Architect of the Federal System

By Hamilton Wright Mabie

AMONG all the monuments in the great Cathedral of St. Paul's, in London, the proudest is a simple tablet to the memory of Sir Christopher Wren, the architect of that splendid pile. "Reader," it says, "if thou seekest his monument, look around thee." Turning from structures of brick and stone to an edifice of a nobler kind, we of America have but to look around us to see in the mighty fabric of our national government the monument of ALEXANDER HAMILTON.

In the summer of 1772 that beautiful group of the West Indies known as the Leeward Islands were desolated by a hurricane. While its effects were still visible, and men were looking fearfully into the skies, an account of the calamity appeared in the St. Christopher's Gazette, written with such singular ability that there was great curiosity to discover its author. It was traced to a youth employed in a St. Croix counting-house, a boy of only fifteen, named Alexander Hamilton. He was born in the tiny island of Nevis. His father was a Scotch gentleman, and his mother was of the good Huguenot stock of France. It was a happy day for our young author; a lad who could write in this way, it was thought, should not spend his life in casting up accounts. It was at once determined to send him to New York to complete his education; and in the month of October, in that year, he landed in Boston.

Alexander Hamilton PortraitFrancis Barber, afterward a colonel, and a brave man in several battles, was at this time principal of a grammar-school of good repute in Elizabethtown, Jersey; and hither came the young West Indian to be prepared for college, –a handsome youth, erect, graceful, eagle-eyed, and "wise in conversation as a man."

Before the end of 1773 he had finished his preliminary studies, and proceeded to Princeton, to inquire of Dr. Witherspoon if he could enter the college with the privilege of passing from class to class as fast as he advanced in scholarship. The president was sorry, but the laws of the institution would not permit. Hamilton was more successful in New York. In King's College (now Columbia University) he might sue for a degree whenever he could show the title of sufficient learning; and so Hamilton fixed upon the New York institution. Some great men of the future were then in King's College, but there was only one Alexander Hamilton there. In the debating club he controlled everything by his acuteness and eloquence. His room-mate was awed, night and morning, by the fervid passion of his prayers, and has testified that Hamilton's firm faith in Christianity, and his mighty and convincing arguments, did much to confirm his own wavering faith. Hamilton was a versatile genius; he wrote hymns and burlesques; he was pious and punctilious; ambitious and gay.


While Hamilton was at his studies in King's College, great events were taking place outside. The quarrel with Great Britain was becoming irreconcilable. In December, 1773, occurred the "Boston Tea Party," when a band of patriots, disguised as Indians, boarded the British vessels laden with tea, and emptied their contents in the harbor. The excitement throughout the country, already great, increased in intensity; the methods of resistance to be adopted were on every man's tongue. In September, 1774, the first Continental Congress met in Philadelphia. Nothing was thought of but resistance to the tyranny of England.

In college Hamilton never relaxed the severe application which his ambition and his tastes made natural; but he was not unmindful of the storm gathering beyond his quiet cloisters. His mind, his pen, and his voice were from the first employed in defending colonial opposition to the acts of the British Parliament. He organized a military corps, mostly of fellow-students, who practiced their daily drill early in the morning, before the commencement of their college duties. They assumed the name of "Hearts of Oak," and wore a green uniform, surmounted by a leather cap, on which was inscribed "Freedom or Death!" Early and late he was busy, not only in promoting measures of resistance, but in mastering the science of political economy, the laws of commerce, the balance of trade, and the circulating medium; so that when these topics became prominent, no one was better equipped for dealing with them than Hamilton.

Hamilton's first political speech to a popular assembly was delivered at "the great meeting in the fields," as it was long afterward called, called to choose delegates to the first Continental Congress. He was still a student, and exceedingly juvenile in appearance. Being unexpectedly called upon, he at first faltered and hesitated; but soon he recovered himself, and the immense multitude were astonished and electrified by the "infant orator," as they called him. After a discussion, clear, forcible, and striking, of the great principles involved, he depicted in glowing colors the aggravated oppressions of the mother-country. Touching this point he burst forth in a strain of bold and thrilling eloquence:—

"The sacred rights of mankind," he declared, "are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records; they are written as with a sunbeam in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of Divinity itself, and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power."

