Alexander Hamilton, Part One
The words spoken by the actors in this film are taken from letters, diaries and documents of the time.
Narrator: On a warm morning in July 1804, a boat is rowed across the Hudson River to Lower Manhattan. In the boat lies Alexander Hamilton. He was a hero of the American Revolution, architect of the country's financial system, and, under President Washington, the most powerful man in the United States. Wounded and bleeding, he is near death.
Gouverneur Morris is called upon to give the funeral oration. He is one of Hamilton's closest friends.
Gouverneur Morris (as portrayed by actor): He was vain, indiscreet and opinionated. These things must be told to give a full measure of his character -- but I must do it in such a manner as not to give offense to the mourners. This is not going to be easy.
Narrator: Morris, the man who had penned the words, "We the People," is having severe writer's block. No founder had done more to shape the character of the country than Alexander Hamilton, yet no founder was more controversial.
Gouverneur Morris (as portrayed by actor): The first point of his biography is that he was of illegitimate birth. Well, I'll have to pass over that one in some clever way. I'll mention, of course, his share in forming the Constitution. But then again, there's his domestic life. I have to say something about his wife -- but then, there's a small matter of infidelity that he foolishly published to the world.
Ah! His administration of the country's finances. Yes, but many are still very hostile to it. I must somehow reconcile all this.
Dueling. In principle, he was against dueling. But he was killed in a duel. Not only is this subject impossible to write, but I shall still have to memorize it. The corpse is already putrid, and the funeral must take place tomorrow.
Ron Chernow, Biographer: The story of the life of Alexander Hamilton is a story that the most gifted novelist could not have invented. Too much of it would seem implausible in terms of what happened to this man in the space of forty-nine years. I mean, it's just better than any novel.
Willard Sterne Randall, Writer: Hamilton's the only one of the Founding Fathers who was an outsider, an orphan, an immigrant, a scholarship boy, a college dropout.
Richard J. Payne, Historian: It's hard to explain Hamilton because what you're trying to explain is genius. How do you explain genius?
Ron Chernow, Biographer: He's so capable, so kind of self-consciously brilliant in a way, that he makes an amazing number of enemies.
Karl F. Walling, Historian: Hamilton, in many ways, is a tragic figure, because the love of honor -- which is the source of his greatness, I would argue -- is completely consistent with Greek tragedy, also, the source of his downfall.
John Adams (as portrayed by actor): That bastard brat of a Scottish peddler! His ambition, his restlessness and all his grandiose schemes come, I'm convinced, from a superabundance of secretions, which he couldn't find enough whores to absorb!
Part One, An Obsession With Honor
Narrator: Alexander Hamilton was unique among the Founding Fathers. He was an outsider -- born in 1755, not in the American colonies but on Nevis, a tiny tropical island in the Caribbean.
He came into this world at the very bottom of the social order. He was a bastard -- illegitimate, because his mother, as a divorced woman, was not legally married to his father. As a bastard, Hamilton was prohibited from attending a Christian school, and had no rights of inheritance.
Ron Chernow, Biographer: It's hard for us to transport ourselves back to a time in the eighteenth century when everything revolved around birth and breeding and pedigree. I think that the illegitimacy had the most profound effect, psychologically, on Hamilton. It was considered the most dishonored state, and I think that it produced in Hamilton a lifelong obsession with honor.
Narrator: When Alexander is ten, his family moves some hundred miles to St. Croix, where hundreds of plantations -- worked by slaves -- produce sugar and coffee for export.
Hamilton's father was descended from Scottish nobility. He had come to the West Indies to make his fortune in the sugar trade, but he was never successful.
Soon after they arrive on St. Croix, James Hamilton abandons the family. Alexander will never see his father again.
Willard Sterne Randall, Writer: Everything went wrong for Alexander Hamilton in a very short time, around the age of thirteen. His mother died of yellow fever. His father had already left two years before. He then had no protector. He had an uncle who tried to save Alexander's estate, small as it was, but his mother's first husband got everything.
Ron Chernow, Biographer: He was then farmed out to a first cousin who committed suicide a year later. So, it's like calamities of Biblical proportions descend on this young man. I think that these experiences would have shattered a lesser individual. But all of these misfortunes actually toughen this spirit of self-reliance. He realized that his great asset was his intelligence, which he would have to do everything to develop.
Willard Sterne Randall, Writer: The one thing Hamilton grasped out of his mother's very modest estate was the books. Nobody wanted them. His uncle said, you get the books. And he pored over them and he pored over them.
Karl F. Walling, Historian: He reads and reads and reads, and above all he reads the stories of the great statesmen of ancient Greece and Rome, as they're revealed in the works of Livy and Plutarch and others. And this is very important for understanding his love of fame, his love of honor.
Narrator: Alexander's youthful imagination is captured by tales of conquering heroes, and of statesmen who built the glorious Roman Empire.
