The pendulum swings, a little left and a little right, returning to the center each time

One in a series on Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow. So far, we have discussed these topics:

  • central government vs. states’ rights:

https://billcornishwordpresscom.wordpress.com/2017/07/18/hamilton-early-lessons-still-apply/

  • religion:

https://billcornishwordpresscom.wordpress.com/2017/07/24/hamilton-on-religion-belief-in-god-as-moral-authority/

  • politics:

https://billcornishwordpresscom.wordpress.com/2017/07/31/politics-continuing-what-hamilton-and-his-peers-started/

  • slavery, the judiciary:

https://billcornishwordpresscom.wordpress.com/2017/08/14/slavery-and-the-judiciary-hamiltons-far-reaching-views/

Populism

The 1800 elections revealed, for the first time, the powerful centrist pull of American politics – the electorate’s tendency to rein in anything perceived as extreme. (p. 626)

 

In that 1800 election, the first Republican, Thomas Jefferson, was elected president after George Washington and John Adams as members of the Federalist party had set the early course for the new United States. In the House of Representatives, the Republicans took 65 seats to 41 for the Federalists.

“The people had registered their dismay with a long litany of unpopular Federalist actions: the Jay Treaty, the Alien and Sedition Acts, the truculent policy toward France, the vast army being formed under Hamilton and the taxes levied to support it.” (p. 626)

Isn’t this what happened a year ago as well?

  • A large number of the electorate believed that social policies had swung too far left, thanks in large part to U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
  • The Congressional stalemate over budget, economic and social issues convinced large segments of the public that Republicans and Democrats were incapable of making decisions and therefore leading the country.
  • Donald Trump, as a political outsider, offered a contrasting alternative.

While his tweets and staff firings and resignations have signaled disorganization in his administration, his strong support of the military and more conservative social agenda have connected with many. Is Trump pulling us too far in that direction? Upcoming elections will tell.

Trump’s presidency proves that we can’t go too far left, or too far right, as a nation and get away with it. The pendulum eventually returns to center, or close to it.

 

… Jefferson proved a more moderate president than either he or Hamilton cared to admit. The Virginian no longer had the luxury of being in opposition and could not denounce every assertion of executive power as a rank betrayal of the Revolution. (p. 646)

 

I wonder if Trump eventually will understand this principle. It’s easy to point fingers when you’re not in charge, as Republicans did for the previous eight years and as Democrats are doing now. It’s harder to do that when controversial decisions land on your desk. We’ll see how many of Trump’s policies moderate as his presidency develops.

 

(Hamilton) saw the chaos in France as a frightening portent of what could happen in America if the safeguards of order were stripped away by the love of liberty. (p. 434)

hamilton mug

The French Revolution in the 1790s divided the political parties in this country. Hamilton’s Federalist party denounced the Revolution as violent and deadly, while Jefferson’s Republicans supported the opposition in France, even if it was violent, because they felt that French leaders were oppressive.

Hamilton could not turn a blind eye to the bloodthirsty nature of the French Revolution, which included the guillotine death of Louis XVI, a supporter of the American Revolution. Republicans said that if he was an “enemy of human nature,” then his death was justified. (p. 433)

“For Hamilton, the utopian revolutionaries in France had emphasized liberty to the exclusion of order, morality, religion and property rights.” (p. 434)

I see this happening in our country today. Statues of long-ago Confederate leaders are being smashed or removed. Perhaps they should be, because the Confederates supported slavery. We fought a Civil War over that issue. We don’t need to fight it again.

Do we?

 

Revenge had always frightened (Hamilton), and class envy and mob violence had long been his bugaboos. (p. 195)

 

And yet …

 

“I hold that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing,” he told (James) Madison loftily from Paris, “and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.” … the more hopeful and complacent Jefferson thought that periodic excesses would correct themselves. (p. 225)

 

Jefferson and Hamilton, then, while political opponents who did not get along with each other, seemed more alike than either was willing to admit. Neither supported “periodic excesses.” They trusted the pendulum swing to keep the young nation on track. As we should today.

Journalism

Hamilton wrote volumes upon volumes of letters, treatises and pamphlets, often writing late into the night after hectic days running his family, his law practice and/or the country as treasury secretary. Indeed, sometimes he couldn’t stop himself. He incriminated himself and others with several of his pamphlets that made his supporters – and his wife, certainly – cringe. He felt he had to defend his personal honor at all costs.

 

To understand Hamilton’s productivity, it is important to note that virtually all of his important work was journalism, prompted by topical issues and written in the midst of controversy. He never wrote as a solitary philosopher for the ages. … he plumbed the timeless principles behind contemporary events. (p. 250)

 

Even though he never visited Europe, Hamilton researched the continent extensively, learning everything he could about its economies, politics, judiciaries, governments, social structures, taxes, trade policies, and so many other issues. As he wrote The Federalist Papers and numerous other documents, he culled his research to seek the best of Europe for us, documenting his research thoroughly.

Hamilton wrote many newspaper articles, most of them anonymously because that’s the way it was done back then, defending his viewpoints and criticizing his opponents.

Late in his life, Hamilton defended a Federalist newspaper editor charged with libel by President Jefferson. “The standard had been that plaintiffs in libel cases needed to prove only that statements made against them were defamatory, not that they were false.” (p. 668)

In a six-hour speech in February 1804 before the New York Supreme Court, Hamilton defended a free press. Only a free press could check abuses of executive power, Hamilton asserted.

 

By spotlighting the issue of intent, Hamilton identified the criteria for libel that still hold sway in America today: that the writing in question must be false, defamatory and malicious. (p. 669)

 

Hamilton did not argue that truth should be conclusive, only that it should be admissible; if a journalist slandered his target accurately but maliciously, then he was still guilty of libel. He noted that the Sedition Act, “branded indeed with epithets the most odious,” contained one redeeming feature: it allowed the alleged libeler to plead both truth and intent before a jury. (p. 669)

Earlier, Hamilton instigated a libel suit against New York’s leading Republican newspaper, The Argus, which wrote that Hamilton had tried to buy another Republican paper for $6,000 – and that he accumulated such funds “from British secret service money.”

Falling back on common law, the court did not allow Hamilton to testify as to the truth or falsity of charges leveled against him – a situation that may have firmed his resolve to establish this principle in American libel law. The newspaper’s editor was convicted, fined $100 and incarcerated for four months. (p. 576)

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Politics: Continuing what Hamilton and his peers started

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)

hamilton book

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.

http://www.nycourts.gov/history/legal-history-new-york/legal-history-eras-02/history-new-york-legal-eras-rutgers-waddington.html

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.