Happy birthday, Alexander Hamilton!

Written by Petty Officer 1st Class Judy L. Silverstein.

An oil portrait of Alexander Hamilton by John Trumbull, 1792. National Gallery of Art.

An oil portrait of Alexander Hamilton by John Trumbull, 1792. National Gallery of Art.

It is widely known that the founder of the Revenue Marine, precursor to the United States Coast Guard, was our nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton. Today is his birthday, although the exact year is uncertain. Many historians believe he was born in 1755.

Hamilton led a dramatic albeit short life, succumbing to a bullet fired by Aaron Burr in a duel along the banks of Weehawken, N.J. Despite his short life, Hamilton made an indelible mark in American history as a prolific Founding Father.

According to Ron Chernow, a Hamilton biographer, the father of the Revenue Marine was a multi-faceted and brilliant man whose achievements including writing poetry, being an accomplished orator, educator, member of the Constitutional Convention, foreign policy theorist and founder of the New York Evening Post.

Purportedly born on the island of Nevis to inauspicious beginnings and orphaned in his early years, he supported himself working as a merchant’s clerk on St. Croix. It was an experience that undoubtedly developed his passion for the world of finance.

It is believed other islanders took up a collection to finance his education in New York at King’s College, known today as Columbia University. Hamilton went on to serve in the militia, a veteran of battles at Trenton, White Plains and Princeton. By age 20, Hamilton was a lieutenant colonel in Gen. George Washington ‘s army, eventually becoming his aide-de-camp, where he was nicknamed, “The Little Lion.”

Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States. Howard Chandler Christy, Sail Loft, U.S. Navy Yard, Washington, D.C., April 1940.

Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States. Howard Chandler Christy, Sail Loft, U.S. Navy Yard, Washington, D.C., April 1940.

In 1782, Hamilton began studying law and was elected to the Continental Congress. On June 9, 1784, he helped found the Bank of New York, establishing our nation’s first currency system; the Bank was also the first company listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

Joining forces with John Jay and James Madison, Hamilton authored a series of essays, published anonymously, defending the Constitution and its ratification. Hamilton is credited with writing more than 50 of those Federalist Papers, explaining various aspects of the Constitution. In 1789, the newly-minted President Washington appointed Hamilton our nation’s first Treasury Secretary.

Passionately opposed to slavery, Hamilton was the chief architect of our nation’s financial system, making the case for both manufacturing and agriculture as essential components. The following year, he issued a remarkably detailed report on the nation’s debt. As the fledgling nation sought to combat smugglers seeking to avoid payment of import tariffs, Hamilton advised Congress to establish 10 cutters to help direct ships to specific ports of entry along the East Coast of the United States.

The Federalist Papers were written and published during the years 1787 and 1788 in several New York State newspapers to persuade New York voters to ratify the proposed constitution.

The Federalist Papers were written and published during the years 1787 and 1788 in several New York State newspapers to persuade New York voters to ratify the proposed constitution.

“A few armed vessels, judiciously stationed at the entrances of our ports, might at a small expense be made useful sentinels of the laws,” Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Paper No. 2.

This proved the basis for establishment of the Revenue Marine, also known as the Revenue Cutter Service, in 1790. Since the Continental Navy, U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Army disbanded following the conclusion of the American Revolution, the Revenue Marine served as the sole naval force of the new republic until 1794.

He assigned revenue cutters to each of 10 eastern ports, allowing for import tariff collection, critically important to the economic viability of our nation. Dating back to those earliest days of the Revenue Marine, one vital mission was to render aid and assistance as needed “for the protection of lives and property at sea,” a humanitarian life-saving role that helps define the Coast Guard to this day.

In his first letter of instruction to the newly appointed Revenue Marine captains, Hamilton directed them to “always keep in mind that [their] countrymen are freemen.”

In this one sentence, Hamilton said so much. It was as if his words, written in 1791, set the stage for the Coast Guard’s core values – honor, respect and devotion to duty.

That’s why we salute Alexander Hamilton on what could be his 257th birthday. Semper Paratus.

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3 Responses

  1. Julie Newton Sloane says:

    I did not know that! Thank you. And the Coast Guard has been fiscally responsible ever since. Semper Paratus.

  2. Sas722 says:

    Nice piece of writing, Silverstein! Our current Congressional leadership could take some lessons from Mr. Hamilton. Thank you.

  3. Bill Wells says:

    Alexander Hamilton did not found the “Revenue Marine.”  This term did not come into vogue until 1843 and then it was unofficial.

    Also, rendering aid was not an official requirement until 1837.  Up to then, whatever aid rendered was that customary among seamen.  “Winter cruising” to assist mariners was a political, not a humanitarian decision and it was not free. Each cutter was to keep strict accounts of whatever materials were provided so the Treasury Department could send the ship owner a bill.

    A small typo. The “armed vessel” quote is in Federalist Paper No. 12 vice No. 2. This quote is often used but rarely does anyone mention the “small expense” part of it.  This matter is far more important historically to the Coast Guard than his proposal of vessels being armed, which they were not, at least, with cannon.  Hamilton insisted early on of a very frugal service because the aim was to reduce the national debt and not increase it.  However, as all things, Hamilton’s conservative  fiscal outlook became gospel and the Coast Guard, and its predecessor services, have been run cheaply ever since.