By: Stephen F. Knott
Since the day Aaron Burr fired his fatal shot in the notorious duel at Weehawken, New Jersey, in July, 1804, Americans have tried to come to grips with Alexander Hamilton’s legacy. A controversial figure in his time and ours, Hamilton is often portrayed as the most reactionary member of the founding generation — the man who hoped to foist a crown upon America and called the people a “great beast.” Although Hamilton did not advocate the former and probably never said the latter, he remains for many Americans the founding’s villain.
It is unfortunate that many Americans have this distorted image of Hamilton, for no man worked more assiduously for the ratification of the American Constitution than Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton had many doubts about the efficacy of the Constitution, yet as the guiding force behind The Federalist Papers and for the remainder of his life, he arrayed all of his formidable intellectual talents in defense of our nation’s charter. Hamilton was well aware that he was part of a unique generation (Tom Brokaw to the contrary, this was America’s greatest generation) whose decisions would prove to cynics around the globe that men were capable “of establishing good government from reflection and choice” rather than on “accident and force.”
On Alexander Hamilton’s birthday, perhaps George Washington’s perspective on his closest advisor is worth pondering. As the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury, Washington observed that Hamilton filled “one of the most important departments of government with acknowledged abilities and integrity.” Washington went on to note that Hamilton was “enterprising, quick in his perceptions” and that his judgment was “intuitively great.” Responding to Hamilton’s critics, Washington noted that some considered Hamilton to be an “ambitious man, and therefore a dangerous one. That he is ambitious I shall readily grant, but it is of that laudable kind which prompts a man to excel in whatever he takes in hand.”
As Americans living under the Constitution, we are the modern beneficiaries of Alexander Hamilton’s great abilities, intuitive judgment, and laudable excellence.
Stephen F. Knott is a member of the Board of Visitors of WJMI, a Professor of National Security Affairs at the United States Naval War College and the author of Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth (2002).