On the evening of Sunday, September 18, AHI Charter Fellow and Hamilton College history professor, Douglas Ambrose spoke on “Alexander Hamilton and the Perils of Posterity.” With incredible eloquence, wit and energy, he delivered a generous assessment of Alexander Hamilton’s brilliance and integrity in public life.
Alexander Hamilton wanted to appear trustworthy to the common people. Statesmen like Hamilton gave no thought to the idea of Heaven or a beatific vision at the end of their lives in which they would meet their maker. The Enlightenment led them to concentrate instead on establishing a system and personal legacy that focused on human fulfillment and happiness. Those in power sought to establish a society where true happiness was attainable for the common people.
From a young age, he was full of ambition and a desire to go beyond the cards Fate had dealt him. He believed Fate could be overcome and should not just be accepted. His station made such a transition difficult: born out of wedlock in the West Indies and then orphaned at a young age, he seemed to have a bleak future. In a letter to his friend Ned, he wrote of his castle in the clouds, which drove him to attempt to transcend his current situation. He wished for a war so he could prove himself on merit alone. He would be named a hero. The most essential part of this letter was not his showing of such intense ambition at a young age, but rather his stating he would never sacrifice his public character for power. Hamilton manifested this Enlightenment ideal of achieving an honorable legacy when just a boy.
This value stayed with him into his adult life. It showed true in his Publius Letters of 1778. One in particular spoke to Hamilton’s view of honor in the life of a public official. Hamilton launched an attack on Samuel Chase of Maryland, whom he saw as the antithesis of everything a member of Congress ought to be. For an honorable official, the trust of the republic was paramount; with such fortune of position, a man must promote human happiness and do good to all people in all circumstances. Personal connections should not divert a man from this course. Union and harmony of conscience were of great importance. Chase’s love of money and power repulsed Hamilton. He cried out for Chase to shed his mask and appear as his true self. However, Hamilton outright stated that others should consider his faults only in a public capacity; he made the distinction between the defects of private character and public character.
This distinction was one Hamilton made especially in his own life. After his affair with Maria Reynolds, he stood between a rock and a hard place. Maria’s husband discovered the affair and demanded money from Hamilton. People began to notice the cash flow and the public asked, ‘Was the Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton, abusing his power?’ At this point, not only was his public character at risk, but also his private life. Against all advice of close friends, Hamilton released the Reynolds Pamphlet, an account of his sex scandal, to the press. So clever a move couldn't have been predicted. He would not let others “transmit his name with dishonor to posterity.” He admitted his real crime, the affair with Maria Reynolds, and explained that the payments were for her husband’s silence, not graft. At the same time, however, he personally betrayed and publicly humiliated his wife Eliza, who probably had no idea of the affair. Hamilton made a difficult decision, but given his views on the great importance of maintaining a reputation for honorable public conduct, it was the only option.
Hamilton wrote his last epistle to his wife on the eve of his duel with Aaron Burr, a contest that resulted from years of tension between the two men, which boiled over during the 1804 New York gubernatorial race. If he lived, she would never receive it. If he died, it would be his last comfort to her. He writes, “If it had been possible for me to have avoided the [duel], my love for you and my precious children would have been alone a decisive motive. But it was not possible, without sacrifices which would have rendered me unworthy of your esteem.” Eliza stood as “posterity’s conscience.” Hamilton undoubtedly would have thought of her when thinking of his reputation among future generations, even if he didn’t directly mention it. He always considered Eliza’s perspective. She was no passive figure ¾ she was his best defender. She was his flesh and blood, his bone. He was the love of her life. She held him to a high standard, and even if he failed, he always tried to respond with honor. He may have failed in marital fidelity, but she insisted that, as a public man entrusted with great responsibility, he merited posterity's profound and unqualified praise and gratitude. She demanded that posterity forgive him. That is her triumphant legacy and his.