The Heavy

Rotunda, the University of Virginia Press’s electronic imprint, has added a digital edition of The Papers of Alexander Hamilton to its American Founding Era collection. Among the founding fathers, Hamilton is perhaps the most controversial, both in his own time and in history. With the release of this important new resource, we talked with historian Mary-Jo Kline, who served as a consultant on the digital edition.

Q: One of the best known works to come out of the recent “founders boom” was the television adaptation of David McCullough’s biography of John Adams. All the usual suspects showed up, including Hamilton, who came across as a vaguely shifty character. Somehow this wasn’t surprising. Hamilton just doesn’t seem to be as beloved as the other founders. Is there some reason that we tend to be a little cool in our attitude toward him?

A: I can’t explain the motives of all of Hamilton’s detractors, but when it comes to Adams and his biographers, the reasons are pretty simple—Adams had good reason to hate Hamilton, and he did nothing to conceal the fact.

The two men didn’t get to know each other until Adams returned from his mission to England to assume his new role as Vice President in a government where Hamilton was Treasury Secretary.  They worked together quite smoothly during those years, and President Adams didn’t balk when Washington asked that Hamilton be named Inspector General of the armed forces that were raised (at least on paper) for the Quasi-War, the United States’ strange conflict with France, 1798-1800.

But by 1800, they were well on their way to becoming bitter enemies.  Hamilton had done his best to run Adams’s Cabinet by proxy for years.  Moreover, Hamilton had become convinced that the Federalist Party couldn’t win the 1800 election unless Adams bowed out of his race for reelection.  The story of Hamilton’s machinations in this campaign are too complicated (and incredible) to recount here—but Adams learned of them and never forgave or trusted Hamilton again.  And, I must admit, for good reason.

That explains the reactions of John Adams and of anyone who tries to tell Adams’s story.  But it doesn’t explain the more general view of Hamilton as something of a cold fish. Hamilton’s ambition and compulsion to prove himself make me nervous.  Like Gouverneur Morris (who had to deliver the eulogy at Hamilton’s funeral), I find it hard to warm up to a man who let his narrow sense of personal honor lead him to engage in a duel that left his wife and young family fatherless and adrift.

Q: Along with Ben Franklin, Hamilton is the only non-president to achieve a fame comparable to that of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison. What explains his inclusion on such a short list? Has his reputation evolved over the years, or has it been fairly consistent?

A: His reputation has changed—but, oddly enough, the sense of his importance to the American republic hasn’t  varied that much.  And it was a consensus on his significance, not an analysis of his policies and theories, that won him a place on U.S. currency.  Not even his contemporary political foes denied that what he did and said mattered—and that his policies would influence the course taken by the new nation.

You’ll find more disagreement over the years about the meaning of his legacy than its size.  After his death, admirers and critics tended to praise or defend him depending on whether they saw themselves as his heirs (by the late 19th century, this meant Republicans) or the heirs of his enemies (again, by the late 19th century, this meant Democrats).

Today, while debate still continues about the meaning of Hamilton’s legacy, it’s become more sophisticated (if you want to be fancy, you’d say “nuanced”).  We recognize that Hamilton’s advocacy of a strong, central federal government appeals more to modern Democrats.  And his pioneering work for the abolition of slavery would place him among social radicals of his day.  Yet there’s no denying his belief that the reins of American government were better held by men of prestige, of education, of standing in their communities.  And he did his best to encourage manufacturing and business enterprise in the new nation.

Where would Hamilton stand in the modern American political lineup?  I suspect that he’d probably still fight racial injustice, encourage American factories and banks, support a strong central government, and hold firm to his dream of an American nation where men like himself could succeed. And he’d still be a force to be reckoned with.

Q: Hamilton died from a gunshot wound sustained in a duel with Aaron Burr. In addition to  consulting on our Hamilton project, you were the editor of Burr’s papers, so you’re the perfect person to ask: did Hamilton fire his gun into the air during that fatal duel, or did he simply miss Burr?

A: As you know, I avoid discussing the duel if I can.  As long as you’ve put me on the spot, I’ll waffle as best I can. I suspect that Hamilton pulled the hair-trigger on that dueling pistol unintentionally—apparently didn’t even realize what he’d done.  The sights on these pistols were so unreliable that Burr couldn’t have aimed a deadly shot if he’d wanted to.  His bullet accidentally found its mark.

Both men were often guilty of bad judgment and downright silly actions in their public and private lives  .The duel was merely the worst example: overblown notions of honor overriding common sense on both sides. Posthumously, at least, Hamilton accomplished one goal:  his death destroyed Aaron Burr as a political force.

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The Papers of Alexander Hamilton Digital Edition is available for free trial access or purchase at the Rotunda web site.