Myron Magnet : Alexander Hamilton, Modern America’s Founding Father

Roundup: Talking About History

We New Yorkers imagine our city’s history begins in earnest with the Gilded Age and the Great Migration that brought many of our forebears sailing under the Statue of Liberty’s torch to supercharge a nascent metropolis with a jolt of new energy. But this summer, when a handful of square-bearded, antique-garbed Pennsylvania German Baptists jacked a yellow clapboard house up over a Harlem church and wheeled it around the corner to a new site in St. Nicholas Park, we recalled that more than a century earlier Gotham took center stage as the nation’s first capital. For the house belonged to Alexander Hamilton—not only one of the greatest Founding Fathers but the one who stamped the infant republic forever with the unique spirit of New York City.

The other Founders were Americans of a century’s standing, who fought the Revolution to defend liberties their families had claimed for generations. Washington and Jefferson, landed grandees, descended from seventeenth-century Virginians; Harvard-educated John Adams’s forebears settled in Massachusetts Bay in 1638. Such men were rooted Americans, living on land inherited from their fathers. Hamilton, by contrast, was a penniless immigrant from the West Indies; like so many New Yorkers, he had come here from elsewhere, seeking his fortune.

And he wasn’t just penniless. “My birth,” as he delicately put it, “is the subject of the most humiliating criticism”—for he was, in John Adams’s acidulous taunt, “the bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar.” Nevertheless, as a prime exemplar of that American opportunity and enterprise he so fervently promoted, he rose to be the country’s second most powerful man. As Ron Chernow puts it in his indispensable biography, he served in effect as George Washington’s prime minister and head of government, directing his administration’s policy and molding the enduring institutions it created....

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