A month or so back I read Thomas McCraw’s very informative work, The Founders and Finance. The book essentially paints a picture of the early developments in American finance, particularly as directed by three immigrants (Robert Morris, Alexander Hamilton, and Albert Gallatin). Because there would have been no America (as we know it) without Alexander Hamilton, and because Hamilton’s work served as the cornerstone of America’s early financial foundation, the bulk of the book centers around Hamilton. It is not a comprehensive biography of Hamilton in the way that Ron Chernow’s masterpiece is, but it was a wonderful read and certainly gave me an even deeper look at the man I consider to be the most important of America’s founders.
Hamilton’s personal life story is the stuff legends are made of, and make no mistake about it – Alexander Hamilton is a legend. People do not suffer through the personal adversity he suffered through and still becomes such instrumental figures in history. It is positively surreal, made all the more so by the fact that Hamilton helped birth America, helped navigate her through her founding, was a key author of the Federalist Papers, established America as a nation that would pay her bills, and served two terms as the Treasury Secretary, all in a life that was tragically ended at age 47. I can’t do justice to what Hamilton went through as a young lad, or what he accomplished as a grown adult, in this brief piece. Hamilton’s history should be required reading in our schools but I may be being greedy since I am not totally sure that reading itself is required in our schools these days. But I want to repeat something I just said – Alexander Hamilton changed the world, and Alexander Hamilton died at the age of 47.
I am keenly familiar with another man who died at the age of 47, and that is my personal hero, the smartest and most capable man I ever knew personally, Greg Bahnsen (yes, my dad). My dad did not die in a duel, though – he was brought down at the age of 47 but a congenital heart defect that challenged him his entire adult life. I have wondered countless times in my own adult life, “why would God take a man like Greg Bahnsen at age 47?”, and of course I have also wondered what else he would have or could have accomplished had he gotten an extra ten, or twenty, or thirty years. Like you, I will never know. His legacy has expanded a great deal since his death, primarily because his apologetics skills and contributions have been impossible to ignore. He could never have the reputation or contribution in the church-at-large he deserves, probably because of some fruitcake associations he never shook more than anything else. But at age 47, Greg Bahnsen had not “peaked”. Not by a long shot. His abilities as a scholar and his wisdom in addressing pertinent ethical and theological issues could have been extraordinary throughout the late 1990′s and the first decade or two of the third millennium. God had a different plan.
And God had a different plan for Alexander Hamilton as well. His legacy was already firmly enshrined in the birth of America. His role in creating the Constitutional Convention and influencing the content and philosophical direction of the Constitution are undeniable. So are his achievements in navigating America through her fiscal woes after the Revolutionary War. Hamilton was a visionary with an intellect, but he was the MOST visionary, with the KEENEST intellect. Would the utterly disastrous Embargo Act of 1807 ever seen the light of day in a world with Alexander Hamilton? It is highly unlikely. America went through some tremendous growing pains from 1800-1830, and surely she would have had those even if Hamilton were still alive. But it reflects a real profound ignorance to not acknowledge that an alive Alexander Hamilton during those growing pains would have been a tremendous asset for our young nation.
History is full of examples of people passing early, and I certainly do not mean to equate the loss of my dad with the loss of Alexander Hamilton (as far as national history is concerned). But the parallel works at least in this sense: Sometimes we not only need to understand history for what it was, but for what it may have been.