He insisted on the duty of resistance, pointed out the means and certainty of success, and described "the waves of rebellion, sparkling with fire, and washing back on the shores of England the wrecks of her power, her wealth, and her glory." Under this spontaneous burst of mature eloquence from lips so youthful, the vast multitude first listened in awe and surprise, and then rose with irrepressible astonishment. The death-like silence ceased as he closed, and repeated cheers resounded to the heavens. Then the whisper, "A collegian—it is a collegian!" passed in surprise from one to another through the crowd.

In March, 1776, Hamilton left college, and, joining a band of volunteers, obtained the command of a company of artillery. One day, while Washington was preparing for the defense of New York, General Greene, on his way to headquarters, had his attention attracted to Hamilton's company, which was drilling in a neighboring field. The captain seemed a mere boy, small and slight, but quick in his movements, and with an air of remarkable intelligence; and his company was handled with an ease and skill which roused Greene's admiration. He stopped to talk with him, and was soon convinced, from Hamilton's conversation, that he had met a youth of no common abilities. He spoke of Hamilton to General Washington at the time, expressing his opinion of his character.

At the passage of the Raritan, in the memorable retreat through New Jersey, Washington observed with admiration the courage and skill of the youthful artillery officer, and ordered his aide-de-camp, Fitzgerald, to ascertain who he was, and to bring him to headquarters at the first halt of the army. In the evening Hamilton was appointed Washington's aide-de-camp, with the rank of colonel. From this time he continued until February, 1781, the inseparable companion of the commander-in-chief, and was always consulted by him, and by all the leading functionaries, on the most important occasions. He acted as his first aid at the battles of Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth. At the siege of Yorktown he led the detachment which carried by assault one of the strongest outworks of the foe; and Washington, in recognition of his gallantry, ordered that Hamilton should receive the surrender of one of the divisions of Cornwallis's army.

It would be difficult to overestimate the value of Hamilton's services during the long period he acted as Washington's first aid and confidential secretary. The principal portions of the voluminous correspondence fell on him, and the most elaborate communications are understood to have been made essentially by his assistance. "The pen of our country," says Troup, "was held by Hamilton; and for dignity of manner, pith of matter, and elegance of style, General Washington's letters are unrivaled in military annals."

At the time of Arnold's treason, Hamilton's position led him into acquaintance with the ill-fated André, for whom he felt a strong admiration. He urged the wisdom and good policy of sparing André's life, arguing, with great force, that it would compel a cessation of British cruelties to American prisoners; but unfortunately he was overborne, and André was executed.

Hamilton's military achievements are such as to warrant the belief that he would have made a great soldier; but his tastes and abilities alike tended toward the work of the statesman, and, fortunately for the country, led him in that direction. The embarrassments of the Treasury and consequent sufferings of the army prompted him to take up the study of finance, and in 1779, in private and anonymous communications to Robert Morris, he proposed a great financial scheme for the country, in which, rising above all the crude systems of that age, and pointing to a combination of public with private credit as the basis of his plan, he led the way to the establishment of the first American bank. About a year later he addressed a letter to Mr. Duane, a member of the Congress from New York, on the state of the nation. "This letter appears at this day,' says one, "with all the lights and fruits of our experience, as masterly in a preëminent degree. He went on to show the defects and total inefficiency of the Articles of Confederation, and to prove that we stood in need of a national government with the requisite sovereign powers; such, indeed, as, the confederation theoretically contained, but without any fit organs to receive them. He suggested the idea of a national convention to amend and reorganize the government. This was undoubtedly the ablest and truest production on the state of the Union, its finances, its army, its miseries, its resources, and its remedies, that appeared during the Revolution. It contained in embryo the existing Federal Constitution, and it was the production of a young man of the age of twenty-three."

In December, 1780, he was married to Elizabeth, a daughter of General Philip Schuyler, and on the first of March, 1781, he retired from the military family of Washington, resigning his pay, and retaining his commission only that he might have the power, should there be occasion, still to serve his country in the field.


At the close of the war with England the government was so weak that it had sunk into contempt. The mutiny of some eighty soldiers at Philadelphia actually obliged Congress to adjourn to Princeton. It afterward removed to Annapolis; and, as the States could not agree on a seat of government, it seemed likely to become a migratory body, with constantly diminishing numbers and influence. It had so dwindled away, that when the Treaty of Peace was finally to be ratified, weeks elapsed before the attendance of the required number of nine States could be procured, and, even then, only twenty-three members were present at the ratification. Manifestly the construction of a strong and stable government was essential; and after much delay and many disputes, the famous Convention of 1787, to form the Constitution, met in Philadelphia.

