The real Alexander Hamilton
Geoff Metcalf interviews author Richard Brookhiser

By Geoff Metcalf
Alexander Hamilton -- the man on the $10 bill, who signed the Constitution, authored roughly two thirds of the Federalist Papers, served in Washington's army as a colonel, was a New York assemblyman, a congressman and at the age of 32 became America's first treasury secretary -- was at the age of 11 a poor, illegitimate orphan from the West Indies.

Richard Brookhiser, well known for his previous books, including "Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington," last year released what may be the most insightful biography yet of one of America's most misunderstood founders: "Alexander Hamilton, American."

He was interviewed by WorldNetDaily's Geoff Metcalf:

Question: When you start off your book, you reference Hamilton's eulogy to Gen. Nathaniel Greene. I am a Rhode Islander by birth and the first grammar school I attended was Nathaniel Greene School.

Answer: Greene died shortly after the Revolutionary War. He was one of our very best generals. He died young, of sun stroke.

This eulogy was delivered July 4th in New York City -- that was the capitol of the country. Hamilton had been a colonel in the army on Washington's staff and had known Greene.

What interested me in his eulogy was that he is talking about wars and revolutions and upheavals of that time. And, he said that one justification for the evils they produce is that they bring to a public stage talents that otherwise might have lived their lives in obscurity -- people who would have been in humble situations. In a war, in a revolution, they can find an opportunity to make something of themselves. He was saying this was the case with Greene. But, what he didn't tell his audience was this was far more the case ...

Q: ... with him.

A: Exactly. This was a man who had not even been born here. He had been born in the West Indies, on the island of Nevis, and raised on the island of Saint Croix in the Virgin Islands. His parents were not prosperous and their economic circumstances plunged over the course of his life.

They were not married. His mother Rachel Fossett had been married to a cotton planter in the islands and she had run away from him because he was a brute. Then she took up with James Hamilton and they lived together for twelve years and they had two sons but they were never able to get legally married.

Q: So when they called him a bastard, they meant it.

A: And they were literally correct. John Adams called Hamilton the "bastard brat of a Scotch peddler." Then, at the age of nine, Hamilton's father abandons his family -- just moves out to another island. Then when he is eleven, Hamilton's mother dies. So at the age of eleven, Hamilton is a poor, illegitimate orphan working as a clerk in a St. Croix counting house. And that's the background from which he starts.

Q: ... before he went on to be a colonel on Washington's staff for four years, a member of the assembly in New York, a congressman, delegate to the Constitutional Convention and America's first secretary of the treasury.

A: Yes. And also, planner and author of two thirds of the Federalists papers. Whenever we look at his achievements and what he is proposing, we always have to keep in our mind his background -- which is this poor, stressful history on the margins of a wretched slave society.

Q: I'm a big Thomas Jefferson fan and Tommy and Al didn't get along too well.

A: No, they didn't.

Q: They had divergent opinions about the way things ought to be. I found it fascinating, given Hamilton's background, that he would have been, frankly, such an elitist?

A: Well, his elitism is complicated. There are ways in which he was. And he certainly constructed an economic system that favored the wealthy and favored rich merchants. Of course, Thomas Jefferson was a much richer man than Hamilton -- always had been. He was born at the top of Virginia society and he died there. He died in debt, but that was due to his own improvidence and not taking care of his own expenses.

But the kind of rich people Jefferson was comfortable with and liked were rich planters like himself. Jefferson's model of American society was that it should be rural. People should be farmers. And they would be rich farmers, or middling or poor farmers, and then there would be slaves and slave states that would work on the farms of rich farmers.

Q: What was Hamilton's view?

A: Hamilton wanted there to be more kinds of different things going. He wanted there to be commerce and trade and he wanted there to be manufacturing. This was something Jefferson didn't like, didn't understand. Jefferson said, "Cities add no more to health of a country than do sores to a body." That was Jefferson's view and Hamilton's was very, very different.

Q: The ongoing debate they had -- although Jefferson arguably won the debate at the time in the way the Constitution was framed, it appears as if, through inertia, Hamilton's vision is more what we ended-up with. How long did those debates continue about states rights and federal control?

A: Well, they began early in the Washington administration.

Hamilton and Jefferson are both in George Washington's cabinet. Washington picks Hamilton to be the first treasury secretary and he picks Jefferson to be the first secretary of state. And every subsequent cabinet has looked like a pick-up team after that start. They get along all right, for about the first year and a half. Then, as they get to know each other better, they figure they are really coming from very different points on the political compass. Their disagreements are what produced the first American two-party system. Their disagreements continued until Hamilton died in 1804 and then posthumously as party politics went on.

Q: Hamilton had his detractors beyond Jefferson and Aaron Burr, who didn't like him ...

A: I'd say more than "didn't like him."

Q: Yeah, if you kill someone, it exceeds "dislike." I was surprised by some of the language from people who historically we would not consider mean-spirited. But he was called "little" by some people in a demeaning way.

