darren staloff

The roots of the uprising [Whiskey Rebellion] lay in Hamilton’s excise on distilled liquor. Passed in early March 1791, the excise imposed a modest tax of seven and a half cents per gallon on distilled whiskey and rum. Hamilton proposed the tax to help defray the costs of funding and assumption. He also hoped to curtail “the consumption of ardent spirits” that “on account of their cheapness, is carried to an extreme.” Hamilton’s moralizing might seem quaint today, but the citizens of the early republic drank truly astounding quantities of alcohol. Hamilton estimated that the average American family consumed roughly sixteen gallons of hard liquor per year, not including wine, beer, and the ubiquitous hard cider (thirty-six proof) that was served at each meal. The most thorough study of the subject suggests that the total consumption of pure or “absolute” alcohol by adults in 1795 was a whopping 6.2 gallons per year, almost three times the current rate and greater than almost any other contemporary European nation. Hamilton was hardly being alarmist when he described American bingeing as a danger “to the health and morals” of the people and a drag on “the oeconomy [sic] of the community.”
—  Darren Staloff, Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson: The Politics of Enlightenment and the American Founding

Despite his poverty and the obscurity of his birth, Hamilton’s first extant letter, written to his friend Edward “Ned” Stevens just two months before his thirteenth birthday, testifies to his dreams of glory: “to confess my weakness, Ned, my ambition is so prevalent, so that I contemn the groveling condition of a clerk or the like, to which my fortune, etc., condemns me, and would willingly risk my life, though not my character to exalt my station.” Fame and glory for Hamilton were the necessary salve for the wounds of his childhood. An exalted “station” would atone for his abandonment by his parents and finally answer the taunts of “whore child” that he had endured as a boy on the streets of Christiansted. Only extraordinary achievement could vindicate Hamilton. Ominously he ended his letter: “I wish there was a war.”

Hamilton’s burning ambition spurred him to great accomplishments, much to the benefit of his adopted country. Hamilton’s remarkable efforts in the revolutionary and early national epochs were critical to the founding of American freedom, prosperity, and national greatness. Indeed, by the time he retired from public life, Hamilton had achieved everything a man of his age could dream of, much less hope for. He had married into one of the wealthiest and most illustrious families in North America, with a handsome wife who adored him and a brood of devoted children. He was the leading member of the New York bar whose services were eagerly sought by all who needed legal representation. His political career was an unqualified success. Short of the presidency, he had been honored with every high office and title, both military and civilian, that his country could bestow. Revered by his followers, admired by his colleagues, and respected by his foes, Hamilton in his lifetime climbed the summits of acclaim that are usually reserved for those long deceased. Yet he remained unsatisfied. Success never brought the relief he pined for. “Mine is an odd destiny,’”he wrote to his friend and fellow Federalist Gouverneur Morris in 1802. “Perhaps no man in the United States has sacrificed or done more for the present Constitution than myself…Yet I have the murmurs of its friends no less than the curses of its foes for my reward.” This was the tragedy of Alexander Hamilton: no worldly success could remove the scars of his childhood wounds.

—  Darren Staloff, Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson: The Politics of Enlightenment and the American Founding

Ultimately, however, neither bad press nor personal flaws explain the American people’s loveless feelings for Hamilton. All of the founders were pilloried in the early American press. Washington was depicted as a senile old fool and Jefferson was denounced as a radical Jacobin atheist. Nor did they lack personality flaws. Washington was known to have a volcanic temper and a deeply avaricious streak, and those intimate with Jefferson were aware of his rather strained relationship with truth-telling. Historians have since remarked Washington’s self-centered absorption with his reputation and stunning lack of military skill, while Jefferson has been exposed as a self-deluded ideologue and an outspoken racist crank. Yet both continue to captivate the national imagination. Both still retain their hold on the American heart. Hamilton is different. He is different because the source of his reputation lies neither in the press he has received nor in the traits that defined his character. The problem with Hamilton lies in the self-image of the American people and the way we like to think of ourselves and our past. In the last analysis, we are the problem. We are responsible for Hamilton’s historical fate.

At the most elemental level, Americans do understand Hamilton. We know that his vision of an enlightened and modern American republic and his practice of the politics of enlightenment are largely responsible for the privileged position, unrivaled power, and unmatched wealth we enjoy. But while we know this, we like to think otherwise. We prefer to see ourselves as uniquely blessed and exceptional, a nation whose might and prosperity are the result of superior virtue, the natural consequence of a unique character, or the blessings of an approving deity. Hamilton forces us to abandon these illusions. His unflinching honesty demands that we recognize that our success is part and parcel of the march of modernity in the western world and our singular embrace of it. We are not exceptional, Hamilton tells us, only more fortunate in our immense resources and lack of traditional cultural and political baggage. Resenting this message, we ignore the messenger lest we feel compelled to preach what we practice.

—  Darren Staloff, Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson: The Politics of Enlightenment and the American Founding