Hamilton’s Constitution and the Acquisition of Legacy

By Nora Slonimsky

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New York’s founding father -- by way of St. Croix and Nevis -— is in the midst of another comeback. An extraordinarily successful musical on Broadway, a debate about his place on the ten-dollar bill, and a great Gotham Center post about his impact on early American marine insurance law all provide new looks at one of the more contentious framers. But this is not the first revival of public interest in Alexander Hamilton.

His dynamic reputation has risen and fallen several times since his death in 1804, interwoven with political and economic trends, cultural shifts, and fresh historical interpretation. In one of these earlier moments, it was a pivotal document from Hamilton’s career that found its way into the public eye and led to a Hamil-aissance.

Hamilton’s early plans for the Constitution are somewhat unclear. In contrast with his more famous “Plan,” a multi-hour speech delivered that sweltering summer when a few dozen delegates met in Philadelphia, the “Draft” (currently housed in the New York Public Library) is a somewhat different document.[1] Whereas the Plan was a transcript by James Madison, recorded in June and later published in his Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, the “Draft” is written in Hamilton’s own hand, edited over the course of the Convention and presented to Madison in late September. Both iterations retain similar features: most infamously, the provision for lifelong Executive and Senate branches, positions that would be used by Hamilton’s Republican detractors to attack him as a Britain-loving monarchist. But aside from this oversimplification, the “Draft” provides a direct insight into his working process: full of marginalia and correction, it becomes evident that Hamilton was working on an agenda designed not only to balance power but structure. In many respects, the notations foreshadow the organizational principles that would define his financial plan just a few years later. The emphasis on positive law would also shortly be employed in writings as Publius for “The Federalist” editorials, so distinct from Madison.

Draft United States Constitution: Report of the Committee of Detail, August 6–September 8, 1787. Printed document with annotations by Alexander Hamilton. Alexander Hamilton Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Draft United States Constitution: Report of the Committee of Detail, August 6–September 8, 1787. Printed document with annotations by Alexander Hamilton. Alexander Hamilton Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Hamilton’s family -- his wife Eliza, his children, his grandchildren -- all played an active role in preserving his legacy, materially. For that reason, the family kept the Draft for over eighty years. But in 1885, they relinquished it finally to the Astor Library. That year, Alexander Hamilton junior, James’ son, served as President of the Library’s Board of Trustees. The organization’s Thirty-Seventh Annual Report of the Trustees of the Astor Library for the Year 1885, submitted to the State Legislature on January 13th, 1886, understates the acquisition. Quoting Superintendent Robbins Little, “the section of American History has received the most interesting accession from Mr. Hamilton, in the autography plan of Constitution for the United States, submitted by General Hamilton to the Convention at Philadelphia, June 18th, 1787.”[2]

The younger Alexander, whose portrait currently hangs in the 42nd street building (below), believed the “Draft” and the “Plan” were the same.[3] But with public access to the document, and others of its kind, scholarly interest in the nuances of Hamilton’s politics followed. Henry Cabot Lodge most famously published The Works of Alexander Hamilton in 1904, which explored the differences between the two.

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In this period, Hamilton was the darling of neither left nor right, although most of his “fans” identified in some way or another as a Progressive. Theodore Roosevelt, Walter Lippmann and Herbert Croly all saw in Hamilton’s work government plans for an activist, interventionist federal state and a powerful executive. Croly even quipped in his The Promise of American Life that ideal political economy came from “Jeffersonian ends by Hamiltonian means.” Documents like the “Draft” did not just clarify the past, they were also used to shape present discourses.

With this in mind, Alexander Hamilton Jr. proudly compared the Astor Library to the British Museum, stating that “those engaged in writing historical or other works requiring research and the study of the standard books of the past, find this collection the best and most available for such purpose.”[4] Shortly thereafter, in the midst of Progressive emphasis on educational accessibility -– an issue similar to debates raging in New York City today –- the Lennox and Astor Libraries merged to become the New York Public Library (NYPL).

Thomas Lannon, the Acting Curator of Manuscripts at the NYPL notes that, “to understand any item, we need to know where it came from. In many cases knowing where an item came from, or who created it -- is more important than the content contained within it. For example, a manuscript copy of a text could prove the text was circulated at a certain point. The text may not be important, but the fact that it was circulated in manuscript confirms it was read, at least copied, and shared.”[5]Undoubtedly, in the “Draft,” the content was critical. Yet, institutional archives are a subject of inquiry not only reserved for those who specialize in preservation and provenance. There is an entire history of history here that helps explain why figures like Hamilton ebb and flow in the public’s estimation. It also underscores how the material documentation of his legacy can illuminate a broader scope of political life in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, leading perhaps to our current fascination.


Nora Slonimsky is a PhD Candidate at The Graduate Center, CUNY.


[1] A note on terminology: for the purposes of this post, “Plan” refers to the earlier, June presentation by Hamilton at the Constitutional, or Federal, convention. “Draft” refers to a later, September version written by Hamilton at the end of the convention.

[2]Thirty-Seventh Annual Report of the Trustees of the Astor Library for the Year 1885 (New York: Evening Post Job Printing Office, 1886), 12. The records of the Astor Library are located in the Manuscripts and Archives division of the New York Public Library. Interesting, the printer of these reports – The Evening Post -- was long affiliated with the Hamilton family, as Alexander Hamilton senior cofounded its newspaper component with William Coleman in 1804.

[3] For John Church Hamilton’s understanding of the “Draft” versus “Plan,” see: The Works of Alexander Hamilton.

[4]Thirty-Seventh Annual Report of the Trustees of the Astor Library for the Year 1885 (New York: Evening Post Job Printing Office, 1886), 4.

[5] Many thanks to Thomas Lannon and to the other archivists and librarians at the New York Public Library for their amazing help in researching this subject.