Sponsored by BYU Studies—Historian Tony Williams has tried to do the impossible: Write a 200-page biography of Alexander Hamilton.
Who is Tony Williams?
Tony Williams: I earned a B.A. in history from Syracuse and then an M.A. in U.S. History from Ohio State. I really enjoyed teaching high school for fifteen years, but then began writing on the American founding. I have been a Senior Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute in Arlington, VA for six years and live with my wife and kids in Williamsburg.
I have been particularly interested in the American founding for a long time and especially interested in George Washington and Alexander Hamilton’s statesmanship and political philosophy in creating the new republic. This led to the book Washington & Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America with my friend Stephen F. Knott at the Naval War College, and then to Hamilton: An American Biography.
I am currently writing a book on the Declaration of Independence.
You’ve also written about Jamestown. What are two or three of the most common misconceptions you encounter about the settlement and its settlers?
Tony Williams: In The Jamestown Experiment, I argued that we typically get the entire overarching story about the settlement of Virginia wrong.
The usual narrative is that the settlers were lazy and needed discipline, and that the colony only thrived because they started to grow tobacco and make money.
Instead, I argue that the settlers lived under martial law for most of the decade and did not enjoy the rights of Englishmen as promised. The colony started to thrive when they enjoyed the rights of private property and govern themselves with the House of Burgesses.
You’ve also written about a smallpox epidemic and the discovery of inoculation in Boston in 1721. What parallels can you see with today?
Tony Williams: The parallels are striking, but not terribly surprising because of the immutability of human nature.
The smallpox epidemic was caused by international trade and travel and the spread of disease just like today. They practiced quarantine of the sick and informal social distancing. Businesses closed, trade slowed, and the economy was strongly impacted. Then and today, nurses and physicians and family members were on the front line of caring for the sick.
They sought to find a solution to preserve life with inoculation just as we are seeking to create a vaccine to the Corona Virus.
And, Benjamin Franklin and his brother started an anti-inoculation newspaper that stirred up a great deal of contention much like our social media. The disease eventually ran its course and a great medical discovery was found just as we are hoping today.
What were your initial thoughts when you learned about Hamilton the musical?
Tony Williams: I recently saw the musical over Christmas. I thought it was brilliantly done and enjoyed it immensely. However, I was surprised by how a few things bothered me more than I anticipated.
While Aaron Burr was a part of Hamilton’s life for decades, and their conflict built up drama towards the duel, I was surprised to see so much Burr. I would have preferred to see more Hamilton and Washington as the more constructive and important relationship to Hamilton personally and the founding of the nation.
I also think they imply that Washington got rid of Hamilton during the war, but the reality is that he quit the general’s staff.
Broadly, I think it’s a shame that it has become part of the culture wars with right and left-leaning scholars criticizing it for various reasons.
I have spoken to a lot of young people across the country who have become very interested and excited about Alexander Hamilton, the founding, and history in general.
That is a good thing.
What are the pros and cons of a brief biography about a figure as well-known as Alexander Hamilton?
Tony Williams: The first benefit is that we really needed a brief biography of Hamilton because the only choice readers have in most bookstores is Chernow’s intimidating lengthy tome. It’s a great book, but many will not actually read it all the way through.
Secondly, it is also more accessible to general readers and undergraduates or high school students who are entranced with Hamilton and want to read more.
The con may be the painful choices I had to make as an author of what material to include and what I had to leave out of the story. But I think I included the essentials of what every reader will need to know.
What criteria did you use in selecting what material to cover and what to leave out of Hamilton: An American Biography?
Tony Williams: I wanted to write about Alexander Hamilton’s dedication to the principles of his adopted country and his lengthy public service and statesmanship in the service of those principles.
I probably sacrificed more on his personal life but that was not the book I wanted to write.
What two events from Alexander Hamilton’s youth are most responsible for the type of man he sought to become as an adult?
Tony Williams: Hamilton certainly had a more difficult early life than any other founder. He was understandably sensitive about his impoverished, lowly origins.
On one hand, his humble situation gave him the drive to succeed and seize opportunities to rise according to his many talents and merits. On the other hand, it gave him a chip on his shoulder, and he was too quick to defend his honor even given the demands of eighteenth-century manhood.
Eventually, honor and dueling led to his premature death.
Secondly, his experience working at an import-export firm gave him significant experience in finance, international trade, currency and banking, and management that would help shape his contributions to the creation of American financial institutions.
What are two or three of the most common misconceptions about Thomas Hamilton?
Tony Williams: There are many canards that started at the time of the founding and have endured. Besides any number of incorrect quotes, there are a few broader misconceptions that bother me:
- Hamilton was a warmonger. He supported peace through strength for the new nation and constantly sought to avert war.
- Hamilton was the father of modern big government. He supported energetic government to create a strong foundation for the private market and individuals to thrive rather than a proponent of the modern welfare state or regulatory state.
- He was a proto-Caesar who was bent on power and tyranny. He supported an energetic and vigorous executive, but it was to balance the branches of government and avoid a weak republic like that under the Articles of Confederation that he thought was the greatest threat to liberty.
Create a tweet that Alexander Hamilton might send if he were alive today during the current crisis.
Tony Williams: @PassTheStimulus #SupportCorporations #SupportBanks #SupportSmallBusiness #SupportFarmers #SupportWorkers
Hamilton would probably support the stimulus bill as a means of preserving the free enterprise system, the financial markets, banking, and all the various components of the economy.
Despite views that he was an elitist, Hamilton wanted an integrated national economy that helped all sectors and individuals thrive. He would be concerned about the financial position of Wall Street banks as well as a service-sector worker for a local small business.
His view might confound modern ideological lenses.
Make a list of five books every student of early America should read.
Tony Williams: Hardest question by far!
- Bernard Bailyn’s Ideological Origins of the American Revolution set the standard for taking the ideas of the American Revolution seriously and continues to shape the field more than fifty years later.
- Perry Miller’s The New England Mind played a similar role for Puritan Massachusetts and colonial America.
- David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing is an incredible piece of scholarship and a model of compelling writing.
- Few popular books are better than Joseph Ellis’ Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation.
- A more obscure choice would be Ralph Ketcham, Framed for Posterity: The Enduring Philosophy of the Constitution, which is part of the outstanding University Press of Kansas American Political Thought series.
Of course, there are too many good biographies and histories to count.
If you could go back in time and witness any event from Alexander Hamilton’s life, what would you most want to see?
Tony Williams: The obvious answer might be some dramatic moment such as his heroic and audacious assault over the redoubt at the Battle of Yorktown or fighting for the ratification of the Constitution at the New York Ratifying Convention.
However, I would love to go back and listen to his conversations with Washington during the war and in the first administration to understand intimately this most important relationship of the founding.
Thank you very much for the opportunity to answer your 10 Questions!
Learn more about early American history:
- The Jamestown Brides with Jennifer Potter
- Plymouth Colony with John Turner
- Sneak Peek at Joanne Freeman’s Next Hamilton Book
- Ben Franklin’s World with Liz Covart
- The Other Alexander Hamilton with Vaughn Scribner
This interview is made possible thanks to the generous sponsorship of BYU Studies.