“Everybody Hates Hamilton”
I came across this Youtube video, “Everybody Hates Hamilton.” The video is culled from clips of the HBO miniseries John Adams. Although it is only based on one TV show (based on David McCullough’s biography of Adams), the theme of Hamilton as a scapegoat is echoed. It boggles my mind that Hamilton, who came to New York as a penniless illegitimate teenager from the West Indies and became a champion of a new republic and the architect of its economy has been caricatured by so many people as a staunch monarchist and a ruthless and unprincipled politician.
In The American Commonwealth, Viscount James Bryce said Hamilton’s “countrymen seem to have never, either in his lifetime or afterwards, duly recognized his splendid gifts.” Hamilton’s political enemies brought up the circumstances of his birth, cast doubt on his relationship with President Washington, and generally blamed him for having a vision that they couldn’t comprehend. Adams called him the “bastard brat of a Scottish peddler.” Jefferson wrote to Washington:
I will not suffer my retirement to be clouded by the slanders of a man whose history, from the moment at which history can stoop to notice him, is a tissue of machinations against the liberty of the country which has not only received him and given him bread, but heaped its honors on his head.
In many ways, this legacy continues today. Historians regularly characterize Hamilton as a Machiavellian statesman. One author has even gone so far as to say that “Hamilton’s Curse” must be repudiated in order for America to be truly free.
I contend that Hamilton’s steadfast commitment to his principles is at the root of his unpopularity. Unlike Jefferson, Hamilton did not bow to the winds of popularity at the slightest inclination. Instead, he faced the consequences of making unpopular decisions when he believed them to be morally or economically necessary.
Here are some examples:
Protecting the Tories
As a college student in New York, Hamilton became convinced of the Revolutionary cause and threw himself into it with all his physical and mental energy. However, when an angry mob of patriots stood at the door of Myles Cooper, the president of King’s College, Hamilton held off the mob for hours in order to prevent Cooper from being attacked. After the Revolution was won, a popular movement began to strip any Loyalists of their property and prevent them from becoming full citizens in the new republic. Hamilton firmly opposed this movement and insisted that even Loyalists have the opportunity to be citizens in the new nation.
Theodore Roosevelt stated:
Hamilton, the most brilliant American statesman who ever lived, possessing the loftiest and keenest intellect of his time, was of course easily the foremost champion in the ranks of the New York Federalists; second to him came Jay…Both of them watched with uneasy alarm the rapid drift toward anarchy; and both put forth all their efforts to stem the tide…In particular they abhorred the vindictive laws directed against the persons and property of Tories; and they had the manliness to come forward as the defenders of the helpless and excessively unpopular Loyalists. They put a stop to the wrongs which were being inflicted on these men, and finally succeeded in having them restored to legal equality with other citizens, standing up with generous fearlessness against the clamor of the mob.
Almost all of Hamilton’s economic policies, from establishing a National Bank to assuming the debts of the states to imposing an excise tax on whiskey, were politically unpopular but proved to be lifesaving for the new nation. Hamilton took on every uphill battle and, sometimes by sheer force of will, pushed those around him into accepting his plans. For example, Hamilton insisted that the government pay all of its war debts, including debts to speculators. During the Revolution, the Continental Congress sold war bonds to many supporters, including soldiers. However, over the long course of the war, many of the original owners of the bonds often sold them to speculators. After the War, there was a popular movement to disregard the debt altogether. Hamilton firmly believed that honoring this debt was essential to the financial progress of the nation. He eventually convinced resistant Southern congressmen to back him by agreeing to move the nation’s capital to the South.
Throughout his life, Hamilton was willing to make politically unpopular choices when he believed them to be necessary, or morally right. Hamilton is the ultimate historical underdog, and even as he rose to prominence in America, he never allowed the quest for popularity to overcome his moral convictions. Humans have a tendency to take the easy route, to “get along” with everyone whenever possible, and to generally follow the status quo and take the path of least resistance. As we all know, being part of the crow, or better yet, being the most popular person in the crowd can be a heady feeling. On the other hand, facing down a mob or being the only voice advocating your beliefs is always a struggle. Somehow, Hamilton maintained his public principles, even when they had unpleasant consequences. Hamilton’s life presents us all with a challenge: can we truly stand for what we believe in, no matter what the consequences?