Criticize Alexander Hamilton these days and about all you’ll hear in response from some quarters is, “Chernow, Chernow Chernow!”
By many accounts, Ron Chernow’s 2004 work has cleared away all the myths and lies, and has allowed Hamilton, rightfully, to emerge from the shadows of Jefferson and even Washington as (according to one reviewer), “the founding father who did more than any other to create the modern United States.”(1) Of course, I would totally agree! I think you can lay nearly all problems of modern American tyranny at the feet of Hamilton and his cabal. He and his centralizing party changed the face of American culture in the space of a few years, and we have never recovered the liberty we once had.
But this is not what the reviewer meant, I admit. And even if it were, it’s nothing a little historical revisionism can’t fix. Indeed, as historical giant Edmund Morgan opined, “It has been said that Hamilton was a great man but not a great American. Chernow’s Hamilton is both.”(2) Of course, Morgan wasn’t intimating revisionism, but it’s a convenient implication. Nevertheless, something of note has apparently changed in Hamiltonian historiography for which we have Chernow (perhaps among others) to thank (or blame).
Former secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger gleamed in review, “There have been other biographies of Hamilton, but Chernow’s is far and away the most comprehensive and compelling of any I have read.” Not to be outdone by a neocon bureaucrat, the leftists at The Economist say Chernow has proven that “Hamilton was the boy wonder of early American Politics.”(3)
In the face of all these venerable figures, far be it from me to question the infallibility of St. Chernow; but it is not difficult to expose the faux-miracle of the bloody tears on this statue. Studying the paper trail of this nearly beatified scribbler gives us a clue as to why modern neocons and leftists alike would bow to this intermediary:
Having completed his previous historical works on great international bankers in The House of Morgan, and The Warburgs, and financiers like the infamous John D. Rockefeller, Sr., Chernow turned his big-banklust to perhaps the most logical character of American history: the bulldog of the First Bank of the U.S., first Secretary of Treasury, and proponent of debt-financed corporate welfare, Alexander Hamilton. (Once finished with Hamilton, he turned to the next logical subject, George Washington, whom I will review in this capacity later.)
In short, Ron Chernow is the patron saint of central bankers, the court-historian of the American financial establishment.
Of course he’s going to make Hamilton look like the hero!
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To be fair and honest, of course, it would be height of fallacy to reject Chernow’s perspective simply because of certain interests or associations (one of the many fallacies I have written about in Biblical Logic: In Theory and Practice, and so has master historian David Hackett Fischer in Historians’ Fallacies). Let us, instead, begin with what a contemporary historian thinks of Chernow’s icon.
Seeing Trees and Forrest
While Chernow’s biography of Hamilton has drawn accolades, it seems, from the entire world, this is hardly the case. Among the few academic (non-promotional, non-marketing related) reviews of Chernow’s Alexandrian door stop, Andrew S. Trees, Ph.D. (U of VA) is exemplary. Noticing that “Jefferson’s recent diminishment at the hands of various historians has undoubtedly contributed to the mini-revival of Hamilton underway,” Trees acknowledges that Chernow’s “exhaustive and, at times, exhausting” work, “provides us with the best portrait yet of the man himself.”(4) Nevertheless, Trees offers the bankster-scribe some pretty stern criticism of Chernow’s treatment beyond “the man himself”:
Chernow has provided little of scholarly value except some new intimacy into Hamilton’s personal life: “The story Chernow tells is a familiar one and does not substantially alter what is known about Hamilton.”(5) And even where he does appear to break new ground, we must remain skeptical of his protrait due to “Chernow’s tendency to speculate too freely throughout the biography.”(6) Trees adds,
The book is less successful, though, at placing Hamilton in historical context. Although remarkable prophetic about what sort of country America would become, Hamilton was very much a figure of the eighteenth century [1700s]. While someone like Franklin seems capable of being re-invented for every age, Hamilton is a much more difficult challenge. So, for a truly outstanding biography of the man, you need a sure grasp of his time, and it is here, unfortunately, that Chernow falls short.(7)
We could have predicted this, really, seeing that Chernow is not a trained historian—his degrees are in literature. So, understandably, he writes well, but thinks more like a novelist or a psychologist than an actual historian.
“Chernow falls short” in other ways, too, according to Trees. For example, Chernow overplays Hamilton as a devoted family man, “especially considering that Hamilton was hardly a model of fidelity.”(8) It is suggested that modern conservative values are driving this presentation. Yet at the same time, Chernow’s “tendency to speculate too freely” surfaces in his suggestion that Hamilton had a homosexual affair with John Laurens during the war years. Chernow dances quite a jig at the line between hedging this claim and making sure the reader knows he’s making it. Yet, Trees criticizes it as “a suggestion that reveal’s Chernow’s uncertain grasp of the eighteenth century,”(9) particularly in regard to expressions of manliness, affection, emotion, and literary convention in private letters.
(Very similarly, a group of gay activists several years ago tried to argue that Meriwether Lewis (of Lewis and Clark) was a homosexual based on the exact same type of literary “evidence.”)
In the meantime, while giving hundreds of pages to Hamilton’s comings and goings, Chernow spends proportionately less time actually dealing with his intellectual thought and development: he “fails to offer more than brief summaries” of the Federalist Papers for example, and this type of omission presents “a larger problem throughout the whole book.”(10) In the end, the book is something like a whole lot of reading between the lines without really considering the actual lines.
