Of the thousands of photographs capturing the horror and the heroism of September 11th, one image caught my attention more than any other. Though it is not the most dramatic portrait to emerge from that terrible day, it is nonetheless rich with symbolism of America's past and present. The photograph shows FBI agents wearing hard hats and protective masks searching the grounds of the debris covered Trinity Church Cemetery, just a few blocks from the World Trade Center. As the FBI agents painstakingly picked their way through the graveyard rubble they probably noticed one of the larger tombstones covered with ash the one belonging to Alexander Hamilton, who became the nation's first Treasury Secretary on September 11, 1789. Among the refuse surrounding Hamilton's grave were faxes, reports, memos, and letters, torn from the heart of America's commercial republic.
It is fitting that Hamilton's burial place abutted the World Trade Center and is a short distance from Ellis Island. A self made man who immigrated to the United States as a penniless teenager from the Caribbean island of Nevis, Hamilton was the embodiment of what would later be called the "American Dream." Like many immigrants Hamilton felt the scorn of those who preceded him to the United States. Thomas Jefferson saw the young upstart as somewhat un-American, suggesting that he was a "monarchist" at heart. John Adams saw this "bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar" who was "born on a speck more obscure than Corsica" as more Old World than New. But his critics were wrong, for Hamilton was the most American of the Founders optimistic that if the young nation marshaled its resources properly, it could become a great nation.
Hamilton was the leading nationalist of his time, and all of his efforts were directed toward overcoming the parochial squabbling that had crippled the United States under the Articles of Confederation. Through his essays in The Federalist and in his actions as George Washington's Treasury Secretary, Hamilton taught his fellow Americans to "think continentally." He argued for an "energetic" presidency and for the establishment of a professional military, and sought to unleash American entrepreneurship and transform the country into a center of manufacturing. Some Americans saw Hamilton's vision as a threat to liberty, and yearned for a simple republicanism of limited government, agrarianism, and states' rights. Hamilton's critics were right to claim that he held no allegiance to any particular American state, for he envisioned a new, consolidated nation capable of becoming a republican empire. More than any other Founding Father, Hamilton launched the United States on the road to economic and military preeminence. While he does not have an impressive marble memorial in the nation's capital, Hamilton's "monument" was the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
While many Americans contributed to the rise of the United States as a superpower, it was Hamilton who laid the foundation for what would be known as "the American century." In an odd way, it is fitting that Hamilton's final resting place was subjected to "collateral damage" from the September 11th attack. One can almost hear him calling from his despoiled grave, exhorting the nation not to bow to those still warring with the Enlightenment, those who are fearful of modernity and change, and envious of our wealth and power. He would remind the Commander in Chief that "secrecy and dispatch" are essential elements of successful foreign and military policy, and would advise the President to limit the amount of intelligence information he shared with the Congress. He would have no toleration for those who leak secrets to the media, and he would also suggest, no doubt to the concern of some contemporary observers, that there are occasions when the government's obligation to protect our right to life necessarily precedes some civil rights. He would counsel us to apply our military might in a steady and systematic way and would advise the President to move with "vigor" and "expedition" and "energy" to defeat our enemies.
Until September 11th, and perhaps even today, few New Yorkers heading to their offices in the financial district realized they were passing the burial place of the founder of America's republican empire. Were Hamilton able to speak to us in 2001, he would not care about his standing in our collective memory. But he would be concerned if we failed to realize that "nothing less than the existence of the Union, the safety and welfare of the parts of which it is composed, the fate of an empire, in many respects, the most interesting in the world," was once again at stake. Hamilton understood the stakes in 1787 if we heed his call in the current crisis the nation will once again pay homage to him, though in the understated way we always have.