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Washington in New York -- chs 27, 28 & Epilogue


The Masters-Penn-Morris House at 190 Market Street in Philadelphia seemed palatial to George Washington when he stayed there in 1787 during the Constitutional Convention.

Now, having stopped in Philadelphia on his way to Mount Vernon, he realized the three-story house, while elegant and well-situated (it was one block from Congress Hall), was too small for his needs.  Unfortunately, no other suitable house was available in the city.  Compromises would have to be made, such as placing the president’s office up on the third floor.  Washington prepared a list of alterations for his personal secretary Tobias Lear to carry out in his absence: the addition of a new, larger servants’ hall, the conversion of the “cow-house” into additional stables, the installation of larger bow windows in the front of the house, and a number of minor but personal changes to make the First Family feel at home.  While on vacation at Mount Vernon, Washington would write nine letters to Lear with additional tasks to be carried out prior to the President taking possession in late November.

Browsing through a Philadelphia newspaper, Washington saw an advertisement for the sale of three farms not far from town.  He would need an open space for the daily exercise of his horses and perhaps to amuse himself with some casual farming.  He wanted to buy one of the farms but didn’t have ready cash.  He offered instead to exchange land that he owned in western Pennsylvania for one of the farms.  None of the sellers expressed the slightest interest.  Three thousand acres of undeveloped frontier land was not considered a fair exchange for even as little as sixty acres within easy distance of Philadelphia.  The alternative was to accept one of the farms as a gift from one of Philadelphia’s wealthy citizens.  A man of infinite pride, Washington graciously refused the offer.

Washington reached his beloved Mount Vernon in mid-September, in time to enjoy one full month of warm autumn weather.  He spent several days on horseback inspecting various projects he had been monitoring by mail from New York.  Settling back into the routine of a Virginia planter brought him some pleasure, but the responsibility of the presidency weighed heavily on his mind.  His biggest concern was with Britain’s continued occupation of the Northwest territory.  Rumor had it that British forces were planning to march south from Fort Detroit down to the Gulf of Mexico, where they planned to overrun the Spanish stronghold at New Orleans.

Prior to leaving New York, Washington sent a secret communication to Jefferson, Hamilton and Adams, with what he knew of the planned operation.  As Washington saw it, should the British carry out their mission the only conceivable outcome would not be favorable for the United States.

British takeover of Spain’s North American possessions would put the British “on both our flanks and rear, with their navy in front.”  In effect, the United States would be surrounded.  Washington posed two questions: (1) should the United States permit British troops to use its territory as a staging ground from which to attack New Orleans? and (2) with a bushfire already raging in the Northwest Territory between American frontiersmen and a number of Indian tribes, could the United States prevent the British from advancing on New Orleans?

Thomas Jefferson saw the potential crisis as a means to coerce Spain’s peaceful  surrender of New Orleans and Florida to the United States.  He urged delay during which time Lafayette and other friends of the United States at the French court might pressure Spain into acquiescence.  Washington liked the idea, and sent Col. David Humphreys to Lisbon as a first step toward establishing better relations with Spain, and to open negotiations that would open up the Mississippi to American navigation.

Hamilton also favored working through diplomatic channels, but with England rather than with France and Spain, and awaiting the unfolding of events.

Vice President John Adams favored a somewhat more aggressive approach.  Should the British seek permission to march its forces south from Detroit, Adams said their request should be refused “in terms clear and decided, but guarded and dignified, in a manner which no power has more at its command than the President of the United States.”

While awaiting word from Humphreys, Washington decided to send in the Army, not to actually block British advancement south but as a show of force--as a bluff.  While there, the Army would punish hostile Indians who were attacking American settlers in the Northwest Territory.  Between 1783 and 1790, raiders from the Wabash and Miami Indian tribes were believed to have killed 1,500 settlers in Kentucky alone, and taken 20,000 horses.

