“Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of man will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint.” ~ Alexander Hamilton
While government most times is a tough proposition to explain, one of our Founding Fathers went to the very nub and essence of that reasoning in the opening quote from our nation’s earliest days as a republic.
While the visage of George Washington on the $1 bill and Abraham Lincoln on the $5 bill are the most common presidents we pull out of our wallets and purses on a daily basis, Alexander Hamilton’s face on the $10 bill may be the most regal.
Yet, Hamilton had a most unstable childhood and upbringing, and was not even native born to these shores.
A man who would become influential in both war and the following peace at the close of the American Revolutionary War, Hamilton was born in Charlestown, in the Leeward Islands of the British West Indies — out of wedlock to a married woman of partial French extraction, and James A. Hamilton, the fourth son of a Scottish laird.
He overcame this perceived stain on his character to get a formal education at King’s College in New York.
In 1775, Hamilton joined a volunteer militia company called the Hearts of Oak that drilled in a graveyard. Studying military tactics on his own accord, he achieved the rank of lieutenant, participating in several early skirmishes in the war.
Believing early in his career his best chance for improving his station in life was glory on the battlefield, Hamilton received an invitation to serve as aide to Gen. George Washington, with the rank of lieutenant colonel, serving four years as chief of staff — no small position for a man of such humble beginnings.
Involved in intelligence, diplomacy and negotiations with senior Continental Army officers, he served the critical role of emissary between Washington and the widely dispersed and squabbling officers that made up our first national military force.
Obvious in his duties, Hamilton held Washington’s deep trust in all matters, attesting to any perceived shortcomings as to his character from any jealous rivals to his high position.
As the war was drawing to a close, Hamilton still chafed at wanting command of men on the field of battle, and after threatening to resign his commission, Washington finally gave him command of a New York light infantry battalion at the Battle of Yorktown.
The closing crucial victory of the Revolutionary War was sealed in large part because of Hamilton’s bravery. Commanding three battalions of infantrymen and fighting in conjunction with French troops, Hamilton and his men famously stormed and took key British Redoubts No. 9 and No. 10 on the Yorktown fortifications.
Cited for bravely in the action, Hamilton’s men took Redoubt No. 10 with the bayonet in the nighttime action, as the French, taking heavy casualties, captured Redoubt No. 9.
The entire British force of Lord Cornwallis was forced to surrender, effectively ending the Revolutionary War in a stunning triumph for the American Continental Army over the greatest army in Europe.
Hamilton was not a fan of the Continental Congress, nor the Articles of Confederation, which he perceived to be weak and inept at governing a newly formed nation.
A major contributor to the Federalist Papers, Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 11: “Let the 13 States, bound together in a strict and insoluable Union, concur in erecting one great American system, superior to the control of all trans-Atlantic force or influence, and able to dictate the terms of the connection between the old and the new world.”
Newly minted President George Washington appointed Hamilton as the first United States Secretary of the Treasury Sept. 11, 1789, serving until January 1795.
Much of the structure of the government of the United States was worked out in those five years he served.
Hamilton helped establish the minting of coinage, and established a naval police force called the revenue cutters — precursor to the Coast Guard — to patrol American waters and assist custom collectors with confiscating contraband from the huge smuggling trade.
Hamilton pushed Congress to approve an excise tax on whiskey, which was strongly opposed by rural regions in Pennsylvania and Virginia, and precipitated the short and ill-fated Whiskey Rebellion.
Hamilton helped form the first political party in America — the Federalists. But he soon was opposed by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, who formed the Democratic-Republican Party, which eventually became today’s Democratic Party.
Hamilton played a large role in America’s fledgling financial history, and famously opposed Aaron Burr’s 1804 campaign to be president.
Insulted, Burr mortally wounded Hamilton in a duel July 11, 1804.
One of many gifted Founding Fathers, he is buried in Trinity Churchyard on New York’s Manhattan Island.
Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at http://enid news.com/historicallyspeaking̍.