Immigration. A highly partisan press. Virulent lies. Popular armed uprisings. Incivility and inaction in Congress. Power hungry politicians. A highly divided populace. Animosity. Pandemics. War. Sex Scandals. Riots. Racism. Court packing. Impeachment. Threats of succession. Familiar issues to everyone today. And yet our country faced these very same issues in its infancy. Which is what makes Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton such a compelling read today.
Born an illegitimate child on a little speck of an island in the West Indies, Alexander Hamilton would rise to become a prominent figure in George Washington’s administration. Upon leaving his post as the first Treasury Secretary of the United States, Hamilton left behind a “sound federal government with a central bank, a funded debt, a high credit rating, a tax system, a customs service, a coast guard, a navy, and many other institutions that would guarantee the strength to preserve liberty.”
And yet, Hamilton has not inspired the same reverence as Washington, Jefferson, and many other founding fathers. There are many reasons why. Here are just a few.
Sometimes, Hamilton was his own worst enemy
At the peak of his political power, Hamilton had an affair with Maria Reynolds. This eventually evolved into America’s first sex scandal. But making a bad matter much worse, Hamilton confessed and detailed the affair in a lengthy pamphlet printed for the public. It was Hamilton’s intent to show that throughout the affair, he had never betrayed his responsibilities as Secretary of the Treasury. But his political enemies thoroughly enjoyed the publication, liking it to a confession that he had not broken the eighth commandment, just the seventh.
Sometimes, Hamilton had a knack for enraging his enemies
The fallout between Hamilton and Madison was the beginning of the two-party political system in the United States. Later, Hamilton’s acrimonious relationship with Adams help lead to the fall of the Federalist party. “Hamilton found it hard to refrain from vendettas. He would be devoured by dislike of someone, brood about it, then yield to the catharsis of discharging his venom in print.”
Sometimes, we are not dealt a fair hand
To the victors go the spoils. In Hamilton’s case, his devout adherence to a strong federal government set him at odds with those aligned with Jefferson. Unfortunately for Hamilton, the politics of Jefferson won the day due in large part to the three-fifths rule which gave an advantage to Southern politicians on the national level. In fact, Adams would have won reelection without the three-fifths rule in place.
“Slaveholding presidents from the south occupied the presidency for approximately fifty of the seventy-two years following Washington’s first inauguration. Many of these slaveholding populists were celebrated by posterity as tribunes of the common people. Meanwhile, the self-made Hamilton, a fervent abolitionist and a staunch believer in meritocracy, was villainized in American history textbooks as an apologist of privilege and wealth.”
But times are changing, thanks to Ron Chernow’s brilliant biography of a fascinating American and the wonderful musical that his book inspired.
September 20 – October 15, 2020