Prior to leaving New York, Washington ordered an invasion force under the command of General Josiah Harmar.  Unbeknownst to the President, Harmar was a hard-drinking general.  Entrusted with 300 regular soldiers and 1,000 militia from Pennsylvania and Kentucky, Harmar was given orders to attack harassing Indians north of the Ohio River.


While awaiting the outcome of Harmar’s expedition, Washington spent twelve days on horseback inspecting the swamps and woods north of the Potomac in search of the ideal location for the nation’s capital.  Congress had decided that the District of Columbia, which could be as large as a hundred square miles, was to be located on the Potomac somewhere between the Eastern Branch and the confluence of the Potomac and the Conococheague Rivers; the exact location at the President’s discretion.

Beginning at Georgetown, Washington rode north through Frederick, Maryland; on through Shepherdstown, Virginia; and then through Sharpsburg and Elizabethtown (later Hagerstown), both in Maryland, and lastly through Williamsport, on the Conococheague River.  Wherever he rode, promoters would suddenly appear and put the hard-sell on him as to the benefits of their particular area.  According to American historian Richard Norton Smith, Washington’s survey “illustrated both the glories of the American countryside and the cunning of its inhabitants.”  The President maintained a poker face and divulged little.  His decision wouldn’t be announced to the public until after the first of the new year.  As it turned out, the capital would be placed on the most southerly part of the authorized tract, that nearest Mount Vernon and close to the Eastern Branch of the Potomac.

Near the end of his Mount Vernon vacation, the President became increasingly irritable.  He had yet to hear back from General Harmar.  Washington’s worries were further compounded when he learned that Harmar had an unquenchable thirst for strong drink.  Fearing the worst, on November 17 Washington instructed Secretary of War Henry Knox to prepare a full justification of Harmar’s campaign and to have it ready when Congress returned in early December.  “I expected little from the moment I heard he was drunkard,” Washington wrote on November 19.  “I expected less as soon as I heard that on this account no confidence was reposed in him by the western country.  And I gave up all hope of success, as soon as I heard that there were disputes with him about command.”  Washington continued to be gloomy when he arrived in Philadelphia on November 27.  It didn’t help that work on the Executive Mansion had yet to be completed.

Washington wasn’t the only one having trouble with his new residence.  Finding no firewood in the vice president’s house, Abigail Adams spent her first night at City Tavern. In the morning, she returned to her new house to find damp rooms and the overpowering smell of newly-applied oil-base paint.  Congressmen arriving in the city voiced their displeasure over a scarcity of affordable housing as labor shortages slowed the remodeling work on public buildings and private homes.


Philadelphia was the most livable city in America.  If New York was a high-energy city fueled by caffeine, Philadelphia was a place where people knew how to relax over a glass of wine.  It was a city of readers, supported by ten newspapers and thirty bookstores.  Thanks to Benjamin Franklin, the City of Brotherly Love boasted a number of cultural and civic institutions, including two theaters, a university, the nation’s first public library, a volunteer fire department, and a hospital.  It was a clean well-lit place, with paved streets and an oil-burning lamp on every corner.  One highborn Englishman described Philadelphia as “One of the wonders of the world.” Another English visitor compared the city favorably with London, and the Delaware as far cleaner than the River Thames.

Philadelphia was also the nation’s financial capital (New York would assume the title in 1836), with Chestnut Street as the city’s financial district.  It was there, one block south of Market Street, that Robert Morris opened the nation’s first bank.  It was there, too, in the State House (renamed Independence Hall), that both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were drafted.  Next door to the State House was the Philadelphia County Courthouse, a two-story red-brick building renamed Congress Hall.  It was there the federal legislature would reconvene, on December 6, 1790.  As with Federal Hall in New York, the House of Representatives met on the first floor and the Senate met on the second floor.

Two days after Congress reconvened, President Washington climbed a flight of stairs to the Senate chamber and delivered his Second Annual Address before both houses of Congress.  Written by Hamilton and Madison, it was a relatively short speech.  Washington began by acknowledging the nation’s recovering prosperity.  “The abundant fruits of another year have blessed our Country with plenty, and with the means of a flourishing commerce.”  The price of government securities continued to rise on the open market, at home and abroad.  Washington renewed calls for a uniform militia, national mint, national postal system, highway improvements, and a standardized system of weights and measures.  He also urged the construction of more American ships to avoid dependence on European shipping, especially in times of war.

