Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson: The Politics of Enlightenment and the American Founding

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9780809077847: Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson: The Politics of Enlightenment and the American Founding

Where The Ideas for which We Stand came from.

In this incisively drawn book, Darren Staloff forcefully reminds us that America owes its guiding political traditions to three Founding Fathers whose lives embodied the collision of Europe’s grand Enlightenment project with the birth of the nation.

Alexander Hamilton, the worldly New Yorker; John Adams, the curmudgeonly Yankee; Thomas Jefferson, the visionary Virginia squire—each governed their public lives by Enlightenment principles, and for each their relationship to the politics of Enlightenment was transformed by the struggle for American independence. Repeated humiliation on America’s battlefields banished Hamilton’s youthful idealism, leaving him a disciple of Enlightened realpolitik and the nation’s leading exponent of modern statecraft. After ten years in Europe’s diplomatic trenches, Adams’s embrace of the politics of Enlightenment became increasingly skeptical in spirit, and his public posture became increasingly that of the gadfly of his country. And Jefferson’s frustrations as a Revolutionary governor in Virginia led him to go beyond his Enlightened worldview, and articulate a new and radical Romantic politics of principle. As a consequence, Americans demand a government that is both modern, constrained by checks and balances, and capable of appealing to our loftiest aspirations while adhering to decidedly pragmatic policies.

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About the Author:

