Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth

Layout 1 (Page 1)Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway blockbuster Hamilton kept Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill and has transformed this unlikely founding father into something of a celebrity. But while Hamilton is currently seen as a heroic figure, throughout much of the nation’s history he was seen as “un-American” – a closet monarchist who hated the “great beast,” the people, and a man whose dictatorial ambitions were checked by the champion of the common man, Thomas Jefferson.

It was Jefferson and his lieutenants who engaged in one of the first campaigns based on the politics of personal destruction. Jefferson believed that Hamilton favored “a monarchy bottomed on corruption” and had betrayed the spirit of 1776. Hamilton was in essence a British agent, and this cunning immigrant from the Caribbean repeatedly manipulated an aging, somewhat dim-witted President George Washington. Hamilton’s premature death in 1804 at the hands of Vice President Aaron Burr presented the Jeffersonians with a chance to “spin” the historical record and further distort Hamilton’s principles and practices. John Adams, who also despised Hamilton, partly for good reason, would later join Jefferson in crafting a narrative which portrayed Hamilton in a most unflattering light. Jefferson’s description of Hamilton as a plutocratic power-monger merged over time with Adams contempt for Hamilton’s character. Adams believed that Hamilton suffered from a “superabundance of secretions” which led him to engage in unbridled whoring. Additionally, both Jefferson and Adams were nativists, and it perturbed them that this “Creole bastard,” who was not quite “American,” held such sway over George Washington, whom they also resented.

Jefferson’s heirs in the Democratic Party, particularly Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren, echoed the Sage of Monticello’s caricatured conception of Hamilton, but the Civil War and the rise of the anti-slavery Republican Party provided a brief respite from populist Hamilton-bashing. A series of Republican presidents, including James Garfield, Rutherford B. Hayes, and Benjamin Harrison, all deeply admired Hamilton for his nationalism and to some extent his anti-slavery stance, which stood in stark contrast to Jefferson’s neo-secessionism.

Hamilton’s reputation peaked at the dawn of the 20th century, when Republicans such as Theodore Roosevelt invoked Hamilton’s nationalism and his embrace of “energetic” government to provide a founding imprimatur for his progressive agenda.  One of Roosevelt’s less than progressive successors, