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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Alexander Hamilton

By Fisher Ames (1758–1808)

[From Works of Fisher Ames. 1854.]

THAT writer would deserve the fame of a public benefactor who could exhibit the character of Hamilton, with the truth and force that all who intimately knew him conceived it; his example would then take the same ascendant as his talents. The portrait alone, however exquisitely finished, could not inspire genius where it is not; but if the world should again have possession of so rare a gift, it might awaken it where it sleeps, as by a spark from heaven’s own altar; for surely if there is anything like divinity in man, it is in his admiration of virtue.

But who alive can exhibit this portrait? If our age, on that supposition more fruitful than any other, had produced two Hamiltons, one of them might then have depicted the other. To delineate genius one must feel its power; Hamilton, and he alone, with all its inspirations, could have transfused its whole fervid soul into the picture, and swelled its lineaments into life. The writer’s mind, expanding with his own peculiar enthusiasm, and glowing with kindred fires, would then have stretched to the dimensions of his subject.

Such is the infirmity of human nature, it is very difficult for a man who is greatly the superior of his associates, to preserve their friendship without abatement; yet, though he could not possibly conceal his superiority, he was so little inclined to display it, he was so much at ease in its possession, that no jealousy or envy chilled his bosom, when his friends obtained praise. He was indeed so entirely the friend of his friends, so magnanimous, so superior, or more properly so insensible to all exclusive selfishness of spirit, so frank, so ardent, yet so little overbearing, so much trusted, admired, beloved, almost adored, that his power over their affections was entire, and lasted through his life. We do not believe that he left any worthy man his foe who had ever been his friend.

Men of the most elevated minds have not always the readiest discernment of character. Perhaps he was sometimes too sudden and too lavish in bestowing his confidence; his manly spirit, disdaining artifice, suspected none. But while the power of his friends over him seemed to have no limits, and really had none, in respect to those things which were of a nature to be yielded, no man, not the Roman Cato himself, was more inflexible on every point that touched, or only seemed to touch, integrity and honor. With him, it was not enough to be unsuspected; his bosom would have glowed, like a furnace, at its own whispers of reproach. Mere purity would have seemed to him below praise; and such were his habits, and such his nature, that the pecuniary temptations, which many others can only with great exertion and self-denial resist, had no attractions for him. He was very far from obstinate; yet, as his friends assailed his opinions with less profound thought than he had devoted to them, they were seldom shaken by discussion. He defended them, however, with as much mildness as force, and evinced, that if he did not yield, it was not for want of gentleness or modesty.

The tears that flow on this fond recital will never dry up. My heart, penetrated with the remembrance of the man, grows liquid as I write, and I could pour it out like water. I could weep too for my country, which, mournful as it is, does not know the half of its loss. It deeply laments, when it turns its eyes back, and sees what Hamilton was; but my soul stiffens with despair when I think what Hamilton would have been.

His social affections and his private virtues are not, however, so properly the object of public attention, as the conspicuous and commanding qualities that gave him his fame and influence in the world. It is not as Apollo, enchanting the shepherds with his lyre, that we deplore him; it is as Hercules, treacherously slain in the midst of his unfinished labors, leaving the world overrun with monsters.

His early life we pass over; though his heroic spirit in the army has furnished a theme that is dear to patriotism and will be sacred to glory.

In all the different stations in which a life of active usefulness has placed him, we find him not more remarkably distinguished by the extent, than by the variety and versatility of his talents. In every place he made it apparent that no other man could have filled it so well; and in times of critical importance, in which alone he desired employment, his services were justly deemed absolutely indispensable. As secretary of the treasury, his was the powerful spirit that presided over the chaos:

  • Confusion heard his voice, and wild uproar
  • Stood ruled…
  • Indeed, in organizing the federal government in 1789, every man of either sense or candor will allow, the difficulty seemed greater than the first-rate abilities could surmount. The event has shown that his abilities were greater than those difficulties. He surmounted them—and Washington’s administration was the most wise and beneficent, the most prosperous, and ought to be the most popular, that ever was intrusted with the affairs of a nation. Great as was Washington’s merit, much of it in plan, much in execution, will of course devolve upon his minister.

    As a lawyer, his comprehensive genius reached the principles of his profession; he compassed its extent, he fathomed its profound, perhaps even more familiarly and easily, than the ordinary rules of its practice. With most men law is a trade; with him it was a science.

    As a statesman, he was not more distinguished by the great extent of his views than by the caution with which he provided against impediments, and the watchfulness of his care over right and the liberty of the subject. In none of the many revenue bills which he framed, though committees reported them, is there to be found a single clause that savors of despotic power; not one that the sagest champions of law and liberty would, on that ground, hesitate to approve and adopt.

