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Address in honor of Alexander Hamilton by Stephen F. Knott

IWP is pleased to post the transcript of Steve Knott’s address at Trinity Church on the occasion of Alexander Hamilton’s birthday on January 11. Dr. Knott, professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, RI, has written widely on Hamilton. His latest book is Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America, coauthored with Tony Williams. Hamilton is buried at Trinity Church.

Stephen Knott It truly is an honor to be with you today as we pay tribute to a remarkable founding father who was one of the greatest members of, with all due respect to Tom Brokaw and our World War II veterans, the greatest generation of Americans.

I would like to talk with you today about what I believe to be the most important collaboration in American history. I am referring to the unlikely alliance between a wealthy Virginia planter and a brash immigrant from the Caribbean who went on to establish a “new order for the ages.” George Washington and Alexander Hamilton fought for the better part of twenty-five years to secure the American experiment in the face of bitter partisan opposition at home and determined enemies abroad. This collaboration was vital to winning the American Revolution, adopting the Constitution, and creating the institutions necessary to secure liberty at home and respect abroad.                                       

Remarkably, this critically important alliance has not been given its due, for Alexander Hamilton, for much of our history, has been seen as a somewhat sinister character, not worthy of being paired with the likes of George Washington.

Attacking Hamilton was and is a far more acceptable approach than attacking the towering figure of George Washington, and throughout our nation’s history Hamilton has suffered more than his share of attacks. One sees this tendency to criticize Hamilton but not Washington in accounts dealing with the suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. This rebellion involved thousands of “rebels” in western Pennsylvania who defied a federal excise tax on alcohol, armed themselves, and at one point threatened to burn Pittsburgh to the ground.  Federal agents attempting to collect the tax were attacked, and in one instance, a “revenuer” was held in a distillery for three days without food, and told that he could secure his freedom by submitting to having his nose ground off by a grindstone.                                                                             

President Washington repressed this insurrection on the grounds that he was constitutionally obligated to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” but this view tends to be dismissed in lore and legend. Instead, this episode of lawlessness on the part of whiskey distillers and their sympathizers is celebrated by progressive historians as an example of grassroots democracy in action. According to this caricatured account, the whiskey rebels were simple country-folk who abandoned their cracker barrels to defend their God-given right to produce moonshine. They fought to liberate themselves from an oppressive east coast establishment led by Hamilton and the “moneyed interest” – all of whom were traitors to the Spirit of 1776.                                                                     

This tale is Jeffersonian-inspired propaganda masquerading as history, but it has proved remarkably resilient. For Washington and Hamilton, the Whiskey Rebellion was a challenge to the rule of law, and while hindsight might allow one to dismiss the seriousness of the rebellion, the threat was quite real to a newborn government whose viability was still open to question.                                                           

Hamilton tends to be the villain in various progressive portrayals of the rebellion, but it was President Washington who authorized the use of force against the rebels, and even led, for a time, the 15,000 man force (which Washington cunningly named “the Army of the Constitution”) that marched into western Pennsylvania. For Thomas Jefferson, Washington’s response to the Whiskey Rebellion, or “Hamilton’s insurrection” as Jefferson called it, was further evidence of the great man’s decline; the President had become the captive of a dictatorially-inclined Hamilton.

Nowhere were the conflicting visions of Washington’s and Hamilton’s Federalism and Jefferson’s Republicanism more pronounced than in their differing views on the French Revolution. And nowhere were Washington and Hamilton more closely allied than in their disdain for the destructive character of the French Revolution. They were repulsed by the ease with which the French revolutionaries and their American supporters countenanced mob violence and show-trials as a means of purging elements of the old order. In Washington’s and Hamilton’s view, there was no common ground between the American and French Revolutions; the former was characterized by a devotion to liberty, the latter by a passion for licentiousness. The American Revolution was, to borrow a term coined two centuries later, a revolution of sober expectations, while the French Revolution anticipated the totalitarian upheavals of the twentieth century, with their mass executions and their propensity to turn on themselves with unbridled ferocity.

Jefferson welcomed the violence in France as a legitimate means to cleanse the new republic of its reactionary holdovers. The Sage of Monticello argued that if the revolution extinguished all but one man and one woman, it would be well worth the price. This was the same Jefferson who proposed executing any Virginia banker who cooperated with Hamilton’s Bank of the United States.

Washington and Hamilton, who had experienced more than their share of violence, were far less taken with juvenile notions of the positive effects of bloodshed and upheaval. Hamilton came from a Caribbean environment rife with lawlessness and simmering discord, and his family upbringing was marked by instability and dislocation. In contrast, Jefferson’s earliest childhood memory was a recollection of being carried on a pillow by a slave. One was shaped by fragility of life and the constant struggle for mere survival, the other by the infinite possibilities of a carefree life built on the toil of others.

