Alexander Hamilton and the American Dream
April 13, 2016
Move over, John Adams. Alexander Hamilton is hot, and pushing you aside as America’s Favorite Federalist. David McCullough and Paul Giamatti made Adams a household name and unlikely TV star thanks to a bestselling biography and widely admired 2008 miniseries. Today, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash hit rap musical has made the first Secretary of the Treasury the latest darling of historically minded consumers of pop culture. Miranda took all of the things that make Alexander Hamilton so fascinating—his brash self-confidence, astonishingly rapid rise, contribution to the founding of the United States, and finally his tragic and self-destructive decision to risk his life in a duel with Aaron Burr—and combined it with his own theatrical genius to build a show that is poised to play to sold-out houses for the rest of the decade.
Hamilton deserves the attention. Born an illegitimate child on the island of Nevis, the young orphan was ultimately sent to Columbia by patrons impressed by the young man’s skills when he was a teenager, fought in the Revolutionary War, helped craft the Constitution, wrote most of the Federalist Papers (not to mention countless other pamphlets of the Early National period), shaped the policies of the Washington Administration (including drafting Washington’s Farewell Address, one of the most iconic statements on American foreign policy in our history); helped found the Bank of the United States (which no longer exists),the Bank of New York (which does, though in substantially altered form), and the New York Post; helped shape the first American party system, and then died in the most famous political duel in American history.
All Before He Reached His 50th Birthday
Hamilton was not so much a Founding Father as a Founding Son, and a reminder of how the Founders themselves were often very young, ambitious, and creative men. Though some of us already knew these things, and praised him for it, it’s gratifying to see new generations appreciate Hamilton’s contributions to the creation of the United States, and to recognize the heroic elements of his rich and complicated life.
Considering his accomplishments and the (sometimes grudging but still great) esteem in which his colleagues held him, Hamilton nevertheless has had a difficult time holding a place in the American pantheon. Compared to his great rival Thomas Jefferson and even his former Federalist Papers co-author James Madison, Hamilton has often been relegated to obscurity, or presented merely as a foil for other, more universally beloved Founders. (Rufus Sewell’s portrayal of Hamilton in the John Adams miniseries, for example, is emblematic of the combination of arrogance, intelligence, and unctuous menace that Adams himself saw in his erstwhile colleague.) Of course there have been great scholarly works on Hamilton’s life and times, including exemplary biographies by the late Forrest McDonald and, more recently, Ron Chernow (whose work is the immediate inspiration for Miranda’s play), and a particularly interesting recent study of Hamilton’s relationship with George Washington from Stephen Knott and Tony Williams. Nevertheless, despite his ubiquity on the ten-dollar bill (which may be coming to an end), Hamilton has had a hard time establishing himself in the public consciousness.
Politics plays a major role in shaping Hamilton’s historical profile—the politics of his time and of subsequent generations. While in Washington’s cabinet, Hamilton clashed with Secretary of State Jefferson on a wide array of issues. The two titans came at politics from completely different directions. While Jefferson the planter celebrated agrarian values, condemned cities, and fetishized small government, Hamilton the former counting house clerk and adopted New Yorker emphasized the need to develop a more modern financial and industrial infrastructure for the United States, and embraced the idea that a strong Federal government should encourage that development. Jefferson charged that Hamilton’s flexible interpretation of the constitution, which relied on implied powers not specifically listed, allowed the Federal government too much power—in creating a Bank of the United States, for example. Their differences helped create the first American party system, and reflect a fundamental divergence within the American soul. While Jefferson chose a rhetorical pose that celebrated the common yeoman farmer, Hamilton made no secret of his belief that stronger government should be used to check and manage “our real disease, which is Democracy.” Or, as he put it in response to a fellow New Yorker’s paean to the genius of the people: “Your People, Sir, are a great BEAST!”
Such quotes have haunted Hamilton, though they of course do not tell the whole story. Just as Jefferson could celebrate the rights of man while keeping men in bondage, Hamilton could express his worries about the dangers of unchecked popular will while also helping construct a Republic that has—despite the manifold and manifest shortcomings that flesh and human governments are heir to—been one of the most successful and long-running experiments in republican self-government in modern history. Either despite or because of the near-miraculous nature of his own rise from obscurity, Hamilton held on to a deeply conservative sense of human frailty. He therefore believed that a successful political order should provide as much freedom as possible for flawed individuals to rise while also creating political and economic institutions of sufficient strength to limit and channel those human flaws in the name of the public good.
