by JOHN O. BENSON
Extracted from PCHS Newsletter, Vol 1, No 4
In the early history of our country, certain men stand apart in monumental greatness. The first, of course, is George Washington. He stands alone as the greatest of them all. No one seeks a place near him or challenges even a possible comparison with him.
The second, Alexander Hamilton, a gallant officer, and patriot, a great statesman and builder of the constitution.
The third, John Marshall likewise a devoted patriot and a great jurist, the interpreter of the constitution.
There are others, but the loyalty of Hamilton and Marshall to their commander, not only in war but in peace, is worthy of comment.
The foresight of these men, to my mind, is almost uncanny. With your permission, I will endeavor to bring a little light on the life of Alexander Hamilton.
He was born January 11th, 1757 on the Island of Nevis in the West Indies, a British subject -of a Scotch father and a French Huguenot mother, both highly educated and brilliant. His mother died before he was twelve years of age and the boy’s early life was anything but easy.
At the age of thirteen, he was engaged in the counting-house of Nicholas Cruger and exhibited the most exceptional ability. Most of his letters are still in existence. Their form and style show his wide reading, study, and maturity of his mind. At the age of fifteen, because of his exceptional ability, through the Governor of St, Croix, his friend and tutor Hugh Knox, and the relations with whom he lived, thought it well to send him to Kings College, now Columbia University. Here you will find him walking along Batteau Street, eagerly talking to himself. He attracted the attention of many persons at this early date, not only for his real command of French and unusual intellectual brilliancy but his charm of personality and lovable disposition. He spent some time in Elizabeth Town where he met Stockton, Livingston, Clinton, Schuyler, Ogden, Jay, Witherspoon, President of Princeton. He lived with Boudinot and Livingston.
He was a young adventurer in a strange land burning with a lofty ambition.
Now, this was the early day of the discussions of the resistance of Great Britain. New York was the stronghold of the Tories and Boston the hotbed of resistance to England.
At a great mass meeting in the open fields in New York on July 6, 1774, Hamilton had listened to the orators of the day and finally, unasked, made his way to the platform. Here he spoke, this boy of seventeen, upon the great issue of the day, thrilling his audience with his logical arguments. He finished with “It is war, it is war, it is the battlefield or slavery.”
The subject absorbed him and he proceeded to write articles on a constitutional government which to this day rank high among the political arguments of the time.
It should be stated that Hamilton was a lover of law and order and on an occasion when the gunboat Asia fired on New York, and public feeling ran very high so that there were risings in various parts of the state, an effort was made to destroy the property of the Tories, the property of a Dr. Cooper, President of Columbia. Here Hamilton exposed himself to personal exposure to protect a Tory simply on the principle that the mob had no right to destroy anything.
Through his tireless efforts, he organized in 1776 an Artillery Company. He won his spurs at a battle of Long Island where with great coolness he brought up the rear in a masterly retreat which saved the army.
He was in the thick of the fight at Trenton and Princeton, was recognized as a gallant officer, received recognition from Washington by promotion to a lieutenant’s colonel, and was appointed one of the general’s aides.
He was given several confidential missions, one of which was when he was sent with reinforcements to General Gates the hero of the battle of Saratoga. This was one of the 15 decisive battles of the world’s history. It was a very delicate mission because General Gates with his great success was recognized as a possible leader in the colonial struggle and Washington needed reinforcements very badly. Young Hamilton succeeded in getting the reinforcements without using the order which he hid in his pocket, to direct the reinforce merits to be sent.
As an aide to Washington, it fell to him to console Mrs. Arnold in the first agony of her distress after the flight of her traitor husband.
An incident in 1781 illustrates the great patience of Washington and the Character and independent thought on the part of Hamilton.
“Washington sent for Hamilton. He delayed a few minutes and found Washington standing at the top of the stairs in the Windsor House waiting for him. He was reproved by the General, saying to keep him waiting was a mark of disrespect, whereupon Hamilton replied, ‘I am not conscious of it Sir, but since you have thought it, we part.` “
While it is said that Washington could give way to anger, here he stood with great dignity. He saw in this youth greater opportunity of fuller services and instead of giving way to his personal feeling, held fast and continued him in the service.
Hamilton was always anxious to be in the field. He was not satisfied to be back of the lines. He wanted to be at the front where the attack was fiercest and was permitted by Washington at Yorktown, to take a detachment of troops to capture a British redoubt. He did it with such fiery energy that our French Allies were astounded at the speed with which he moved.
