From the VG Bookshelf: Alexander Hamilton by Forrest McDonald (and his Abduction by the Left)
From the VG Bookshelf: Alexander Hamilton by Forrest McDonald (and his Abduction by the Left)
The Broadway musical Hamilton that has been captivating audiences for the past several years loves to coopt America’s first Treasury Secretary for liberal purposes. I will admit, I absolutely adore the musical (yes, I’m a nerd), for its originality, brilliant lyricism, and unique rhythms. The immense talent of the original cast cannot be disputed, other than by those whose immense hatred for the leftist bent of those involved, and even they cannot credibly deny the gargantuan singing and acting genius of performers such as Leslie Odom, Jr., who played Aaron Burr, and Renee Elise Goldsberry, who played Angelica Schuyler.
But with fame comes a dark side. The immense popularity of the musical unfortunately has allowed the left to appropriate Alexander Hamilton as their own.
He was hardly that
Based on Ron Chernow’s popular pop biography of America’s “ten-dollar founding father without a father,” the musical – while beautifully written and acted – helps perpetuate the lie that somehow the Founders of this nation would have held hands with today’s left on topics such as immigration and social justice.
And that just ain’t true.
Forrest McDonald’s excellent biography of Alexander Hamilton, told using the Secretary’s own writing, explores the influences and philosophies that made this young genius such a fascinating and complex collection of apparent contradictions. He looks at Hamilton as a thinker and showcases his economic genius, while explaining what it was that drove him to seek Fame – not in the traditional sense of the word (I will explain later) – and play an integral part in the creation of our nation as we know it today.
I admit I haven’t read Chernow’s biography, and to be honest, I’m also one of those nerds who doesn’t like books turned into movies; however based on the reviews that glorify Hamilton as an immigrant who accomplished so much, because IMMIGRANT!, and the incessant harping on Hamilton (and Lafayette, for that matter) as immigrants to promote the idea of the benevolent newcomers who came to our shores to contribute to our country’s greatness, I get the feeling that Chernow’s book is just going to piss me off. So I just didn’t bother, and I chose to focus on the musical instead, because a) it’s based on Chernow’s book, and b) it’s a lot more fun.
Let’s start with the fact that Alexander Hamilton was not an immigrant. It’s true he was born on the island of Nevis and came to America to attend King’s College (now Columbia University) at the age of 16, but America wasn’t even a country in 1773 when Hamilton arrived in New York.
The first immigration law in the United States – the Naturalization Act of 1790 – wasn’t written then.
But in an effort to coopt Hamilton to his immigration cause, Lin Manuel Miranda – the show’s creator – repeatedly refers to him as such.
The ship is in the harbor now, see if you can spot him
(Just you wait)
Another immigrant comin’ up from the bottom
(Just you wait)
His enemies destroyed his rep, America forgot him
“The Room Where it Happens”
Two Virginians and an immigrant walk into a room.
Diametric’ly opposed, foes.
They emerge with a compromise, having
opened doors that were
“What’d I Miss?”
How does the bastard orphan
Immigrant decorated war vet
Unite the colonies through more debt?
Fight the other founding fathers til he has to forfeit?
Have it all, lose it all
You ready for more yet?
“Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)”
How you say, no sweat
We’re finally on the field. We’ve had quite a run
We get the job done
As a side note, Lafayette wasn’t an immigrant either.
How does a ragtag volunteer army in need of a shower
Somehow defeat a global superpower?
How do we emerge victorious from the quagmire?
Leave the battlefield waving Betsy Ross’ flag higher?
Yo. Turns out we have a secret weapon!
An immigrant you know and love who’s unafraid to step in!
He’s constantly confusin’, confoundin’ the British henchmen
Ev’ryone give it up for America’s favorite fighting Frenchman!
Lafayette never immigrated to the United States. The US wasn’t even a country when he arrived on our shores, and he never intended to stay. He came to fight in the US revolution, because he was convinced that our cause against the British was noble. Know what that describes? A foreign fighter.
A foreign fighter is an individual who leaves his or her country of origin or habitual residence to join a non-state armed group in an armed conflict abroad and who is primarily motivated by ideology, religion and/or kinship.
Hmmmmmm… ring any bells?
Lafayette went back to France after the war, so calling him an immigrant is an outright lie. But back to Hamilton.
The musical attempts to advance the notion of Alexander Hamilton as an abolitionist of sorts – because MUH NARRATIVE!
