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How Alexander Hamilton Shaped America, Part One

TTBW 1221 Alexander Hamilton
PBS feed date 7/15/2004

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Additional funding is provided by the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

(opening animation)

WATTENBERG: Hello, Iím Ben Wattenberg. Alexander Hamilton rose from poverty to become one of the most powerful men of the American revolutionary era. Some say he laid the foundation for todayís global economy. But as biographer Ron Chernow points out, Hamiltonís brilliance was often marred by controversy and scandal. What spurred Hamiltonís driving ambition? Why was he hated by so many of his contemporaries? What is his legacy? To find out, Think Tank is joined by Ron Chernow, author of Death of the Banker, The House of Morgan and now Alexander Hamilton. The Topic Before the House: How Alexander Hamilton Shaped America. This week on Think Tank.

(musical break)

WATTENBERG: Ron Chernow, welcome to Think Tank.

CHERNOW: Pleasure to join you.

WATTENBERG: Before we talk about Alexander Hamilton, the topic of your magisterial biography, tell us a little bit about your background.

CHERNOW: Well, I have a rather strange background for a biographer because I did two degrees in English literature. One at Yale College; one at Cambridge University.

WATTENBERG: I approve. Those make the cut. Thatís fine.

CHERNOW: So, Iím really self-taught as a historian and I think that one thing that people seem to respond to in books is that thereís a kind of literary flavor or sensibility. So, maybe I didnít study history, but I know something about narrative.

WATTENBERG: How did you get into the - as a literary man - get into the idea of writing 1, 2, 3, 4 - at least four different books all about financial figures and financial institutions?

CHERNOW: Well, I felt that in terms of mainstream history this was the great missing dimension; that economics and finance were the hidden dimension of American history to the extent that when read about this, either in books or in magazines, you know, you either had kind of puff pieces on the one hand or muckraking exposés on the other. And it seemed to me that these figures deserved, you know, good, serious, challenging biographies the way that any of our major political figures have.

WATTENBERG: Ron, why is Alexander Hamilton regarded as so important to the establishment and ultimate power and potency of United States?

CHERNOW: Well, I think that Alexander Hamilton was really the creator of the federal government where none had existed before. I think that Hamilton was the prophet of American economics and finance at a time when the country was almost purely agrarian. He had a much more expansive vision of the future and it was also Hamilton who took the parchment of the Constitution, took those provisions and in the first government under Washington really activated them and breathed life into that document. Alexander Hamilton was the first treasurer secretary. I think that was the most important figure in American history who never became president. And under Washingtonís administration...

WATTENBERG: Let me stop you right there. Could he have become president? I mean, now you have something that the person has to be born in the United States but nobody was born in the United States at that time because there was no United States.

CHERNOW: Hamilton was the founding father who was born outside the United States so a lot of people imagined that he was ineligible.

WATTENBERG: But until 1789 and there was a Constitution there was no, quote, 'United States'.

CHERNOW: Thatís true, but there was a clause in the Constitution that we no longer notice that says you have to be thirty-five years old; you have to be native born or a citizen in the time of the adoption of the Constitution and resident for fourteen years. Hamilton just slipped in under the wire. He met all of those requirements. So he could have been.

WATTENBERG: So he could have been president. I didnít realize that. I see. Now, did he ever run for elected office?

CHERNOW: No, he didnít. He never got a single electoral vote for vice president or for president.

WATTENBERG: And he never campaigned. Well, they didnít have campaigns of that sort at that time. I mean of actually going out and handshaking and pressing the flesh.

CHERNOW: You had to pretend that you had no ambitions and you let your friends and colleagues do it for you.

WATTENBERG: All right. Now, letís go back to his early life, which is on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts and Nevis, is that right?

CHERNOW: He was born on Nevis, a British island. He spends his first ten years there. He spends his adolescence on St. Croix, which was a Danish island, and he has this ghastly Dickensian childhood. His father abandons the family when heís eleven; his mother dies of tropical fever when heís thirteen; heís farmed out to a first cousin who commits suicide...

WATTENBERG: And heís illegitimate.

CHERNOW: And heís illegitimate.

WATTENBERG: Which is a fact thatís thrown up in his face all his life.

CHERNOW: Constantly.

WATTENBERG: Heís a bastard.

CHERNOW: Constantly. And he feels intense shame about it. So hereís a kid who starts with every disadvantage by the age of fourteen, heís illegitimate, heís orphaned, heís toiling away the trading house in St. Croix dreaming of fame and glory but at that point it must have seemed like with little likelihood of achieving it.

WATTENBERG: And the islands themselves, I mean itís just this - as you describe it - itís this intense mixture of slavery and the sugar trade and prostitution. I mean itís - tell us a little bit about that.

CHERNOW: This is a beautiful but a brutal world. Hamilton grew up on two islands where the ratio of slaves to free whites was anywhere from five to ten to one.
And very little upward mobility. There were all of these fancy planters who owned vast plantations so Hamilton is in this thin, insecure, little stratum of whites who donít have property, who donít have plantations and thatís part of the general insecurity that will underlie this very ambitious, driven life.

WATTENBERG: Now, what insights do you think he learned in the islands that would then shape him, shape his career, and make him so important to the history of America?

CHERNOW: Number of different lessons. He gets to know blacks personally. Heís destined to become the most passionate abolitionist of all the Founding Fathers.

WATTENBERG: But he owned slaves - his firm dealt in slaves?

CHERNOW: His firm dealt in slaves. He had a firsthand experience of the horrors of slavery. And I have to tell you, Ben; Caribbean slavery was by far the most brutal. This left Hamilton with a lasting horror of slavery because the slaves would wear out in the sugar cane break so rapidly the planters had to constantly replenish it and the trading firm that Hamilton was working for imported anywhere between two hundred fifty and three hundred slaves per year.

WATTENBERG: And Hamilton - the firm he worked for was a trading firm, is that right?

CHERNOW: It was a trading firm. It was owned by New Yorkers who had ended up giving him a certain entrée into New York society.

WATTENBERG: And what was the name of the...?

CHERNOW: It was Beekman and Cruger. Now the interesting thing is this was in any ways the most humiliating, frustrating part of Hamiltonís life, but he said it was the most useful part of his education. And I think one of the things that distinguishes him from the other Founding Fathers, he not only has this great idealism and this tremendous theoretical knowledge - this is the Founding Father, I would say the same of Ben Franklin, who has tremendous practical knowledge of the business world.

WATTENBERG: Well it seems that working in a trading house gives you hands-on experience to international finance...all the different currencies and things like that, which a lot of Europeans in the old days had it because they had so many currencies and they understand a lot of Americans really never - including your friendly interviewer - never really get past the first paragraph of what Allan Greenspan did and what this means to bond rates and interest rates move inversely to conversely and all that kind of stuff. But he really - heís weaned on it, isnít he?

CHERNOW: Yes, I mean he learns all the various currencies. He has to learn all the trade laws. He learns all about smuggling. Heís ordering around all of these skippers.

WATTENBERG: About smuggling?

CHERNOW: Smuggling, which is very important when he becomes treasury secretary and has to stop smuggling so he knows all the tricks of the....

WATTENBERG: Like Joseph P. Kennedy on the Securities Exchange Commission knew all the tricks. This is the 1930s. Yes. Been there done that.

CHERNOW: But, you know, itís interesting that Hamilton throughout his life, whatever experiences he had became part of his education. One definition of genius is the profitable use of time - the profitable use of every education. Thereís not a wasted moment in Hamiltonís life. And this is one of the great autodidacts of history. He reminds me a little bit of those proverbial figures in the reading room of the 42nd Street Library devouring book after book. Itís kind of a classic immigrant story. Even during the American Revolution heís lugging from camp to camp these two enormous, folio-sized volumes of something called Malachi Postlethwaiteís Universal Dictionary of Trade and Commerce. So Hamilton is giving himself a crash course in politics, finance, and history during the revolution.

WATTENBERG: Like Michael Dukakis going on vacation taking Swedish Zoning Laws with him to read on the beach. I mean...

CHERNOW: Except Hamiltonís simultaneously a battlefield hero. Weíre getting ahead of ourselves.

WATTENBERG: Weíre going to come to that. Now, you just called him an immigrant. Heís born in these islands, which are not part of the United States but there is not a United States. Explain to me how does he get from the Caribbean to America.

CHERNOW: August 1772, a monster hurricane lashes St. Croix. Hamilton whoís only seventeen...

WATTENBERG: And you describe that in all its fury. Itís very well done.

CHERNOW: He writes very eloquent descriptions published in the local newspapers. The local merchants suddenly are aware of this wunderkind in their midst, they take up a collection to send him to North America to be educated and he goes to Kingís College in lower Manhattan, later renamed Columbia.

WATTENBERG: Go blue. So Columbia University starts out being called Kingís College. Itís in lower Manhattan and then later on after, what - a series of moves that ends up on 116th, 120th.

CHERNOW: Much, much later. He goes to midtown Manhattan, then it goes up to Morningside Heights.

WATTENBERG: It just follows the population...

CHERNOW: Kingís somehow didnít work as a name after the revolution.

WATTENBERG: Although as you point out, which I hadnít realized, New York City was a Tory stronghold, wasnít it?

CHERNOW: Yes. And so this thrusts Hamilton right into the midst of the turbulence because even as an undergraduate - this undergraduate extraordinaire - heís writing blazing pamphlets against the British; heís delivering spellbinding speeches to large crowds; heís drilling with muskets in St. Paulís Churchyard, still right across the street from Ground Zero. So, he adopts this country. Heís behaving as if heís lived in New York his entire life, even though he has only recently moved and adopted this colony as his own. So he flings himself right into the turmoil.

WATTENBERG: He is an artillery captain and he doesnít in any way duck the war or go through logistics. He is - among all the other things he is, heís a fighter.

CHERNOW: You know, unlike most intellectuals then and now Hamilton was a daredevil. He enjoyed courting danger. He was a battlefield hero. He really has a reckless side. In fact the earliest letter we have from Hamilton, when heís fourteen years old he writes to his friend 'I wish there were a war.'

WATTENBERG: Thatís frequently quoted as the thought that Hamilton is so intensely ambitious. I wish there was a war so I could climb up the ladder and...Is that valid?

CHERNOW: Heís very ambitious for fame and glory and power. Not for money at all. If he had a vice it was the desire for fame and reputation.

WATTENBERG: And power.

CHERNOW: And power.

WATTENBERG: Which he, as weíll talk about later, he exercises with great skill. So, looking back at his early life, why was he so - I mean weíre getting into psychobabble, I guess, but why was he so doggedly determined to be a success?

CHERNOW: Well, he felt intense shame about his upbringing.

WATTENBERG: About his bastardy - his illegitimacy.

CHERNOW: His illegitimacy. Heís hypersensitive about that. Heís so ashamed of his background that far from boasting about it, politicians today would kind of be trading on his poor background - Hamilton never referred to his time in the Caribbean; never went back; never looked back. Classic immigrant story in terms of someone who comes to the United States and decides heís going to reinvent himself. Most of what we know about the poverty and horror and illegitimacy of Hamiltonís childhood weíve discovered during the last fifty or a hundred years. A lot of this was not generally known, although there was a very scurrilous press at the time that did make very nasty accusations about his illegitimacy and other issues.

WATTENBERG: Now, letís move on to his rise to prominence. The war begins to start. It sort of escalates, to use a later phrase and he becomes first an artillery captain, is that right?

CHERNOW: While he is still an undergraduate at Kingís he becomes an artillery captain and heís in the battle of Brooklyn, he fights at White Plains. But Hamilton the great autodidact is also absorbing all these books on gunnery and military strategy. Among other things heís turning himself into a military expert.

WATTENBERG: And comes up with the strategy that General George Washington ultimately uses which is never face these people frontally, but harass them in guerilla war and all that kind of stuff.

CHERNOW: Itís absolutely amazing. He writes an essay as an undergraduate saying this should be a mobile war; weíre going to be facing much larger convention forces. This will be a war of attrition. We should be mobile and scrappy and opportunistic. Let them chase us and weíll eventually wear them down. He has a paragraph there that completely outlines the strategy of the Continental Army.

WATTENBERG: And the Brits bring over how many ships filled with how many troops?

CHERNOW: About three or four hundred ships - thirty-two thousand - ships [troops]. This was actually prior to D-Day, I think the largest expeditionary force in history; certainly the largest expeditionary force of the 18th century.

