The following post is part of a series on the rise and fall of the self-made man in American culture.
Though he was older than most of his revolutionary contemporaries, Benjaming Franklin was hardly the only man for whom the American Revolution functioned as a gigantic career opportunity. We’ve already seen the way in which it transformed the lives of relatively modest provincials like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, for whom the it provided the means to embody and/or promote a whole new vision of self-sufficiency that seemed impossible while living in the long shadow of imperial Britain.
A good illustration is furnished by the career of John Adams. The fiercely ambitious Adams had already gone a good deal farther than his shoemaker father in making his way in the world by 1776. But he could never have amounted to much more than a resentful provincial without a war of independence, which led to a political career, culminating in the presidency, that he could have scarcely imagined as a boy in Boston. In some ways Adams remained a resentful provincial to the end of his days, anxious that other leading lights got more attention than he did. “The history of our Revolution will be one continued lie from one end to the other,” he famously told his friend – seemingly everybody’s friend – Benjamin Rush in 1790. “The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin’s electrical rod smote the earth and out sprang General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod and thenceforth these two conducted all the policy, negotiations, legislatures, and war.” Though he was vain and puritanical, Adam’s humor, self-insight, and capacity to reflect more generously on his peers in old age redeems him.
Perhaps no Founder Father traveled farther, literally or figuratively, than Alexander Hamilton. Given his white racial identity in the racially stratified Caribbean, it can’t really be said that Hamilton was a child of poverty when he was born, circa 1755, on or near the island of Nevis (some uncertainties surround this). But his background was hardly auspicious. “My birth is the subject of the most humiliating criticism,” he wrote at the end of his life ; contemporaries like Adams described him as “the bastard son of a Scotch pedlar.” Hamilton was (apparently) the second illegitimate child born to Rachel Faucett Lavien, a woman of French Huguenot and other descent, who had left her husband for Scotsman James Hamilton. The couple relocated to the Danish island of St. Croix in 1765. It was around this time, however, that Hamilton abandoned Lavien, whose husband obtained a divorce settlement that made it impossible for her to remarry. She opened a store selling provisions and plantation supplies that her sons helped her run. When she died in 1768, they were virtual orphans. The younger Hamilton went to work for a local merchant. Biographer Ron Chernow fills in some of the details – and clarifies just what a surprising figure Hamilton was in light of them:
Let us pause briefly to tally the grim catalog of disasters that had befallen these two boys between 1765 and 1769: their father had vanished, their mother had died, their cousin and supposed protector had committed bloody suicide, and their aunt, uncle and grandmother had all died. James, sixteen and Alexander, fourteen, were now left alone, largely friendless and penniless. At every step in their rootless, topsy-turvy existence, they had been surrounded by failed, broken, embittered people. Their short lives had been shadowed by a stupefying sequence of bankruptcies, marital separations, deaths, scandals and disinheritance. Such repeated shocks must have stripped Alexander Hamilton of any sense that life was fair, that he existed in a benign universe, or that he could ever count on help from anyone. That this abominable childhood produced such a strong, productive, self-reliant human being – that this fatherless adolescent could have ended up the founding father of a country he had not even seen – seems little short of miraculous. Because he maintained perfect silence about his unspeakable past, never exploiting it to puff his later success, it was impossible for his contemporaries to comprehend the exceptional nature of his personal triumph. What we know of Hamilton’s childhood has been learned almost entirely in the last century. [Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton, 26-27]
There were two key factors in Hamilton’s triumph over adversity. The first were his evident intellectual gifts, which he developed over the course of his life without the advantages enjoyed peers like Jefferson. From an early age Hamilton expressed his desire to make a mark on the world. “My ambition is prevalent, that I contemn the grov’ling and condition of a Clerk, to which my Fortune &c. contemns me and would willing risk my life tho’ not my character to exalt my station,” he wrote a friend in 1769, when he was barely in adolescence. “My Youth excludes me from an hopes of immediate Preferment nor do I desire it, but I mean to prepare the way for futurity.” He ends the letter by saying “I wish there was a war.”[AH3] Before long he would get the preferment and the war.
Which brings us to the other notable feature of Hamilton’s youth: his talent for attracting powerful mentors. This began with the Presbyterian minister who raised funds to send him to the mainland for an education (he attended King’s College, now Columbia). He quickly became involved in revolutionary politics, joining a New York militia and receiving the rank of captain. Parlaying connections with influential New Yorkers like John Jay, Hamilton joined the war effort and was part of the New York campaign of 1776 and the Battle of Trenton at the end of that year. Invited to join the staffs of generals Henry Knox and Nathaniel Greene, Hamilton declined because he wanted to be part of the fighting. But when Continental Army commander George Washington asked him to serve as his aide with a rank of lieutenant colonel, it was an offer Hamilton could not refuse. He served at Washington’s side for four years before returning to combat and serving with bravery at the (climatic) Battle of Yorktown.
