Thursday, September 3, 2015

George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and American Principles

By: Tony Williams

George Washington and Alexander Hamilton could hardly have been more different.  Washington was a Virginia planter, a war hero from the French and Indian War, and a member of the House of Burgesses.  He was an established gentleman of the Virginia hierarchy presiding over Mount Vernon and married to an “agreeable consort” with her two children.  Hamilton, on the other hand, was an orphan of illegitimate birth who immigrated to the colonies and rose quickly with his native brilliance.  When British policy of the 1760s and 1770s taxed the colonists without their consent, both Washington and Hamilton argued for the universal rights of mankind and self-government. 

Washington was known to be moderate and prudent while also a strong advocate for American constitutional liberties.  He looked askance at the furor over the Stamp Act taxes and the destruction of the tea in the Boston Tea Party, but he was firmly committed to American liberties and one of the earliest supporters of possibly going to war to defend those rights.  Washington thought the 1765 Stamp Act was an “unconstitutional method of taxation [and] a direful upon their liberties.”  When the Townshend Acts were passed in 1767 with additional taxes, Washington led the charge in the House of Burgesses for a non-importation agreement, or boycott, to “avert the stroke and maintain liberty which we have derived from our ancestors.”  At this point, Washington even considered military action to defend the moral principle of self-government: “That no man should scruple, or hesitate a moment to use arms in defense of so valuable a blessing, on which all the good and evil of life depends.” 

In the wake of the Boston Tea Party, Parliament retaliated and passed the Coercive Acts (1774) that stripped people of Massachusetts of their rights.  Washington saw a systematic attack on American liberties over the past decade and argued that defending those liberties was a matter of right rather than economic self-interest.  “What is it we are contending against?  Is it paying the duty of 3 pence per pound on tea because burthensome? No, it is the right only . . . that as Englishmen, we could not be deprived of this essential, and valuable part of our constitution.”  Washington was not merely claiming the rights of Englishmen but those of the “law of nature.”  He asked, “Ought we not, then, to put our virtue and fortitude to the severest test?” 

Hamilton, on the other hand, was a brilliant young man who immediately joined the patriot movement as a college student in New York.  He joined several rallies denouncing British tyranny and had close ties to the Sons of Liberty.  Most significantly, he penned important pamphlets after the First Continental Congress that garnered national attention because of the concise arguments for natural rights and republican self-government.

In the highly significant Farmer Refuted (1775), Hamilton argued along the lines of John Locke that “the origin of all civil government, justly established, must be a voluntary compact between the rulers and the ruled.”  He quoted English jurist, Sir William Blackstone, that the purpose of government established by the social compact was to protect individuals in the enjoyment of their natural rights. With incredible eloquence rivalling the Declaration of Independence, Hamilton wrote, “The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for, among old parchments, or musty records.  They are written, as with a sun beam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of divinity itself; and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.”

Later that year, after the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord, Washington and Hamilton would both go to war to defend those natural rights against British oppression.  The Revolutionary War would additionally provide the opportunity on the field of battle for the two leaders to form an “indispensable alliance” at the highest levels of military leadership. 

Tony Williams is the Program Director of the WJMI and the co-author of Washington & Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America (Sourcebooks, 2015). (Buy it on Amazon:

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