WATTENBERG: And the whole population of the United States - I mean the first census in 1789 has less than four million people so the population must have been less than three million or something at that time.

CHERNOW: This is amazing. When you think of all these geniuses weíre talking about a country with a population equivalent to the combined population of the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens in New York City today. And we managed to have all of these great figures.

WATTENBERG: And Hamilton gets to know all these prominent people first as in the war itself, because youíre drawing from a very small pool of people, and then General Washington having heard of his organizational abilities asks him to be his aide-de-camp. Explain that role.

CHERNOW: Okay. Aide-de-camp is really like a chief secretary or administrative assistant. Hamilton was put in charge of handling Washingtonís correspondence. Hamilton was French Huguenot on his motherís side, so he was bilingual. Very important in terms of dealing with Lafayette and all the other French aristocrats during the war. But Hamilton becomes so indispensable during his four years as aide-de-camp to George Washington that heís really functioning as chief of staff. Heís riding off on diplomatic missions; heís discussing military strategy with Washington. Aide-de-camp doesnít quite capture the extent of the power.

WATTENBERG: You describe in places where generals or members of the Congress write to Washington and say 'what should I do about X, Y and Z?' and that you say Hamilton by this time understands Washingtonís mind so clearly that he feels no obligation to say 'donít do it' or 'do it' or 'hit the S box' and I guess he shows it to Washington who edits it. But heís functioning as Washingtonís alter ego, really.

CHERNOW: Thatís a very - thatís a good point.

WATTENBERG: Itís your point. Itís not my point.

CHERNOW: Itís almost like an inspired act of ventriloquism that much of Washingtonís wartime correspondence and dispatches are in Hamiltonís hand, yes.

WATTENBERG: They fight this war and Washington, notwithstanding the strategy, loses most of the battles. Heís down to what, about two thousand troops total in his army? Is that the figure I recall? Two or three thousand.

CHERNOW: A little bit more. The number fluctuates during the course of the war.

WATTENBERG: And theyíre on short-term enlistments and heís always begging the Congress to lengthen the enlistments and give me some money and...

CHERNOW: Yes. This was a constant problem that there were these six or twelve-month enlistments and then a lot of soldiers would go home to harvest the crops in the fields. And itís one reason why there was a very important debate that a lot of Hamiltonís Jeffersonian opponents want to rely on state militias. Hamilton, along with Washington believed that we need a professional army; we need a permanent army; a federal army - what they then called standing armies. Standing armies was a very loaded term.

WATTENBERG: So what becomes the United States of America wins against the most powerful military force in the world by this harassing guerilla warfare kind of thing. Hamilton comes from a sickbed to cross the Delaware with - how did that work?

CHERNOW: Yes, he rose out of his sickbed across the Delaware to surprise the Hessians at...

WATTENBERG: The one with the picture of the flag and...

CHERNOW: Yes and Hamilton - just to give a picture of him. He was about five-foot-six. He was rather slight. He was a sickly kid and very, very slim, and yet he shows amazing fortitude as a soldier. People who had known him were very surprised that he was able to withstand all the rigors of the war. And then he finally becomes a real battlefield hero at Yorktown. Heís the first one to storm the outer ramparts at Yorktown.

WATTENBERG: Why was there such intense animosity? We talk now about, you know, thereís not a good mood of camaraderie in the Congress or whatever. Put in those days, boy, it was tough stuff that they wrote and said about each other. Why was there this intense animosity between Hamilton and Jefferson and Hamilton and John Adams, both of whom become president?

CHERNOW: The American Revolution is generally a unifying experience against a common enemy. What was postponed was really a vision of what the country would be like, what the government would be like and so part of it is that there are just fundamental differences in vision. Jefferson foresees an agricultural society of yeoman farmers. He wants a very weak central government. He believes in stateís rights and strict instruction of the Constitution.

WATTENBERG: And that stuff - forgetting your ideology - it sort of ignores what we come now to call the industrial revolution. I mean, even if you believe what Jefferson believes in, youíre not going to have an agrarian economy. I mean, you just donít need that many people to farm...