The philosophical, contextual, and intellectual considerations lacking, Trees concludes (and I agree) that “Forrest McDonald’s Alexander Hamilton remains a better guide to Hamilton’s over-arching financial vision.”(11) (Now you can say, at least once, that you were able to see the Forrest because of the Trees.) Indeed, in these respects Chernow’s works comes nowhere near the tome produced by Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, The Age of Federalism.(12)
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Trees continues: “More problematically, Chernow betrays a lack of understanding about federal government in the early republic.” He goes on to demonstrate that lack in regard to simple historical facts about the War and Treasury departments at the time.(13)
“Chernow’s uncertain grasp of Hamilton’s time undermines the portrait of Hamilton himself.”(14) For example, his “portrayal of honor is disappointingly shallow.”(15) Instead of seeing something closer to Machiavellian “reason of state,” Vattel’s endorsement of national strength and respectability, or Hume’s “national character”(16)—all of which extend to the national level, and all of which Hamilton studied and modeled his views after—Chernow makes it a merely personal, psychological matter, and “attributes Hamilton’s sensitivity about his honor largely to his illegitimacy.”(17)
Granted, Hamilton may have also had extraordinary personal sensitivity—historian Richard Morris referred to him once as “an insuferably touchy young man”(18)—but there is so much more to history than personal issues.
Most of these errors derive from a certain narrowness in perspective: “Chernow falls prey to the biographical trap of seeing history too much through his protagonist’s eyes.”(19) The charge of narrowness may sound odd considering it is in reference to an 800-page book. But the mistake is not uncommon. And for this reason, academic historians often dismiss the whole genre of popular biography, criticizing the products as “simplistic or worse.”(20)
Neglecting to maintain proper emotional distance between author and subject does have side effects, and these are seen in Chernow’s work (as in most discussions of controversial subjects). Thus, Trees states of Chernow’s yarn that “most of Hamilton’s adversaries receive somewhat short shrift. This tends to diminish everyone involved, including Hamilton, as well as what they were fighting for.”(21)
But partisans often can’t see the truth—or even face it when they can—they prefer short shrift for their adversaries, as long as they can get away with it.
And the problem is worse when, like Hamilton, such people reside in positions of power.
If you want to know just how fickle, sensitive, insecure, immature, reactionary, and vengeful partisan administrators can be, just ask Dr. Trees himself. After receiving his Ph.D. from one of the most prestigious American History programs in the country, he took a job teaching at an elite New York prep school. But after publishing a satirical novel that sounded a little too much like the real life foibles of an elite New York prep school, he was fired. Then, letters to the editor of the school’s newspaper were suppressed by the Head of School. Dozens of historians were outraged and signed an official letter of protest. Of course, it was perfectly legal move on the school’s part; but it was cowardly and underhanded. It also is a great example of how economic considerations lie, unspoken, at the root of so many knee-jerk political reactions. Administrators and bureaucrats too often would rather ignore real problems and hypocrisy in order to spare client and donor embarrassment and thus preserve the inflow of funds. Goodbye troublesome scholars.
Washington and Hamilton would have called it, “strong and energetic government.”(22)
Politicians and political partisans do the same thing. Protect the system, ignore the truth. It is no wonder that strong and specific Machiavellian strains have been demonstrated in Hamilton’s beliefs and practices.(23) Whatever is necessary to preserve the establishment—stability and firmness are more important than freedom in the long run.
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In short, never accept a biography on face value, never accept a single biography as enough, “best,” and certainly not definitive, and especially don’t stop only with one with which you seem to agree. Be even more suspect in this latter case.
I will return to the issue of partisanship and revisionism in a moment.
It would be impossible to give my own full review of such a massive life here, so I will address mainly only the issues quoted to me pertaining to comments made about Hamilton and Julius Caesar. I made these remarks in an article last week, and they were challenged largely by what could be summarized as the mantra, “Chernow! Chernow!”(24)
This exercise involves two primary parts: first, the authorship of the Caesar letters, which have been widely attributed to Hamilton, both in his time and today; and second, Hamilton’s alleged comment to Jefferson that “the greatest man who ever lived was Caesar.” Let us review each case.
First, the authorship of the Caesar letters was, for a long time, unchallenged in modern times. It was apparently accepted by some in Hamilton’s day, too: Writing in 1958, Columbia historian Richard Morris could say that the Caesar letters “by public repute were assigned to Hamilton’s pen,”(25) though Morris provides no citation for this. The assumption was not without evidence, however, as some people allege. It was based on the work of Paul Leicester Ford, a titan of later 19th century biography and scholarly editions of early American historical sources. Ford is legendary for his edition of Jefferson’s writings, and his collection of the framers’ documents, Essays on the Constitution of the United States Published During Its Discussion by the People, 1787–1788 (1888), in which the letters of “Cato” and “Caesar” appear. On page 245 of the work, Ford provided his original two sources for Hamilton’s alleged authorship.
One was a letter from Hamilton apparently intercepted and copied by John Lamb, a prominent anti-federalist in New York. It contained a reference to Cato’s letters enclosed for the recipient’s review, and adds, “with a reply by Caesar,” to be published in the recipient’s gazette. From this has been assumed that Hamilton wrote the enclosed Caesar letter and was offering it to the recipient for publication, but his letter was intercepted and copied by his political opponents. Thus, the letter was found by Ford in the papers of George Clinton, Governor of New York and assumed author of the Cato letters.
Ford then refers to a note found in the New York Journal, in which “Caesar” is said to have disappeared, and “Publius” (the author of the Federalist Papers) emerged. From this it is assumed that the two pseudonyms belonged to the same author, and thus the author of the Federalist Papers, Hamilton, was also the author of “Caesar.”
