Over the past week I've had the tremendously good fortune to study the life of Alexander Hamilton, a week which was prefaced with some great reading from experts like Richard Brookhiser and Ron Chernow, and which was peppered with lots of the Hamilton mixtape. As a history teacher I've obviously been well aware of Hamilton and his impact for some time, and have made every effort to incorporate him into our curriculum, but have met with a lot of blank faces. Prior to 2009 far too many students had no idea who was on the $10 bill! All of that, of course, changed when Broadway star Lin Manuel Miranda did this at the White House:
Since then, and certainly after the release of Miranda's hit play, it's been much easier to pique student interest in the man, and I've had a lot of fun the past few years using the play as a way to bring deeper conversation on the Founder into class. But the nature of that conversation will likely change after this week, as, after the lectures, conversations, and readings, I've come to appreciate Hamilton in a new way, as someone who, even though he wasn't born in the country, may, in many ways, represent the idea of "American potential" more than anyone else of the era, perhaps the first to fully appreciate the idea of the "American dream."
Hamilton's background is famous- born on an island in the Caribbean to a mother who had just spent several months in prison, placed there by her first husband for "whoring". In reality she had simply fallen for another man, and having not lived with her husband for a long time, she had married this new man- James Hamilton. The matter finally resolved, the Hamiltons moved to the island of Nevis, where Hamilton, his older brother, and his mother were deserted by his father. His mother, Rachel, was determined, and started her own business, with her son Alexander as clerk. Just as things had begun to look up, both Alexander and his mother contracted a fever, from which Alexander would survive, but his mother would die. At 11 Alexander Hamilton was a penniless orphan, and, in the eyes of many, a bastard. Fortunately Hamilton was taken on as a clerk for two merchants- David Beekman and Nicholas Cruger- who, after being impressed with his work, sponsored him to go to the colonies so that he could study medicine, after which he would return to the islands as a doctor.
Alexander Hamilton arrives in New York City with only faith in himself, that he offered something that could make a significant place in this country. Hamilton is, in truth, like so many immigrants who have come to these shores, even still today, escaping a situation which had become untenable, searching for something better, believing that America offered just that. Hamilton began studying law at King's College (now Columbia), organized his own artillery unit when the Revolution began, impressed General George Washington enough to be placed on the General's staff as an aide-to-camp, led a successful assault at Yorktown, married the daughter of a wealthy and influential member of New York society, and became a successful lawyer. In short, Alex did good. It is, of course, his work with the Constitution that stands out with Hamilton. Active early, along with James Madison, in the work to replace the deeply flawed Articles of Confederation, Hamilton was key in the call for a convention in Philadelphia, and even more central in convincing his state of New York, crucial to the process, to ratify the new document. Under the new government, which yielded the incomparable George Washington as first president, Hamilton was named the first head of the Treasury, responsible for coming up with a plan to rescue the country from tremendous debt. To describe his rise as meteroic is putting things mildly. To describe Hamilton as the epitome of the "American Dream" fulfilled would be right on.
If Hamilton's rise has become well-known, his death has always made him famous. For all of his gifts, Hamilton's flaws stand out as much. Hamilton was brash (again putting it mildly), with an insatiable belief in his rightness, and was unafraid to let people know they were wrong. These qualities did not endear Hamilton to many, including Thomas Jefferson. It is in this relationship, however, where Hamilton demonstrates his most ardent belief in the "American Dream." As Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton devised a new financial plan intended to not only rescue the nation from crushing debt, but also to set it on a course for the future which would help ensure advancement. The plan called for an increased focus on manufacturing and industry, which flew in the face of Jefferson's hope for a country of small farms. Jefferson's hope is hardly surprising, being a Virginia planter who had grown up in an agrarian society- it was all he knew. In defending his belief in the need for increased manufacturing, Hamilton offers perhaps his greatest testament to an "American Dream"-
"As to the furnishing greater scope for the diversity of talents and dispositions, which discriminate men from each other. This is a much more powerful mean of augmenting the fund of national Industry than may at first sight appear. It is a just observation, that minds of the strongest and most active powers for their proper objects fall below mediocrity and labour without effect, if confined to uncongenial pursuits. And it is thence to be inferred, that the results of human exertion may be immensely increased by diversifying its objects. When all the different kinds of industry obtain in a community, each individual can find his proper element, and can call into activity the whole vigour of his nature. And the community is benefitted by the services of its respective members, in the manner, in which each can serve it with most effect."
In this passage from his "Report on the Subject of Manufactures" (1791), Hamilton uses his own story to serve as evidence of the need for this change of focus- "...minds of the strongest and most active powers for their proper objects fall below mediocrity and labour without effect, if confined to uncongenial pursuits." In effect, Hamilton argues that, had he stayed on Nevis, had never come to America, his talents would have been wasted. In other words, if the country remains strictly agrarian, too many of the great minds of this country will be wasted. Instead Hamilton argues for a national focus on manufacturing and industry as a means of bringing choice to Americans- if you don't want to farm, then here are the plethora of other options. Later on in the same report Hamilton argues that "...there is, in the genius of the people of this country...it would operate as a forcible reason for giving opportunities to the exercise of the species of talent...". In short, Hamilton is arguing for a system, for a country, which offers choice of opportunity, that these shores offer far too much talent to remain steadfast in the way things have always been done; in effect, Hamilton is arguing to make things easier for future Hamiltons.
In the end, Hamilton's vision has proven to win out. This country has become the cradle of diversity that Hamilton envisioned, at least in diversity of choice. In that lies the foundation for the "American Dream", that anyone could come to this country and find a niche, an avenue in which to apply their talent towards a better life. Hamilton certainly wasn't the first to move to this land with the dream of a better life, but it could be argued that he was among the first to see the true potential of how big those dreams could be.