Alexander Hamilton And The Constitution Essay, Research Paper
What role Alexander Hamilton played in the Consitutional Convention?
The economy of the young nation in the years following the Revolution was in bad shape.
The United States had accrued millions of dollars in war debt; competitive tariffs between
states hampered economic growth while sowing political discord; American shipping
struggled to recover from the war; and the Continental Congress was unable to impose
taxes in order to drive the country forward out of its financial doldrums.
Against this background, the legislature of Virginia in 1786 called for a meeting of
the states in Annapolis, Maryland, to deliberate adjustments to the nation’s commercial
regulations — a relatively modest ambition. Hamilton, Receiver of Continental Revenue for
New York, attended the September Convention as his state’s representative, only to find
that four states had not even bothered to send delegates. The only states represented were
Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and New York, and it became apparent that
any measures these five did adopt might not carry sufficient authority for implementation.
The whole project appeared headed for failure, and in fact, the only notable
success to come out of the episode was Hamilton’s call for a constitutional convention of
all the states to meet in Philadelphia the next year. “While phrased blandly — delegates
would have the power to make such changes as were “necessary to render the constitution
of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union” — the resolution
emphasized that everything relating to the government of the United States would be on
the table. Advocates of strong central government, as they themselves perceived, would
have the chance to overhaul the Articles of Confederation at one fell swoop, rather than
tinkering at the edges.” ( Cooke, 53)
It was at this point that the Shays Rebellion in Massachusetts lent a vital urgency
to the call for a Constitutional Convention and strengthened the public belief that the
country needed a much stronger federal government than the one it had. The rioting
farmers and debtors, led by Daniel Shays, who closed courts of justice, demanded the
nullification of the Massachussets Senate, and insisted violently on financial reform
represented for many political leaders the dangers posed by unchecked public action, by
“the mob.” The framers of the Constitution agreed that a republican society depended on
the democratic participation of the citizens, but they believed that such participation
needed to occur within recognized lawful limits.
The rebellion also highlighted the impotence of the Continental Congress, which
faced such a serious cash shortage that it couldn’t raise the troops necessary to put down
the rebellion (which was eventually suppressed by a contingent of 4,000 Massachusetts
militiamen). Citing the weakness of the central government, Hamilton raised the familiar
but compelling spectre of a disintegrating republic: “Who can determine what might have
been the issue of the late convulsions, if the malcontents had been headed by a Caesar or a
Cromwell? Who can predict what effect a despotism, established in Massachusetts would
have upon the liberties of New Hampshire or Rhode Island, of Connecticut or New
York?” ( Cooke, 57)
As a New York delegate to the Constitutional Convention, Hamilton initially had
to compete with Roberts Yates and John Lansing, Jr., they were two fellow
representatives from his state who had been appointed by Governor George Clinton, a
staunch opponent of centralized federal power, in order to outweigh Hamilton’s vote.
“Hamilton’s role in the framing and ratification of the Constitution was a curious
one. He did not prove to be a particularly distinguished or influential delegate at the
Convention — many members thought his proposals went too far in strengthening the
central government. Indeed, the ideas Hamilton presented on June 18, 1787, after
approximately a month of peripheral involvement, included some shockers: state
governors would be appointed by the President; the President and Senators would hold
office for life; and the Congress would retain exclusive authority to make all the laws of
the country.” ( Goebl, 62)
The five-hour speech had little effect. Many delegates were already nervous about
a plan put forth by Virginia which, while less radical than Hamilton’s vision, seemed to
retain too little power for the states. Since convention proceedings were kept secret from
the public, however, an atmosphere of free and open debate prevailed, and Hamilton felt
obligated to at least raise his proposals in their undiluted form.
“His philosophy rested, in true colonialist fashion, on the notion of “the public
good” and the superiority of a government which derived its power from the consent of
the governed: the essence of republicanism. Where Hamilton differed from his
contemporaries was, first, in believing that only a “talented few” — understood to mean
men drawn from the wealthy and aristocratic strata of society — had the wisdom and
dispassionate foresight to implement the measures necessary for the public good.” (
Cooke, 64). The great majority of people, in Hamilton’s eyes, operated primarily out of
self-interest and could not be trusted to think or act judiciously in matters of state power.
Hence, a proposal such as seating the President for life, so that he would not be subject to
the whims of a fickle electorate.
The second major distinguishing feature of Hamilton’s political philosophy was its
emphasis on energetic government. He believed that the government should be proactive
in economic and military affairs, have the power the supersede lower governments (as at
the state level), and be able to exercise authority directly on the people. Only an energetic
government would be able to provide the stability and order necessary to secure the
blessings of liberty for the people, especially over such a large geographical area as the
The proposed Constitution that the convention produced in September — and the
one most Americans are familiar with — did reflect much of the spirit of Hamilton’s
philosophy, particularly in clearly subordinating the states to the federal government. But
it represented a much more moderate compromise of a number of competing interests.
Still, Hamilton firmly supported the Constitution, even while admitting in his last speech to
the convention that “no man’s ideas were more remote from the plan than [mine] were
known to be.” He supported the plan because he believed it to be the country’s last, best
hope for an effective union. He was not alone in believing that the potential consequences
of rejecting the Constitution entailed nothing less than civil war.
