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"Alexander Hamilton"

American Experience

When I was young I was, as many young geeks are, a fan of Benjamin Franklin -- the Founding Father who, as one of his biographers put it, seems to look at us across the ages and wink. But I understand now that if I will ever have anything in common with fun-loving, well-rounded Franklin, it'll only be after I pass through my current workaholic, information-addicted, argumentative phase.

I gotta stop being Alexander Hamilton.

Maybe I'm overstating the case. I didn't design the modern American economic system. I didn't create the Bank of New York or the Coast Guard or U.S. currency. I haven't levied unpopular taxes on whiskey (and honey, I never will). I've yet to drill soldiers under the noses of my enemies, then overrun the opposition's defenses under cover of darkness. If you find my face on a $10 bill, it's a counterfeit. Sure, I've co-founded two publications as opposed to his one, but both mine are shuttered dot-com-era magazines and his is the New York Post, which survives and thrives and gives me a guideline for wise conduct, to wit: Never die in such a way as to make the cover of the New York Post. That would mean dying in some spectacular and possibly undignified fashion, and since I also have no intent to depart this world having been shot by the Vice President (note to self: cancel duel with Dick Cheney), Mr. Hamilton and I will be diverging in this as well.

And yet.

Early American history's a lot more fun once you actually crack the source material and realize these guys were all products of the Enlightenment -- one of the most ferociously word-happy, snark-ridden, information-soaked ages ever, including our own. And Hamilton, that poor kid from the sticks who moves to New York and becomes a Big Dang Deal (confidante of Washington! early abolitionist leader! guy whose funeral shut down the entire city!), was the guy who couldn't stop soaking and snarking. With his murderously high output -- he was capable of writing thousands of words a day, and had the kind of organized mind that led to clean copy, no revision required -- he'd have been a fearsome blogger.

And that's not including the RSS feeds he'd feel compelled to follow and the other blogs on which he'd post comments. This is after all a guy who published not only a pamphlet flaming a sitting president of the United States but a detailed multi-page account of his own adultery... (gads, and my family thinks I overshare in my blog). Gouverneur Morris, a close friend and something of a party animal himself (in the work-hard-play-hard sense), stressed himself into a case of writer's block trying to find something non-shocking to say in his eulogy, as tonight's American Experience documents amusingly. (Corollary to previous NY Post rule: Don't live in such a fashion as to make your eulogist twitchy.)

There's the Hamilton in me; we're both living in a world where discourse is a matter of outshouting the other guys. And who can shut up? And who can look away? Dear heavens, what if we miss something? Ben Franklin, he'd know how to stop -- I'm betting every now and then old Ben would fire up his RSS reader, take a look at how many posts he hadn't read over the weekend, and hit that so-tempting Mark All Read link. Just knock them all out and start over, feeling assured that whatever he'd missed would either sink into irrelevance or (if it was that important) come back around. Hamilton... no. Wouldn't be able to skip a thing, and couldn't help but weigh in. Believe me, I understand.

As has been said, there's very little more dangerous to themselves or others than great men when bored. Fortunately, we are top-notch at self-inducing boredom in America these days, so good that we have pretty much quashed the ability to identify or nuture greatness. It's death by 100 blog feeds, 500 cable channels, thousands of magazines, and then there's all that Paris Hilton gossip to keep up with.

We are Hamilton, but without that irresistible urge to act in, rather than only comment upon, the public sphere. We have no sense of the urgency of the moment, no great struggle into which we can sink our ambition and insecurity and restless urge to communicate and connect. The current run-up to next year's election is only interesting for being early. The cheap shots and nasty politicking would be old stuff to Hamilton; maybe the only thing that would unnerve him is how many people feel qualified to comment on it out here on the Internets.