“Alexander Hamilton” – opening number
And every day while slaves were being slaughtered and carted
Away across the waves, he struggled and kept his guard up…
But we’ll never be truly free
Until those in bondage have the same rights as you and me
You and I. Do or die. Wait till I sally in
On a stallion with the first black battalion…
Of course, the liberals screech now that the musical doesn’t dwell on slavery nearly enough, but fact of the matter is that Miranda ran into an inconvenient fact when he was writing the lyrics: most of the Founders – including Hamilton – at the very least tolerated slavery.
Hamilton wasn’t a fan, to be sure, but he considered property rights to outweigh that whole “owning another human being” thing. And whether we like to admit it or not, slaves – both black and white – were, in fact, property back then, and it was a pretty common view among those who founded our nation.
McDonald writes that Hamilton “always championed liberty and abhorred slavery.” Based on Hamilton’s own words, that’s correct. His religious patron, Reverend Hugh Knox, a Princeton-educated Presbyterian minister instilled in Hamilton a sense of religious morality, according to McDonald, teaching him to abhor slavery.
In support of his friend John Laurens’ plan to recruit several black battalions from the black population in South Carolina to fight in the Revolutionary War in exchange for freedom, Hamilton wrote a letter to John Jay, then-President of the Continental Congress.
Renouncing the bigotry that prevailed in regard to blacks, which “makes us fancy many things that are founded neither in reason nor experience,” he argued the egalitarian position that “their natural faculties are probably as good as ours,” and the culturally deterministic position that their intellectual shortcomings stemmed only from a “want of cultivation.” It was an essential part of Laurens’s scheme, he said, “to give them their freedom with their muskets.”
(Note: I also see this as a foreshadowing of Hamilton’s writings in the Federalist Papers, highlighting the idea that arms equal freedom – that an armed populace is the last bulwark against tyranny. Hamilton was dedicated to the idea that should a government become tyrannical, the “citizens must rush tumultuously to arms, without concert, without system, without resource; except in their courage and despair.” The gun as a tool of freedom. Not a very leftist idea today, now is it?)
As for immigration… first we need a bit of background.
McDonald writes that Hamilton’s ultimate goal was to be part of creating a nation – he wanted the Fame of creating something great – the United States. We can debate what the underlying psychological reasons for his quest for Fame were – daddy issues, a desire to prove himself, the need for a legacy, abandonment issues after his father left and after his mother died – but no one can argue that his passion for creating something great didn’t drive him.
Writers of the Enlightenment, in keeping with their enthusiasm for sorting and classifying and ranking everything, had devised a number of classifications of great achievements leading to Fame. Their model was classical: secular thinkers from Machiavelli through Sir Francis Bacon to Hume and beyond had been fascinated with the ancient orders of gods and demigods, and combed the pages of Plutarch’s Lives for archetypical representatives of mortals whose achievements won them immortality. According to Bacon’s system, perhaps the best known in the eighteenth century, five classes were recognized. From bottom to top, these were fathers of their country, “which reign justly, and make the times good where they life”; champions of empire, “such as in honorable wars enlarge their territories or make noble defence against invaders”; saviors of empire who deliver their country from civil war or the yoke of tyrants; lawgivers, “who are also called perpetui principes or perpetual rulers, because they govern by their ordinances after they are gone”; and finally at the pinnacle, “FOUNDERS OF STATES AND COMMONWEALTHS.” …Hume wrote “the first place of honor seems due to LEGISLATORS and FOUNDERS OF STATE, who transmit a system of laws and institutions to secure the peace, happiness and liberty of future generations.
That drive to create a great nation is what Hamilton expected of himself. In Federalist 72, he wrote of “…the love of fame, the ruling passion of the noblest minds, which would prompt a man to plan and undertake extensive and arduous enterprises for the public benefit,” and in a letter to his uncle in 1797, Hamilton admitted that government service basically sucked, but it was this love of Fame that was his driving force.
Public Office in this Country has few attractions. The pecuniary emolument is so inconsiderable as too amount to a sacrifice to any man who can employ his time with advantage in any liberal profession. The opportunity of doing good, from the jealousy of power and the spirit of faction, is too small in any station to warrant a long continuance of private sacrifices. The enterprises of party had so far succeeded as materially to weaken the necessary influence and energy of the Executive Authority, and so far diminish the power of doing good in that department as greatly to take the motives which a virtuous man might have for making sacrifices. The prospect was even bad for gratifying in future the love of Fame, if that passion was to be the spring of action.
In other words, Hamilton was a nationalist – not a term the liberals find complimentary these days – but his actions as a revolutionary and later as a government official show that his first concern was always the nation.
So Hamilton was not against immigration when it benefited the country overall. He, for instance, understood the economic realities of the time in which he was living. To make our new nation competitive with Europe – after all, we were a much younger country and had a lot of catching up to do in terms of industrial development – Hamilton advocated for promoting “emigration from foreign Countries.”
