Hamilton Embarks on his Road to Revolution

In celebration of his birthday, January 11, 1755

By Nancy Spannaus

Jan. 10, 2024—As the traditional date of Alexander Hamilton’s birthday approaches, I searched my brain for an appropriate tribute to the statesman who played such a critical role in establishing our republic. This blog is peppered with dozens of discussions of Hamilton’s key economic contributions,[1] which laid the foundation for the American System of Economics.  Should those articles simply be revived, or was there a new element of his career and accomplishments to be brought to light?

Ultimately, I decided to focus on an area which I have not previously discussed: the beginning of his political career. Young Hamilton, no more than 20 years of age, embarked on his road to the American Revolution in December of 1774 with the publication of two polemical defenses of the initiatives of the First Continental Congress. The two pamphlets were entitled “A Full Vindication of the Measures of the Congress…” and “The Farmer Refuted,” and published in December 1774 and February 1775, respectively.

Hamilton Embarks on his Road to Revolution

In these early documents, I believe that we can find seeds of Hamilton’s passionate commitment to certain vital principles of the Revolution, as well as some astute observations that presaged his subsequent economic policies. Throughout, we can get a sense of his genius and willingness to step up to the battle, when all others hung back. (They are readily available on Founders Online.)

So, join me in this review of the first (and shorter) of these documents. We necessarily begin by establishing the context.

The First Continental Congress

Representatives of 12 of the British-American colonies gathered in Philadelphia’s Carpenters Hall in late September 1774, to discuss united action in the face of the British military occupation of Boston and other policies which threatened the liberties of the colonists. Two actions were taken. First was the unanimous adoption of the Suffolk Resolves,[2] a set of resolutions drafted by Dr. Joseph Warren in Massachusetts and rushed down to the Congress by Paul Revere.

The authors of the Resolves were at pains to pledge fealty to the King, abjure independence, and call for abstention from all acts of violence, but were otherwise thoroughly radical. They called for an end to all commerce with Great Britain until the Coercive Acts[3] were repealed, a build-up of manufacturing in the colonies, the withholding of tax money from the British authorities, and the creation of militias so that qualified citizens could “acquaint themselves with the art of war as soon as possible, and do, for that purpose, appear under arms at least once a week.”

A depiction of the First Continental Congress.

In addition, the delegates formed a Continental Association[4] which was committed to enforcing the non-importation agreement (to go into effect December 1) and drafted a new petition to King George, humbly beseeching him to relieve their distress.

Within weeks of the publication of these results, a pamphlet appeared in New York under the title “Letters of a Westchester Farmer,” which excoriated the measures taken. As was the custom at the time, the author did not identify himself. In reality, he was not a farmer at all, but rather an Anglican priest named Samuel Seabury, who was devoted to defending the actions of the British Crown (and Parliament). When no one else rose to the occasion to answer Seabury, in stepped the young Alexander Hamilton.

A Full Vindication

The full title of Hamilton’s pamphlet reflects its spirit: A Full Vindication of the Measures of the Congress, from the Calumnies of their Enemies; in Answer to A Letter, under the Signature of A.W. Farmer. Whereby His Sophistry is exposed, his Cavils confuted, his Artifices detected, and his Wit ridiculed; in a General Address to the Inhabitants of America, And A Particular Address to the Farmers of the Province of New-York. Veritas magna est et prevalebit. Truth is powerful, and will prevail.

In this 35-page work, Hamilton, also writing anonymously, sets out his premises from the start.  He asserts that the colonists’ measures represent a defense of “the natural rights of mankind,” and that the “Westchester Farmer” is attacking those rights and supporting a reduction of the colonists to “slavery.” It’s foolish to think that the colonial revolt is occasioned by a “petty duty of 3 pence per pound on East India tea;” what’s at stake is whether the “inhabitants of Britain have a right to dispose of the lives and properties of the inhabitants of America, or not?”

Hamilton Embarks on his Road to Revolution
British troops landing in Boston in 1768.

We have tried petitioning against the offending measures, he writes, and it hasn’t worked. Our decision for non-importation, and potentially non-exportation (to be implemented in the fall 1775 if there was no repeal), is the only peaceful means of resistance.

Hamilton then defends the particular measures enacted by the Congress, during the course of which he puts forward some fundamental principles.

Liberty vs. slavery

The first, of course, was the natural right of mankind to certain basic liberties, which he (along with already established leaders of the American resistance) considered to be guaranteed under the British constitution. Among them were the rights to “be governed by the laws to which he’s given his consent.” He put it this way:

All men have one common original: they participate in one common nature, and consequently have one common right. No reason can be assigned why one man should exercise any power, or pre-eminence over his fellow creatures more than another; unless they have voluntarily vested him with it.

The antithesis of that principle is slavery, Hamilton went on, where a person is subject to the arbitrary will of another.  Once that tyrannical principle is established, there is no limit to how fully the oppression may be expressed. There could be no security of lives and property, which is mankind’s natural right.

Slave shackles in an exhibit of the National Museum of American History

It is in this context that Hamilton puts forward his general condemnation of slavery:

Were not the disadvantages of slavery too obvious to stand in need of it, I might enumerate and describe the tedious train of calamities, inseparable from it. I might shew that it is fatal to religion and morality; that it tends to debase the mind, and corrupt its noblest springs of action. I might shew, that it relaxes the sinews of industry, clips the wings of commerce, and introduces misery and indigence in every shape.

Under the auspices of tyranny, the life of the subject is often sported with; and the fruits of his daily toil are consumed in oppressive taxes, that serve to gratify the ambition, avarice, and lusts of his superiors. Every court minion riots in the spoils of the honest labourer, and despises the hand by which he is fed. The page of history is replete with instances that loudly warn us to beware of slavery.

