Bradford P. Wilson and Carson Holloway, eds., "The Political Writings of Alexander Hamilton" (Cambridge UP, 2017)
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How much does the average person know about Alexander Hamilton (1755 or 1757 – 1804)? Would we have guessed that this hero of many fiscal conservatives wrote, “A national debt, if it is not excessive will be to us a national blessing; it will be a powerful cement of our union…?”
Most of us know that he was killed by his political enemy Aaron Burr in a duel. But long before that fatal encounter, Hamilton had engaged in major rows with several of his fellow founding fathers, notably Thomas Jefferson but also James Madison and John Adams. Because he cared so deeply about the fate of the newly established United States and its foreign relations, he dipped his pen in rhetorical vitriol when describing many of his rivals and former close allies in private letters and in public writings detailing where he felt they had gone wrong and were, in his view, harming the country.
The angrier side of this brilliant man is on full view in the compendious 2017 two-volume set, The Political Writings of Alexander Hamilton: Volume 1, 1769-1789 and The Political Writings of Alexander Hamilton: Volume 2, 1789-1804, edited by Bradford P. Wilson and Carson Holloway.
We are also afforded glimpses of the ambitious 14-year-old clerk Hamilton vowing to better himself and longing for a war that might afford him the opportunity for just such advancement. We read the letters he wrote during the War of Independence, which brought him into the circle of George Washington. In that war, Hamilton served bravely and bitterly criticized the brand new Congress that oversaw and, in Hamilton’s view, mismanaged the conflict. We are able to read the letter Hamilton wrote his wife to be read in the event of his death in the duel and follow the public and behind the scenes campaign that Hamilton led against Burr which precipitated the fateful encounter.
This collection of writings is probably best perused with a search engine at the ready so as to look up the members of the sprawling cast of characters in it, such as the many recipients of Hamilton’s extensive correspondence and to read about the origins of the many pseudonyms he employed (e.g., Lucius Crassus). The documents are presented with little annotation, so some work is required by readers who possess little knowledge of the period. But because so much of the material encompassed is relevant to our day, the investment of time is well worth it.
Hamilton laid the groundwork for the legal and political environment we live in and his influence is felt in everything from banking and government finance to libel and bankruptcy law to the structure and scope of powers of the judiciary. As a serving and former soldier, Hamilton took an active interest in the organization of the military and in veterans’ affairs and played a vital role in preventing unrest in the ranks in the unsettled days immediately following the cessation of active hostilities with Britain in the Revolutionary War. He was deeply involved in the Citizen Genet affair and helped his young nation traverse tricky diplomatic terrain as France and Britain battled for supremacy. All of this is offered up in the book we are discussing today.
The tone of the many letters, partisan policy papers, proto op-eds and governmental reports featured in the book runs the gamut from ruthless ridicule to the coolly analytic to bitter despair to fury and contempt at what Hamilton saw as behavior damaging to the infant republic he loved. Hamilton took offense easily and wrote both voluminously and hot-bloodedly in his own defense. No spin doctors for him.
Today, we will talk to Mr. Wilson about this important collection of the political writings of that rare combination of man of action and world-shaping public intellectual that was Alexander Hamilton.
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Hope J. Leman is a grants researcher.
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