In a recent New York Times Op-ed (“What ‘Hamilton’ Forgets About Hamilton,” June 10, 2016) Jason Frank and Isaac Kramnick, both professors of government at Cornell University, attempt to push back against the recent wave of enthusiasm for Alexander Hamilton inspired by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster musical. Appalled by what they consider an inappropriately charitable presentation of the historical Hamilton and his political views, they offer a stern rebuttal, and an indirect defense of Hamilton’s rival, Thomas Jefferson. Unfortunately, their revision is itself largely a repeat of tropes that have been part of the anti-Hamilton literature since the 1790s, which calls for a response of its own.
Frank and Kramnick’s central claim is that Alexander Hamilton “insisted on deference to elites” and thus wanted to “restore non-titled aristocracy to America.” To make matters worse, Hamilton had nothing but “contempt” and “disdain” for the common man. Frank and Kramnick also appear to endorse the centuries old slur first promulgated by the “populist” Thomas Jefferson (a “populist” who was one of the largest slave owners in Virginia) that Hamilton’s economic scheme “supported the rule of commercial oligarchs.” The identity of these 1790s “oligarchs” goes unmentioned, and their assertions rely on many such unsupported allegations.
The notion that Hamilton sought to “restore” (restore from when and where?) an American aristocracy is complete fiction. Hamilton addressed this accusation during the New York Ratifying Convention of 1788, where he observed that “I hardly know the meaning of this word [aristocracy] as it is applied . . . Who are the aristocracy among us? Where do we find men elevated to a perpetual rank above their fellow citizens; and possessing powers entirely independent of them . . . There are men who are rich, men who are poor, some who are wise, and others who are not . . . indeed every distinguished man is an aristocrat.” To the extent that Hamilton favored the creation of an “elite,” it was one composed of men of intellect and accomplishment, not one of birth. Hamilton was the personification of these qualities, for he had emerged from one of the most dysfunctional childhoods imaginable to improve his lot in life, ultimately rising to serve at the side of General, and later President, George Washington.
To label Hamilton an “elitist” twists the meaning of the term beyond all recognition. Interestingly, Hamilton, unlike the “populist” Jefferson, had a wide circle of friends, mostly fellow war veterans, while the Sage of Monticello isolated himself on his hilltop plantation far removed from the madding crowd. Hamilton, this “elitist,” this minion of the “oligarchs,” died without wealth and left his widow and his seven children reliant on the charity of friends. The accusation that Hamilton was a toady of the rich and well-born was first leveled against Hamilton by the Antifederalists and then later parroted by Jefferson and his lieutenants, including James Madison. Madison, as Mary Sarah Bilder recently revealed, went back and doctored some of his notes from the Constitutional Convention to bolster the image of Hamilton as a monarchy-loving Anglophile. Of course, being called a monarchist in the 1790s was the equivalent of being called a communist in the 1950s – it was a tactic designed to curtail debate and destroy one’s opponent, and the accusation alone had political impact even if could not be proven.
Hamilton was the nation’s first victim of the politics of personal destruction. Jefferson, and generations of Jeffersonian historians, considered him a power-hungry, people-hating plutocrat or an immigrant of questionable loyalty, who despite having fought with honor for his country’s independence, would be repeatedly accused of being a British sympathizer, or worse. Sadly, nativist elitists like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson could never accept a “bastard” immigrant from an obscure speck of an island in the Caribbean as their equal. Both men outlived Hamilton by twenty-two years, and spent part of that time spinning the historical record to portray Hamilton in the worst possible light.
Hamilton’s views on “who should govern” were far more complex than Frank and Kramnick contend. His skeptical view of human nature was not confined simply to “the lower classes.” Like many enlightenment thinkers, Hamilton sought a balanced government, one where the various interests in society were pitted against one another, in hopes that the national interest, not the interest of any particular group, would prevail. Hamilton believed that all individuals, regardless of wealth, were slaves to the passions of “avarice, ambition, and interest” and government must be designed in such a way as to mitigate the dangers inherent throughout the populace. Additionally, Hamilton understood that the nascent American government would collapse without the support of merchants, bankers, and shippers, and sought to enlist their support. But all of this was done to make the abstract provisions of the Constitution a reality – in other words, to create a nation. It was not done to stick it to the little man. Frank and Kramnick also “forget” that while Hamilton proposed lifetime terms for United States Senators, his proposal for a House of Representatives elected by universal male suffrage was far more democratic than that which ultimately emerged from the Constitutional Convention.
It is unfortunate that Frank and Kramnick continue to recycle clichés about Hamilton’s contempt for the common man – an accusation all the more regrettable if one considers Hamilton’s comparatively progressive views regarding the employment of African-Americans as soldiers in the American Revolution, his founding membership in the New York Society for the Manumission of Slaves and his proposal that all of its members free their slaves, his compassionate position on the status of native Americans, and his party’s support for Toussaint Louverture and his Haitian revolution (one that the “populist” Jefferson refused to assist out of fear of the “contagion” spreading into the American south and upending the Jeffersonian slavocracy). Hamilton also came to the conclusion during the Jay Treaty debate in the mid-1790s that slave owners who had lost their property to the British should not be compensated by having their slaves returned, as he noted that “the restoration of property is a favored thing yet the surrender of persons to slavery is an odious thing.” Hamilton’s objection was based on his interpretation of international law, but at times he seems to have been morally offended by the concept of slavery. “In the interpretation of Treaties things odious and immoral are notto be presumed,” and he added “Is not this, as it regards the rights of humanity, an odious sense?” This of course infuriated the populist Jefferson. Hamilton’s alleged disdain for the common man looked much different from the perspective of a slave, or a Native American, or a free black in the north, the latter of whom overwhelming supported Hamilton’s Federalist Party, thus earning the endearing nickname from the Jeffersonians as the “black Federalists.” While it is true that Alexander Hamilton was no abolitionist, in comparison to Thomas Jefferson, he was Frederick Douglass in a waistcoat and breeches.
“Hamilton” the musical got it right – Alexander Hamilton envisioned a society that allowed those with talent and ambition to “rise up.” And, it should be noted, Hamilton created an economic system and political institutions that would put the most elitist institution of all, slavery, on the path to extinction. But the accusation, so crudely put by Frank and Kramnick, that Hamilton had a “disdain for the lower classes” and, in case you missed it the first time, a “contemptuous attitude toward the lower classes,” will no doubt live on. This slur is gospel among far too many progressive historians and political scientists, who still see Charles Beard as cutting-edge, and who are convinced that money, self-interest, and a contempt for the common man is what motivated Alexander Hamilton, if not all of the framers.