Washington then made public the military incursion in the Northwest territory, and offered this justification: “The aggravated provocations rendered it essential to the safety of the Western Settlements that the aggressors should be made sensible that the Government of the Union is not less capable of punishing their crimes, than it is disposed to respect their rights and reward their attachments.”  Congress accepted Washington’s decision without question.

If Washington feared the worst, his suspicions were confirmed five days later when news arrived of a complete route of Harmar’s army.  In what is now Vincennes, Indiana, a Shawnee warrior named Little Turtle had dealt Harmar two devastating blows that killed 200 men and sent the remainder of his forces scurrying into Kentucky.  Harmar was recalled; his military career over.  It’s probable that the President’s full disclosure to Congress prevented Harmar’s selection to lead the force and his subsequent defeat from being the subject of a Congressional investigation.

In keeping with the Constitution, the next expedition against Northwest Indian tribes would be authorized by Congress, with a larger force commanded by General Arthur St. Clair.  And what of the British forces in the Northwest Territory and of Spain’s occupation of New Orleans?

In 1795, under the terms of the Jay Treaty, the British would finally evacuate Fort Detroit and Fort Lernoult, 13 years after the signing of the Treaty of Paris.  That same year, the Treaty of Madrid would open up the Mississippi to U.S. navigation.  Both treaties would be ratified on President Washington’s watch.


Alexander Hamilton wasted little time relocating the Treasury Department from New York to Philadelphia.  He rented two buildings on Third Street, between Chestnut and Walnut Streets, within short walking distance of the Executive Mansion and Congress Hall.

A visitor described Hamilton’s office thusly:  “His desk was a plain pine table covered with a green cloth.  Planks and trestles held records and papers, and at one end was a little imitation Chinese vase and a plate of glasses. . . .”  Hamilton’s office may have been modest, but his department was the largest of the federal government.  The 1791 directory lists 93 employees.  Also reporting to the Treasury Department were an additional 122 customs collectors and surveyors employed in various ports up and down the East Coast.  In comparison, Knox at the War Department had 12 civilian employees, and Jefferson at State had six, plus two ministers in Europe.

Prior to the government's formation, U.S. securities had been valued on the open market at less than $15 million.  By the end of 1790, with Funding and Assumption in place, the total value had risen to $45 million--an increase of $30 million.  Before people could heap praise on Hamilton, he reminded them that increasing the market value of public securities was only the first step. Three more steps were necessary before the nation would be on firm financial ground: (1) the establishment of a mint, (2) a revision of the tax system, and (3) the creation of a national bank, to be called the Bank of the United States (forerunner of today’s Federal Reserve).

All three were interrelated and important, but the bank was the linchpin of Hamilton’s master plan.  In order to fully monetize the public debt, a national bank was crucial.


To reach his economic goals, Hamilton aimed high.  He set the bank’s capitalization at $10 million, more than all the gold and silver specie then in circulation.  Not a problem, as most of the bank’s assets would be comprised of symbolic money.  The United States government would subscribe $2 million of the stock, payable in specie.  It did not have near that amount of cash, so it would borrow the amount from the bank itself, and pay it back in ten equal payments over a period of ten years. The remaining $8 million in stock would be offered for public subscription, the purchases being payable one-fourth in specie, and three-fourths in U.S. Treasury bonds bearing 6 percent interest. Subscribers would make their payments in four equal installments spaced six months apart.

