SHILO BROOKS: Welcome back to The Free Mind podcast, where we discuss philosophic and political ideas with adventurous disregard for intellectual trends. I'm Shilo Brooks from the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
I'm joined today by Brad Wilson, Executive Director of the James Madison Program at Princeton University and Fellow at Princeton's Butler College. He's also been an Erskine Canterbury Fellow at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. He's authored several books. And he's recently edited a two-volume edition of The Political Writings of Alexander Hamilton with his colleague Carson Holloway. Our conversation today explores Hamilton's life and intellectual legacy. We discuss Hamilton's unusual upbringing, the enduring importance of his political thought, and the faithful contributions he made to the form and structure of the American economy.
Brad Wilson, welcome to The Free Mind podcast. It is a pleasure to have you here.
BRAD WILSON: Well, Shilo, thank you so much for having me on The Free Mind Podcast. It's hard to believe it's been a year since you concluded your visiting fellowship at Princeton with the James Madison Program, that I have the privilege to serve. So, it's great to see you.
SHILO BROOKS: Yeah, it's great to see you too. And I look forward to getting back to Princeton as soon as I possibly can, because the James Madison Program is a paradise for intellectuals. But I wanted to have you on today to talk about what I know is a great love of yours, great intellectual love, and that is Alexander Hamilton. And you have recently come out with a two-volume set of his political writings. And I thought there'd be no better time and no better person to introduce some of the listeners of The Free Mind podcast to Hamilton than you. So if you could just start off by telling us a little bit about why this volume is important. One of the things that you about in your introduction is, there's a lot of ink that's been spilled on Alexander Hamilton. There's a lot of volumes of his writing out there. But this one is unique for certain reasons. What is it about this volume? What is it about this man, that makes this the time to release something like this?
BRAD WILSON: Well, maybe I should begin by informing our listeners that Cambridge University Press has enlisted my co-editor and me, Carson Holloway, at the University of Nebraska, to be editors-in-chief of a series of volumes for Cambridge on the political thought of American statesmen.
The first fruit of this project is Carson's and my two-volume edition of The Political Writings of Alexander Hamilton. It amounts to about 1,000 pages in total. Carson had already written a book with Cambridge on Hamilton and Jefferson during the Washington administration. So he is already deep into Hamilton. I, being a lot older than Carson, had a lot more years in being deeply, deeply interested in Hamilton's role in the American Founding. So we decided to propose Hamilton to Cambridge as the first volumes we would see or oversee. Carson and I are currently editing the two-volume edition of The Political Writings of George Washington, which will be the second appearance in the series, and have lined up other editors to do other founding statesmen. And over time, I'm hoping we will cover pretty much the territory of not just the founding, but American statesmen, at least up through the age of Lincoln.
So, it is exciting for us to be engaged in such a project at this particular time in American history, where our founders are not quite as revered as they might have been even 10 or 20 years ago. There's a lot of statues being taken down, and people being canceled, over their fondness for the political thought of the founders, because of personal failings, or living in a different time, tolerated different kinds of injustices, and so forth. So it's very important to us to get these volumes out as quickly as we can.
Now, people have to understand we're dealing with a lot of material. So just to take Hamilton, who lived from, depending on who you want to believe, I want to believe Hamilton, 1757 to 1804. Now, that makes him what? Forty-seven when he dies. Contrast that with say George Washington, whose death was considered an early death in his mid-60s. When you get into Madison, Jefferson, Adams, the other luminaries of the period, they all live into their 80s, although with Adams, he's 90 years old.
So Hamilton's life was short. And yet we are dealing with 32 volumes of his writings which includes not just his writing to other people, but them writing to him. That's what's included in these beautiful authoritative papers projects that have been coming out on different founders. Washington, 70 some volumes have come out and they're still coming out. They're not done yet. So it’s a challenge to take that much material and boil it down to two volumes. So we needed clarity on what our principles of selection were going to be and choosing the documents that would be included. And we decided we would focus first on the political thought of these statesmen, which distinguishes our collection from the other collections that are publicly available, which are not exclusively political thought. It's a lot of other kind of writings and relationships that weren't political in nature or dealt with the kind of horse race politics of their time, but not enduring political reflection. So our volumes focus on enduring political thought of Hamilton, the kind of political thought that is not bound to his particular time and place, but be appreciated, understood, entered into in any future generation of interested people.