But ratification would prove to be an uphill battle. In particular, New York
Governor Clinton and fellow opponents of the Constitution vowed to stymie passage in
the state legislature. This opposition was especially dangerous because New York, as a
major economic and political entity located in the heart of the country, would be an
essential pivot in any union of states.
Against this background, Hamilton, in an attempt to win over New Yorkers to the
convention’s plan, launched a project of explaining and defending the Constitution which
eventually produced one of the world’s most enduring texts of political theory. “In
collaboration with James Madison and John Jay, Hamilton wrote a series of newspaper
pieces, under the pseudonym “Publius,” which he called The Federalist. Comprised of 85
articles appearing between October, 1787, and August, 1788, two-thirds of which were
written by Hamilton, The Federalist combined bombastic attacks on the Articles of
Confederation, sage insights into human nature, deft evasions of significant criticisms of
the Constitution, and clear-headed explanations of the ways in which the proposed new
government would operate.” ( Syrette, 22)
At the time, the primary importance of The Federalist was to provide supporters
of the Constitution with a kind of handbook of argumentation they could use in debate. It
probably had little impact on the actual course of ratification, and, since the authors
remained anonymous, had no impact on Hamilton’s career other than helping him to refine
his political philosophy. Over time, The Federalist has become a staple of political science
courses, but unlike Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, it has not inspired much
personal affection for the man behind it.
Finally, The Federalist is important for what it reveals of Hamilton’s views
regarding human nature. The usual verion, and the one routinely employed by his critics,
holds that Hamilton saw humankind as inevitably selfish, untrustworthy and prone to
corruption and “licentiousness.” The characterization has some merit, but Hamilton
actually held a more complex set of beliefs.
“In Federalist no. 76, while discussing the role of the President in appointing
federal officers, Hamilton asserts that any group of people will contain measures of both
vice and virtue. “The supposition of universal venality in human nature is little less an
error in political reasoning than the supposition of universal rectitude. The institution of
delegated power implies that there is a portion of virtue and honor among mankind, which
may be a reasonable foundation of confidence. And experience justifies the theory. It has
been found to exist in the most corrupt periods of the most corrupt governments.” In
addition to “virtue and honor,”" ( Syrette, 25) Hamilton also exalted the human capacity
for reason, although he admitted that reason too often furthers the pursuit of immoral
Such complexities of view, however, tend to become flattened out and forgotten in
the centrifuge of public memory. The Jeffersonian Republians assailed Hamilton as an
arrogant aristocrat and enemy of the people, and the charges, however warranted they
may have been, indelibly stained Hamilton’s reputation and helped to determine future
generations’ impressions of him. Many Americans genuinely feared a return to an
aristocratic, British style of rule, even monarchy, and Hamilton’s controversial career as
Secretary of the Treasury allowed the Republicans to play on those fears and storm the
Secretary of the Treasury
Hamilton is best known for his tenure as Secretary of the Treasury, for it is in that
role that he made his most important and lasting contributions to the governance of the
nation. His vision of a centralized economy provided the basic model for a system that has
survived to the present day — yet in the implementation of his ideas, Hamilton encountered
ferocious attacks against his character and beliefs.
Following the Revolutionary War and the depression of the 1780s, the most
critical problems confronting the young nation were financial, and of the four federal
departments — State, War, Attorney General, and Treasury — the Treasury was
considered the most important. The government’s war debt totalled approximately $50
million, the nervousness of foreign investors in the United States was palpable, and with
the severance of ties with England, American manufacturing lagged far behind Europe.
Hamilton’s plan for centralizing and reinvigorating the national economy was
integrally related to his political philosophy. He believed that an energetic American
government should, in the interest of promoting the public good, actively encourage
manufacturing, assume responsibility for the country’s debts, standardize and control the
currency system through a national bank, link the interests of wealthy citizens with the
government’s success, and, finally, maintain friendly ties with Britain in order not to
provoke a disastrous trade or shooting war.
The components of the “Hamiltonian system” that he presented to Congress during
1790 and 1791 were not isolated responses to individual financial problems, but an
interlocking set of solutions designed to put the nation on a firm economic footing.
Hamilton and the Federalists had the votes and energy to carry the plan through, but not
without being bloodied in the process by the fierce opposition of the Republicans, the
nascent political party led by Jefferson and James Madison.
The complexity of the Hamiltonian system is demonstrated by the first two major
victories of his career at the Treasury Department: the financing of the public credit and
the federal assumption of the states’ war debts.
During the war, the government had raised money by issuing public bonds,
promising to repay them with interest later. Yet at the war’s end, the government owed
approximately $50 million, and could not repay the bonds. Hamilton’s solution was to
raise more cash by issuing a new series of 30-year bonds at six-percent interest, which
would presumably sell (and in fact did sell) because of a high level of public confidence in
the United States. The proposal, however, encountered the reasonable objection (raised by
Madison) that since speculators were buying up Confederation bonds, the federal
government would not end up repaying the original bond-holders who had patriotically
risked their savings in the country’s time of need.
Goebl, Julius, ed.
The Law Practice of Alexander Hamilton, Vols. I & II, New York: Columbia
University Press, 1964, 1969.
Syrett, Harold C., ed.
The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, Vols. 1-27, New York/London:
Columbia University Press
Cooke, Jacob E., ed.
The Reports of Alexander Hamilton, New York: Harper & Row, 1964.
Frisch, Morton J., ed.
Selected Writings and Speeches of Alexander Hamilton, Washington/London:
American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 1985.
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