Thomas Fleming, Biographer: Hamilton was in love with fame, there's no doubt about that. But his understanding of fame is totally different from our understanding of fame. To be famous now is to be well known by everybody in the world, you're a celebrity. But that wasn't true in the eighteenth century. Fame was an achievement that a man created in the course of his life. He had to do something remarkable, he had to found a country or an empire.
Narrator: On a tiny, remote island, illegitimate and without family, Alexander Hamilton seems in an unlikely position to achieve fame.
At the age of fourteen, he is employed as a clerk for the firm of Beekman and Cruger, an important American trading company on St. Croix.
Willard Sterne Randall, Writer: Hamilton, as a teenager, had to become a master of international currencies. There was no one currency. He had to know the exchange rates: Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, French, English, et cetera. He had to be an evaluator, an appraiser, a moneychanger. And so he learned a great deal about trade in a very short time.
Narrator: His employer gets sick, and young Hamilton is left in charge of the company.
Willard Sterne Randall, Writer: And so he saved the business by taking over for six months. This little, skinny kid was bossing around surly, brutal ship captains three times his age.
Teenage Alexander Hamilton (voice over by actor): To Nicholas Cruger, January 10, 1772. Sir, the 101 barrels of superfine flour from Philadelphia have landed. I have already sold forty, at eleven and a half pieces-of-eight a barrel -- but, as there are fewer delivered, I will insist on twelve for the rest. As I am very hurried just now, I beg you will accept this brief account. I remain, with the closest attention to your interests dear Sir, Alexander Hamilton.
Narrator: The buying and selling of slaves to work the sugar cane fields is a major part of business in the West Indies. Hamilton, daily, witnesses scenes of incredible brutality. He comes to see slavery not just as appalling degradation, but as a senseless waste of human talent. He feels that his own talents too are being squandered in this rigidly hierarchical world.
He writes to his friend Edward Stevens --
Teenage Alexander Hamilton (voice over by actor): To confess my weakness, Ned, my ambition is so prevalent that I disdain the groveling conditions of a clerk to which my fortune condemns me. I would willingly risk my life, though not my character, to exalt my station. My folly makes me ashamed, yet Neddy, we know that such schemes can triumph when the schemer is resolute. Oh, how I wish there was a war!
Joanne B. Freeman, Historian: What a remarkable statement! You know, he's fourteen years old. And he does, ultimately, willingly sacrifice his life but not his character -- again and again and again.
Narrator: By 1772, the teenager is not only running a major shipping company, but also writing articles for the island's newspaper, and publishing poetry and sermons.
Influential people on the island are struck by his brilliance and ability. They establish a fund for the young prodigy. Hamilton will go to the American colonies to be educated.
Ron Chernow, Biographer: I think that he felt that fate had handed him an opportunity to reinvent himself and to start life over. But I don't think that he ever fully left the world of his childhood behind him. He was poor, he was illegitimate, he was ashamed of all of those things. And even though he tried so hard to escape, on some level he was always trapped back in the darkness of that boyhood.
Narrator: It is 1773. Eighteen-year-old Hamilton arrives in an America in turmoil. The British government is attempting to assert authority over its American colonies. Parliament is imposing new taxes on Americans, without their consent.
In New York City, Hamilton has enrolled in King's College, later to become Columbia University.
Most New Yorkers are still loyal to the Crown, but Hamilton is swept up by the revolutionary cause.
Joanne B. Freeman, Historian: He's not in New York for a very long amount of time before he clearly has decided that he understands the anger and the frustration that's going on in the colonies. He empathizes with it, it makes sense to him, and in a very short amount of time he's writing pamphlets.
Narrator: In words, which evoke the brutal plantation society from which he has just escaped, Hamilton urges Americans to rise up against British subjugation.
Alexander Hamilton (as portrayed by actor): Man is either governed by his own laws -- freedom -- or the laws of another -- slavery. Are you willing to become slaves? Will you give up your freedom, your life and your property without a single struggle? No man has a right to rule over his fellow creatures. It is incontestable that Americans are entitled to freedom.
Narrator: A prominent Loyalist clergyman mocks Hamilton's ideas, and the college student counterattacks in a fury.
Carol Berkin, Historian: He always was a person who, when he thought he was right, just said -- you're wrong, I'm right, you're dumb, I'm smart.
Gordon S. Wood, Historian: He has this chip on his shoulder, precisely because of his background, his illegitimacy. He's going to show the world that he's not going to suffer any disrespect from anyone, especially given his talent, which he knows he has -- and he's not hiding it under any bushels either.
Narrator: The British are preparing an assault on New York. Hamilton obtains a commission to form an artillery company with some fellow students. Together with his men, Hamilton seizes cannon and rifles from a British armory.
Richard J. Payne, Historian: He joins the revolution at a very young age. He forms this artillery unit, and by the way, the oldest unit in the American Army today is Hamilton's unit. It's the first battalion, fifth field artillery. The only unit left over from the Revolutionary War.
Narrator: Hamilton is now dividing his time between drilling his troops and pursuing his studies.