Since the meeting of that renowned first Congress, which led the way in the struggle for independence, America had seen no such body of men as now assembled. Thither came George Washington, from his retirement at Mount Vernon, where he had hoped "to glide gently down a stream which no human effort can ascend," called to engage once more in the service of his country. From Virginia also came James Madison, afterward President, but then a young and rising politician. From Massachusetts came Rufus King, jurist and statesman; from South Carolina, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, soldier, scholar, and lawyer. Pennsylvania was peculiarly fortunate in her representatives. At their head was Benjamin Franklin, now in his eighty-second year, the oldest and most widely known of American public men, and in some sort combining in his own person many of the leading characteristics of America. His venerable age, his long services, his serene and benignant aspect, commanded the respect of all, and imposed a controlling power on the assembly. With him came Gouverneur Morris, one of the best and wisest of American patriots; and Robert Morris, who had made the first attempts at dealing with the complicated difficulties of American finance. There were other men of note in the Convention, such as Roger Sherman of Connecticut, John Jay of New York, John Dickinson of Delaware, Luther Martin of Maryland, and George Mason of Virginia, —fifty-five members in all, representing twelve sovereign States, —for Rhode Island made no appointment. But the whole edifice would have wanted its crowning glory if New York had not sent Hamilton, with the treasures of his genius and eloquence. All could be better spared than he, who had first conceived the plan of a reform in the Constitution, and who alone could carry it to a successful issue. And this man, foremost in an assembly of the most able representatives of the States, and who had already achieved so much in the field and the council, was yet only thirty years of age.

Washington was unanimously called to the chair. Into particulars of the discussions it is not intended to enter here, but the part which Hamilton took in them was of an importance impossible to rate too highly. He stood in the midst of the jarring elements like a beneficent genius, ready to evoke order out of chaos; and the proportion in which his views were adopted or rejected may be almost regarded as the measure of the strength and the weakness of the Constitution.

The document which embodied the scheme of the present Constitution was signed by a majority of the delegates, and by one or more representatives of each of the twelve States present in the Convention. The first name on the list is that of George Washington, who is said to have paused a moment, with the pen in his hand, as he pronounced these words: "Should the States reject this excellent Constitution, the probability is that an opportunity will never again offer to cancel another in peace. The next will be drawn in blood." And in the speech which Franklin delivered in the assembly, he thus expressed himself: "I consent, sir, to this Constitution, because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that this is not the best. The opinions I have had of its errors I sacrifice to the public good. I hope, therefore, for our own sakes, as a part of the people, and for the sake of posterity, we shall act heartily and unanimously in recommending this Constitution wherever our influence may extend, and turn our future thoughts and endeavors to the means of having it well administered." Then, while the members were signing, he turned toward the image of a sun painted at the back of the President's chair, and said: "Often and often, in the course of the session, I have looked at it without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting; but now, at length, I have the happiness to know that it is a rising, and not a setting sun."

The Convention being dissolved, the plan of the Constitution was laid before the country, and at once excited the most fervid feelings of approbation and dissent. In general it was supported by moderate men, who looked with apprehension at the actual state of affairs, and desired, by any reasonable compromise, to establish a practicable government. On the other hand, it was violently opposed by that class who viewed with jealousy the rise of any central power, and whose theory of freedom precluded the notion of authority. Two great parties joined issue on the question of its acceptance or rejection. They took the names of Federalists and Anti-Federalists. A few years later, after the Constitution had been adopted, the same two parties, with some modifications, continued to divide the people of America, but they were then called Federalists and Republicans.

One of the most efficient means employed in making the new Constitution familiar and acceptable to the people was the publication of a series of essays under the name of the Federalist, which Americans still regard as the greatest and most complete exposition of the principles of their constitutional law. It was the work of Hamilton, Madison, and Jay; but of the eighty-five essays of which it is composed, upward of fifty were written by Hamilton. "It was from him," says Mr. Curtis, "that the Federalist derived the weight and the power which commanded the careful attention of the country and carried conviction to the great body of intelligent men in all parts of the Union."

