Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America


April 25, 2016
by Alec D. Rogers Also by this Author


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Book review: Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America (Naperville, Illinois: Sourcebooks, 2015) by Stephen Knott and Tony Williams


The American Revolution and Founding was the work of many celebrated collaborations and rivalries. Sometimes, such as in the case of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, they were both.  While many have been recollected and analyzed by historians,[1] until now one of the most important and productive has gone unchronicled.  Fortunately we now have Stephen Knott and Tony Williams’s fine Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America, to fill this gap.

The authors quickly raise the central questions surrounding the Washington-Hamilton relationship in the book’s introduction: how did two people of such different backgrounds form such a seamless and productive partnership first in war and later in peace?  What did each man have or lack that the other brought or needed? How did their collaboration help shape the nation in war and peace?

It was in 1776 that Gen. George Washington was able to convince an ambitious orphan from the Caribbean, Alexander Hamilton, to accept a vital but clerical position on his staff, despite Hamilton’s longing for battlefield glory.  Working side by side during the war, they shared many experiences that would later form their very similar views on the shape a post war government should take.  But this would only be the first phase of work together.

Well-crafted biographies of Washington and Hamilton, and an excellent synopsis of the events leading to the Revolution, occupy the first three chapters.  Chronicling Hamilton and Washington’s lives apart helps readers better understand the questions posed in the introduction.  And by the time readers arrive at the two’s first intersection during the Battle of New York, they are fully versed in the “backstory” of each man as well as the events that have led them to that spot.

Knott and Williams demonstrate a keen understanding of their subjects as products of their time and how their experiences shaped their outlooks, which in turn helps explain their actions, especially as regards each other.  Under the norms of the eighteenth century, Hamilton was a total outsider and Washington the consummate insider. Yet as Washington and Hamilton astutely notes, the two had more in common than appears at first glance.

Washington was highly disappointed with the imperial system’s treatment of the American colonists.  His desire for a regular army commission had gone unfulfilled.  Colonials such as Washington were paid less and their ranks demeaned compared to their regular army counterparts.[2]  From an imperial perspective, then, Washington himself was an outsider and this may have in turn helped him overlook Hamilton’s eighteenth century baggage, so memorably described by John Adams: “a bastard brat of a Scottish peddler.”[3] Summarizing Washington’s experiences up to the time of the Revolution, Knott and Williams wisely conclude that “most important to his world view, he learned about imperial relations with the British and developed an antipathy for them and their superior attitude, thereby helping to shape his sense of an American character.”[4]

If the war brought Washington and Hamilton together, it would also serve to drive them apart.  Hamilton’s unsatisfied pleas for a field command and Washington’s temper would lead to the first of several breaks between the two.  Yet they came back together again and again when their country needed them.  At Yorktown, Hamilton would finally receive his long desired command, and acquit himself brilliantly in the Revolution’s decisive battle.

Shortly after the 1783 Treaty of Paris ended the war on paper as well as in the field, each recognized the Confederation government’s inadequacy if America was to reach its full potential as a nation.[5] Knott and Williams chronicle how they would rejoin forces, first to create a new Constitution and then to secure its ratification. But, as if winning independence and then creating a new government were not enough, their collaboration was far from over.

Washington and Hamilton would, of course, come together a third time after Washington became President.  This would, according to Knott and Williams, be the result of happy accident rather than design.  Washington’s first choice for Treasury Secretary, Robert Morris, declined the appointment.  Instead, Morris recommended Hamilton, to the surprise of Washington, who knew little of Hamilton’s expertise in finance despite their many years together.

As Treasury Secretary, Hamilton’s ideas regarding banking, the national debt and many other issues would revolutionize government and help set America on its course.  This would prompt his rival, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, to begin a whispering campaign to convince his fellow countrymen that Hamilton had somehow contrived to manipulate the great Washington.  Such a myth still has great potency, even convincing one modern chronicler of Washington’s presidency that Hamilton, not Washington, drove much of the policy and deserved the lion’s share of credit for the accomplishments of his presidency.[6]  Knott and Williams, however, chronicle numerous clashes between the two in which Hamilton’s views were rebuffed by Washington; this should put to rest any notion that Washington was merely Hamilton’s cypher.[7]

Rarely have two people been so well suited to work together, almost the very definition of “synergy.” Knott and Williams’s conclusion nicely summarizes the attributes that each brought to their relationship.  In some ways the two were as opposite in temperament and skill sets as they were compatible in outlooks.

