“A torrent of angry and malignant passions will be let loose. To judge from the conduct of the opposite parties, we shall be led to conclude that they will mutually hope to evince the justness of their opinions, and to increase the number of their converts by the loudness of their declamations and the bitterness of their invectives. An enlightened zeal for the energy and efficiency of government will be stigmatized as the offspring of a temper fond of despotic power and hostile to the principles of liberty. An over-scrupulous jealousy of danger to the rights of the people, which is more commonly the fault of the head than of the heart, will be represented as mere pretense and artifice, the stale bait for popularity at the expense of the public good. It will be forgotten, on the one hand, that jealousy is the usual concomitant of love, and that the noble enthusiasm of liberty is apt to be infected with a spirit of narrow and illiberal distrust. On the other hand, it will be equally forgotten that the vigor of government is essential to the security of liberty; that, in the contemplation of a sound and well-informed judgment, their interest can never be separated; and that a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people than under the forbidden appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government. History will teach us that the former has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism than the latter, and that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.”— Alexander Hamilton, “The Federalist No. 1,” The Federalist Papers (1787)
I wish that I were more in the mood to celebrate the Fourth of July in the traditional mode, with fireworks, flag-waving, and other outbursts of gratitude for liberty. But, more than ever before, I feel the need to issue a storm warning on what can happen—and that day does not seem so far off—when those freedoms are curtailed. I can think of few warnings more relevant than the one by Alexander Hamilton as the campaign to ratify the Constitution began in earnest 230 years ago.
The first Secretary of the Treasury has not always been cited in a way that truly accounts for the contradictions in his life. Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the mega-hit musical Hamilton, recently released a video that riffed off one of his songs, "Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)" as a contribution to one of the most contentious debates of recent American history.
As the son and grandson of immigrants, I would love to enlist this Founding Father as a prophet of the energy and patriotism displayed by newcomers to America. But the Revolutionary War soldier who saw the French as comrades in his nation’s war of independence came to see them 20 years later as threats to American life.
But Hamilton remained consistent throughout his shortened life on the profound threat to republics posed by disorder, manifested in “a torrent of angry and malignant passions.” Like many of the other leaders of the Revolution and early republic (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison), he had received a thorough grounding in Greek and Roman classics. He knew, from the example of Rome, how easily a republic could degenerate into an empire.
From the ancient Roman historian Suetonius, Hamilton would have learned how Julius Caesar maneuvered within a Rome wracked by war and class divisions until he was left alone at the top of the state—and how Caesar’s increased appetite for power sparked further unrest (through his assassination on the Ides of March) and the effective end of the republic. According to biographer Ron Chernow, Hamilton’s papers are filled with “pejorative references” to Julius Caesar—and he likened Cabinet rival Thomas Jefferson to Caesar as a populist demagogue. (In time, of course, Hamilton saw Aaron Burr as an even more profound threat to American liberty.)
Fearing the lack of “a sound and well-informed judgment” among non-property owners, Hamilton foresaw dangers in a democracy. In particular, Chernow observes, “Hamilton fell prey to lurid visions that the have-nots would rise up and dispossess the haves. Men of property would be held hostage by armies of the indebted and unemployed.”
The American political system has evolved as a means of addressing that concern through a Jeffersonian education for all citizens, while still retaining a Hamiltonian “enlightened zeal for the energy and efficiency of government.”
But the constant unrest of the last generation—and the daily outrages from candidate and President Donald Trump—have resurrected Hamilton’s fear of someone given to “paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.” In seeing a system where no legislation gets passed or problems dealt with—where “the energy and efficiency of government” hailed by Hamilton has evaporated—voters last year chose someone completely outside the system, a billionaire blowhard with an unjustified reputation for getting things done.
Hamilton might have been dismayed, but not necessarily surprised, by this turn of events. From Suetonius, he would have known that Julius Caesar had solidified power by corrupting “all Pompey's friends…, as well as the greater part of the senate, through loans made without interest or at a low rate.” When it comes to political bribery, contemporary Washington exceeds ancient Rome--not to mention the Britain that Hamilton rebelled against--in ingenious new uses.
Those seemingly least immune to the power of gold had yielded to the temptation with an even more sickly avidity than the lower classes, according to another ancient Roman historian, Tacitus: “In the decline of the Roman Republic, the consular, patrician, and equestrian orders, rushed headlong into servitude; the more illustrious the family, the more corrupt and eager was the individual.”
Octavian (later Augustus) Caesar, nephew of Julius and the ultimate victor in the power struggle after his death, institutionalized this neutering of the powerful by speaking respectfully to the Roman Senate while ensuring that little if any real power ever returned to it. His successor, Tiberius, with none of Augustus’ velvet fist, engaged in sexual perversity and paranoid pursuit of enemies, resting on a base of contempt for a Roman senate fatally addicted to its privileges.
“Ah, the wretches!” Tiberius gloated about his senators at one point, according to Tacitus. “They are eager to court their own servitude! They cry royalty, God bless it!”
Tacitus was scathing about this state of affairs: “Thus, even the enemy of public liberty was himself disgusted with the excessive subserviency of his base slaves.” He—and Hamilton—would have grasped the dangers of a political order that, in a time of uncertainty, remains blissfully supine before a petulant libertine terrifyingly possessed of unmatched economic, political and military power.