Alexander Hamilton was born in 1755 in the British West Indies and mortally wounded in a duel with Aaron Burr on July 11, 1804, in Weehawken, New Jersey. The trajectory of his life over those 49 years included remarkable accomplishments. He served in the Revolutionary army as lieutenant-colonel and aide to George Washington, fought tirelessly for ratification of the Constitution, and played a pivotal role in defining the governmental mechanisms for managing the national economy. Yet Hamilton's image in the American consciousness, the memory that the public retains of him, remains cloudy and vaguely negative.
Despite his formidable contributions to the shaping of the republic, despite the prophetic accuracy of his vision of the United States as a global power, Hamilton never quite captured the hearts of Americans in the way that Jefferson and Lincoln were able to. Technically, he must be counted in the pantheon of founding fathers -- it is for this reason that a seven-foot statue of Hamilton graces the Capitol Rotunda. But, while biographers have accorded him considerable shelf space, Hamilton remains largely unknown to many of the "regular people" who live in a society and political culture that he was instrumental in creating.
As a general principle, the most revered public figures are those who, whatever their actions may have been, strike a responsive emotional chord in their countrymen. The major determinative factor in attaining such "revered status" is the perception that the figure's beliefs and ideals reflect the best and noblest aspects of the culture and of the individual. The figure's emotional appeal rests largely on his or her identification -- or perceived identification -- with the personal hopes, fears, and aspirations of the populace.
This proposition helps to explain the long-term fading of Hamilton from the American consciousness. Hamilton's image has tended to emphasize not the military aspects of his career, nor his contributions to the Constitution, but his rather bureaucratic role as economic wizard, his belief in the necessity of powerful government, and his deeply rooted mistrust of the people. In other words, the potentially romantic side of Hamilton's character has given way to the vaguely unsettling and even contemptuous side. At times, it should be said, his economic expertise and governmental philosophy have been widely admired and praised -- at least at an intellectual level. But at the emotional level, the long-term trend has seen a steady descent in Hamilton's prestige in the eyes of the American public.
Considering Hamilton in relation to Thomas Jefferson is instructive. During their lives, the two men engaged each other in a titanic struggle over the form of the United States government and its relationship to society. In a directly parallel fashion, the public images of the two men also have been in perptual contention. Yet while Hamilton and the Federalists were able to seize the reins of power in the 1790s and institute many of their programs, it is Jefferson who, in the long run, captured the imagination and love of the American people.
A number of juxtapositions may suggest the reasons underlying Jefferson's superior popular appeal. Hamilton championed strong government; Jefferson championed the individual. Hamilton emphasized self-interest as the prime mover of human affairs; Jefferson exalted the ability of humankind to realize virtuous ideals. Hamilton issued the Report on Manufactures; Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence. Hamilton concerned himself with the intricacies of finance and federal power; Jefferson founded the University of Virginia and invented the dumbwaiter.
Perhaps the fate of Hamilton's reputation is unfair; perhaps public memory is unfair in its nature. After all, Hamilton, unlike Jefferson, held no slaves and was a staunch opponent of the institution. He drafted the call for a Constitutional Convention, and when the document appeared headed for defeat, he fought indefatigably for its passage. His vision of the United States as a global power stabilized by capitalism proved prophetic. Hamilton as much as Jefferson lived his life for his country. Yet his birthday goes uncelebrated; his visage does not peer out from Mt. Rushmore; his name is not evoked in soaring political oratory; and his accomplishments are sung mainly by academics, not by the people.