Alexander Hamilton: the rise and fall and rise of an American founding father

In the aftermath of the US elections, Alexander Rose considers the reputation of 18th-century statesman Alexander Hamilton, and reveals why it has waxed and waned in line with the nation’s political sensibilities. This article was first published in the December 2004 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Alexander Hamilton by John Trumbull (Photo by Francis G. Mayer/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

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At Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s famous house in Virginia, he arranged two busts – one of himself; the second of his nemesis, Alexander Hamilton – so that they glared stonily at each other. Jefferson used to explain to visitors that he and Hamilton were destined to be “opposed in death as in life.”

The loathing was mutual. “If there be a man in the world I ought to hate,” wrote the hot-tempered Hamilton, who was killed in a duel two centuries ago this year, “it is Jefferson.” Their enmity was not merely personal: It was the clash of two visions of America’s future. Would the new United States be, as Jefferson desired, a rural utopia in which free yeomen-farmers lived in a patchwork of small, quasi-independent states? Or should it, as Hamilton argued, evolve into a commercial, cosmopolitan republic and manufacturing power unified by a strong federal executive? The debate is the hardy perennial of American life. To this day, Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians battle each other over the very meaning of “American-ness”, of what America is, or should be, or will be.

Jefferson has traditionally been the more highly regarded of the two, partly because he outlived Hamilton by more than 20 years, his longevity allowing him to libel his foe unchecked. Lately, however, Hamilton’s standing has begun eclipsing that of his rival. Just six years ago, a poll of 1,004 adults revealed that a third did not define Hamilton even as a “founding father” – as opposed to just four per cent for Jefferson – but this year alone the New-York Historical Society has mounted a mammoth exhibition exalting Hamilton as “The Man Who Made Modern America”, and Ron Chernow’s new biography streaked up the bestseller list.

Listen now to History Extra’s podcast interview with Ron Chernow on the life of Alexander Hamilton

We are living in the Age of Hamilton. Jefferson, though admired for being the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, is in disgrace owing to his exploitative sexual liaisons with Sally Hemings, one of his 187 slaves (Hamilton was a leading abolitionist), and his cheerleading for the bloody excesses of the French Revolution (Hamilton praised the moderate British system of government). Hamilton, enterprising, aware of the world’s dangers, grounded in reality and determined to find practicable solutions, seems more in tune with the times than does Jefferson, whose magnificent rhetorical flights on foreign affairs and domestic problems can today appear hypocritical, and still worse, naive. If Jefferson was the poet of the American founding, Hamilton was the technician behind its rise to economic, political and martial greatness.

Founders’ feud

The Jefferson-Hamilton feud began in the 1790s, when the former was President George Washington’s secretary of state, and the latter his treasury secretary. An impoverished, orphaned immigrant born illegitimately in 1755 in the West Indies, Hamilton was a self-made man who had emigrated to New York in 1772 and, through drive and talent, became a colonel at 20 and then Washington’s indispensable aide during the War of Independence. Jefferson, an old-line Virginian, rarely missed an opportunity to sneer at Hamilton: “the bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar”, in the words of his friend, John Adams.

Post-war, Hamilton’s energy was boundless, his achievements astounding: principal author of the Federalist Papers, co-founder of the Bank of New York, the brains behind the US Coast Guard, founder of the New York Post, the nation’s first treasury secretary (in which office he created the modern financial system), and the central figure in America’s first political sex scandal (his mistress, Maria Reynolds, blackmailed him).

A pistol ball killed Hamilton in 1804; Jefferson’s presidential heirs – Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren and James Polk – murdered his character for the next 50 years. Hamilton, if one believed the propaganda of Jefferson and his acolytes, was a British agent, a monarchist of Ceasarean ambition, an anti-democratic dilettante, and a corrupt creature of Wall Street plutocrats. Jackson, in particular, championed the Common Man, and loathed “the sinister aspirations of wealth” allegedly nurtured by corrupt Hamiltonian elitists.

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A painting by Constantino Brumidi, depicting US president George Washington in consultation with his secretary of state Thomas Jefferson and secretary of the treasury Alexander Hamilton. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

By the time of the Civil War, Jeffersonianism, Southern-style, had transmuted into a defence of states’ rights, agrarianism, economic self-sufficiency, and slavery. And in the federalised, industrialised, commercialised, abolitionist North, Hamilton’s legacy and Abraham Lincoln’s home, Jefferson’s reputation was battered hard during the war, while that of Hamilton correspondingly rose. In 1847, for instance, Polk had moved a statue of Jefferson from the Capitol rotunda to the White House lawn; in 1875, President US Grant moved it back.

The “Gilded Age” that followed the war led to a Hamilton cult. With the South out for the count, slavery ended, and secessionist-sounding talk of states’ rights distinctly unwelcome, Hamilton was the hero of the Northern socio-economic establishment. In a sentiment, typical of the time, Edward Everett (president of Harvard, senator, and secretary of state) cheered that Hamilton’s talents had made New York “the throne of the western commercial world”. Nevertheless, among Northern progressives, who made common cause with rural Southern Democrats (Jeffersonians, in a word) the undertow of resentment towards Hamilton, godfather to Morgan and Rockefeller, never dissipated.

Jefferson’s star on the rise

The 1929 Crash ended the Hamilton ascendancy. During the 1930s Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, himself an upper-class Northerner, realised that he needed Southern and progressive support for his New Deal and drafted Jefferson for the purpose. The Virginian was raised, ironically, to the American peerage: Roosevelt put his head on the nickel, built the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC, and directed genealogists to discover whether he was related to the great man. It turned out, embarrassingly, that FDR’s great-grandfather was a Hamilton ally. The New York Times noticed, however, that despite “their annual lip service to Jefferson the Democrats are now far more Hamiltonian than Hamilton ever was.” The paper was right; Roosevelt’s centralised governance and high public spending would have horrified Thomas Jefferson.

