SUMMARY: Since the day Aaron Burr fired his fatal shot in the notorious duel at Weehawken, New Jersey, in July 1804, Americans have tried to come to grips with Alexander Hamilton’s legacy. A controversial figure in his time and ours, Hamilton is often portrayed as the most reactionary member of the founding generation — the man who hoped to foist a crown upon America and called the people a “great beast.” Although Hamilton did not advocate the former and probably never said the latter, he remains for many Americans the founding’s villain.
Yet the twentieth century, the so-called “American Century,” witnessed the culmination of Hamilton’s vision of a consolidated commercial republic capable of wielding military and economic power on a global scale. Most Americans are content to live in this Hamiltonian nation, but they are reluctant to embrace the man himself. Although there are signs that his reputation is finally on the rise, why is it that Hamilton, whose vision of American greatness came to pass, remains a contentious figure in the American mind?
Stephen Knott is an associate professor and research fellow at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Boston College, and taught at the United States Air Force Academy for seven years. He joined the Miller Center in July of 2001, where he is part of a team of scholars conducting the Center’s ongoing Oral History Program on the American presidency. He oversees the Ronald Reagan and the George H. W. Bush Oral History Projects and participates in the William J. Clinton Projects. He is the author of a book on Alexander Hamilton’s controversial image in the American mind, Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth (Kansas, 2002); Secret and Sanctioned: Covert Operations and the American Presidency (Oxford, 1996), an examination of the use of covert operations by early American presidents; and The Reagan Years (Facts on File, 2005), which will be published in March, 2005.