Address at the Unveiling of the Statue of Alexander Hamilton
Mr. Secretary and My Countrymen:
It is a most becoming thing to erect, and to me a very gratifying thing to participate in unveiling, this memorial to one of the outstanding founders of the Republic. In the appraisal of constructive contribution to the making of our America, Alexander Hamilton stands foremost, and merits our reverent tribute for all succeeding time.
Hamilton was the inspiring and insistent advocate of union, and the creative genius in the making of the Constitution. More, he was the practical politician, who brought about its necessary adoption.
To pay him this tribute of outstanding eminence means no disparagement, in any way, of the other stalwarts among the founding fathers. Washington riveted the confidence of the new possessors of independence, Jefferson was the foremost advocate of democracy, Franklin was the philosopher in the making of the Constitution, but Hamilton had the conception of a Federal Government, upon which plan the American people have builded to their own satisfaction and to no small degree of world astonishment. When his plan was adopted he became the master builder, and the integrity of the Nation's financial honor is his monument for the ages.
To the closer students of American history, notably the history of the Republic in the making, it must be most gratifying to note the erection of this befitting memorial in this appropriate setting at the south front of the Treasury. It was in the Treasury that Secretary Hamilton made his matchless contribution to the stable Republic. Here he put the seal of sanctity upon financial honor and led the young Republic from the depths of seeming hopelessness to the very heights of confidence and the supreme consciousness of honored obligations and their honest discharge.
The task of the founders was no trivial one, and the piloting of the new ship of state demanded the attributes of heroic leadership.
Here was the very chaos of victory. The triumphant colonists were spent and wearied, financially exhausted, and without plans for the future. They had little thought of the nation. Nationality was not the inspiration of the war for independence, but nationality was revealed as the necessary means of self-preservation when independence was won. ,
There were conflicting ideas, even more pronounced than to-day—there were varying conditions throughout the colonies, now turned to States. There were opposing ambitions, less understood than now, because of slow communication and less intimacy of association. There were pronounced envies and threatening jealousies; aye, there were disturbing suspicions and the menace of destroying passions. Hamilton combatted them all, with that boundless faith which is born of constructive genius, and made a supreme contribution to the formation and inauguration of the new Republic which he believed to be destined as the exponent and exemplar of representative democracy.
Many proclaimed him a monarchist and the foe of liberty. Others thought him an imperialist and the enemy of democracy. But he was none of those. It was from Hamilton's lips that came the finest utterance ever made concerning human liberty: "The sacred rights of mankind are written as with a sunbeam, by the hand of divinity itself, never to be erased or obscured by mortal power." In all the criticism of him, and there was intensity of criticism and maddening bitterness of controversy in those days, his sincerity was never questioned. As a believer in the highest degree of liberty, he was eager for a nationality strong enough to guarantee the security of liberty.
One wonders sometimes that this outstanding leader and conspicuous contributor should be so relatively inconspicuous in the historical recitals of our country. Though coming into full appraisal and to lofty eminence in this generation, he was not a popular hero in his time. He gave less heed to what the contending elements in the new Republic believed to be necessary for their sectional welfare, and riveted his thought and gave of his logic and leadership to the essentials of a stable Republic. He cared little for temporary popular favor, but he appraised common welfare above all else. He never sought to echo an ephemeral popular opinion, but appealed to that intelligent public opinion which must chart the way of an abiding democracy. The world needs that type of leadership to-day. Apply Hamilton's conception of financial integrity and the sanctity of obligation to world conditions to-day, and let there be asserted a leadership which rises above prejudiced opinion, whether that prejudiced opinion had its beginning in war or is emphasized by geographic divisions, and humanity will turn to the rational and only way of restoration. There will be the substitution of hope and resolution, where hatred and resentment are now hindering recovery. There will be less thought of yesterday, and more of to-morrow.
Another phase of Hamilton's distinguished career may well inspire all grateful Americans. Talleyrand emphasized it in his American visit. Driving by Hamilton's modest law office late at night, to which the Secretary had retired at the early age of 38, and noting the night light indicating late hours of toil, Talleyrand remarked that he was witnessing the eighth wonder of the world—a statesman of matchless talent and every opportunity to acquire wealth, retired from public service poor, striving professionally to earn a livelihood for his family.
The fine example was then and is to-day less an exception than this sincere tribute from a great European statesman would seem to indicate. Hundreds of very capable and highly patriotic men are serving the Government to-day at the neglect of their private fortunes. We should be poorly equipped for the tasks of government if they did not do so. It is to be deplored that there are public men who make of public position the opportunity to enhance their personal fortunes, but it rivets our confidence to know that so many are serving and sacrificing in their service to promote our commonweal. It ought to be understood, amid a too mistaken conception of the compensations of public service, that scores of men to-day hold highly important positions, not because they sought them, but because their services have been sought, and the consciousness of service to the Nation and their fellow countrymen is their chief compensation.
