The Coast Guard is 227 years old this day, founded by Alexander Hamilton in 1790.
It has been said metaphorically, in describing the proclivities of thinkers and doers, that there are Astronomers and there are Astronauts; those who dream of stars far and away and those who dwell among them. Alexander Hamilton occupied the rarified air (or ether, as it were) of both.
His biographer Ron Chernow said of him that he was, “at once… sparkling theoretician and masterful executive.”
What makes him all the more extraordinary is the fact the he overcame such oppressive beginnings. It is true that many of the founding fathers had to surmount tremendous obstacles on the ragged road from hardscrabble start to glorious end; but none had to journey as far as Alexander Hamilton.
Triumphs in life are often built with the strewn brick and mortar of the trials we face. Many people are ladened with such large amounts of trial material they could build a whole city of triumph if they could marshall it all. The great people among us do. Alexander Hamilton was one such person.
Nobody is “self-made” as the over-used saying suggests, but Hamilton comes as close as any.
Born on the tiny caribbean island of Nevis in either 1755 or 1757 (the year that Hamilton himself recounted), the “rather delicate and frail” illegitimate child was granted little in the way of opportunity. Not long after his birth his father deserted him and his mother. At the age of ten his mother took ill, developing a raging fever from an unknown disease.
It was not long before young Alexander developed the same symptoms and they were both put to the same small bed to share in their misery.
The “heroic” medicine of the 18th century had changed little from the medieval period in which doctors sought to “purge” the body of its ailments by emetic pills and herbs which induced convulsive vomiting. Bloodletting was the prescribed curative method as well.
Both mother and son in their tiny bed were repeatedly subjected to such torture. Just two days after summoning the doctor to their bedside, Alexander lay next to his mother in a pool of vomit and blood. Delirious himself, he probably stared at her through tears of pain and sorrow as she closed her eyes for the last time. At the tender age of 10, young Alexander was now an orphan.
That same evening, agents from the probate court converged on their little house and took possession of all their property including the thirty-four books his mother had managed to acquire for him. His uncle bought them at auction and gave them back to him, a small comfort in a harrowing time.
Everything remaining of their meagre possessions was awarded to his mother’s first husband, a man she hadn’t seen in eighteen years. The court awarded custody of Alexander to his first cousin who, suffering from mental illness and a string of bad business deals, soon thereafter committed suicide. The orphaned boy was barely twelve years old.
It is hard to image how a child who was not only rudderless in the sea of life, but one who had been cast into a violent tempest with not even the wreckage to hold on to, could marshall the resolve to carry on. But demonstrating the indomitable spirit which would color the rest of his time on earth, he secured a job as a clerk in a mercantile house and was quickly recognized by the owners of the firm as being possessed of superior native intellect and drive.
He learned quickly and soon mastered the inner workings of the bustling house of trade. The “bank” of knowledge he would absorb in this period would prove invaluable when he formed what would become the U.S. Coast Guard twenty years into the future. The circumstances which would bring him to America soon presented themselves; true to the pattern of his life — a violent storm would come.
After a massive and devastating hurricane struck his small island of St Croix, the surviving fifteen year-old Hamilton wrote a dramatic account of the terrifying ordeal which included expansive flourishes such as this:
“It seemed as if a total dissolution of nature was taking place. The roaring of the sea and wind, fiery meteors flying about in the air, the prodigious glare of almost perpetual lighting, the crash of falling houses, and the ear piercing shrieks of the distressed, were sufficient to strike astonishment into angels…”
When some local businessmen read the story they were so struck by the lucidness and strength of the young man’s writing, reasoning that his obvious talent should not go to waste, they put him on a ship to America, where he enrolled in The King’s College (now Columbia University). Soon after arriving at the school he became embroiled in the fiery cause of the Revolution and from there his star continue to rise until that fateful day on the New Jersey shore where Aaron Burr would take his life in a duel.
The sheer magnitude of his accomplishment in his short life of 49 years is simply mind-boggling. Were anyone to present a resume with Hamilton’s list of qualifications on it today, such a person would be quickly branded a liar.
He was a shipping clerk, a rabble-rousing college student, accomplished poet and a ladie’s man. He was a brilliant essayist, artillery captain, adjutant to General George Washington and major general. He was a battlefield hero at Yorktown, congressman, fervent abolitionist, Bank of New York Founder, New York state assemblyman, influential member of the Constitutional Convention and the subsequent Ratifying Convention. He was a great orator, lawyer, formidable polemicist, educator, newspaperman, foreign policy expert, Secretary of the Treasury, and founder of the United States Coast Guard. If one were to examine each of the afore-mentioned accomplishments, one would invariably find that all of his labor still has force and resonance today.
His astonishing and prolific output is only rivaled by the magnificent quality of his work. Even a cursory glance at his output begs the question: How could one man have produced so much? And he fathered eight children to boot!
Of all his accomplishments, what he would likely be the most proud of is that his work endures. He speaks to us still. This was the want of most everyone of his generation. His wish and theirs has been granted, for now.
The brave men and women of the Coast Guard who do so much to protect the great nation he helped to create still evoke his instruction. And they do it with such gushing pride. I am certain were he to be able to peer across the ages he would be equally proud of them.
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