Alexander Hamilton has got me thinking about Republicans.
Hamilton may have been a republican, but he was not a Republican.
Hamilton was the disease Republicans vowed to cure.
I’ve been reading Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow’s scholarly biography. It’s the book that inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda to create the musical show Hamilton.
Out of respect for your time, Fair Reader—and to put my own subsequent remarks in context—I shall boil down Chernow’s quarter of a million words to a few paragraphs, immediately below.
Summary of Chernow’s Book
Hamilton was a meteor that flashed across American skies in the late 1700s and very early 1800s. The glare of his arc obscured a lot of other guys desperately trying to get noticed.
A poor immigrant from the West Indies, Hamilton became George Washington’s right-hand man during the Revolutionary War, and the postwar confusion, and the early Constitutional period. When Washington was elected president, he chose Hamilton as secretary of the treasury. Besides consolidating and funding the existing Revolutionary War debts, starting a national bank, and putting America’s currency and credit on a sound basis, Hamilton organized nearly everything else about the infant government. He pushed all his many projects, from the Coast Guard to the Whiskey Tax, on to ultimate success.
In his pushiness, he made an enemy of Thomas Jefferson, Washington’s Secretary of State. Besides the fact that Hamilton leaned toward the British, from whom we had just separated, while Jefferson favored revolutionary France, the two men held opposing images of the future United States.
Hamilton advocated a strong central government to protect U.S. commercial interests, foster trade, and preside over an expanding industrial economy. He also abhorred slavery and wished to see it abolished. Jefferson idealized the independent farmer spread across the landscape—including those independent farmeers of the South who owned battalions of slaves to help with their independent farming. He distrusted cities, financiers, and a centralized government.
The Founding Fathers abhorred political parties; but factions immediately arose in the new American republic, based on contrasting worldviews and economic interests—and you had to call them something. Hamilton and his teammates were called Federalists. The name came from the Federalist Papers, a series of essays Hamilton had written, or caused to be written, promoting adoption of the U. S. Constitution.
Jefferson and his friends, including fellow Virginians James Madison and James Monroe, accused Hamilton of trying to sell America back to the British. They suggested that Federalists wanted to replace our elected president with a monarchy—despite the fact that Federalist-in-chief George Washington would never condone such a thing. The Jefferson crowd were called anti-Federalists, or more lastingly, Republicans—simply meaning they favored a republic, not the monarchy they feared the Federalists would impose.
Federalists vs. Republicans: It was the birth of the American two-party system. Things went downhill from there.
Chernow of course adds numerous details, which I have spared you. But that is the gist of it.
Hamilton came to a tragic end, which need not detain us here.
But what of that two-party system? What happened to it? Why is it that, 225 years later, we do not still have Federalists and Republicans?
Hold on a moment, Gracious Reader: Are you sure we don’t?
Around 1800, when France’s woes were an American spectator sport, U.S. fans of the French Revolution organized themselves as “Democratic Clubs.” These clubs aligned with Jefferson’s Republicans, at least on foreign policy. So the Republicans started calling themselves Democratic Republicans and, later on, just Democrats.
Meanwhile the Federalist party shot itself in the political foot too many times and went out of business, to be replaced by a party called the Whigs. Named after a similar party in the United Kingdom, the Whigs were not quite Federalists, but they had a lot in common with them. They wanted a strong central government that would foster infrastructure—roads, canals, railroads—to grow the domestic economy. They also favored a national bank and protective tariffs.
Sound a lot like Hamilton, don’t they, these Whigs?
The Democrats—and remember, Democrats were Republicans—espoused Jeffersonian ideals. They aimed to protect farmers, including the slaveholding farmers of the South. They rejected urbanism, industry, and finance. They opposed a strong central government.
Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, for example, wanted each state to make its own choice on slavery. This idea, which he called Popular Sovereignty, would have allowed Northern states to salve their consciences by prohibiting the immoral institution while simultaneously the Southern states could go on exploiting African American slaves. Douglas thought it was the ideal solution.
As the slavery question came to dominate politics, the Whig party—which was not all of one mind on slavery—withered away. A new party was born to take its place. Founding delegates meeting in Ripon, Wisconsin, thought “Republican” would be a good name. The Democrats having discarded the label long before, it was up for grabs. So old Whigs like Willam H. Seward and Abraham Lincoln became Republicans.
By 1860, the two-party system comprised Republicans, who now occupied the niche the Federalists had carved in the 1790s; and Democrats, who formerly had called themselves Republicans, back when they stood against the Federalists.
All clear so far?
Maybe not? Perhaps a review is in order.
Hamilton led the Federalists, who wanted a strong government fostering industry, trade, and commerce. Jefferson led the Republicans, who wanted a weak central government, states’ rights, and a system tilted in favor of dispersed farmers.
Through a process of evolution, the party that carried on Hamilton’s outlook called itself “Republican” in the mid-nineteenth century, as the Jeffersonian Republicans decades earlier had changed their label to “Democrats.”
When the Civil War came along, it was a war between the Republicans and the Democrats. That’s an oversimplification, but conceptually it is true.
The Republicans won the Civil War and the Democrats lost the Civil War.
Then the Republicans, assuming the slavery question had been settled, went on to other preoccupations: high finance and large-scale industry—typical Hamiltonian concerns.
The Democrats, after losing the Civil War, hoped to restore their party’s good name in the North while restoring society to its antebellum status in the South.
Now, Kind Reader, it is beyond Your New Favorite Writer’s competence to sketch how the two-party system evolved from a quasi-Hamiltonian versus a quasi-Jeffersonian party a century ago to a Big Government party and a Small Government Party today.
I am only here to suggest that today’s Democrats seem to espouse postures of which Hamilton, the Federalist, might approve. And today’s Republicans seem to espouse postures that Jefferson, the Republican, might endorse.
Would it be folly to suggest that today’s Democrats are a continuation of Hamilton’s Federalists, and that today’s Republicans now carry on the tradition of Jefferson’s Republicans?
Perhaps it is folly. Yet there is something in it.
Reading Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, I especially enjoyed one statement by the author: “If Washington was the father of the country and Madison the father of the Constitution, then Alexander Hamilton was surely the father of the American government.”
Hamilton set the pattern of the federal government as an active partner in setting the United States up to be a great nation—commercially, politically, and on the world stage. Because of Hamilton we have a federal government that is not afraid to step into the lives of its citizens and assume a directive role.
Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and others were wary of such confident assertiveness by the Executive Branch. They strove to establish primacy of the Congress over the Executive. With almost 250 years of perspective, we can say they largely failed in that mission. Congress today is more an appendage of the presidency than the other way around.
Largely for this reason, today’s Republicans wage a twilight struggle against federal overreach, highlighting many cases where people’s lives have suffered unreasonable intrusion by the federal government. They are opposing a well-entrenched foe—the Democrats, moved by a vision of the good things government has accomplished, and all the good things it might yet accomplish, if only the Republicans would let it.
The chief lesson of our common past is that the passions of today did not spring full-blown from our own brilliant imaginations. They are the echoes of similar passions begun centuries ago and modulated along the rocky pathways of the intervening years.
Lord help us all if we fail to grasp the implications of this fact.
Larry F. Sommers
Your New Favorite Writer