Hamilton emerges into new prominence

First Treasury secretary subject of revived interest

July 11, 2004|By Stevenson Swanson | Stevenson Swanson,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WEEHAWKEN, N.J. - To use a term that the most financially savvy of the Founding Fathers would have appreciated, the market is bullish these days for anything related to Alexander Hamilton.

As this Hudson River town prepares to commemorate the 200th anniversary today of the duel in which Hamilton was mortally wounded, a new, 818-page biography of the first Treasury secretary is ensconced on the best-seller list, and a major exhibition devoted to his life is set to open at a New York museum in September.

Last month, after proposals to put former President Ronald Reagan's portrait on the $10 bill, defenders of Hamilton demonstrated that they had no intention of allowing their hero to be displaced without a fight.

Long overshadowed by George Washington, John Adams and his archrival, Thomas Jefferson, Hamilton is enjoying a resurgence among historians, history buffs and students of American government.

Hamilton's efforts to build a strong central government and a sound economy are increasingly recognized as the crucial first steps that set the United States on the path to becoming the most powerful, prosperous nation on Earth.

"He did so much to set us down the path of becoming an industrial nation," said Doug Hamilton, a descendant who will portray the great man in a re-enactment of the 1804 duel with Aaron Burr. "Without Hamilton, I don't think we would have had a nation."

Family pride aside, historians point out that Hamilton wrote most of The Federalist, a collection of 85 essays that played a large role in persuading a skeptical young republic to adopt the Constitution.

Later, as Treasury secretary under Washington, he consolidated the debts that the 13 colonies had piled up during the Revolutionary War and promised to repay investors, establishing the creditworthiness of the American government.

"It's difficult for people to understand the importance of some of his acts," said Ron Chernow, author of Alexander Hamilton, which has been on the New York Times best-seller list for two months. "It was absolutely essential that Washington's first administration be able to deliver prosperity to the country, but it's a more difficult thing to explain to people than the ringing phrases of independence."

Born in either 1755 or 1757 on the Caribbean island of Nevis, Hamilton was the illegitimate son of a Scottish trader who later abandoned his family and of a French woman who died when Hamilton was an adolescent.

The orphan arrived in New York in 1772, as England's American colonies were growing increasingly restive.

During the Revolution, Hamilton distinguished himself as an artillery officer and soon became a lieutenant colonel on Washington's staff.

The two men seemed to have a special bond that withstood the vagaries of war and, later, the bruising partisan politics of the 1790s as political parties began to emerge.

As Washington's Treasury secretary, Hamilton, who was in his 30s at the time, became a fierce advocate for a strong federal government, which he saw as a vital prerequisite to putting the new country's economy on the kind of stable footing that would attract investors.

But Jefferson, Washington's secretary of state, had other ideas.

He envisioned America as a land of small farmers whose individual liberties would be protected by strong state governments that would resist the autocratic dictates of the federal government.

The two men became bitter political foes and the standard-bearers for the opposing sides in an argument that has continued throughout American history.

As the main author of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson has never lacked supporters, including President Abraham Lincoln, who cited the declaration in the Gettysburg Address, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who ordered the building of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., during the 1930s.

"We're much more enchanted by the poetry of life than the prose, and Jefferson's words stir the heart in a way that Hamilton's don't," said Chernow, who will speak tomorrow at a commemorative service at New York's Trinity Church in the Financial District, where Hamilton is buried.

But both Lincoln and Roosevelt expanded the power of the federal government drastically, and in the 19th century the nation followed Hamilton's vision by embracing the Industrial Revolution, ending any illusions that it would remain an agrarian economy.

By 1804, Hamilton had a busy law practice in New York, but he shared his harsh criticisms of political opponents with anyone who would listen. A doctor wrote to an Albany newspaper that Hamilton had accused Burr, who was vice president, of doing something "despicable," without elaborating on what Hamilton had said.

Burr demanded a retraction; Hamilton refused. And so, on the morning of July 11, two rowboats - one for Hamilton's party and one for Burr's - set out from lower Manhattan for Weehawken, across from midtown Manhattan.

The exact spot where the most famous duel in American history took place is a matter of dispute, but it was probably a narrow ledge in the Palisades, the rocky cliffs that front the New Jersey side of the Hudson. A large building that houses ventilation equipment for the Lincoln Tunnel stands there now.

For the re-enactment, which will be held in a waterfront park, the town's historical commission found members of the Hamilton and Burr families who are roughly the same ages the two men were in 1804.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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