A: Yes, he was average height.

Q: About five seven?

A: Yeah, but he was slender, at a time when people tended to run to fat. He always had a youthful air. He always looked younger than he was until the very end of his life, when some tragedies occurred, and then he aged very fast in his early forties. When people called him "little," the other thing they were reacting to was that he was a "know-it-all." Which he always was. He had a tremendously quick mind. He could look at problems, grasp them and figure them out -- and then he was always telling his answers to everybody.

A: James Madison didn't like him.

A: Well, he changed his mind. They worked together very closely in the 1780s and on the run up to the Constitutional Convention. During and afterwards, they were the two main advocates in the press for ratifying it. It was Hamilton's idea that there should be a series of essays in New York, which was a crucial state, on the edge and in need of persuading. So, he looks for collaborators and he gets James Madison and John Jay. Hamilton writes two thirds of the Federalists Papers and Madison writes about the other third. Jay falls sick so he doesn't write very many.

So they were allies then. But, when the new government gets up and running, Madison is in Congress and then Madison starts to change his tune.

Q: Why?

A: I think this is because Thomas Jefferson has come back to the country. He has been in Paris in the 1780s as our ambassador. So Jefferson is back on the scene and always exerts a tremendous influence over Madison. So he starts pulling him away from his Hamiltonian loyalties into a different course.

Q: In fact, Madison's left-handed compliment to Hamilton, after he died, was, "If his theory of government deviated from the Republican standard, he had the candor to avow it, and the greater merit of cooperating in a system which was not his choice." Which kind of underscores something I frankly didn't know before. And, that was that Alexander Hamilton signed the Constitution but he really didn't believe in it?

A: Well, everybody who signed the Constitution had problems with it. There wasn't a single delegate in Philadelphia who got exactly what he wanted out of the Constitution. Including James Madison. I called it a left-handed compliment because, among other things, it is not very candid.

Q: What do you mean?

A: Well, it implies that, while all the rest of us who were on board really supported the document wholeheartedly, and yes Hamilton was polite enough to help us, yet secretly he really disagreed. The fact is, everybody at that convention had different ideas, they made compromises and they didn't get what they wanted. James Madison offered a plan at the start of the debates known as "The Virginia Plan," and the final document that came out of there was very different from his plan. I mean, he wanted the House to pick the Senate. He wanted both branches to pick the President. It was quite different from what finally resulted.

The other rhetorical trick in his compliment to Hamilton there was that he and Jefferson and their friends said, and believed, that Hamilton was secretly a monarchist. They thought his financial system was intended to make the United States like Great Britain and to try to put more power in the presidency and, ultimately, to make it a monarchy that would make it a tool of Great Britain.

Q: Kind of like what we have now?

A: Yeah, but even more so. A literal monarchy. A guy that would serve for life and then his son would follow him. Alexander Hamilton fought for a republican form of government -- which is more than James Madison or Thomas Jefferson ever did. He wore the uniform for six years. He was a Colonel on Washington's staff. He had bullets shot at him. He had horses shot out from under him in various engagements he was in. He was a committed small 'r' republican every bit as much as they were. Their notion that he was a monarchist was slimeball politics. It was eighteenth century "spin".

Q: I have to ask you, because most people don't know much about Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, except that one guy shot the other guy in a duel. What was their conflict?

A: They had known each other for many years. They were both lawyers and they both lived and worked in New York City. They both were involved in New York politics, on opposite sides of the partisan fence, but they socialized together.

Burr was a veteran of the Revolutionary War, also a colonel. He had been a very brave officer. He was a very intelligent and very charming man. But Alexander Hamilton had always opposed his attempts to win political office, whether he was running for senator, vice president or governor of New York. And the reason was, he did not trust what Aaron Burr would do with power when he got it. Jefferson even was more trustworthy, in Hamilton's mind, because he knew what Jefferson would do. Most of it would be wrong from his point of view, but Jefferson was pretty explicit.

Q: He was consistent.

A: Yes, you would know where Jefferson was coming from. You could even correct for Jefferson's behavior. Hamilton believed Jefferson was a more cautious man than his rhetoric would lead you to believe. So Hamilton had a pretty good idea of where Jefferson would come down.

With Burr however, he had no idea. In fact, one of Burr's modern biographers has said, "if you read all of Burr's correspondence, you will find no discussion of political theory." There is a lot of discussion of politics and politicking and how do we win this election or how do we accomplish this or that. But here is no discussion of political theory.

Q: Gee, again we come full circle to contemporary politics. That's rather how it is now.

A: Right. It would be no surprise if these were the letters of James Carville or Dan Rostenkowski. But this was at a time when American politicians were serious intellectual men and they were obsessed with political theory. So, the lack in Aaron Burr is striking.

Q: So Burr was more 'form' than 'substance'? Hamilton, Jefferson et al were more 'substance' than form?

