Sunday, January 11, 2015

A review of PBS’s “Alexander Hamilton” documentary

He was one of America's Founding Fathers, but was born on the Caribbean island of Nevis - far away from the country he would help found. He was one of the most self-made men in America, but owed much of his career success to the generous help of someone else. And he died young while fighting a duel in his late forties, but had a great life of massive accomplishment despite this.

The man was Alexander Hamilton, and he was a tremendously obstinate man who made as many enemies as friends; but who led one of the most remarkable lives in American history despite this. He was a brilliant man, and he knew it; possessing enough ego to sink a battleship; but he was a deeply good man as well, and always wanted what was best for his country. PBS's documentary about him is among the best that they've aired, and so I thought I'd offer a review of it here, for those interested in this amazing man.

Hamilton in youth

Nevis, an island in the Caribbean

Early life

He was born illegitimate in the British West Indies, on a Caribbean island called Nevis. He was a poor man's son, poorer even than Benjamin Franklin had been; but rose to great success through a remarkable business ability. He had great leadership and organizational skills, and possessed massive intelligence in many areas. He educated himself to a degree that has seldom been seen anywhere, before or since; and emigrated to New York to get some formal schooling, just four years before the Revolution broke out.

Hamilton as young man

George Washington

Soldier in the Revolution

When the war began, he joined the Continental Army to fight the British; and was soon offered a position as George Washington's chief of staff. He was one of Washington's most trusted lieutenants, and formed a close bond of friendship with the general; coming to see him as a father figure, with Washington coming to see him like a son. Though he had gotten ahead in life on his own talent and hard work, he owed much of his later success to his close relationship with George Washington; and would always look on his father figure with reverence. He served with him through the end of the war, commanding battalions at Yorktown in the last major combat of the Revolution.

Hamilton during the war

Storming of Redoubt #10, Yorktown 1781

Law school and attending the Constitutional Convention

When he returned home to New York, he set his sights on a career in the law, which usually requires three years of law school. Hamilton completed the schooling in just six months, learning everything through independent study; and was soon authorized to practice law in New York. He was instrumental in setting up two constitutional conventions: one at Annapolis (which quickly failed), and the ultimately successful one at Philadelphia - the one that we know today simply as the "Constitutional Convention." He was elected as a delegate to it, and was one of the major figures at the convention; championing a strong executive branch, and a strong judiciary to boot. Like the other delegates, he did not get all of what he wanted; and was often accused (with some truth) of being a monarchist, because of his saying that the president should serve for life - something that was far in excess of what was necessary. But his presence helped the Convention to eventually have moderate executive power - strong by the standards of the time, but far short of the power that Hamilton thought necessary. They would have gone too far to the other extreme, however, had it not been for Alexander Hamilton and his allies.

The Constitutional Convention

James Madison, co-author of the Federalist Papers

Co-author of the "Federalist Papers"

The other great accomplishment of this time was his writing of the Federalist Papers, a series of essays printed in New York newspapers, written to convince people to ratify the then-new Constitution used by America today. He was not the only one to write these essays, as many were also written by James Madison and John Jay; but he did write a majority of the Federalist Papers, and he deserves the lion's share of the credit for their success. When the U.S. Supreme Court later heard disputes over how to interpret the Constitution, the court's decisions often supported their interpretation with a quote from the Federalist Papers. In fact, the Federalist Papers have been cited over 300 times in the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court - more than any other source.

George Washington

Older Alexander Hamilton

Relationships with other Founding Fathers

It's well-known that when George Washington was elected the nation's first president, Alexander Hamilton was asked to serve as his Secretary of the Treasury; but that phrase "Secretary of the Treasury" doesn't really capture the extent of his power; as he was Washington's right-hand man - a trusted lieutenant, as he had been in the war. He helped set everything from foreign policy with Britain and France, to the economic policy of the national bank. Even after his retirement in 1795, he continued to direct the policy of the Washington Cabinet; and even controlled the executive branch during the administration of John Adams - Washington's successor. (Controlled it, that is, until Adams fired all the Hamilton loyalists for refusing to take orders from him instead.) I don't blame Adams one bit for wanting a Cabinet that would follow his policy rather than someone else's, but I also don't blame Hamilton for being ticked off by the firing of his men; and Hamilton vowed revenge by fighting against Adams, even though Adams was a member of the same political party - the Federalist Party. Hamilton's attacks on Adams caused Adams to lose the next election, and created an electoral tie between Hamilton's two biggest enemies - Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr.

John Adams

Thomas Jefferson

Early confrontation with Aaron Burr

Under the rules of that time, a tie vote was settled by the House of Representatives; but there was a tie there as well - a tie which persisted for 35 consecutive ballots. Hamilton hated Thomas Jefferson, with whom he had feuded over policy during the Washington administration; but he hated Aaron Burr even more, considering him a crooked politician who would do anything to gain power. Jefferson, at least, was an honorable man; and Hamilton actually said so at one point, but Burr was a sleaze. Burr was disliked by Founding Fathers on both ends of the political spectrum, and would have been a disaster if elected. Thus, Hamilton convinced some Congressmen to change their votes, and his enemy Thomas Jefferson was elected instead. Hamilton hated the outcome of this election, and was despised by many fellow Federalists for handing the election to their opponents; but the damage was done, and Thomas Jefferson was elected. (At least he was better than Burr.)

Aaron Burr

Duel with Aaron Burr (which resulted in his death)

But Aaron Burr's role in Hamilton's life was not over yet - the vice president was angry at Hamilton after alleged personal insults, and demanded an apology from Hamilton. Hamilton could have averted a duel between them by saying that while he disagreed with Burr, he thought him an honorable man; but he could not lie by saying this, because he thought Burr was not an honorable man. Thus, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel; and the two fought one in 1804, in which Burr shot and killed Alexander Hamilton. The duel is an alien thing to modern ears, as is the code of honor of this time; but the PBS documentary helps you to understand it in the context of the time, and see why it happened at all.

Hamilton-Burr duel

Conclusion: This documentary covers all these things well

Hamilton was not a perfect man, as he cheated on his wife at one point, and had a tactlessness and arrogance rivaling that of John Adams. But he was also one of the most important of our Founding Fathers; and if you want the details on all the things I've outlined in this post, then PBS's documentary is the movie for you. It's one of the best episodes in the "American Experience" series, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in Alexander Hamilton.

If you liked this post, you might also like:

Hamilton's secret pen name

His work "The Federalist Papers"

American Revolution miniseries

Constitutional Convention movie

George Washington movies

Part of a series about
The Founding Fathers

Benjamin Franklin
George Washington
Alexander Hamilton
John Adams
Thomas Jefferson
James Madison

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