George and Alexander

The relationship of our first president and his Treasury secretary was an interesting one.

Courtesy of National Heritage Museum, Lexington, MA

For many theater lovers, casting light on the peculiar relationship between George Washington and Alexander Hamilton will come at no surprise. The 2015 musical Hamilton illustrated many components of the two’s relationship. Sure, there is obvious dramatization, but there is actually much more truth to the matter than one may think.

So, how deeply rooted was this connection? How highly did Washington view Hamilton? Simply put, the two were close. Washington valued the opinion of Hamilton greatly, siding with him on many occasions.

The Beginnings

Washington and Hamilton had two very different upbringings. Washington was born into Virginia wealth and was born into southern gentry. Hamilton, on the other hand, was born on the island of Nevis in the British West Indies. He was not born into wealth and struggled to survive, eventually gaining the ability to immigrate to the colonies to start anew. Hamilton finally landed in New York City in 1772. Hamilton and Washington, however, would not cross paths until at least 1776. At this time, Hamilton was serving as an artillery captain. His bravery was recognized by Washington after the troublesome New York Campaign of 1776. During the following year, Hamilton once again impressed General Washington at the Battles of Trenton and Princeton, New Jersey. Washington was so intrigued by these successes that he asked Hamilton to join his personal staff. Hamilton, reluctant to give up his pursuit of glory on the battlefield, accepted Washington’s offer, officially becoming a staff member of the future president’s entourage. Without this crucial decision, who knows where the Hamilton/Washington alliance would have progressed.

A Slight Rift

The seemingly fairytale pairing was not without their faults, though. While Hamilton viewed his commander as courageous and full of integrity, Hamilton resented Washington’s hesitancy to send him back into the fray of battle. In fact, Washington would not do so until 1781 at the time of the Battle of Yorktown. This inability of Washington to let one of his key assets go resulted in Hamilton quitting Washington’s staff for a time before being coaxed back into Washington’s inner circle soon after.

So, if Washington admired young Hamilton’s ambitions and drive, why was he so hesitant to use his talents on the battlefield? Well, Hamilton was a very prolific writer and conveyed Washington’s orders extraordinarily well. These aspects of Hamilton as a staffer would be hard for Washington to let go of.

Post-War Politics

Following the War, both parties went their separate ways. Washington was enjoying his military retirement while Hamilton was battling on a different stage — the political stage. The energetic young politician was busy debating the various components of the Constitution while parading for its ratification. It was not until 1789 when Washington was unanimously elected as the first president that the pairing would come in close contact once again. The newly presidential Washington selected his old commandant to be the Treasury secretary for his cabinet, a choice that would further grow their partnership.

Even from the beginning of Washington’s presidency, Hamilton was one of if not the most influential and critical member of his cabinet. Washington frequently sided with Hamilton and his Federalist viewpoints on a national bank and the assumption of states’ debts by the Federal Government. The decisions to side Hamilton on these matters angered the budding Democratic Republicans, as well as future presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. A final straw for Jefferson came in 1793 when he resigned from his position as the Secretary of State following Washington’s decision to entertain neutrality in the war between Britain and France, as suggested by Hamilton.

Hamilton further cemented himself into the president’s good favors by supporting Washington’s decision to send in troops to quell the insurgency in western Pennsylvania, known as the Whiskey Rebellion, in 1794 despite the pushback from then Secretary of War Henry Knox.

Even after Hamilton resigned from the president’s cabinet in 1795, Washington still sought his advice and penmanship by asking Hamilton to write his farewell address in 1796 before his final retirement from politics just 3 years before his death.

Closing Thoughts

While many agree that Washington and Hamilton’s relationship was not always friendly and loving, the two certainly relied heavily on one another for a good portion of their illustrious careers. Washington confided in and leaned on Hamilton on many occasions while Hamilton was able to gain great political standing from his relationship with the Sage of Mount Vernon.

While our first president remained partyless in his political career, it is easy to recognize that George Washington supported the manifestation of a strong federal government, which was quite remarkable as a Virginian southerner, and this was in no small part attributed to his relationship with Alexander Hamilton. There is no telling who benefited more from the working partnership, as Washington died shortly after his departure from politics and Hamilton’s career collapsed following his 1797 affair and his support of Jefferson over Burr in the election of 1800. Nonetheless, it is clear that both men grew from this historical symbiosis.

Grant Fuerstenau is a Medical Student at the University of Louisville School of Medicine.

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Grant Fuerstenau

Grant Fuerstenau

Medical Student | Inquirer | Lover of Medicine, Sports, Science, History, and Geography | Editor of The Biographical Historian

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