The Essence of Hamilton

While the American Founders have remained an important part of the American imagination for centuries, the popularity of particular Founders ebbs and flows with the predilections of the times. In the current age, no Founder has been more on the minds of Americans than Alexander Hamilton, thanks to Ron Chernow’s wonderful biography and a Broadway musical inspired by it. Many Americans have seen the musical depicting his remarkable rise from obscurity to the heights of American political leadership, or have listened to its soundtrack. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hopping Hamilton resonates especially with young people less interested in 18th century America and more interested in the musical vessel that carries Hamilton’s story.

The trend is not limited to popular culture; it has included new scholarship on Hamilton’s life and political ideas. Few Americans, however, actually read his writings—which leaves the Hamiltonian legacy, as that of other Founders, shrouded in a veil of myth and misunderstanding. Unveiling the historical Hamilton and separating him from the mythical one begins with the study of his essays, letters, speeches, and public reports. The publication of Carson Holloway and Bradford P. Wilson’s two-volume set of The Political Writings of Alexander Hamilton makes reading these original works more accessible.

No Substitute for Digging into Primary Sources

What is so important about reading primary sources from the American Founding? Furthermore, why are Hamilton’s writings especially essential to those interested in understanding the founding, formation, and identity of the American republic?

Over the course of American history, scholars, teachers, journalists, and others have debated the legacy of the Founders and judged the constitutional order they helped create. Rarely have such debates and judgments been free of ideological bias and anachronism. Secondary sources serve a useful role, for inevitably, non-experts have to rely on the work of specialized scholars who save students the trouble of always doing extensive research on original sources. At their best, these secondary sources are the product of authors who have labored for years over substantial materials that help provide insights into the meaning and significance of history. The knowledge gained from such intellectual work allows authors to become experts and to specialize in knowing particular thinkers, historical events, historical eras, and schools of thought. The works they produce are, hopefully, true to the original sources that comprise their research.

Yet, there is something to be said for devoting at least some effort to reading primary sources so as not to become overly dependent on secondary sources. Interpretations vary with the assumptions of each individual; reading primary sources may lead one to question the validity of certain readings of important thinkers. Secondary literature may reach consensus on some things, but disputes between scholars are common especially with regard to controversial figures like Hamilton.

There is no substitute for digging into primary sources. What keeps many students from reading them is access to the libraries that contain them. The Political Writings of Alexander Hamilton bridges the gap between institutional and personal libraries. Until its publication, students of Hamilton had to choose between the 27 volumes of his comprehensive writings (masterfully edited by Harold C. Syrett) or much smaller anthologies or collections that only scratch the surface. Holloway and Wilson’s volumes occupy a middle ground. While not so massive as to be overwhelming, they are focused on a central, and arguably the most important, part of Hamilton’s writings. Most readers are not so specialized as to need 27 volumes, but in two large tomes Holloway and Wilson have captured the essence of Hamilton, the political thinker and statesman. Moreover, the volumes provide enough of Hamilton’s lesser-known writings to give readers a sense of whether or not the secondary literature is an accurate depiction or reasonable interpretation of his political ideas.

There are a number of factors that make these volumes compelling. The editors provide a brief introduction that sketches Hamilton’s biography and explains why they selected the material they did. For those who know Hamilton primarily from the essays he contributed to The Federalist, which he wrote in a matter of several months, there is a wealth of material that covers the full span of Hamilton’s life as thinker and statesman.

Hamilton’s childhood letter to Edward Stevens lamenting his low professional station and wishing for a war that would provide the opportunity for elevation to the level of his talents begins both Volume I and its first section that deals primarily with the period of American resistance to British rule. This section includes “A Full Vindication” and “The Farmer Refuted” as well as Hamilton’s “The Continentalist” essays.

The next sections of Volume I are devoted to Hamilton’s development as a statesman leading up to the Constitutional Convention and then his statesmanship at the Convention and during the ratification debates. Of note in these two sections are Hamilton’s “Phocion” essays that argue for moderation in dealing with Loyalists in the wake of American Independence, a handful of speeches made to the New York Assembly while serving as a member, and speeches to the New York Ratifying Convention. Also included in Volume I are selections of Hamilton’s remarks to the Constitutional Convention, including his plan for a constitutional republic to replace the Articles of Confederation.