What would get Hamilton going these days? What attracts greatness? The environment? Social justice? International monetary policy? Would the great pamphleteer and lightning-fast political thinker -- the man who whipped out many of his contributions to the seminal Federalist Papers in mere hours, who delivered unto Congress over a few months the blueprint for an American economic system as intricate, organic and alien to then-conventional wisdom as the guts of the TARDIS -- be like me, blog like me, wade daily through the information morass like me? Would he sink, would he swim, would he burn out, would he obsess about his Technorati ranking? Would he find a way to make it matter? Would he know when to shut up? Would he know when to unplug?

And do we all still get to be Ben Franklin in the end?

Comments

The truth is that the loss of Alexander Hamilton was a serious blow to the young government. Hamilton was responsible for framing the finicial skeleton of the republic and also shaping the role government would play in free enterprise. Had Hamilton not been of foreign birth (and seriously undisciplined) he certainly could have been considered a serious candidate for the heated election of 1800. Hamilton was everything Jefferson was not, he was a Anglophil who believed the few elite should control the uneducated masses. A bankers' banker.

Hi Jordan -- agreed re presidency, though that too-much-information thing in the Maria Reynolds situation was a remarkably bad idea, maybe even a candidacy-felling one. He *seriously* overshared re the intimate details of that liaison, though it was of course an attempt to show that he wasn't embezzling or otherwise taking undue benefit from his Treasury post -- to his way of thinking, it was far better to be thought to have honor in the public sphere and none in the private, rather than the reverse. (Proof that the guy was, as so many have said, a great statesman and a TERRIBLE politician.)

And indeed, everything Jefferson was not. Ironic, isn't it, that history treated the Virginia slave-owner as the populist hero, and the poor-boy-made-good-meritocracy advocate as the elitist! Hamilton did indeed rise mainly on his merits, and near the end of his life was aware that society needed to provide that opportunity to all (that's one of the reasons he was an early abolitionist). I wonder what he'd say about America's advances on that front?

(Speaking of the ugly election of 1800, watch tonight's show for the John Adams inserts. There's one in the second hour -- Adams rants for a bit, and they cut to Hamilton for a one-line response -- that made me laugh so loud I scared my cat. Lot of fun stuff tonight!)

Can you imagine what a menace he'd be with a Blackberry? It's really interesting to compare him to the other founders. He's really the only one you can imagine living in the modern world. Like you said history is more fun and way more compelling when you get past the myths and encounter the real people who lived there. I think Hamilton's been so maligned and/or ignored over the years partly because he was such a mess in a very modern way that's just too familiar to some of us. Jefferson is the Sage on the Hill and exists on a different plane than modern America. Hamilton came from a broken home, made some terrible career choices, cheated on his wife, disappointed his friends, enraged his enemies, and died with a lot of unpaid bills. And he even managed to document parts of it in excruciating detail. He could be one of those sad pathetic folks on Dr. Phil airing their dirty laundry to the world. Ultimately, he couldn't keep his big mouth shut to save his own life. How modern is that?

One of the historical consultants mentioned a short time (about 20 minutes into the program) that Hamilton's Battery was the only Revolutionary War unit still active in the Army of the United States. This is not accurate, among other units The Light Horse of the City of Philadelphia is now Troop A 1st Squadron 104th Cavalry, Pennsylvania Army Reserve National Guard (First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry) is also a surviving Revolutionary War unit.

LTC Hamilton was not the first soldier to enter Redoubt 10 on the night of October 14, 1781 at Yorktown as the program stated. This honor goes to Capt. Stephen Olney of the Rhode Island Regiment's Light Infantry Company of LTC Gimat's battalion of Light Infantry in Major General Marquis de Lafayette's American Light Infantry Division. LTC Hamilton had overall command of the assault force made up of men mostly from Gimat's battalion, with a small detachment of LTC Lauren's Light Infantry battalion, and a detachment of LTC Hamilton's Light Infantry battalion. LTC Gimat, a Frenchman, was wounded in the attack.

I from another source now see what Dr. Paine was was saying. Hamilton's Battery (Battery D, 5th Field Artillery) is the only Regular Army unit (U.S. Army) which claims a Revolutionary War linage. However, given the practical dissolution of the (Regular) Army between 1783 and 1791 Im not sure how valid this claim really is.

