August 11, 2004


Hamilton, Our Founder (Richard Brookhiser, Summer 2004, City Journal)

[I] went with Brian Lamb of C-SPAN's Book TV one cold morning in April 1999 to Weehawken for a modern interview, with a camera, not pistols. I had never been to the tiny park that memorializes the duel, since it has no historical interest. The duel site itself was a rock ledge, about 25 feet long, a short distance above the Hudson River, at the base of the cliffs on the Jersey shore opposite what is now 39th Street in Manhattan. Dueling was illegal in both New York and New Jersey; New York duelists frequented this spot because its remoteness made it unlikely that they would be disturbed. The ledge is long gone, having been dynamited in the nineteenth century to make way for a railroad. The memorial park is at the top of the cliff, on a sedate Weehawken street, surrounded by an iron fence. In it stands a flagpole and a bust of Hamilton on a plinth. Any place in America might have such a thing, and many do: an earnest and worthy signpost, pointing to some event in the past.

Lamb asked his questions, I gave my answers. Then, as we came down the home
stretch, a sideways glance made me realize that the thing worth coming to
Weehawken to see is in the present, across the river. There was the
Manhattan skyline, stretched out like a diorama, from the World Trade
Center's towers to Riverside Church, with the timeless futurism of the
spires of the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building crowning
midtown. It is our Great Wall of China, our Chartres, not built to keep
barbarians out or to bring us to heaven, but thrown up by the meshing
efforts of millions of us to make a living and to make life better, here on
earth, in New York. "When all the different kinds of industry obtain in a
community," Hamilton wrote in his Report on Manufactures, "each individual
can find his proper element, and can call into activity the whole vigor of
his nature." Industry, activity, vigor, all in the service of the
individual-this was the great melody of Hamilton's life, that propelled him
from the Caribbean, led him into battle, made him write and plan and slave
at his desk. Chernow has found, in the papers of John Church Hamilton,
Alexander's son and biographer, that, as Hamilton was being rowed across the
Hudson to his duel, "he pointed out the beauties of the scenery and spoke of
the future greatness of the city." That greatness, I realized on my morning
at Weehawken, had arrived. If Hamilton could see it today, he would say,
this is what I imagined, this is what I worked for; use it.

The second Hamilton-related event occurred on September 11, 2001, when the
barbarians arrived and the skyline was mutilated. In that awful time, I was
still historian enough to remember that the last attack on New York had
occurred in 1776. George Washington was commander in chief; Alexander
Hamilton was a captain of artillery. Hamilton, stationed in Manhattan,
missed the debacle of the Battle of Long Island, fought in what is now
Brooklyn at the end of August. When the British landed in Kip's Bay in
mid-September, hoping to cut what was left of the American army in half,
Hamilton was manning a gun emplacement in what is now Chinatown; a timely
warning allowed his unit to retreat up the West Side. He left Manhattan in
October, when the British finally squeezed Washington off the island. He
would fight in seven battles-White Plains, Trenton, Princeton, Brandywine,
Germantown, Monmouth, Yorktown: three defeats, three victories, one draw-but
he would not return to New York until the British evacuated, in November

Hamilton played a minor role in the battles for New York in 1776, although
he was here. But he played a major role in 9/11, even though he wasn't.
Almost certainly, neither Usama bin Ladin nor Saddam Hussein has ever heard
of him. Yet the reason al-Qaida and its helpers and patrons struck the World
Trade Center was that the towers symbolized modern America-Hamilton's
America. The United States is the epitome of everything the terrorists and
their supporters hate, and New York is the epitome of the epitome. New
Yorkers vote; they dream of a reign of virtue, and obey brutes. New Yorkers
work; they count their oil revenues, and rail at usury. New Yorkers worship
as they will; they recite a Koran they do not understand. New Yorkers of all
races are free; they ship the survivors of raids in the Sudan to the
kitchens and bedrooms of Arabia. In each of these areas-politics, economics,
fundamental law-Hamilton was on the side of liberty, enterprise, and human
potential, and against a world of stasis and arbitrary rule.

Yet if Hamilton had come back to the smoke and the stink, instead of the city at peace, he would still have known what to say. The practical idealist, paradoxically, was well acquainted with the dark places of the human heart. Out of some combination of wisdom, reading, military service, and youthful turmoil (his parents were not married, and his father abandoned the family when Alexander was only nine years old), Hamilton expected the world to be a dangerous place. He located the source of danger in man's unleashed passions. Federalist 6 is a brisk review of wars, revolutions, and chaos, all caused by human cussedness. "[M]en are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious. . . . Is it not time to awake from the deceitful dream of a golden age, and to adopt as a practical maxim for the direction of our political conduct that we, as well as the other inhabitants of the globe, are yet remote from the happy empire of perfect wisdom and perfect virtue?" Though Washington's Farewell Address, which Hamilton helped the retiring president write, takes a loftier tone, looking forward to a time "when we may choose peace or war as our interest guided by our justice shall counsel," Hamilton knew that war would always be a possibility and readiness for it a necessity.

He also understood the necessity of a public debt to democracy.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 11, 2004 7:04 PM
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