To make a long story short, none of this is solid proof. The historical burden of proof, as Jacob E. Cooke rightly notes, “should be on those who affirm his authorship, not on those who question it.”(26) When this is done in this case, the evidence can prove no more than hearsay at best: 1) someone else signed Alexander Hamilton’s name to the first letter; 2) that letter does not say that its author (even if it really was Hamilton) wrote the reply by Caesar, it was only enclosed with the letter, along with Cato’s; these two facts leave open a dozen possibilities that would exclude Hamilton. 3) The second letter to the New York Journal also does not make a clear connection between “Caesar” and “Publius.” It only says that after Caesar stopped writing, Publius began writing. A connection is perhaps implied, but by no means necessitated.
And to make matters worse, the documents in question were apparently destroyed in 1911 when the New York State Library caught fire: at least, the documents are assumed lost today. So, no one else can review Ford’s evidence.
Thus, with just a little proper historical skepticism, the case for Alexander Hamilton’s authorship remains unproven—not disproven, but definitely unproven.
But the “public repute” was even more severely challenged in 1960 by the associate editor of Hamilton’s papers,(27) Jacob E. Cooke. He walks through the evidence as I just did, but adds a round of counterevidence to make the case not only unproven, but unlikely.
First, Hamilton seems ignorant of Clinton’s views on the matter during a letter to George Washington somewhere between October 11 and 15. He says, “The Governor has not publicly declared himself.”(28) But the first Caesar letter was published October 1, so Hamilton would have had to have known better were he the author.
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Secondly, it appears that Hamilton was not even in the city of New York when the second Caesar letter came out. He attended a session of the New York State Supreme Court which began meeting on October 16. Hamilton left early to make the meeting, and is stated to have been gone from the city by another pamphleteer, “Aristides,” already on October 6, and again, by “Philopolitis,” three days later. It appears Hamilton was gone from the city from at least October 6 until at least October 17, so how could he have written a reply to Cato’s October 11 second letter, and it itself appear in NYC on October 15? It seems very doubtful. And it is also doubtful that two Caesar replies have separate authors.
Thirdly, the two pamphleteers mentioned above both not only indicate Hamilton was gone, but indicate no involvement in the letters, and positively indicate that Hamilton had not yet undertaken a defense of his side of the issue.
Based on this, one scholar has gone so far as to say that Cooke thus provided “conclusive evidence” against Hamilton’s authorship, and stated “it is now clear that this belief was erroneous.”(29) But Cooke himself did not go this far, rather concluding “Without certain knowledge of the identity of the man who did write the Caesar letters, it is impossible to prove conclusively that Hamilton did not write them.”(30)
I would side with Cooke’s conclusion, for the counterevidence he provides is not even as damaging as I think he assumes. The first instance is the easiest: while Hamilton did tell Washington that Clinton had not “publicly declared himself,” this does not mean Hamilton was unaware of “Cato.” It was, after all, the whole purpose of employing pseudonyms—to keep one’s personal name out of the public. Hamilton, a lawyer, could have been well aware of Clinton/Cato, and yet remained very careful with his description here to Washington; for technically, while Cato has said a lot, the Governor indeed had not declared himself publicly.
Hamilton’s absence from the city seems difficult but is not insurmountable, though here some imagination is required.
This is one of the things that bothers me about Cooke’s article: one the one hand, he applies the strictures of skepticism against the case for Hamilton’s authorship; but on the other hand he speculates freely when it suits him. For example, when confronted with Ford’s now-lost evidence, he opens a line of non-testable speculations intended to cast aspersion on Ford’s statements:
Did Ford publish the entire text or an extract of the letter he found? Were there perhaps other documents among the Clinton papers which might have explained it? Was the letter, finally, in the writing of Lamb, or, keeping in mind the errors in calligraphy made by the most skilled editors, possibly in the hand of someone unknown, whose integrity might be suspect?(31)
Again, noting a ellipsis in Ford’s second quotation, Cooke speculates, “The omitted words, it is obvious, could possibly change the meaning of the paragraph. Might they not indicate that the writer believed Caesar and Publius were different men?”(32)
Could we not, honestly, tack on such a question to every opponent’s question we face? After all, Cooke says all these things, but is it possible, secretly, his integrity might be suspect? Granted, when the evidence can be checked by others this problem is minimized, but pressures exist which can still make them viable.
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That aside, is it not impossible to imagine that Hamilton wrote the letters, even if gone from the city. Cooke anticipates this and asks, “Was there time for the Journal of that date to reach Albany, for Hamilton to write an answer, and for the answer to reach New York City in time to appear in the Daily Advertiser on October I5th?” He answers, “Had transportation been much faster than we have any reason to believe it was, such a feat would have been difficult.”(33)
But this is not necessarily the case. For example, GoogleMaps tells us that the trip from New York City to Albany can be made in 15 hours on bicycle. It could take only half that on a well-organized messaging system on horseback. Thus at best, an October 11 paper could arrive in Albany, and Hamilton could have read it in a few minutes that evening. Knowing his prodigious ability and ambition, we could even imaging him writing a response that night and finishing if not beginning. I wrote this long article in one day—around 8,700 words. Caesar II has less than 2,000 and required no research, and had no footnotes involved. Hamilton could easily have written it in a single evening. Best case, a response could have been en route to New York the next day, and arrived on the evening of the 12th. Relaxing these times just a bit, since we have time to spare, we can easily imagine Hamilton having received Cato II, then written, sent, and Caesar II be published by the time the 15th rolled around.