While Hamilton won almost all of the key policy battles with Jefferson during his time in the Washington administration, he arguably lost the battle with Jefferson for the hearts and minds of the American people. Despite being George Washington’s closest confidant, or perhaps because they resented the fact that he was, Thomas Jefferson and his lieutenants sought to denigrate, if not erase, Hamilton’s contributions to the founding of the United States. Hamilton was, in a sense, the first victim of the politics of personal destruction.

Jefferson considered Hamilton, the lone immigrant among the core group of founding fathers, to be not quite “American.” In fact, Jefferson saw him as a covert British agent intent on foisting a crown upon the republic and corrupting its councils of government in order to benefit the privileged few. Jefferson’s animus toward Hamilton knew no bounds, in part because, as mentioned, the latter had bested him in almost every policy battle in President Washington’s cabinet. Jefferson dismissed reports of Hamilton’s courage as a soldier in the Revolutionary War, perhaps out of jealously, since Jefferson’s only encounter with the war involved a hasty flight from his plantation after receiving word that British forces were heading for Monticello. Hamilton was in fact “timid,” Jefferson believed, and his reputation for courage was simply not “genuine.”

Jefferson also believed that Hamilton was “not only a monarchist” but an advocate “for a monarchy bottomed on corruption.” When Jefferson became president in 1801, he ordered his Secretary of the Treasury to comb through the records and find examples of Hamilton’s corruption. None were ever found. Nevertheless, Jefferson’s sinister interpretation of Hamilton became gospel within the ranks of many progressive historians and politicians.                                                       

Progressive hatred for Hamilton persisted well into the twentieth century. It reached its peak during the 1920s, when Republican president Warren G. Harding led the effort to erect a monument to Hamilton on the grounds of the Treasury Department. Harding was guaranteed to offend the sensibilities of any right-thinking progressive, both then and now, and his celebration of Hamilton did little to burnish the latter’s image.               

At the 1928 Democratic National Convention, the keynote address was delivered by Claude Bowers, a party operative and journalist who in his spare time wrote popular histories, including one entitled Jefferson and Hamilton: The Struggle for Democracy in America (1925). In his book and his keynote address, Bowers summarized all of the hatred his party felt toward the east coast elites, a fraternity apparently founded by the “dictatorial” Hamilton. According to Bowers, Hamilton believed that the people were “a great beast,” continuing a longstanding tradition of circulating a “quote” that Hamilton likely never uttered.                         

Bowers’ book received a glowing endorsement in the only book review Franklin D. Roosevelt ever wrote, which appeared in the New York Evening World in 1925 under the title of “Is There a Jefferson on the Horizon?” The answer was yes, of course, for this latter day Jefferson was the reviewer himself. Roosevelt found Bowers book to be a “breathless” account of “escape after escape” as the Sage of Monticello battled the dark forces of oppression and privilege. Were it not for Jefferson’s heroic efforts, Hamilton’s “aristocracy of wealth and power” would have triumphed, FDR alleged, all the while suggesting that he [FDR] would challenge the new Hamiltonians in the reactionary, neo-fascist, Republican Party.

It was Franklin Roosevelt who elevated Jefferson into the pantheon of American immortals. FDR led the effort to erect the beautiful Tidal Basin memorial to Jefferson and insisted that the Sage’s face adorn both the nickel and a popular U.S. postage stamp. Hamilton’s reputation reached its low-point during the New Deal years, to the point where Fortune magazine felt compelled to state that if Hamilton were alive in 1942 he would have no sympathy for the Nazis. Many Americans were not entirely sure – the great Jefferson biographer Dumas Malone professed to see parallels between Hamilton and the fascists who were wreaking havoc around the globe in the 1940s.

It has been something of an iron-law in American historiography that as one falls the other rises, and with Jefferson’s ascent in the 20th century, Hamilton remained in eclipse. It was not until the late twentieth and early 21st century that Hamilton broke free of the Jeffersonian-inspired progressive interpretation of the founding and was seen for who he truly was – an immigrant who rose from obscurity and emerged as George Washington’s closest confidant in war and in peace, and became a co-founder of a New York society devoted to the abolition of slavery.

While Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical and Ron Chernow’s biography made great strides in rehabilitating Hamilton’s image, the caricatured account of Alexander Hamilton first put forth by Jefferson and his allies, and repeated by countless authors from Claude Bowers to Dumas Malone to Thomas DiLorenzo, still persists in far too many quarters. This caricature pits the supposed “champions of the people” (Jefferson, Madison, and their party) against the “forces of privilege and authoritarianism” (Hamilton and the Federalists).

Americans should put aside this caricatured account, and if they do so, they will discover that due to the exertions of George Washington and to the individual buried just a few steps from where we meet today, the American people began to “think continentally.” These two men, more than Jefferson and Madison, created a strong Union which would go on to defeat fascism and communism, explore the universe, produce endless scientific and technological breakthroughs, and perhaps most importantly, abolish slavery and Jim Crow, thereby securing the blessings of liberty for all of their fellow citizens.

Stephen F. Knott
Co-Author, Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance That Forged America