One night, a mob gathers outside the gates of King's College. They are looking for Myles Cooper, the pro-British head of the college. A fellow student describes Hamilton's courageous stand that night.
Officer Stephen Colden (as portrayed by actor): Dr. Cooper's a Tory and an obnoxious man. The mob breaks down the gates of the college and is gathering on the steps with tar and feathers, yelling, "prepare for your doom!" Then I see an amazing scene. A student comes out on the stoop, all by himself, and begins arguing with the crowd, telling them they're disgracing the cause of liberty.
Joanne B. Freeman, Historian: I think, for Hamilton, order is the key to liberty. He might say it's one thing to rant about liberty, that's all very nice and very pretty, but the fact of the matter is humankind -- they're not pretty creatures and they don't do reasonable things. So the only way to ensure personal liberty is to ensure order.
Narrator: At the risk of his own life, Hamilton lectures the mob on the importance of an honorable revolution. He keeps them at bay long enough for Cooper to climb over the back fence and escape with his life.
Ron Chernow, Biographer: In many ways, it's the most revealing episode in Hamilton's early life, because to suddenly stand apart from the mob and be willing to defy and criticize your own side took an enormous amount of courage. But Hamilton was always very, very clear about what his principles were. And he was not somebody who was interested in compromising on those principles.
Ephraim Slattery (as portrayed by actor): While marching with the army, I noticed a youth, a mere stripling -- small, slender, almost delicate in frame -- marching with a cocked hat pulled down over his eyes. He was apparently lost in thought, his hand resting on a cannon and every now and then patting it, as if it were a favorite horse or a pet plaything.
Narrator: The youth is Hamilton. It is the summer of 1776 and the United States has just declared its independence. The war that Hamilton had wished for as a boy has now begun in earnest.
Alexander Hamilton (as portrayed by actor): Now, I must defend with my blood the ideas supported by my pen. My reason and conscience tell me it is impossible to die for a better or more important cause.
Narrator: The British invade Brooklyn. General George Washington suffers a humiliating defeat. He is forced to abandon New York City. Hamilton and his artillery company retreat with Washington's Army. In what is now Harlem, they hold off the advancing British.
Jimmy Napoli, Hamilton Tour Guide: The first time George Washington sees Hamilton, he's putting together an earthwork. While the rest of the Continental Army is crying, weeping over what happened in Brooklyn, Hamilton is organizing and getting things together. That evening, Washington actually invites him to dine with him in his tent and speaks with him.
Willard Sterne Randall, Writer: Washington saw this brilliant young man, smart beyond his years, courageous. Hamilton became, very early in the Revolution, Washington's adopted son.
Narrator: The General invites Hamilton to join his headquarters' staff as an aide-de-camp.
Carol Berkin, Historian: Washington chooses him to be part of what Washington calls his family. He gathers around him young men of promise and of talent. And Hamilton gets picked. What could be more wonderful than to be brought into George Washington's family?
Willard Sterne Randall, Writer: Washington had all sorts of brave soldiers, and even some experienced officers. But what he didn't have was anybody who could write as copiously as Hamilton could. Washington's best writing and correspondence is not Washington at all -- it's Alexander Hamilton, from the time he's twenty-one years old.
Narrator: Eighteenth-century armies rarely fight in winter. For the officers, at least, it is a time for socializing. As a valued member of Washington's inner circle, young Colonel Hamilton is primed for conquests of a non-military nature.
Mary Paget (as portrayed by actor): He's not tall -- five-foot seven-inches -- slender, but with an erect military bearing. He's always dressed in the height of fashion, with bold colors and lace and ruffles, and a well-turned leg. He certainly knows how to set the female heart fluttering.
Angelica Shippen (as portrayed by actor): He is not exactly handsome. His eyes are a deep azure, eminently beautiful, not the slightest trace of hardness or severity. They beam with intelligence and understanding.
Carol Berkin, Historian: Women really did find the intensity in Hamilton very charming. He was also extremely good-looking, which no doubt, even in the eighteenth century, helped. There is a kind of piercing tension to him that I think not just women, but many men found appealing.
Joanne B. Freeman, Historian: Hamilton's a person who liked to conquer all situations. And if he was in a room of men, he'd want to win every argument. And if he's in a room of women and men, he wants to win every woman as well. And I think he likes to just be the guy who wins, you know -- the best, the first, the top of the heap.
Thomas Fleming, Biographer: In fact, there's a wonderful story that there was a tomcat at Washington's headquarters at Morristown -- and this tomcat was always out, "meooow," having a good time during the night. And Mrs. Washington nicknamed the tomcat, Hamilton.
Narrator: When it comes to finding a wife, Hamilton is only half joking as he writes to a friend a list of his exact specifications.
Alexander Hamilton (as portrayed by actor): She must be young, good looking, shapely -- I'm very insistent on a good shape. Sensible, well bred, but not someone who puts on airs. Chaste and tender. As for money, well, it seems to be an essential ingredient to happiness in this world, and as I don't have any now and am not likely to get much of my own, I hope my wife will bring at least enough to take care of her own luxuries. It doesn't matter what her politics are, I have arguments enough to convert her to my views.
