Friday, September 23, 2016

Hamlton, Trump and Clinton.

No, the title to this post is not the name of a fortuitous law firm. I was rereading The Federalist Papers the other day. No special reason. I turned to the first page and read the first paragraph of No. 1, written, like most of them, by, ironically, newly famous Alexander Hamilton. I maybe the only person in America who is not happy with the Broadway play, Hamilton, the musical. I suppose, in the abstract, I might like it, but, I know I don't like that it took the great book by Ron Chernow and that many people who see the play will think they know the historical person. It is no different than thinking you know a person's life because you had a single dinner with them, even if it was a great conversation. The substitution of musical comedy for a very impressive biography seems like part of a Platonic degeneration of the ages of man. Just like the debates of Lincoln and Douglass are replaced by the shams of sound bite "debates" we have now. Just like The Federalist Papers have been replaced by op-eds. Just like The Lord of the Rings has been replaced by Harry Potter (for the record, I like Harry Potter, but comparing it to TLOTRs, is like comparing the moon to the sun.

Yes, I am aware that the author, Chernow, loves the musical and can't say enough about its creator and the production. Yes, I am aware that sales of the book are skyrocketing. I already knew, without doing a study, that far more people were buying it than were going to read it because it is just not the type of book most people I know are going to read. It's thick, trying to be if not quite comprehensive, probably more so than any previous biography of him. I do have one anecdotal experience by a friend who ran out and bought the book for himself and his wife to read. I could have told him to save his money. He buys a number of very popular non-fiction works, and reads none of them. Not surprisingly, he realized right away he wasn't going to read Hamilton either.

In any event, leave the musical and Chernow's Hamilton aside. When I was reading the very first paragraph of Federalist No. 1 I realized immediately that if I substituted one single word in the first and second to last sentences - "president" for "Constitution," with only a little imagination it seemed as if Hamilton could be writing about this year's presidential election rather than ratifying the Constitution. And without further ado and without apologies for Hamilton's vocabulary heavy writing style:

"AFTER an unequivocal experience of the inefficacy of the subsisting federal government, you are called upon to deliberate on a new president for the United States of America. The subject speaks its own importance; comprehending in its consequences nothing less than the existence of the UNION, the safety and welfare of the parts of which it is composed, the fate of an empire in many respects the most interesting in the world. I has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether thy are forever destined to depend for their political presidents on accident and force. If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind."

My substitution of the word "president" makes the election seem rather stark - but isn't it? Some of us think the present administration has injured our country by a feckless and misguided foreign policy which has weakened our military, made our allies nervous (even if, being generally more liberal than our country, they like our president personally) and emboldened our enemies, and by domestic policies designed to empower the lower economic classes and ethnic minorities (whether they do or not), but to the detriment of the general good. Others of course disagree. I don't intend to argue that out now here. But, though many people seem to think that each election is the most critical one we've had since perhaps the Civil War or the Great Depression, I believe more people than ever consider this one so, not just because of the changes since Obama came into office, but also because the two primary choices -  absent some unforeseeable miracle - are just awful. You can disagree with one or the other, but record numbers find both of them unacceptable.

It is an exercise in speculation to guess what Hamilton, or any 18th-19th century person would have made of Trump or Clinton. Certainly both Hamilton and Jefferson had their great scandals and were master of partisan attack far greater subtlety and effect than any of our hacks. Hamilton and Jefferson were so partisan, that they battled even before there were actually two parties in America. Both essentially lead one opposing party into existence, and while they were both in the Washington's first cabinet. So contentious were the two of them that Washington begged them both in correspondence to knock it off. Despite supposed reverence for the old man, both explained why they wouldn't or couldn't.

Trump and Clinton are Hamilton's and Jefferson's political heirs in terms of dishonesty and partisan warfare, without either displaying an ounce of the political genius that made the two founders so revered. But, who these days does. We are not in an era where our presidential candidates are generally remarkable thinkers, great speakers or writers. Their books are more likely to be ghost written or at least written with someone else. Those candidates with the best chances seem to be celebrities more than anything else. And not that Hamilton and Jefferson were not celebrities - both were - but it was as a celebrity as a result of their political abilities. In Hamilton's case, that is exceedingly so, as he was raised without a father and virtually penniless at times in his childhood. Jefferson was born to the manor, and though I often assault his character here (Hamilton's too), his learning and writing ability were legendary in his own time, and his fame came from his writings, particularly the declaration. Though I thought he was a crumby vice president and then president, he was exceedingly popular in his own time.

It's not that I expect a new age of founders. The world has turned over many times and I do not think we will get a pool of talent like that again, but it is a different world. And we get what we deserve as a whole. Our world is a wonderful place for humans, but it is always precarious. Golden ages can deteriorate into brass ones very quickly. Our own country seems at one of those cross-roads, such as in the mid-1800s and 1960s, where we could go one way or the other. And who do we choose to be the leader, not just for us, but for the free world? Likely an unscrupulous, dishonest and ambitious person, whichever one of the two we select.

I'm trying to be optimistic, folks, but they make it very hard.


  1. I am truly humbled and proud that you finally found some good things to say about the magnificent Mr. Jefferson. I also agree with you about the genius of Hamilton and share a distaste of the dumbed down musical. Let's quit right here while we're ahead.

  2. So I'm not the only one in America who feels that way.

    I don't remember being particularly nice about Jefferson. Always said he was a founder and great man, just with a very poor character and a little overrated when it comes to the Declaration.


Your comments are welcome.

About Me

My photo
I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .