Sunday, January 29, 2017

Washington's Forgotten Wisdom

The scripture of America's civil religion is broad and weighty. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights are the three earliest and most foundational pieces. Over the course of our republic's history. additions have been made. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. The "I Have a Dream" speech of Martin Luther King. It's a rich tapestry, indeed. One of the most important pieces, I would argue, is the Farewell Address of President George Washington, which was released to the nation on September 19, 1796.

Of all the gifts that George Washington gave to the United States of America, perhaps his greatest was the spectacle of a head of state voluntarily walking away from power. He actually did it twice. The first time was in the immediate aftermath of the Revolutionary War, when full political power was there for him to take and he was pressed by many to seize his opportunity. He choose instead to resign his commission and go back to Mount Vernon. The second was at the end of his second presidential term. Being the first President of the United States, Washington knew that everything he did set a major precedent for future Presidents to follow. Rather than die in office, which would have established a tradition that Presidents should retain their office as long as possible, he choose to step down after two terms. This established a tradition that was followed until President Franklin Roosevelt sought a third term in 1940.

As he departed the stage of public life, however, Washington desired to leave the people a final testament and words of advice for the future. Using a draft originally prepared by James Madison when he had first contemplated stepping down in 1792, Washington asked Alexander Hamilton to help him create an appropriate message to the American people, The result was the Farewell Address.

I think it's healthy, if a little unsettling, to read through Washington's Farewell Address and see how well we have followed his sage advice on several key matters. Though he lacked the refined education and natural genius of men like Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton, Washington perhaps stood above them all in his pure common sense and ability to get to the heart of a matter. On five fundamental issues, Washington told posterity what he thought should be done. Let's take a look at them, one by one.

Washington Advised America to Avoid Political Parties
I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographic discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally. This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.
The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.
It is clear that we have utterly failed to heed President Washington's warnings when it comes to political parties. Indeed, it can be seen in retrospect that this warning came too late, for already in Washington's first term the followers of Thomas Jefferson and the followers of Alexander Hamilton were arraying themselves into political parties (the Democratic-Republicans and the Federalists, respectively). Aside from the short interregnum known as the Era of Good Feelings in the time of President James Monroe, America has been divided into a two-party system pretty much ever since. First the division was between Democrats and Whigs, then between Democrats and Republicans, a split which persists to this day.

The spirit of party is, indeed, a cancer at the heart of our society. There have been times when partisan bitterness has been set aside in pursuit of larger national goals, such as battling the forces of global fascism during the Second World War or, less firmly, during the struggle against Communism in the time of the Cold War. On some particular issues, too, Democrats and Republicans have been known to work together, such as ensuring funding for the Apollo Program. Generally, though, the spirit of partisan rancor makes sure that our office-holders seem more focused on thwarting the opposing party than working together for the good of the country.

An childish example of this could be seen in the chatter regarding the decision of the International Olympic Committee as to where to hold the 2016 Summer Olympics. Of the four finalists, Chicago was the only American city. It seems obvious to me that all Americans, Republicans and Democrats alike, should have rallied around Chicago's bid in the hopes that an American city would have the honor of hosting the Olympics. But because Chicago is the home of then-President Barack Obama, many Republicans derided the city's Olympic bid and openly gloated when it failed.

We live in an age when the members of the two parties stridently and proudly refuse to compromise with one another, which has been a major factor into getting us into our current troubles. There is no doing away with political parties, which are firmly established as part of our constellation of political institutions and which have many advantages that Washington seems not to have considered. But there is no denying that we should listen more carefully to Washington's warnings on this subject and remember the need to place the common good ahead of party advantage.

Washington Advised America to Avoid Becoming Entangling in Foreign Affairs
[N]othing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded; and that, in place of them, just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated. The nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest. Antipathy in one nation against another disposes each more readily to offer insult and injury, to lay hold of slight causes of umbrage, and to be haughty and intractable, when accidental or trifling occasions of dispute occur. . . The peace often, sometimes perhaps the liberty, of nations, has been the victim.
So likewise, a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification.
That we have failed to follow Washington's advice in this area of policy is the most obvious thing in the world. The United States is so entangled in the affairs of foreign nations in the early 21st Century that it would be impossible for us to extricate ourselves from them even if we wanted to. We have treaties of mutual defense with the other 27 member nations of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, with Japan, with South Korea, with the Philippines, and with Australia, legally binding us to come to their defense if they are attacked. We have de facto mutual defense agreements with Taiwan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, New Zealand, and other nations as well. The world is lined with legal tripwires, any one of which could commit the United States to war.