Why Hamilton? Well, Hamilton is the most colorful figure in a way, rivaling... Well, his only rival would be Ben Franklin probably when I think about it, but Hamilton, he was so different from all of the other founders. And it has a lot to do with his origins. Hamilton was not like, say all those other guys, born in North America. He was born in the West Indies. His mother was a French Huguenot. His father was a bit of a wastrel from Scotland. The bad boy of his family of nobility, who basically was sent to the West Indies to make his own way in trade or whatever he could figure out to do because he wasn't going to inherit anything from his family.
His mother had been married before to a fellow named Lavine or Lavien who was, we believe, a Jewish merchant on the Island of Nevis, a Danish island. And Lavien treated her very badly. It ended in a nasty divorce. She then took up with James Hamilton from Scotland. Whether they ever married or not is a difficult question because of marriage laws in the islands at the time. But he quickly abandoned the family after having the two boys, James and Alexander. When Alexander was eight years old, his father disappeared. And his mother, who apparently was a very witty and very beautiful woman, stepped up and opened up a shop, provided for his well-being, on the Island of St. Croix, a Danish island. And at 12 years old, Hamilton's mother dies from a fever that Hamilton himself had contracted. You have to imagine his mother and him sharing a bed, both of them in mortal danger of death due to this fever, and his mother dying by his side.
Hamilton then goes to work for a trading company on the island of St. Croix. And quickly becomes the manager of the company. The owners of the company, I believe, were located in New York City, and they just handed it over to him when they realized how smart he was. And he ran that company for four years, at which time there was a hurricane that hit the islands, and he wrote an impassioned letter to his absent father, describing the hurricane from a Christian perspective. And it was so astoundingly eloquent that some patrons read the letter and said, "This boy's brilliant. We need to get him a real education. Let's send him to North America." And they paid for him to sail to Boston. He made his way down to New York. He's 16 years old. He meets anyone he could meet who he thought was influential, impressed them.
Next thing you know, he's applying to Princeton University, that makes its worst admissions decision in its history by turning him down, because he wanted to do it in three years or even two rather than the four. And John Witherspoon, who was president of Princeton at the time, said his board of trustees wouldn't go for it, even though they had gone for it with James Madison who got out in three years. Aaron Burr had gotten out less than four years. Of course, his father, Aaron Burr Sr, was president of Princeton at the time; that might have had something to do with it. But Hamilton then was accepted at Kings College in New York, now known as Cambridge University. And immediately devoured every book that he could get his hands on, but the Revolutionary War broke out and he quit to join the New York militia. Now, he had at that point no military experience. But being Hamilton, he quickly is noticed by senior officers as being particularly good at military affairs. And by 1775, when Hamilton is 18 years old, he's now an aide-de-camp to the commander George Washington, the commander of the Continental Army. He becomes Washington's most valued associate, part of what was called the Family. These are the group of young officers that surrounded Washington during the war, spent the horrible time at Valley Forge with him, and so forth. Hamilton became, to all intents and purposes, Washington secretary. A lot of the writings we attribute to Washington were in fact drafted by Alexander Hamilton, not just during the war, but during Washington's presidency.
So this makes Hamilton different from the other founders. He came out of nowhere, out of nothing. He had no money of his own that he had inherited. He certainly had no property. All he had was his ambition and his incredible mind. And it was rewarded. It was recognized and rewarded. So here's this young man, in what? 1775. What [inaudible]? He's 18 years old. Now he's next to George Washington, who was at that time, recognized as the greatest man in the world by Europeans and Americans alike. Now, no doubt, this created some resentment among the American elite, who were born in America, had massive property holdings, ancestors that had lived in America. And here's this guy from nowhere being second only to Washington in the importance of strategizing and prosecuting the war.
So after the war, Hamilton then calls in a meeting with Madison and others, meets in Annapolis, and calls for a constitutional convention to create a new constitution to replace our first constitution, the Articles of Confederation. He writes the letter calling for the convention. He then becomes a delegate to the convention from New York. He makes some important contributions to the convention deliberations, even though of the three New York delegates, he's the only one who wants a new constitution. He then, after the constitution is drafted, he gets elected to the Ratification Convention in New York, where he goes to the Ratification Convention as a pro-constitution delegate. There are two anti-federalist, anti-constitution delegates for every one pro-constitution delegate. And guess what happens after several days of Hamilton speaking, sometimes six hours at a stretch? New York ratifies the constitution by a small margin. He flipped that many people through his persuasive powers. And this is just the beginning of his political career. He's still very young.
