He was loathed and feared by two presidents. His inflexibility fractured a party. His personal indiscretions dashed his hopes of leading the nation. But before he died a notorious death -- in a duel with Aaron Burr -- Alexander Hamilton was the most powerful man in America next to George Washington and arguably the most significant person in American history who never served as president.
The legacy of his short life was immense. He was the leading force behind the Constitution and chief advocate for a strong central government. As first Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton was architect of America's economy, rescuing the young country from bankruptcy after the Revolutionary War, creating the first national bank, establishing a national currency, founding the Coast Guard, and laying the groundwork for Wall Street. We can blame him every time we write a check to the IRS, but we must credit him with giving the fledgling nation the means to achieve its future power and greatness.
American Experience presents Alexander Hamilton, a production of Twin Cities Public Television in association with Middlemarch Films (PBS's Benjamin Franklin). This two-hour portrait features Tony Award-winning Broadway actor Brían F. O'Byrne as America's most controversial founding father. The program covers the full sweep of Hamilton's short life, one that had more than its share of heroism, scandal and tragedy. "Alexander Hamilton's story is one that the most gifted novelist could not have invented. Too much of it would seem implausible," says Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow, who is featured in the documentary. "It's better than any novel."
"It's nearly impossible to overestimate the importance of Alexander Hamilton," says producer Muffie Meyer. "Today, we live in the political, social, and economic world that he created. But Hamilton's weaknesses prevented him from being given credit for his extraordinary achievements."
"Hamilton was a great statesman and a terrible politician. He was too honest, too candid," explains historian Karl Walling in the film. On the one hand, Hamilton was a skilled policy maker and gifted writer, capable of great charm and persuasiveness. But he could also be arrogant and uncompromising. "With his brilliance and sheer force of personality, Hamilton won many battles, but he also made bitter enemies," says writer Ronald Blumer. "His direct honesty gave him a contempt for the game of popular politics." These characteristics, paired with a scandalous and well-publicized love affair, prevented Hamilton from ever being considered for president.
In many ways, Hamilton was the embodiment of the American dream -- precocious, self-made, an immigrant. He was born illegitimate on the Caribbean island of Nevis in an age when society was dominated by rank and family background. Eventually, he rose to the highest levels of society not on the basis of who he was, but on pure merit. He was educated on a scholarship at New York's Kings College (Columbia University) and "adopted" by General George Washington, who recognized both Hamilton's recklessness and his genius. Washington made him his most valued aide de camp and entrusted him to lead the battle of Yorktown, the decisive win in the Revolutionary War.
After the war, while other leaders returned to their home regions, it was Hamilton, the "outsider," who most recognized America's potential for greatness and pushed to make the loose association of states into a single, powerful nation. He became one of the leaders of the movement for a new constitution and played a vital role in its ratification, penning fifty-one of the eighty-five essays that would become The Federalist Papers, still widely considered the best American book of political thought.
"In the turbulent years of the young republic, when the very character and soul of America were matters of fierce deliberation, Hamilton shaped the debate," says program executive producer Catherine Allan. As the Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton championed a strong central government and an economy based not upon plantations and farming, but upon commerce and manufacturing -- ideas considered radical by most Americans of the time. He opposed slavery and promoted a world where talented men like himself could succeed. These views collided dramatically with Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson's vision for America. Eventually, opposition to Hamilton led to the birth of America's two-party system.
Hamilton maintained a lifelong obsession with honor, the product of his illegitimate birth. "Even though he had done such extraordinary things in the world and had tried so hard to escape from his boyhood," says Chernow, "on some level he never did." At the age of 49, Hamilton was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr. New York gave him the largest funeral in the city's history.
"At the time of his death, the scope of Hamilton's legacy was not yet known," says American Experience executive producer Mark Samels. "But it's a legacy that is still alive today." Under Hamilton's watch, the newborn country quickly developed into one of the strongest economies in the world, making possible the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the United States, the building of canals and railroads, and the heavy industry that fueled the growth of the nation's largest cities.
"Hamilton devoted his whole life to one thing, and that was creating the United States," says historian Richard Payne. "And although there is no major monument today to Hamilton, he doesn't need one. We live in Hamilton's monument -- this United States."
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