Washington did express a willingness for the country to enter into "temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies." I expect he would have had no problem with allying with Britain, Russia, and France against Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan and he might have agreed that NATO was necessary during the Cold War to contain the Soviet Union. But the modern network of interlocking permanent alliances with literally dozens of other countries would have shocked and dismayed him. Far from remaining aloof from foreign affairs, the country he helped establish now intervenes so intently around the world that our hands are tied into almost everything that happens on the surface of the planet.

The world is far different in 2017 than it was in 1796. Perhaps Washington would see the circumstances in which our nation now finds itself and conclude that our modern system of alliances is now necessary. Personally, I felt that NATO's purpose essentially ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, though it may now be needed again in view of the resurgence of Russian territorial ambitions in Eastern Europe. In any case, we would do well to consider whether our present alliances are truly in the best interests of our nation. The territorial integrity of our nation cannot be compromised by any conceivable combination of enemies. Why, therefore, do we remain so deeply involved in the affairs of other countries?

Washington Advised America to Avoid a Overbearing National Debt
As a very important source of strength and security, cherish public credit. One method of preserving it is to use it as sparingly as possible, avoiding occasions of expense by cultivating peace, but remembering also that timely disbursements to prepare for danger frequently prevent much greater disbursements to repel it, avoiding likewise the accumulation of debt, not only by shunning occasions of expense, but by vigorous exertion in time of peace to discharge the debts which unavoidable wars may have occasioned, not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear. The execution of these maxims belongs to your representatives, but it is necessary that public opinion should co-operate.
Of all the warnings Washington gave us, this one is perhaps the most egregiously ignored. As I type this blog entry, the national debt of the United States is approaching $20 trillion. This is not even counting the unfunded liabilities of Medicare and Social Security, which add up to more than $40 trillion. This is a truly unspeakable amount of money. Meanwhile, we are not even close to balancing our budget, much less beginning to pay this debt off in any meaningful time frame. We are doing exactly what Washington warned us against, "throwing upon prosperity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear."

Every year, hundreds of billions of dollars goes to simply servicing the interest on the debt already accumulated by the federal government, every penny of which is money that might otherwise be spent on other things. And since the debt continues to increase year after year, the percentage of the annual budget that goes to interest payments steadily increases. Eventually it will swallow up everything else.

It is sickening and shameful. When I look into the eyes of my two beautiful daughters, it pains me to think that their generation will bear the burden for the excesses of mine. Washington would be disgusted with us, just as we should be disgusted with ourselves.

Washington Advised America to Maintain a Sense of Public Morality
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice ? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
A quick glance through the popular culture of our time can tell you that there is little sense of morality left alive in the American spirit. Those who assert that the average American is simply not as polite or decent as he used to be are, frankly, quite right. Our once robust religious institutions have withered away like plants without water. We live in an age of consumerism, when indulging in materialism is seen as normal and the idea of stoic self-denial has long been forgotten. Those we now hold in highest esteem are not the heroes who sacrifice to help others or the scientists who unlock the mysteries of the natural world. Instead, we celebrate entertainment celebrities who treat other human beings like dirt and indulge in every form of materialistic perversity. The man currently living in the White House is, sadly, the ultimate culmination of this aspect of social decay.

Washington's favorable words on religion, incidentally, should not be taken to suggest that the wall of separation between church and state should be torn down. He was talking about society in general and not government in particular. Despite his obviously ironclad belief in God and constant reminders to himself and others that "Providence" governs human affairs, Washington does not seem to have been a devout believer. One can pour through his papers and not find a single reference to Jesus Christ.

But I do believe that Washington would look upon modern America and fairly ask, "Where is your moral center?"

Washington intended his Farewell Address not only for the people alive when he left office. He intended for the millions of Americans yet unborn in his time. He intended it for us. I'm glad you're reading my blog, but since you're already on the Internet anyway, why not read the Farewell Address in its entirety right now?