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A painting of the Hamilton-Burr duel at Weehawken, New Jersey. (Credit: Library of Congress)

Shocked by the post-war assertion of the left-wing magazine, The Nation, that Hamilton was the “father of the Welfare State”, Hamilton’s conservative friends deserted him for the small-government and low-spending Jefferson. By the 1960s, for example, Republican populist Barry Goldwater had jumped ship and could claim that the conscience of conservatism suffused the Virginian, who defended the common, decent people of the Midwest and South from the predations of elite Northeastern liberals. This would become a common Nixon refrain in the early 1970s and is still heard today.

The Jeffersonian New Dealers could never betray their man if it entailed paying homage to Hamilton, that top hatted capitalist tool, and especially not if it meant letting the hated figure of Nixon hijack Jefferson’s legacy. Consequently, the 1976 Bicentennial celebrations were, in historian Stephen Knott’s words, “Thomas Jefferson’s party”.

Even so, by the decade’s end, storm clouds were gathering: Biographer Fawn Brodie revived the long-suppressed tale of Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings, and Forrest McDonald produced a brilliantly revisionist Hamilton biography portraying Jefferson as the representative of privileged “plantation gentry” and his rival as a radical tribune of the people who overthrew the Jeffersonian caste system of “status … derived from birthright” and replaced it with “the marketplace, where deeds and goods and virtues could be impartially valued”. Accordingly, hoping to overthrow the liberal status quo, free-market conservatives in the Reagan 1980s applauded Hamilton as a statesman of principle, though Southern Republicans still nursed a soft spot for Jefferson’s anti-governmentalism.

The election of Bill Clinton (whose middle name is “Jefferson”) helped usher the Virginian back into the limelight, especially after he initiated his 1993 inaugural celebrations at Jefferson’s house Monticello, which temporarily placated Southern conservatives. It wasn’t enough to save Jefferson the slave owner’s reputation among liberals.

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The bust of Thomas Jefferson, one of the US Founding Fathers and a former US president. (Photo credit: MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images)

Faced with a Republican Congress hostile to his spending plans, Bill Clinton triangulated by lauding Hamilton.

Moderate Republicans, meanwhile, tried to counter “Third Way” Clintonism by launching a Hamiltonian-style “national greatness” campaign aimed at combining democratic nationalism with activist, “good” government. Right-wing Republicans, such as David McIntosh of Indiana, dismissed them with, “We have to be the party of less government, Jeffersonian, not Hamiltonian”.

Although grass-roots Republicans still tend to be instinctively Jeffersonian, it’s possible to detect a general societal drift towards Hamiltonianism. Neither party talks any more about slashing the size of government; if anything, many Americans clamour for slightly more of it, or rather, slightly more, but better, government.

Even when Jefferson comes back into vogue, for he eventually will, America will remain a hybrid, pluralistic nation. Go to New York, and you find yourself in Hamilton’s bustling commercial republic; drive just a few hours’ north to New Hampshire and you’re in a Jeffersonian heaven.


The Hamilton-Burr duel of 1804

The unique event took place at 7am on 11 July, 1804: a former vice president of the United States, Aaron Burr, killed a former secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamliton, in a duel. Bitter political rivals, Burr read that Hamilton had uttered a “despicable opinion” of him (Hamilton had previously called Burr a cheat, an adulterer, corrupt, and unprincipled), and challenged his longtime enemy. Hamilton, combative, foolishly headstrong and fatally obsessed with honour – a product of his illegitimacy – accepted, despite several opportunities to back down. The evening before the duel he wrote to his wife, “rather I should die innocent than live guilty”. Intent only on defending his honour, not on settling scores, Hamilton declared he would “reserve and throw away my first fire” to allow Burr, an expert shot, “to pause and to reflect”.

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A painting of the Hamilton-Burr duel at Weehawken, New Jersey. (Credit: Library of Congress)

The duelists, after they “exchanged salutations”, chose their flintlocks, measured their paces, and fired almost simultaneously. Aiming wide, Hamilton probably fired first, but Burr’s reply tore through his target’s liver and diaphragm, embedding itself in his spine. Hamilton, writhing in agony, cried “I am a dead man”, and collapsed. He was taken to Manhattan, where, drugged with laudanum to soothe the pain, he lived for 31 hours. “If they break this union [of states],” he murmured near the end, “they will break my heart”. As for Burr, he did his best by later hatching a bizarre plot to conquer the southwest and set himself up as a king. He stood trial for treason, but was acquitted, and died in 1836, aged 80 and unlamented. 


Alexander Rose is the Deputy Managing Editor of National Review in New York. Author of Kings in the North: The House of Percy in British History (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2002), he is now writing a book on the spies of the American Revolution

BOOKS Alexander Hamilton, American by Richard Brookhiser (Free Press, 1999); Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow (Penguin Press, 2004); American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph Ellis (Knopf, 1997); Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph Ellis (Knopf, 2000); Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth by Stephen Knott (University Press of Kansas, 2002) 

PLACES TO VISIT A major exhibition, Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made Modern America, is running at the New-York Historical Society until 28 February 2005. The website is www.alexanderhamiltonexhibition.org

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Located in Virginia, 125 miles from Washington DC, Jefferson’s exceptionally well-preserved house, Monticello, is open year-round to visitors. See www.monticello.org for further details. A useful website about the Hamilton-Burr duel is www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/duel/index.html