Hamilton's "rap" still rings true today
Here's something you hear all the time today from politicians, writers, critics, provocateurs, wonks, poets, and social…
Here’s something you hear all the time today from politicians, writers, critics, provocateurs, wonks, poets, and social media savants. “Oh my, the country has never been so divided.” This is one of those shared ideas in our society that everybody just assumes to be true, much the way everybody was certain that Mikey from the old Life Cereal commercials died from ingesting Pop Rocks and Coke-a-Cola. Yes, we’ve never been so divided, unless you are going to count the 1960s, slavery, the Vietnam War, the War of 1812, the Spanish-American War, civil rights, women’s rights, and, um, oh yeah, the Civil War. Other than that, yes, this is the most divisive time.
Why do people believe we are so divided? There are a several possible reasons that may explain the perception that we are far more divided both politically as well as socially (We’ve always been divided economically) than ever in our 245 year history as a nation.
- Social Media — Facebook and Twitter are constantly awash in political bickering, and the divide only seems to be getting worse. Our opinions, the kind that used to be kept to ourselves, are now broadcast across the “Interweb” instantaneously to everybody we know.
- “Fake News” — Many Americans simply don’t trust the media, and we seem to only want to accept the stories that we read or see from media sources that espouse views that conform to our way of thinking.
- Extremism in our politics — Politicians only seem to represent the “base” or extremist positions in their respective political parties, leaving little room for those in politics who seek a common ground between the two parties, as well as bi-partisan solutions.
While this narrative of partisan divide makes for an easy and convenient method of explaining the current state of affairs in our nation, the idea that extremism, “alternative facts,” distrust of the media, and dirty political campaigning somehow constitute a new phenomenon, is simply untrue. In fact, it is about as far from the truth as your typical Kelly Anne Conway interview.
I recently completed the very lengthy but enjoyable biography on Alexander Hamilton by historian Ron Chernow. Hamiltonwas so popular, it made the improbable journey from a dense, research laden, 818 page treatise on the founding father who set up our monetary system, amongst many other contributions to our early history, to perhaps the most successful Broadway musical of the modern era, adapted by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Despite the incredible detail, and painstakingly deep research provided by Chernow, I was dismayed over the fact that there wasn’t a single “rap” song in the entire book. Talk about being mislead!
To all my students, past, present, and future. Alexander Hamilton is one of the most important individuals in American history, and his accomplishments were invaluable to the development of our nation. However, please, please, please understand. He did not “rap,” nor was he a person of color. However, his story is indeed unique, and it is definitely one that many can relate to. (Getty Images)
The book is not for the history novice. Although, in all honesty, (And I’m saying this as a history teacher.) understanding history isn’t exactly rocket science. In fact, it’s not even like trying to understand the history of rocket science. (Don’t tell anybody, but all you really have to do in order to teach history is literally stay a chapter ahead of the kiddies. The best part is that when you find out for example that the United States won World War Two, you’re just as surprised and excited as the students!) However, unless you are really into history, it does come off as a little “dry” in parts. One thing that you can certainly say, after 800 plus pages is that everything that you ever wanted to know about Alexander Hamilton, but were afraid to ask, will most certainly be answered.
Hamilton’s story is in so many ways the story of many modern Americans, especially when you compare Hamilton and his background to his chief antagonist, a man who it turns out, if Ron Chernow’s research is to be believed, is not quite the “patron saint of freedom” that our history has built him into. I speak of course, of the inventor of the “Lazy Susan” himself, Thomas Jefferson.
Thomas Jefferson is forever cemented in our minds as the philosopher of American freedom, and a man of the common people. Jefferson cemented this image as a man of the people by answering his own door at the White House in his bathrobe and slippers. We hold these truths to be self-evident that if I ever saw Thomas Jefferson answering the White House door in his robe, it would have been the thrill of a lifetime. (Getty Images)
Hamilton’s life, and the success he achieved, as well as the way he died is almost too incredible to conceive. If Hamilton was a work of fiction, most people would consider his tale to fantastic to believe.
Alexander Hamilton was born either in 1755 or 1757 depending on who you wish to believe, on the Caribbean Island of Nevis. His mother and father were not married which would have made Hamilton a “bastard” in 18th century parlance. (Today it would make him part of the majority. For the first time in our history, more children are born out-of-wedlock than within the “legal confines” of marriage.) His father abandoned him and his mother due to the fact that his mother was already married, and this would have made her a bigamist had they stayed together. By the time Hamilton was 13, his mother had died, and he was effectively orphaned. He literally laid in bed with his mother as she lay dying of a fever.
