Commentary / History

The Tragedy of Alexander Hamilton’s Death

By Nancy Spannaus

July 11, 2021—For the second year in a row, ceremonies at the gravesite of Alexander Hamilton at Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan have had to be cancelled due to pandemic precautions. But that should not stop us from commemorating the life of this great man, and acknowledging the tragedy of his being shot by Aaron Burr on July 11, 1804. Indeed, such a remembrance is particularly appropriate at this time in our nation’s history.

Let me begin by quoting Hamilton scholar Richard Sylla in his 2016 illustrated biography, Alexander Hamilton. Near the conclusion of this comprehensive treatment, Sylla writes: “With Hamilton’s untimely death, the country lost the one mind best equipped to execute a financial plan to end slavery.”

The Tragedy of Alexander Hamilton's Death

A Hamilton tribute at his graveside ceremony in 2018.

Let that sink in for a minute. What Sylla is saying is that the Civil War might have been avoided, had the financial genius Alexander Hamilton not been murdered at the age of 49. That was possible because Hamilton not only had the intellectual capability to devise a political economy that would rid the nation of slavery, but the moral commitment to do so. Burr’s success in killing his nemesis was not only a disaster for his family, but for future generations of Americans, both enslaved and free.

I emphatically agree with Dr. Sylla’s conclusion. As regular readers of this blog know, I am currently working intensely on the question of why American slavery persisted, with the hope of producing a book in a relatively short period of time. It’s time the rug was pulled out from under the slanderers of Hamilton on the question of slavery.

Turning to Infrastructure

But there’s another major reason to mourn the death of Alexander Hamilton today, and that goes beyond the question of slavery per se. I refer to our current political impasse on the nation’s infrastructure crisis.

The murder of Hamilton was not merely intended to kill the man, but also to eliminate his economic principles and policies, to wipe him out of our history. True, this effort was never fully successful. The American System policies which Hamilton advocated were actually picked up and even enhanced in the administrations of John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It was under those administrations that Federal credit was used to build and upgrade our national infrastructure and labor force, and achieve stunning technological progress.

The Tragedy of Alexander Hamilton's Death

Cape Henry lighthouse in Virginia, finished in 1792, was called Hamilton’s Light.

But there have been long, disastrous periods of our history where the opposite policies have prevailed. We have lost immeasurably by failing to educate our citizenry and leadership in Hamilton’s actual accomplishments and ideas. Indeed, the inability of the Congress and President today to understand how they could use Federal credit, through a National Infrastructure Bank, to finance not only the repairs, but the qualitative upgrades in our infrastructure that we need, is a testament to how little Hamilton’s ideas are understood today.

So, as we commemorate Hamilton’s achievement and mourn our loss, let us dedicate ourselves to study and spread those ideas. We dare not let  them die with him.

Nancy Spannaus is the author of Hamilton Versus Wall Street: The Core Principles of the American System of Economics.

 

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