Thomas Fleming, Biographer: He fell in love with Betsy Schuyler, of Albany. There was no question about it. The other aides were soon writing that Hamilton is a gone man.
Alexander Hamilton (as portrayed by actor): I received your letter today. I can't tell you what ecstasy I felt as I cast my eyes over the sweet effusion of tenderness it contains. I love you too much. I would, this moment, give the world to be near you only to kiss your sweet hand.
Thomas Fleming, Biographer: He was taking a rather bold step, because she was the daughter of one of the richest men in the country. Her father, General Philip Schuyler, had a big estate in Albany and was a very, very important figure in the politics of New York. And Hamilton had no money whatsoever, and no pedigree, no nothing. And it was remarkable that Hamilton was able to impress Schuyler, who was not, incidentally, an easy man to impress.
Alexander Hamilton (as portrayed by actor): Tell me, my pretty damsel. On sober thought, do you really relish the pleasure of being a poor man's wife? What will happen when you see your old acquaintances tripping along in elegance and splendor? Will you learn to think homespun cloth preferable to brocade? If you cannot, you should correct the mistake before we begin to act in that tragedy of the unhappy couple.
Willard Sterne Randall, Writer: Hamilton refused ever to take any money from his father-in-law. He wanted to earn his own way because he didn't want people to be able to dismiss what he did as just the largesse of this rich man from New York.
Carol Berkin, Historian: When they get married, instead of people saying, oh boy did Alexander Hamilton luck out, they say, this is a wonderful match -- her wealth and social status and his genius. There's a sense that this is a match made in heaven because he deserves to get the last piece that he needs, her wealth, and she deserves to get this dashing, young man.
Narrator: None of Elizabeth's letters to Hamilton have survived. But we do know that their affection was mutual. She will stand by her husband through exceptionally trying times, and staunchly guard his memory long after his death.
The war drags on. Hamilton is frustrated in his role as aide-de-camp. He sees himself as a "groveling clerk," just as in St. Croix.
Joanne B. Freeman, Historian: He has this great pressing anxiety to get out on the battlefield and prove himself glorious, honorable, a leader of men. And without that, he will not be able to -- as he puts it in that first letter -- exalt his station.
Narrator: Hamilton pleads with Washington for active duty. But the General refuses to let him go. Hamilton is just too valuable.
The Army is desperate for the most basic of supplies. In Washington's name, Hamilton is barraging Congress with requests for boots, blankets and food. Congress' response is to hold debates and form committees.
Joanne B. Freeman, Historian: This makes him crazy. Even in this dire moment, Congress can't act in a coordinated, in a centralized manner? There's something seriously wrong here. So the war is a concrete lesson in what, to him, feels like the humiliation of a weak and powerless national government.
Narrator: In a plaintive cry to a friend, Hamilton links his own fate to the fate of his adopted land.
Alexander Hamilton (as portrayed by actor): I'm a stranger to this country. My talent and integrity are unrewarded. Our countrymen have all the folly of an ass, and all the passiveness of sheep. They're determined not to be free. I hate Congress, I hate the army, I hate the world. I hate myself.
Narrator: Hamilton resigns as aide de camp, and threatens to resign from the army. Washington finally relents. In 1781, he gives Hamilton command of a battalion, and a chance to lead his men in a major campaign.
The object -- Yorktown, Virginia. This is the moment Hamilton has been waiting for.
Before the battle, Hamilton engages in a reckless show of bravado.
Joanne B. Freeman, Historian: He's so desperate to prove himself that he goes a little over the edge, and he deliberately drills his men in full sight of the enemy. To the point that the enemy says, well this must be a trick, right? Because no one would actually be so stupid as to drill his men in front of us without there being a trap of some kind.
Ephraim Slattery (as portrayed by actor): Although we're clearly in their sights, they don't fire at us. I can think of no other reason that they don't kill us all except maybe they're too astonished. Although I esteem Colonel Hamilton as one of the finest officers in the American army, I must beg to be excused in thinking that, at this moment, he's risking all our lives, including his own, for no good reason.
Narrator: The Battle of Yorktown begins at night, with the taking of the redoubts, the outer defenses of the British fortifications.
Hamilton pushes his way to the front.
Ron Chernow, Biographer: And Hamilton finally had this moment that he had craved since boyhood -- he led the first infantry charge at Yorktown under the glare of these exploding shells. Again, it shows how courageous, almost crazy, Hamilton was in terms of this derring-do. That this rather slight and bookish guy is suddenly this daredevil on the battlefield.
Narrator: Hamilton is the first to breach the British defenses.
Thomas Fleming, Biographer: He was absolutely fearless. He got down in the ditch and the Germans, who were defending the redoubt, were firing right into their faces, and he climbed up on the shoulders of his men and got up on the parapet and was dueling with them sword to sword. It was a tremendous show, you know, and there's no question about it -- he emerged from this battle of Yorktown with probably more fame than anyone else except Washington.
Narrator: The Battle of Yorktown is the culminating victory of the American Revolution.
Alexander Hamilton (as portrayed by actor): Beloved Betsey -- my duty and my honor obliged me to take a step in which I put your happiness in peril. I commanded an attack on one of the enemy's redoubts. You'll read all about it in the newspapers. I carried it off in an instant. There will be, I assure you, nothing more of this kind, and in two days I will set off for Albany. May heaven bring us speedily together and let us never more be separated.
Narrator: With peace on the way, Hamilton has returned to Albany and rejoined his wife and firstborn son, Philip.
Alexander Hamilton (as portrayed by actor): I am becoming acquainted with the character of our little stranger. He is truly a fine young gentleman, with the most agreeable conversation and manners I ever knew. Alas, he stands rather awkwardly and his legs do not have the delicate slimness of his father. Some have remarked on his method of waving his arms when he talks, showing all the signs that he will someday be a great orator.
Narrator: Hamilton determines to become a lawyer -- a course of study that usually takes three years. Hamilton does it in six months.
He moves his family to a new home in New York City. The address, 57 Wall Street. He soon becomes one of the most successful of the city's thirty-five lawyers. But Hamilton has his eye on a larger stage.
Gordon S. Wood, Historian: He wants to be a statesman of the highest order. Coming out of Roman and Greek history, he wants to be a creator of a state -- and that is what's moving him I think, driving him. Hamilton was interested in honor, both for himself -- honor being reputation -- both for himself and for the country. And the two were linked, and he was going to achieve his honor if the country achieved its honor.
Narrator: As the last soldiers head for home in the early 1780s, few people are thinking about the honor of the nation. The United States is bankrupt and disunified. It's not even clear whether the states are to be truly united, or revert to a loose collection of largely independent governments.
Carol Berkin, Historian: It was as if you made this revolution and you hadn't thought about what would happen the next day, after the revolution was over. And all the enthusiasm sort of began to fritter away as different states began to argue with one another over who controlled this land, and who controlled the Chesapeake Bay, and you can't ship your goods into my state because your money isn't the same as my money. And quibbling and fighting and rivalry, the way it had been before.
Joanne B. Freeman, Historian: And so people like Hamilton actually think, well wait, did we win the war? Are we going to now sort of inch our way back into sort of useless, humiliating powerlessness? And, you know, are we ultimately going to just turn on each other and end up being nothing?
Narrator: At the end of the war, Hamilton is almost alone in his determination to change the direction of the country. George Washington has returned to private life and is running his plantation in Virginia. John Adams and Benjamin Franklin are in Europe, elder statesmen in the country's Foreign Service.
Of all the country's principal founders, Hamilton is by far the youngest, and the only founder without a deep attachment to one particular state.
Gordon S. Wood, Historian: Having come from the Caribbean, he had no sense of the kind of loyalty that, say, Jefferson had to Virginia or even John Adams had to Massachusetts, which they called their countries. When they talked about my country, Jefferson meant Virginia. So Hamilton had none of this, he tended to think in terms of the United States.
Narrator: Hamilton is elected a member of the Confederation Congress, the weak governing body set up by the states during the Revolution.
Alexander Hamilton (as portrayed by actor): Our job is to make independence work, but what a terrible situation we're in. The country has galloping consumption. The case is getting desperate.
I've a powerful remedy for this problem -- strong government -- but if not taken quickly, the patient will die.
Joanne B. Freeman, Historian: Hamilton is really, remarkably, one of the first -- and certainly the most persistent person -- calling for a stronger government, a more organized, centralized, national government of some kind. He's really sort of out there in a way that's just really noticeable.
Narrator: Hamilton forms an ambitious plan -- to completely transform this loose collection of states into a true republic, one with a powerful central government. It will be a battle that he will wage for the next six years of his life.
Carol Berkin, Historian: Very quickly, he begins to develop a strategy. He starts orchestrating a series of little meetings of states to talk about trade negotiations. And he drafts this Annapolis report that makes it sound as if there's this groundswell of interest in producing a thirteen-state meeting. And it should go beyond trade negotiations; we've discovered there are other issues that we might want to talk over. And it's his strategy that really is the thread that builds to the Constitutional Convention.
Alexander Hamilton (as portrayed by actor): As a General marches at the head of his troops, so wise political leaders march at the head of affairs. They don't wait for events, but know what actions to take. The actions they take will produce the events.
Narrator: In May 1787, Hamilton joins the other fifty-four delegates in Philadelphia.
After four months of intensive debate, the result is a four-page document -- the United States Constitution.
The Constitution proposes a radical shift in power, from the individual states to a strong, central government and a president with real authority.
But the writing of the Constitution is only the first step in Hamilton's battle. Nine of the thirteen states must ratify before the Constitution can become law. Up and down the country there is fierce opposition.