While Hamilton’s immediate context is the relationship of the colonies to Great Britain, this principle is fundamental to his putting forward an industrialization alternative to the colonies’ status as raw materials’ producers for the mother country. His reference to the negative effect of slavery on morality and the economy indicates that his argument goes beyond a complaint about “taxation without representation” for the white colonists, to apply to the qualitatively worse enslavement of the African American population. Unlike many patriots at the time, Hamilton had no double standard.[5]

The Obligation to Support for Common Good

In countering Seabury’s argument that the measures of the Congress will harm innocent parties such as British manufacturers and inhabitants of the West Indies, Hamilton points to the general principle of the common good, which was to suffuse his economic policies throughout his life. He writes:

In a civil society, it is the duty of each particular branch to promote, not only the good of the whole community, but the good of every other particular branch: If one part endeavours to violate the rights of another, the rest ought to assist in preventing the injury: When they do not, but remain neutral, they are deficient in their duty, and may be regarded, in some measure, as accomplices.

The reason of this is obvious, from the design of civil society, which is, that the united strength of the several members might give stability and security to the whole body, and each respective member; so that one part cannot encroach upon another, without becoming a common enemy, and eventually endangering the safety and happiness of all the other parts.

Equally important to his polemic in this document is his specific appeal to the farmers.  “A Westchester farmer” is not really a farmer, Hamilton writes, nor am I.  I can explain to you – as he goes on to do – how the measures of Congress will not only not injure you farmers in particular (as Seabury had argued), but will actually benefit you, as well as the merchants and manufacturers. You will prosper from the home market.

Hamilton Embarks on his Road to Revolution
Hamilton’s antagonist, the Rev. Samuel Seabury, portrait by Ralph Earl

After a lengthy, specific debunking of Seabury’s projections of ruin for the farmer under the Congress’s measures, Hamilton concludes:

May God give you wisdom to see what is your true interest, and inspire you with becoming zeal for the cause of virtue and mankind.

American Greatness through Manufactures

A Full Vindication includes a third principle that shows up in the mature Hamilton’s economic vision: the potential for America’s future greatness through manufacturing all its essentials. Addressing Seabury’s warning that Britain might totally blockade all American trade, Hamilton replies:

Even this would not be so terrible as he pretends. We can live without trade of any kind. Food and clothing we have within ourselves. Our climate produces cotton, wool, flax, and hemp, which, with proper cultivation would furnish us with summer apparel in abundance. The article of cotton indeed would do more, it would contribute to defend us from the inclemency of winter. We have sheep, which, with due care in improving and increasing them, would soon yield a sufficiency of wool. The large quantity of skins, we have among us, would never let us want a warm and comfortable suit. It would be no unbecoming employment for our daughters to provide silks of their own country. The silk-worm answers as well here as in any part of the world.

Those hands, which may be deprived of business by the cessation of commerce, may be occupied in various kinds of manufactures and other internal improvements. If by the necessity of the thing, manufactures should once be established and take root among us, they will pave the way, still more, to the future grandeur and glory of America, and by lessening its need of external commerce, will render it still securer against the encroachments of tyranny.

Hamilton then goes to great lengths in discussing how continued British intransigence will be harmful to its own economic well-being, as it owes much of its prosperity to its control of the colonies. With the particularity which is characteristic of his thoroughness in all matters economic, he describes various sectors of the economy globally, and the negative impact that American non-importation – and potentially non-exportation – would have. “It would be extremely hurtful to the commerce of Great-Britain to drive us to the necessity of laying a regular foundation for manufactories of our own; which, if once established, could not easily, if at all, be undermined, or abolished,” he notes.

A statue of Hamilton overlooks Passaic Falls, in Paterson, New Jersey, home of his Society for Useful Manufactures

 Poking fun

The tone of Hamilton’s attack on Seabury, as indicated in the title, is uncommonly playful.  A Full Vindication exudes confidence and virtually no trepidation over what an ordeal the continued conflict could (and would) become.

The following quote reflects the spirit perfectly.

 All we aim at, is to convince your high and mighty masters, the ministry, that we are not such asses as to let them ride us as they please. We are determined to shew them, that we know the value of freedom; nor shall their rapacity extort, that inestimable jewel from us, without a manly and virtuous struggle. But for your part, sweet Sir! tho’ we cannot much applaud your wisdom, yet we are compelled to admire your valour, which leads you to hope you may be able to swear, threaten, bully, and frighten all America into a compliance with your sinister designs.

Perhaps Hamilton’s mocking tone was intended to provoke Seabury. If so, he succeeded, as the prelate immediately took to print to answer A Full Vindication.  That answer was to goad Hamilton into his second pamphlet, this one running 80 pages.  In the near future, I will dissect this document, entitled The Farmer Refuted: or A more impartial and comprehensive View of he Dispute between Great-Britain and the Colonies, Intended as a Further Vindication of the Congress …

Nancy Spannaus is the author of Hamilton Versus Wall Street: The Core Principles of the American System of Economics, and Defeating Slavery: Hamilton’s American System Showed the Way. Click here for more information.

[1] For one example, see https://americansystemnow.com/hamilton-on-debt-turn-it-into-capital-2/

[2] An excellent discussion and the full text of the Resolves can be found on the website of the Milton (MA) Historical Society.

[3] The Coercive Acts were the British government’s response to the Boston Tea Party; they shut down the port of Boston and the local government, and established new judicial procedures taking away the right to a local jury trial – all to be in force until the tea was paid for.

[4] See https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-01-02-0094

[5] See https://americansystemnow.com/the-case-for-hamilton-versus-slavery/.

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