Following his military service, Hamilton served a stint in Congress before returning to New York to practice law. He participated in the planning and debate for a new U.S. Constitution in 1787, and teamed up with James Madison of Virginia and fellow New Yorker John Jay to produce The Federalist Papers, a collection of articles advocating adoption of the Constitution published in 1787-88. Once it was ratified, Hamilton reunited with Washington to serve as Secretary of the Treasury in the first presidential administration, a job that allowed him – amid many objections – to lay the foundations of a modern American economy.
Hamilton’s place as a quintessential embodiment of the American Dream of upward mobility is somewhat obscured in the American collective imagination. In large measure, this is because his personality was not nearly as appealing as Franklin’s, as cagey as Jefferson’s, or as judicious as Washington’s. Hamilton was brilliant, knew it, and did not suffer fools gladly. (He got impatient serving in the army under Washington, who, recognizing that Hamilton had talents, particularly in the area of finance, that he did not, was secure enough to overlook his arrogance.)
Hamilton was also an avowed elitist. “The voice of the people is has been said to be the voice of God; and however much this maxim has been quoted and believed, it is not true in fact,” he reputedly said during the Constitutional Convention of 1787. “The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right.”  Hamilton was more diplomatic in The Federalist. “Mechanics and manufacturers will always be inclined with few exceptions to give their votes to merchants in preference to persons of their own professions or trades,” he said, with substantial accuracy, in the 35th essay in the series. He was perhaps less accurate when he went on to assert that such workers “know that the merchant is their natural patron and friend; and they are aware that however great the confidence they may justly feel in their own good sense, their interests can be more effectively promoted by the merchant than by themselves.” Hamilton was impatient with democratic pieties uttered by ideological opponents whom he believed pandered to voters. According to one later memoir, he reacted to a guest at a dinner party who described himself as a “friend of the people” by asserting, “your people, sir – your people is a great beast!” [T Parsons 109-110]
There are a number of ironies in this. As we’ve already seen, Thomas Jefferson was a tireless adversary for the yeoman farmer, notwithstanding his relatively highborn origins and aristocratic tastes. Hamilton, by contrast, was the first great immigrant success story in American history, and as such might plausibly have been expected to champion of the little man. That said, there were also ironies within Hamilton’s snobbery. Though he rubbed shoulders with the wealthiest of Americans, and married into money (his father-in-law was yet another mentor), Hamilton worked ferociously hard, showed little interest in money for its own sake, and regarded plantation grandees as parasites. He was a lifelong opponent of slavery, and demonstrated a scrupulousness about his professional conduct in stark contrast to his private affairs, which were not marked by the same degree of probity (after paying blackmail to avoid having an extramarital affair exposed, he confessed his infidelity rather than allow his blackmailer to exploit Hamilton’s professional connections for personal gain). Hamilton could plausibly be seen as an eighteenth century meritocrat, a man who believed that talent could rise in the United States, notwithstanding its idiocies, because it represented the first best hope as a where men like him could attain eminence.
Such unsentimental clarity extended to his view of economics. Hamilton had seen first-hand how the parochialism of individual states had hobbled a national war effort. He also saw how Great Britain’s banking system allowed it to finance a global empire, and how its incipient industrialism girded an economy that remained a model for the United States, recent political differences notwithstanding. In his famous 1791 Report on the Subject of Manufactures, Hamilton affirmed that agriculture was, and would remain, and important pillar of the U.S. economy. But he foresaw a time when manufacturing would take its place beside it, and anticipated this eventuality without the dread of Jefferson and his partisans. Even those who today view Jeffersonianism with admiration on social and political grounds nevertheless concede that Hamilton was right on matters like finance and the future of the American economy. Yet in one more irony, it was Hamilton, not Jefferson, who was swept into irrelevance after the presidential election of 1800. “What can I do better than withdraw from the Scene,” he wrote plaintively to an ally in 1802, a year after he brokered the selection of the hated Jefferson over the even more hated Burr in the topsy-turvy presidential election of 1800. “Every day proves to me more and more that this American world was not made for me.”  Hamilton’s notorious – and somewhat mysterious – 1804 death at the hands of Burr in duel was a fatalistic coda on a dazzling career that ended in disappointment and tragedy.