With this series, I’m comparing life in Hamilton’s era – the late 1700s – to 21st century America. In today’s topic, we haven’t changed much during the past 200 years.
The current political landscape was formed in the timeframe experienced by Hamilton, the nation’s first treasury secretary.
… the rift between Hamilton and Madison precipitated the start of the two-party system in America. (p. 306)
Hamilton and James Madison at one time thought alike, to the point that they (along with John Jay, as a team called “Publius”) co-authored “The Federalist Papers,” a collection of 85 articles and essays promoting the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. While the project was Hamilton’s brainchild and he wrote most of the essays, “Madison, versed in the history of republics and confederacies, covered much of that ground … he also undertook to explain the general anatomy of the new government.” (p. 248)
Several years later, in early 1790, Hamilton wrote another extensive paper, “Report on Public Credit,” which outlined an extremely detailed financial system for the country, which included allowance for public debt – a system that continues today. Hamilton counted on Madison’s support to get his plan through Congress, but Madison surprised him by opposing it.
“Whereas the ‘Publius’ team of Hamilton, Madison and Jay had seen the supreme threat to liberty coming at the state level, Madison now began to direct his criticism at federal power lodged in the capable hands of the treasury secretary (Hamilton).” (p. 305) Congress eventually passed Hamilton’s plan, but not without plenty of effort, much of it by Hamilton himself.
Meanwhile, Hamilton and George Washington continued as leaders of the Federalist party, while Madison and Thomas Jefferson eventually helped form a Republican party.
Each side possessed a lurid, distorted view of the other, buttressed by an idealized sense of itself. (p. 392)
I sense that today’s Republican and Democratic parties feel the same. Perhaps we as Americans are more alike than we think we are, but you’d never know it if politics is your main line of thought. Perhaps those among us steeped in the political process should take a step back, breathe deeply and see “truth” from the other side. We might be surprised at what we’d see.
The tone of politics had rapidly grown very harsh. Some poison was released into the American political atmosphere that was not put back into the bottle for a generation. (p. 199)
Even before official political parties formed, differing opinions ran strong on how the new nation was to be set up and run. Here’s an example of a legal case that set precedents, but may have cost Hamilton major political points.
In Rutgers v. Waddington, a 1784 case, Hamilton defended Joshua Waddington, agent of Benjamin Waddington and Evelyn Pierrepont – two merchants who took control of a brewery owned by the widow Elizabeth Rutgers under the authority of the British Commissary General during the British occupation of New York. (Joshua Waddington was brewery supervisor.) The provisions of New York state’s Trespass Act (1873) provided Rutgers with the basis for a recovery of rent during that period.
The Trespass Act allowed patriots who had left properties behind enemy lines to sue anyone who had occupied, damaged or destroyed them. In this case Hamilton did not defend the patriot but those who occupied the brewery, claiming that the Trespass Act violated the law of nations, which allowed for the wartime use of property in occupied territory, and the 1783 peace treaty with England, which Congress had ratified. (p. 198) He saw Rutgers’ lawsuit as pure greed.
“Hamilton’s actions abruptly altered his image. He was accused of betraying the Revolution and tarnishing his bright promise, and it took courage for him to contest such frenzied emotion.” (p. 196)
The New York City Mayor’s Court gave a split verdict, awarding Rutgers much less – a negotiated 800 pounds – in back rent but not the 8,000 pounds Rutgers had sought.
Hamilton took plenty of heat for defending the British merchants.
“For radicals of the day, revolutionary purity meant a strong legislature that would overshadow a weak executive and judiciary. For Hamilton, this could only invite legislative tyranny. Rutgers v. Waddington represented his first major chance to expound the principle that the judiciary should enjoy coequal status with the other two branches of government.” (p. 199)
The intellectual caliber of the leading figures surpassed that of any future political leadership in American history. On the other hand, their animosity toward one another has seldom been exceeded either. (p. 405)
Our Founding Fathers were establishing a new type of country, a democracy trying to combine British and French models (which were very different), writing a new Constitution, setting up a federal judiciary (how much power should it have?) and establishing a monetary system that would earn respect across the world. None of this came easily.
The difficult political clashes of the late 1700s are being repeated today, over different issues of course. When the Founding Fathers established laws, the laws were respected – or changed. Plenty of protests took place in the early days, as they have in every time period since, but the rule of law has won out eventually every time. That will continue today as well.
These men wanted to modify the social order, not overturn it – a fair description of Hamilton’s future politics. (p. 46)
In the early days of Hamilton’s public life, in the early 1770s, George Washington and other leaders were not trying to form a new nation. That came later when they realized they couldn’t co-exist with England’s oppressive policies, including on trade and taxes.
Hamilton saw the big picture. He wanted the new nation to succeed, as all the Founding Fathers did, of course. But unlike most of them, Hamilton had a plan. He was a prolific writer and an unsurpassed orator, so he knew how to communicate his plan.
I don’t see much big-picture thinking in 2017. We’re focusing more on individual freedoms than we are on the common good. We’re seeking a proper balance there, and eventually, I hope, we’ll find it.