Alexander Hamilton and Me
Alexander Hamilton and Me
AHA! Essay Contest
Today a friend told me I reminded her of my great historical mentor, Alexander Hamilton. I was flattered, of course, and recalled an essay I wrote for the Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society’s essay contest a year or so ago. (They never got back to me, which is probably for the best.)
Some things have changed since the writing of this piece; I have a deeper understanding of Hamilton, now, and I am no longer on track to join the Army National Guard. Nonetheless, I think this is a relevant piece of writing to record here on ABiasedPerspective, and so deposit it here.
Introduction to a Great Man
My first exposure to the self-conscious legacy of Alexander Hamilton was through the same venue through which literally every other American Millennial encountered the ten-dollar founding father: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s majestic Hamilton: An American Musical. Few remember, but Miranda performed the opening number of Hamilton way back in 2009, invited to the White House Poetry Jam by President Obama. I was lucky enough to have had an AP U.S. History teacher then, Mr. Schuchart, who thought it’d be fun to play it for his class.
Like everybody else with a soul, I was smitten by the message. I was an angsty teenager who could relate to the “young, scrappy, and hungry” feel Miranda conveyed, so I began watching the White House performance over and over again. It became something of a life anthem for me, not least because I felt I could relate- a few months after hearing “Alexander Hamilton” for the first time, my family moved across the continent, from Seattle to the suburbs of Washington D.C. I felt as though I had lost everything but my family- my friends, my legacy and reputation in the community, my very happiness and everything I had come to know and love. I turned the tune on to repeat and soldiered on through the first of several depressive episodes, while Miranda sang to me about how the young Hamilton got through that kind of thing:
“Scanning for every book he can get his hands on,
Planning for the future see him now, as he stands on
The bow of a ship, headed for new land.
In [DC] you can be a new man…”
Beginnings of the Intellectual Journey
Now around this time, the Tea Party phenomenon was bubbling up. Having been a very non-Hamiltonian Tea Partier back then, I of course thought it would be prudent of me to read up on the works of the Founding Fathers so I could be extra-self-righteous in political discourse with anti-Founding Fathers liberal types. The first Founding Father I chose to pick up, of course, was Alexander Hamilton.
I went ahead and printed off some of Hamilton’s speeches and letters, including the speech to the New York Ratifying Convention, and locked myself in the library with them. By the time I finished that first round of Hamilton papers, I was very confused. Wasn’t Hamilton a Founding Father? Weren’t the Founding Fathers for small government and fiscal austerity and strict constructionism and all these other things the Tea Party told me they were for? What gives? (Alexander Hamilton, of course, was not a small-government, fiscally conservative, strict constructionist kind of guy, though he certainly was a Founding Father.)
That was the spark. Hamilton was the spark. I stood, in the Brooke Point High School Library with my Hamilton papers, at a crucial decision point: do I stand with the major political currents of the present and go with the crowd, and its false interpretation of the American Founding? Or do I do the long hard slog and go study what Hamilton and all the rest actually said, even if that means sacrificing my “conservative” credentials?
I made the right choice and decided to read what the Founders actually wrote, and joined the great historical conversation, rather than enslaving myself to popular opinion-makers with their own axes to grind. I wanted to pledge my loyalty to Alexander Hamilton, not to Mark Levin and Rush Limbaugh; so I embarked on an intellectual journey then, studying the great state-builders and nationalists, the foreign policy realists, the political liberals and temperamental conservatives, the historians of civilizations and diplomacy political economy and the philosophers of human nature and political theory. I’m still on that journey and plan to be journeying until I die, and stepping onto that road- choosing to study the depths of politics rather than merely follow the opinion-making hacks- was probably one of the best choices I’ve made in my life. Alexander Hamilton was the direct catalyst who brought the issue to a stark choice.
On that intellectual journey, I’ve always made sure to keep Hamilton on my version of what Art of Manliness blogger Brett McKay calls your “Cabinet of Invisible Counselors.” Some of my other historical mentors included there, for various reasons, are Niccolo Machiavelli, Theodore Roosevelt, and Richard Nixon. But Hamilton holds the first and most honored place, and I will always measure up my new insights and discoveries against his standard first, and then to those of the others.
In many ways, my political journey, and thus my life journey- both intellectual and activist- has been a question of discerning the apostolic succession from Hamilton on down. I’ve been guided by a couple of lights on this subject- Michael Lind on the “Hamiltonian tradition in American politics,” Clinton Rossiter on the modern-but-not-modernist, philosophically conservative but politically liberal intellectual roots of Alexander Hamilton and Hamiltonianism, and Forrest McDonald on the “man in the arena” nature of public life.
