Who is your favorite founding father of the United States of America? Is it Jefferson, primary writer of the Declaration of Independence and super-successful 3rd president? Is it the stalwart first VP and second prez Adams, whose faith, marriage & family are so admired? How about Madison, constitutional giant and Federalist papers contributor? How about the witty and wise Franklin? Or maybe you pick the obvious one, George Washington… often called the “indispensable man” amongst these great men?
For me it’s none of these. I love them all–and have eagerly devoured biographies on each and every one of the above. However, my favorite founding father was never president, was not all that loved by his peers, and is one of the least esteemed by history.
My favorite founding father is Alexander Hamilton.
Trying to place him, aren’t you? Hamilton, yes, yes, who was that again… Well, pull out your wallet and this might help:
On your 10 dollar bill there imprinted is one of the great but relatively unknown founding fathers of the USA. I say relatively, because, you know: you and I aren’t printed on money. The other founding fathers are certainly wonderful to follow. Great men, all (sorry, ladies, the women were sidelined from such work in those days–although I encourage both sexes to study John & Abigail Adams as she was a powerhouse in that power marriage!)
Well, first of all he’s just far more interesting than the rest of em. I love history. And I love American Revolutionary history most of all, and I love biographies perhaps best, and no story from the founding fathers is as crazy as Hamiltons.
Hamilton wasn’t ever president because he couldn’t be. He was born on the island of Nevis in the Carribean. Later on, Adams once a letter Benjamin Rush, and called Hamilton the “bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar.” While not very kind, this statement was of course accurate. While all the founding fathers were of the genteel version of American Aristocracy, Hamilton was born with nothing, becoming a immigrant fighting his way to the top all his life. We don’t even know what year he was born in fact.
Hamilton earned his early reputation as a hero soldier and then served as Washington’s right hand man in the revolution–and beyond. Many think of Washington’s governing policies as core to the sustenance of the new Union. Nearly every one of these policies was either conceived by Hamilton or enacted by him. He was the most important “second chair leader” in the history of the US Government–and that’s saying something.
Among many men who didn’t fight for their country Hamilton stands out among them as having done so–even in very dangerous conditions. He also stands apart as one of the great sinners of the fathers. Ironically, he also converted later in life and became the most religiously devout and spiritually sensitive of the fathers, except perhaps Adams. An immigrant, Hamilton still had a profound love of nationhood bordering on fanatic nationalism. He did more than any other father to centralize the governmental power–balancing our states-rights values with a concept of America’s unification as primary, a local freedom tempered by the federal government’s protection of individual liberty (a uniquely American paradox). We all now think that our states have rights–but those rights don’t trump the inalienable rights of our citizens, which is why we have a supreme court, for instance. He empowered markets and centralized currency (and likewise debt, for good or ill). He co-authored a great number of the treasured Federalist Papers, staying anonymous along with Madison & Jay in order to let the ideas speak for themselves. I could go on and on about his many accomplishments. Read a biography of his if you can–or at least read one of George Washington, and you’ll note how important a man he was.
Perhaps part of why I find Hamilton so fascinating is that his story has a surprise ending. As public men of great largess and fame the Founding Fathers died in comfort and with fanfare–even Jefferson and Adams dying on the same day in poetic symmetry on July 4th, 1826. But Hamilton dies an ignoble and violent death in a duel with Aaron Burr (the sometimes villian of revolutionary era American biogrophers). Burr felt dishonored by Hamilton, and a challenge to a duel was given. The stories of the duel vary, but most feel that Hamilton “wasted his shot” so that honor would be done and they could move on. But Burr took aim and intentionally shot Hamilton, paralyzing him on July 11th. Hamilton was in immense pain for some 12-16 hours, and died the next day after giving farewell to his family and friends.
We don’t know when Hamilton was born, but because of his contribution to American experiment and ongoing legacy we do know the day of his famous, although tragic, death: July 12th, 1804. Next Thursday you might recall that being the anniversary of his death (and don’t get into any duels with your enemies, verbal or otherwise).
Next time you use a $10 bill to buy something, remember and honor Hamilton. As for today–enjoy your liberty. I am proud to be an American like Hamilton, a sinner turned saint living for something bigger than myself, and serving people greater than myself. Because of him and his compatriots I’m free to do so, no matter where I come from, and no matter where I’m going. I’m grateful.
July 4th, 2012.