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.

Hamilton: Early lessons still apply

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 book

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.

 

http://www.cleveland.com/metro/index.ssf/2017/07/willard_father_says_goodbye_to.html

http://www.mlive.com/news/ann-arbor/index.ssf/2017/07/ann_arbor_council_takes_stand.html

 

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)

Sound familiar?

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.