Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton and the Constitution

by Clinton Rossiter
Harcourt, Brace & World, 372 pp., $6.75

Alexander Hamilton
Alexander Hamilton; drawing by David Levine

If it is true that one can learn much about a people by its choice of heroes, then a study of Alexander Hamilton and his reputation among Americans during his lifetime and thereafter should be instructive. Hamilton served with distinction in the Continental Army throughout the Revolution. He was a leader in the movement which resulted in the Philadelphia Convention, and though he had little influence over the shaping of the Constitution and did not greatly admire it, he campaigned vigorously and effectively for its ratification. As Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury, he was brilliantly successful in establishing the nation’s finances on a sound basis, and his advice to the President in other areas of government was also considerable. He was the first American to visualize the tremendous industrial potential of the country, and to advocate government assistance and planning as a means of realizing it. This record would seem to be quite sufficient to establish him firmly and unambiguously among the leading ranks of Founding Fathers. He is there all right, but not unambiguously. The fact is that Hamilton makes a very awkward ancestor. He was associated with monarchical, aristocratic, and anti-republican ideas during his life-time, and rightly or wrongly, his posthumous reputation has never quite escaped these associations. He was and has remained the personification of opposition to Thomas Jefferson, and in so far as Jefferson has been revered, the natural tendency has been to distrust and condemn Hamilton. Yet Hamilton’s contributions to the new nation were great, and the belief that he has been misunderstood and unappreciated has periodically inspired attempts to win for him some measure of the gratitude and glory he craved in life, and which, it is felt, he most assuredly earned. Mr. Rossiter’s book is the latest of such attempts. He argues that Hamilton was a first-rate political thinker, a great constitutionalist, and a truly great and wholly patriotic American. The last two of these three claims are aimed particularly, it would seem, at the profound yet not always precisely defined conviction of many people that Hamilton, though he served his country well, was not really committed to its fundamental principles.

The first of these principles was and has been a deep and pervasive belief in constitutional government. No other principle—not liberty and not equality—has endured so universally and for so long a time as the touchstone of political legitimacy. It is therefore necessary to examine Mr. Rossiter’s interpretation of Hamilton as a great constitutionalist with careful attention.

He describes Hamilton as “the most influential constitutionalist of his age,” and states that his was “the most splendid service rendered to the Constitution by any man of the first generation of free Americans.” In order to substantiate these assertions, Mr. Rossiter notes Hamilton’s various contributions up to 1789, but relies primarily, if I understand him correctly, on the interpretations of the Constitution which he worked out…

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