Stephen F. Knott is a Professor of National Security Affairs at the United States Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. He earned a BA in political science from Assumption College and a PhD in political science from Boston College. He is the author of several books, including Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth.
Tony Williams is the Professional Development Director at the Bill of Rights Institute and Program Director of the Washington, Jefferson & Madison Institute in Charlottesville, Virginia. He earned a BA in history from Syracuse University and a MA in U.S. history from Ohio State University. He taught history for fifteen years in Ohio and Virginia. He is the author of five books on early America.
Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance That Forged America, studies the partnership between George Washington and Alexander Hamilton over the course of twenty-two years and how important their relationship was to the founding of the United States.
HamilTEN Questions with Stephen Knott and Tony Williams on Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance That Forged America
1. Just about every child in the US learns about George Washington while growing up, but Alexander Hamilton does not receive the same recognition. How were you both first introduced to Alexander Hamilton?
Knott: My first introduction to Hamilton was not a positive one — he was the caricatured champion of ‘wealth and privilege,’ and the opponent of Thomas Jefferson, the champion of the ‘common man.’ I was a Jeffersonian as a young lad, until I saw the error of my ways. My change in attitude about Hamilton came during graduate school at Boston College, where I studied under the tutelage of Prof. Robert Scigliano in the political science department. Prof. Scigliano opened my eyes to the depths of Hamilton’s political thought, and the more I explored the issue the more I came to realize that the conventional narrative of the plutocratic Hamilton versus the champion of the common man was a myth.
Williams: I recently received my graduate degree in history at Ohio State University and was a high school teacher when I attended numerous seminars on the American Founding at the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University focusing on the study of primary sources. I immersed myself in the documents of the Founding but was especially impressed by the writings of Hamilton including “Farmer Refuted.” I read through the scholarly literature and countless biographies. My favorite Founders were Washington and Hamilton, who had the best political philosophy of the Founding but were also men of action.
2. The title of the book, Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America, communicates quite a bold claim. In what ways was Washington and Hamilton’s partnership crucial to the development of the United States?
Washington and Hamilton were the leading nationalists of the founding generation: they wanted Americans to think of themselves as Americans, not as Virginians or New Yorkers. These men came from two entirely different worlds, yet somehow they bonded to create a new nation, a nation that would become a superpower. There is (incredibly) no other book that makes the case that this was the indispensable alliance of the founding era.
Most historians tend to focus on the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, or Jefferson and John Adams. Our book demonstrates that Washington’s and Hamilton’s collaboration was the most important in terms of winning the American Revolution, adopting the Constitution, and creating the institutions necessary to secure liberty at home and respect abroad. Remove Washington and Hamilton from the scene, and there is no victory in the Revolution, there is no ratification of the Constitution in New York State, there is no Federalist Papers, there is no ‘energetic executive’ with real powers to protect the nation from internal and external threats, to name just a few.
3. The book introduces both men with two chapters titled with quotes of their own: “‘I Heard Bullets Whistle’: Young George Washington” and “‘I Wish There Was a War’: Young Alexander Hamilton.” Though they came from very different worlds, both Washing and Hamilton were propelled at a young age onto the national scene through a war. What are some other similarities between them?
They shared a white hot ambition, but an ambition of the noblest kind. They faced the violence and hardship of war with great courage; they both were capable of undertaking a Herculean amount of work; they were persistent in the pursuit of their goals; they had a sober understanding of human nature and were resistant to the siren call of utopianism; and they both came to appreciate that Thomas Jefferson could not be trusted.
4. In addition to getting their individual starts through war, they originally formed their “alliance” during wartime when Hamilton became an aide-de-camp to Washington. What are some examples of how they helped each other during the Revolutionary War?
Hamilton becomes Washington’s chief wartime aide. At first he is something of a scribe, but over time, he is given enough discretion to fill in for the General in his absence, and to distribute orders under Washington’s name with both men fully confident that Hamilton is carrying out Washington’s intentions. The two almost become merged in their thinking. One indicator of this closeness can be seen in Hamilton’s access to the inner workings of Washington’s spy network, including the Culper Ring, in which he is one of a very select few who actually knows the identity of the American agents working behind British lines. This is the kind of trust that Washington had in Hamilton – full and complete.