SHILO BROOKS: Right. Let me say this to folks about what you've just said, the rich biography that you've just provided us. A couple things stick out to me that have been themes that we've discussed with other people on this podcast. And that is, we talk about the free mind and what it means to have a truly liberated mind. Hamilton strikes me as someone who is in possession of this. You mentioned he wanted to do Princeton in three years, but he couldn't, they wouldn't go for that. And then he went to college, but he sort of thought, well, this is not for me, either. And then he goes and gets an education with Washington in the army. I mean, Hamilton is someone who, when I present minds like this to young students, he's not checking boxes on a career. He's not, well, and then you have to go do this and then you have to go do this, and this will lead to success. He's curious, he's widely curious. He's deeply ambitious.
And this occurs to me to point out to people because I think a lot of folks see the success of someone like that and think, "Well, he must have been on track from the start. He must have had a wealthy family." As you point out, that's not the case. But the other thing you mentioned is, your volume. Your volume presents those writings of Hamilton which are meant to enter into the enduring conversation across the ages about the best and proper way to govern human beings. What your volume contributes, which I think is important for people who have listened to previous podcasts on maybe Frederick Douglass, or the Great Books, is that this is the writings of Hamilton which are entering into that conversation with people like Aristotle, people like Montesquieu, who are trying to determine what is the best way to govern human beings simply. That's what Brad means when he talks about the enduring political thought of Hamilton, that thought, which is in conversation with the other enduring writers.
And so with that said, Brad, I mean, this rich mind, this free mind, which is searching for truth, as he's given to understand it, not checking boxes, not doing what others tell him, but following his own instincts and curiosity, let's talk about some of Hamilton's thought itself that's in the volume. Let's talk about Hamilton's views on the way the government should look. His views on parties, his views on republicanism. Can you give us some, just a kind of general orientation to the content of Hamilton's thought, which is entering into this enduring conversation about the proper way, the best way to rule human beings?
BRAD WILSON: Yeah, absolutely. Of course that's a topic we could spend a very long time on.
Hamilton is of course one of the authors of the well-known Federalist Papers. Eighty-five essays were in the Federalist Papers. Five were written by John Jay, 29 by James Madison, and an astounding 51, the last twenty-some of which were written by Hamilton himself over a very short period of time. And it's still recognized as the deepest, most comprehensive reflection on the nature of American government that has ever, ever been produced. It was Hamilton's idea. He organized it. He recruited the other authors and oversaw the project.
Now, before then, Hamilton was engaged in the Pamphlet Wars in 1774 and 1775 over the proper relationship between the colonies and the British Empire, in particular, Parliament and the King. And those essays are really worth reading. They're, I must say, interminable in some of them. He's 18 years old. We can give him a break on that. He's full of ideas. He has read everything needed to make the case against Great Britain's treatment of the American Colonies in the sixties and seventies. He's read deeply in philosophy, in social contract theory, and this is all on display. It's the writings of the young revolutionary, rooted in a devotion to the natural rights and the rights of the British citizens.
So that's the early Hamilton. A very theoretical Hamilton, a very persuasive one. He never stopped being persuasive. Nobody could believe, actually, that Hamilton wrote those, by the way. For a long period of time, people just did not believe an 18 year old could write what he wrote. But he wasn't like everybody else! I'll keep driving this point home. There's something very different about Hamilton, and I think partly rooted in his being a marginal character, the sort I was talking about earlier, he really did have to prove himself every step of the way. He got no slack. In a way, you would think that the cards were against him, and his ambition propelled him to learn what he had to learn. Something to say about his mind before I talk about the rest of his thought is that you can contrast him to somebody like Thomas Jefferson, the mind of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was philosophic by nature. He enjoyed philosophy for its own sake as far as I can tell. He liked experimenting with ideas, however strange they were. He was liberally learned in a really admirable, remarkable way. However, it led him down some strange paths in his political thinking. Hamilton was the reverse. He was a political thinker first and foremost, not a philosophic thinker. He knew philosophy, but only that philosophy that would assist him in his project of creating a stable, energetic, republic, ordered liberty. The rest of it, he never expressed any genuine interest in. It's on display when necessary. In the Federalist Papers, he has some of the more theoretical reflections about the nature of the mind, but it's all in the service of his project.