Michael Lind and the Politics of Hamiltonianism
Michael Lind, whom I reached out to about a year ago and whom I consider a master teacher and wise advisor, traces the Hamiltonian tradition- nationalist in economics, both liberal and yet conservative in culture, reformist and nationalist in government, realist in foreign policy- across American history. Institutions across American history and sometimes surviving to the present day like the railroads, the Erie Canal, the Federal Highways, the National Banks, the Federal Reserve, the Military-Industrial Complex, the public funding of education and healthcare, the mixed-market system of managerial capitalism, the federal research pipeline, the professional military, and, frankly, the subordination of the authority of states to the ultimate authority of the federal government, Lind argues, are the legacy of Hamiltonian political thought and institution-building, and are to be celebrated, reformed, and extended, not condemned as they so often are by populists of all stripes.
In “Hamilton’s Republic,” one of his most useful works, Lind follows Hamiltonians from the Founding to the mid-Cold War; from Alexander Hamilton himself and George Washington; through the Whigs Henry Clay, John Quincy Adams, and Daniel Webster; into the Lincoln Republicans; arisen again under what Samuel P. Huntington called the “Neo-Hamiltonian” Republican friend group of Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, Alfred Thayer Mahan, Elihu Root, and John Hay, as well as the turn-of-the-century Progressives. Somewhere between the administrations of Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt, the tradition jumped parties into the New Dealers, Franklin Delano Roosevelt being the greatest among them, and continued along Franklin Roosevelts grand New Deal Democrats Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson. After Johnson, Lind contends, the tradition ends, someday to resurface and guide America along the developmental nationalist course.
I am not so pessimistic; after all, Republicans Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, as well as the Rockefeller Republicans, continued the economic nationalism and political reformism of the earlier Progressives, and only tweaked the New Deal and Great Society. And the first-generation neoconservative intellectuals Lind admires in “Up From Conservatism” like Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Nathan Glazer tended to provide policy for moderate Republicans like Richard Nixon.
My argument, adjusting Lind’s, is that the Nixonian Republicans of the early 70s could have transmitted the Hamiltonian tradition further along, especially because the New Deal Democrats imploded between 1968 and 1972, and the great Democratic Party was taken over by college activists and economic neoliberals by the 1990s. But thanks to Richard Nixon’s character flaws- more tragic than even Alexander Hamilton’s- the tradition was discredited by 1973, and we have since labored under neoliberal and socially right-wing and left-wing paradigms in both parties, rather than the old Hamiltonian tradition that sustained American greatness (and whose contributions continue to provide the bulwark institutions of our decaying Republic.)
The great Hamiltonian leaders- Hamilton, Clay, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Richard Nixon- have provided an intellectual model for the next great epoch of nation-building and national union for our country. I have dedicated my life to informing and building a new Hamiltonian coalition within the Republican Party, and we will see where it goes.
So Michael Lind has been my teacher primarily on the historical legacy of Hamiltonianism and its policy contours (and in his innumerable books, reports, and essays for various outlets, he has done America a valuable thought-service to exploit. See the footnotes for a list of good books of his and archives of his reports and essays.) So much for practical policy- what about philosophy and political temperament?
Clinton Rossiter and Hamilton’s Constitutionalism
On that topic, I turn to another great Hamiltonian author whose life, unfortunately, was cut far too short. Nonetheless, before his untimely death in 1969, Clinton Rossiter provided us with the overlooked masterpiece Alexander Hamilton and the Constitution, a tome reviewing Hamilton’s conservative philosophy, liberal-modern political temperament, and administrative acumen. It is probably the closest extant work to Hamilton’s planned and unfortunately never-written magnum opus, his “Full Investigation of the History and Science of Civil Government, and the Practical Results and Various Modifications of it upon the Freedom and Happiness of Mankind.” (If I ever am blessed by Hamilton-like intellectual acumen, I plan to write a Hamiltonian Full Investigation doing honor to the stillborn original, and examining the history of free governments and national economies since Weehawken.)