The bank would have $500,000 in specie, plus the deposits it attracted. It could safely issue notes and take on other obligations up to $10 million, as if it actually had that much in cash; and it was certain to generate a profit. The interest on its loans, at 6 percent, would be augmented by the additional 6 percent it received on the government bonds that formed most of its capital. Subscribers would rush to invest in the bank, and their avidity would send the government's 6 percent bonds soaring. The government bonds, supported in the first instance by the prospect of sinking fund purchases financed by loans from the bank, as a result would be able to form the capital of the bank, which in turn would make the bonds even more valuable than expectations had already made them. In that manner the very creation of the bank would establish the public credit on an enduring basis--even if the bank should never make loans to the sinking fund that started it.

According to American historian Forrest McDonald, Hamilton “had found banking's equivalent of the philosopher's stone, whereby base elements are turned into gold."

Hamilton's bank was closely modeled after the Bank of England, with one crucial difference. The Bank of England bought and sold government securities. The Bank of the United States--after purchasing all the original continental and state securities--would be expressly forbidden from buying government securities. It could only sell them. It's primary function would be to provide a money supply for the financing of ordinary business and general economic development. Hamilton stipulated that the bank be operated for the private profit of its stockholders, thus making it in the interest of the stockholders to run it as efficiently as possible. The bank would be chartered for twenty years, the time it would take to pay off the principle.

The bank would need additional tax revenues to service interest payments. Import duties, while sufficient at the outset, would fall short once the assumed state debts would begin falling due at the end of 1791. Therefore, Hamilton recommended an excise tax on spirits to cover the shortfall.  It was--that’s right--a sin-tax. Public drunkenness was common and worried several legislators.  It was thought a tax on liquor might actually limit drinking; that was the idea.  In any event, non-drinkers would have no argument against it.  On the other hand, distillers’ on the American frontier would, and the result would be the so-called Whiskey Rebellion of 1795.

The third part of Hamilton's proposal was a national mint. While not nearly as important as the first two proposals, a national mint was important as a symbol of fiscal orthodoxy, and as a symbol of America itself. Hamilton wanted coins minted in large and small dominations, down to the penny. He pointed out that the lowest price for any commodity would often sell for less if coins were available in smaller dominations. Also, he wanted everyone--rich and poor alike--to have easy access to coins; the lower denominations would make this possible. Thomas Jefferson made the call on basing coin denominations on the metric system.  Because the early American mints had trouble meeting demand, foreign coins would continue to be widely circulated until after the Civil War.

The excise tax was presented to Congress on Monday, December 13, and the national bank proposal was made the following day. This time, there was a decided lack of skepticism and hostility, and something akin to understanding and acceptance of Hamilton’s financial plans for the nation.


After debate, the bill for the excise tax was put to vote on January 12, 1791.  It passed easily, giving the Treasury Department a second revenue stream to manage.

The National Bank Bill fared almost as well, despite minor opposition from below the Potomac.  Some southerners--Madison included--feared the National Bank and the City of Philadelphia would somehow become intertwined and therefore be difficult to separate, thus making it impossible for the federal capital to move to the Potomac when the time came.

To have it both ways--to have the bank and to be assured the capital moved to the Potomac--Madison proposed an amendment.  The amendment would limit the bank's charter from 20 years to 10 years, to coincide with the limit of the Bank charter and the capital’s move to the Potomac.  Few supported the idea.  When the amendment failed to carry, Madison withdrew his support of the Bill on the ground the Bank was unconstitutional.  Madison’s opponents considered his claim for what it was--a smokescreen designed to cover his real intention of protecting the Residency Act.  When the matter was put to a vote, the Bank Bill passed both Houses by substantial majorities.

Madison, however, wouldn't let go.  Before Washington could sign the bill into law he met with the president not once but three times in a last-ditch effort to convince him the Bank was unconstitutional.  At the same time, Madison tried to convince the president that should he sign the Bill into law the National Bank and Philadelphia would be forever wedded and the capital would never be moved to the Potomac.

While Washington respected Madison’s advice, he decided to get a second opinion.  In fact, he got two, one from Attorney General Edmund Randolph, and the second from Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. They agreed with Madison's strict-constructionist’s interpretation of the Constitution. Randolph’s and Jefferson’s written opinions rehashed much of Madison's arguments, while Jefferson added a bit of legal mumbo-jumbo about the Bank violating laws of mortmain, alienage, descents, forfeiture, escheat, distribution, and monopoly.

