligations from others.
Jefferson was Secretary of State in Washington's first Cabinet, and was the head of the Republican, as Hamilton was the head of the Federalist, party. When the French Revolution broke out, the opposition between their views became at once manifest. Jefferson eagerly sympathized with the French, and strove to promote their interests, in every way in his power. He was the great patron of the French envoy Genet, whose extravagant antics—they deserve no better name—nearly involved the United States in war with England, and ended in the most outrageous violations of American neutrality and sovereignty. Amongst the many instances which history affords of a sort of iron in the current of human affairs, few are so well marked as that which is supplied by the end of Genet's career. After repeated acts of monstrous insolence he was at length recalled, on the remonstrances of the United States. He knew his own country too well to return to it, and preferred a quiet life as an American citizen in the land which he had insulted to a more or less glorious martyrdom in the streets of Paris.
Besides protecting and favouring Genet, Jefferson appears to have organized all sorts of ferocious attacks in the public papers on Hamilton. These attacks went so far as to give garbled extracts of letters which appeared to imply official, fraud, but which, on their full publication, turned out to involve nothing more than private immorality. Hamilton, though married, had a mistress, and his enemies had the brutality to force him to make this fact public in order to clear his official character. In the year 1795 Hamilton retired from office at the age of thirty-eight. He was disgusted with the treatment he had received, and was besides obliged to do something to provide for his family, who had been much neglected by his attention to public affairs. He continued, however, to advise the President, and to take a leading though a private part in politics. In 1798 the excessive insolence of the French Government brought the country to the brink of war, and the army was called out and reorganized. Washington was to be Commander-in-chief, and he nominated Hamilton as his second in command. Hamilton distinguished himself by his exertions in this capacity, but the quarrel with France was settled, and his active services were not required. This was the last of his public employments. He continued, however, for several years to direct the policy of the Federalist party, and to write on public questions.
It was in the course of these avocations that he provoked the enmity which brought his life to a tragical end. There was at New York a contemporary of Hamilton's whose career, alike in the revolutionary war, at the bar, and in politics, had run parallel to his own. This was Aaron Burr, a man whose life would afford an admirable subject for an historical romance. He was the grandson of the well-known theologian Jonathan Edwards, and the son of a Presbyterian minister, and was himself originally intended for the same profession. It seems probable, from his course of life, that he supplied one of the many instances in which the inhuman ferocity of extreme Calvinism has driven a powerful mind and a courageous temper into downright atheism. His whole career was marked by selfish ambition, no less than by extraordinary ability, and he was as immoral in private as in public life. At an early stage of his career, when they were both beginning to practise at the New York bar, Hamilton was disgusted with him, and Burr seems to have resented his aversion deeply. In the course of his various public employments Hamilton repeatedly crossed Burr's path, and inflicted on him defeat after defeat. At last Burr was chosen Vice-President, but was shortly after foiled, principally by Hamilton's interest, in the attempt to become Governor of the State of New York. Burr could not forgive this. With deadly malignity he contrived to fix on Hamilton a personal quarrel for which there was no real ground whatever. At the age of forty-seven, being one of the most important men in the State of New York, and the father of a family of seven children scantily provided for, Hamilton considered himself compelled to go out and fight. He solemnly recorded his conviction that he was doing an act wrong in the eyes of God and man, wrong towards his family and wrong towards his creditors, but he said he must do it, and this though his eldest son—a youth of twenty—had just before lost his life in the same way. He also recorded his resolution not to fire at Burr, at least not the first time. Burr shot him at the first fire, and Hamilton's pistol went off as he fell. He died two days afterwards. The rest of Burr's life was a continual romance. He attempted to set up a Western kingdom in the Valley of the Mississippi, was tried for treason and acquitted, and passed the rest of his life down to extreme old age in wandering over Europe.
The moral which Mr. Riethmüller constantly presses upon his readers is the degeneracy of American public men, and the fatal character of the democratic envy which has made them degenerate. Hamilton, he says, was the earliest victim of that indecent ferocity which, gradually increasing, has at last driven from political life in America all the men of highly cultivated minds, and made politics the profession of the worst part of the community. There is no doubt a good deal of truth in this, though it wants much additional explanation. One remarkable question is, how there came to be so many considerable men amongst the Americans at the time of the Revolution? The aristocratic constitution of some of the States, especially of Virginia, may have had something to do with it. Washington was a country gentleman. So was Jefferson, though he was the first founder of American democracy. But Hamilton, though a model of gentlemanly feeling and refinement of thought, did not owe these things to his circumstances. He began life at twelve, as a merchant's clerk, in the poorest circumstances. Franklin was a printer, and John Adams a Boston lawyer. Burr, who was in intellect far superior to any man brought forward by the present struggle, was a minister's son. These men and others, such as Jay and Randolph, displayed a degree of wisdom, moderation, and statesmanship which has hardly ever been equalled in the management of the affairs of any nation. Any one who knows what our colonies are may form some notion of the difficulty of the task which they performed by supposing himself charged with the duty of moulding into one homogeneous nation the communities which in the present day are scattered over Australia. Would any English statesman even think of such an undertaking? Yet these men actually accomplished it on a far larger scale, and in the face of much greater difficulties, and the work of their hands endured, with little serious difficulty and with gigantic effects, for more than seventy years. Even now, the framework which they set up has proved strong enough to withstand, more or less successfully, a strain of unparalleled violence, and to affect in the most powerful manner—how far for good, and how far for evil, no man living can even conjecture—the fortunes of an important section of the human race. It is a wonderful spectacle, and the great actors in it deserve, if ever men did, to be carefully studied and to have their work authentically described. Mr. Riethmüller has introduced Hamilton to Englishmen, and he has done so gracefully and pleasantly, but he only excites a curiosity towards satisfying which no living author has. done anything material. How came the great American Union into existence? why has it done so much, and why has it done no more? what does it teach as to the powers, and lead us to conjecture as to the destiny, of the richest, the most energetic, and the youngest member of the great family of nations? To be alive to the depth, interest, and difficulty of such questions is the next best thing to knowing the solution of them.
Saturday Review, February 13, 1864.