Do it.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

After Trump

If one visits the fabled city of Venice, the Doge's Palace is perhaps the first stop on the tour. It is a marvel of architectural beauty and enormous historical significance. The Republic of Venice was one of the most successful states in the history of the Western world, a small city that turned itself into an economic powerhouse and a military giant that dominated the Mediterranean Sea for centuries. It was from the Doge's Palace that the elected leader of the republic governed in immense majesty the sprawling thalassocracy that was the Venetian Empire.

Within the Doge's Palace is an immense chamber called the Sala del Maggior Consilgio, the Hall of the Great Council. It was here that the nobles who ruled the city gathered together to discuss matters of state. The artwork that lines the walls is just as impressive today as it was centuries ago. Among the paintings are dozens of portraits of the men who held the office of Doge over the lifespan of the Republic.

One frame stands out from the rest, however, that of Marino Faliero, who was Doge for just seven months in late 1354 and early 1355. In his frame, there is no portrait at all, only a covering of black paint depicted as dark cloth. You see, while serving as Doge, Faliero had tried to overthrow the Venetian government and set himself up as sole ruler of the city. His attempted coup had been thwarted and Faliero had paid for his unspeakable crime with his life. Not wishing to honor him with a portrait, yet unwilling to let the memory of his treason be forgotten, the Venetians symbolically covered his face with a death shroud.

One day, I expect, our attitude towards President Donald Trump will be much the same.

I don't know how the Trump years will come to an end. Perhaps he will last long enough for the enraged and energized American people to kick him out of office in 2020. Perhaps he will resign in disgrace, or simply after becoming bored with the whole thing. I personally consider it more likely than not that he will be impeached and tossed in prison for gross corruption. One way or another, however, the Trump years will eventually come to an end.

I am an optimist, but I am also a realist. On the day on which I type this blog entry, it seems more likely than not that the administration of Donald Trump is going to be a disastrous train wreck the magnitude of which will defy any attempt at description. It is quite clear to all but the self-deluded that he has no real interest in working on behalf of the American people and is interested only in making a huge amount of money for himself, his family, and his friends. His Cabinet picks consist of billionaires uninterested in public service or ignorant clowns with no idea what they're doing. Beyond that, Trump is clearly under the influence, if not the complete control, of a foreign government hostile to the United States. What damage he will do between now and the day he leaves office is, of course, yet to be seen. When it is all over, however, I fully expect that we will no longer be debating whether James Buchanan or Warren Harding was the worst president in American history, as that question will have been answered in the most decisive manner.

And when he's gone, Americans should give Donald Trump the same treatment the Venetians gave to Marino Faliero and do our best to bloat out his memory. It is an insult and an outrage that the office held by such men as Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln will be tainted by the presence of such an odious and sickening human being as Donald Trump, so the institution of the American presidency will need to be cleansed like a house that has suffered a flea infestation. The navy should never commission a rowboat, let alone a major warship, named the USS Trump. If Disney puts together an animatronic version of Trump in the Hall of Presidents in the Magic Kingdom, it should remove it and throw it away. 8th grade history teachers should cross out his picture on the poster of the Presidents that they put up on their walls. The National Park Service shouldn't bother preserving a Donald Trump Birthplace. Indeed, I'd favor following the lead of the Austrian government and demolishing the place were it not for the fact that it's a hospital. Perhaps we could instead demolish the Trump Tower, which, architecturally speaking, is a gauche and ignoble piece of crap anyway.

I'm quite certain that Americans are going to want to forget that Donald Trump even existed by the time he leaves the White House. While I see the point of this, I disagree, and for an important reason. What has happened is the fault of the entire American people and we need to learn from this grave mistake in order to take the necessary steps to make sure that nothing remotely like it ever happens again.

The first thing that must happen is comprehensive election reform. I've written about that on this blog a good deal. To my mind, the three most urgently needed reforms are the abolition of gerrymandering, the implementation of ranked choice voting, and the doing away with the Electoral College. Beyond that, it is crucial that voting be made as simple and easy as possible for all citizens, so that even the suspicion of voter suppression never taint elections again. I believe that Election Day should be a national holiday. In short, we need to ensure that our democracy is vibrant, that light is shone on the voting process in order to banish the cynicism that has understandably set it.