As an undergraduate, I worked at a popular Mt. Rushmore hotel and listened time and again as people idolized Jefferson and praised his accomplishments. On the contrary, I hold a sincere appreciation for Alexander Hamilton and a major disdain for his rival, Thomas Jefferson, however I can respect his place in our country's history. It was intresting to learn that Hamilton voted for Jefferson in the election against Burr because I always assumed he voted for Burr due to his much publicized rivalry with Jefferson. I was also pleased to see Ron Chernow commenting on this American Experience as I own his biography on Hamilton.

It's quite interesting that historian Nancy Isenberg's "Fallen Founder," a brand new bio of Aaron Burr, states what the PBS Hamilton historians neglect to mention: that Hamilton in fact was a veteran of many duels, and Burr only a participant in a very few, prior to their own. Isenberg's work deflates some of the typical assumptions of the Hamilton-Burr conflict, and one can only wonder why she is aware of this one, particular, important fact and they, apparently, are not. (Or chose not to mention it if they were.)

Furthermore, I am now completely underwhelmed by the typical PBS documentary approach, whereby some of the historians interviewed strive to promote their own "theatrical" personalities, punctuating their wide-eyed narratives with overdramatized and hyperbolic expression. Somehow I doubt that "everyone in the city of New York" turned out for Hamilton's funeral. When fact is trashed for dramatic effect, we're all in trouble.

And in fact Hamilton does have a monument: it's the $10 bill.

Angela,
Thank you for your starting this "blog", as I suppose it is popularly called as I have not participated in such a forum before, with great wit and intellectual intrigue! I am but a wanna-be Hamilton history buff whom is heavily influenced by Chernow's bio. Seems to me some possible viewpoints to your thought provoking queries could be: "What would get Hamilton going these days?" The thought of a new day and a mass populace so unready for what the great inaction of her governors would do otherwise for her citizens, and hence set a foot to create responsible commerce.
" What attracts greatness?" The opportunity to live and to make a difference attracts greatness. The entitlement for "greatness" is more won out in the success of the utility that it eventually bears.
"The environment?" Certainly as a function of utility for the increased quality of life and commerce.
"Social justice? "The thing about meritocracy, is that it speaks of achievements won through full effort and that often must be achieved over and over again. It is easy for social justice in this generation of boredom to equate social justice efforts being edified with a law passed in a local township of 6000 persons and but 33 turned out to say "Yea" to equality of all two legged homo sapiens.
"International monetary policy?" Seems Hamilton actions spoke loudly. America was not to be ultimately a beacon of freedom if solely rested on the shoulders of unpaid labor. Also, if commerce was not foremost the language of activity between the United States and all nations eager to interact, then the flames of democracy would dim.
"Would he sink, would he swim, would he burn out, would he obsess about his Technorati ranking?" The battle of conquering honorable service is alive in so many Americans, but as then little public credit is given to where it resides - as it must be!
"Would he find a way to make it matter?" Obviously he knew no other way then and placed into a similar disadvantaged character now, he would commence with his frantic work again.
"Would he know when to shut up? Would he know when to unplug?" K...hmm.
by Kenny

I've read both Chernow's and Brookhiser's biography's on Hamilton. Of the two, I preferred Chernow's. What a disappointment to see Jefferson hailed and Hamilton virtually ignored in our history books. Of our founders, only Madison could compare in intellect and Washington in honesty and integrity. Jefferson was a hypocrite who talked of liberty and equality while owning slaves and fathering children with Hemings. As governor of Virginia, Jefferson fled from Brittish troops and played virtually no role in the revolutionary war. Hamilton's role in Washington's army was obviously pivotal. Hopefully this latest documentary will start the move to correct the history books and put Alexander Hamilton where he belongs.

I was amused by Hamilton's feeling that Congress was more interested in posturing than getting the business of the Country done. And his disdain for professional politicians. I can just imagine how he would react to this upcoming election, and which "lesser of two evils" he would prefer. I think it is high time for a third party, made up of people who genuinely care about the whole country, as a "whole country".

...still meditating on the image of Hamilton, a BlackBerry, and unlimited texting; I can just see him arguing with the flight attendants about whether he really truly *needed* to shut off the device for the duration of the flight...

I'm in complete accord with the Chernow fans; I brought that book home wondering if I should accessorize it with a slipcover and throw pillows and finished it thinking the blessed thing was much too short. Splendid, splendid piece of biography. I'm interested too to hear there's a new bio of Burr; his early life had some interesting parallels to Hamilton's, and of course there's a wonderful quote from JQ Adams commenting on how difficult Burr made *his* eulogists' jobs. ("Burr's life, take it all together, was such as in any country of sound morals his friends would be desirous of burying in profound oblivion." OUCH.)

And yes, his views of Congress were... well, they *did* occasionally come to literal blows in Congress, and the transition from the original confederacy of states to the *united* sort was marked by some truly pitiful, grasping behavior. The show didn't much get into what sort of contortions Hamilton went through to get the states to think of themselves as parts of a whole, but it was some mighty bold thinking. Certainly gave Jefferson the vapors, as many commenters here are likely to know and appreciate! Hamilton's distrust of the trustworthiness of the masses -- shared by many of the Founding Fathers, who presumably also read their Hume and who certainly saw how ugly things got in France after a while -- was mischaracterized by detractors as a yen for an aristocracy, but I think that was the farthest thing from his intent. He genuinely believed in the possibility of American meritocracy.

(And now I'm dying to re-read Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life -- he had some issues with Jefferson's cultural legacy as well!)

The obvious bias of portraying 'Hamilton' as the architect of our Economic System , that we are shackled by these day's is (Debt) pecisely the self indulgent hogwash that Elitists are so notorious for having, to explain away their distortion of Reality and our Historic Heritage. Hamilton was always a Briton at heart and could never embrace Independence from The British Monarchy. Another piece of propaganda by The Corporate Agenda at PBS.

PBS "American Experience" is not relevant to the US today. None of the founders, Hamilton or Jefferson, would recognize the militarized country that since the Cold War is the present American imperial state. None would recognize the security state we have become since President Truman created the US spy agency, the CIA, that has been used to overthrow foreign elected governments and to support US puppets in Latin America, Asia and Europe (Greece, Spain, Portugal), a spy agency that has a secret budget and whose oversight is congressional overlook. Congress has allowed the presidency to become the overwhelming member of the three branches of our now meaningless Constitution. We have used substantial military force over 30 times since the end of WWII without a constitutional declaration of war by the Congress. We go to war on the word of the president, and twice in one generation the presidents have misled us and the Congress into granting war powers. The Congress and the American people are also to blame for the demise of the American republic. Even when the Secretary of Defense wishes to reduce the number of military bases in our country, he is opposed because of job loss fears. Indeed, our economy has become so dependent on the hundreds of billions of dollars that go to Defense, that were we to cut back to real defense requirements there would be an economic catastrophe. The consequences of our fiscal irresponsibility may be the Nemesis that ends our arrogance and destructiveness in the world. For now, we have locked ourselves into a military state and do not have the leadership or the public will to restore our country to one that lives within its means and does not interfere in the affairs of foreign states that do not threaten us. We are no longer a democratic republic. The American Experience is a page in our early history that no longer has relevance.

While the Alexander Hamilton history was interesting, there appears to be another agenda within the story. There were several mentions of the Republican Party and particularly their "smear campaign" against Alexander Hamilton. How can that be? Hamilton died in 1804, fifty years before the Republican Party was founded in 1854 by anti-slavery expansion activists and modernizers.