All the ability displayed in the Federalist, and all the exertions of Hamilton and his friends, were required to secure the acceptance of the Constitution. Hamilton threw his whole strength into the contest, and left no honest means untried to accomplish the end. During the months that elapsed between the dissolution of the Convention and the ratification of the Constitution, his vigilance never slumbered, and his exertions were not relaxed for a moment. Many able men were engaged in that struggle, but none rendered such service as he did to the Federalist cause.

The first State to ratify the Constitution was little Delaware, on the 7th of December, 1787. Pennsylvania, influenced by the name of Franklin, was the next to follow. Then came New Jersey, Georgia, and Connecticut. But it was felt that the hardest of the battle must be fought in Virginia and New York. In Virginia the opposition was led by Patrick Henry, whose fiery eloquence had done so much in exciting his countrymen to resistance in the commencement of the struggle with Great Britain. In New York the whole interest of Governor Clinton and his friends, and many local and personal prejudices, were arrayed against the adoption of the Constitution. The State convention to decide the matter was held at Poughkeepsie, and the whole State was agitated by the discussion.


On the 24th of June Hamilton received intelligence that, by the ratification of New Hampshire, the Constitution had been adopted by nine States, the number requisite for its establishment. The question was then at once raised whether New York was to remain in the Confederacy, or to stand alone as an independent power. There was a party favoring the latter alternative; but Hamilton felt that to leave out New York would be to abandon the heart and centre of the Union, and resolved to combat the project by all the means at his disposal. During the last days of the Convention, the streets of New York were filled with an excited crowd, waiting for news from Poughkeepsie, and, as each messenger arrived, it was repeated from mouth to mouth: "Hamilton is speaking! Hamilton is speaking yet!" as though the destinies of the country hung suspended on his words. And when at length the tidings of the ratification reached the city, the bells pealed from the church towers, the cannon resounded from the forts, and a loud and exulting shout proclaimed that the popular voice had sanctioned the victory of the Constitution.

The first election under the new Constitution was held in the autumn of 1788. There was no question as to who should be the first President. Washington was elected without opposition, and on April 30, 1789, took the oath of office in New York. In choosing his Cabinet he at once offered the treasury to Hamilton. He is said to have consulted Robert Morris, the former superintendent of finance, as to the second of these appointments, asking, with a sigh: "What is to be done with this heavy debt?" "There is but one man in the United States," answered Morris, "who can tell you, and that is Alexander Hamilton."

The President, who well remembered the invaluable services of his aide-decamp, could fully subscribe to this flattering estimate of his talents. He had lately been in frequent communication with Hamilton, and had consulted him on several grave and delicate questions. He had always cherished a pleasant recollection of their intimacy, and now the old feelings of friendship had strongly revived between them. In his elevated position Washington needed more than ever a friend he could entirely trust. On every ground, therefore, private as well as public, he was glad to offer this important post to Hamilton; and the latter did not hesitate to accept it, although he well knew its difficulties.

Hamilton now devoted all his thoughts to the national finances, and was busy in devising schemes to meet the pressing exigencies of the time. The office required the vigorous exercise of all his powers; and his reports of plans for the restoration of public credit, on the protection and encouragement of manufactures, on the necessity and the constitutionality of a national bank, and on the establishment of a mint, would alone have given him the reputation of being one of the most consummate statesmen who have ever lived. The plans which he proposed were adopted by Congress almost without alteration. When he entered upon the duties of his office the government had neither credit nor money, and the resources of the country were unknown; when he retired, at the end of five years, the fiscal condition of no people was better or more clearly understood. Mr. Gallatin has said that secretaries of the treasury have since enjoyed a sinecure, the genius and labors of Hamilton having created and arranged everything that was necessary for the perfect and easy discharge of their duties.

"He smote the rock of the national resources," says Daniel Webster, "and abundant streams of revenue gushed forth. He touched the dead corpse of the Public Credit, and it sprang upon its feet. The fabled birth of Minerva from the brain of Jove was hardly more sudden or more perfect than the financial system of the United States, as it burst forth from the brain of Alexander Hamilton."