The second thing that must happen is we, as citizens, must hold our media accountable for the role it played in this fiasco. Slaves to their ratings, the media devoted vastly more attention to Donald Trump than it did to all the other candidates in the Republican primary combined. Those people who tried to have serious discussions about public policy were ignored in favor of the histrionics of a reality television star. The result was a surge in the popularity of a man who should properly have been dismissed as a clown trying to get attention. Absent any sense of civic virtue of journalistic integrity, the media largely created the monster of Donald Trump. In the future, the American people must hold the media to account.

Education will be key to the recovery from the Trump years. For far too long, we have allowed our education system, once the envy of the world, to degenerate into little more than a glorified job training program. Serious instruction in civics, which prepares students to become active and informed citizens able to participate in self-government, has all but vanished. The decline of civics in education is, I believe, one of the key contributing factors to the mess our nation now finds itself in. After the Soviet launch of Sputnik, fearing a massive gap in the scientific expertise with the Russians, the federal government passed the National Defense Education Act to provide emergency funding for science education. In the aftermath of Trump, something along the same lines will be necessary in terms of civics.

But if we're really honest with ourselves, what has happened is not just the fault of a flawed electoral system or a biased media or our troubled education system. It's the shared fault of the entire American people and each of us as individuals. Whatever else he is, Donald Trump is a manifestation of much of modern American society, such as its dismissal of decency and virtue, its gaudiness and its disdain of intellectualism, its celebration of wealth before honor and its willingness to tolerate bigotry and perversity. There is a dark emptiness where a strong and vibrant national soul once existed. All of us contributed to this either through our own actions or through not speaking out against it.

If anything good is to come out of the disaster that will be the Trump years, it will be that American society will be so shaken and perhaps even wrecked that we can start afresh once it's over. It will be like building a new house on the same lot after your original home had burned down. If we can refashion our election system, or media, our schools, and ourselves, we can perhaps come through the tunnel to the light again as a better nation. Trump can be relegated to the same historical oblivion inhabited by the likes of Marino Faliero and the rest of us - liberals and conservatives, men and women, people of all races, religious, sexual orientations, or whatever else - can get on with forming a more perfect union out of this great republic.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Where Are the Modern "Founding Fathers"?

2017 opens on a disordered and disillusioned time in America. There is a pervasive feeling that things have gone terribly wrong and that the great experiment launched by our Founding Fathers two hundred and forty years ago is now running in the wrong direction, or perhaps several different wrong directions. The election of Donald Trump to the presidency is surely the biggest factor in this, but it is only one of many. The chaos and debasement that characterized the 2016 election was more a symptom than a cause of our current troubles. Citizens of this once great republic seem to feel that we are tottering on the brink of a fatal precipice, as our political and legal institutions break down, the gap between the rich and the poor widens, the imagination of our cultural institutions seems to have become exhausted, and our once immense optimism and confidence in ourselves seems to be fading.

In the midst of this confusion, we look around for leaders to help guide our country back onto the right path. Yet they are nowhere to be found. Why not?

During the American Revolution, the estimated population of the thirteen colonies was around two million, four hundred thousand people. Today, the United States of America has a population of around three hundred and twenty five million people. Do the math, and one finds that the population of America during the Revolution was a mere 0.7% of the current American population.

And what came out of this 0.7%? George Washington did. Thomas Jefferson did. So did John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams. So did dozens of "Founding Fathers" whose names are sadly unknown to the general public - men like Roger Sherman, George Mason, John Jay, Robert Morris, and Benjamin Rush - whose contributions were enormous. It also produced a generation of citizen-soldiers, commanded by brilliant leaders like Nathanael Greene and Henry Knox.

And what did this 0.7% accomplish? With an army that was outnumbered, poorly supplied, and untrained, they took on and defeated the greatest empire the world had ever seen. They formulated a revolutionary form of political thought, taking the Enlightenment concepts of natural law and individual liberty and molding them into a cohesive framework of government that would transform the world and bring down the corrupt old order. And they created a Constitution that still stands as the greatest and most durable achievement in government in all of history.

