Sunday, March 27, 2011


It would be hard to deny that Glenn Beck has become a force to be reckoned with in the arena of contemporary political commentary. Like anyone else in the field, his effectiveness can be judged, at least in part, by the reactions of his detractors and admirers alike. One would hope that he would be the first to agree that no one should be judged solely by either the condemnation of their enemies or the praise of their allies. At the recent CPAC meeting he was introduced with the comment that his show was like, and I paraphrase here, listening to an advanced class in American history. It is true that he presents his audience with an almost overwhelming volume of material, frequently referencing Jefferson, Madison and Washington. We mustn’t forget however that he is a man with a perspective and an agenda.

As such, like any other commentator he is more than capable and willing to leave out of his story those things that don’t quite fit into his perspective and agenda or would make the reality less clear and simple as he would portray it. My case in point being, that while he so frequently references Jefferson, Madison and Washington, the name of Alexander Hamilton has rarely crosses his lips, and when it does so, it is most often with some derision.

So my issues with Mr. Beck would be to ask him is this omission willful or accidental? Has he bought too deeply into the characterizations of Hamilton coming from his enemies? On one of his recent television shows he had behind him a large stack of books he claimed as part of his historical reference. Among them was Ron Chernow’s recent biography of Hamilton. Has he actually read it? Has he read Steven Knott’s “Alexander Hamilton and The Persistence of Myth”? How about John Gordon’s “Hamilton’s Blessing: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Our National Debt”? All of these are good references that put Hamilton and his policies in contexts and perspectives beyond that of either his contemporary detractors or their modern day equivalents.

Modern historians all too frequently forget that in the period of our history after the ratification of our Constitution and for decades thereafter, if not unto the present day, the conflict between the Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian schools of thought on both finance and foreign policy was perhaps the most formative one in the creation of what the American Republic has grown to become. Within the context of the historical record it is no more possible to divorce Hamilton from Washington than it is to divorce Jefferson from Madison. Nor any of them, one from the other.

Neither can one divorce Hamilton from American industrial development and wealth, and the growth of the middle class it created, any more than one can one divorce Jefferson’s and Madison’s agrarianism and regionalism from the tragedy of the Civil War. Although it is true that Hamilton considered the Constitution a “flawed document,” no one worked harder for its ratification, often in concert with Madison. The “Federalist Papers” stand as ample testimony to that fact. Jefferson support for it was lukewarm at best. He did not consider it “democratic” enough and accepted it largely as a deferment to his friend Madison and as a fait accompli.

Hamilton stands apart from his contemporaries simply by his background. While Messer’s Jefferson, Madison, Washington and Adams all came from the backgrounds of the privileged and landed gentry, politically and emotionally wedded to their individual States, Hamilton was America’s preeminent nationalist and the arch type of the American self-made man. Born to unwed parents, raised in poverty and orphaned at a young age, he was driven to greatness by just these shortcomings. Having come here as a young man he bore no allegiance to any one State, not even New York where he spent most of his life. As such he was considered an outsider by most of his founding brethren.

The notable exception to this being Washington himself, whom Hamilton had served as his chief aid-de-camp and private secretary during most the Revolutionary War. It is often forgotten that it was Colonel Hamilton that led the final attack at Yorktown that captured the British redoubt breaking the back of their defenses and convincing Cornwallis to surrender (whereas both Jefferson and Madison lacked any military experience). In 1789 it was Hamilton whom Washington called upon to serve as our nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury. Washington so trusted Hamilton that much of Washington’s correspondence during the war was drafted by Hamilton’s hand and was signed by the General with little or no revision. This relationship continued even after Hamilton left the Treasury Department. The largest part of Washington’s famous farewell address being of Hamilton’s composure.

Through his rigorous study of the classic histories of Rome and Greece, no one understood better than Hamilton and by extension Washington, the fragility of the new Republic and the threats posed to it by the financial chaos of out of control inflation and a mountain of debt. Sound familiar? The term “Not worth a Continental” was a part of the American lexicon well into the nineteenth century, and for good reason. After the Revolution, American debt paper was held in such low regard that it traded at 10% to 20% of face value on European markets. If the situation was not corrected, and quickly, the new nation would not be able to conduct any further borrowing; monies desperately needed for both infrastructure and programs mandated by the new Constitution.

Such failure would have left the nation in the position of the “weak sister” and subject to the predations of Spain which coveted those territories south of the Ohio, east of the Mississippi, and west of the Appalachians, and England which had yet to withdraw its troops from the Northwest Territories as had been required by the Treaty of Paris.

Hamilton’s primary purpose in his programs for the assumption of the State’s war debts and the creation of the Bank of the United States was to bind the States together financially, to give them a set of common interests and the strength of unity that would be needed in a world hostile to the very concept of its existence. He succeeded beyond even his own imaginations. By the end of Washington’s second term, American debt paper was trading at a premium above face value and was considered far more stable and reliable than that issued by most of Europe, most of which were personal debts of the crowned heads of Europe rather than sovereign debts of the nations themselves.

It seems then a bizarre irony that Jefferson, Madison and Adams were most fond of heaping calumny upon Hamilton, even after his untimely death, that of being elitist and aristocratic, despite that being precisely the backgrounds from which they came. It could be said that they were the authors of the method of resorting to the personal attack when unable to refute the logic or efficacy of your opponent’s position that seems so prevalent today. Further irony came in that Jefferson, Madison and Monroe all came to conduct their administrations far more in line with Hamiltonian nationalism than either Jefferson’s agrarian isolationism or Jacobin egalitarianism.