So, what's his project? His project is, in a world of monarchies, to go with the American character rooted in the republican experiences that the colonies had been permitted to have for quite a long time, where Great Britain had left them pretty much alone to govern themselves. He recognized the American character was, in its nature, republican. That there wasn't going to be an aristocracy in a monarchy in America, at least not anytime soon. This led him to master the philosophical body of literature on republics, why they rise, why they fail, constitutional structures that prevent the republics from devolving into anarchy, replaced by tyranny. These were the experiences of republics in human history, and one of the great excuses that monarchs gave for their own authority. There wasn't any other form of government that would provide the order, the stability, the safety, the property of their subjects.
So Hamilton, being a patriot, an American patriot, says, "I'm going to help on this project." And everything he does can be seen as him trying to create a government that will not suffer the failures of all former republics. This leads him to a certain constitutional understanding, not unique to him, but not necessarily shared by other founders. And that is, Hamilton thought that the most needful thing for Americans in the 1780s going into the future was a strong, energetic national government. That the Articles of Confederation had created a very weak national government that was a failure. And, as Hamilton writes, the greatest danger he thought to republics were faction and anarchy. The remedy for that problem was a strong national government representing the unity of the country. The state governments, the experience of the country up to the new constitution being ratified, had been that the state governments were kind of... The centrifugal forces at work in the country led state governments to be a threat to national unity. Hamilton was deeply worried that the country was going to split into separate confederacies due to states not wanting to be part of a continental unity.
This leads to a certain difference between him and, let's say, Thomas Jefferson. Hamilton said, "Look, for all those objects given to the national government as its duties, it should have unlimited authority." Placing constitutional limits on the national government was a bad idea. He opposed a Bill of Rights. He said, "No, no, the protection of our liberties is going to be a consequence of the structure of the federal government and its dependence on the people." So he was a key supporter of the complicated constitutional structure that we still live under. Separation of powers, checks and balances, and of course, frequent elections. And he thought, that's it. You can't limit the national government because you can't predict all the exigencies, the emergencies, the new challenges, that this fledgling nation is going to face. It has to have that authority.
Then, the question becomes, "Well, why should the state... Why should the people in the states trust such a powerful government?" Many of them didn't. That was the anti-federalists' worry. And Hamilton says, "Well, they're always going to favor those governments that are closer to them. That's just human nature. They're going to have a fondness for their state governments over the national government. However, if the state governments continue to be poorly administered and the national government turns out to be well administered, voila, that's what's going to move the affections of the people from their local and state governments to wishing the national government well and giving it their firm support." Whereas, of course, Jefferson was very fearful of the powers of the national government, and thus, pushed for, and successfully, for the Bill of Rights that we all think of when we think of the Constitution. But it's interesting to remember that there was no Bill of Rights to the original Constitution that came out of Philadelphia. It wasn't a done deal. So, one thing that he was accused of throughout his political career was being a monarchist, being anti-republican, being in favor of a kind of national dictatorship.
And his response to that was very clear, that he was "affectionately tied to republican government," he says. He wished republican government well. He did not want a government with hereditary privileges. He wanted equal political rights for everyone. His only concern was he wasn't sure if it was practical. It had failed so many times. He's now hoping that a new political science that he has laid out with Madison in the Federalist Papers will provide new ways of protecting liberty, not being reduced to factionalism and anarchy. But the most important thing is that America succeed as a sovereign nation, and he wants that to be as a republic. He's just not as dogmatic about republican government being the only possibly successful government in the world, because he's very admiring of the British government, despite its treatment of the colonies.
SHILO BROOKS: Yeah. Yeah. I like very much... in preparing for this, I was looking over some of the letters from your volume that you sent along, and he claims in the one letter to Pickering, 1803, that he did not ever propose that there be an executive for life. So I mean, these things that you're talking about come up in your volume. A beautiful quotation that I think really captures some of what you're saying, I'll just read it now. This is from the letter to Carrington, 1792. In fact, I think you alluded to it directly in your remarks just now for people who are looking for what Hamilton's position was. And I think once I read this, we'll transition into Hamilton's position with respect to the other founders’ positions and show maybe how he agreed and disagreed with them, but here's a quotation that really sums up some of what Brad was saying about Hamilton's attachments to republican theory.
