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Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Then and Now

Friday, September 10, 2004

Jefferson comes off poorly from 'Hamilton'

"Alexander Hamilton" by Ron Chernow (Penguin Press, 2004) would be recommended reading anytime, but above all in an election year. It's well worth reading for its titular subject alone, but also for the historical perspective it brings to American politics as a whole, and the light it sheds on others, one above all, among the founding immortals.

Allowance must be made, of course, for the author's admiration of his hero and corresponding disdain of his opponents and detractors. But the present writer, another Hamilton fan, had his own doubts about the sainted Thomas Jefferson years before cracking Chernow's book, doubts in no way related to the present "politically correct" fashion of debunking Jefferson --the slave driver, the Jefferson schoolchildren are henceforth to know not as the author of the Declaration of Independence but as the keeper of a black mistress.

"Alexander Hamilton" is a good antidote to the popular illusion that U.S. politics of late years has grown meaner and nastier, implying that once upon a time it was highminded and spotless, unsullied by corruption and personal mudslinging, etc.

Hamilton and Jefferson have long been paired as personifying the opposite poles of U.S. politics, the founders of our two parties. The odd thing is their violently contrasting reputations. Jefferson's come down to us as almost a deity, while Hamilton's been saved from total oblivion only by being cast as the devil, "the Adversary," Jefferson's fiendish opponent.

Jefferson, as everybody knows (and as Adlai Stevenson put it), "had faith in the common man." Hamilton, we hear, was a cold-hearted elitist, an aristocrat, guilty of that American sin of doubting the "common man's" virtue, and never hesitating to say so.

It's an ironic paradox that seemingly runs right through American history. As British historian Paul Johnson points out, Americans, for all their lip-service to democratic notions, in 1960 not only elected but fairly worshipped the pampered son of a crooked millionaire, while scorning a real "common man" who'd risen through merit, sacrifice, and hard work.

It was no different a couple of centuries ago. Jefferson inherited one fortune and married another (including a couple of hundred slaves), yet posed as the champion of the "common man." (He "felt their pain," as a namesake would put it.) And oddly he got away not only with that but with branding as a plutocrat and friend of the rich one who'd risen by sheer merit from the lowliest beginnings. Hamilton died in debt after a lifetime of selfless, patriotic public service. Yet Jefferson went a long way toward persuading people he was a crook, salting away a fortune filched from the public trough, when not selling his country out for another fortune.

Yet, as has been often pointed out, Jefferson may have prevailed in life but Hamilton won in the long run. We live in Hamilton's world, not Jefferson's.

Hamilton was prescient enough to see our day coming and prepare for it. Jefferson spent his life fighting it, clinging to the dream of a nation of yeoman farmers who didn't need such corrupting institutions as, say, banks. And he seems to have instilled in his party a misguided legacy of hostility to banking and other business enterprise. President Jackson, in his Jeffersonian ignorance, killed the Hamiltonian central bank, plunging the country into panic and depression. William Jennings Bryan continued the war against the "moneyed interests," while FDR and his mimics harassed and demonized men of enterprise. Democrats say the same things today, promising the "common man" the moon, to be paid for by soaking the "rich."

One of Jefferson's key acts as president was to starve the army and totally scrap the navy that had been painfully built up, largely by Hamilton, under President Adams. His successor and devoted pupil, Madison, then got us into a war, and surprise! found we'd nothing to fight it with.

When he became president, Jefferson ordered his treasury secretary to ransack the treasury files for proof of Hamilton's plundering and corruption. To his dismay, nothing could be found. The treasury department Hamilton had built from scratch, and that replaced financial chaos with instant prosperity, wasn't only a marvel, it was corruption-free.

If U.S. politics is a nasty business, unattractive to decent people, no one person is more to blame than Jefferson. As a member of George Washington's cabinet, he did his best to sabotage and undermine the government he'd sworn to serve. He leaked confidential papers to journalists. He had his minions in Congress harass Hamilton with constant investigations and petty demands. To their chagrin, the energetic Hamilton always turned the tables on them.

Jefferson hired the sleazy James Callender to invent and publish libels against Hamilton, personal as well as political. At last they thought they "had him" over secret payments to one Reynolds. Hamilton at once revealed his affair with Mrs. Reynolds. The payments were simply the extortions of a blackmailer. The "investigators" recoiled in embarrassment. Hamilton may be an adulterer, they told the disappointed Jefferson. He's not a thief.

Jefferson got his poetic come-uppance when Callender turned on him and became the first to reveal to the world the existence of Sally Hemings.

Latterday veneration of Jefferson has obscured the fact that in his own time he was a controversial figure, not widely popular, an "atheist," a "Jacobin." (He thought the bloody French Revolution was a dandy example of what ought to happen in America.) Aaron Burr got as many electoral votes as he in 1800, throwing the election into the House of Representatives. Jefferson squeaked in only because Hamilton, who disliked and distrusted both men, conceded Jefferson at least had some principles, whereas Burr had none, and encouraged his Federalist followers in the House to vote for him. Jefferson never showed the least gratitude.

Indeed, he introduced the ugliest kind of personal malice into American politics. During a fever epidemic he voiced the hope that Hamilton might die of it. Nina Totenberg, of the leftist National Public Radio, followed this venerable Jeffersonian example by wishing fatal cancer on Robert Bork. And some of John Kerry's Hollywood fans have lately wished agonizing death on George Bush. The "right" may sometime have sunk as low, but I've never heard of it.

Jefferson crowned his callousness when Burr killed Hamilton in a duel. He never voiced even a token regret or sympathy, merely wrote friends gleefully speculating on how "We can use this!" (Hamilton's death, Burr's disgrace) to partisan advantage.

"Alexander Hamilton" is available in the Nevada Public Library.