These were not perfect men. They had their flaws and failures, the two greatest being their inability to come to grips with the institution of black slavery and find an equitable way to relate to the Native Americans. Yet when taken in their totality, the accomplishments of the Founding Fathers are nothing less than astonishing. No other group of people in one nation at one historical moment has come close to achieving what these men achieved.

For every American that was alive in 1775, there are about one hundred and thirty-five Americans alive today. One would naturally think, therefore, that there would be one hundred and thirty-five times as many men the caliber of the Founding Fathers today as there were in 1775. Moreover, only white males were allowed the opportunity to participate in politics during the Age of the American Revolution. Having become a more inclusive society, in which everyone is given a chance to play a political role no matter their gender or ethnicity, one would naturally expect that a much greater proportion of American genius would have been unleashed in our own day and age.

Bottom line: there should be tens of thousands of Americans active on the political scene today with the same brilliance, courage, and integrity as the Founding Fathers. Yet we look around and we do not find them.

Instead, we find a President-Elect whose background is in hotels, casinos, beauty pageants, and reality television, and who is best known for making bigoted statements about women and minorities. The person he defeated is a former First Lady, best known for a history of secrecy and scandals. We have a Congress filled with mediocrities more concerned with raising corporate money and enjoying the taxpayer-funded perks of office than with serving the needs of their constituents, much less the country at large, We have fifty state legislatures filled with men and women who are basically just mini-congressmen. As for the courts, the judges now elected or appointed to preside over them are just tools of their respective political parties rather than guardians of the Constitution. And even among the small and decreasing number of men and women in politics who actually have integrity and want to serve the people, there are none with the caliber of the men who lived during the Revolution.

Where are the Founding Fathers of our own time?

I teach middle school, which gives me a front row seat to the development of the coming American generation. Generally speaking, the students with whom I work are highly intelligent, kindhearted, and eager to learn how they can contribute to the future of this country. But they are being let down by a school system that has all but eradicated civics education from the classroom. When I was in middle school, I remember spending a long time in 8th grade Social Studies covering the details of the Constitution, but nowadays we are forced to rush through it in just a few days. At the end of the unit, we have scarcely covered the basics and not had a chance to get into the details. Most of them can identify the three branches of government and they've been given a vague idea of what each branch does, but insufficient time has been allocated for teachers to teach them such things as the length of a Senator's term, whether Congress or the President has the power to declare war, or why the federal government has the right to issue money but the states do not. There is simply no time to get into the nuts-and-bolts of how the government works.

In other words, the education system is making sure that the next generation will come of age largely ignorant of how the political process works, how the government is structured, and what the rights and responsibilities of citizenship are.

I've also become extremely concerned that we are letting down our students in failing in instill critical thinking skills. We teach them to find primary and secondary sources of information, but we don't really give them much guidance in understanding why some sources may be valid and others may not be. Students need to understand that a Wikipedia article or a documentary they saw on YouTube are not necessarily accurate and that a story featured on Fox News or MSNBC is not as reliable as an article in the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times. From the perspective of middle school, the "fake news" epidemic is very real. They are astonishingly astute in their use of technology, but they are not being given the mental framework to filter out propaganda while accessing information. 2016 proved the critical need for our society as a whole to develop the tools to separate fact from fiction in the information with which we are bombarded. This is supposed to be the job of our education system and we are currently not close to succeeding.

I also think that our school system needs to do a much better job of identifying those students who are particularly gifted and display an interest in civics and government. These students should be provided with additional support and special classes to foster their skills and interest. Even as we speak, there are potential Thomas Jeffersons and George Washingtons sitting in our eighth grade classrooms. We need to find them.

It's more than just the school system, though. On Mondays, I typically ask my students what they did over the weekend. Almost invariably, especially among the boys, the answer is that they stayed at home and played video games. No camping trips with the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, no inter-mural soccer games, no reading of books, no gardening or cooking with the parents. Nothing seems to be going on in the lives of these young people that might help instill civic virtue, much less a sense of obligation to their country.

It's a cliche, as well as perfectly obvious, to say that today's students are tomorrow's leaders. But if we are to bring forth a new generation of American leaders who possess even a sliver of the ability and integrity of the Founding Fathers, we need to radically rethink both the way teachers educate them and the way parents raise them.

