America at Her Best Is Hamiltonian

[Hamilton] is a great man, but, in my judgment, not a great American. —U.S. President-elect Woodrow Wilson, Democrat (1912)1

When America ceases to remember [Hamilton’s] greatness, America will be no longer great. —U.S. President Calvin Coolidge, Republican (1922)2

America at her best loves liberty and respects rights, prizes individualism, eschews racism, disdains tyranny, extolls constitutionalism, and respects the rule of law. Her “can-do” spirit values science, invention, business, entrepreneurialism, vibrant cities, and spreading prosperity. At her best, America welcomes immigrants who seek to embrace the American way, as well as trade with foreigners who create products we want. And she is willing to wage war if necessary to protect the rights of her citizens—but not self-sacrificially nor for conquest.

America hasn’t always been at her best, of course. Beyond her glorious founding (1776­–1789), America’s best was exhibited most vividly in the half century between the Civil War and World War I, an era Mark Twain mocked as the “Gilded Age.” In truth, it was a golden era: Slavery had been abolished, money was sound, taxes were low, regulations minimal, immigration voluminous, invention ubiquitous, opportunity enormous, and prosperity profuse. The capitalistic North both outpaced and displaced the feudalistic South.

America today flirts with the worst version of herself.3 Her intellectuals and politicians routinely flout her Constitution. Gone is her firm adherence to separation of powers or checks and balances. The regulatory state proliferates. Taxes oppress while the national debt grows. Money is fiat, finance is volatile, production is stagnant. Populists and “progressives” denounce the rich and condemn economic inequality. Government-run schools produce ignorant voters with anticapitalist biases. Freedom of speech is increasingly assaulted. Racism, riots, and hostility toward policemen abound. Nativists and nationalists scapegoat immigrants and demand walled borders. Self-defeating rules of military engagement preclude the swift defeat of dangerous, barbaric enemies abroad.

Those wishing to see America at her best again can be inspired and informed by the writings and achievements of her founding fathers. And, fortunately, interest in the works of the founders appears to have grown in recent years. Many Americans today, despite their generally poor education, glimpse America’s distant greatness, wonder how the founders created it, and hope to regain it.

Most Americans have a favorite founder. A recent poll indicates that

40% of Americans rate George Washington, the general who defeated the British in the American Revolution and the nation’s first president, as the greatest Founding Father. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, is second [23%], followed by Benjamin Franklin [14%], with later presidents John Adams [6%] and James Madison [5%] further down the list.4

There’s no doubt among scholars (and rightly so) that Washington was “the indispensable man” of the founding era.5 But the poll omits one founder who was crucial to the birth of the United States of America in myriad ways: Alexander Hamilton.6

Despite a relatively short life (1757–1804),7 Hamilton was the only founder besides Washington who played a role in all five of the key stages comprising the creation of the United States of America, and a more crucial role in each successive stage: establishing political independence from Britain,8 achieving victory in the Revolutionary War, drafting and ratification of the U.S. Constitution, creating the administrative architecture for the first federal government, and drafting of the Jay Treaty with Britain as well as the Neutrality Proclamation, which secured the “completion of the founding.”9

The colonial Americans’ declaration of independence from Britain didn’t guarantee a subsequent victory at war, nor did America’s war victory guarantee a subsequent federal constitution. Indeed, not even the Constitution guaranteed that initial federal officeholders would govern properly or cede power peacefully. There was much more to the founding than a couple of documents and a war. How did the documents come to be? How were they defended intellectually? How was the war won? Who was responsible for the countless pivotal aspects of the founding that amounted to the creation and sustenance of the land of liberty? . . .

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1. Charles J. Herold, ed., The Wisdom of Woodrow Wilson (New York: Brentano, 1919), 91.

2. Calvin Coolidge, “Our Heritage from Hamilton,” address before the Hamilton Club at Chicago, January 11, 1922, in The Price of Freedom: Speeches and Addresses by Calvin Coolidge (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1924), 101.

3. One could argue that the 1930s or 1970s were worse decades in certain respects. During the Civil War America was fighting for her life against the fatal disease of slavery-secession.

4. See “What America Thinks: What Would the Founding Fathers Say?” Rasmussen Reports, July 1, 2016.

5. James T. Flexner, Washington: The Indispensable Man (Boston: Little Brown, 1974). See also Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life (New York: Penguin, 2010).

6. Richard B. Morris, Seven Who Shaped Our Destiny: The Founding Fathers as Revolutionaries (New York: Harper & Row, 1973).

7. The best biographies of Hamilton are Forrest McDonald, Alexander Hamilton: A Biography (New York: W. W. Norton, 1979); Richard Brookheiser, Alexander Hamilton: American (New York: Free Press, 1999); and Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (New York: Penguin, 2004). The latter is reviewed by Robert Begley in The Objective Standard 7, no. 3 (Fall 2012).

8. See Richard B. Vernier, ed., The Revolutionary Writings of Alexander Hamilton (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2009); and Richard M. Salsman, “Honoring Alexander Hamilton, The Great American Revolutionary,”, July 5, 2011.

9. Morton J. Frisch, “The Significance of the Pacificus-Helvidius Debates: Toward the Completion of the American Founding,” in Morton J. Frisch, ed., The Pacificus-Helvidius Debates of 1793–1794 (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2006), vii–xv.

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