By Nancy Spannaus
Jan. 14, 2020—An overflow crowd attended the full day of celebrations for Alexander Hamilton’s 266th birthday at The Grange, his final home, on Jan. 11. The event, which was sponsored by the Alexander Hamilton Awareness (AHA) Society and the National Park Service, featured five back-to-back sessions addressing different aspects of Hamilton’s life and accomplishments, and concluded with a candle-lit tour of the home and a small birthday party.
It was heartening to see that the avid interest in Hamilton’s profound positive contributions to building the United States, which was stirred up by the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical, continues. Those attending the lectures ranged from individuals in their 20s to older people like myself, while many families with younger children were simultaneously taking Ranger-guided tours of the House and reading the highly informative signage.
In this post, I will present the highlights of the presentations which followed AHA Society vice-president Sergio Villavicencio’s opening talk on “Alexander Hamilton: Immigrant.”
Founder of the Coast Guard
First to follow Villavicencio were two representatives of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, who showed a number of videos on both the history and functioning of that branch of the U.S. military. Michael Barth began by describing Hamilton’s role in founding that service. It began with the establishment of the Revenue Marine in 1790, at the time the only armed naval force in the nation. Its job was the stop smuggling and carry out search-and-rescue operations by the deployment of small ships called revenue cutters.
Later, it was designated the Revenue Cutter Service, and finally, in 1915, merged with the Life-Saving Service to become the U.S. Coast Guard. Its versatility in protecting U.S. harbors, enforcing maritime laws, carrying out search and rescue, and providing escorts for vessels (including in war) has led it to be called the “Swiss Army knife” of the U.S. military. Today it deploys upwards of 40,000 personnel, not counting reservists, civilians, and the auxiliary force.
Of particular relevance to Hamilton’s role was his June 4, 1791 letter of instructions to the Revenue Marine Service, which was presented in a short video called “Alexander Hamilton’s Charge.” It addressed the attitude which officers must take when stopping and boarding ships, often in order to investigate wrongdoing, and is worth quoting at some length:
While I recommend in the strongest terms to the respective Officers, activity, vigilance & firmness, I feel no less solicitude that their deportment may be marked with prudence, moderation & good temper. Upon these last qualities not less than upon the former must depend the success, usefulness, & consequently continuance of the establishment in which they are included. They cannot be insensible that there are some prepossessions against it, that the charge with which they are entrusted is a delicate one, & that it is easy by mismanagement to produce serious & extensive clamour, disgust & odium.
They will always keep in mind that their Countrymen are Freemen & as such are impatient of every thing that bears the least mark of a domineering Spirit. They will therefore refrain with the most guarded circumspection from whatever has the semblance of haughtiness, rudeness or insult. If obstacles occur they will remember they are under the particular protection of the Laws, & that they can meet with nothing disagreeable in the execution of their duty which these will not severely reprehend. This reflection & a regard to the good of the service will prevent at all times a spirit of irritation or resentment. They will endeavour to overcome difficulties, if any are experienced, by a cool and temperate perseverance in their duty, by address & moderation rather than by vehemence or violence. The former stile of conduct will recommend them to the particular approbation of the president of the United states, while the reverse of it, even a single instance of outrage, or intemperate or improper treatment of any person with whom they have any thing to do in the course of their duty, will meet with his pointed displeasure, & will be attended with correspondent consequences.
The foregoing observations are not dictated by any doubt of the prudence of any of those to whom they are addressed. These have been selected with so careful an attention to character as to afford the strongest assurance that their conduct will be that of good Officers & good Citizens. But in an Affair so delicate & important it has been judged most advisable to listen to the suggestions of caution rather than of confidence & to put all concerned on their guard against those sallies to which even good & prudent men are occasionally subject. It is not doubted the instruction will be received as it ought to be, & will have its due effect. & that all may be apprised of what is expected, you will communicate this part of your orders, particularly, to all your Officers & you will inculcate upon your Men a correspondent disposition.
Hamilton continues to be honored as the founder of the Coast Guard, although it was unclear to me how prominent a role his instructions, and the theory behind them, play in the training. Yet they are worth keeping in mind in respect to the attitude of some of the Founders toward law enforcement.
“The Ultimate New Yorker”
ext presentation was by Kevin Draper, a New York City historian and Chief Experience Officer at New York Historical Tours. He set out to show that Alexander Hamilton was “the ultimate New Yorker,” whose accomplishments were crucial in building New York into a great city. But he also stressed that this was a reciprocal relationship, arguing that if Hamilton had made his home in any other city, he might not have achieved as much as he did. (A video of Draper’s remarks can be found here.
Draper began by describing the characteristics of a New Yorker as “opinionated,” probably coming from somewhere else, and imbued with drive and a desire to succeed. He repeatedly characterized the City as a place people went to “reinvent themselves,” and as a true melting pot. Indeed, history bears out much of this picture of New York City, not only in its diversity but also in the mentality of its population. Recall that John Adams, arriving in the City in 1774, famously said: “If they ask you a question, before you can utter three words of your answer, they will break out upon you again – and talk away.”