Could Alexander have had a message system in place to relay him any news of published attacks? Well, we know that Hamilton and Madison had a whole system of riders established during the time of the Federalist Papers, in order to shuttle news back and forth as quickly as possible.(34) It is no stretch to suggest they had that system already operating before the Federalist Papers, when the ratification process began. Indeed, Cooke’s concern over the transportation system is by no means crippling; a fast and organized network of messengers is a very likely possibility here.
Furthermore, it is not even absolutely clear that Hamilton left New York as early as the pamphleteers claimed he did. Their claims of his absence—let use a little of that speculative license!—may very well have been cover for the very fact that Hamilton was availing himself of Caesar in a quite vulgar and unpopular way, meant to intimidate both Clinton and the reading public, and which of course any writer of the time would have wished to keep his name from. Being a good lawyer, Hamilton would have known the value of a couple of alibis. Sure, Hamilton’s own records attest to his attendance at Albany,(35) but they give no exact dates for his departure, so we are left with hearsay on the part of two pseudonymous writers.
So, from this it is clear that Cooke’s case is not even as strong as his presentation of the evidence seems, let alone anywhere near what some people have taken from it.
The second part of this case involves Hamilton’s alleged claim that Caesar was the greatest man who ever lived. The story comes from Jefferson:. On a rare evening in which both John Adams and Hamilton were guests at Monticello, Jefferson records that the conversation turned to Britain. Adams opined that the British Constitution would be the best in the world if its deficiencies were repaired. Hamilton retorted that it was the best ever including its defects, and that if these were removed it would be worthless. Jefferson then told the tale:
The room being hung around with a collection of the portraits of remarkable men, among them were those of Bacon, Newton and Locke, Hamilton asked me who they were. I told him they were my trinity of the three greatest men the world had ever produced, naming them. He paused for some time: “the greatest man,” said he, “that ever lived, was Julius Caesar.” Mr. Adams was honest as a politician, as well as a man; Hamilton honest as a man, but, as a politician, believing in the necessity of either force or corruption to govern men.(36)
There you have it: Jefferson claims outright to have heard Hamilton himself say, “the greatest man that ever lived was Julius Caesar.”
The critics sound, here, in unison: “Chernow! Chernow!” And what saith St. Chernow?
What makes the story suspect, if not downright absurd, is that Hamilton’s collected papers are teeming with pejorative references to Julius Caesar. In fact, whenever Hamilton wanted to revile Jefferson as a populist demagogue, he invariably likened him to Julius Caesar. One suspects that if Hamilton was accurately quoted, he was joking with Jefferson.(37)
From this, one critic has drawn the conclusion, “throughout Hamilton’s life he used Caesar in derogatory terms and one of the worst sorts of tyrants in history.”
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What is actually suspect and nearly absurd in itself is Chernow’s exaggeration of the evidence. He says Hamilton’s papers are “teeming” with pejorative references to Caesar. This, by implication, refutes the idea that Hamilton loved and admired Caesar. It would indeed cast doubt upon the fact were it true, but unfortunately for Chernow, “teeming” may be the overstatement of the century.
Within the pages of his own book, Chernow refers to three (3) particular “negative” references to Caesar from Hamilton’s writings.(38) I’m sorry, but this can hardly be called “teeming,” without further evidence.
I was prepared to look as far as possible for more, however. There are several research outlets by which to determine this. The published papers in their most recent critical edition (Syrett, et al)) in hard copy span 26 volumes (plus 1 of just indexes). There is also an electronic version available of Henry Cabot Lodge’s 1904 edition searchable. Then there is the Syrett’s modern edition available electronically, but only the first 9 of 27 volumes (and only by subscription). Not being choosy, I searched all three versions, for hours.
The Syrett hard copy edition contains only two references to “Caesar, Julius” in the comprehensive Index (vol. 27). Of these two, only one belongs to Hamilton’s pen (the other we will see in a minute), and it is already accounted in Chernow’s work.
The Syrett electronic version provides only two clearly negative references (though as I said, it only searches the first nine volumes). It thus does not reach the most critical period as we shall see.
Lodge’s edition at the Online Library of Liberty is most helpful for this purpose: it turns up nine references (hint, search for “Cæsar” with the grapheme “æ”, not just “Caesar”). But without going through in complete detail, two of these are essentially a repeat, two are one sentence apart in the same letter, and one is clearly a neutral/positive reference. The previous references from the previous two searches are subsumed within these; so, in essence, there are really only about six separate negative references to Caesar in Hamilton’s writings.
Considering that the collected papers span 27 volumes of about 700 pages each—18,900 pages—a sparse six references can hardly be described as “teeming” now can it? Chernow has obviously exaggerated the available evidence, unless he would consider three tadpoles in a large pond to be a plague of frogs.
Nevertheless, if the nature of these few references can be shown to be decidedly and definitively anti-Caesar in principle, it would at least cast doubt on Jefferson’s interpretation of what Hamilton said (if he actually said it).
At least one scholar, writing already in 1975, argues that “Hamilton’s extant papers do not confirm these assertions of his admiration for the Roman leader.”(39) (One begins to see where Chernow gets his ideas.)
Granted there are some negative references, no doubt. Hamilton writes John Laurens concerning mutual friend Henry Lee, stating, “if he had not a little spice of The Julius Caesar or Cromwell in him, he would be a very clever fellow.”(40) He then scoffs at the rumor of some that he himself intended to play “a Caesar and a Cromwell,” and vows to get to the bottom of the rumor. This letter was written during the war, September 11, 1779.
It would be eight years before we hear about Caesar again. This time, with Shay’s rebellion in the near background, Hamilton—as “Publius” in Federalist 21—decries the possibility: “Who can determine what might have been the issue of her late convulsions, if the mal-contents had been headed by a Caesar or by a Cromwell?” This was December 12, 1787.
