I just finished reading Alexander Hamilton, the 731-page opus that the current Broadway play is based on. Author Ron Chernow claims, with extensive research, that Hamilton was one of the nation’s most influential founders. He was George Washington’s right-hand man, among many other things.
I underlined various phrases, sentences and quotes throughout the book, published in 2004, that seem applicable even today. I haven’t seen the play, but if it’s anything like the book, it’s easy to relate to, as well as a wonderful history lesson.
I’ve divided the applicable parts of Hamilton into nearly a dozen themes, which should give me plenty of fodder for this post and several upcoming ones. Perhaps we as Americans can understand a little of who we are today based on how we began as a nation.
Here’s the first theme I’ll discuss:
The authority of central government
… (Hamilton’s) encounters with the two obdurate (American) generals (in 1877, at age 22) strengthened his preference for strict hierarchy and centralized command as the only way to accomplish things – a view that was to find its political equivalent in his preference for concentrated federal power instead of authority dispersed among the states. (p. 103)
Hamilton, as a top aide to General George Washington in battles against the invading British, ran into two American generals who didn’t respect Washington’s leadership. Washington supported his youthful aide’s admonishment of the “obdurate generals,” both of whom refused Washington’s requests to send some of their troops to help him in New Jersey.
The future of the nascent nation was in serious doubt at this point, and Washington hadn’t yet earned the respect that would eventually propel him to become our first president. The British – and the French – had strongholds on our soil, and Washington needed all the help he could get to establish the Union.
… the Constitution transcended state governments and directly expressed the will of the American people. Hence, the Constitution began “We the People of the United States” and was ratified by special conventions, not state legislatures. (p. 574)
The division between federal and states’ rights provided one of the first debates in our country. It wasn’t a simple discussion then, and it still isn’t today. Immigration, same-sex marriage, legalization of marijuana: Are these federal or state issues?
How about standards for public education? Road repairs? Police issues?
Who gets the final say?
In 2017 on illegal immigration, the federal government gets the final say. Here’s stories of two undocumented immigrants, one of whom in Willard, Ohio, was deported to Mexico this morning (July 18, 2017) and the other in Ann Arbor, Mich., who faces deportation, also to Mexico, on Aug. 2.
Both have families in the United States, and have lived here for well over a decade. The stories are gut-wrenching, and that’s the media’s point. Policies affect specific people.
But officials of the federal government, in the form of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), see the bigger picture. In the Ohio case, as reported by Cleveland.com:
According to ICE, “Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly has made it clear that ICE will no longer exempt any class of individuals from removal proceedings if they are found to be in the country illegally.”
That’s two sides of the same coin: Living in the U.S. illegally while at the same time contributing to society here.
Which side should prevail?
Hamilton most likely would have sided with the Trump administration on this issue:
Hamilton probably had the gravest doubts about the wisdom of the masses and wanted elected leaders who would guide them. This was the great paradox of his career: his optimistic view of America’s potential coexisted with an essentially pessimistic view of human nature. His faith in Americans never quite matched his faith in America itself. (p. 232)
In the same vein is this quote later on in the book:
“… it is long since I have learnt to hold popular opinion of no value.” (p. 476)
Why did Hamilton have this paradox? He felt that he knew how best to run the new country, which angered his opponents. (Hamilton was a federalist and his opponents, led by Thomas Jefferson and others, were republicans, by the way.) He studied European models extensively, even though he never visited Europe, and read voraciously about numerous topics – finance, politics, government, military force, the judiciary and many others.
If politics is preeminently the art of compromise, then Hamilton was in some ways poorly suited for his job. He wanted to be a statesman who led courageously, not a politician who made compromises. Instead of proceeding with small, piecemeal measures, he had presented a gigantic package of fiscal measures that he wanted accepted all at once. (p. 324)
Hamilton had proposed an extensive, detailed system of banking, finance and public debt that intertwined with each other, that once established became impossible to overturn or replace. This might be Hamilton’s greatest legacy today. (More on that in a future post.) His economic system required federal oversight since its scope was so broad, and states’ rights advocates opposed it on those grounds.
Jefferson was one of Hamilton’s primary antagonists throughout his political career.
“I own I am not a friend to a very energetic government,” (Jefferson) told (James) Madison. “It is always oppressive.” (p. 311)
One of those oppressive acts was enacted during John Adams’ presidency at the end of the 18th century. Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts that did four things:
- They lengthened from five to 14 years the period necessary to become a naturalized citizen with full voting rights.
- The president was given the power to deport, without a hearing or even a reasonable explanation, any foreign-born residents deemed dangerous to the peace.
- The president was given the power to label as enemy aliens any residents who were citizens of a country at war with America, prompting an outflow of French emigres.
- It became a crime to speak or publish “any false, scandalous or malicious” writings against the U.S. government or Congress “with intent to defame … or to bring them … into contempt or disrepute,” with the guilty facing a stiff fine and a prison sentence. (p. 570)
Less than a month ago, the U.S. Supreme Court enacted a temporary travel ban for certain people from six primarily Muslim countries, which President Donald Trump has declared as terrorism hot-spots. The court is to take up the issue again in October.
In 1798, Hamilton supported the Alien and Sedition Acts – even though he himself was an immigrant, born in the British West Indies. He was upset with the writings of certain foreign-born journalists, to the point that he was willing to support radical measures to silence them.
Jefferson took the high road.
Jefferson professed a serene faith that the common sense of the people would rectify such errors. (p. 572)
Eventually, Jefferson’s faith prevailed.
Whether Hamilton’s harsh view of public opinion or “the common sense of the people,” in Jefferson’s words, will prevail in today’s political climate remains to be seen.