Because the path we are currently on goes nowhere.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Unsavory Side of Alexander Hamilton

Founding Fathers have fluctuating reputations. For a long time, Jefferson stood supreme in the people's estimation, but the 1990s saw the beginning of a decline that has yet to be reversed. Similar trends apply to Washington, if to a lesser degree. Franklin is sometimes seen as a brilliant scientist and statesman, and sometimes as a somewhat lecherous and creepy old man, if always good with a quip. Madison has long been ignored but seems to be experiencing something of a renaissance, perhaps in response to perceived challenges to the Bill of Rights. In the first decade of the 21st Century, the long-dismissed John Adams finally got his due with a series of brilliant biographies, including the bestseller by David McCullough, and a wonderful miniseries biopic by HBO.

However, there is no doubt that the current decade belongs to Alexander Hamilton. Ron Chernow's outstanding biography of the first Secretary of the Treasury topped the bestseller lists. Now, in a rare convergence of popular culture and history, the wildly successful hip-hop Broadway phenomena Hamilton, created by the incomparable impresario Lin-Manuel Miranda, has taken the country by storm, becoming one of the most popular stage musicals in history and winning every award in sight. Even my New Yorker cousin Angie, who professes to disdain Broadway, has gone to see it twice. A ill-timed proposal to replace Hamilton's face on the $10 bill was squashed as easily as a pea under a sledgehammer. If I randomly stopped a person on the street and asked them to name a Founding Father other than George Washington, I would guess the most common answer right now would be Alexander Hamilton.

I don't mind this in and of itself, for there is no doubt that Alexander Hamilton deserves to be remembered. From the lowest of lowly origins, he rose to the top through sheer brilliance and determination. He played a crucial role in the formation of the United States of America and certainly deserves to rank with the top-tier of the Founding Fathers alongside Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, and Adams. His role as George Washington's primary staff officer in the Continental Army is, if anything, underappreciated; it's not too much to say that he played as key a role in the Revolutionary War as George Marshall played in the Second World War. If Hamilton's contribution at the Constitutional Convention itself was minimal, it probably never would have been convened and the Constitution might not have been ratified but for his efforts. As the nation's first Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton created America's financial system effectively out of thin air, setting the stage for the economic future of the republic. On the stage of American history, Alexander Hamilton is rightfully regarding as a giant.

And yet, I have never warmed to the man. I can't. While I acknowledge his genius and ability, and respect his contributions, there are simply too many unsavory aspects to Hamilton for me to fully embrace him as a hero of this country. In the midst of all the adulation currently falling onto Hamilton's shoulders, I think it's worth taking a step back and consider the less attractive aspects to the man.

Alexander Hamilton was an elitist. The way he saw it, society was divided into the "rich and well born" on one side and everybody else on the other side, and it was the former who should govern the latter. Democracy and egalitarianism were foreign to Hamilton's thinking and he clearly held the idea of popular sovereignty, one of the foundations of American political thought, in contempt. The faith that Jefferson and Madison placed in the ordinary American people was, to Hamilton, nothing but unrealistic utopianism. This point of view was shared by many of the Founding Fathers, of course, but few were as fervent in their disdain of democracy as was Hamilton. He, for one, should have known better, given his personal background as a poor, illegitimate immigrant from a Caribbean backwater.

The proposals that Hamilton made at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 were little short of terrifying. In a speech lasting several hours on June 18, in which he stated that a monarchical executive would be preferable but, as he knew no one would agree, he favored a President who served for life and also believed that members of the Senate should serve for life as well. He stated the following day that the individual states should simply be abolished and all power vested in the federal government. This disdain of the idea of federalism, another of the central tenants of American political thought, is rarely mentioned by those who want to hold Hamilton up as an American hero. Had Hamilton's proposals become part of the Constitution, much that makes America good and unique would have been lost.

Hamilton appears to have been a man of sterling integrity in financial matters and never used his position as Secretary of the Treasury for his own personal advantage. That didn't stop him, however, from allowing his friends and supporters to game the system he was constructing in order to make money at the expense of others. While the creditworthiness of the United States was being restored by Hamilton's measures, small numbers of well-connected people got rich by tricking veterans and war widows into selling the governments bonds they had purchased during the war for a fraction of their value. Hamilton knew that this was going on. He could have spoken out against it. But he didn't.