We don’t hear from Hamilton about Caesar again for another fourteen years, and this time it appears in a letter not addressed to anyone, but clearly attacking his chief political fear, Aaron Burr:
’T is evident that he aims at putting himself at the head of what he calls the “popular party” as affording the best tools for an ambitious man to work with, secretly turning liberty into ridicule. He knows as well as most men how to make use of the name. In a word, if we have an embryo-Caesar in the United States, ’T is Burr.(41)
Since the letter has no addressee, we don’t even know if Hamilton ever sent it. We don’t know that Hamilton ever made this expression public.
During this same time, Hamilton attacked Jefferson also as quietly pretending disinterest, but secretly plotting to become a dictator (talk about conspiracy theories!). He wrote to Washington, Sept. 29, 1792, warning him to beware of Jefferson:
when the vizor of stoicism is plucked from the brow of the Epicurean; when the plain garb of Quaker simplicity is stripped from the concealed voluptuary; when Caesar coyly refusing the proffered diadem, is seen to be Caesar rejecting the trappings, but tenaciously grasping the substance of imperial domination.(42)
Hamilton also feared, writing in 1794, that revolutionary France would end “the slave of some victorious Scylla or Marius or Caesar.”(43)
So all of these references seem very clearly to indicate Govan’s thesis, and thus get close to Chernow’s idea that Hamilton was so averse to Caesar that Jefferson’s story is either absurd, or Hamilton was joking.
I am not yet persuaded. Note a few things: First, most (though admittedly not all) of these references Hamilton employs purely for political leverage—particularly against his archenemies Burr and Jefferson. It is certainly possible that—for these references anyway—Hamilton was simply playing politics, something at which he and all the framers were quite willing and adept. Caesar, of course, would have been an unwanted epithet for any politician. Hamilton, even while admiring Caesar in many or even all respects, would still have known that the public did not see the same way. Thus, whenever convenient, he could simply have played shrewdly with the appellative in order purely to tarnish his opponents.
Supporting this idea is the fact that these main attacks on Burr and Jefferson occur in a very narrow window of Hamilton’s career, and at a time when the internal cabinet struggles had begun and Hamilton would soon be watching his influence slip away never to be returned. No doubt, he pulled out every trick in the book. Whatever the details here, the clustering of these negative references to Caesar—most of them—at an opportune political juncture, when the other couple are spread out over several years, is more than a little significant.
This same idea applies though in lesser degree to the reference in Federalist 21. It was a opportune time, this time with a truly popular audience, to pillory his enemies with an unpopular label—something we could easily conceive Hamilton doing even if he secretly harbored much admiration for the subject of public displeasure. It wouldn’t be the first time the elitist held dear an icon the masses found repulsive.
In addition to these qualifications of Hamilton’s negative references to Caesar, there are clearly also some positive references in relation to him; and while they are not directly from his pen, they are from close enough associations with whom Hamilton had close affections and sympathies.
The first one I don’t see mentioned in Chernow or any of the scholars. This is probably because it is in a letter, written in French, to Hamilton from his friend Edward Stevens, May 8, 1778. Stevens wrote,
When I think of the actions of Mr. Washington, and when I compare the actions of Hannibal, Alexander, or Caesar, the comparison seems to me unworthy, and I see Washington too high in elevation to be placed with them. When we consider the March of Hannibal across the Alps, we cannot prevent the admiring. But when considering your winter campaigns, and the army you had to fight with you, the expedition of Hannibal does not seem that small. I hope someday to have the honor to know your general, which I esteem and regard as the liberator of his country. The King of Prussia was honored the other day and said, my faith, Mr. Washington must be very singular man for having so long resisted the full force of England, which in the last war shook the whole of Europe.(44)
This very clear effusion of emotion and admiration was written to Hamilton, comparing Washington positively, in qualitative terms, to Hannibal, Alexander the Great, and Caesar. Though finding Washington much higher in comparison, the fact that Washington was to be compared to these men at all is of significance. And while Hamilton returned letters to Stevens more than once, he never refuted or dismissed this comparison so eloquently efused.
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Finally, and more importantly, Hamilton’s own doting son, who passed along so many wonderful anecdotes from Hamilton’s final years when he was pious and prayerful, gives us a clear confirmation that Jefferson neither misrepresented nor misunderstood the man:
“With what emphasis and fervor did he read of battles: when translating the commentaries of Caesar, it would seem as though Caesar were present; for as much as any man that ever lived he had the soldier’s temperment.” John C. Hamilton, Life of Alexander Hamilton . . . (7 vols., Boston 1879), VII, 792.(45)
Owen, who provides this quotations, adds, “It cannot be denied that Hamilton admired Caesar’s military virtues.”(46)
Finally, whom would Jefferson have been trying to fool with this anecdote anyway? The circumstances make it very implausible. The letter was to Benjamin Rush who knew very well all of the men involved, and who was far from interested enough at this time to be swayed by political propaganda. Rush had written Jefferson mainly to encourage him to rekindle his old-but-tattered friendship with John Adams and begin writing letters. Responding to this, Jefferson assured Rush that he had never harbored ill-will for Adams, and then told him a series of anecdotes including the one in question. Was Jefferson attempting to spread something about Hamilton that he hoped Rush would send on to Adams? It would hardly be necessary, for Adams himself was present at the same dinner party Jefferson was describing! So Jefferson would not have been writing this to influence either Rush or Adams.
The letter was written January 16, 1811. Hamilton had been dead six and a half years; Adams long out of politics, and Jefferson almost completely out as well. So why make up a story like this, or even exaggerate a little? It would have no possible effect.
Govan suggests faulty memory on the part of Jefferson is involved: “It was written by a sixty-eight-year-old man, twenty years after the conversation it quotes was said to have occurred.”(47) Yet Jefferson, though sixty-eight, was of sound mind and body, and would live another fifteen years. In fact, for the next several years he was planning and eventually coordinating the founding of the University of Virginia, for which he personally selected the faculty. This is not the type of undertaking a forgetful old man does in his dotage.
So after examination, I find the Jefferson account very likely accurate of Hamilton. Hamilton’s negative references to Caesar are opportunistic and politically calculated for the most part, and current historians and Chernow do not seem to have taken this into account. In addition, we do find corroborating evidence of Hamilton’s admiration of Caesar in Hamilton’s son, and in the kindred spirit of Edward Stevens. These things all being the case, there is no good reason to doubt the accuracy and integrity of Jefferson’s account.
Some of Hamilton’s references to Caesar, however, reveal a nuanced understanding of the vulnerability of a nation to the rise of a Caesar. In these ideas I believe he was indeed sincere, although mistaken.
I believe he honestly did think that if America ran the course of “democracy” according to the French Revolution—and he was pouring it on strongly that this is what Jefferson’s group ultimately intended—then the uncontrolled, anarchical masses would immediately fall vulnerable to the rise of a would-be Caesar. And I think that if he was correct, he was only right in fearing this possibility at the time he did so. But one question is, was this an accurate description of what the State’s Rights parties really wanted, or was it convenient of Hamilton to portray them as such?
But more importantly, why could mass popular uprising and dictatorship on the national scale even become an issue to begin with? Ahhh! There’s the rub. Even if Hamilton sincerely believed it was an honest portrayal, it still betrays the ultimate problem lying at the root of the problem. The problem obviously could not be the idea of State sovereignty, and certainly not of decentralization further than that. It was the centralized power inherent in the Constitutional settlement. After all, suppose some “embryo-Caesar” did arise under a decentralized system. From what and where would he be able to raise a large army? What would he capture? He would have no central Senate awaiting his grasp across the Rubicon. He would have, at best, one State—as for political and military power, hardly worth writing home about, and quite risky considering the colonists’ reputation for defending their local homelands.
So it was Hamilton’s centralization of political, economic, and military power nationally first that even allowed the specter of any national Caesar to be a considerable question (although it never really was anyway).
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Of course, far from Hamilton’s fear of decentralized society welcoming a Caesar, history—including our own—shows that some form of nationalism first centralizes power; then it crumbles, and a dictator fills the vacuum. Contrary to some critics, it was not “democracy” that first paved the way for Hitler; it was Bizmarck, who first “unified” (read, “Union”) Germany. Then, once the nationalized state could no longer viably sustain itself, it crumbled, and a Hitler filled the inevitable power vacuum. Similar nationalism was the spur in Italy with Mussolini: Fascist was preceded first by il Risorgimento, or the Italian unification movement (and there is a large contingent today, particularly in Padova, Veneto, that wants to secede—it’s not just the South in America).
And it was just this argument that Hamilton used as a ruse to intimidate the States into ratification. That Federalist 21 argument about Caesar goes like this:
Without a guaranty the assistance to be derived from the Union in repelling those domestic dangers which may sometimes threaten the existence of the State constitutions, must be renounced. Usurpation may rear its crest in each State, and trample upon the liberties of the people, while the national government could legally do nothing more than behold its encroachments with indignation and regret. A successful faction may erect a tyranny on the ruins of order and law, while no succor could constitutionally be afforded by the Union to the friends and supporters of the government. The tempestuous situation from which Massachusetts has scarcely emerged, evinces that dangers of this kind are not merely speculative. Who can determine what might have been the issue of her late convulsions, if the malcontents had been headed by a Caesar or by a Cromwell? Who can predict what effect a despotism, established in Massachusetts, would have upon the liberties of New Hampshire or Rhode Island, of Connecticut or New York?
So on the one hand, if we don’t have strong Union, then little states are prone to would-be Caesars. And there would sit, legally helpless, the national government, unable to interview to save the poor state. After all, “A successful faction may erect a tyranny”! A little Caesar in Massachusetts may invade New York! Despite the fact that people are not stupid, and such neighboring States would simply raise militias and form confederacy (just like they did against Britain!), Hamilton expected his readers to ignore the biggest point of all:
[State’s Rights proponent scratches head . . . ] Er, Alex. Um. What happens when the big government of the Union “may” erect a tyranny? Then what? Is there “succor” to be afforded for that?
Indeed, “a successful faction” did “erect a tyranny.” They were called Federalists and it was called the Constitution.
In his descent from power, Hamilton had the greatest hand in Hamilton’s diminishment. His adulterous affair with Maria Reynolds and the whole outfall of it cascaded Hamilton from the height of his power. In his descent, his desperate grasping at the fraying threads of former influence should have alerted him to the fact that self-confidence and supreme ability can only take an ambitious young man so far. Indeed, without the protecting carriage of Washington—who was a Trojan horse for more than one cause—Hamilton would likely never have amounted to anything influential in American history. As such,
Washington’s retirement marked a disastrous turning point in Hamilton’s career. Always prone to go too far without the restraining hand of another, Hamilton’s subsequent behavior dismayed not just his foes but also his friends, as Chernow illustrates.(48)
Without his leash, Hamilton was his own worst enemy.
