Every day we hear reports of false political statements and why we must disregard them. However, other forms of falsehood easily go unnoticed—or worse, are celebrated by an uninformed public. In a recent Wall Street Journal essay, Peggy Noonan suggests that in a quest for truth, entertainment should not be ignored. She explores fallacies in The Post, a recent movie about the Pentagon Papers, and in The Crown, a Netflix series about the life of Queen Elizabeth II. For Noonan, the standard of truth should be high for historical work, especially when entertainment’s impact is so pervasive in society.
Reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, I was captivated by the Founder’s life and mind. His economic foresight and political genius struck a chord with me. Since Lin-Manuel Miranda read the same book, I had high hopes for his musical. But as I sat in PrivateBank Theatre, I realized that, though provocative and entertaining, Hamilton: The American Musical is at best historical fiction.
Of course, producers often take creative liberties and omit details. What I found troubling, however, was that the production omits the entire substance of Hamilton’s work, including his thoughts, theories, and writings. It is the last of these that should be celebrated and remembered as hallmarks of American political theory.
Being a realist, Hamilton was pessimistic about human nature and skeptical of democracy. He believed “a nation without a national government” was “an awful spectacle.” He knew that national power was necessary, and warned against modelling political systems on the basis of “lasting tranquility” in Federalist No. 34.
Hamilton’s true political ideas might be too startling for audiences today, given America’s current political climate. A New York Times journalist pointed to the irony of Hamilton’s newfound popularity, noting, “It’s an odd moment for the public to embrace an unabashed elitist who liked big banks, mistrusted the masses and at one point called for a monarchal presidency and a Senate that served for life.”
An aggressive executive branch was central to his vision. In Federalist No. 70, Hamilton wrote, “Energy in the executive is a leading character in the definition of good government.” A vigorous executive was precisely what would make America’s system work well. The legitimacy and strength of the executive was so important that Hamilton insisted George Washington continue for a second term to provide stability in the early years of the nation.
Hamilton was even willing to put personal conflicts with Jefferson aside in service to the nation’s best interests, especially regarding westward expansion. Michael Medved says that Hamilton hailed the Louisiana Purchase as “being essential to the peace and prosperity of our Western country and as opening a free and valuable market to our commercial states.”
Often Hamilton had unmatched foresight to anticipate the needs of the country. At the Constitutional Convention, he acknowledged that the Constitution would only work if it was flexible and ready to address future challenges. Of course, he already had solutions in mind to fund the national debt, to establish a national bank, and to create a tax system. He had experienced firsthand challenges to state law without an existing national authority. For example, in a New York State case, Rutgers v. Waddington (1784), Hamilton introduced the concept of judicial review and provided rationale for the inclusion of a Supremacy Clause, at least three years before the U.S. Constitution was drafted and nearly twenty years before Marbury v. Madison (1803).
Contrary to the progressive undertones of the musical, Hamilton’s ideas were not radical or revolutionary. He more often drew on the virtue of previous authors to inform his opinions.
Biographers like Forrest McDonald and Chernow agree that one can see inspiration from Plutarch, Aristotle, Hobbes, Blackstone, Vattel, Hume, and others in Hamilton’s work. His personal library was stocked with classics dating from ancient Athens to seventeenth-century England.
Hamilton took a conservative approach to building the new American government. He wanted to accept the best that history had to offer and to modify only what was necessary. This concept was unpalatable for other Founders who feared tyranny. Chernow thoroughly discusses Hamilton’s monarchist opinions during his college days. In fact, Hamilton had once considered that America might be better suited to a place within the British commonwealth rather than independence—another point Miranda’s score omits.
While Hamilton held strongly to his own views, he also had the courage to acknowledge other viewpoints. In his most popular publication, The Federalist Papers, Hamilton attempts to address the biggest concerns and confusion about the Constitution. In his Federalist No. 78, he makes a convincing argument for the judiciary as the “least dangerous” branch of government:
The Executive not only dispenses the honors, but holds the sword of the community. The legislature not only commands the purse, but prescribes the rules by which the duties and rights of every citizen are to be regulated. The judiciary, on the contrary, has no influence over either the sword or the purse; no direction either of the strength or of the wealth of the society; and can take no active resolution whatever. It may truly be said to have neither FORCE nor WILL, but merely judgment.
Hamilton was a classical liberal. Chernow’s considers him “the prophet of the capitalist revolution in America.” He was not a modern egalitarian or welfare “liberal.” Classical liberalism contends that civil liberties must be partnered with economic freedom, aka capitalism.
Hamilton was immersed in international commerce during his childhood in the British West Indies. So he brought a global perspective to the American economy that other Founders lacked. Having seen the “invisible hand” at work, he believed in the power of free trade and open markets. He understood the forces of supply and demand and how the United States could be a dominant force in the market. He was not naïve, however. Hamilton knew that America would need time to develop its industry before it could become a true competitor. He proposed fair restrictions like tariffs on certain imports to give America an equal chance at success. Hamilton advocated for banks, manufacturing, and stock exchanges, facets of society that peers like Thomas Jefferson deemed evil. Chernow believes that Hamilton’s vision for the American economy turned out to be far more telling of the future than Jefferson’s agrarian dreams.
Hamilton’s economic sense extended beyond marketplaces to individuals. He saw private property rights as the primary protection of individual liberty. Echoing John Locke and Sir William Blackstone, Hamilton spoke of property as a “natural right” that was “inherent in every Englishman.” Chernow mentions that Hamilton was one of the few attorneys willing to represent loyalists who lost property during the Revolutionary War, a testament to the value he placed on property rights.
It might shock audiences that Hamilton saw the Bill of Rights not as a protection of, but a threat to, individual freedoms. UVA’s David O’Brien observes that Hamilton considered the Constitution itself as a bill of rights that restricted and delineated the government’s role. In Controlling the State, Scott Gordon confirms that the U.S. Constitution comprehended the ideas at the core of the 1689 English Bill of Rights. Exasperated by demands for an additional bill of rights, Hamilton responded to public concern in Federalist No. 84:
A minute detail of particular rights is certainly far less applicable in a United States Constitution …, which is merely intended to regulate the general political interests of a nation than to a constitution which has the regulation of every species of personal and private concerns…. For why declare things shall not be done which there is no power to do? Why, for instance, should it be said that the liberty of the press shall not be restrained when no power is given by which restrictions may be imposed?
Miranda’s musical focuses on the value of legacy. To me, however, Hamilton’s legacy is not about duels, political feuds, affairs, war, or immigration. Rather, it is that the basis of a successful life and career is critical thinking. Hamilton’s primary drive was his intellect, after all.
I ask you, whether or not you have seen the musical, to read Hamilton, cite Hamilton, and discuss Hamilton. But for heaven’s sake, do not just rap Hamilton. There is much more that Alexander Hamilton can teach besides how to rhyme perfect insults and dance hip-hop.
Kelsey Holmberg studies economics and political science at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU). As a co-chair and panelist of the Constitution Day Committee, she has organized forums for speakers to discuss constitutional questions on campus. She also serves as the President of CWRU's chapter of Phi Alpha Delta Pre-Law Fraternity International.
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