But at the same time, Hamilton understood that allowing immigrants into the United States indiscriminately not only presented a security risk, but also a threat to the culture and the government and a threat to the nation because of potential divided loyalties, so he supported the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798.
Ooops! Not something the left wants to discuss when it comes to Hamilton, I bet.
Everything Hamilton did was meant to ensure the survival of the United States as a nation and the prosperity and continued growth of a nation to which he was dedicated probably more than almost anyone.
My libertarian friends abhor Hamilton for that very reason. Hamilton’s ultimate goal wasn’t liberty in and of itself, but a strong nation ruled by moral, incorruptible men, which he believed would, by its very nature, result in the protection of basic natural rights. That is not to say that Hamilton didn’t treasure liberty. He very much believed in it, but not as an ultimate goal – more as the inevitable result of a strong, ethical government.
Libertarians and classical liberals also despise Hamilton for creating the financial system we know today. But again, whether you agree or disagree with his vision and how to achieve it, his goal was the creation of that great state. He understood that our new nation couldn’t compete with Europe when we were sinking under the burdens of our debts from the Revolutionary War and if we had no line of credit to secure funding for our manufacturing and industry. Most of his contemporaries disagreed and thought public debt should just be repudiated. That’s not exactly honorable, and an affront to Hamilton’s quest for a government ruled by ethical, incorruptible men.
For Hamilton, repudiating our debts was unconscionable – a breach of trust – a broken promise (something he believed about his personal finances as well). Hamilton understood that credit and debt were necessary to propel the US to the status of an industrial power and argued that public debt was a way to ensure growth and stability (something Jefferson and he ardently disagreed about), he also understood that ensuring a reliable flow of funds to service those debts was necessary.
The difference between Hamilton and Jefferson was stark in this respect. Hamilton didn’t hate debt. He understood it to be a critical instrument to ensure the growth and development of our nation, and he was equally obsessive about paying his personal debt. So much so, that in the letter he wrote the night before his duel with Aaron Burr, he said he planned to throw away his shot – fire over Burr’s head – because a) dueling is against his moral and religious nature, and he didn’t want to kill another living human being (despite having killed plenty during the war); b) he loved his family, (despite having cheated on his wife with Maria Reynolds); and c) he didn’t want to leave his creditors holding his debts as a matter of honor.
I feel a sense of obligation towards my creditors; who in case of accident to me, by the forced sale of my property, may be in some degree sufferers. I did not think my self at liberty, as a man of probity, lightly to expose them to this hazard.
He also didn’t want to duel because, despite the rivalry between him and Aaron Burr, he bore no ill will toward him (other than considering him immoral and unscrupulous and disagreeing with him politically, of course).
Burr was a dick. I would have shot him without a second thought, but that’s beside the point.
Jefferson, I note, was passionately against debt, and cut government spending in an effort to balance the budget and pay off the national debt. Unlike Hamilton, however, Jefferson’s personal debts were overwhelming, and his family was forced to sell much of his property, including Monticello, after Jefferson’s death because of it.
I keep making asides, because I find these men fascinating, and because I despise those who strive to twist history to fit their narrative. Forrest McDonald was quite obviously a Hamilton fanboy in a lot of ways, glossing over the slavery issue and painting him as an abolitionist rather than a pragmatist who would abandon the issue of slavery if it meant protecting property rights and abiding by the laws of the nation he helped build, but he uses Hamilton’s own words and writings to describe a man who was so singularly dedicated to the ideal that is the nation he helped create, that he would sacrifice everything, including his his relationship with his wife, by publicly admitting adultery and that he was paying off James Reynolds to keep quiet about the affair Hamilton was having with his wife, rather than be suspected of committing treason by stealing money from the Treasury.
He believed it was imperative that there be no room for doubt among fair-minded men that he had administered the Treasury with absolute propriety. In his eyes, not only his reputation but the integrity of this financial system and of the public credit itself were at stake.
Hamilton was more conservative than today’s liberals would like you to believe. They cannot separate the man from the entertaining and clever musical Lin Manuel Miranda wrote, and they cannot admit to themselves that the man they have embraced as “one of them,” would have more likely than not despised their corruption, laughed at their misinterpretation of his words, and scoffed at their lack of economic knowledge.
They cannot enjoy the musical for what it is, entertaining fake news. They would rather kidnap Hamilton, dress him up like a tiara-wearing, purple-haired gender-nonconforming fruitcake, and claim him as their own.
Those of us who read and think know better.