Gordon S. Wood, Historian: The Anti-Federalists, or those opposed to the Constitution, are frightened of the very things that the Patriots in the 1760s had been frightened of. They had just thrown off Great Britain, 3,000 miles away, and now they're re-imposing on themselves this powerful government with a kind of an elected king -- and we can see the presidency is a, you know, enormously powerful office. They were frightened of all that, because this was a violation of everything the Revolution had been about.
Narrator: Hamilton launches into a major campaign to fight the Anti-Federalists and persuade the country to ratify the Constitution. Together with James Madison and John Jay, he conceives and writes a series of brilliant articles that will come to be called The Federalist Papers.
Alexander Hamilton (as portrayed by actor): The main question is whether societies of men are really capable of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.
Jimmy Napoli, Hamilton Tour Guide: In the first Federalist Paper, Hamilton accepts that he's going to try and break down the Constitution for all Americans, and to argue and to debate and to fight until every single question is answered. He's going to prove, once and for all, that the Constitution is the best form of government we can adopt.
Gordon S. Wood, Historian: Is the president too strong? What's the role of the judiciary? Why should we have a senate? It's kind of high-level propaganda, opposing the Anti-Federalist objections to the Constitution.
Narrator: The Federalist Papers are published in newspapers, one or two a week over the next seven months.
Alexander Hamilton (as portrayed by actor): Laws are a dead letter without courts to expound and define their true meaning and operation.
Joanne B. Freeman, Historian: Some of those things are first drafts. Some of those things are things that, as he's finishing them, the printer is there waiting to take them away because they need to get into that day's newspaper.
Alexander Hamilton (as portrayed by actor): Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint.
Ron Chernow, Biographer: The Federalist Papers have become the classic gloss on the U.S. Constitution, cited about three hundred times over the last two centuries by the Supreme Court -- more than any other document. The Federalist Papers have almost acquired the authority of the Constitution itself, they're cited so frequently.
Narrator: Over the next year, the states -- one by one -- ratify the Constitution. New York, one of the largest and most powerful states, overwhelmingly opposes it. But New York City supports it, and elects Hamilton to lead its delegation to the ratifying convention.
Alexander Hamilton (as portrayed by actor): We have several things in our favor. Everyone loves Washington, and he supports it. All the commercial interests are on our side -- they want a government which can regulate trade. On the other side are all those inferior men with very superior positions in local government. They're afraid of losing their power to a national government, where, of course, they don't stand a chance of getting elected.
Narrator: Hamilton is determined to fight the Anti-Federalist majority at the convention, and to prevail at all costs.
Carol Berkin, Historian: He was really sort of the bull in the china shop. I think one of his greatest difficulties was that, time and time again, he proved he was smarter than other people, and so he could not understand why they didn't shut up and listen to him. He had very little training in the art of politics as a young man. I mean, think about all of these men of the revolutionary generation. Their fathers were in the colonial legislature, their grandfathers were. Politics was talked about at the dinner table. You heard mistakes that people made. You learned finesse. Hamilton never had that.
Alexander Hamilton (as portrayed by actor): On this and every other occasion, I will counter directly, without detour, any obstacle that stands in my way.
Narrator: What Alexander Hamilton lacks in political finesse, he makes up for in his brilliance as a debater. At the convention, he makes long, lawyerly speeches defending the new Constitution clause by clause. Sometimes overbearing, sometimes condescending, he makes it easy for Anti-Federalists to cast him as an elitist.
Robert Bartlett (as portrayed by actor: You men of "learning," you lawyers will take control of this federal government. Ordinary people with good sense will never be able to get elected. And after you grab all the power and the money, you'll swallow up all us little folk. This will be a government run by and for a tyrannical aristocracy.
Alexander Hamilton (as portrayed by actor): And whom would you have representing us in government? Not the rich, not the wise, not the learned? Would you go to some ditch by the highway and pick up the thieves, the poor, and the lame to lead us? Yes, we need an aristocracy to be running our government -- an aristocracy of intelligence, integrity and experience.
Carol Berkin, Historian: He really is a master in this convention of winning people over, beating people down, wearing people out, stalling. And finally, issuing a few well-placed threats that turn the convention, which should have voted no, into a yes convention.
Narrator: The Constitution becomes the law of the land. New York City celebrates its most steadfast supporter.
Carol Berkin, Historian: This, I think, is one of the few moments when he's popularly acknowledged in his entire career. Nobody walks around going, "Yeah, Bank of the United States -- great idea." But the ratification, he really is recognized for that.
Richard J. Payne, Historian: It's kind of ironic; it took an outsider to unite the United States. That's one reason why Hamilton is the indispensable Founding Father, along with President Washington.
Narrator: With his brilliance and sheer force of personality, Hamilton has won this battle. But he has also made many enemies.
Ron Chernow, Biographer: The smartest person in the room is always admired, but seldom liked, you know? Always respected, but often feared.
Alexander Hamilton (as portrayed by actor): A new scene opens. The object now is to make our independence work. To do this, we must secure our Union on solid foundations. It's a job for Hercules, for we must level mountains of prejudice. We fought side by side to make America free. Let us, hand in hand, struggle now to make her happy.
