On the Mount Rushmore of our collective memory, the faces of many of the nation's founders loom as large weathered archetypes--unchanging men of granite who shaped the American Revolution and the new republic. In reality, of course, these individuals were complicated and sometimes less than admirable. Gore Vidal, in his novel Burr, famously capitalized on the shock value of portraying them as flesh-and-blood politicians. He brought them to life as figures who would be familiar to any modern statehouse reporter in, say, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, or Little Rock, Arkansas.
If Vidal parodied our esteemed founders a bit, well, he was probably closer to the truth than the more familiar versions of them as Olympians who temporarily graced us with their presence and whose every utterance should be viewed as a permanent guide to the future.
Political leaders over the past 200 years have not been bashful about appropriating, reinterpreting, and even reinventing aspects of the founders' thinking. Their ideas, like the Constitution itself, have been adapted to fit the needs of each succeeding generation and almost every ideology in American politics. We hold our founders up to the light of contemporary conditions and, all too often, see what we want to see. To be fair, I should note that some of the central figures of this period lend themselves to differing interpretations. Madison, for example, wavered from founding Federalist to rabid anti-Federalist before settling on the latter. Modern politicians have needed only a knack for selectivity to be able to make the claim that their arguments are firmly grounded in the principles of a founder.
For most of our history, when the authority of a founder was sought, Alexander Hamilton was a second stringer, brought in only when members of the first team, such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, and John Marshall, were worn out from over-use. In Alexander Hamilton, American, Richard Brookhiser makes a persuasive case that Hamilton, in fact, deserves a place on the all-star team of national memory. Thomas Fleming's treatment, Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Future of America, while telling a considerably broader story, also confirms the significance of Hamilton.
Brookhiser gives us a sense of the extent to which Hamilton's imprints on the early republic are everywhere. His remarkable rise from West Indies apprentice and son of a single mother to wartime aide to George Washington and secretary of the treasury is itself a peculiarly American story. His central role with Madison in drafting the Federalist Papers and fighting for ratification of the Constitution is probably the best-known part of his career. Still, as treasury secretary, he showed even greater foresight and originality.
Although Hamilton had great suppleness of mind--he was perhaps the best lawyer in America at the time of his death--his views were remarkably consistent and coherent. He had a clear vision of the new nation and believed that it could learn much from British economic policy and governmental practice. That attraction to things British was abhorrent to many of his contemporaries, notably Jefferson and Madison.
Ironically, what set Hamilton on an ultimately fatal collision course with Aaron Burr was his effort on behalf of his great enemy Jefferson in 1800. With the electoral college tied between Democratic-Republican presidential candidate Jefferson and vice presidential candidate Burr, the question of who would assume the presidency was very much in the air. Party politics was in its infancy when Burr was widely believed to be attempting to convince Federalist electors that throwing their support to him would be infinitely preferable to four years of the thoroughly anti-Federalist sage of Monticello. Hamilton, then a giant among Federalists, mounted a spirited and successful inside game to deny Burr the presidency.
Jefferson, of course, never forgave Burr and, rather ungenerously, never stopped hating Hamilton. Later, in 1804, after four years of machinations as vice president, Burr was grasping at straws to save his political career and went to Jefferson for help. Knowing that he would not be selected for vice president by Jefferson a second time, he sought in vain to obtain a presidential promise of office--his eye was particularly on either the ambassadorship to France or the one to England. But Jefferson would have none of it, and the frustrated Burr turned to his fallback: a race for governor of New York, a move that led a few years later to the crucial meeting on the "field of honor" with Hamilton.
While the Burr-Hamilton feud resulted in the latter's death, the same bullet also ended, in a sense, the former vice president's career. True, Burr lived on until 1836, but his falling out with Jefferson, the duel, and his subsequent flirtation with an independent "empire" in the West meant that he never again played in the upper echelons of American power. And although Hamilton was lionized at death, the long Virginia dynasty of his enemies--Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe--ensured that he too, at least for a time, would be remembered as an opponent of democracy rather than as a martyr to principle.
But in the long run, it was Hamiltonism that turned out to be the wave of the future. Free trade, a national banking system, a constructively deployed national debt, a strong military, publicly sponsored economic development programs, and other elements of his program are, in fact, the pillars on which the modern nation stands. Even his fondness for the British turned out to anticipate the "special relationship" between the two nations that has been a centerpiece of American foreign policy for generations.
Brookhiser's account is lively, with plenty of detail about Hamilton's wartime exploits, the sex scandal that threatened to engulf him, and the machinations of Jefferson, former friend Madison, and Monroe that helped to finish off his chances for public office. Although Brookhiser is a National Review conservative, he doesn't wear his ideological heart on his sleeve in this book. Fleming's Duel is likewise free of heavy-handed messages, at least beyond the moral that American politics has never been for the faint of heart.
While their stories are anything but new, both Brookhiser and Fleming manage to bring their historical figures to life as humans in the round without sacrificing authenticity or accuracy. The story of the early years of the United States needs this kind of fleshing out with real people. Some of the important decisions of the era reflect the deep personal animosities as well as loyalties among those in the political class. In other words, government policies then, as now, did not exist in isolation from the personalities battling for power and reputation. One can easily go too far in this direction--certainly that is the case with contemporary political reporting. In the end, it's the policies that matter. They endure in a way that is more significant than all the fanciful anecdotes about cherry trees and real accounts of duels to the death. While it may be true that Burr and Hamilton were doing no more than what many politicians would do to their enemies, the law and culture permitting, that does not change the fact that they also were establishing a foundation of laws and tradition that has had a lasting impact on our nation. Clearly, Hamilton is a giant in that respect while Burr is merely a minor player in the policy drama.
Brookhiser and Fleming provide accounts of this key period that are accessible to nonspecialists. Readers who find their appetites whetted by these books can find more in-depth coverage in the recent work of first-rate historians like Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick (The Age of Federalism) and Lance Banning (The Sacred Fire of Liberty).
In the end, these books remind us that the founders were a special crowd, for all their foibles. Like the best and brightest of any age, these men tell us a lot about their time. And because they cast such long shadows, they reveal a good deal about our own era. These days, Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton are particularly in play in policy debates. And even Washington, thanks to several new biographies, may be poised to make a comeback to relevance. Those who make political arguments today based on precedents that are two centuries old almost invariably overlook the bitter differences among the founders. They quote them selectively, applying their wisdom inappropriately to contemporary issues that these sages of the eighteenth century could not have imagined.
One of the legends about another Alexander, Alexander the Great, is that his lieutenants, all vying to succeed him, struggled over who would get possession of his body. Something similar happens with the body of work left behind by our founding leaders. Since the struggle for patrimony is sure to continue, it's worth remembering that Alexander Hamilton, the remarkable immigrant son of an unmarried mother, has every right to be considered one of the true fathers of modern America.