Historians Debate: Who Was the Real Alexander Hamilton?
By Nancy Spannaus
June 11, 2018—One of the benefits of the popularity of Hamilton: An American Musical, which begins its run in Washington, D.C. tomorrow, is that it has inspired many institutions to sponsor informative exhibits, presentations , and debates on the First Treasury Secretary’s life and contributions. The event sponsored today by the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) on the theme of “Who was the Real Alexander Hamilton?,” was a particularly valuable contribution to this process.
The BPC forum featured two Hamilton historians: Stephen Knott of the U.S. Naval Academy, author of Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth, and Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance That Forged America; and Peter McNamara of the Utah State University, author of Political Economy and Statesmanship: Smith, Hamilton, and the Foundation of the Commercial Republic. They responded to questions from the BPC Center moderator John Fortier, and then briefly to a few from the audience.
Both historians could fairly be classified as “pro-Hamilton,” with Knott the most polemical in this regard. In response to the opening request that both identify the most important thing people should know about Alexander Hamilton, Knott excoriated the myth that Hamilton had contempt for the “common man,” a myth that flies in the face of his views and actions against slavery, toward native Americans, and in creating an economy geared to allow ordinary citizens to “rise.” McNamara’s answer was that Hamilton had created the foundation of the modern nation-state, not just technically in finance, but in thinking through how to build a civilized society in which people could thrive. Quoting a Hamilton contemporary, McNamara said the Treasury Secretary “did the thinking for his day.”
The broad-ranging discussion, which lasted a little over an hour, has been archived and can be found here. Below I identify the issues that were discussed, along with some notable observations by the two authors.
The Range of Issues
Fortier’s questions of Knott and McNamara were aimed at identifying the issues of controversy which have surrounded Hamilton from his lifetime forward.
The first two dealt with Hamilton’s role in the founding, which, as McNamara noted, has always been a bone of contention. McNamara cited the fact that John Marshall, as early as his 1804 Life of Washington, identified two contending views of Hamilton: one that he was a diligent worker to secure the Republic, and the other that he was a diligent subverter of the Republic (the Jeffersonian view). As to whether Hamilton was a “modernizer or a monarchist,” Knott identified the “monarchist” moniker as a myth, contrasting Hamilton’s plans for an opportunity society with those of what some call the “slavocrats.” McNamara stressed that Hamilton saw the young United States as an “experiment” that might not succeed, but said he was trying to do the unprecedented—create a large republic.
Fortier then asked the historians to discuss Hamilton’s and the Founders’ views of political parties, Hamilton’s economic policies, the ups and downs of Hamilton’s reputation over the centuries, the conception of Federalism, and the question of foreign policy. McNamara concentrated most on the economic question, although, in this author’s view, that subject did not receive enough attention. McNamara described Hamilton as a visionary toward the development of a modern industrial system, and, most importantly, as “advancing beyond Adam Smith” in seeing the importance of technology and promoting technological advances. Knott took the point in going after the Jeffersonians’ “politics of personal destruction” against Hamilton.
Of particular interest was Knott’s discussion of the ups and downs of Hamilton’s reputation, which has been mostly debated on the spurious basis of Hamilton representing the elite, and Jefferson the “common man.” The first Hamilton revival (after the Washington years) came during the Civil War and afterward, Knott said—a revival then decisively trounced by Woodrow Wilson. Knott then elaborated on the role FDR played in bringing Jefferson into the “pantheon” of the Founders, along with Washington and Lincoln,” by building the Jefferson Memorial and lionizing him. Unfortunately, Knott failed to recognize the irony that at the same time, FDR was reviving Hamiltonian “state intervention” through the New Deal and the national bank-like functioning of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. The revival of Hamilton’s reputation, Knott said, came with the 1960s, when the issues of race and immigration came to fore, and forced a recognition of Hamilton’s more progressive views on these matters.
Near the conclusion of the dialogue on the podium, Fortier asked the historians to evaluate Miranda’s musical, which they have both seen. Knott pointed to some errors, including his view that Hamilton was presented as more of an abolitionist and pro-immigration than he was. What is true, he stressed, is that Hamilton, like Lincoln, put the issue of the Union first, and with this and his economic proposals, put slavery on the road to extinction.
McNamara was more critical, saying he believed the musical slighted the roles of Jefferson and Madison in the Revolution, and was wrong in casting Jefferson and Burr as villains. He also thought that the portrayal of Hamilton as the epitome of realizing the American Dream was a distortion, especially in understating Hamilton’s ambition.
This remark brought out the strongest contrast between the two historians, with Knott issuing the rejoinder that George Washington, a very good judge of character, saw Hamilton’s ambition as a noble aspiration, unlike that of Burr. Alas, Knott did not draw any sharp distinction between Burr’s despicable character and that of Hamilton, however, in either the discussion of the musical, or in a question raised specifically on that point later.
The content of that conflict between Hamilton and Burr is a central focus of the review this author wrote of the musical months ago, based on Hamilton: The Revolution, which combines the libretto with interviews and commentary by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter. That conflict stemmed from the fact that Hamilton was a man dedicated to the principles of progress, and to building a national government capable of providing that—principles he himself once called the “American System;” while Burr, among many others, was dedicated to promoting his own power, and was willing to sell himself and sacrifice the national welfare to achieve it. It is Hamilton’s vision of the American System that must be reinvigorated today.