Narrator: New York City -- April 30, 1789. George Washington takes the oath of office as the country's first president under the new constitution.
Hamilton sees that the United States has the potential to become a great and powerful nation. For years, he's been reading books about government and economic theory -- and he has plans for totally reshaping the American economy.
Many people regard Hamilton as an arrogant, young upstart. But he is esteemed and trusted by George Washington.
George Washington (as portrayed by actor): By some, Hamilton is considered an ambitious man, and therefore dangerous. That he's ambitious, I'll readily grant you, but his ambition is an admirable one -- the kind which prompts a man to excel at everything he attempts.
Karl F. Walling, Historian: Washington gave Hamilton credibility. People will do what Hamilton wants because Washington says you can trust him. If there's no Washington, they will not trust Hamilton.
Ron Chernow, Biographer: Hamilton and Washington almost perfectly mesh and complement each other. Washington was intelligent but not an intellectual, he was not an original policy thinker. With Washington and Hamilton, we have the union of the greatest politician of the day with the greatest policymaker of the day.
Narrator: Washington knows that he will need the country's top men as his advisors. He appoints Thomas Jefferson, former minister to France, as secretary of state. Hamilton, one of the few people in the country with a broad national view of commerce and finance, is made secretary of the treasury.
Joanne B. Freeman, Historian: I'm sure he couldn't get there fast enough to sort of sit down and begin. On the other hand, what's confronting him? You know, there's a lack of order, there's chaos, there's not good records. Nobody quite knows what's going on. So it actually, for many people I think, would have been a remarkably terrifying thing to walk into. I think for him, it was like a little Hamiltonian paradise, you know, "oh my god, it's disordered and I'm going to order it," you know, "this is wonderful."
Narrator: Hamilton faces an enormous challenge.
Ron Chernow, Biographer: The United States, pure and simple, was bankrupt. We were flat broke. We hadn't paid a dime in years on this immense debt that we had amassed, both at home and abroad, to pay for the Revolutionary War.
Carol Berkin, Historian: We owed money to our own army. We owed money to the officers of the army, many of whom had spent their entire fortunes equipping and taking care of the regiments that they had put together. We owed little old ladies who had given over supplies and horses to the army and gotten a piece of paper that said, "we'll pay you for this." We couldn't pay them. So there was no confidence in the government, there was no confidence in the economy. And so we were in a serious economic depression, and no one was certain how to get out of it.
Ron Chernow, Biographer: It would have been easy enough, and almost predictable, for a revolutionary government to repudiate that debt. But Hamilton felt that unless the debt was paid off, the United States would never be able to borrow money again, and that this would weaken it as a great power. Hamilton had developed this theory that unless you could establish the credit of the state, you could never have a mighty country.
Alexander Hamilton (as portrayed by actor): Public credit is earned by good faith. States, like individuals, which live up to their obligations are respected and trusted -- those that don't are not trusted.
Narrator: Hamilton sees the debt, not as a problem, but as an opportunity. He develops an audacious plan. He determines not only to pay off all the debt incurred by the federal government during the war, but also to take on the even larger debts incurred by the thirteen states. The plan is called "assumption."
Ron Chernow, Biographer: Hamilton made a decision as the first treasury secretary that seems a bit bizarre. He actually wanted the federal government to take over, to assume all of the debt from the states. Now what government official actually wants to take an enormous amount of debt and then add to that an even greater debt? Hamilton had a political agenda behind it.
Narrator: Most of the states' debt is held by wealthy and powerful men. Hamilton needs these leaders of society to support the new federal government.
Ron Chernow, Biographer: He felt that if the federal government assumed the debt from the states, that all of the creditors would feel that they had a direct financial stake in the survival of the still shaky, new federal government -- because that became the government that was going to pay them off.
Alexander Hamilton (as portrayed by actor): A national debt, if it's not excessive, will be a national blessing. It will be the powerful cement of our Union.
Narrator: Leaders of the state governments immediately see what Hamilton is up to.
Henry Lee (as portrayed by actor): He is attempting to bind the states' creditors to the federal government with hoops of gold. A public debt is a public curse!
Narrator: The state leaders block the assumption bill in Congress, and it appears to have no chance of passing.
Joanne B. Freeman, Historian: And Hamilton really despairs, and thinks to himself and says at the time -- if this collapses, I might as well just go home because this is it. If we can't take over these local debts, then it's like a vote of no confidence in me.
Alexander Hamilton (as portrayed by actor): This is the first symptom of a spirit that must either be killed, or it will kill the Constitution.
Narrator: In 1790, New York City is a very small place, and Hamilton and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson are neighbors. Jefferson has a more pressing concern than assumption -- the location of the nation's capital, presently situated in New York City. He is eager to move the seat of government far from the foul air of the country's commercial center.
