No, this has nothing to do with the play which I have not seen and really have no interest in seeing.
My education in American History is, I’m ashamed to admit, thinner than it ought to be, I had the requisite classes in grade school and junior high. I had “Virginia History” in 4th grade way back in the day. To a large extent it was “Rah rah” (that being in Virginia) but that’s okay. Pride in one’s country and state and their accomplishments is a good thing. Recognizing the flaws and endeavoring to make them better is also a good thing. In my experience, however, if you start with the pride aspects, it’s not too difficult to teach the flaws as aberrations or just “the way things used to be before we learned better” and move on to making things better. If, however, you start with the flaws it’s the devil’s own time trying to teach pride later. In seventh grade we did Ohio History (we’d moved between those two times–actually it was quite a bit more complicated than that but let “we moved” suffice). In eighth US history. And I thank whatever gods there may be that all this was before Zinn’s “People’s History” had corrupted the Education-Industrial complex. Still, these were all brief overview type courses and a long time ago.
My reading since then has been a bit more focused–the Federalist Papers, de Toqueville’s “Democracy in America”, a bit here, a bit there, covering “high points” as I saw them. I didn’t really get into the people and the events as more than broad strokes. My various “On This Day” posts here are part of an attempt to remedy that lack. In addition, I’ve been taking a biographical approach to studying history, starting with John Adams (who has largely become a personal hero of mine–flawed, to be sure, as witness the Alien and Sedition acts, but on balance very much “the right man in the right place at the right time” whose integrity and outspokenness to a large extent made America happen). Patrick Henry is next up when I finish the Adams biography.
However it’s not about Adams I wish to write today. Instead, I have come, through that biography, to get a bit of a glimpse of Alexander Hamilton that I had never had before. I knew that he’d been one of the “Founding Fathers”. I knew that he was the first Secretary of the Treasury but I didn’t know much about the actual policies he’d pushed–certainly not well enough to judge those policies. And, of course, I knew about his duel with Aaron Burr. Once I read The Federalist Papers, I learned a bit more. I learned that he and Madison were complete, unmitigated idiots! Okay, that’s not entirely fair. But I kept seeing them write, in TFP that “it would be ridiculous that anybody would…” followed by something that history has shows us actually has happened. One could, perhaps, forgive them for failing to take into account how succeeding generations would twist the Constitution and deliberately misconstrue it any place they could get away with it in the interests of their own power and authority. Except, of course, they did think of these things or they wouldn’t have been able to bring them up. They just claimed that no one would actually do them.
Now, The Federalist Papers were written to sell the Constitution, to encourage the various States to ratify it. So it’s entirely possible that instead of believing that no one would do those things, they merely hoped to convince others and simply not worry about the truth of the matter. Cupidity of venality. That is the question. Given what I have since learned about Hamilton, I have my suspicions.
It’s not my intent to write a biography here. But let me give one bit.
After Hamilton resigned as Secretary of Treasury he returned to his law firm. During the military build-up to the Quasi-war in France, Congress was taking steps toward building up an army and a navy. The decision was to make George Washington commander of that army but some question remained about who would be the chief officers under him. Hamilton used his influence with Washington to get him to insist that Hamilton be made his second in command. Since, given Washington’s age, Washington was unlikely to actually take command in the field this would leave Hamilton as the actual field commander–an opportunity, should the war go “live”, to obtain martial glory. Indeed, he urged that the army be used to conquer Spanish holdings in the Americas, Spain being an ally of France. That the US was then at peace with Spain did not seem to factor in. This ambitious proposal for conquest invited comparisons with those of General Bonaparte of the French First Republic–a comparison that perhaps should make us grateful that these plans never came to pass. Instead, Adams combination of an insistence on a strong defense (chiefly Naval, echoing back to the “Wooden walls” of Athens) and a commitment to peace so long as it could be obtained honorably, undercut any inclinations to military adventurism that Hamilton harbored.
Hamilton got his revenge, after a fashion, in the 1800 election, working not only against Thomas Jefferson but also against John Adams. In the end, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied with 73 electoral votes each (Adams received 65). This threw the race to the House and, after further deal making by Hamilton behind the scenes arranging for several Federalist representative to abstain so that their States could instead go to Jefferson.
And that, pretty much was that for the Federalist party. they never again won the Presidency. They never again held the majority in the House, and they never again held majority in the Senate.
Hamilton sabotaged not merely his “rival” John Adams, but his entire party.
And, so, I find myself in remarkable sympathy with Aaron Burr.