"I said that I was affectionately attached to republican theory. This is the real language of my heart, which I open to you in the sincerity of friendship. And I add that I have strong hopes of the success of that theory, but in candor, I ought also to add that I am far from being without doubts. I consider its success as yet a problem." And so he was thoughtful about republican theory. He was optimistic about republican theory. He was cheering for the republic, yet not fully convinced that this grand experiment would succeed. And I think, like any thoughtful person, a patriot, yet at the same time troubled by some of the vices of republicanism. And this seems, to me, to capture the spirit of what you say about him quite well. You can certainly comment on that, but I think one thing I don't want to neglect is, Hamilton is not simply or purely a political thinker, a political theorist. He thought quite carefully about economics.
And so one of his most famous writings is the Report on Manufacturers. And I'm curious if you could... and I'd be interested to hear you contrast that the approach that Hamilton takes in the Report on Manufacturers to the development of the American economy over and against that of, say, the Jeffersonian approach to try to bring out some of... because it appears to me that Hamilton won, that Hamilton's view of what the American economy should look like was the view that ultimately won, for better or for worse. But can you say something about Hamilton's economic thought, its legacy, and its difference from that of Jefferson?
BRAD WILSON: Yeah. I'd love to. Of course, Hamilton is probably best known for his five years as secretary of the treasury under George Washington's leadership in the first five years of Washington's presidency. And that Hamilton was made secretary of the treasury is itself yet another remarkable achievement in his life because he'd never been involved that much with financial matters, but he had written letters that showed a grasp of political economy. He'd written letters to Robert Morris, who was the financier of the American Revolution. And Morris recommended Hamilton to George Washington. So, Morris didn't want to do it. He said, "Give it to Hamilton." Morris, I think, ended up dying in debtor's prison. But Hamilton wrote some of the greatest state papers, really, in human history. His Report on Public Credit was his first big one. And he did this all within a stretch of about two years when he first started out. These are massive, massive reports.
His second report was his Report on The Need For A National Bank, which we didn't have. Another massive report followed up by a disputation over the constitutionality and policy of the national bank. The bank was opposed by Washington's Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, as being unconstitutional and unwise. It was opposed by James Madison, who was the leader in the first Congress in the House of Representatives. So Hamilton had some powerful adversaries on this proposal of his. And Hamilton's proposal passed both Houses of Congress, despite Madison's opposition, went to Washington for a signature, and Washington said... he asked for opinions from members of his Cabinet on the constitutional and policy question surrounding whether he should veto the bank bill. And Washington was kind of struck by the arguments against the constitutionality of the bank that Madison had made. And Jefferson wrote a long paper arguing against the constitutionality and wisdom of the bank.
Hamilton then responded to... also, I should mention the attorney general, Edmund Randolph, from Virginia... Hamilton was surrounded by Virginians, by the way. I don't know, did Hamilton ever go to Virginia? I don't think so. It was like a foreign country to him. One of his problems with it is he believed it was a foreign country to the rest of the United States. So there was Randolph, Washington, Madison, Jefferson. They're all Virginians. Hamilton responds to Jefferson's critique. And if I could just tell a little anecdote here. We know this from Hamilton's wife. She says that Hamilton came home from work, said that he had to respond to Jefferson's paper, and would she make him a strong cup of coffee. She made him a strong cup of coffee, and she said, "You're not coming to bed tonight. You're writing." So Hamilton wrote all night long and produced an 80-page response to Jefferson that one–was it Joseph Story? I think so–one of the great Supreme Court justices of the early 19th century said that Hamilton said everything that could possibly be said on the subject and what he wrote was unanswerable.
That's the power of his mind. So there's that. And then there is the final report of the trilogy, really, which is the subject of manufacturers. It is the one piece of Hamilton's overall financial program that was rejected in the Congress. But it's also, in a way, the most impressive of the three documents. It's a deep reflection on human nature, as most everything Hamilton did involved a reflection on human nature. That's one thing that really distinguishes him. There's hardly a subject that he took up in politics where he didn't lay the groundwork for what he had to say in an interpretation of human nature. And the Report on Manufacturers is no exception to this. What Hamilton argues for in the report, the most controversial part that probably killed the Congress' support for it was he argued for governmental support for fledgling industry. Bounties is what he called them, grants to people to invent things, to start new manufacturers, get us able to provide for ourselves without depending on the ups and downs of European politics for manufacturers.