Now it was up to Hamilton.  Washington sent copies of Randolph’s and Jefferson’s opinions to the Treasury Secretary for rebuttal.  At the same time, the President asked Madison to prepare a veto message for Congress, should Hamilton’s rebuttal fail to convince.  On top of that, he didn’t give the Treasury Secretary much time.  On February 25, Washington planned to either sign the bill into law or issue a veto. Hamilton spent a number of days in preparation but didn't sit down to actually write his opinion until the evening of February 22.  He worked throughout the night and in the morning handed his 13,000-word opinion to the president.


The Virginians’ argument that the Bank was unconstitutional was based on two key issues.  The first was that the Constitution was founded on the principle as declared in the Tenth Amendment, that "all power not delegated to the United States by the Constitution nor prohibited to it by the states are reserved to the states or to the people."  No one could argue with that, Hamilton wrote in his rebuttal, for "it is nothing more than a consequence of the republican maxim, that all government is a delegation of power."  No one could argue that there were not implied powers as well as expressed powers, the implied powers being the legitimate means of obtaining the expressed end. The Virginians contended that the creation of a national bank was an end, not a means. Nonsense, said Hamilton.  A bank was merely a way of doing things. The only question was whether or not the bank was being created for a proper end. Does it have "a natural relation to any acknowledged objects or lawful ends of the government"?  For example, Congress could not form a corporation to supervise the Philadelphia police department, "because they are not authorized to regulate the police in that city." On the other hand, it could create a corporation related to tax collection "because it is the province of the federal government to regulate those objects."

The second issue was Jefferson's narrow interpretation of the "necessary and proper" clause of the Constitution. Jefferson saw the clause as highly restrictive, that by "necessary" it meant literally and indispensably necessary. By Jefferson's definition, a bank was merely incidental to government business and not indispensably necessary. Hamilton countered: every government was confined to passing only such laws as were deemed necessary and proper "to accomplish the objects entrusted to it, for no government had the right to do merely what it pleases." For example: no state constitution expressly authorized the creation of a corporation. Could it be argued that incorporating towns was absolutely necessary? No one questioned that states had the power to create them.  Indeed, no one questioned that the federal government had the power to create lighthouses, beacons, buoys, and public piers. Under Jefferson's narrow interpretation, creating a harbor would be incidental to regulating commerce, and not indispensable, and therefore unconstitutional.  Hamilton also made the point that virtually every European government had created corporations incidental to the collection of taxes and the regulation of commerce.

A bank was the most advantages means of fulfilling the government's powers, Hamilton said. He cited an example sure to get Washington's attention--financing an army.  "A nation is thwarted with war (and) large sums are wanted on a sudden to make the requisite preparations.  Taxes are laid for the purpose, but it requires time to obtain the benefit of them. If there be a bank the supply can at once be had. If there be none, loans from individuals must be sought (but) the progress of these is often too slow." Under such a scenario, it would be indispensable for the government to create a bank.  As president, James Madison would find this to be true during the War of 1812 when he was forced to resurrect the national bank in order to pay the U.S. Army.

Hamilton easily dealt with Jefferson’s pettifoggery about the Bank violating laws of mortmain, alienage, descents, forfeiture and escheat, distribution, monopoly and the like.  In the words of Forrest McDonald, Hamilton had exposed Jefferson’s legalese as “a mixture of bad law, non-law, and irrelevant law.”


In making his case for the Bank, Hamilton had created “the implied powers doctrine” which future presidents would rely upon when making decisions that weren’t expressly enumerated in the Constitution, including Jefferson himself when he authorized the Louisiana Purchase.  Under Jefferson’s strict constructionist interpretation, the federal government could not have made the purchase because the buying of territory wasn’t expressly stated in the Constitution.  As American historians have pointed out ever since, had the federal government’s actions been limited to enumerated powers, it would have sunk quickly to a level of complete and utter incompetence.  Hamilton’s interpretation rendered the Constitution a living, breathing document easily adaptable to meet whatever crisis might lay ahead, for generations to come. (Even Jefferson’s biographer Dumas Malone, and Madison’s biographer Irving Brant admitted that Hamilton was right and their man wrong.)