Volume II begins with selections from Hamilton’s financial writings, including excerpts from his views on the national bank and his Report on Manufactures. The second part of Volume II is devoted to foreign policy in the Washington administration, including his Pacificus essays defending Washington’s Neutrality Proclamation, his anti-Jacobin essays, his “Tully” essays decrying the Whisky Rebellion, and his “Americanus” essays refuting calls for aid to the revolutionary government of France. This section is followed by sections on Hamilton as a leader of the Federalist Party, including his “The Defense” essays defending the Jay Treaty, and his statesmanship from the beginning of the Jefferson presidency to his death in 1804.

This topical framework highlights the major aspects of Hamilton’s political life and it lends itself to chronological organization of his writings.

Developing Political Ideas in the Heat of Political Action

There are a few omissions from this work that deserve comment. The best-known and most substantive of Hamilton’s political writings are his 51 articles that make up nearly two-thirds of The Federalist. Given the widespread availability of The Federalist, the omission is justified given the opportunity cost of including Hamilton’s entire contribution, yet it seems odd that at least a few of his more important essays (like numbers 6, 9, 15, 28, 71, 78, and 84) are not included. Some of Hamilton’s contributions to the Constitutional Convention are included. Why not include some of his Federalist essays? The other primary author of The Federalist, James Madison, is associated with Federalist 10 and 51 in part because they are typically included in American Government textbooks. What are the essays that define Hamilton’s political theory and defense of the Constitution? One would expect that a collection of Hamilton’s political writings would include such defining Federalist Papers, especially those that articulate ideas not found in his other writings.

The second omission has to do with the editors’ decision to keep the volumes largely free of comment, contextual introductions, and companion letters by authors other than Hamilton. (The exception is an appendix on his death and legacy.) I’ve mentioned their introduction that appears in both volumes; there are also an extensive index and clarifying endnotes to explain the editors’ decisions about textual changes and Hamilton’s factual errors. The virtue of the second omission is that Hamilton takes center stage without the heavy hand of editors projecting their ideological preferences onto the text. Readers can engage the text directly without editorial distraction. At the same time, they need to have a working knowledge of the historical and political contexts in which Hamilton wrote and conducted his statesmanship to fully appreciate the political challenges he faced while developing particular arguments.

Dates are provided for each entry but there is no frame of reference. More could have been done to explain the significance of Hamilton’s political writings and to contextualize them. What is Hamilton’s contribution to American political thought? Are there original components of his thinking? Were his political ideas based on expedience alone?

Two additional omissions are Hamilton’s “Defense of the Funding System” and his draft of Washington’s Farewell Address. The former was not published until long after Hamilton’s death and the latter is not, technically, or at least exclusively, Hamilton’s, but reveals much about his view of foreign policy and illustrates the achievement of his frequent collaboration with Washington. The “Defense of the Funding System” is typical of Hamilton’s reports and public papers: It focuses on a mundane topic of governing but it is littered with comments that reveal the theoretical and philosophical characteristics of his way of looking at politics. Especially evident from this document are Hamilton’s reasons for favoring more centralized power, which included the problem of factions that so bedeviled the states. It is also the place where he distinguishes between the “true politician” who “takes human nature (and human society its aggregate) as he finds it,” and the “political-empyric,” who is prone to “travel out of human nature.”

As was typical of Hamilton, in the course of conducting the affairs of government and politics, he applied and developed political ideas in the heat of political action. In both the case of the “Defense of the Funding System” and Washington’s Farewell Address, he exhibited a rejection of an idealistic approach to political conduct and thinking and embraced a form of realism that was grounded in republican virtue. These principles are part of the core of Hamilton’s political theory.

The Political Writings of Alexander Hamilton, as part of the growing literature on one of America’s most accomplished Founders, provides readers with a wealth of Hamilton’s political writings second only to his collected writings. The volumes are well-edited and well-organized. One can quibble about the exclusion of a few pieces of Hamilton’s work, but on the whole, the editors have gathered the most essential products of his pen. One hopes that the new interest in this man will lead more Americans to not only sing catchy songs about him, but also read the writings of a statesman who played a major role in shaping the identity and constitutional substance of the American republic.