Alexander Hamilton was a giant in the shadows

August 04, 2011

By ALLAN POWELL — Alexander Hamilton has probably had as much influence on the development of our nation as any of the founders who met in Philadelphia. Yet he is relatively obscure compared to James Madison, Benjamin Franklin or George Washington. When he is remembered, it is likely that he comes to mind because of his death as a result of the duel with Aaron Burr in 1804. Forest McDonald, in "Alexander Hamilton," gives ample reasons to rank Hamilton as a first-rate mind and an indispensable force in achieving the creation of a strong central government and a thriving industrial sector.

The story of Hamilton's life is not quite the rags-to-riches legend we so admire, but his orphan-to-adviser the great and the powerful tale deserves equal praise. Alexander was born on the British West Indies island of Nevis in 1757 (Fort Frederick was not yet completed), the son of James and Rachel Lavien Hamilton. The father abandoned his family, forcing them to subsist on their own abilities. Alexander, then 9 years old, served as an "all purpose flunky" for a wholesale import/export firm.

When Alexander's mother died of a tropical fever, he became a ward of a boyhood friend's family. Alexander was a self-reliant youth who blossomed into maturity when, at the age of 14, he was given the responsibility to manage the business while the owner sailed to New York and remained there for several months. Alex found time to read books that fired his imagination to think about future fame. Indeed, the quest for fame became a dominant element in his mind.

An act of supreme good fortune opened the door for Hamilton when a clergyman, the Rev. Hugh Knox, recognized his energy and intelligence and arranged for him to come to America and study at King's College (later Columbia University) in New York. Alex asked for (and received) the privilege of advancing in his class studies as fast as his abilities would permit. He backed up his ambitious request by completing all requirements in 2 1/2 years.

Hamilton, now approaching 18, began the study of artillery and organized an artillery company. He was also commissioned with the rank of captain. The American Revolution was in the making with the Second Continental Congress meeting in 1775. Jefferson was crafting our Declaration of Independence. Hamilton was excited in anticipation that his early dreams of fame now had the distinct possibility of fulfillment.

Again, his reputation had spread to the point that three generals sought him out for service as an aide-de-camp. It was an easy choice to accept the offer of the commander-in-chief, Gen. George Washington, whom he served for four years. Hamilton reaffirmed his leadership and valor in 1781 at the momentous battle of Yorktown when, with the help of other troops, he captured a critical redoubt. Lord Cornwallis' forces were defeated and the war in North America came to an end.

Hamilton was now eager to return to his long-delayed quest for more education to equip him for positions leading to fame. He became knowledgeable about the ideas of John Locke, concerning natural law and natural rights. He also admired the ideas of David Hume, who was to become a significant influence on scientists. The renowned French political philosopher Montesquieu attracted his interest and respect.

Hamilton's interest in law and finance challenged him to study Blackstone, Vettel, Sir Edward Coke and other legal scholars. He admired the work of the French minister of finance, whose wisdom helped prepare him to be a brilliant Secretary of the Treasury. But, the fact was that Alexander Hamilton absorbed knowledge like a sponge from whatever source he respected.

It was during the creation and ratification of our Constitution that Hamilton gave a full display of his intellectual skills. He was able to cooperate with James Madison to lead in the crafting and eventual ratification of our Constitution. We should be forever in debt to these two political designers who successfully produced a dual layer of power with states subordinate to a strong central government. In an age when there was such overwhelming pressure to retain a loose union of sovereign states, they turned the tide for a strong central government.

To help accomplish this feat, Hamilton and Madison authored a series of essays, "The Federalist" papers, intended to influence the state of New York to favor the new government. In reality, they became the most read and admired defense and explanation of our Constitution. While Madison has received the most recognition for the 26 essays he wrote, Hamilton contributed 51. John Jay, future Supreme Court justice, contributed five.

Hamilton continued to provide sound and visionary advice vital to the development of our nation's financial, commercial and industrial success. This orphaned lad with the keen desire for fame is still in the shadow of some of his more famous peers. Nonetheless, his contribution to our national well-being is monumental.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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