Fisher Ames on the Character of Alexander Hamilton

Fisher Ames, an influential Massachusetts Federalist and famed orator, gave a speech about Hamilton’s life and legacy immediately after his death.  Ames entered Harvard University at age 12, and graduated by 16.  He was well known both for his oratorical skills and his deep resistance to Jeffersonian democracy.

http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=a000174
Picture from Biographical Directory of the United States Congress

Interestingly, before the election of 1800, Ames sent Hamilton a series of letters urging him not to split the Federalist Party and put Jefferson in power (which is exactly what happened).

Ames wrote:

“…the only chance to prevent the triumph of the Jacobins is to unite and vote according to the compromise made at Philadelphia for the two candidates. That this gives an equal chance and a better than we would freely give to one of them. But strong as our objections are, and strongly as we could and are willing to urge them to the public we refrain, because the effect of urging them would be to split the Federalists and Absolutely to ensure Mr. Jefferson’s success.”

Hamilton broke with Ames and many of his other fellow Federalists by supporting Jefferson over Burr in the Senate tiebreaker in the election of 1800.  Nevertheless, Ames delivered a heartfelt oration after Hamilton’s death, describing his unique role in creating the nation, the universal grief surrounding his death, and the impact of his legacy.

Ames delivered these remarks to a private group of friends immediately after Hamilton’s death.  It was later published in July 1804 in the Repertory newspaper, and was included in a compilation of his works.  The full text is available here via Google Books, and excerpts are below with my commentary.  (If you read the original, you’ll notice that I’ve modernized the spelling and some of the punctuation to make it easier to read.)

Ames described how the news of Hamilton’s passing had paralyzed the nation.

“Since the news of his death, the novel and strange events of Europe have succeeded each other unregarded; the nation has been enchained to its subject, and broods over tis grief, which is more deep than eloquent, which though dumb, can make itself felt without utterance, and which does not merely pass, but like an electrical shock, at the same instant smites and astonishes, as it passes from Georgia to New Hampshire.”

….

“Alas!  The great man who was, at all times, so much the ornament of our country, and so exclusively fitted, in its extremity, to be its champion, is withdrawn to a purer and more tranquil region.  We are left to endless labors and unavailing regrets.”

Throughout the oration, Ames draws on references to ancient Greek and Roman philosophy and mythology.  In one section he states:

“It is not as Apollo, enchanting the shepherds with his lyre, that we deplore him; it is as Hercules, treacherously slain in the midst of his unfinished labors, leaving the world overrun with monsters.”

In contrast to other eulogies and orations delivered after Hamilton’s death, Ames directly tackled the Republican rumors surrounding Hamilton’s corruption and the consequences of his “frankness” in writing the Reynolds Pamphlet in 1797.  Ames suggested that Hamilton’s talent was so immense that it inspired the suspicion of his enemies and they attributed motions of corruption despite lack of cause.

“No man ever more disdained duplicity, or carried frankness further than he.  This gave to his political opponents some temporary advantages, and currency to some popular prejudices, which he would have lived down, if his death had not prematurely dispelled them.”

….

“It was impossible to deny, that he was a patriot, and such a patriot, as, seeking neither popularity nor office, without artifice, without meanness, the best Romans in their best days would have admitted to citizenship and to the consulate.  Virtue, so rare, so pure, so bold, by its very purity and excellence, inspired suspicion, as a prodigy.  His enemies judged of him by themselves: so splendid and arduous were his services, they could not find it in their hearts to believe, that they were disinterested.”

Ames concluded by imploring his fellow citizens to keep the memory of Hamilton’s legacy alive:

“The most substantial glory of a country, is in its virtuous great men: its prosperity will depend on its docility to learn from their example.  That nation is fated to ignominy and servitude, for which such men have lived in vain.  …  The name of Hamilton would have honored Greece, in the age of Aristides.  May heaven, the guardian of our liberty, grant that our country may be fruitful of Hamiltons, and faithful to their glory.”

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