Saturday, February 05, 2005

During the winter encampments [at Valley Forge], Hamilton constantly educated himself, as if equipping his mind for the larger tasks ahead. "Force of intellect and force of will were the sources of his success," Henry Cabot Lodge later wrote. From his days as an artillery captain, Hamilton had kept a pay book with blank pages in the back; while on Washington's staff, he filled up 112 pages with notes from his extracurricular reading. Hamilton fit the type of the self-improving autodidact, employing all his spare time to better himself. He aspired to the eighteenth-century aristocratic ideal of the versatile man conversant in every area of knowledge. Thanks to his pay book we know that he read a considerable amount of philosophy, including Bacon, Hobbes, Montaigne, and Cicero. He also perused histories of Greece, Prussia, and France. This was hardly light fare after a day of demanding correspondence for Washington, yet he retained the information and applied it to profitable use. While other Americans dreamed of a brand-new society that would expunge all trace of effete European civilization, Hamilton humbly studied those societies for clues to the formation of a new government. Unlike Jefferson, Hamilton never saw the creation of America as a magical leap across a chasm to an entirely new landscape, and he always thought the New World had much to learn from the Old.

--Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton

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