    It is rare that a man, who owes so much to nature, descends to seek more from industry; but he seemed to depend on industry, as if nature had done nothing for him. His habits of investigation were very remarkable; his mind seemed to cling to his subject till he had exhausted it. Hence the uncommon superiority of his reasoning powers, a superiority that seemed to be augmented from every source, and to be fortified by every auxiliary, learning, taste, wit, imagination, and eloquence. These were embellished and enforced by his temper and manners, by his fame and his virtues. It is difficult, in the midst of such various excellence, to say in what particular the effect of his greatness was most manifest. No man more promptly discerned truth; no man more clearly displayed it; it was not merely made visible, it seemed to come bright with illumination from his lips. But prompt and clear as he was, fervid as Demosthenes, like Cicero full of resource, he was not less remarkable for the copiousness and completeness of his argument, that left little for cavil, and nothing for doubt. Some men take their strongest argument as a weapon, and use no other; but he left nothing to be inquired for more, nothing to be answered. He not only disarmed his adversaries of their pretexts and objections, but he stripped them of all excuse for having urged them; he confounded and subdued as well as convinced. He indemnified them, however, by making his discussion a complete map of his subject, so that his opponents might, indeed, feel ashamed of their mistakes, but they could not repeat them. In fact, it was no common effort that could preserve a really able antagonist from becoming his convert; for the truth, which his researches so distinctly presented to the understanding of others, was rendered almost irresistibly commanding and impressive by the love and reverence which, it was ever apparent, he profoundly cherished for it in his own. While patriotism glowed in his heart, wisdom blended in his speech her authority with her charms.

    Such, also, is the character of his writings. Judiciously collected, they will be a public treasure.

    No man ever more disdained duplicity or carried frankness further than he. This gave to his political opponents some temporary advantages, and currency to some popular prejudices, which he would have lived down if his death had not prematurely dispelled them. He knew that factions have ever in the end prevailed in free states; and, as he saw no security (and who living can see any adequate?) against the destruction of that liberty which he loved, and for which he was ever ready to devote his life, he spoke at all times according to his anxious forebodings; and his enemies interpreted all that he said according to the supposed interest of their party.

    But he ever extorted confidence, even when he most provoked opposition. It was impossible to deny that he was a patriot, and such a patriot as, seeking neither popularity nor office, without artifice, without meanness, the best Romans in their best days would have admitted to citizenship and to the consulate. Virtue so rare, so pure, so bold, by its very purity and excellence inspired suspicion as a prodigy. His enemies judged of him by themselves; so splendid and arduous were his services, they could not find it in their hearts to believe that they were disinterested.

    Unparalleled as they were, they were nevertheless no otherwise requited than by the applause of all good men, and by his own enjoyment of the spectacle of that national prosperity and honor which was the effect of them. After facing calumny, and triumphantly surmounting an unrelenting persecution, he retired from office with clean, though empty hands, as rich as reputation and an unblemished integrity could make him.

    Some have plausibly, though erroneously inferred, from the great extent of his abilities, that his ambition was inordinate. This is a mistake. Such men as have a painful consciousness that their stations happen to be far more exalted than their talents, are generally the most ambitious. Hamilton, on the contrary, though he had many competitors, had no rivals; for he did not thirst for power, nor would he, as it was well known, descend to office. Of course he suffered no pain from envy when bad men rose, though he felt anxiety for the public. He was perfectly content and at ease in private life. Of what was he ambitious? Not of wealth; no man held it cheaper. Was it of popularity? That weed of the dunghill he knew, when rankest, was nearest to withering. There is no doubt that he desired glory, which to most men is too inaccessible to be an object of desire; but feeling his own force, and that he was tall enough to reach the top of Pindus or of Helicon, he longed to deck his brow with the wreath of immortality. A vulgar ambition could as little comprehend as satisfy his views; he thirsted only for that fame, which virtue would not blush to confer, nor time to convey to the end of his course.

    The only ordinary distinction, to which we confess he did aspire, was military; and for that, in the event of a foreign war, he would have been solicitous. He undoubtedly discovered the predominance of a soldier’s feelings; and all that is honor in the character of a soldier was at home in his heart. His early education was in the camp; there the first fervors of his genius were poured forth, and his earliest and most cordial friendships formed; there he became enamoured of glory, and was admitted to her embrace.

    Those who knew him best, and especially in the army, will believe, that if occasions had called him forth, he was qualified, beyond any man of the age, to display the talents of a great general.

    It may be very long before our country will want such military talents; it will probably be much longer before it will again possess them.

    Alas! the great man who was at all times so much the ornament of our country, and so exclusively fitted in its extremity to be its champion, is withdrawn to a purer and more tranquil region. We are left to endless labors and unavailing regrets.

  • Such honors Ilion to her hero paid,
  • And peaceful slept the mighty Hector’s shade.
  • The most substantial glory of a country is in its virtuous great men; its prosperity will depend on its docility to learn from their example. That nation is fated to ignominy and servitude, for which such men have lived in vain. Power may be seized by a nation that is yet barbarous; and wealth may be enjoyed by one that it finds or renders sordid; the one is the gift and the sport of accident, and the other is the sport of power. Both are mutable, and have passed away without leaving behind them any other memorial than ruins that offend taste, and traditions that baffle conjecture. But the glory of Greece is imperishable, or will last as long as learning itself, which is its monument; it strikes an everlasting root, and bears perennial blossoms on its grave. The name of Hamilton would have honored Greece in the age of Aristides. May heaven, the guardian of our liberty, grant that our country may be fruitful of Hamiltons, and faithful to their glory!