Witnesses at the Creation

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Every Fourth of July, across the nation, Americans celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Every September seventeenth, not one American in a hundred is even conscious of the fact that on this day, in 1787, thirty-five of the nation’s brightest political thinkers put their signatures on the document which would soon become the supreme law of the land. Why the difference? Though the opening paragraphs of Thomas Jefferson’s most famous work lay down in immortal words a political philosophy to which most Americans still subscribe, the majority of his declaration is an indictment of an English king for crimes that only a historian remembers. The Constitution of the United States, on the other hand, except in those places where it has been amended, continues directly to affect the lives of all Americans.

Writing on the assumption that that which touches all the people ought to be understood by all the people, Richard B. Morris has produced a history of the Constitution and its framers that can be read and enjoyed by the general public. While the product of outstanding scholarship and erudition, Witnesses at the Creation does not attempt to adjudicate scholarly disputes concerning interpretations of the Constitution or the motives of its authors. Morris is neither a venerator nor a denigrator of the Constitution or of his three witnesses to its creation, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. Instead, his goal is didactic. As cochairman of “Project ’87,” an organization jointly sponsored by the American Historical Association and the American Political Science Association, Morris’ announced purpose is “to stimulate nationwide interest in the origins of the Constitution,” a document whose bicentennial will be celebrated in 1986 and 1987.

John Adams once described Hamilton as “the bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar.” Understood as a simple description, the first and third parts of Adam’s quip are accurate. (That Hamilton was a brat is open to question.) Yet, it is easy to understand why Hamilton might take offense at such a remark. What is surprising, at least to contemporary Americans, is the extent to which the purely factual nature of his entrance into the world drove Hamilton to excel from a very early age. Modern society and Hamilton’s differ, however, on questions of “honor.” In the eighteenth century, “honor” was as much the product of one’s birth as was the color of one’s hair.

Born without honor, Hamilton spent all of his life in a quest for fame. “The love of fame,” he wrote, is “the ruling passion of the noblest minds.” The only question was, How does a schoolboy on the island of St. Croix achieve fame? By the time he was twelve or fourteen (depending on which record one prefers in dating his birth), Hamilton had formulated a clear answer: Writing to a friend at King’s College (now Columbia University), he said, “Ned, my ambition is prevalent that I contemn the groveling and condition of a Clerk or the like, to which my Fortune, etc. condemns me but I mean to prepare the way for futurity . I shall conclude saying, I wish there was a war.”

While a student at King’s College, Hamilton began writing revolutionary tracts to bring about the war that he so desired. To ensure that he would be part of the war with England, he recruited his own company of soldiers. He even used his personal credit to clothe and equip them. His persistence paid off. Standing high on the west bank of the Raritan River, Hamilton masterfully covered George Washington’s retreat from Charles Cornwallis’ pursuit. His “cocked hat pulled down over his eyes, apparently lost in thought, with his hand resting on a cannon, and every now and then patting it, as if it were a favorite horse or a pet plaything,” not to mention his brilliant aim, caught Washington’s eye. Soon thereafter he was appointed Washington’s aide-de-camp. Hamilton’s star was on the rise.

Yet even Washington’s favor and the sheer ability that he exhibited in his post were insufficient to expunge Hamilton’s ignoble beginnings. Once again, Hamilton was clear about how he would achieve his goal. He needed a wife. Furthermore, she must be young, beautiful, shapely, “sensible (a little learning will do), well bred, chaste, and tender.” Such paragons are hard to find, and whether his wife-to-be, Elizabeth Schuyler, met all these specifications is unclear. She did, however, meet the crucial one—being well-bred. By marrying the daughter of General Philip Schuyler, “a commanding figure among the Albany Dutch gentry,” Hamilton achieved “honor by association.”

Achieving honor and maintaining honor are, however, two different things. While serving as secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton was accused of secretly purchasing Revolutionary War bonds at huge discounts in hopes that the new government of the United States would one day honor the bonds at their face value. Such groveling for money was unacceptable for a man of honor. Hamilton was forced publicly to set the record straight: “My real crime is an amorous connection with his [James Reynolds’s] wife.” His defense, in other words, was that he was being blackmailed for sleeping with another speculator’s wife.

Hamilton’s last defense of his honor was a fatal duel with Aaron Burr. While it would have done great harm to his honor if he had refused Burr’s challenge, the cold-blooded killing of another man was equally distasteful to Hamilton. One final time, Hamilton’s analytic mind found the solution. There was nothing in the duello that made one’s honor contingent upon winning the duel. Merely fighting the duel was sufficient to maintain one’s honor. A duel in which both parties fired and missed was the optimal outcome from Hamilton’s perspective. Thus, the night before he met Burr, Hamilton wrote to his wife: “The scruples of a Christian have determined me to expose my life to any extent rather than subject myself to the guilt of taking the life of another. This must increase my hazards, and undoubtedly my pangs for you.” The next day Hamilton would fire into the air; Burr would not. Hamilton died several days later with his honor and Christian scruples intact.

Hamilton spent all of his life working for what money could not buy. Madison spent none of his life working for what money could buy—he did not have to. Born to James Madison, Sr., on the family estate of Montpelier, the young Madison never worked for a living and never pursued a paying profession. Even when he tried to manage the family...

(The entire section is 2694 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Best Sellers. XLV, November, 1985, p. 313.

Choice. XXIII, February, 1986, p. 920.

Kirkus Reviews. LIII, July 15, 1985, p. 704.

Library Journal. CX, September 1, 1985, p. 197.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 1, 1985, p. 1.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, November 17, 1985, p. 31.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVIII, July 12, 1985, p. 43.