But I choose to stress the rugged honesty of this patriot-statesman, because honesty will cure ten thousand ills of to-day. Honesty of leadership will spare us the popular misconceptions which are ever menacing to democracy. Honesty in statecraft will point the way to impregnable heights. Honesty among nations will dissolve their differences, so that new and lasting friendships may be bound by the ties of fraternity and mutual trust. Honesty in politics will reveal unerring public opinion, and honesty in public service everywhere will diminish public waste and extravagance. Honesty of manhood and womanhood will abolish the sources of discontent which threaten the world's civilization, and will bring us to conviction regarding the fundamentals of the social fabric, without which fundamentals there can be no human progress.
Alexander Hamilton had the vision to see the expanding Republic. He was an American by adoption, but he fought his way to the loftiest plane of citizenship and accepted all its obligations. He was the youthful zealot for liberty, and a most distinguished soldier of the Revolution. The transcending qualities of his statesmanship so obscured his military career that it is little noted, though standing alone his military services would command a place in history.
He was literally a founder and builder. Washington had learned his qualities in war, and in Washington's trust he became the master builder. Aye, he was more than founder or builder; he was the prophet of American destiny.
With that insight and foresight which signaled his public service, and made him understand why republics had failed and faded from popular recollection, he sought to guard against the dangers of his day, and gave warning against the dangers to come. Human nature does not differ in one century from another, and the popular fallacies which Hamilton combated in his day have yet to be met in ours. Here was a revelation of the conscience of his statecraft. No threatened loss of popularity ever deterred him. Believing for himself in a policy designed to promote the welfare of the new Republic and to strengthen its security, he became its zealous advocate. He argued until he convinced and then committed. None ever wielded a more trenchant pen, no heart and mind ever directed a more eloquent tongue. An infinite courage sustained him, and in the national viewpoint he found his unfailing inspiration.
It was his conviction that the Federal power could combat menaces with which the State could not successfully contend. He had a seemingly inspired fear of factionalism, fought it in the making, and warned us of to-day against its development.
In his clarion call for social and political integration under the Constitution, he gave this warning:
"Among the numerous advantages promised by a well-constructed union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction. The friend of popular government never finds himself so much alarmed for their character and fate as when he contemplates their propensity to this dangerous vice. He will not fail, therefore, to set due value on any plan which, without violating the principles to which he is attached, provides a proper cure for it. The instability, injustice, and confusion introduced in public councils have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished; as they continue to be the favorite and fruitful topics from which the adversaries to liberty derive their most specious declamations."
Then he defined factions. I quote further:
"By a faction I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community."
Can any student of our times in America, or the world, doubt for a moment that factionalism is developing as never before? We have our factions which seek to promote this or that interest, without regard to the relationship to others, and without regard for the common weal. We have the factions of hatred and prejudice and violence. We have our coalitions which would invade the constitutional rights of others or subvert the Constitution itself. We have our factions challenging both civil and religious liberty, and without them both made everlastingly secure there can be no real human liberty. We have the fatal factionalism which contemplates obstruction to the execution of the laws. No nation will survive where this factionalism is endured. Hamilton warned us that "however such combinations or associations may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely themselves to usurp the reigns of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion." Washington uttered the same caution. It was Hamilton's conception that the Federal influence would crush out the factions, taking heed, of course, whenever a call to real justice had in any way inspired.
If we will carry on, visualizing the Nation of which he dreamed; if we will maintain the national viewpoint and emphasize the interwoven intimacy of all activities, interdependent, where none may permanently prosper without a prosperous whole; if we will throttle the false cry of class where none need exist in the beckoning of American opportunity; if we will be as hopefully American and as whole-heartedly American as they were in the immortal beginning, the future will be secure. These we must do, no matter what political sacrifices are made in the recommitment.
Here stands, Mr. Secretary, the memorial to a great lover of liberty, a great patriot, a great soldier, a colossal statesman, a mighty American. Time has brought our appraisal of him out of the mists of misunderstanding and given us a measure of his true greatness. If I were to v select one attribute above all others for the inspiration of the Americans of to-day and the morrow, it would not be his brilliance of mind, or his gift of eloquence, or his matchless genius, or his prophetic vision; but I should commend his courage of patriotism, which put his devotion to the Republic's welfare before popular approval or personal fortune, and his unconditional gift of heart, mind, and soul to the making of an imperishable temple of freedom in these United States.
Warren G. Harding, Address at the Unveiling of the Statue of Alexander Hamilton Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/329280