Having completed his rebuttal, Hamilton handed it to the President before noon on Wednesday the 23rd.  Washington sat down to read it on the 24th.  Swayed by Hamilton’s cogent analysis, Washington signed the Bank Bill into law on February 25.

Congress had one final piece of business, admitting two new states into the Union--Kentucky and Vermont.  On March 3, 1791, the First Congress of the United States adjourned for the last time, and passed into history.  A widely reprinted newspaper article, in recounting the First Congress’s many accomplishments, concluded: “The establishment of the federal government completed the revolution in America.”  It did so through the efforts of 95 elected government officers working without the aid of support staffs or standing committees and for a total cost, including salaries, travel, printing, supplies, and wood for their fireplaces, of less than $374,000.  Never let it be said that Americans don’t love a bargain.


For Thomas Jefferson, it was the “Aha!” moment.  It confirmed everything he believed to be true about the Treasury Secretary.

Alexander Hamilton was a closest monarchist!

It happened at a dinner party about two months after Washington signed the Bank Bill into law.  Thomas Jefferson was speaking casually with John Adams and Alexander Hamilton.  Adams said that if the British government were somehow purged of its corruption and if representation in the House of Commons were made more democratic, “it would be the most perfect constitution ever devised by the wit of man.”

Alexander Hamilton disagreed.  If the British government were purged of corruption and representation were equalized, he said, “it would become an impracticable government: as it stands at present, with all its supposed defects, it is the most perfect government which ever existed.”

One can imagine Jefferson listening intently, with arms folded.  Heretofore he had thought of Hamilton’s financial policies as smacking of England’s “corrupt financial system” but as necessary, as a bitter pill to be swallowed if the patient was to survive. Now, however, he could see what Hamilton was really after: he wanted to turn America into a monarchy, and to make George Washington king, or, more likely, himself.

The account of the conversation was recorded in Jefferson’s “Anas” and nowhere else, written several years after the fact.  Was what Hamilton said--if he said it--that revealing?  Was he a monarchist?  Hamilton had said the same thing at the Constitutional Convention.  It should not have come as a news flash to Jefferson.  Hamilton was, in fact, quoting David Hume, whose writings Jefferson was quite familiar.  Hamilton and Madison drew on many of their political and economic ideas from this highly respected Scottish philosopher.  To be sure, Hamilton was ambitious; but so too was Jefferson.   Since becoming Secretary of State, he’d had his eyes on the presidency.

Closer to the truth, perhaps, was that Jefferson had become jealous of Hamilton’s influence within the Washington administration. It didn’t help that the president seemed to be always favoring Hamilton's ideas over those of Jefferson and Madison.  To be sure, the president’s decision on the Bank Bill was a stinging defeat for the two proud Virginians.

Adding insult to injury, Hamilton’s legal brief seemed to be “shouting with a schoolboy’s fun at the idea of teaching the Virginia democrats some law” (to quote historian Henry Adams).  Going forward, on nearly every issue of consequence, Washington would side with the Treasury Secretary.  On several occasions, Jefferson tried to convince Washington that Hamilton’s policies were autocratic and elitist, but Washington wasn’t buying it.