Chernow’s work, aside from the criticisms above, has quite enough going for it that it cannot be classified as hagiography. He does portray Hamilton’s decline and fall, as all biographies of the man must. He shows that Hamilton dexterously hammered the final nails into his own coffin with his published attack on John Adams’ character in 1800. In that long-winded and self-righteous vent Hamilton concluded by wielding his definition of national greatness—pumping international respect. American, he argued, must remain weak without big government: “A new government, constructed on free principles, is always weak, and must stand in need of the props of a firm and good administration, till time shall have rendered its authority venerable, and fortified it by habits of obedience.”
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In 1802, well after his fall, Hamilton wrote to his old co-conspirator Gouverneur Morris with a sad expression of self-serving pity:
Mine is an odd destiny. Perhaps no man in the U[nited] States has sacrificed or done more for the present Constitution than myself. . . . I am still labouring to prop the frail and worthless fabric. Yet I have the murmurs of its friends no less than the curses of its foes for my reward. What can I do better than withdraw from the Scene? Every day proves to me more and more that this American world was not made for me.(49)
Little too late. Would that he would have had this inspiration to “withdraw from the Scene” fifteen years prior. Instead, we are left with a tragedy, and yet also a tyrant so committed to control that his personal loss of power meant to him that the very Constitution for which he had cajoled others and spent himself was now impotent—a “frail and worthless fabric.” In other words, in a Hamiltonian world, the Constitution does not exist to limit the government; the government must abide strong as a prop to its Constitution. In a Hamiltonian world, Constitutions are not limits on government, but tools of it; Hamilton is not bound by the shackles of law; the law is upheld by the strength and energy of Hamilton, for the good of the people.
And if this 1802 note to Morris is any indication of his last thoughts, Hamilton died believing this.
Since the post-war era began, there has grown up in reaction to previous Progressive and New Deal historiography a conservative—one may even say “Republican”—wing of the discipline. This is, of course, very much welcome in one sense, because the entire discipline had been dominated by crypto-marxists and leftists of all sorts for the half-century prior.
But there are at least two problems that come along with this welcome development.
First, the progressive historiography (exemplified by Beard) itself was a correction of the previous Imperialistic revisionism, and thus its “revisionism” was new only in form, not in principle. Partisan historiography had actually begun as early as John Marshall’s biography of Washington. There is much else to say here but we will have to let it wait.
In 1913, Charles Beard dropped a bomb called An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States . In it, he argued that the framers who framed the new government and who urged ratification acted in part out of personal economic motives. This was an unprecedented and at least partially marxist approach. The view dominated American history for 40 years before conservatives were in a position to react substantially in print. The most famous response was from Forrest McDonald. It is now virtually taboo—certainly in conservative circles—to speak kindly of Beard’s thesis. “That’s leftist history,” is the unspoken undercurrent here.
True, Beard leaned that way, but was he entirely unjustified in overturning the sacred cows of the generation before him? Did he not accomplish something worthwhile in revising the old line? Or where late-nineteenth century historians infallible in their view of Lincoln and Jackson and everyone else? Hardly.
In this sense—despite the leftist baggage that comes along with Beard, et al—his criticism contained much that all historians should welcome as well. So “revisionism”—which so many conservatives speak of with a hiss—is an inescapable thing. As such, it should be embraced, and done—but done correctly. The point is to clear away the hagiography which the previous generation has written about their faux-heroes.
And as it turns out, Beard was probably more right than wrong, at least in his general thesis.
Second, the modern conservative reaction—partaking of the same type of partisan, reactionary revision—itself swings the pendulum too far back in the opposite direction. It may have been needed and welcomed to clear away some myths and half-truths about Hamilton (among others), but the reaction has created (or resurrected) a whole new round of debatable ideas and interpretations.
Granted, digital technology has made it easier to access and research the Framers than ever before. Along with this, our understanding of these men and their motives can grow more accurate with each swing of the pendulum.
But this does not negate the fact that it is just as wrong to read modern Republicanism back into Hamilton, then pump Hamilton as the truest Founder of America, and then defend that mongrelized Icon as if he did and could do no wrong (at least not where it counts—politically, economically, philosophically, etc.). This is just as wrong as a Beardian imposing categories of class warfare as an explanation of the driving force behind the ratification process.
In light of this, I will add a third problem: this whole pendulum-swing of American historiography is in itself biased and incorrect. It has always been dominated by one side of a contest between the two dominant historical parties—both of which have distorted the whole story in the image of their own heroes.
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And here is why: neither side has a biblical worldview. Both believe in central planning, big government, centralized political power, central banking, debt-based financing, empire, centralized public works, corporate welfare, crony capitalism, both believe in central government control of education, commerce, finance, judiciary, and much more—all of which is opposed to a biblical system.
Worse, both sides trace their intellectual heritage from Enlightenment principles—which had both a left and a right wing—and as such, both sides today vehemently oppose anything like Christian test oaths to hold office.
This lack of a comprehensive biblical worldview—indeed rejection of it!—is why the “Christian Right” has been absolutely ineffective since its inception. It has absolutely failed to stop creeping leftism in this country. For every single ethical issue for which they stand, and for which they elected “our guys”, they have subsequently been lied to by those same guys, and have lost the issue. This is true of abortion, education, welfare, and on and on.
This is why it must be stated over and over: this County Rights project is not a defense of the Old South or any version of any political Party or movement, contemporary or traditional—or imaginary. It does not take its talking points from the platform of Republicans or Democrats, Libertarians or Socialists. It is none of these things.
It is the outworking of a biblical worldview. It is the vision of liberty outlined in biblical law. It calls for decentralization, privatization, honest money, free markets, equal protections before the law, etc.—things the two major political parties often speak of, but by definition cannot deliver because they refuse to swear to the God of those liberties.