CHERNOW: Yes. And youíre asking why Hamilton - why there was so much venom during this period. Hamilton wanted not only agriculture but banks, stock exchanges, corporations, factories, cities. All of these things were considered evil in a largely agricultural society. So I called Hamilton in my book 'the messenger from the future' and he got the thanks that prophets often get, which was this was a very scary vision to a lot of people. I think one reason itís a good moment to look back on Hamilton is that we donít find these things menacing the way that, for instance, Thomas Jefferson found the idea of cities and manufacturing and stock exchanges and banks.

WATTENBERG: And...a government is formed and he is chosen by President George Washington as the first Secretary of Treasury, is that correct?

CHERNOW: Which makes Hamilton instantly the most powerful and controversial person in the country. Why, there are only three cabinet members. Jefferson at State, Henry Knox in War, Hamilton at Treasury. The Treasury Department is much larger than the rest of the government combined. So Hamilton is really functioning much more as the first prime minister of the country. Just to say first Treasury Secretary doesnít capture the scope of his powers.

WATTENBERG: Give me a sense of the issues that heís into as Secretary of Treasury.

CHERNOW: Well, just...

WATTENBERG: I mean, youíre starting a new country, youíve got to...

CHERNOW: Well, he has to create from scratch the first tax system, the first budget system, the first Coast Guard.

WATTENBERG: The first Coast Guard - that gets back to what you talked about earlier, a standing army. I mean, that is an aspect of a standing army, isnít it?

CHERNOW: Yes, and also Hamilton, from the time he was a clerk - we were talking about smuggling...that smuggling had been an honored revolutionary pastime. Hamilton is suddenly in the unenviable position of saying, you know, thereís no longer any glory in smuggling now that we have a democratic government. So he starts this fleet of revenue cutters that become the Coast Guard.

WATTENBERG: And thereís no income tax, so the only way to raise money is through tariffs.

CHERNOW: Exactly. And he took over a country that was completely bankrupted by revolutionary war debt and the only way to pay off the debt was through import duties so he had to stop the smuggling, and he had to create a very, very large staff of customs inspectors.

WATTENBERG: And he had this problem on his hand as to whether heíd pay off a hundred cents on a dollar on the state revolutionary debt, is that right

CHERNOW: Hamilton felt that the most important thing was restoring American public credit. He was willing to let some people profit, even profit unfairly. But Hamilton felt that American military strength was based on financial strength. If the country did not have credit, if the country could not borrow, it could never be a military power. So everything in the Hamiltonian system is interrelated in that way. There were a lot of people who just wanted to repudiate the debt. They said why should we pay off these speculators, why should we pay off these creditors in Europe? And Hamilton felt that contracts were the basis of morality; contracts were the basis of law

WATTENBERG: Has he gotten enough attention?

CHERNOW: I think that heís been neglected because of the major founders, Franklin didnít become president, Hamilton didnít become president. Franklin has never been neglected; heís such a wonderful character.

WATTENBERG: Benjamin, right.

CHERNOW: Benjamin Franklin. But I think that thereís a special reverence that weíve always accorded to presidents. I think had Hamilton become president, you would have had many academics over many generations doing multi-volume books about him. I think also, I say in the book that Jefferson gave us the poetry of American political discourse, Hamilton, the prose of statecraft. Poetry is always more inspirational than prose. Hamilton was the man who restored American public credit. Hamilton was the man who created the fiscal and monetary machinery of the government. He really was the father of the federal government. He was the prophet of American capitalism and finance. He was a man who was way ahead of his time at a time when this seemed like rather scary, futuristic stuff to many people. Hamilton seemed to see far into the future and I think that heís getting his due now. Thereís a way in which weíve caught up with him. And what seemed extraordinary at the time has become our ordinary, everyday reality.

WATTENBERG: And our global mission.

CHERNOW: And our global mission.

WATTENBERG: On that note, thank you very much, Ron Chernow. And thank you. Please join us in an upcoming episode for part two of our discussion of Alexander Hamilton. And remember please to send us your comments via e-mail. It helps us make the show better. For Think Tank, Iím Ben Wattenberg.


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At Pfizer weíre spending over five billion dollars looking for the cures of the future. We have twelve thousand scientists and health experts who firmly believe the only thing incurable is our passion. Pfizer. Life is our lifeís work.

Additional funding is provided by the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

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