Alexander Hamilton has been getting a lot of press in recent years. There was talk for a little while about removing Hamilton from the $10 bill, but fortunately it did not gain a lot of traction. In 2014, John E. Ferling released Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry that Forged a Nation to excellent reviews. (While a graduate student, I had the distinct pleasure of hearing Dr. Ferling lecture on this topic in person.) In less scholarly circles the Broadway musical Hamilton premiered to critical acclaim in 2015, with the original cast recording winning a Grammy and the musical itself garnering a record breaking 16 Tony award nominations.
However, Hamilton took on a far more important significance with the overwhelming victory of Donald Trump in last Tuesday’s primaries which brought him 169 delegates away from clinching the nomination (505 are still available) and forcing his opponents Senator Ted Cruz and Governor John Kasich to bow out of the race for the nomination. With Trump as the presumptive Republican nominee, many conservative outfits asked the question “What Now?” Others stated that they remained committed unequivocally to #NeverTrump. The most interesting of these was an article from RedState.com, titled “The Mantra of #NeverTrump Shall Be This.”
The eponymous mantra is the following quote from Alexander Hamilton.
“If we must have an enemy at the head of Government, let it be one whom we can oppose, and for whom we are not responsible, who will not involve our party in the disgrace of his foolish and bad measures.”
Not Much Has Changed in 216 Years
I do not think there could be a quote more appropriate to our current political situation. I am not suggesting that those opposed to Trump vote for Hillary Clinton. Her fervent support of the evil of abortion as a Constitutional right alone makes that a mortal sin for any faithful Catholic. However, I do not believe the author of the article was proposing that either. Many Trump supporters argue that conservatives should vote for Trump because a Clinton presidency would be much worse. While I am willing to concede that Trump might be a marginally (at the very best) better President than Clinton, the argument is that having Trump as a Republican president would be incredibly damaging to the conservative movement as a whole, as conservativism would now be associated with a vulgar, hateful, narcissistic, egotistical, misogynistic buffoon.
I think this is a very valid point. Arguing that point, however, is not the aim of this article. The aim of this article is simply to point out that Hamilton put his words into action and eventually paid for that with his life.
The Constitution makes no provision for political parties. Most of the Founding Fathers believed that parties, which they called “factions,” were detrimental to authentic republican government and thus an enemy to liberty. Nevertheless, perhaps inevitably, political parties began to develop almost from the inception of the new government. The Democratic-Republicans were led by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson while Hamilton’s political ideas formed the basis for the ideology of the Federalists.
George Washington rightly abhorred the idea of political parties and included both Jefferson and Hamilton in his cabinet as Secretaries, respectively, of State and the Treasury. Despite Washington’s best efforts, the partisan bickering between Hamilton and Jefferson was so bitter that Jefferson resigned his post in 1793. Hamilton followed suit two years later.
John Adams, Washington’s vice president and a committed Federalist, won the 1796 Presidential election. As the runner-up, Jefferson became vice-president. This incredibly awkward situation of having a president and vice-president from two different parties was the result of the voting system at the time. All candidates for executive office, both president and vice-president, were put on one ballot. Whoever got the most votes became president and the runner-up became vice-president. (My home state of Louisiana has a similar process called a “jungle primary” for state offices.)
In 1800, Adams was soundly defeated for reelection. However neither Jefferson nor Aaron Burr, who had initially been running to be Jefferson’s vice-president, had enough electoral votes to win outright so the election was decided by the House of Representatives.
Both Burr and Hamilton were from New York. Hamilton knew Burr personally and had a low opinion of his character. Hamilton feared that Burr would use the presidency for personal gain. For this reason, despite his strong ideological opposition to Jefferson, Hamilton used his influence in Congress to ensure that his rival won the election. Despite Jefferson beside the ideological mind of the opposing party, Hamilton supported him because he knew his character and valued character over party ideology. Hamilton could have worked better with an opportunist like Burr and been able to accomplish more of the objectives of the Federalist party but instead choose the candidate that he believed would be better for the country.
Burr never forgave Hamilton for costing him the presidency. Four years later, Burr would prove Hamilton’s suspicions concerning the nature of his character. Enraged by the policies of President Jefferson, a group of Federalists in New England hatched a plot to secede from the Union. In success of this plan required the inclusion of New York. To this end, the Federalists agreed to support Burr in the New York gubernatorial election if Burr agreed to support secession once he was elected. Hamilton received word of the plot and effectively worked to prevent Burr from winning the election.
Stymied twice now by Hamilton, Burr challenged him to a duel that took place on July 11, 1804. Hamilton took the first shot and missed, many believe intentionally. While the honorable thing to do would have been to fire in the air or intentionally miss as well, Burr fatally shot Hamilton, who died the next day.
In the end, Hamilton was a man who proved true to his convictions, even to the point of death. May we, in this time of crisis we now find ourselves, prove ourselves likewise.