Rossiter looks at Hamilton’s philosophy of human nature, his liberal Enlightenment theory of government, and his loose-interpretation constitutionalism, both in abstract general contexts and in the context of Hamilton’s colorful career in public service. The most useful and frankly inspiring part of Rossiter’s work, though, is his litany of “The Political Principles of Alexander Hamilton” (I provide it in the second appendix at the end of this document.) Here’s Rossiter’s closing admonition–
Hamilton the political scientist, like Hamilton the constitutionalist, is both the teacher and the property of the whole nation. He speaks to the Right but also to the Left, and speaks perhaps most intelligently to those who mill about in the middle and seek for ways to save both America and American democracy. He is a useful man to know because he tells us harsh truths that we are not told by Jefferson, useful because democracy needs skeptics as well as enthusiasts to acclaim. Hamilton the political thinker was a skeptic who was honest, acute, and specific about his doubts and fears, and such a thinker as he has a message of unique perception for this generation of Americans. As Eliphalet Nott warned in 1804, if this government of ours, the “illustrious fabric” on which Hamilton’s “genius” was “impressed” should ever fall, “his prophetic declarations will be found inscribed on its ruins.”
In conclusion, let us look again at the whole Hamilton, whose relevance for our times goes well beyond his teachings as constitutional lawyer and political scientist. It is not alone our indulgent Constitution and energetic government that should remind us daily that he lived and achieved and prophesied, nor even our mixed, balanced, productive, regulated, and occasionally guided economy. It is, rather, the very existence of America as a nation that spreads its sway over most of a continent and its influence over much of the world. We have achieved the power and glory he foretold in his most hopeful hours because we have become a far more perfect Union than all his enemies and even most of his friends wanted us to be…
… Accustomed as we now must become to thinking in terms of a progressive industrial society served by an energetic national government under the liberating Constitution of a sovereign Union, we are bound to pay homage to the man who first set this image before the American people.
But enough of Hamilton’s theories. How did Hamilton live?
Forrest McDonald and Hamilton’s Dark Romanticism
Another forgotten work that was, for some time, the go-to biography of Hamilton (it has since been surpassed and replaced by Ron Chernow’s magisterial biography Alexander Hamilton) is Forrest McDonald’s Alexander Hamilton: A Biography. Aside from being a useful account of Hamilton’s life, McDonald theorizes about the driving forces behind Hamilton’s passion and character. He characterizes Hamilton a Romantic- a man ruled by his heart rather than his head, but far grittier and realistic. than the idealists of all ages. As I read McDonald’s famous passage on Hamilton’s romanticism, I realized I was reading a description of myself:
“A passion for immortal fame is characteristic of the romantic…
Romanticism, perhaps the most sublime of afflictions, is a congenital psychic disorder whose symptoms are evident throughout life. In childhood the romantic writes poetry and dreams of grand and noble exploits. As a youth he embraces causes and fights for them with reckless bravery— which is easy enough for him to do, since he is unable to imagine that failure or defeat is possible….
He is spirited, gallant, and bold and sees high drama where others see blandness. He inspires admiration and loyalty in some, envy and hatred in others; he can be charming and witty but not genuinely humorous, for though life to him is always a joyful affirmation, it is never funny. Like the sentimentalist, the dreamer, and the do-gooder, the romantic is ruled by his heart rather than his head. Unlike them, he is also tough-minded and realistic, and that creates within him a turbulence they never know: he drives himself to excel, requires discipline of himself far beyond that of other men, is ever concerned with honor, sometimes obsessively…”
This is the stuff of greatness. I do not claim to be a budding Alexander Hamilton myself- I am too aware of the limits of my talent and drive to assume that I’ll ever go down in history next to or even near the stature of this greatest of Americans.
But we must all have our inspirations, and the brilliant, tortured mind and spirit of Alexander Hamilton is something some of us admire and less of us share. But those blessed and cursed with it- and to the best of my judgment, I identify with this “congenital psychic disorder,” and it is probably clear through the dreaminess of this essay- have a duty to the country to use that gift in its service.
A Model for Duty to Country
And there are few greater models of this last charge-duty to country- than Alexander Hamilton. From the soldier of the revolution to the delegate of the founding conventions to the de facto Prime Minister and Grand Strategist of the Washington Administration to the young elder statesmen of the post-Washington years, Hamilton never ceased to serve, and never sought to profit from his service- he died a poor man.
Now, as a bad Catholic, an Eagle Scout indelibly influenced by my Scouting experience, a Navy brat, and an aspiring Army National Guard officer (if I can finally get that darn paperwork in,) duty to country and the honor of public service is not a mere resume point for me- it’s a way of life I seek to live up to and be worthy of. And I must admit that though my instincts on the matter were formed well before I “met” Alexander Hamilton, it was my study of his life that helped me discern how, precisely, I hope to practice that service. Simply, I want to follow his footsteps- as a soldier and defender of the Republic, as a political operator in these tumultuous times, as a servant to “my George Washington,” as an advisor to great men and women in the service of the public.
There are so many other lessons Hamilton taught- that you must teach yourself, that you must always strive, as two later Hamiltonians put it, as a “man in the arena,” that good character, whose fruit is good reputation and whose cost is good works, is a good in itself, and so many more. He was a man of action, a man of intellect, and a man of useful service.
In all, he was the greatest American, for he wrought American greatness, among other reasons. He was a great citizen, a great statesman, and a great man. He is a model to me, and I would hope, a model to us all.
Long live his memory, and whatever I can do to do him honor, I will do and more. Loyalty to and emulation of Hamilton, to answer the prompt directly, is the way Alexander Hamilton influenced my life. I am a better man for it.
APPENDIX A: Sampling of Michael Lind’s Books, Essays, and Reports
“Hamilton’s Republic: Readings in the American Democratic Nationalist Tradition”
“Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States”
“The Next American Nation”
“The American Way of Strategy: U.S. Foreign Policy and the American Way of Life”
Major Articles and Essays:
“Taking Modernization Seriously,” Breakthrough Journal
“The Coming Realignment,” Breakthrough Journal
“Raiding Progress,” Breakthrough Journal
“Against Cosmopolitanism,” Breakthrough Journal
“The Liberal Roots of Populism,” Demos Quarterly
“Spreading the Wealth: Decentralization, Infrastructure, and Shared Prosperity,” NewGeography
Reports at New America (in conjunction with other authors) :
“Beyond the Low-Wage Social Contract”
“The Next Social Contract: An American Agenda for Reform”
“Renewing the American Social Contract: A New Vision for Improving Economic Security”
“Expanded Social Security”
“Value Added: America’s Manufacturing Future”
“Public Purpose Finance”
“The Dignity Voucher Program”
“The Manufacturing Credit System”
“Made in America Bonds”
APPENDIX B: Clinton Rossiter’s “The Political Principles of Alexander Hamilton,” from Alexander Hamilton and the Constitution
The lessons we learn from Hamilton the political thinker will reinforce and energize the liberal tradition, not sap or corrupt it. And the best of those lessons would seem to be:
Men are driven to strive and achieve by their “passions,” of which the most politically significant are the desire for esteem, the anticipation of gain, and the love of power.
Men also wish to preserve and advance their “interests,” which are the physical and psychological fruits, real or merely hoped for, of their strivings.
It is next to useless to preach to men about their duty as citizens to control their passions and rise above their interests.
There is, however, a variety of political techniques through which passions can be steered into channels of healthy creativity and interests can be secured against the assaults of fear and envy.
The test of a sound and viable government is its ability to use old techniques and invent new ones that can harness the passions of men and enlist their interests in the service of the common ends of society.
Encompassing the mass of private interests, yet rising above them to live a life of its own, is the interest of all men in the pursuit of these ends- the general welfare, the common felicity, the public good.
No society can survive and prosper unless its citizens understand the commands of the public good and can generally, whether lured by carrots or threatened by sticks, be made to obey them.
No society can survive and prosper unless it has ways to nurture “choice spirits,” men of uncommon virtue and talent, and to place them in positions of responsible authority.
As the opinions of the people are the decisive force n the political process, so the confidence of the people is the principal support of government.
Confidence is inspired chiefly by an honorable, dignified, efficient administration of public affairs.
It is also inspired, up to a point, by the sounds and appearances of such an administration.
The worst of social ills are disorder, violence, instability, and unpredictability- in a phrase, “the hydra Anarchy.”
The worst of political ills is a weak government unable to cope with the convulsions of anarchy, because the next step beyond anarchy is not chaos but despotism.
The most likely candidates for the role of despots are demagogues.
In a disordered world, there is more to be feared from a dearth of political power than from an overdose of it.
The cutting edge of power is energy- the use of power imaginatively and forcefully in the public interest- which is the indispensable quality of good government.
The executive is the chief source of political energy.
An energetic government is as necessary to the success of democratic government as it is to any other kind.
The happiness of men in a civilized society depends to a critical extent upon the capacity of government, not merely to keep order and protect them in the enjoyment of their rights and property, but actively to promote social, economic, and cultural growth.
Banks, factories, and armies are as important for the freedom and progress of civilized men as schools and churches. The authors of constitutions for those who aspire to be such men will make room in their planning for these instruments of society.
This is not, be it remembered, the whole of Hamilton’s political thought, for he had many other things to say on many other subjects. Nor is the whole of his thought, I repeat, a political philosophy for American democracy. But this is a catalogue of opinions and judgments of which he was the first and most explicit exponent among the Founding Fathers- in several instances the only exponent- and Americans may go to it confidently for instruction in the problems and possibilities of twentieth-century statecraft.