Tuesday, January 11, 2011

In Memoriam: Alexander Hamilton

The more I read of Ron Chernow's massive biography Alexander Hamilton - which is one of those books where the more you read the more it seems there is of it to read - the more obvious it becomes that Hamilton's life and achievements warrant every word; 300 pages in and I find myself dreading the arrival of page 731, where it ends, almost as much as I fear that once I get there the ending will have somehow been moved back another 200 pages!

PhotobucketBorn on this day in either 1755 or 1757 (record-keeping in those days being so much more conducive to myth-making than it is today) Hamilton's shocking early life - he was born, for instance, out of wedlock - or rather his zeal to overcome its stigma, seems to have motivated him to achieve as much as he did. Fortunately, his ambition was wedded to precocity and he lived in such interesting times that he was able to; alas, his predilection for scandalous behaviour must have been inborn. Even today he is not as fondly remembered as he might be because of it.

Orphaned in 1768, he arrived in New York City to study at King's College (the forerunner to Columbia University) in 1773; there he was soon embroiled in the cause of American Independence following the Boston Tea Party, which occurred within months of his arrival in the Thirteen Colonies.

As the first shots were being fired at the Battle of Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts he joined a New York militia company called the Hearts of Oak in 1775; the following year he distinguished himself at the Battle of Harlem Heights, and thereafter he became close friend and confidante of General George Washington, whom he served as Chief of Staff.

As one of the most learned and eloquent framers of the US Constitution, Hamilton's imprimatur was all over the new government after September 1789; though officially he was the first Secretary of the Treasury (and so one of only two non-Presidents still featured on US currency - the other being the redoubtable Benjamin Franklin) his vision of a strong central government, advocacy for the placement of the capital at the site where it is today, and push for the creation of the US Coast Guard, represent just some of his positive innovations. He was also one of the founders of the Federalist Party; the introduction of the partisan element to American politics can be considered one of his negative contributions.

Already the principal author of the Federalist Papers, a series of essays which went a long way toward defining the new nation, in 1801 Hamilton founded the New-York Evening Post.

Yet even at this pinnacle, scandal was waiting to unseat him; his reputation was badly damaged by a liaison he conducted with Maria Reynolds which at one point involved his being blackmailed by her husband. Already married to Elizabeth Schuyler himself (since 1780) the whole mess caused Hamilton's resignation, which became the young Republic's first sex scandal; fortunately his enemies (who by now were legion) had no access to the wartime letters Hamilton had exchanged with either John Laurens or the Marquis de Lafayette - laden as they were with allusions to 'the unspeakable vice of the Greeks*' - or things would have been much worse.

In the end, of course, it was yet another scandal which brought about Hamilton's death; easily the most famous duel in US history, in July 1804 tensions between himself and Vice-President Aaron Burr which had been simmering for years boiled over when Hamilton slandered Burr by implying he'd been involved in an act of incest. They met at the Heights of Weehawken (New York state had long since outlawed duelling, but New Jersey hadn't) where Burr fatally shot his nemesis.

Hamilton was removed to his country estate, The Grange, where he died of his injuries the following day, July 12th; he was 49. The home where he died is now preserved as a museum.

*Butt sex between two dudes.
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