Happy Birthday Hamilton 2022!

A Report on the AHA Society’s Virtual Celebration

By Nancy Spannaus[1]

Jan. 11, 2022—At least 144 people joined the Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society (AHA) in its 10th annual celebration of the birthday of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton this evening. The event was held online with a Hamilton Scholars Roundtable, which featured dialogues on a wide range of topics relevant to Hamilton’s life and legacy among AHA Society President Nicole Scholet, Vice-President Sergio Villavicencio, the audience, and five prominent authors and advocates for the truth about Hamilton’s life and ideas.

Happy Birthday Hamilton 2022
Alexander Hamilton, painted posthumously by John Trumbull in 1806.

The event was cosponsored by a number of other organizations, as you will see in the event poster below: the Museum of American Finance, the Hamilton Partnership for Paterson, Revolutionary NYC, the Saint Andrew’s Society of the State of New York, the First Families of New York, the Lexington Historical Society, StatutesandStories.com, and the Morris-Jumel Mansion. 

Given the length of the Roundtable (about an hour and a half), it is not possible for me to provide a full discussion of the content as it unfolded. The video will undoubtedly be published by the AHA Society sometime in the future. If there was one theme to characterize the dialogue, it would be to identify Hamilton’s positive role as the stalwart partner of George Washington in establishing the nation’s independence, in contrast to the all-too-prevalent myths[2] about his personal and political role in U.S. history.

To simplify the presentation, I will discuss the contributions of each of the scholars, both from their opening remarks and the responses to questions which I found most interesting. Each was introduced by Society Villavicencio, who asked one or two questions, after which Scholet led the discussion. The scholars were introduced in alphabetical order.

Richard Brookhiser

Richard Brookhiser, a senior editor of the National Review, is credited with starting the Hamilton revival in 1999, with the publication of his book Alexander Hamilton, American. He also curated the renowned 2004 exhibition on Alexander Hamilton at the New York Historical Society.

Brookhiser noted that he was inspired to study and write about Hamilton after writing a book about George Washington in 1996. It seemed the logical next step. Hamilton’s partnership with Washington lasted to the end of Washington’s life. Brookhiser relayed the story of how Washington reacted when the newspaper wars between Hamilton and Jefferson broke out in 1792. Washington wrote to both men to tell them to stop it: Hamilton, who had been writing under a pseudonym, said he would stop if Jefferson ceased his attacks on him and the Administration; Jefferson, who had set up a newspaper as a specific vehicle for such attacks, claimed he had nothing to do with the vitriol, but was glad that Hamilton was being exposed for the character he was.  No wonder Washington chose Hamilton, Brookhiser said. Overall, Brookhiser attributed his attraction to Hamilton by the drama of his life.

In later Q & A, Brookhiser emphasized Hamilton’s foresight about how to develop the economy. Hamilton had seen the examples of the Dutch and the British and adapted them.  What was unique about his financing of the debt was that other nations tended to deal with it either by taxing their citizens exorbitantly, invading (or enslaving-ed.) foreign countries, or simply repudiating it. (Brookhiser was not referring to Holland and England, but he could have been.)

Douglas Hamilton

Douglas Hamilton is the fifth great-grandson of Alexander Hamilton and an active advocate for the truth about his ancestor. In response to Sergio’s question about what inspired him about Hamilton, he pointed to Hamilton’s role as husband and father, referring to his letters showing his concern for their health and education. Hamilton wasn’t perfect, of course (citing the Reynolds affair and the duel waged by his son Philip), but did a very good job overall.

Happy Birthday Hamilton 2022
Douglas Hamilton

In the further discussion, Douglas Hamilton emphasized Alexander’s commitment to “continentalism,” and his ability to comprehend both the broad picture and the particular tasks that had to be carried out to deal with the nation’s development. He referred in specific to the Revenue Cutter service (forerunner of the Coast Guard), which Hamilton established not only with its strategic mission, but for which he also wrote detailed instructions for how the officers were to treat the merchants they questioned. It was to be with the greatest respect.

Douglas Hamilton also weighed in very effectively on the question about the significance of Alexander’s speech at the Constitutional Convention, for which he was accused of being a monarchist. It’s clear that this effort was part of a political strategy with Madison in order to get the Virginia plan adopted, he argued. Madison’s notes 30 years later were clearly written in light of their later political differences, and did not reflect the reality at the time.

Stephen Knott

Stephen F. Knott is a professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, and the author of two books dealing with Alexander Hamilton, Washington & Hamilton, the Alliance That Forged America, and Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth. He is a fierce opponent of myths about Hamilton, which he attributes to the superior political skill of Thomas Jefferson in the politics of personal destruction against the Treasury Secretary. Jefferson’s lying attacks on Hamilton as a plutocrat, a monarchist, and even a British agent, have lived on and become the weapon of the Democratic Party.

Happy Birthday Hamilton 2022
Stephen F. Knott

Knott showed special outrage about what he considers FDR’s virtual apotheosis of Thomas Jefferson, whose memorial FDR sponsored, and whose picture he put on the nickel. Knott apparently does not see the way in which FDR used Hamiltonian banking principles for the general welfare throughout his presidency. In my view, Knott’s own work on the fact that some of the leading financiers who caused the 1929 crash and the Depression (like Andrew Mellon) publicly cast themselves as champions of Hamiltonian economics, shows what would have led FDR to publicly disavow Hamilton, even while adopting his approach to national economy. (See Hamilton Versus Wall Street)

Knott constantly emphasized that Hamilton’s “dysfunctional upbringing” led him to concentrate on creating stability in the financial and political system. This explains his approach in the Constitutional convention speech, as well as his financial system. But his effectiveness depended heavily on the alliance with George Washington. That was “the most important alliance in American history,” changing its course decisively.

