Note: This is Day Seven of Ten Days of Hamilton. Read this for an explanation.
Thanks to the musical Hamilton, people who care are aware that Alexander Hamilton served as an aide to George Washington during the Revolutionary War. But Washington’s patronage of Hamilton extended beyond this role. According to accounts of the day, Hamilton didn’t encounter Washington until they met during the war. This shouldn’t be unexpected; Washington was older and lived in Virginia, far away from Hamilton in New York.
Washington probably first heard of Hamilton after the latter stole some cannons from the British during the Battle of Princeton. Hamilton became a hot commodity, and others sought him out for “promotion” from the field to their side as an aide, including Nathanael Greene, the American commander in the Southern theater. Fortunately for Washington, Hamilton didn’t want to be a secretary and longed to stay in the field with his men striving for glory. An offer from Washington, however, was too enticing to pass up, and Hamilton served at Washington’s side for just over 4 years.*
*I wrote about all this yesterday, so you can go read it there if you are so inclined.
Their relationship extended beyond the war, as Hamilton was the first member of Washington’s cabinet as Secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton had spent most of the prior decade – between 1781 and the Battle of Yorktown and the election of Washington in 1789, Hamilton participated in the Constitutional Convention, helped write the Federalist, and worked as a lawyer, among other things – building the foundation of our government. Washington wasn’t really much of a politician, deferring instead to others and surrounding himself with “experts,” though he was still the final decision maker in most executive decisions. Nevertheless, Hamilton seemingly ran wild under this laissez-faire administration.
Ron Chernow, in his biography of Alexander Hamilton, constantly mentions the growing size of Hamilton’s Treasury Department. Part of it was warranted; he was creating the foundation for America’s financial system so that they country could compete on a global scale with other world powers. Compared with the skeleton crews operating at both the State and War Departments, the Treasury Department seemed to be growing a shadow government, or at the very least a large bureaucracy loyal to Hamilton. This was one of the biggest complaints by Thomas Jefferson, which further led to questions about Hamilton’s true motivations for everything he was doing.
I’m not saying that Washington was complicit in what Jefferson thought was a pretty illicit power grab. Nor am I saying that what Hamilton was doing was bad. They are things that needed to be done, and unless you were a slave-owning hypocrite from Virginia, Hamilton’s vision for the near future of America was very prescient. Sure, there was a Panic along the way, and it picked a horrible Assistant Secretary of the Treasury at the outset of his term, but all in all, Hamilton and his idea was the catalyst that started the American economic engine.
To the end of Washington’s life, Hamilton knew the importance of Washington both to the country and to his successes in government. Washington gets a lot of credit for being the first president, but perhaps the best thing that he did is actually step away after two terms. He established a practice followed for the first 160 years of the country (until FDR kinda ruined the unwritten rule and they had to amend the Constitution to prevent it from happening again).
During the Constitutional Convention, one of the more controversial parts of Hamilton’s form of government was a president elected for life. Modeled after the British monarchy, he believed that as long as a president was serving honorably, he should be able to serve as long as he wanted to. Washington, however, felt that he had served his country for most of his adult life, service that had begun in earnest with the French and Indian Wars in 1754 and ended with his death in 1799.*
*After he left the presidency, he “served” as the senior military office from July 1798 until his death in December 1799, though it was mostly symbolic during the Quasi-War with France during John Adams’ administration.
Nearly 45 years of his life was in service to his country, so I don’t blame him for wanting to return to Mount Vernon and sit “under (his) own vine and fig tree.” And in a perfect world, he would have had more than a few years to do so. Nevertheless, his place in Hamilton’s life was never forgotten, even long after Alexander’s death; Eliza Hamilton was the leader in getting the Washington Monument built in Washington, DC later in her life (among all the other great things she did – which we’ll talk a bit about tomorrow). While maintaining Washington’s legacy was a bit easier – he was the first president after all – she understood the impact that Washington had on her husband’s legacy as well.
I don’t think anybody out there tells the story of the foundation of our country without Alexander Hamilton anymore, but his legacy is much more entwined with the president than at first glance, even beyond his time spent as aide. Without Washington recognizing Hamilton’s unique abilities, there would have been no Alexander Hamilton, and probably no America that we came to know either.
Until next time…
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