Thomas Jefferson (as portrayed by actor): New York City is a sewer containing all the depravities of human nature -- a world apart from small towns and the countryside, where crime is scarcely heard of, breaches of order are rare, and society -- if not refined -- is rational, moral, and affectionate.
Narrator: The countryside that Jefferson and his allies favor for the nation's new capital would be a nice piece of empty land on the banks of the Potomac, not far from their plantations in Virginia.
Hamilton wants to keep the capital where it is. He is so closely connected with New York City that his enemies call it "Hamiltonopolis."
One day, the two neighbors cross paths on the street. They agree to meet for dinner at Jefferson's house on Maiden Lane to talk out their differences. Jefferson invites a key congressman and fellow Virginian, James Madison. The result is one of the most famous meals in American history -- the Dinner Table Compromise.
Hamilton seizes on the capital as a bargaining chip. If the Virginians will support federal assumption of the debt, he will agree to moving the capital south. He knows this deal will not endear him to his fellow New Yorkers.
Richard J. Payne, Historian: I think this goes back again to Hamilton the outsider. He isn't from New York, he's a West Indian. And so he's willing to sacrifice state and local interests for the broader national purpose, a strong United States. If that meant sacrificing New York, he'd do it -- and he did it.
Narrator: With assumption, Hamilton lays the foundation for the credit of the United States -- the ability to borrow at home and abroad. In time, this will bring about the prosperity that allows the democratic experiment to flourish.
Jefferson thinks that by gaining the capital for the south, he has won a major victory. But soon the larger implications of assumption will become evident, and he will begin to view his colleague with profound distrust.
Narrator: In the summer of 1791, Alexander Hamilton is thirty-six years old. He is at a pinnacle of success.
Joanne B. Freeman, Historian: He proposed a lot of really big and grand ideas, and they were beginning to be accepted and supported. But he never was someone who felt that he could sit back and rest on his laurels in any way. I think he always feels, always, that it could be taken away at a second's notice.
Narrator: Alexander and Elizabeth have moved to Philadelphia, where Congress is temporarily meeting. They now have five children, and an extremely close and affectionate marriage.
But that summer, Elizabeth and the children are vacationing at her father's home in Albany, and Hamilton is left alone in Philadelphia. One afternoon, his work is interrupted with a knock at the door. It is a beautiful woman in distress.
Willard Sterne Randall, Writer: She said she was from New York and she knew Hamilton was, and she needed a way to get home to her family. Her husband had abandoned her, she didn't have any money, was there anything that he could do to help her. So he went around that night with a bank draft to her boardinghouse. The draft would be worth about four hundred dollars today. Went up the back stairs, not the front. Knocked on her door. She ushered him into her bedroom and pretty quickly made it plain that there were other ways that she could repay him for his generosity. And he kept going back for thirteen months, and she kept repaying him for thirteen months.
Maria Reynolds (as portrayed by actress): Come to me. Tonight! I know it's late, but any time between now and midnight -- I'll be waiting. Until I see you, my breast will be the seat of pain and woe. Adieu, my dear friend. From your unhappy Maria, whose greatest fault is loving you.
Narrator: It is a trap. Maria Reynolds and her husband James have set up this seduction in order to blackmail Hamilton.
Congressmen get wind of letters Hamilton has written to Reynolds, referring to large sums of money. James Reynolds is a known criminal, and the congressmen suspect the treasury secretary of corruption. On a cold December morning, a three-man delegation from Congress meets with Hamilton to make these serious accusations.
Joanne B. Freeman, Historian: And they actually, in a sense, do the decent thing. They don't just publicize this, they go to him in person and they say, we're going to give you a chance to explain this -- but explain this.
Narrator: To prove his innocence, Hamilton pulls out his love letters from Maria and insists that his visitors read them.
Joanne B. Freeman, Historian: He says, oh no no no, those little slips of paper in which I'm paying money -- those I'm not doing anything with government funds, I'm actually paying blackmail because I'm sleeping with his wife. And then he presents them with all sorts of evidence to show them that honestly, it's all about adultery -- it's not about public funds at all. And apparently the three gentlemen are, on the one hand, very embarrassed. And on the other hand, they agree -- okay, you know, we're sorry, we misunderstood, we'll just keep this all between us.
Alexander Hamilton (as portrayed by actor): I wasn't entirely a dupe in this plot, but her act succeeded in keeping me uncertain. In the end, my feelings -- no, no, it was my vanity -- led me to believe that she truly loved me. I've paid a high price for my folly and can never think back on it without disgust and self-condemnation.
Narrator: This will not be the end of the Maria Reynolds affair. Hamilton's growing power and influence are engendering a growing number of political enemies. They are ready to exploit his every weakness.
Ron Chernow, Biographer: Hamilton didn't have that judgment that matched the great intellect and the great ability. And it's like the flaw of a figure in a Greek tragedy, who's headed for a great fall and doesn't see it coming. And then, as in a Greek tragedy, you sort of look back and you feel that this was bound to happen, that this is somehow the logical culmination of certain flaws in his personality.
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