The most troubling aspects of Alexander Hamilton's political career took place during the so-called Quasi-War with France during the Adams administration, when Hamilton had retired from government service to resume his law practice in New York City. Although the undeclared war was entirely a naval conflict and there was never a serious threat of a French invasion, the so-called "High Federalists" pushed the Adams administration into creating a powerful standing army, in stark contrast to republican principles that abhorred such military establishments. They also passed a series of tax measures to fund this unnecessary force. Why did they do this? Because Hamilton told them to. Even out of government, he was giving marching orders to the High Federalists, including the members of the President's Cabinet. Perhaps at no other time in American history did someone exercise so much political power from behind the scenes. It all has a dark and sinister whiff about it.

Not only did Hamilton did the Federalists to create a large standing army and then appoint the aging and retired George Washington to command it, but he got himself appointed Inspector General. Since Washington was too old to act as anything other but a symbolic leader, Hamilton was essentially given command of the entire army. He envisioned leading this army on a campaign of conquest against Spanish colonies in North America should outright war break out with France, using the justification that Spain was the ally of France. In other words, Hamilton wanted to use the financial and manpower resources of the United States for his own personal quest for glory. He wanted to make himself into an American Bonaparte.

Even more frightening was Hamilton's proposal (stated in a letter to Theodore Sedgwick on February 2, 1799) that the army march into Virginia, where Jefferson and Madison were coordinating opposition to Federalist policies, and "put Virginia to the test of resistance." As far as I know, Alexander Hamilton is the only man among America's Founding Fathers who suggested using military force to crack down on domestic political opposition. Had Hamilton's plan been implemented, America would have been transformed from a republic into a military dictatorship. The dreams expressed by the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights would have vanished.

When Jefferson won the presidential election of 1800, Hamilton proposed to New York Governor John Jay a legislative measure of questionable constitutionality which would have taken the electoral votes of New York away from Jefferson. This was despite the fact that Jefferson had clearly won the popular vote in New York. John Jay, to his credit and despite the fact that he was a staunch Federalist, refused to have anything to do with Hamilton's scheme. This being said, it is to Hamilton's credit that he eventually threw his support behind Jefferson in the great standoff between Jefferson and Aaron Burr when the Electoral College ended in a tie, thereby ensuring that Jefferson rather than Burr would become President.

As I said at the start of this blog entry, Hamilton was an extraordinary man who made a number of key contributions to the United States of America. But while we rightly remember him and honor him for the good that he did, we cannot lose sight of his highly flawed nature. He was an elitist who opposed democracy, popular sovereignty, and federalism. And he was not above using military force and extra-constitutional measures to defeat his political opponents.

None of the Founding Fathers were saints. We have rightly taken many of the Founding Fathers, Jefferson above all, to task for failing to address the question of slavery. Similarly, Alexander Hamilton needs to be taken to task for his authoritarianism and elitism, which very nearly derailed the American experiment before it had barely had a chance to begin.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

A Writer's New Year's Resolutions

At 1:09 PM on Saturday, December 19, 2016, I typed "The End" at the bottom of the last page of the epilogue of my novel House of the Proud.

Strictly speaking, it's not finished. There will be months of editing and probably a fair chunk of rewriting. Dull work like formatting the pages and designing the cover remains to be done. My wonderful sister, who illustrated the covers of the first two books - the novel Shattered Nation and the novella Blessed are the Peacemakers - has to get to work on the artwork for the cover of this one, though she and I have already settled on what the picture will be. In my mind, I am hoping for the book to be on sale on May 1.

For all that, I couldn't help but feel a great sense of accomplishment at the moment when I brought the narrative story to an end. The story of the characters was wrapped up, old questions answered and new ones raised, and a few selected hints dropped regarding the future course of the Shattered Nation alternate timeline, which I intend to explore in future books. I think the novel finished rather well, though I would be the last to suggest that my writing is perfect. The moment I typed "The End", I popped open a bottle of champagne for a much-deserved celebration.

It's been a long process. I started serious writing on House of the Proud in March of 2014, more than two-and-a-half years ago. I endured one terrible bout of writer's block during the winter of 2014-15, during which I made no progress on the book or any other writing project, but once that was overcome I wrote quite steadily until the book was finished. I would have preferred to finish it earlier and was mindful of the many messages I received from readers asking me when it would be ready, but I think I'm being quite honest when I say that I finished it as quickly as I could.