What Jefferson and Madison had failed to realize was that a special relationship had developed between Washington and Hamilton during the long and bitter War for Independence.  They knew what it was like to conduct a war without food, clothing, adequate medical supplies, ammunition, and money to meet payroll; to be let down time and again by a feckless government.  Neither Jefferson nor Madison had ever served a single day in the Continental Army, never mind having suffered the hardships of the winter at Valley Forge.  Hamilton’s call for a strong national government with strong financial underpinnings rang true for Washington.  If the infant republic was to step up and become a world power, it would need a world-class economy. It was liquid capital, not land, that had made the British Isles the most powerful nation in the world.  Hamilton’s call for the creation of a financial system that rewarded ingenuity and hard work rather than privilege and hereditary wealth, rang equally true for Washington.  Hamilton saw America’s future in commerce, manufacturing, and liquid capital.  To the dismay of Jefferson and Madison, so did George Washington.

Jefferson saw the nation’s future in agriculture.  He wanted America to be a nation of yeoman farmers, where everyone worked his own 50-acre plot of land, and with his own hands created everything he needed.  Let Europe be the manufacturing center of the world. “Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God,” Jefferson said.  Bankers and stockbrokers were paper pushers; they didn’t create anything and therefore were unnecessary, in Jefferson’s scheme of things.

A political divide was in the making, not from Jefferson’s fear of Hamilton being a monarchist, but over a clash of visions: Jefferson’s agrarian utopia versus Hamilton’s mercantile mecca.  Battle lines having been drawn, the party wars of the 1790s were as vicious as any shooting war.  That there was no actual shooting--no political assassinations--stands as a testament to England’s enduring legacy in America--the rule of law.  When the smoke cleared, Jefferson emerged as victor, having won the 1800 presidential election.  It proved to be something of a pyrrhic victory, however.  Hamilton’s policies were too ingrained to be completely dismantled, and as the new chief justice of the Supreme Court John Marshall, was forever overruling the Jeffersonian states’ rights agenda.  On top of that, to be an effective president, ironically, Jefferson was forced to adopt many of Hamilton’s policies, including the doctrine of implied powers.

In the end, Jefferson’s dream of a second American revolution, whereby the republic was recast in Virginia’s image, never materialized.  It was hijacked by Hamilton’s mercantile vision.  As American historian Stephen F. Knott put it: “The America that explored the outer reaches of space, welcomed millions of immigrants, led the effort to defeat fascism and communism, produced countless technological advances, and abolished slavery and Jim Crow, is Hamilton’s America.”

None of it would have been possible, of course, without the man from Mount Vernon.  George Washington made it all attainable: victory over the British, the writing of the U.S. Constitution, the astonishing output of the First Congress, and Hamilton’s economic vision for America.  There’s a reason the Washington Monument stands taller than everything else in the nation’s capital.


It was an interesting question.

President John F. Kennedy wanted to know how a country of four million people could have produced the three greatest geniuses of the eighteenth century--Franklin, Hamilton and Jefferson?

It was the summer of 1961, and at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Jack Kennedy had just finished playing backgammon with writer Gore Vidal.  Vidal did not have an answer.  Said Kennedy: “You know in this, uh, job . . . I get to meet everybody--all these great movers and shakers and the thing I’m most struck by the lot of them is how second-rate they are.  Then you read all those debates over the Constitution . . . nothing like that now.  Nothing.”

Perhaps.  Leaders of this or any age are human after all, with human failings.  According to historian Joanne B. Freeman of Yale University, that’s what makes them interesting.

“Myths dehumanize, removing the uncertainty, the excitement, the ambiguities, and the emotions of the unfolding of history. We seek to clearly identify the ‘good‘ and the ‘bad.‘  We try to create better, more logical reasons for the events of history.  We endow historical figures with more knowledge, absolute confidence, and ulterior motives than they ever possessed.”

Continues Freeman: “But what is truly fascinating about Hamilton, Washington, Jefferson, and their contemporaries is that they were real people, with their good and bad sides, living during a turbulent period, blessed with the talents to take part in the creation of a nation, but like any person faced with challenges, unsure of how to proceed and doubtful about the success of their actions.  The history of the United States is a human story.  To truly understand it, it is important to preserve its humanity.”

In our time, we are benefited with a number of excellent books that reveal more of the humanity of the Founders than perhaps the books Kennedy read.  A number of these newer books inspired me to write this book.

-- Richard Nisley

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