Without Hamilton’s Bank of the United States Jefferson would not have had access to the funds he needed to purchase Louisiana. An act, about which he and others in his own party had doubts, especially concerning how in conflicted with their “strict constructionist” interpretation of the Constitution. Madison’s allowing of the charter for the Bank to expire, for political rather than financial reasons, had disastrous consequences for the raising of the funds needed to conduct military operations during the War of 1812. The “Monroe Doctrine” became a cornerstone of American foreign policy for over one hundred years. It could be argued that they all found that lofty rhetorical platitudes were of little use when faced with the realities of having to govern in a hostile world.

Again, sound familiar? So blinded was Jefferson by his mistrust and hatred of Hamilton and his personal conviction that Hamilton had used the office the Secretary of the Treasury for personal gain that one of his first acts on assuming the Presidency was to direct his own Treasury Secretary, Albert Gallatin (himself an immigrant and the son of Swiss nobility) to audit the Treasury’s books in search of Hamilton’s fraud. He found none, and reported back to Jefferson that the accounting systems were so scrupulously structured as to almost preclude fraud being possible. Rather than admit to anyone or even himself that he might have been wrong he became further convinced that Hamilton was even more conniving and clever in instituting his fraud than even he had imagined!

Such was Jefferson’s gratitude to Hamilton for his having persuaded Federalists in the House of Representatives to switch their votes from Burr to Jefferson and break the deadlock of the election of 1800, the one single event, more than any other, that set the course to his death at Burr’s hand.

Lest one fall too deeply for the notion that Jefferson was the great champion of or admirer of the masses I would refer you to Jefferson’s own “Writings, Notes on the State of Virginia” wherein he proposed an educational system that would single out the best students for advancement while the “residue” were “dismissed,” “by this means twenty of the best geniusses [sic] will be racked from the rubbish annually.” {New York: Library of America, 1984, page 272.} Sounds all too much like many comments coming from the left today, Daily Kos, Democratic Underground, Keith Olbermann. Bill Mahr etc., that those who oppose progressive’s agenda are to ignorant or stupid to know what is in their own best interest.

By way of contrast I would give you President Washington’s letter to Hamilton upon his decision to resign as Secretary of the Treasury: “After so long an experience of your public services, I am naturally led, at this moment of your departure from office –which it has always been my wish to prevent- to review them. In every relation which you have borne to me, I have found that my confidence in your talents, exertions, and integrity, has been well placed. I the more freely tender this testimony of my approbation, because I speak from opportunities of information which cannot deceive me, and which serve satisfactory proof to your title to public regard.” {“The Founders on the Founders” University of Virginia Press, 2008 page 198.}

Neither was Hamilton shy in his opinions of Jefferson and Madison. Writing to Edward Carrington in 1792, with whom he had served at the Battle of Yorktown and in the Continental Congress: “Mr. Madison cooperating with Mr. Jefferson…have a womanish attachment to France and a womanish resentment of Great Britain.” {Ibid. page 382.} In the end perhaps Jefferson, Madison and Monroe’s greatest fear of Hamilton was that he was certainly no “democrat.” In hind sight perhaps that’s not such a bad thing.

None of this is stated in order to detract from Jefferson’s or Madison’s great accomplishments that have served our nation well over some 235 years nor to obscure Hamilton’s personal shortcomings and failures, he had more than his share, but rather to try to put them all into a combined context, each into their interconnected place. They were all the greatest of men in the most trying of times, and as all men they were possessed of strengths and weaknesses.

It has been the historical persistence of their great conflict over time, the ebb and flow, the ascendency of one and the decline of the other that has shaped our nation’s history as much or more than any other. They are as inseparable today as they were in the 18th century. The advent of progressivism and socialism today is but a continuation, albeit in a highly perverted form, of Jefferson’s Jacobin inspired egalitarianism. Where Jefferson envisioned a nation of agrarian masses shackled to ignorance and the plow, today’s progressives strive for a nation where the masses are equally shackled to ignorance and the welfare state.

Conversely it was Hamilton who envisioned a diverse economy of farms and industry that would forever break our dependence on Europe and foster the kind of human inventiveness that could and did drive us further forward. I’d think that that is the kind of progress we can all endorse.

So Mr. Beck if I may “Question with boldness,” Why have you left this most important man and his accomplishments out of your narrative? To leave Hamilton out of our history, how our nation came to be, and what it has become, is not simply a disservice to Hamilton, but a disservice to the American people who must have all the facts in order to make the decisions that will shape the future.

Would you not think, before “Not worth a Federal Reserve Note” becomes a part of the new American lexicon, is not perhaps an open and honest re-examination of Hamilton and how his lessons might apply to today in order?

While marble and granite memorials to Jefferson and Washington stand prominently in our Capital, Hamilton’s is but a single statue in front of the Treasury Department. Or is it? Look around you. We live in a nation that is much more a reflection of Hamilton’s vision than that of Jefferson. How long it stays that way is up to us. But making decisions without all the facts may well be akin to building foundations on shifting sands. I’d beg you sir, and all of us to carefully reconsider Hamilton's absence from your narative.

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