When, after years of immense labor, the financial system of the government was established, Hamilton resolved to retire from office. Doubtless he was weary of constant struggle; for the politics of the time were charged with such bitterness that even Washington did not escape the most venomous abuse. Hamilton's enemies made ceaseless attacks upon him; but there were other reasons which made him wish to retire, and which, if anything could have done so, might have called a blush to the cheeks of his persecutors. This man, who had held the revenues of an empire at his disposal, and whom his adversaries had not scrupled to charge with enriching himself at the public expense, was in reality very poor. His official salary did not suffice for the wants of his family, and his official duties had obliged him to abandon his practice at the bar. He was anxious, before it was too late, to repair his fortunes, and provide for his wife and children.

Hamilton now set to work at his profession, and was once more the leading spirit of the bar. Talleyrand, passing his office long after midnight, saw him still there at his desk. "I have beheld," said he, "one of the wonders of the world. I have seen a man, who has made the fortune of a nation, laboring all night to support his family." And yet, while thus working at his ordinary calling, Hamilton never withdrew his attention from public affairs. He was still the leader of his party, and the unsalaried adviser of the President; and as a necessary consequence, he was still the mark for the poisoned arrows of his enemies.

From 1795 to 1797 Washington often had recourse to Hamilton for counsel. He had resolved to retire from office at the expiration of his second term; and, as the time approached, he determined to issue a Farewell Address to the American people. On this subject also he consulted Hamilton. There has been much controversy as to the exact authorship of this celebrated paper, but the fact seems to be that, while the original groundwork was Washington's own, the superstructure was in great part Hamilton's. While he retained wherever he could the thoughts and language of Washington, he added much valuable matter, and brought the whole into its present form. Calm, wise, and noble, it is a monument worthy of the great man whose name it bears; and, had the American people always remembered its lessons, it would have been well for their own peace, and conducive to the happiness of the world.

In the neighborhood of New York, but still in the midst of rural scenery, Hamilton, after resigning his position in the government, purchased a small estate. The ground was adorned with fine old trees, a pleasant lawn spread in front of the house, and the balcony commanded a magnificent prospect. Harlem River, Long Island Sound, and many a scene endeared by its own beauty, or made interesting by associations, were visible from this lovely spot. Hamilton called it "The Grange," after the name of his grandfather's house in Scotland; and thither he came from the labors of his profession, to enjoy the society of his family and the refreshment of a country life. He was once more a busy man at the bar, and, although he could never keep quite clear of politics, they no longer occupied all his thoughts. He busied himself with his garden, —"a very useful refuge," he says, "for a disappointed politician,"— sent to Carolina for melon-seeds and paroquets for his daughter, played at soldiers with his boys, and spent summer evenings with his friends on the green slopes of his domain. A great sorrow came to darken this cheerful picture. His eldest son, a promising youth of twenty, was killed in a duel arising from a dispute at the theatre. It was a bitter grief to the father and all the family; but it only foreshadowed the worse calamity that was to follow.

Hamilton met his death at the hands of Aaron Burr, in a duel, on July 11, 1804. At that time public sentiment on the subject of dueling was such as to make it very difficult for Hamilton to refuse Burr's challenge. They had long been political opponents, and Hamilton had more than once denounced Burr's public acts. Burr addressed a letter to Hamilton, repeating a newspaper report that Hamilton had "expressed a despicable opinion" of Burr, and "looked upon him as a dangerous man," and demanding a wholesale denial or retractation. This it was obviously impossible to give. The correspondence which followed left Hamilton no choice but to either accept or decline Burr's challenge. A paper written before the duel explains his reasons for not declining to meet Burr, which were in effect that in the state of public opinion on dueling, a refusal to accept his challenge would destroy his public usefulness afterward.

The duel took place at Weehawken, in New Jersey, nearly opposite New York. When the word was given, Hamilton did not fire immediately; but Burr, taking deliberate aim, fired, the ball entering Hamilton's right side. He was taken across the Hudson to his home, where he died the following day. Hamilton was not faultless; but his errors were greatly exaggerated by his enemies; and there were few among his distinguished political adversaries whose private character approached his in purity. His public life was without a stain. In ability he stands in the front rank. "He must be classed," says the great French historian Guizot, "among the men who have best known the vital principles and fundamental conditions of government. There is not in the Constitution of the United States an element of order, strength, or durability which he did not powerfully contribute to introduce into it." The judgment of history will undoubtedly be that Alexander Hamilton was the greatest constructive statesman of the eighteenth century.


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