This was the end of his military career at the age of twenty-three years.
During this time he was visiting General Gates in Northern New York, he met Elizabeth Schuyler a charming and intelligent woman and later he married her. He was no longer an isolated stranger. He was connected with an old and distinguished family of the colonies.
After the war, he proceeded to study with his usual zeal and was admitted to the bar in a short time.
The most distressing condition faced the country after the war. The people were indifferent to £1 strong central government. There were several conventions, without result.
Hamilton worked feverishly to create sentiment for a strong con’ situation. His writings in the Federalist still stand not only as a political paper but as a classic commentary on American Constitutional law and the principles of government. As you will remember, there were great arguments, petty jealousy, and again the cry of the officeholder to save his own neck.
In the words of Chancellor James Kent,-“All the proof and the current observation of the time lead us to the conclusion that he surpassed all his contemporaries in his exertions to create, recommend, adopt and defend the constitution of the United States.”
During this great struggle, Hamilton’s own state of New York had consistently fought against the adoption of a strong constitution and while there is no record of his many speeches, if a comparison can he permitted, his argument in the Federalist indicates the mighty power he wielded in bringing the entire state to his view, so that he, Hamilton, was the one man from the State of New York, to sign for its adoption.
I cannot but help mention the fact that in this great struggle John Marshall likewise stood hand in hand with Hamilton and with two great young and active minds, we have today one of the greatest documents of human history. When one reviews the history of the world, he can readily see what a great debt we owe these two men, the rights of liberty, freedom of speech, right of worship and property rights all embodied in this one great document,
Now that the people had graduated from a weak Federation of
the States to a real government-bound by the Constitution Washington decided that Hamilton was best fitted for the post of treasurer.
Here we find him at the age of thirty-two years.
It never can be said that Hamilton was slothful or negligent in any office he held and in the office of Treasurer of the United States, his record stands as an example. I have seen it several times in the newspapers referred to that Mellon, our present Secretary of the Treasury nearly approaches the efficiency of Hamilton.
With your permission I will read a few curt sentences, the objects which he sought to obtain.
“To jutify and preserve the confidence of the most enlightened friends of good government; to promote the increasing respectability of the American name; to answer the calls of justice; to restore landed property to its due value; to furnish new resources both to agriculture and commerce, to cement more closely the union of the States; to add to their security against foreign attack; to establish public order on the basis of an upright and liberal policy;-these are the great and invaluable ends to be secured by a proper and adequate provision, at the present period, for the support of public credit.”
The essence of his Financial schemes were to be truthful and genuine and nothing else. Our foreign and domestic indebtedness was eighty million dollars-a stupendous sum, yet he faced it and found a way so that all creditors could be paid.
He never sought by any manner or means to evade an honorable debt.
He has been quoted as saying ‘The soul of the nation depends upon the manner in which it pays its honest obligations. `To him is given credit for the first thought of a tariff on imports. He did not believe in direct taxation and therefore sought to tax luxuries, the excise tax.
There was also the great domestic debt of the various states. They had issued currency which was of no value outside of each individual state. Here a little story can be told of a political duel, so to speak between Jefferson and Hamilton. There was a discussion as to the final location of the national capitol. Hamilton it must be remembered was entirely national in opinion and was utterly devoid of State pride and local feeling, so an alliance was made between Hamilton and Jefferson. Jefferson was to vote for the national government with the assumption of State Debts and Hamilton to vote for the southern Capital to be called Washington.
It may be noted here that Hamilton’s purpose was purely patriotic and Jefferson’s purely personal.
There followed after this a national banking act about which there was a great discussion. It was greatly opposed by Jefferson, Madison, and Randolph who opposed Hamilton in his effort to pass the act and submitted briefs to Washington. Hamilton answered them without preparation but it is to be noted that Washington relied upon the judgment of Hamilton and used his influence for the passing of the bill.
No one can say at this time that it was not of stupendous importance and is the basis of our financial system of today.
This great and the active mind of Hamilton was ever at work. He then submitted a report to Congress on Manufacturers which is still regarded as one of the ablest treatises on the subject of Government encouragement as an element of National Property. He wrote articles upon this subject interesting Capital from New York and Philadelphia.