5. One of their most important collaborations was during Washington’s presidency when Hamilton served in his cabinet. Why do you think Hamilton emerged as one of Washington’s principle advisors?
Both men shared a similar world view, and they also shared a similar outlook in wanting Americans to begin to “think continentally.” They were nationalists whose nationalism was forged on the field of battle. They had both experienced up close and personal the deprivations during the American Revolution of an incompetent Congress and the parochial nature of the state governments in terms of providing supplies and manpower to Washington’s army. They had truly witnessed the downside to a system with an excessive concern for “states’ rights.” Both man dreamed of a nation that would someday become the equal, if not the superior, to the greatest powers of their day, in terms of military and economic strength. The book demonstrates how critical the leadership of the Continental Army and specifically these two men were to forging an American identity in the 1780s.
6. The Alliance that Forged America explores not only about Alexander Hamilton and George Washington’s alliance, but also who they were allied against. Why is this comparison an important part of the story?
In part because the opposition was so ferocious, and was intent not only in rejecting Washington’s and Hamilton’s proposals, but also in destroying them personally. The allegations that were directed against both of them, that they were whores for England, was the equivalent of being called a communist in the 1950s. It was designed to remove you as a force on the public scene. That is an important part of the story to tell, because it reveals the moral courage that both Washington and Hamilton had to muster in the face of this ferocious opposition. It speaks volumes about their persistence, and their commitment to the American experiment.
7. What is your favorite quote from either Washington or Hamilton in their correspondence to each other?
Knott: When Washington rallies to Hamilton’s defense after the public revelation of the Maria Reynolds affair, when he sends the Hamiltons a wine cooler with a note that he hopes Hamilton “would be persuaded, that with every sentiment of the highest regard, I remain your sincere friend, and affectionate H[um]ble Servant.”
Williams: During the Constitutional Convention (when they restored their collaboration), Washington and Hamilton were despondent over the deadlock in the convention and exchanged affectionate letters. Washington wrote to Hamilton in New York: “I am sorry you went away – I wish you were back.”
8. Through the course of your research, what aspect of their partnership most intrigued you?
Knott: That although there seems to be a distance between the two throughout much of their correspondence, as the end of Washington’s life nears, there is a genuine affection between the two, almost to the point where you can say they were equals. Washington’s rallying to Hamilton’s defense in the wake of the Maria Reynold’s affair is indicative of this affection.
Williams: I was intrigued by just how much their relationship was shaped by their respective characters – Washington as the man of classical republican virtue, and Hamilton as the man of honor. It led to an incredibly fruitful alliance with different contributions but also dramatic moments when they clashed.
9. What do you think readers will be most surprised about as they read this book?
Perhaps the ferocity of the Jeffersonian opposition to the policies of the Washington administration, including the fact that Jefferson advocated executing any Virginia banker who cooperated with the Bank of the United States. There is also a tendency to romanticize the relationship between Jefferson and Madison, or Jefferson and Adams, due to the somewhat poetic nature of their correspondence. We hope that readers will see that the American founding had its poets, but it also needed practical minded ‘architects’ and ‘engineers’ to erect the institutions to secure the nation’s independence and liberty, and those skills were found in Washington and Hamilton. Additionally, both Washington and Hamilton were far more advanced on the issue of slavery than their opponents, who yet somehow are still portrayed as “champions of the common man.”
10. What, in your opinion, is the greatest moment in the collaboration between Washington and Hamilton?
It is difficult to pin down one event. But we would say the collaboration that occurred between the two men during Washington’s eight years as president was indispensable. Even after Hamilton left Washington’s cabinet, he remained the president’s key advisor and confidante. Those eight years allowed the nascent federal government to get on its feet, and provided the foundation for Washington’s successors to build a nation that will go on to be a superpower.