By Nancy Spannaus
May 25, 2019—Rand Scholet, founder of the Alexander Hamilton Awareness (AHA) Society, gave an insightful presentation on Hamilton’s 25-year military career at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia yesterday. More chairs had to be brought it to accommodate the crowd, which grew to more than 60 people.
Scholet’s fast-paced lecture went far beyond the usual recitation of the progress of Hamilton’s impressive military career, during which he rose from being the organizer of a small artillery units in New York City, to Major General of the U.S. Army. As he pointed out, the mission of the AHA Society includes dispelling the myths and slanders which have often dominated the telling of Hamilton’s story. At various points in his lecture, he did just that.
Dispelling the Myths
For example, from the outset, Scholet countered the standard line that Hamilton was a militarist, always itching to go to war, to invade South America, etc. This conclusion is frequently justified with reference to Hamilton’s 1769 letter (he was 12 years old!) which concludes that he wishes there was a war. That didn’t mean young Alexander was a warmonger, Scholet said; it was an acknowledgement that, in that day and age, one of the best ways to rise from obscurity (in Hamilton’s case, the obscurity of serving as a clerk in a shipping company), was to join the military and win distinction in war.
Later on, Scholet also took on the myth that Hamilton was one of the conspirators who attempted to carry out a military coup through the so-called “Newburgh Conspiracy” in 1783. He cited the work of AHA Society-associated historian Michael Newton in disproving this accusation, and noted a letter from George Washington himself on how he and Hamilton saw eye-to-eye on the crisis created by the lack of payment of the military.
Washington, of course, had famously undercut the coup plotters (considered to be headed by General Horatio Gates) with his address to the troops, in which he alluded to how he had “gone blind” as well as gray, in the service of his country. There was no one more committed to civilian rule over the military than George Washington.
Also of note, was Scholet’s counter to the usual attack on Hamilton as overwhelmingly ambitious. People often refer to a 1798 letter from Washington to President John Adams, in which he apparently agrees that Hamilton is ambitious. People usually stop right there, Scholet said, but if you read the letter to its end, you learn that Washington considered Hamilton’s ambition to be “of that laudable kind which prompts a man to excel in whatever he takes in hand.”
It would be hard to find an individual who served his country in the military in a greater variety of ways than did Alexander Hamilton. And to his active service, you have to add his role in creating the Coast Guard, which, as Scholet pointed out, was the only source of military protection of the United States by sea between the years 1790 and 1798. Hamilton was also an active agitator for the establishment of the military academy at West Point, although that dream of his and Washington’s was not realized until 1802.
Fortunately, Scholet’s full remarks were videotaped and will be made available on the AHA Society’s Youtube channel. What I would like to do, nonetheless, is to report two facts Scholet mentioned which surprised me.
The first had to do with General Washington’s appointment of Hamilton as his chief aide. This occurred after Hamilton’s exemplary performance at both the first Battle of Trenton and the Battle of Princeton, at the conclusion of 1776 and beginning of 1777. Scholet showed a document by Washington, dated January 23, 1777, in which he complains of being totally overwhelmed by paperwork, and being in urgent need of “persons that can think for me (!)” to aid him—in other words, people of totally like mind. Two days later, in an attempt to locate Hamilton, the Pennsylvania Evening Post posted an advertisement, which read: “Captain Alexander Hamilton, of the New-York company of artillery, by applying to the printer of this paper, may hear of something to his advantage.”
That’s how Hamilton heard of his appointment, which lasted until April 1781.
The second surprise was Scholet’s revelation of the role that Hamilton played in the victory at Yorktown. It was not just the storming of Britain’s Redoubt No. 10, an event commemorated on the battlefield and recognized as a crucial military move in forcing the surrender. Scholet noted that, without the hesitation by British Commander Sir Henry Clinton, then in New York City, in reinforcing General Cornwallis in Virginia, the British might have escaped their cul-de-sac before the French fleet could have blockaded them in. In other words, Clinton made a fatal error of judgment.
It seems that Alexander Hamilton had an inkling that General Clinton might make mistakes like that. For back in 1778, when George Washington had hatched a plan to kidnap the British General, Hamilton advised against it. Keep this known quantity in place, Hamilton said, because we know how he thinks. And if we eliminate him, the British might come up with a more competent adversary!
The Military and Economy
Only two questions/comments followed Scholet’s excellent presentation, one of which was by me. I think it bears repeating, so I recapitulate my remarks here:
Scholet’s debunking of the idea that Hamilton was a militarist is extremely important, because he is often attacked as such. But there are two aspects of his military career which are extremely important to his contributions to political economy, the area of his life’s work which I concentrated on my recent book Hamilton Versus Wall Street.
First, Hamilton’s history of dedicated military service totally goes against the slander that he was a British agent. Do people really think that, after spending the better part of a decade confronting the brutal British army, Hamilton suddenly changed his character and became pro-British when he rejoined civilian life? Could he have been that schizophrenic? No. What the record actually shows is that he developed his economic system in order to maintain U.S. independence in the face of assaults from all foreign nations, not to cozy up and serve the British.
Second, Hamilton’s service as George Washington’s chief aide-de-camp (“my principal and most confidential aide,” Scholet quoted Washington) put him in a position to think strategically, from an overview of the country and its resources (or lack thereof). Hamilton was thus able to think broadly about the requirements of the nation for its survival, and indeed, it was from this standpoint, that he wrote his seminal state paper, the Report on Manufactures.
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