And the knee-jerk pigeon-holing of the discussion of “State’s Rights” as somehow a promotion of every evil with which Jefferson can be associated, and slavery and racism, blah blah blah, is the admission of a heart and mind so abstrusely dissociated from Christian principles that they by definition must construe any criticism of their Republicanized Man Who Would Be King as an attack upon the edifice of American honor glory—and he would have it no other way.
Thus, today, if you criticize their Alexander the Great, you invite a phalanx of propagandists to his defense, and these will be answered by a host from the other side.
From a biblical worldview, on the other hand, you must be an equal-opportunity critic of all sides, wherever necessary. I have criticized—and will criticize yet more—Jeffersonians as well as Hamiltonians for various reasons. We must tear down the idols on both sides in order to be faithful to Scripture. It just so happens that for the heart of this project—decentralization—we have to criticize the centralization inherent in Federalists’ system, and thus Hamilton’s, as the foundation for getting at the practical abuses of it later.
My constant point has been that the abuses of both the Hamiltonians and the Jeffersonians, and all their various permutations, ugly aunts, and step-cousins throughout history, were enabled by one common thread: the centralized nature of government inherent in the Constitutional settlement. Both accepted it, both abused it. Both practiced tyranny. The only difference is Hamilton was open about it from the beginning, while Jefferson did it hypocritically. Those who wish to continue the debate over Union versus Old South, are arguing over which version of mass tyranny is best for America.
The grand case of Republican v. Democrat, if it were finally settled once and for all in the Supreme Court, would be a tyranny no matter how it was settled—if for no other reason than that it’s a central court where a single decider can impose upon 300 million people for good or ill. I say such a man is a pretended demigod, and whoever endorses him has a fallen demigod in his heart. It consumes the national stage every few years because we all have demigods and their courtesans in our hearts.
If we are not willing to do destroy those idols, then any talk of liberty and freedom is delusory and will remain so. Some Christians will amuse themselves that the next Republican administration will set things right, or even at least begin to—and they will be just as deluded as the masses thronging after the giant Hope “O”, and they will find themselves just as lied to and failed in the end.
- Michael Lind, The Washington Post, in the front matter.(↩)
- In The New York Review of Books.(↩)
- If batman analogies are appropriate, I rather think we need another Joker poster for this one: “Why so centralized?”(↩)
- Andrew S. Trees, “The Importance of Being Alexander Hamilton,” Reviewed: Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton, in Reviews in American History 33 (2005): 8, 9.(↩)
- Trees, 9.(↩)
- Trees, 9.(↩)
- Trees, 9.(↩)
- Trees, 10.(↩)
- Trees, 10.(↩)
- Trees, 10.(↩)
- Trees, 11.(↩)
- Subtitled, The Early American Republic, 1788–1800 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).(↩)
- Trees, 11.(↩)
- Trees, 13.(↩)
- Trees, 13.(↩)
- Forrest McDonald, Alexander Hamilton (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1979), 96–99.(↩)
- Trees, 13.(↩)
- Richard B. Morris, “Washington and Hamilton: A Great Collaboration,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 102/2 (Apr. 30, 1958), 107.(↩)
- Trees, 13.(↩)
- Trees, 13.(↩)
- Trees, 13.(↩)
- Washington to Hamilton, July 10, 1787. Washington Papers, 29:245–6.(↩)
- John Lamberton Harper, American Machiavelli: Alexander Hamilton and the Origins of U.S. Foreign Policy; see the favorable review by Micheal D. Chan, in The Review of Politics 67/1 (Winter 2005):179–81. Kurt Walling gives a partially dissenting view in “Was Alexander Hamilton a Machiavellian Statesman?” The Review of Politics 57/3 (Summer 1995), 419—47.(↩)
- Some will conclude this unfair of me, but as far as Chernow represents the spirit of modern neocon historiography across the board, it is fair enough.(↩)
- Morris, 113.(↩)
- Jacob E. Cooke, “Alexander Hamilton’s Authorship of the ‘Caesar’ Letters,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 17/1 (Jan. 1960), 85.(↩)
- Harold C. Syrett edition.(↩)
- Quoted in Cooke, 82.(↩)
- Mackubin T. Owens, Jr., “A Further Note on Certain of Hamilton’s Pseudonyms: The “Love of Fame” and the Use of Plutarch” Journal of the Early Republic 4/3 (Autumn 1984), 279.(↩)
- Cooke, 85.(↩)
- Cooke, 82.(↩)
- Cooke, 83.(↩)
- Cooke, 85.(↩)
- Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, “The Founding Fathers: Young Men of the Revolution,” Political Science Quarterly 76/2 (Jun
- See Cooke, 84n12.(↩)
- Jefferson to Benjamin Rush, January 16, 1811, The Works of Thomas Jefferson, Federal Edition, ed. Paul Leicester Ford (New York and London, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904–5). Vol. 11.(↩)
- Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), 398.(↩)
- See. pp. 255, 407/512, 571.(↩)
- Thomas P. Govan, “Alexander Hamilton and Julius Caesar: A Note on the Use of Historical Evidence,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 32/3 (Jul. 1975), 476.(↩)
- Quoted in Govan, 476.(↩)
- Sept. 26, 1792, Syrett, ed., XII:480; Quoted in Govan, 476.(↩)
- Quoted in Govan, 478–9.(↩)
- Quoted in Govan, 479.(↩)
- PAH, I:484; my translation from the French.(↩)
- Quoted in Owen, 279n11.(↩)
- Owen, 279n11.(↩)
- Govan, 479.(↩)
- Trees, 11.(↩)
- Chernow, 658. See Trees, 12.(↩)