A: That's right. So Hamilton opposes Burr through one election and another and this goes on for years. Finally, in 1804, Burr is the vice president, but he knows he won't be elected president because he has quarreled with Thomas Jefferson who is the president, so he wants to run for governor of New York. He has another interest in this, in that he is in terrible debt. So long as he is an office holder, he can keep the creditors away from him. But once he goes back to being a civilian, they are going to get him.

So, he runs for governor of New York and, once again, Hamilton opposes him and Burr loses -- rather badly. Then, finally, after opposition, Burr has had enough. He seizes on a newspaper story which gives a rather garbled account of some bad things that Hamilton supposedly said about him at a dinner party. He challenges Hamilton to a duel ...

Q: Hold on, there is some fascinating subtext, a back-story to this duel. Please share that?

A: There was another duel three years earlier. Alexander Hamilton's oldest son, Philip, who was 19 years old, also got into a political argument and was challenged to a duel. He went to his father for advice. His father told him that, of course, as a gentlemen, he must fight a duel but that it was immoral to kill your opponent in duels so, therefore, he should waste his first shot. Nobody told Philip Hamilton's opponent this. So Philip Hamilton was shot and killed at the age of nineteen.

Also, Hamilton's second oldest child, his daughter Angelica, who was seventeen, has a breakdown as a result. For the rest of her life, and she lived into her seventies, she always referred to Philip Hamilton as still alive. She could not accept his death. So in one stroke, Alexander Hamilton loses his two oldest children and, I think, this darkens the last three years of his life and affects his judgment.

Q: Okay, fast forward back to 1804.

A: It's 1804, and Burr has challenged Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton agrees to go through with it. And, before the duel, he writes a letter to his wife which should be opened in case he is killed because she doesn't know what's going on -- very few people do. He writes that if he is killed, the reason was because he felt he had to go through with the duel because, again, that is what gentlemen do, but he felt it was immoral to kill people in duels so he, too, would waste his first shot.

Q: Did he in fact do that?

A: His shot went off in the air. Burr's hit him in the stomach. They were fighting, by the way, on the same dueling ground where Philip Hamilton had been killed, and they were using the same pair of pistols. They belonged to Alexander Hamilton's brother-in-law.

Q: Where did Hamilton ever get the economic, financial and even marketing insight to create the New York Stock Exchange and then market the idea of investing in U.S. stocks so well that eventually they could finance the entire Louisiana Purchase?

A: This is his big achievement. When Hamilton came in as treasury secretary, the United States was close to being what we now call a "Banana Republic." If we had kept on the course we were on, the term would have become "Maple Republic" and we would have been the first example of it. Our debts were trading in European money markets at 25 percent of their value when he came in. When he left as treasury secretary, they were trading at 110 percent of their value. European money men were paying a premium to hold our debt. That is how well he had gotten a handle on the problem.

Q: Where did he find the genius to do that?

A: It is partly his youthful experience. He worked as a clerk in a merchant house in St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. Since he was a kid, he had a view of this world. He saw it from the bottom up -- from the inside -- and it looked good to him. That's how he got out of the islands and that's how he got sent to New York City to be educated by his boss.

Then, when he was serving in the army on Washington's staff, he just read every book on economics and economic problems he could get his hands on. His stimulus there was that, as an Army officer, he had a front row seat as to how badly America's finances were being handled. The army was suffering the brunt of it -- not getting shoes, not getting supplies, not getting paid.

So, by the time he was 32 years old and Washington was looking for a treasury secretary, Robert Morris, who was one of the premier financiers in America and who didn't want the job, told Washington that Hamilton was "damn sharp." Washington knew this already from working with him but Morris confirmed that Hamilton had been studying this area.

Q: What were Hamilton's views of tariffs and the protection of American business?

A: Hamilton was in favor of moderate protections for new industries. He thought once they were established, the protections should be withdrawn. He was neither a complete free trader nor was he a protectionist of the kind that America developed in the 19th century.

Q: We talked about his detractors. Hamilton has some heavyweight supporters as well.

A: Well, George Washington was probably his most important one. He knew Hamilton for the last 22 years of his life and, although they did quarrel at times, Washington always defended him. I think the most moving thing I saw was to go over to Weehawken, where his duel with Aaron Burr occurred. All that is there now is a little park and a flag pole and a little bust of him on a pillar. There is not much to see. It is not even the exact site.

But if you cross the Hudson River, what you see is the whole Manhattan skyline, from the World Trade Center right on up through all the great skyscrapers. And, you feel that if Hamilton could be brought back to that spot and see it today, he would say, "This is the kind of country I wanted to build. This is why I came here when I was 15. Make use of these opportunities."

Q: What ever happened to Aaron Burr?

A: Aaron Burr served out his term as vice president. He was tried for treason on an unrelated matter having to do with whether he was plotting to split the western United States off and set-up a country of his own. He was acquitted. Then he spent some time in Europe, came back and spent some time in New York as a lawyer and, at the end of his life, he married a rich widow. He began running through all her money and she divorced him on his deathbed.