“Everywhere, but only in spirit”

hamilton

People ask, where’s Hamilton nowadays, and I say, everywhere, but only in spirit.  There is nobody on the current political scene who thinks anywhere near as expansively as Hamilton, and with such confidence.  Part of this is, it’s no longer a Hamiltonian age.  That went out with the visionary sixties, which ended with the stagflation years of Jimmy Carter that in turn ushered in the Reaganite no-government era we’re still in.  So, Hamilton would never be elected today; he’d be laughed out of town.  (Of course, he wasn’t elected to anything above Assemblyman then.)  But there are plenty of Burrs, if defined as opportunistic demagogues, who will say anything to excite the electorate regardless of reality.  Burr was good at that.  He was the first politician to take his message directly to the people, and not campaign through intermediaries.  But he was all about the campaign, never about the job of governing.  It is telling that, of the three leaders of the Republican side today, none has held an elected position in any level of government.  Three Burrs, no Hamiltons.       

A Story of Sorry

soapbox

Hamilton’s death in the famous duel with Burr illustrates many things—the political conflicts of the day, the class division between the two men, the obligations of an honor culture.  But one thing that I don’t believe has ever been commented on is possibly the most obvious: how hard it is for a man to say I’m sorry, even if his life is depending on it.  Bump somebody on the sidewalk, and the word comes out pretty much automatically.  “Oh, sorry!”  Nothing hard about that.  But accidentally shaft a rival at work, costing him a promotion, or maybe even his job and–?  Nothing.  A snicker, probably.  Hey, it was an accident!  But the victim of this little piece of office politics is even less likely to get an apology if he makes an issue of it.  For now “face” is involved.  Face is a concept well known to Hamilton.  It’s status, self-worth, standing, virtue.  Men go a long way to save it.  An apology admits fault, and costs “face.”  But, of course, without an apology, the gulf between the two men only grows.  The victim of this little office mishap turns into an opponent, then an active antagonist, and finally a sworn enemy who is now determined to bring you down.  He’s become Burr, and he’s gunning for you.   He’s going to make you sorry.

Publishers Weekly Reviews War of Two

Publishers Weekly – War of Two

Journalist and novelist Sedgwick (In My Blood) looks back on one of America’s earliest scandals: the duel between Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s first secretary of the treasury, and Aaron Burr, the sitting vice president. The standoff stemmed from Hamilton calling Burr dangerous, but it was fueled by the interaction of two men for whom “relative standing was everything.” Hamilton, who had risen from illegitimacy and poverty to great power, possessed “a protean ability not just to make enemies but to create them,” and his influence waned accordingly. The nation’s rising star was Aaron Burr, whose political career began as “a testament to his high standing as a lawyer and to his elite background.” Sedgwick perceptively suggests that Burr’s skill at influencing public opinion epitomized for the emerging Republicans what Hamilton’s preference for elite governance did for the Federalists: competing versions of democracy. Never gaining Thomas Jefferson’s trust even as his vice president, Burr sought a power base in New York—where Hamilton had returned after leaving the government. Both men felt unacceptably diminished; each focused on the other as cause and symbol of his own relative decline. Sedgwick shows that while the duel was not inevitable, the pair’s final encounter was predictable. Agent: Dan Conaway, Writers House. (Nov.)