And that's part of what the argument is, that was not a popular argument because of the free trade positions of the southerners, including the Virginians. They just didn't think government should be in the business of, as we would say today, playing favorites. But of course, Hamilton thought if we didn't play favorites, we're not going to have any manufacturing base in this country. Because people were rooted in their habits, it's hard to get a country to change from being one kind of economic project into a different kind. And the most interesting reflections... well, let me play this up against Jefferson, and then we'll talk about the real difference here. Jefferson says, and this goes back to his... what was the name of it, the writing on the State of Virginia, back in the 1780s?
SHILO BROOKS: The Notes on the State of Virginia?
BRAD WILSON: Notes on the State of Virginia, he says there that "Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God.” If there is such a chosen people, that that's where real virtue resides. He was struck with the independence, self-sufficiency of the yeoman farmer. And he wanted to make all of America that if he could, and keep it from becoming something different than that. Anything other than that he saw as a form of corruption, of decadence, of wealth. Let's put aside Jefferson's own life and how he lived it. He's thinking of republics and what makes them flourish. And for Jefferson, it's agriculture. It's laboring in the earth, and that's where virtue and liberty are going to be saved in that kind of country. And it explains a lot about Jefferson's other thinking.
He was for the expansion into the West, beyond the Mississippi, wherever we could go to get more land to work to keep us from becoming something other than an agricultural economy. And, of course, he's making a moral argument for this way of life. So he's got the high moral ground, in a way. The nation at the time was an agricultural economy. And so he's the conservative in this debate. He's the guy who wants to conserve the way of life that has made the country what it is, and he thinks it's necessary to preserve, for the country to remain republican. Hamilton says, "Well, I have a better idea. My idea is that, yes, we encourage agriculture, but let's also encourage commerce and encourage manufacturing.” Why? Well, because it will provide a greater theater on which human beings can exercise their energy and talents. And that will lead to a vast increase in productivity and increase our national prosperity, which is the only thing that's going to save us from being dominated by, you name it, Spain, Great Britain, France, all of whom had still had designs on the country.
And he says, and this is a good thing, this is a liberating thing, not everybody wants to be a farmer. He says, people have different dispositions, different talents. There's a diversity and we're not tapping into it. So let's, through free enterprise, a spirit of enterprise, he calls it, provide more objects for people's entrepreneurial energies to work more objects they can work on, and it'll develop their own minds, he says. I mean, it's one thing to be a farmer, a certain kind of mindset results from that, if you know any farmers, what their interests are, and what they're devoted to. He says, well, let's have more of that in different occupations. And it will not only be good for the individual and his own flourishing, it will provide the prosperity that the country needs to survive into the future. And so that's a huge difference. Which one is right? It's a big question. I have thoughts about it. But the main thing is Hamilton's republic is the one that quickly began to grow because of his financial policies. Even though the Report on Manufacturers didn't go through, his other ones did, and they were crucial to providing the resources for this kind of world he imagined to begin to develop, which really took off after the Civil War. But even before then, why was the North able to win the Civil war? It was just more developed because it had created Hamilton's economy, unlike the South, [inaudible] cultural.
SHILO BROOKS: Yeah. No, that's quite an observation and an important one. Let me ask you this, since we're limited with our time here. What we've done is, we've covered very briefly some of the political theory of Hamilton, we also then looked at some of the economic legacy and theory of Hamilton.
Let's say that folks are listening to this and their interest has been piqued something that you've said, you've just sort of written or composed this two-volume selection of Hamilton's political writings, let's say somebody wanted to pick this up, or even if they didn't want to pick this up, they just wanted to kind of get on the internet, get on Google and look at some things that Hamilton had written, other than the Report on Manufacturers, which I think we can say is very, very important, the Federalist Papers, which are very, very important, which you don't include in your volume precisely because there are many good additions of those out already, what are a few pieces of Hamilton's writing, whether it's letters or other things that you might recommend for folks who are coming to him for the first time, who really want to get a sense of the thinker and the man?
BRAD WILSON: Hmm. Interesting. Well, first of all, let me tell everybody that while the volumes first came out in an unaffordable hardback, they've been recently released as paperbacks.
SHILO BROOKS: You should buy them, by the way. I did.