He had conceived that the Passaic Falls would be most useful in drawing together a great manufacturing centre. Having in mind the location of what was known as the Federal City later was incorporated to what was known as the Town of Paterson. The great mind of Hamilton conceived that Paterson was a fit place for the development of the industry. He saw it in the rough and thought well of it and it behooves us, the citizens of North jersey to think well
of our own home town and to honor it and to always honor the name of Alexander Hamilton, its founder.
Hamilton continued with a great activity to protect the system he had founded. This caused, of course, a great deal of jealousy so that he was attacked both secretly and publicly,
To Thomas Jefferson may he credited much of the secret and
subtle attacking. He made no public speeches or wrote no essays.
The rivalry became so great that the opposition offered a resolution in Congress to investigate the affairs of the treasury claiming that Hamilton had used certain loans corruptly to aid a certain bank. When the danger of this sort came upon Hamilton, his head became clearer and his nerve keener, than ever before.
Report after report poured upon Congress until every operation of the treasury was displayed to the public eye so plainly that the opposition was ready to quit.
Think of the base efforts made to despoil the character which Talleyrand, the French Premier said rivaled that of Napoleon and Fox.
During the period after the great contest over the constitution, there seemed to be a considerable domestic struggle. Our foreign reasons were none too good after the lay treaty and in France our representatives were given such a cool reception that almost led to war.
In fact Adams was forced to call upon George Washington to organize an army and he in turn sought Hamilton as his chief aide. It should be borne in mind that in any great undertaking, by Washington, he sought advice and counsel of Hamilton.
Hamilton laid the foundation for our present State Militia and later suggested the establishment of the West Point Academy.
This narrow escape from war with France had all the country in a condition of mind for war. Hamilton immediately turned his attention to Florida and Louisiana. He was satisfied that these two territories were very necessary to the Union. He said “I have been long in the habit of considering the ‘acquisition of these countries as essential to permanency of the Union.”
The future has justified him and in no single point has it shown more strikingly the range of Hamilton’s vision and the penetration of his mind, but unfortunately it fell to the lot of his keenest foe to acquire this territory by purchase.
While Hamilton did not hold any political office for a long time, he was still a member of the Federalist party and political jealously prevailed.
He was a hard fighter and in this respect made many enemies. Aaron Burr was one of them.
He sought to be governor of New York State and through the effort of Hamilton his ambition was thwarted leaving Burr in a very bitter state of mind.
Now Hamilton was not perfection itself. He made errors and in one instance when through popular vote, he lost his leadership in the state of New York, he sought by trickery to upset the will of the people.
This is one of the sad instances of his political career. Likewise the famous Adams letter which was a personal one sent to a friend but which Burr intercepted and caused to be published.
Hamilton was considered a great lawyer. One of his famous cases is known as the State Vs. Croswell, a suit for criminal libel. Chancellor Kent says his arguments before the New York Supreme Court were the finest ever heard. He sought by force of intellect and the strength of will his sources or success.
On another occasion he defended a young man who was charged with murder. Her young lover was accused and public opinion ran very high for a time. Hamilton undertook his defense. On the day of the trial as it proceeded to the evening, and as the shades of night were falling, the court room was darkened. The prosecution called a man by the name of Croucher as its main witness. At this point, Hamilton called for two candles to be placed on each side of the witness. When the court asked him why he insisted upon doing this, he said, he had many reasons. He finally was permitted to carry out his idea.
After severe cross-examination he was able to break the prosecution. It was very evident that the young man did not commit the murder and he was acquitted before the jury left their seats.
There was never a moment in Hamilton’s life when he was not in the midst of the fray. He had been truly a fighting man. He had thwarted Burr many times, and had used fighting words when referring to him, for he judged the mans character as it was.
Finally the inevitable challenge came.
Each man prepared for the meeting. Burr was pistol practicing in his garden and Hamilton settling the business of his clients.
The fatal day drew near. Hamilton displayed coolness, a gallant man of strong character. They met Hamilton as you know, was mortally wounded, not shooting his revolver, which was discharged as he fell, was taken to his home and surrounded by his agonized family, and he died, July 12, 1804.
Burr had committed a deed which has done more than anything else in his life to keep his memory alive.
Hamilton’s death did more to abate dueling in this country than anything in our history.
You can search the pages of history in vain, to find a man who in so short a time accomplished so much in the development of our history.
In the Trinity Church yard in New York, you will find a monument upon which is inscribed “A patriot of unscrupulous integrity. A soldier of admitted valor. A statesman of consummate wisdom, Alexander Hamilton.”