Hi Mr. Denning -- good question -- in fact, they're a whole different batch of Republicans! The earlier party of Jefferson and Madison and such (the strong-states'-rights crew, as opposed to Hamilton's strong-central-government crew) was known in full as the Democratic-Republicans, though common usage at the time seems to have simply shortened it to the "Republicans," or sometimes the "Democrats" or even the "Jeffersonians." In any case, that party opposed Hamilton's "Federalists" or "Federal Party" and in fact outlasted the Federalists, blowing apart in the mid-1820s. One of the DR factions became what today we'd call the Democratic Party.

In other words, there's a reason GOP convention speakers use the phrase "the party of Lincoln" and not "the party of Jefferson and Madison." Two different outfits. Of course, considering how skeptical many Founding Fathers were of political parties in general, I'll bet they'd come with some *really* interesting names for the current crop, many of them unfit for a polite conversation such as this one :-) .

Again, great question!!

PBS presents many programs that deal with an America of the past. The past can be relevant to the present, but one must select those portions of our older history that are.

Recently, PBS had a series on the US Supreme Court. The first dealt with John Marshall and the origins of judicial review. Many television programs are of this sort. They deal with the US Constitution as viewed from within and not critically as an outside observer. All of the commentators are people who are by their careers already committed to the Constitution: they are constitutional "scholars", professors of constitutional law, people who have dedicated their lives to this document and its history. More objectively, the Constitution is not critiqued. It's failures and weaknesses are glossed over or ignored entirely.

The founders of our country regarded it as an experiment. We tend to forget that, and we treat our history as a series of successes, as problems solved within the framework of the Constitution. That is a self deception. Most frequently our problems are not solved. They just become part of the long toll of misery that our masses have suffered or that we, since the middle of the 20th century, have inflicted on others.

Becoz my namesake appears in Chernow's bio of Hamilton, as writing to Samuel DuPont de Nemours, I feel that I should honor the factions within New York State who are entirely overlooked by the televised bio of Alexander Hamilton. I have watched this show twice.
Hamilton had attacked Gov. George Clinton, an Anti-Federalist, and Clinton's supporters, a number of times in which election fraud was a central issue.
This is most timely and is ignored by what was telecast.
Election fraud, and also the resultant changes to the NY State election process and the Eleventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution would require more substance than the "hot" and "sexy" issues stressed in the Reynold's and Schuyler's ties to a Founding Father.

After reading John D's question regarding party names of the time I had to comment. It is commonly understood that the "democratic republicans" are closest to today's democrats and the federalists were the conservatives of their day. William Jefferson Clinton is indeed aptly named. Thomas Jefferson was the least religious of the founders (at times he seems hostile to organized religion). In fact Jefferson was the first to use the term "wall of separation" in referring to Church/state relations (it was stated in this rigid way in the constitution or the bill of rights). In fact, the first amendment was simply a response to the Church of England which represented the "state sponsored religion" our founders so opposed. The D/R's also mistrusted high finance and big business preferring agriculture as a more honest way of making a living. The slave holding south remained in Democratic hands until Reagan stole the "Dixiecrats" from under Carter's nose. The Federalists including Washington (arguably the most religious of the founders - see his thanksgiving speech) and Hamilton tended towards religiosity, business, militarism (Hamilton founded the national guard) and abolitionism. The Republican party continues to hold many of these values to the present day.

There should've been a not in there, sorry:
"it was NOT stated in this rigid way in the constitution or the bill of rights"

As a high school history teacher, let me say that Hamilton does not get short shrift in today's classes. Indeed, in my class we discuss Hamilton and Jefferson as representing the twin polls of the Revolution. Jefferson clearly hoped that the revolution would give rise to a new birth of individual liberty; Hamilton hoped for the birth of a new nation. Much of American history can be seen, I think, as a battle between these competing (?) values.

I have to say, as well, that I think it is unfair to portray the battle between Hamilton and Jefferson as being about virtue. In the classical sense, the willingness to set aside self interest to pursue the public good, I think both were virtuous. I suspect Hamilton, at least, would agree. After all, he backed Jefferson not Burr in 1800 because he believed Burr's lack of virtue was the greatest danger to the republic. (The book Founding Brothers is excellent on all of these points).

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