In laying out how New York City’s characteristics aided Hamilton, Draper began with an interesting aspect about his attendance at King’s College. Unlike more bucolically located educational institutions, like the College of New Jersey (Princeton) or Harvard, King’s College was located near the center of the big city. Thus, the students had constant access to one of the centers of political turmoil and debate, the City Commons (now City Hall Park). The Commons (then call The Fields, according to Chernow) was where the Sons of Liberty had erected the Liberty Pole, and it was a regular location for rallies and mass meetings.
The proximity to the political turmoil obviously invited the students, like Hamilton, to become involved in public affairs, and indeed, Hamilton’s first political speech occurred there on July 6, 1774. His speech was a rousing endorsement of the cause of Boston, then under British military occupation.
Be glad Princeton turned down Hamilton’s application, Draper said. He might not have taken the same path had he gone to college there.
While Hamilton’s path was shaped in part by New York City, his accomplishments were also crucial in building the City, Draper argued. Two examples that stood out were the results of Hamilton’s founding of the Bank of New York (1784), and of the New York Evening Post (1801).
Draper’s list of the funding initiatives by the Bank of New York was surprising and impressive. He said the bank provided the first loan to the U.S. government, helped fund the Erie Canal, and provided the money for the subway system. The role of the latter two projects in making New York the pre-eminent city it became cannot be underestimated. The 363-mile long Erie Canal was considered a wonder of the world when it opened in 1825, and the subway system (first operative in 1904) was crucial to the unification and expansion of the City.
As for the New York Evening Post (the progenitor of the New York Post, and the longest-publishing newspaper in the nation), its history played a significant political role long after Hamilton’s death. Draper concentrated on the role of William Cullen Bryant, who joined the paper in 1826, and soon became editor, a position he held for 50 years. The paper was known for fighting for workers’ rights and abolitionism, and later for women’s rights.
While Draper of course mentioned Hamilton’s role in establishing the nation’s financial system, centered in New York, he neglected to mention the City’s pre-eminence in manufacturing. Once I raised it, however, he readily ticked off an array of industries in which New York excelled, starting with shipbuilding.
Draper’s talk was followed by a roundtable discussion which featured both Villavicencio and AHA Society president Nicole Scholet; AHA Board members Tom and Mariana Oller; Draper; two re-enactors of Hamilton’s first military unit, the Hearts of Oak; an official of the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia; a Park Service ranger involved with the Trails and Rails program; and Marianne Als, a Hamilton researcher.
The discussion ranged widely, but tended to concentrated on the question of conservation of historic sites relevant to early American History, and Alexander Hamilton in particular. In this context, I made a pitch for conservation of, and education on, Hamilton’s ideas, which have been buried, and especially his emphasis on the role of manufacturing in the welfare of the nation.
Later on, the Hearts of Oak re-enactors provided a fascinating picture of where this unit came from. It was named after the republican group established by Pasquale Paoli, a Corsican revolutionary, who established the Corsican Republic in 1755, and was hailed internationally as a hero against tyranny. Paoli’s thoughts and career (which took many turns in later life) were widely publicized by the Scottish biographer James Boswell. Paoli’s Hearts of Oak motto appears on the American Hearts of Oak hats: “Liberty or Death.” The group played an active role in seizing cannons for the Revolution, in the battle in White Plains, and in patrolling the safe exit of the New York assembly from the City (being taken over by the British) to its new home in Poughkeepsie.
“Genius Meets Destiny”
The final presentation of the day was a biopic of Alexander Hamilton by Marianne Als, a former air traffic controller turned Hamilton researcher, under the above terrific title. The film was the first part of a two-part biography set to music; there are no actors or speaking. This film dealt with Hamilton’s life up to his career in the U.S. government; a draft of the sequel had been shown at the AHA Society commemoration of Hamilton’s death back in 2018.
Als relies on primary source documents for her narrative, which begins with a montage of the industrial nation the United States has become, and then goes to Hamilton’s birth, now dated at 1754. The film runs over an hour, but it moves rapidly through the history of his life, in no small part due to the frequent shifts of mood created by the musical selections.
Als concludes this segment, which she stresses is still a work in progress due to constant new discoveries, with a section on Hamilton’s progressive record toward the enslaved and native Americans. She included a quote from Hamilton which I had either forgotten, or never seen: “No union could have been formed without a compromise on slavery.” Yet he fought for manumission, represented the enslaved in the courts against efforts to put them back into slavery, and helped establish the African Free School, which educated hundreds of young black persons, both enslaved and free.
And, I would add, sought to establish an economic system that would consign slavery to oblivion.
Happy Birthday, Dear Hamilton
Only a small group could stay for the concluding evening celebrations, which included Villavicencio’s guided tour of the mansion’s living area, and some wine and cheese snacks. At the end there was a birthday cake, and all sang Happy Birthday once again.