The Founders didn’t ever quite agree on how to strike such a balance, and the debate over the size and purpose of government has continued non-stop ever since. The initial contest for the rhetorical and ideological high ground, however, went to the Virginian. As Merrill Peterson noted in his classic work, The Jefferson Image in the American Mind, Jefferson’s contradictions reflected the internal conflicts in America’s identity, making him a bellwether for America’s sense of self. Hamilton exists, for Peterson and for many Americans over the years, as Jefferson’s opposite. Whenever Jefferson’s image rose, Hamilton’s fell, and vice versa.
Hamilton was no shrinking violet in the political conflicts of his time, attacking his opponents in the Cabinet room and in print, in a prolific series of essays and pamphlets. Jefferson and his loyal confederate Madison gave as good as they got, even flirted with state nullification of federal laws in the 1790s in protest against Hamilton and the Federalists (though Madison himself came to regret the precedent in the 1830s when he saw the extent to which future southerners would take the idea). Most significantly, Jefferson the slave-owner and pro-revolutionary fantasist, who celebrated the watering of the tree of liberty with blood and the murder of thousands, succeeded in painting Hamilton as a an enemy of the people, a coldly analytical and inhumane tool of a conservative pro-British elite. Jefferson expressed his mixed feelings about Hamilton in private, declaring him “indeed a singular character. Of acute understanding, disinterested, honest, and honorable in all private transactions, amiable in society and duly valuing virtue in private life, yet so bewitched & perverted by the British example, as to be under thoro’ conviction that corruption was essential to the government of a nation.”
Even among his own political allies, Hamilton was controversial. His conflict with John Adams rested on personal antipathy (Adams called him a “bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar” and worse) as well as political differences, leading to Hamilton’s denunciation of Adams in time for the 1800 presidential election. Hamilton was ambitious and prickly, and also styled himself a man of independent honor. Thus he broke with his Federalist allies not only on personnel matters but also on large national questions. In 1800, when it was clear that Adams had no chance to win re-election, Hamilton warned Federalists against any flirtation with Aaron Burr, whom he considered a dangerous demagogue, and urged instead that they support Jefferson. Even if he may have disagreed with Jefferson’s principles, he declared, at least Jefferson had principles, while Burr had none. When Federalists became restive at the prospect of becoming a minority party nationally, Hamilton warned against secessionist fantasies, and encouraged belief in the expansive future of the United States. He even endorsed the Louisiana Purchase, which many Federalists denounced—though he wrote that it was “solely owing to a fortuitous concurrence of unforeseen and unexpected circumstance, and not to any wide or vigorous measures on the part of the American government.”
Tempers cooled somewhat after Hamilton’s death at Burr’s hand in 1804. Jefferson had a bust of his late rival installed at Monticello. Indeed, as President, Jefferson came to see that Hamilton wasn’t wrong to want a stronger executive and an expansive view of constitutional powers—the Louisiana Purchase being the product of just such a flexible construction. Madison, as both Secretary of State and then President, also gradually adopted many Hamiltonian policies, from a strong military to the re-opening of the Bank of the United States that Jefferson had killed, though he generally avoided crediting Hamilton. It fell to a later generation of politicians, such as Henry Clay, and then Abraham Lincoln, to advance an avowedly Hamiltonian agenda of nation building. Hamilton remained more in the ascendant through the latter half of the 19th Century, as the United States emerged as an industrial power and the triumph of the Union emphasized the strength of the Federal Government. This Hamilton boom culminated in his being enshrined on the ten-dollar bill by 1928. But those sentiments faded in subsequent decades, as American leaders went back to seeking the retrospective blessing of Jefferson.
Especially over the past 50 years, Hamilton has faded from view because he was not so easily adopted by either of the great intellectual camps. The most famous orphan in American history thus has been politically orphaned as well. Contemporary conservatives have not known what to do with Hamilton. He was a conservative in his time, and his general worldview is certainly congenial to conservative pessimism on the nature of humanity. His support for capitalism and the financial world also would make him comfortable among many Republican voters. Nevertheless, Hamilton’s emphasis on a strong (even if limited) federal government, including government action to stimulate the economy, his advocacy of large national projects, and even his focus on industry and cities, made him an inappropriate hero for Conservatives who style themselves the yeoman farmer heirs of Jefferson. Even if pundits such as David Brooks have attempted to burnish the conservative appeal of Hamilton’s ideas, the trajectory of the contemporary conservative movement is much too focused on the south to appreciate this New Yorker, and much too suspicious of the federal government to embrace a man who believed it should be strong enough to guide and shape the future of the nation.
