“His enemies destroyed his reputation, America forgot him”
– Leslie Odom, Jr., as Aaron Burr in Hamilton
By now readers of our Sunday Travels series will be well aware of two things about this particular FBB staff writer: I spend a lot of time around the DC-Maryland area and I’m a monumental nerd. With this in mind, it should be no surprise that I’ve taken it upon myself to visit almost every city monument, read any plaque bolted to the side of a building, and absorb every ounce of history I can from this swamp-town. Despite my snobbery about the little known and obscure historical landmarks around the city (you haven’t been to the Temperance Fountain on the corner of Indiana and 7th!?), I still giggle like a school boy whenever I walk up and down the National Mall. The Mall, and the entire District, is packed with memorials to the men and women who have led, defended, and served the government there housed. From the calm, immortal distinction of the Lincoln Memorial to the oddly prominent positioning of the James Garfield statue, America’s history is preserved in marble, granite, and steel. However, there is one American who is missing from the landscape: Alexander Hamilton. I believe this should be remedied.
Before I dive into my well versed and logically flawless argument, I have a bit of a confession. As of the day I began writing this article, there are actually two existing tributes to Alexander Hamilton in Washington DC. WAIT, WAIT DON’T CLOSE OUT THE WINDOW I WASN’T DONE YET. I know what you’re thinking, “Tom why are you arguing that there needs to be another monument if there is, not one, but two already in DC.” Well, dear reader, while there are already two tributes, neither are accessible to the public. The first tribute, while outside, is in close enough proximity to the White House that it is included in the highly protected and restricted section of “President’s Park.” The second is a statue in an obscure section of the Capitol Building, so in order to see it a visitor has to book a Capitol tour and hope that the unpaid, overworked, and unfulfilled intern giving the tour happens to walk down that particular hallway on the way to the rotunda. Access really does mean everything, and that’s why what I’m advocating for is a public, fully accessible monument. Ok, now that this is cleared up let’s get on with my argument…Hamilton deserves a fully accessible monument firstly to recognize his role in the establishment of the Republic and the ratification of the Constitution, secondly to recognize his role as the father of the American financial system as we know it, and lastly to provide a symbolic epicenter that would provide citizens the opportunity to learn more about Hamilton, the early republic, and the popular political thoughts of their time.
At the conclusion of the War for Independence the United States was operating under a loose coalition of governments known as the Articles of Confederation. The Articles of Confederation were absolute s***. To address this, a constitutional convention was called for in Philadelphia (Chernow, 2005). At this convention, Hamilton, along with James Madison, argued that the United States needed to be just that — united. Hamilton believed that the only way to do this was through a strong federal government, an idea that took shape within the finished document (Chernow, 2005). This however, was a view that was not exactly popular. Creating a strong central government would require the states to sacrifice a lot of the power they had enjoyed long before the Revolution and they weren’t eager to give it up. Additionally, many citizens of these states had just thrown off a strong central government (a la King George III) and were not too thrilled about creating a new one. Hamilton responded to their hesitation straight on. He organized and edited a series of essays aimed at defending the new constitution – The Federalist Papers. Along with James Madison and John Jay, Hamilton published 85 essays, each of them responding to criticisms of and questions about the Constitution. The papers were instrumental in swinging public opinion towards the creation of a new government (Chernow, 2005). Eventually all 13 states ratified the Constitution and the most stable founding document in the history of democracy took effect. Today, the Federalist Papers still hold a prominent place in American legal theory. In addition to being on the syllabus of any political science course you will ever take (trust me new policy majors, just buy the book it will pay off in the end), the Federalist Papers are also the most cited source in Supreme Court decision, beating out even the Constitution itself. Without Hamilton, at best we lose important insight into the founder’s thought process and vision of the government; at worse, the possible failure to ratify the Constitution.
Soon after the new government was established and George Washington became the first President of the United States, Hamilton was tapped to lead the Treasury Department. Hamilton quickly turned Treasury Secretary into one of the most influential positions, second only to the Presidency. His first challenge was to get the new nation’s financial house in order. During the War of Independence, the Continental Congress, as well as the individual states, ran up a debt with no intentions of paying it off. This debt, combined with multiple forms of largely useless currency, resulted in runaway inflation and a hesitancy on the part of foreign nations to invest in the still new republic (Chernow, 2005). To offset this, Hamilton proposed a three part plan. The first part involved the federal government assuming and paying off all state and confederation debts. Hamilton argued that doing so would improve national credit and bring some much needed legitimacy to the republic’s new central government (Chernow, 2005). The second part of Hamilton’s plan was to establish the First Bank of the United States as a way to standardize American currency (Chernow, 2005). His plan was modeled along the lines of the Bank of England, with the National Bank serving as a central bank able to manipulate, protect, and issue a national currency (Chernow, 2005). The final part of the plan involved implementing subsidies along with protective tariffs to help encourage the growth of American manufacturing and help American producers compete with inexpensive European imports. This plan, implemented despite the objections of Republicans like James Madison (Hamilton’s former ally) and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, would eventually become tenants of the modern capitalist economy and propel the United States past its agrarian economy roots into what it has become today (Chernow, 2005). Hamilton’s vision became America’s reality hundreds of years after his death. Without his brash style of realpolitik and dedication to his craft, history would have been very different.
In the days before Mr. Lin-Manuel Miranda turned him into a Broadway smash, Hamilton typically made only a brief cameo appearance in high school American history textbooks. In my own experience (both as a student and a substitute teacher), he was typically relegated to a status equal to that of the XYZ Affair or the Whiskey Rebellion — important-ish but not worthy of Washington or Jefferson volumes of ink. The reason for this actually dates back to around the time of Hamilton’s death. While Hamilton was a brilliant policy wonk, he lacked the soft touch that is often needed in politics. He was the kind of guy that, when he disagreed with you, would tell you you’re wrong, give you a sixteen point dissertation on why you were wrong, and then call you ugly. This caused his political rivals – Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and Burr (sir) – to become his political enemies and resulted in their downplaying the importance of Hamilton’s contributions. Considering that these men all held the presidency, their downplaying of Hamilton’s work was practically lethal (editor’s note: Burr never became president, but he did shoot and kill Hamilton so I guess his downplaying was literally lethal.) After decades of telling the same lie, that lie morphed into accepted fact and resonated through the generations, leading to his diminished place in History.
This disrespect is a gross injustice. Hamilton embodies the American experience more than any other founding father. While many of our other founders came from wealthy and educated backgrounds, Hamilton overcame steep odds to make his way to our young nation, he bravely fought and risked his life for its independence, he advocated more than anyone else for the creation and ratification of the U.S. Constitution, he was a lifelong opponent of slavery, and he influenced American economic policy more than any other Treasury Secretary. Hamilton, and the public, deserves better. Our national monuments exist not only to memorialize the individual, but to inform the public about that individual, their times, and their contributions to this nation and who they were as a person. By not having a publicly available monument to the ten-dollar founding father without a father, we are not only failing to acknowledge his contributions, but we are depriving our citizens the opportunity to learn more about him, his times, his ideas, and the debates that defined our early republic. In a day and age when the poor and immigrants in our country are vilified more and more, nothing could be more important than memorializing the incredible contributions this orphaned immigrant made to our country.
Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton / Ron Chernow Penguin Press New York 2004
Photo Credit: Giphy Media