A passionate abolitionist, more anti-slavery than any of the founding fathers, it’s quite possible that Hamilton would have been extremely flattered to have had his story told and portrayed by actors of color. It should also be pointed out that Hamilton did write poetry to his beloved wife Eliza, although it has never been proven historically whether or not he actually “busted rhymes” for her. (New York Times)
Hamilton would end up working for a merchant as a clerk. He demonstrated so much initiative and intelligence, that they sent him to America to be educated. He left college to join the war effort against the British, and fought with tremendous bravery before becoming part of George Washington’s staff. He would eventually become Washington’s chief of staff. The two would serve together in both war and in peace. Hamilton became essential to Washington during his presidency, even writing some of Washington’s most famous speeches, including his farewell speech in 1797 where Washington proclaimed that the United States should remain neutral in all European conflicts. This foreign policy position held until World War One. The two men became great friends, and both proved to be indispensable to one another. Hamilton’s career and successes as secretary of the treasury in fact benefitted greatly from his association with Washington, and upon Washington’s death in 1799, Hamilton’s fortunes and influence began to wane considerably.
Hamilton’s work as treasury secretary allowed him to formulate our economic system, and he was also responsible for much of the creation of our national army and navy. Hamilton was an uncompromising believer in the concept of federal power. He believed that the nation must survive as a whole, and the only way this was going to happen was if the states understood that their authority would always be subordinate to that of the national government. It was this belief that would bring him into conflict with the two men whom he would battle for the rest of his life, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
Even though Adams was a Federalist and anti-slavery, he and Hamilton did not get along. Adams was jealous of Hamilton’s relationship with Washington, his influence over his own cabinet, and believed that as a foreign-born “bastard,” he could never truly understand what it meant to be an American. (Getty Images)
By the late 1790s, the American people had begun to turn against Hamilton and the Federalist party. Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and the Republicans (This is not the modern Republican party, in fact, the Republican party formed by Jefferson and Madison eventually became the modern Democratic party started under Andrew Jackson, a decidedly different Democratic party than the one that exists today.) were able to garner the support of farmers and working class Americans, and succeeded in labeling the Federalists as being too close to England, and too cozy with the idea of monarchy.
This division between the Hamiltonians and the Jeffersonians began the political acrimony that we are all bemoaning today. It’s really incredible how little things have changed. Sure the names and technology have changed, but the issues that divide us as Americans are almost identical to those of the past. Consider the following issues which divided the Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians, and see how many are applicable to today’s America.
Hamilton’s Federalists believed in the following:
- Federal power over state authority
- Supporting the interests of big business over small business owners and farmers
- Abolishing slavery (Civil Rights)
- Supporting the interests of urban areas over rural
- Building a strong national military
- A national bank which directed the economic affairs of the nation
- Stronger ties with England over revolutionary France
- A powerful executive branch
- A loose or liberal constructionist interpretation of the constitution
- Carrying debt
Not every politician in the early years of American history was a partisan. The man pictured above often worked with both Republicans as well as Federalists. However, maybe that’s not such a good thing considering that this man was also considered a womanizer, as well as a power-hungry and ambitious cad who would do anything to gain power and fame, including murdering a man during a duel. You may know him as Aaron Burr, the man who murdered Alexander Hamilton. (Getty Images)
The Jeffersonian Republicans believed in the following:
- Federal power could not be trusted, therefore the constitution should be interpreted strictly.
- States must be allowed to act as they see accordingly without federal interference. (States Rights)
- The right to own slaves. (Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe were all slave owners.)
- Cutting federal spending
- Gutting the military
- America should be a nation of small “gentlemen farmers.”
- Rural, southern Americans must have equal say in all political decisions even though they only represent a small percentage of the population. (The Senate and the Electoral College)
- Building stronger relations with Republican, revolutionary France, while steering clear of monarchical England
- A strong legislative branch that checked the power of the executive
- Eliminating debt, the national bank, and being less concerned and more wary of the needs and concerns of the merchant and banking classes.