Meanwhile, liberals who might celebrate a Founder who believed in a strong state have recoiled from Hamilton for their own reasons. Drawing on their own idealized images of the Jefferson/Hamilton rivalry, they have rejected Hamilton’s elitism, his connection to high finance, and especially his suspicion of democracy. Issues of racism and slavery notwithstanding, liberals remain more comfortable with the secularist freethinking Sage of Monticello, or even the country populism of Andrew Jackson, when they can bring themselves to celebrate any of the Founding DWEMs at all. Indeed, it is probably no accident that when the Obama administration was considering which American worthy would have to vacate the currency to allow the inclusion of a woman, they initially planned to banish Hamilton from the ten dollar bill rather than drop Old Hickory from the twenty. Whether Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew intended it that way or not (a variety of bureaucratic factors contributed to the decision), his decision fell within a Democratic Party tradition of looking askance upon Hamilton. Here again, though, Lin-Manuel Miranda may have helped save Hamilton’s portrait, at least partially—much to the dismay of some.
Overall, the musical has elided many earlier disputes and made Hamilton a generalized heroic figure. Modern progressives with multicultural sensibilities, enthralled by Miranda’s brilliant use of hip-hop and his racially diverse cast, have thrilled to how the musical emphasizes Hamilton’s opposition to slavery and his status as a Caribbean immigrant to New York. When Hamilton and his good friend the Marquis de Lafayette celebrate their actions at Yorktown by proclaiming, “Immigrants: We get things done!” you can’t miss the jab at immigration restriction. Progressives have thus largely forgotten their former allergy against Hamilton, though a recent article in the New York Times suggests that some historians and commentators have begun to remember their reservations. At the same time, the play has also pleased conservatives with its superficially radical but rhetorically filiopietistic portrayal of the founding era. Apparently, even the most up-to-date and profanity-laced hip-hop can be music to conservative ears when the characters are wearing 18th Century costumes and singing the praises of George Washington.
None of this is meant to suggest there is anything wrong with people finding their way to Hamilton by virtue of what is indeed a musical for the ages, or even with the compression or simplification of history to create a dramatic success. If anything, Hamilton’s ability to make us appreciate Hamilton should remind us of the positive influence that culture can and should have on our understanding of history and politics. Not simply to create new monuments to venerate—critical views are of course also valuable—but to draw our attention to underappreciated parts of that history. Such new perspectives can inspire new thinking about the past and what it can teach us about the future, and can lead enthusiasts for the play to deeper study of its subject. The recent decision to offer deeply discounted tickets to the show for New York high school students is but one example of the possibilities.
Most importantly, those who wish to rescue American politics from its current malaise should seize the opportunity presented by Hamilton’s resurgent fame and celebrate his legacy. Alexander Hamilton’s works are monumental, and he still has much to teach us. A believer in the power of American ideas and in the possibilities of American power, he rejected small-minded provincialism even among his own political friends in favor of national unity. A believer in individual freedom, he also believed in a constitutional order that would protect those freedoms yet be strong enough to act. Skeptical about the possibility that demagogues could hijack rhetoric about trees of liberty being watered by the blood of tyrants (as my colleague Mac Owens recently pointed out), he believed instead in a stable Republican order, where institutions endowed with clearly defined powers and subject to the checks of both the voters and each other could manage the future of the nation. When a particular demagogue threatened the future of the nation, Hamilton was even prepared to risk his life in the fight against Aaron Burr—accepting the challenge to a duel that he did not want to fight. Hamilton fired into the air while Burr took deadly aim, and Hamilton’s death helped ensure that Burr would never again hold high office.
Americans today are not called upon to make such immense personal sacrifices to protect the honor of the United States and its political institutions. But we are called upon to understand the importance of stable government, and to resist the efforts of demagogues who promise a brighter future if only we destroy everything that we have built. Alexander Hamilton helped construct the Republic; our responsibility to him and to each other is to work to preserve it. As the young Alexander sings in Hamilton, there are a million things we have yet to do. If we remember our responsibilities to our history and each other, and if we maintain Hamilton’s own exemplary sense of the dangers that lurk within our own weakness, we can accomplish them. Just you wait.