What Would Hamilton Do?

By McConnell, Michael W. | Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

What Would Hamilton Do?


McConnell, Michael W., Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy


On July 14, 1804, Gouverneur Morris stood by an open coffin at the front of Trinity Church in Manhattan and addressed a massive crowd that filled every nook of the sanctuary and spilled out into the street of lower Broadway. (1) Morris had been one of the most active and influential delegates to the Constitutional Convention. Now he was at Trinity Church to eulogize his friend, Alexander Hamilton, who had tragically been shot and killed at a dueling ground in Weehawken, New Jersey, by the Vice President of the United States, Aaron Burr. Hamilton himself had shot high and wide, but the Vice President shot straight and true, and his bullet found its mark. (2) Morris reminded the audience of his friend's valor during the Revolutionary War, his unflagging advocacy of the Constitution, and his exemplary public service as first Secretary of the Treasury and counselor at the bar. (3) At the end of his oration, Morris offered the assembled mourners some practical advice about how to decide difficult political questions in the future: Pay more attention to acts than "professions," he warned. (4) And most significant: "[O]n a doubtful occasion ask, Would Hamilton have done this thing?" (5)

What would Hamilton have done? Not a bad question to ask, even today. But I doubt anyone in the United States in 2011 is doing that. For all his brilliance and influence on the Founding, Hamilton stands as the odd man out in the current ideological divide. Conservatives today tend to favor limited government and strict constitutional construction--ideas Hamilton rejected in favor of energetic administration and broad construction. Even so, one might still expect some, like the Federalist Society, to champion Hamilton's legacy. After all, Hamilton was the progenitor of the Federalist Papers and founder of the Federalist Party. (6) Yet it is the portrait of James Madison--a Jeffersonian Republican--that graces the Federalist Society logo, not Hamilton's.

Modem liberals are no more inclined to take their cues from the Hamilton legacy. To be sure, modern progressives tend to advocate big government and loose constitutional construction-ideas Hamilton originated. (7) But every year Democrats sponsor Jefferson-Jackson Dinners, which are named for the biggest scourges of Hamiltonian policy. From the modern progressive point of view, Hamilton was too much a believer in private property, too much the advocate of sound conservative finance, too much the critic of the French Revolution, too inclined to use American military power abroad, and too much a believer that American prosperity would come from profit and markets.

Thus, neither the tea partiers nor the Obama Democrats are likely to honor Hamilton as an example. But perhaps this lack of modern adulation makes it all the more worthwhile for us to take a new look at Hamilton's constitutional vision for America. In undertaking a study of what Hamilton stood for, it helps to recall first what Hamilton did. Whatever one's opinions of his ideas, Hamilton's life is an impressive, indeed amazing, exemplar of the American Dream. No prominent American statesman rose so quickly, from so little, to excel so splendidly in so many things.

Alexander Hamilton arrived in this country in about 1772, (8) on the eve of the Revolution, at about the age of seventeen--his exact birth date is unknown--penniless and family-less, an object of charity from back home. (9) John Adams called him "the bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar," which was true. (10) But his early history was even less prepossessing than that. Hamilton was born on the West Indian island of Nevis, where slaves out numbered the free population by a ratio of four to one. (11) His maternal grandfather was a Huguenot who fled France after revocation of the Edict of Nantes, and his mother, Rachel Faucette, was rumored to be half or a quarter black. (12) She married a Dane, Johann Lavien (or possibly Levine), who may have been a Sephardic Jew. …

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