Constitution Day: Hamilton edition
To prepare for Constitution Day, revisit our story featuring history professor Elizabeth Cobbs!
By Alix Poth ’18
The United States Constitution was signed into power on this day in 1787, thus establishing the nation’s government. Many know James Madison as the “father of the Constitution,” but fewer know of the foundational role Alexander Hamilton played in the creation of the document. The New York Times best-selling author of The Hamilton Affair and Texas A&M University College of Liberal Arts history professor Elizabeth Cobbs aims to change that.
Made popular in recent years by the award-winning Broadway musical, Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton’s story is being spread far and wide. In commemoration of this year’s Constitution Day, Cobbs explained Hamilton’s contribution to our nation’s beginning.
“Hamilton’s greatest legacy was the creation of the actual machinery of our government, including the Treasury Department, the Coast Guard, and our first system of benefits for retired veterans,” Cobbs said. “Despite all who thought it couldn’t be done, Hamilton showed that a federal government — run efficiently, fairly, and without corruption — could be the greatest servant of the people.”
The Constitution was an extremely controversial proposal, according to Cobbs, because it moved to transform the coalition of autonomous states into a single, unified country. A threat of rejection existed for the document, so Hamilton took it upon himself to write and organize 51 of the 85 collected works of the Federalist Papers advocating for the Constitution.
“[The Federalist Papers] helped transform public opinion just enough for the Constitution to squeak through the state legislatures and achieve ratification,” Cobbs said. “Hamilton was perhaps the first person to recognize and take action to correct the problems associated with the rickety Articles of Confederation.”
Hamilton wrote persuasively and passionately. But above all, Cobbs said, he was both a lawyer and economist, as well as a war hero, which set him apart from the other Founding Fathers.
“He excelled at crafting arguments, though he also sometimes wrote blistering anonymous critiques of opponents, which helped to create enemies,” she said.
What is less known is how Hamilton’s risk-taking nature extended throughout his life. Certainly with advocating for the Constitution and with writing arguments that created enemies, that nature was even demonstrated when he agreed to serve as the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury.
“George Washington asked Hamilton to undertake the hardest, most controversial post in his cabinet: putting the young, heavily indebted nation on a sound financial footing,” Cobbs said. “Hamilton’s friends advised him against it. The job paid next to nothing, courted controversy, and risked public resentment. The only propertyless member of the revolutionary inner circle — at a time when property and voting rights were still linked — Hamilton never considered turning his back on the president, despite the price for himself and his growing family.”
Without the costly chances that Hamilton decided to take, Constitution Day might have looked extremely different than it does today.
The now world-famous musical “accurately conveys the spirit of Alexander Hamilton’s life and character,” Cobbs said, “especially his devotion to family and the new American nation.”
Hamilton’s role in the Constitutional Convention is conveyed in the musical’s song “Non-Stop,” and the start of Hamilton’s life is depicted in the clip below of the original Hamilton cast singing “Alexander Hamilton“. Read more about Cobbs’s work on the life of Hamilton in her novel, The Hamilton Affair.