CHARLES MAURICE de Talleyrand, Napoleon's foreign minister, once said that of all the great men of his epoch he would unquestionably give the first place to Alexander Hamilton."He divined Europe," explained Talleyrand. Such cryptic praise, coming from so cynical and faithless a man, a man who despised and detested the United States, is a dubrious accolade. What sort of Europe did Talleyrand have in mind? But it almost inevitably drives us to ask whether or not Hamilton had also divined America.
It is a puzzling and important question. A passionate continentalist, Hamilton was no admirer of the American people. "This American World," he once cried out, "was not made for me." As Washington's secreatry of the treasury, he gave coherence to the nation and respectability to the Revolution by making them both solvent: and yet, in the eyes of the Sourthern leaders, his measures were rooted in a corrupt alliance with the capitalists of the Northeast. Here, as elsewhere, we are faced with the paradox that Hamilton, while he did more than most statemen to strengthen the Union, also did more than most to divide it.
The Young Hamilton covers Hamilton's formative years from 1757 to 1784. It is the work of a skilled biographer: Flexner's study of Hamilton's career as de facto chief of staff to General Washington is, for example, quite unequaled. And yet there is a highly speculative element in this absorbing account. Why for instance did Hamilton deleberately pick a quarrel with his great commander? The usual answer is that he wanted to free himself for an independent command. Flexner, however, adds that he saw his position as "a kind of personal dependence," which might conceivably seem menial, and which activated very distant memories of his father's degradation in the West Indies, not to mention his own. For behind his charming and accomplished exterior there lurked, we are told, "an imperiled, anguished child."
It is Flexner's contention that Hamilton's biographers have tended to make his childhood more affluent or, even when confronted with H.U. Ramsing's carefully documented monograph, at any rate more stable than it really was. In fact, he say, his home life was "A shambles." When, at the age of 16, an oversensitive prodigy, he left for America, he carried with him an incurable wound.
He was born on the British island of Nevis in 1757, an illegitimate child. His mother, Rachel Lavien, (nee Faucett) had married a German merchant on the Danish island of St. Croix; after five years this Lavien had her committed to prison, under Danish law, for two proven acts of adultery. When she was released, she ran away from St. Croix and became the mistress of James Hamilton, a Scottish gentleman of excellent birth and pleasing manners, who had gone adventuring to the sugar islands, but never could adjust himself to the vulgar, money-mad society which prevailed there.
As "Mr. and Mrs. Hamilton" they wandered uncomfortably among the islands, and in 1975 they turned up in St. Croix. Here James Hamilton abadoned his family in search of work: for good as it turned out. Hamilton alwasy remembered him with affection. Of: his mother, on the other hand, he never in all his writings penned an affectionate word. In St. Croix she set up a small shop in her home, where - from the recorded fact that she declared herself to be seven years younger than she was - Flexner concludes that she traded in sex as well as marchandise. THis is very slender evidence: but even if we give the lady the benefit of the doubt, it is clear that Hamilton's life was a humiliating one (under the Danish bastardy law he was known as an "obscene" child) and that he may well have been mocked by other small boys in the streets of Chirstiansted. For this there is no evidence, but it is known that Rachel changed her name back to Lavien, thus ritually betraying her bastard son before abandoning him for good in death.He was then 11 years old.
It was this betrayed and humiliated child who, in Flexner's account, became Hamiltons hysterical fellow traveller throughtout his worldly pilgrimage. It manifested itself in many strange ways and outlandish places - the most outlandish in this book being the State House in Philadephia in June 1783, where the Continental Congress (having requested and been refused the help of the Pennsylvania militia) was forced by some mutineering soldiers of the Continental line to slink away to Princeton. This sorry episode provided the main argument for the establishment of a federal district and city in 1790.
Now Hamilton, a representative from New York in that year, was the man most responsible for the behavior of Congress on this occasion: from which Flexner concludes that the insults he had received from the mutineering soldiers could have been transmuted, by some psychological sleight of hand, into those distant mockeries in the streets of Christiansted. First bellicose (the demand for militia) he then ran away (the retreat to Princeton). Thus the terrible child companion, Flexner argues, might actually have been responsible for the establishment of the District of Columbia and the building of the City of Washington!
This is to draw a very long bow - a weapon in the use of which, I feel, Flexner is somewhat too expert. And yet this argument from childhood is undeniably persuasive. It cannot be dismissed. It helps explain why Hamilton, aloof. elitist, contemptous of mankind, so often behaved like a stranger in a strange land - or like an American statesman who never divined America.