If there is one mystery that lingers after the final pages, it is why such a book has not been written before, given the utterly convincing case that the Washington-Hamilton partnership was so vital to America’s founding.  Perhaps it has to do with our historical reluctance to embrace Hamilton given his less than full embrace of a robust, highly participatory democracy.[8]   While they note the lack of scholarly attention heretofore, they do not pursue the topic beyond noting that “Neither Washington nor Hamilton shared the growing belief within the ranks of the Jeffersonians that the people always reasoned correctly and that the cure-all for the problems of a republic was more democracy.”[9]

The authors themselves collaborate well in Washington and Hamilton.  Their clear and consistent prose, coupled with a heavy reliance on primary sources and wide range of carefully chosen secondary ones, dispel any notion that a work of history must trade off scholarship for accessibility. In addition to fine summaries of events, they provide astute judgments about the roles that Washington, Hamilton and others played in our nation’s founding.  The result is a book well suited to both novices needing sufficient background to gain a full understanding and academics in need of an authoritatively referenced, thoughtfully analytical account.[10]


[1] See, e.g., Thomas Fleming, The Great Divide: The Conflict Between Washington and Jefferson that Defined a Nation (De Capo Press, 2015); Carson Holloway, Hamilton vs. Jefferson in the Washington Administration: Completing the Founding or Betraying the Founding? (Cambridge University Press, 2015); John Ferling, Hamilton and Jefferson: The Rivalry that Forged a Nation (Bloomsbury Press, 2013); Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg, Madison and Jefferson (Random House, 2013).

[2] Washington chafed as a colonial officer whose pay and rank were inferior to regular British Army officers.  Ron Chernow, George Washington: A Life (Penguin Press: New York, 2010), Kindle Loc. 1079.  Washington longed for a regular army commission only to be repeatedly frustrated.  Ibid., Loc. 1219.  His mother’s decision to keep him from joining the British Navy was in part based on her half-brother’s warning that colonials were discriminated against in that service as well. Id., Loc. 505. One of the greatest irritations to colonists was the granting of French and Indian lands to regular army veterans of the French and Indian War, but not the colonists who had fought along with them.   Id. Loc. 3499.

[3] Letter of John Adams to Benjamin Rush, January 25, 1806.

[4] Washington and Hamilton at Kindle Loc. 382.

[5] The extent to which Washington fully comprehended this and was active in seeking a remedy has often been underplayed until Edward Larson’s comprehensive study of Washington’s political activities between the war and the 1787 Constitutional Convention.  See Edward Larson, The Return of George Washington: Uniting the States 1783-1789 (William Morrow, 2014).

[6] See Forrest McDonald, The Presidency of George Washington (University Press of Kansas, 1974). McDonald opines that Washington’s presidency “was not, except in a symbolic sense, particularly efficacious in establishing the permanence of his country or even the executive branch of his country’s government.”  Ibid. at 185.  Much of the credit for what was significant regarding his presidency belongs to others, particularly Hamilton, in McDonald’s assessment.  For a better appreciation of the Washington presidency’s singular constitutional importance, see Akil Reed Amar, America’s Unwritten Constitution: The Precedents and Principles We Live By (Basic Books: New York, 2012), particularly chapter 8.  Knott and Williams favorably cite Gordon Wood’s conclusion that the American presidency is “the powerful office it is in large part because of [George] Washington’s initial behavior…”  Washington and Hamilton, Loc. 4083.

[7] Perhaps the greatest of these were their very different approaches to the Newburgh conspiracy, where some Continental Army officers tried to instigate the army to use force in obtaining back pay owed by Congress.  Knott and Williams devote significant attention to this episode where Washington and Hamilton were working at odds, demonstrating that their relationship was not always an easy one.  They skillfully use the affair of captured British spy John Andre to illustrate how Washington and Hamilton’s different conceptions of honor led them to a bitter disagreement over Washington’s decision to hang Andre in accord with military law.  It is hard to think of an area where the two differed that Washington was not correct. When Hamilton was, Washington was ultimately persuaded.

[8] Knott has fully explored Hamilton’s roller coaster reputation over the centuries in his Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth (Kansas University Press, 2002).

[9] Washington and Hamilton, Loc. 4056.

[10] Just one example of the book’s scholarship is its correction of a long standing myth that the veto was initially thought to only be available where there were concerns with a bill’s constitutional soundness.  Andrew Jackson is often credited with being the first President to veto legislation on precatory grounds.  See, e.g. Robert V. Remini, The Life of Andrew Jackson (Harper Perennial, 2011), Kindle ed. Loc. 5179 (“Jackson’s Bank veto is the most important veto ever issued by a President … In forty years under the Constitution only nine acts of Congress had been struck down by the chief executive, and only three of these dealt with important issues. In every instance the President claimed that the offending legislation violated the Constitution.”)  Knott and Williams, however, note that Washington’s second veto of legislation, which would have reduced the size of the military, was solely based on his view that it was unfair in its operations to the soldiers (who would be required to serve without pay for a period) and unwise given the nation’s present military posture.  Washington and Hamilton at loc. 3106.

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