Darren Staloff teaches history at the City College of New York and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the author of The Making of an American Thinking Class: Intellectuals and Intelligentsia in Puritan Massachusetts.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson
CHAPTER ONE ALEXANDER HAMILTON: THE ENLIGHTENMENT FULFILLED THE ENIGMA OF HAMILTON AT A SLENDER five feet seven inches, Alexander Hamilton cast an immense shadow over his times. The famed French diplomat the Marquis de Talleyrand-Périgord considered "Napoleon, Pitt, and Hamilton" the three greatest political figures of the age. If forced "to choose among the three," the legendary master of real politique "would without hesitation give the first place to Hamilton." This was no empty compliment. Talleyrand was the resident French expert on American affairs and had met most of the leading statesmen of the United States during a two-year stay.1 Hamilton's varied public accomplishments are the stuff of legend. As a revolutionary soldier, he saw action in most of the major engagements of the war, acquitting himself with a gallantry that occasionally bordered on the suicidal. At the ripe old age of twenty, he joined George Washington's staff, where he quickly emerged as the commander in chief's most indispensable aide and most trusted adviser on military and political matters. As a lawyer, Hamilton was the leading member of the New York bar and the nation's foremost theorist of judicial supremacy and review; Supreme Court chief justice John Marshall considered himself a "mere schoolchild" in jurisprudence in comparison. As a legislator,Hamilton was a leading member of the New York Assembly and the Continental Congress. As a delegate to the Annapolis convention of 1786 from New York, Hamilton authored the call for the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention of the following year. In all posts, he was one of the most outspoken advocates of a strong national government. He was the single most important figure in securing the adoption of the Constitution in New York State and, with Washington and Madison, was one of the most critical figures in the national campaign for the new federal frame of government. As secretary of the Treasury in Washington's administration, Hamilton not only headed the most important and largest cabinet office in the executive branch, he also formulated most of the administration's foreign and domestic policies. By Washington's second term he had become the president's de facto prime minister. Hamilton published well over 150 works and essays, including two-thirds of The Federalist Papers, drafted many of the most important state documents of his time (most famously his three Reports on Public Credit and Washington's Farewell Address), and founded the New York Post, the longest-running newspaper in the United States. In a more private capacity, Hamilton was one of the founders of the Bank of New York, the Society for Promoting Useful Manufactures, and the Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves, New York's premier abolitionist organization. An impressive resume for any founding father, much less a poor, orphaned bastard from the West Indies. More than any other figure of the American founding, Alexander Hamilton evoked extreme passions. Friends and supporters admired him with a reverence bordering on hero worship. Adversaries loathed him with a hatred that was truly visceral. Thomas Jefferson saw him as a contagion of corruption, whose public career was "a tissue of machinations against the liberty of the country." John Adams dismissed him as "an insolent coxcomb" and the "bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar." Yet even his enemies acknowledged his greatness. "Hamilton is really a colossus," Jefferson confessed, "without numbers, he is an host within himself." Somewhat more begrudging, even Adams noted his remarkable"effervescence." More tellingly, he sought Hamilton's supervision of his son's legal training.2 Animus was no doubt fueled by jealousy, for Hamilton's meteoric success was exacerbated by his remarkable youth. A mere thirty-two years of age when he joined Washington's cabinet, Hamilton nonetheless dominated the administration. But it was more than jealousy that made him such a polarizing figure. His character, both public and private, sparked wildly divergent responses. Moreover, the political forces he represented and the vision of the new nation he pursued were both powerfully alluring and deeply troubling to his fellow Americans. They remain so to this day. "A Singular Character"--The Contradictions of Hamilton The character of Alexander Hamilton was a jumble of contradictions. Witty and earnest, affable and distant, and alternately animated by a tender-hearted concern for the sufferings of the disadvantaged and an aristocratic contempt for the common herd, Hamilton has always been a bit of an enigma. Arguably the most impressive of the founding fathers, Hamilton was also, in the words of one of his biographers, "by far the most psychologically troubled." This is not to say that Hamilton was a villain. Quite the contrary, he was a deeply principled and essentially decent man, one blessed with remarkable talents. Yet even his greatest virtues and most remarkable abilities were complicated by contradictory flaws.3 On the one hand, Hamilton's intellectual abilities were indisputable. The most brilliant political figure of his age, he was endowed with a mind that was quick, agile, and perceptive. Throughout his life Hamilton dazzled those around him with truly prodigious feats of acuity. To cite just one example, without any formal education except a brief stint in a Hebrew school, he crammed several years' worth of college preparation in Greek and Latin into about six months of intensive study, gaining him admission to King's (now Columbia) College in the fall of 1773. Allowed to study at his own accelerated pace, roughly two years later he had, to his own satisfaction at least, completed his higher education. On the other hand, he was capable of incredibly bad judgment. As a memberof the Continental Congress in early 1783, he sought to extract nationalist concessions from his colleagues through the threat of a military coup by the unpaid and disgruntled Continental Army camped at Newburgh, New York. It took an angry and pointed letter from George Washington to remind him that "the Army ... is a dangerous instrument to play with." Most famously, when James Thompson Callender, the most notoriously scurrilous journalistic "hack" of his day, charged the former secretary of the Treasury with financial malfeasance with one James Reynolds during his tenure in office, Hamilton published the complete correspondence with Reynolds in a pamphlet. In so doing, he cleared himself of a totally unsubstantiated charge and convicted himself of having an adulterous relationship with Reynolds's wife. Hamilton's friends were mortified; his foes cackled with glee.4 Just as poor judgment marred his brilliance, his remarkable diligence was shadowed by his frailty. Hamilton was undeniably capable of astounding, almost Herculean feats of industry. In the little more than six months between mid-October 1787 and May 1788, he penned fifty-one of those Federalist papers whose attribution is exclusive and fixed, averaging roughly two essays per week. The comparable number for Madison was fourteen, and a mere five for Jay. Indeed, on more than one occasion Hamilton's feats of industry foiled his political foes. In early 1793 Republican partisans in the House and Senate passed resolutions questioning his management of the Treasury Department. The resolutions were introduced just over a month before Congress was to adjourn, and since the House had previously acknowledged that the thorough accounting necessary to clear Hamilton would entail at least nine months of work, the plan was clearly to have Congress adjourn with an unanswered charge of malfeasance hanging over his head. Much to their amazement and chagrin, Hamilton submitted seven separate reports to Congress in the following three weeks detailing every financial transaction the government had made over the previous two years. The resolutions were resoundingly defeated. Hamilton was vindicated.5 Yet for all his industry, Hamilton was remarkably frail. In an age when men tended to be rather portly, he was strikingly slender, almostgaunt in appearance, with long, spindly legs. Beginning in his youth, he suffered from bouts of rheumatic fever that left him bedridden for weeks at a time. In the autumn of 1777 Washington sent Hamilton on an arduous and delicate mission to extract soldiers from General Horatio Gates, the recently victorious hero of the battle of Saratoga. Gates was part of a cabal within the army and Congress that sought to replace Washington as commander in chief with himself. As such, he was none too eager to send any of his own troops to relieve his rival. Hamilton's dogged persistence ultimately bore fruit--but left the twenty-year-old lieutenant colonel physically spent. In mid-November he collapsed, writing to Washington of his incapacity from "a fever and rheumatic pains throughout my body." This was to be a pattern in Hamilton's career, great exertions followed by physical collapse. Eventual recuperation would then give way to fresh efforts, beginning the cycle anew.6 Hamilton was acutely aware of his own frailty, an awareness his foes took as hypochondria. Jefferson was filled with contempt for Hamilton's "excessive alarm" for his health during an outbreak of yellow fever in Philadelphia in the summer of 1793. A man so "timid in sickness," Jefferson remarked sarcastically, "would be a phenomenon if the courage of which he has the reputation in military occasions were genuine." Jefferson may have been uncharitable in his doubts about Hamilton's "manly" fortitude, but he was not alone.7 Hamilton's emotional makeup was similarly split between light and dark. Friends and acquaintances were struck by his charm, wit, and affability. The Duc de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt pronounced him one of those rare figures who combine "breadth of mind" with "cheerfulness, excellence of character, and much affability," an assessment that even Jefferson sh...

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