I learned a lot about how I write while penning this book. I discovered, for example, that I cannot write very well at night. I also found that I don't write very well when I have a long, open-ended amount of time. Almost all of House of the Proud was written between five o'clock and six thirty in the morning, while the rest of the Brooks house was asleep. I would drag myself out of bed around four fifty-five, turn on the coffee machine, spent a few minutes catching up on the daily news, and then begin writing. I would then write continually until my alarm went off at six thirty, signalling the need for me to get ready to go to work, or until my daughter Evelyn emerged from her room and asked me to play with her.

When I set out to write the sequel to Shattered Nation, I intended for it to be considerably shorter than my first novel, which came in at a whopping eight hundred pages. Indeed, the sheer length of Shattered Nation was one of the most common complaints I received about the book. Unfortunately, despite my best intentions, House of the Proud turned out to be a bit of a monster as well. On good old Microsoft Word, it came out to seven hundred and eighteen pages. Editing and formatting will chop this down a bit, but it's obvious that this book is going to be another really long one.

Shattered Nation was a military and political thriller, dealing with battles between great armies around Atlanta and the presidential election taking place in the United States at the same time. House of the Proud will be rather different. While there will be more than a few battles (the details of which I won't share here, as I don't want to reveal any spoilers), the plot is more politically focused than was the case with Shattered Nation, dealing with the first presidential election in an independent Confederacy. It will also be more international, with some of the plot taking place in Britain, France, and Canada and with one of the main characters, Colonel Garnet Wolseley, being British rather than American. Overall, I'm quite satisfied with the effort and will be working hard to finish up all the details so that House of the Proud can be released for sale.

As I do this, however, I find my mind already turning to future writing projects. This will be a big decision. I have other novels set in the Shattered Nation timeline already sketched out in detail. Two of these are set in 1864 and reveal what was happening in other theaters of the war during the events of Shattered Nation. A Consuming Fire is set in the Shenandoah Valley and Storm Over Sumter is set in and around Charleston (hints of the events of these novels can be found in the other books). I have three further sequels planned, set respectively in 1899, in the mid-1920s, and in the mid-1960s, with the 1899 book fairly well outlined already. I also may write a novella of the same length as Blessed are the Peacemakers, whose plot can be determined from my preliminary title, Lincoln in Europe. I also have considered writing a book of short stories set in the Shattered Nation alternate history.

I must admit, however, that after so many years of hard work, I wouldn't mind taking some time off from Shattered Nation. I have long had a strong desire to write stories set during the American Revolution. I actually wrote out a detailed outline and an entire chapter of an alternate history novel involving Benedict Arnold's treason. I abandoned it after a month or so, however, as I disliked where the story was leading and I felt like I was taking too much influence from the AMC television Turn (which is excellent and which I highly recommend, by the way). If I do write American Revolution novels, they will probably be straight-up historical fiction rather than alternate history, perhaps because I simply have a hard time imagining a world in which the United States didn't exist.

I have outlined an alternate history novel centered around the Second World War and set in 1942, as well as one dealing with the political chaos in the late Roman Republic. I look forward to writing these in the future, particularly as I have long desired to write Winston Churchill and Cato the Younger as characters. I also have considered writing a novel set in the remnants of the United States following a 1983 nuclear exchange, though whenever I do any research work for that project I become incredibly depressed. I have also done a little bit of preliminary work for an alternate history story centered around the idea of the Aztec Empire surviving the Spanish conquest.

So what will be next? A Consuming Fire? One of the chronological sequels to Shattered Nation? Turning to the American Revolution or something else? It will take a little while to figure it out and I may try to stick my irons into different fires and see what lights up. In any case, as I start to say goodbye to one book and say hello to a new one, it's refreshing to think that I have a lot of literary options.

It being New Year's Day, I've made some of the standard resolutions about getting in better shape, eating a more healthy diet, and so forth. But I've also made a few very specific resolutions related to my writing. First, I will get House of the Proud on sale as soon as possible. Second, I will settle on what writing project I shall embark upon next. And third, I will get get to work on it and start the writing adventure all over again.

Happy New Year, everyone.