How can we evaluate the greatness of historical figures? What criteria are appropriate for this task? Maybe victories? Napoleon Bonaparte lost his last battle, but historians and the general public still consider him to be one of the greatest leaders in history. Maybe reforms? Mao Zedong changed the course of Chinese history, but his actions caused millions of deaths. Greatness and forcefulness are abstract and very subjective concepts. However, the author of the political science essay below has tried to define the most influential political figure of 1789-1791.
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Who Was the Most Influential Political Figure of 1789-1791 and Why?
The American Revolution contributed to world history with many important political figures. Their names are internationally known and respected today. Undoubtedly, George Washington remains the most distinctive symbol of that period regarding his virtues and contribution to the success of the War of Independence. However, was he the most influential figure in the long run? The answer is no. He was the man of the past, virtuous spirit of colonial legacy and the first revolutionary years. America was built under his supervision, but not necessarily by his own hands.
Who else could be a candidate? There were two politicians, besides Washington whose contribution to American history necessitated their consideration for candidacy: Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. Their famous rivalry reflected deep contradictions in the foundation of the American political system. Those contradictions appear over and over, stimulating convictions, but also allowing the country to develop.
Nonetheless, it is important to choose a certain figure whose influence in the first post-war years made a deep impact on the entirety of American history, and this person is Alexander Hamilton. There are three reasons to claim Hamilton as the most influential political figure of that period and further decades: his role in establishing the national economy and financial system, his personal legacy as a self-made man, and his role in forming national political culture and institutions.
The first, and in some ways, most essential argument lies in the business and economic perspective. Hamilton represented urban trading and manufacturing states with far-reaching economic plans. This formed his agenda as a politician in some way, nonetheless, we cannot deny his personal contribution as a powerful intellectual and scholar. He became Secretary of Treasury in the first Cabinet of George Washington and leader of the Federalist party, one of the most powerful political groups in early American history.
As a Secretary of Treasury, broadly the sole creator of the economic and financial policy of the newly created state, Hamilton opposed Thomas Jefferson, who represented the agenda of rural states, farmers, and plantation owners. Among his most important decisions were: the nationalization of the state’s debts (which was strongly opposed from the South because mostly northern states were indebted), the creation of the First Bank of the United State and normalization of trade relations with the British Empire. He represented the vision of America as a unified state, with a strong government able to protect its own economic and military interests, and developing industries. He was able to support his claims not only in the Cabinet but also in the area of politics (Cogliano, 205).
His political project, the Federalist Party, won a second presidential election (John Adams became a President) and supported all the important legislation in Congress. Even though Jefferson won the second election in 1801 and the Federalist Party ran into an ongoing crisis, Hamilton managed to form the institutions and policies which over-lived himself. On the other hand, his policy drew America in the direction of future conflict between industrial North and rural South. But it would be unfair to make Hamiltonian responsible for the situation which existed long before his political career and remained after. He was a man who tried to serve the interests of the country as a whole, progressing local policies.
The second argument for Hamilton’s personality is his own life. His biography provided many exciting plots for popular culture and the worldview of Americans. He was naturally a self-made man. He was born on a small island somewhere in the Caribbean, lost parents yearly, and invested hardly in education and public activism. Many generations of Americans grew bearing in mind his life and living respectfully. It is very symptomatic that there was great attention to his personality in the recent years. For example, the Broadway musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda describes his life and career. It starts with questions: “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore, and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by Providence, impoverished, in squalor grow up to be a hero and a scholar?” The answer which Hamilton’s life provides is – by the hard work, each and every day for the rest of your life. However, it is not only a matter of work but also of passion and confidence (Chernow, 42).
Third, Alexander Hamilton directed the American government into the federal model, where shared institutions always held power and authority. Nowadays, many politicians, both liberal and conservative, express worry and growing pessimism about the American government. It is often criticized due to the large share of political control belonging to the biggest corporations and the practices of lobbying. A lot of people see early self-governing states as a role-playing model which could reform and restart America. Those are also a result of Hamilton’s incredible political energy and far-reaching vision.
Nonetheless, those results could be valued differently. Some people benefit from social security and medical projects, while others lose jobs because of deindustrialization. America nowadays is full of visions of a bright future: however, it could be doubted if we have politicians virtuous enough to adopt and launch those visions, and what is even harder, to coordinate (Cogliano, 225). However, Hamilton was not a blind supporter of unlimited governmental power. It was clear that “Hamilton was as quick to applaud checks on powers as those powers themselves, as he continued his lifelong effort to balance freedom and order” (Chernow, 259). Summing up, we still live under the shadow of those political giants from the last decades of the 18th century.
After taking into consideration all the arguments expressed, I still claim that Alexander Hamilton is the most influential political figure in America from 1789-1791. He was able to contribute to three important areas of human life: economy, culture, and political institutions. His postwar career was marked by the opposition to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and the proclamation of a strong federal government, economic protectionism, and development of the industry as well as establishing long-term international trade agreements with all possible partners (including Great Britain).
Hamilton is also widely known as an example of the true American spirit of self-development and public servitude. Even after his political project failed and opponents took control over federal institutions, he was able to preserve the long-term legacy and prosperity of America. On the other hand, he contributed to the growing conflict between the North and South, as well as supporters of a strong central government and state autonomy. Those conflicts are remarkable even for the current political discussion in the United States.
These are the reasons why I believe Alexander Hamilton was even more influential than his opponents, even though he never became President. Hamilton was one of those whose passion and confidence lives through the centuries, still giving life to the country he formed and protecting people he cared for.
Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. London, Head of Zeus, 2017.
Cogliano, Francis D. Revolutionary America, 1763-1815: A Political History. New York, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2017.