"American Experience" Alexander Hamilton (TV Episode 2007) Poster

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Pursuit of Honor.
Robert J. Maxwell5 July 2015
What a beginning! Alexander Hamilton was born in 1755 on a tiny island in the Caribbean -- illegitimate at a time when being a bastard was taken seriously -- and his Scottish father promptly deserted his family. Since he was illegitimate, he couldn't attend a Christian school. Then his mother died. Then he was farmed out to live with an uncle who committed suicide. He was revolted by the slave trade. And these are known as "the formative years."

But he was ambitious and smart, such an admirable teen-aged clerk that in 1773 the community funded his education in the American colonies, a territory that was filled with unrest. He was swept up into it. He enrolled in King's College, now Columbia University. The head of the college was a Tory and when a mob stormed the campus, ready to tar and feather him, Hamilton stood on the doorstep and lectured them that this was not an honorable way to conduct a revolution. He may have been a rebel but he believed in order and discipline. The would-be victim escaped by climbing over a fence, as I had to when Columbia was shut down by a student takeover in 1968, only I was going the other way.

During the war, Washington saw the virtues in young Hamilton and made him aide de camp. In battle he was recklessly heroic. Colonel Hamilton was dashing and handsome and wowed the women. The one he chose to marry was from a wealthy old Dutch family but he evidently loved her and their offspring. After the war, he became a lawyer in six months instead of the usual three years. (He really was very smart.)

There was quibbling among the states. They considered themselves politically sovereign entities. They didn't use the same money; they didn't follow the same laws. Most of the founders were loyal to their states. Except Hamilton -- who had no state to be loyal to. It bent him towards a central government. The program doesn't say so but I'd bet that his having grown up in a staging area for the slave trade was another influence on his desire for clearly defined authority.

It would also be a good guess that he'd read the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes who had argued that man without society was a savage. It was a brutal view of human beings. According to Hobbes, people choose to enter a social contract, giving up some of their liberties in order to enjoy peace. The alternative is a "war of all against all." This thought experiment is a test for the legitimation of a state in fulfilling its role as "sovereign" to guarantee social order.

Hamilton was Washington's first Secretary of the Treasury when the new nation was deep in debt. Instead of reputing or defaulting, Hamilton not only arranged to pay back the debt incurred by the federal government but by all the states as well.

It sounds crazy. But, as we've learned, Hamilton was smart. Most of the state debts were owed to wealthy aristocrats and Hamilton wanted their support. There is no better way of gaining someone's support than to owe them money. They pray that you flourish, which is one of the reasons I doubt we'll be at war with China in the near future.

Part One ends with a description of how Hamilton was set up for blackmail after having been seduced by a pitiful but attractive young woman. By this time, his success, especially at such an early age, had generated a good deal of envy and spite among the many enemies he'd made. And this frame wasn't the last of their attempts to ruin his public character. Why do I feel this would have taken less time to ruin his character if there had been an internet in 1791?
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MartinHafer6 February 2012
Warning: Spoilers
Alexander Hamilton was one of the strangest of the founding fathers in America. In some ways, he's incredibly noble and brilliant. And, in other ways, he's a stupid potato-head! A truly contradictory and fascinating man in this excellent episode of "The American Experience".

Like all episodes of this excellent PBS series, it's exquisitely produced and very, very watchable. It confuses me, then, that the film has a very mediocre overall rating--perhaps due to the very small number of ratings (where a few low scores can skew the overall figure). I like how they made the film--not just with narration but actors playing the various characters who talk to the audience. And, to do that, they use the actual writings of the people--their diaries, letters and books from the period. This keeps the film honest and accurate--and fascinating.

As far as Hamilton goes, he was a brilliant guy who, according to the film, was THE ultimate Federalist. It was he who pushed the hardest for the Constitutional convention, solved the huge problem with the national debt and was incredibly idealistic. But, he also had a knack for alienating people, was a very unwise adulterer and got himself killed due to his arrogance and foolishness. All this--wrapped up into just one man! Overall, another exceptional film--perhaps more interesting than some other films on the early American leaders because Hamilton was such a knucklehead! Intriguing and wonderful from start to finish.

By the way, pay attention when the film begins. This portion with a friend of Hamilton's trying to write his eulogy was rather funny and really encapsulated the man very well. Also, John Adams' comment about 'puppyhood' is pretty funny as well.
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