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.

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