BRAD WILSON: That are much more affordable for anybody, for individuals, not just libraries. So well, I guess I'd start at the very beginning. The first writing we have of Hamilton's is when he was 12 years old and wrote his childhood friend, Edward, Ned, as he called him, Stevens. And he writes to Ned, says, "Neddy, I contemn my situation as a clerk." He's working now. He's started to work. “I contemn it, I look down on it, I dislike it. And I'm ambitious and I will do nothing to sully my own character in trying to advance my reputation and fate, nothing that will diminish my character, but I'm going to do everything I can to advance myself.” And then he says, "Forgive me, I wish there were a war." That's how he ends the letter.
It's fascinating, at 12 years old, but it was not uncommon, he saw the way people advanced themselves in the 18th century. It was through heroism in war. Just think of the place that George Washington holds in our minds. And he wanted that. And he found his war. So, he found his war. Washington gave him a command, even after they had fallen out, which is another interesting story that I don't have time to tell, he gave him a command and let him lead an artillery brigade at the Battle of Yorktown. And Hamilton, at great risk, maybe too much risk to his own life, performed heroically. And so he came out of it all as a war hero. So that's a fascinating letter into the mind of a child who already saw where he wanted to go. And some friends say that as gifted as he was in so many departments of life, they always thought he was happiest in the camp, meaning the military camp. And there's something to that, I believe.
So there's that, besides the great writings we've discussed already. You can't imagine the output as a pseudonymous political writer of Hamilton throughout his adult life. It's all in our volumes, but just multiple.... in one case, what was he arguing about? Something like the Jay Treaty. Twenty-one essays. Just unbelievable output. You can peruse that stuff and learn so much about his political thinking.
You know, you want to read, this is in our volumes, in our appendix, his exchange with Aaron Burr and Aaron Burr's surrogates over whether to duel. It's very interesting. You will develop your own theories about why Hamilton went out to Weehawken at 5:30 in the morning, against the law, to fight this duel. And then apparently fire his gun in the air instead of at Burr. Burr wasn't so generous in his shot. I have a theory. But anyway, I'll leave it to you to have your own. It has something to do with Hamilton's wanting to continue to be useful to the republic. And he did not believe that popular prejudice would be willing to put huge political and military responsibility on his shoulders if they regarded him to be a coward. So it's understandable in a culture of honor, that that's how he would understand the situation. But that's a great exchange between him and Burr and Burr's surrogate. And then, I don't know what else to say about Hamilton. He just wrote so much on so many different subjects. I picked a few out for you to look over, but I mean, un-politically, you can get this in other collections, his letters to his wife. We included his final letter to his wife, because it's his explanation of why he's going out to duel, which is the explanation I just suggested, which is quite interesting.
I think his final letter, political letter, the night or the day before the duel, to Sedgwick, a New England Federalist, saying to Sedgwick, "Look, the worst thing that can be done is to divide the Union into separate confederacies." Because there was rumor that New England Federalists wanted to break off in opposition to Jefferson's policies as president. So this is 1804. And Hamilton writes to Sedgwick and says, "I'm dead set against this idea. That the future of America depends on its unity.” This is his theme. It depends on its unity. Everything depends on that. Our order, our prosperity. And he says, "Our real problem is Democracy, capital D." So that's fascinating.
SHILO BROOKS: Indeed.
BRAD WILSON: Hamilton makes a distinction between republicanism and democracy. And when he thinks democracy, he thinks of the Jacobins in France, he thinks of Jefferson's fondness for the Jacobins in France. He's deeply concerned that there's a kind of populism that has gripped Americans, a large swath of Americans, that is going to lead to that factionalism and anarchy that he warned against earlier. So I think that those are the ones I guess I would recommend off the top of my head.
SHILO BROOKS: Well, that's terrific. That's terrific. I highly encourage everybody to take a look at those. I was able to take a look at some of those in preparation for this. It's very much worth your time. Let me just say again, that two-volume set of Alexander Hamilton's Political Writings from Cambridge University Press, it's available in paperback now, a very affordable edition, as Brad said, collected by Carson Holloway and Brad Wilson for Princeton. Thank you so much, Brad. It's been a real pleasure.
BRAD WILSON: Same here, Shilo. And stay tuned for the Washington volumes.
SHILO BROOKS: Yes, we will have another conversation about Washington shortly, everybody. For now, take care.
BRAD WILSON: Thanks.
SHILO BROOKS: The Free Mind podcast is produced by the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization at the University of Colorado at Boulder. You can email us feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit us online at colorado.edu/center/benson.