On the charge of Hamilton as a militarist, Knott devastated it by noting that he actually discharged the Army in 1799, after President Adams’ deal with France.  If he had been the budding “Napoleon” that the Jeffersonians claimed he was, he would have been in the perfect position to stage a coup.

When asked what he thought Hamilton would have done if he had survived the duel, Knott was utterly pessimistic, saying he thought Hamilton and the Federalists were already politically dead in 1804 (the year of Hamilton’s death), and that the Jeffersonian myths were so strong that Hamilton could never have played a leading role.

Michael E. Newton

Michael E. Newton is the author of numerous books on Alexander Hamilton, which can be accessed through his blog, https://discoveringhamilton.com. He specializes in meticulous research on hitherto uncovered primary sources on the life of Hamilton, even going so far as to learn extinct languages like 18th century Danish. One of Newton’s discoveries, with which Sergio opened the dialogue with him, led Newton to conclude that Hamilton was “probably” not born on Jan. 11 after all, but between February and August of 1754. Yet Hamilton himself said he was about 17 in 1771, and celebrated his birthday on Jan. 11, so we will continue to do so.

Happy Birthday Hamilton 2022
Michael E. Newton

Newton gave a particularly fascinating discussion in response to a question about whether Hamilton was “overly militaristic.” In working on the historiography of the story that Hamilton was part of the Newburgh conspiracy,[3] Newton discovered that no one thought so at the time, and that the first person to blame Hamilton was actually John Armstrong, the man who wrote the letter threatening mutinous action! Newton also noted that George Washington said he appreciated Hamilton’s letter about the state of affairs with the army, and that he would do what Hamilton recommended.

When asked what Hamilton might have done had he survived the duel, Newton said that he would have expected President Madison to turn to Hamilton for advice during the War of 1812.

Robert E. Wright

Robert E. Wright is an economic historian, who works with the American Institute for Economic Research and has written several books on early American economics, including Founding Financial Fathers: The Men Who Made America Rich, and Hamilton Unbound: Finance and the Creation of the American Republic. His remarks were the most pointed on Hamilton’s economic contributions, and therefore, in my view, the most valuable.

Happy Birthday Hamilton 2022
Robert E. Wright

Wright said from the outset that he thought Hamilton’s program was generally misunderstood; he created a “system” which turned the United States from a colony into what he called a “shackled Leviathan,” a creature strong enough to defend the nation from foreign attack, but not free to oppress Americans. He also called out the importance of the First Bank of the United States, and its role in creating strong public credit.

But Wright’s most striking contribution came in answer to the question of what the panelists thought Hamilton would have done, had he not been killed by Burr.  Wright asserted that he is on record as asserting that if Hamilton had lived into the 1820s, he would have become an ardent abolitionist. He would have seen the danger to the danger of keeping the nation impoverished by slavery. He also might have been able to ensure the recharter of the Bank of the United States in 1811, or put it down the “Biddle path.”  It’s not clear to me what he meant by that, but I assume it means moving into funding basic infrastructure as well as managing the nation’s credit to the advantage of private enterprise, as well as the government.

A Coda on Slavery

It turns out that Wright spoke at an AHA Society event that I missed back in 2020. According to the blurb on the AHA Society website, in his talk entitled “Alexander Hamilton and the Poverty of Slavery,” Dr. Wright explored what Alexander Hamilton’s views on slavery may have become had he lived as long as Aaron Burr did. As the AHA website puts it, Wright believed that “it is likely that Hamilton would have created a Hinton Helper-esque view of slavery by the 1820s, if not earlier, because of his known views on the economics of slavery and the fact that the natural experiment between North and South, free and enslaved, was sufficiently advanced by that point to reveal what Wright calls The Poverty of Slavery, the fact that enslaving others may be profitable but that it never, ever leads to economic growth and development.”

Readers of this blog are familiar with Hinton Helper’s 1857 book The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It, a lengthy and well-documented screed against how slavery impoverished the South. I intend to review Wright’s book on the topic, published in 2017, which was entitled The Poverty of Slavery: How Unfree Labor Pollutes the Economy, in the near future.

The question for today, of course, is how a return to Hamilton’s principles of political economy (The American System) could move us beyond the destructive legacy of slavery, and aid us in building a prosperous economy once again. In that regard, readers are encouraged to not only read my book, but to explore the National Infrastructure Bank legislation (H.R. 3339) which has been introduced into Congress by Rep. Danny Davis. Information can be found at www.nibcoalition.com.

[1] Nancy Spannaus is the author of Hamilton Versus Wall Street: The Core Principles of the American System of Economy. According to the late Rand Scholet, founder of the Society, she has also been designated a National Hamilton Advocate.

[2] I have also composed a summary refutation of leading myths about Hamilton, which can be made available on request.

[3] The Newburgh conspiracy of 1783 was a purported attempt by Army officers to organize a coup in the face of Congressional failure to provide their pay.