Monday, November 24, 2008

Alexander Hamilton

Ah, the ‘Golden Age’ of American politics. Newspapers defined the issues in measured, non-partisan tones while statesmen debated the issues, transcending personal attacks and invective as they traveled the land.

Having just finished Ken Chernow’s fantastic bio of Alexander Hamilton, one thing is clear –

It never happened.

Our gauzy impression of the Founder’s era is wishful thinking. Newspapers back then were vicious, partisan purveyors of every conceivable rumor, easily the equal of today’s Internet, only slower. Meanwhile, the Founders made insider deals in backrooms while engaging in all manner of political skullduggery. Some, including Hamilton and Jefferson, even did “have sex with that woman.”

Make no mistake, though – they were giants. Moreover, it’s hard to escape the feeling that it was an unusual bit of extra ordinary luck for the Founders to exist together in their singular place and time. Charles de Gaulle noted that “The graveyard is full of indispensible men,” but Chernow’s book makes it hard to imagine any of it coming together without George Washington.

Hamilton’s story is a fascinating, distinctly American one. Born to a single mother, he endured an impoverished, tumultuous childhood in the West Indies on St. Croix. But he showed great promise at an early age, and a group of wealthy local merchants pooled their resources to send him to New York to attend what became Columbia University. Hamilton called New York City home for the rest of his life. Today, his life size portrait looms in the background at City Hall whenever the Mayor of New York holds a press conference.

Hamilton had talent and drive in great abundance. He left college when the Revolution began, earning a reputation for bravery in battle, and quickly rose to become Washington’s right hand man at the age of 21. Back in combat, he personally led one of the final charges of the war on British positions at Yorktown.

In Washington’s first term, it was Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury, more than any other American before or since, who laid the foundation for our modern American economic system. (Two years ago, when Atlantic Monthly listed the 100 Most Influential Americans in history, Hamilton was ranked 5th, and was the first non-president to be listed.) The clash between Hamilton’s vision of a manufacturing base with a strong federal government and Jefferson’s state-oriented, agrarian outlook defined the politics of the age. Jefferson got more and better ink - both then and now - but today’s U.S. is much more Hamilton’s country than it is Jefferson’s.

Now about that “Golden Age”…

The Founders cut back room deals. In fact, in a small New York room while the city served as the new nation’s temporary capital, Secretary of State Jefferson and Hamilton cut the Granddaddy of all American political back room deals. To bind the states more closely to the central government, Hamilton proposed that the federal government assume and pay the Revolutionary War debt of the states. This was obviously tempting to the states, but Jefferson saw what his colleague was up to. So he agreed to what was called “assumption” – as long as Hamilton agreed to place the new permanent capital in the south, on the Potomac River to be precise. The deal was done.

There was all kinds of maneuvering. Hamilton, with the approval of Washington, worked hard to repair relations with England, seeing trade with the Mother Country as a key way to build a strong economy. Amazingly, at the same time, Secretary of State Jefferson was conspiring with France (where he served as ambassador for many years) to undermine the English, passing along privileged information from cabinet meetings and generally working to thwart Hamilton’s efforts to cultivate them.

They fooled around. Before there was Monica, the widower Jefferson carried on at Monticello with his slave Sally Hemmings, while Hamilton got around as well, despite a loving relationship with his wife that produced several children. One particular dalliance of Hamilton’s with a woman named Martha Reynolds, exploded in public view in 1796 in…

…The vicious, partisan newspapers. Newspapers in those days were political vehicles more than news sources. The Jeffersonian papers reveled in the delicious details of Hamilton’s affair with Mrs. Reynolds. They also “exposed” John Adams’ plan to re-establish the British crown in North America by marrying his son to the daughter of George III. (Don't feel bad for Adams - after a falling out between the two, he rarely missed a chance to point out that Hamilton was, well, a "bastard".) Incredibly, even Washington was the subject of partisan abuse, like any other common pol, during his second term. Meanwhile, the Federalist newspapers denounced Jefferson for the “rape” of his slave.

Tough stuff – never mind Hamilton's deadly duel with Aaron Burr, who at the time was sitting Vice President of the United States!

I highly recommend the Chernow book. It will reinforce how fortunate we have been as a nation, and it will cure you of that longing you’ve had for a Golden Age of American Politics – something that never happened.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Political commentators are fond of using superlatives when recounting current day scandals or back room deals--"Rhode Island is the most corrupt state" or I guess today it would be Illinois! The fact is our political history is full of scandalous behavior, much more that people know. Today very little gets done in back rooms without the risk of being published on the internet. Indeed we may now be living in the Golden Age.