The diminutive and soft-spoken James Madison had been an ally of Hamilton during the writing of the constitution, as well as the supporting work known as the Federalist Papers. However, they soon split once Hamilton took over as treasury secretary, and they fought each other at every turn. Washington eventually turned against Madison and Jefferson, and became closer with Hamilton. Madison and Jefferson became staunch allies who went out of their way to defeat Hamilton both professionally and personally. (Getty Images)
The political debates are strikingly similar to the ones being waged today. Neither the Jeffersonian Republicans, nor the Hamiltonian Federalists can lay direct claim to the policies and philosophies of today’s two major political parties. The ideologies and arguments of the Federalists and the Republicans overlap upon both of today’s parties. But issues such as civil rights, states’ rights vs. federal power, urban vs. rural, small business vs. “Wall Street,” spending, debt, and foreign relations have changed little.
Many look upon the personal attacks that are waged today by right and left leaning media outlets, as well as the way politicians, particularly a certain orange-tinged occupier of the White House, use scandal, hearsay, unsubstantiated rumor, as well as good old fashion name calling to attack the opposition as a sign that our politics have completely devolved. However, the attacks by the media, as well as by opposing politicians and parties in the late 18th century contained a similar lack of gallantry. Few public figures had their reputations singed more crisply than Hamilton, who rest assured, could give as well as he took.
Hamilton, despite his accomplishments, as well as his honesty and work ethic, had several significant personal weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Perhaps due to the fact that he grew up as an orphan, he walked around with a pretty healthy “chip” on his shoulder. As such, he simply could not allow a slight, insult, or accusation go by without a stern rebuttal. Hamilton, against the advice of friends and colleagues, often drafted long and somewhat dubious letters and articles against his critics which often only served to heighten the severity of the attacks against him, as well as give further proof to those who despised him like Jefferson and Adams that he was not of sound mind, and easily provoked.
Perhaps his greatest scandal, as well as his most inexplicable mistake was when he began a lengthy affair with a woman who was probably working in cahoots with her husband to trap the treasury secretary in a sexual tryst so he could be blackmailed (Which he was) by the name of Maria Reynolds. For Hamilton, who not only claimed to be more religious than the atheistical leaning Jefferson, but also morally superior to the slave-owning Virginian who was having an affair with one of his slaves, this was an error in judgement that defies explanation. His opponents savaged him in the Republican newspapers of the day, and his reputation took an awful beating.
Well, if the real Maria Reynolds looked anything like the actress who portrayed her in the play, I guess I could kind of give Hamilton a pass. (Getty Images)
As far back as the 1790s, both parties helped to create partisan newspapers that were not much different from the blather heard on cable news and on the internet today. When papers that were sympathetic to the Federalists began to report on the atrocities of the French Revolution, which included the savage use of the guillotine by the Jacobins during the “Reign of Terror,” Jefferson, who was sympathetic to the revolutionaries, and even believed that a similar movement here in America would not have been a bad thing, literally called the reports “fake news.”
Perhaps because he came from such humble beginnings and lived in desperate poverty, Hamilton abhorred disorder and the threat of mob rule. He feared the chaos and random violence perpetrated by the French Revolution, while Jefferson and Madison were far more concerned with the return of monarchy and inherited rule as our greatest threats to freedom. (Getty Images)
It’s somewhat incredible that Hamilton is either remembered as a power-hungry supporter of monarchy whose policies favored the wealthy, or worse, barely remembered at all due to the fact that he was never president. Meanwhile, Jefferson, a man who could be petty, partisan, sneaky, (He would never argue or accuse anybody to their face, but only through letters or behind their back) as well as a slave-owner who wished to do away with the independent judiciary, is remembered in an almost saintly manner.
Hamilton’s story, born into poverty as a bastard, orphaned at age 13, a war hero and trusted aide and friend of George Washington, the man who created our financial system, a dedicated father of nine, and other than one particular lapse, a companion and friend to his wife, and a man who rather than back down from his attacks on Aaron Burr, chose to meet and take up Burr’s challenge for honor in a duel, even though he had no intention of actually firing at the man, should make him one of the greatest and most admired of American heroes. He is easily the most influential of all American leaders who never became president. His pronouncement that America would be a nation of great cities and industry proved to be far more accurate than Jefferson’s idea of America as a nation of small farmers.
As Ron Chernow points out in his biography, Hamilton’s greatest defect in promoting his own image was his short life span, dying before 50 in his infamous duel with Burr. Meanwhile, Jefferson, Madison, and Adams, his three most bitter rivals, lived well into old age, and were able to craft their reputations during that time that was allotted them. Talk about getting a bum “rap!”