Dueling Philosophies of Hamilton's Day Linger On

Dueling Philosophies of Hamilton's Day Linger On
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At 7 a.m. on this date 214 years ago, in a dueling field on the western shore of the Hudson River known as Weehawken, Alexander Hamilton was felled by a single shot from a .56-caliber pistol. He died the following day.

The shooter, Aaron Burr, left New Jersey and returned to Washington and his day job as vice president of the United States.

When I wrote about this duel four years ago, Alexander Hamilton was known in this country, however vaguely, as an influential Founding Father. I mean, his picture was on the $10 bill, right? Those who paid attention in history class knew Hamilton as one of the principal writers of the Federalist Papers, an artillery captain in the Revolutionary War who’d served as the senior aide-de-camp to Gen. George Washington, as the United States' first secretary of the Treasury in President Washington’s Cabinet.

Perhaps if you were a history major in college -- or had read Ron Chernow’s excellent 2004 biography of Hamilton -- you knew more. You knew that Hamilton excited strong passions in his rivals, and not only Aaron Burr. Thomas Jefferson was another antagonist. James Madison, under goading from Jefferson, called Hamilton a “monarchist.” John Adams referred to him as “the bastard brat of a Scottish peddler.”

It’s true that Hamilton was born out of wedlock, and that he was not born on American soil. These facts of his origins were celebrated, not excused, in “Hamilton,” the breakthrough Broadway musical written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, a native New Yorker with Puerto Rican roots. “Hamilton” opened a year after I wrote about Alexander Hamilton’s death in this space, and much has changed in that time.

In the summer of 2018, leftist flash mobs are tossing Republicans out of restaurants and harassing them outside their homes. In Chicago, a drunken gringo was filmed accosting a 24-year-old Chicagoan on her birthday in a public park because she was wearing a T-shirt with a Puerto Rican flag.

All this brings Alexander Hamilton to mind, too, as I’ll explain in a moment.

* * *

During George Washington’s presidency, Alexander Hamilton feuded openly and often with his fellow Cabinet members, most notably Thomas Jefferson. This nation’s first president had hoped the great American experiment could proceed without political parties, but this was not to be. Two of them sprang up right under his nose, led by the aforementioned worthies.

“If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all,” Jefferson wrote to a friend in 1789. “Therefore,” he added, “I am not of the party of Federalists.” Jefferson was being disingenuous. Yes, Hamilton was identified as a leading Federalist, but Jefferson was the leader of the anti-Federalist party, known as the Democratic-Republican Party, a formulation that sounds odd to 21st century ears.

Meanwhile Aaron Burr, dissatisfied with the vice presidency, ran unsuccessfully for governor of New York. He partly blamed his failure on Hamilton, who’d opposed him, and after learning that Hamilton had privately questioned his character, Burr challenged his rival to their fateful duel.

Although that grim encounter effectively ended the political viability of Burr, a dangerous megalomaniac, it also deprived the young country of one of its great minds.

Remember that accusation leveled by Madison -- that Hamilton was a "monarchist”? This got to the heart of the matter. While an overstatement -- as well as a calculated and effective political barb -- it did capture something of Hamilton’s philosophy: He did not hide his qualms regarding self-rule. Alexander Hamilton mistrusted the mob.

There was evidence to support those misgivings, just as there is today. In France, the monarchy had been overthrown by democrats inspired by Jefferson. But La Revolution morphed into La Terreur, leaving a Corsican corporal in charge of a lethal imperial army.

Hope still sprang forth in the minds of enlightened men and women, however, even as the French Revolution was going off the rails. At a time when the United States of America was only a dozen years old, German philosopher Immanuel Kant promulgated the theory that the trend of self-rule would eventually be the seed that would end all wars.

In 1795, Kant penned “Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch.” It postulated the end of war in a democratized world, and provided a road map for getting there, anticipating not only the United Nations (Kant’s “League of Peace”), but also a kind of NATO forerunner -- an international alliance with a single strong democracy as its fulcrum.

The conceit that societies with free elections do not wage war on each other has been disproven many times, however, including twice in the 20th century in conflicts at which Kant’s own country was the fulcrum. Yet this idea is still often invoked, even by American presidents who should know better. As Hamilton wrote in The Federalist Papers, ancient Greece was home to the first republics, but some of them -- including Athens and Sparta -- were martial city-states with a penchant for war.

“Have republics in practice been less addicted to war than monarchies?” Hamilton wrote in words that could have been his own epitaph. “Are not the former administered by men as well as the latter? Are there not aversions, predilections, rivalships, and desires of unjust acquisition that affect nations as well as kings? Are not popular assemblies frequently subject to the impulses of rage, resentment, jealousy, avarice, and of other irregular and violent propensities?” 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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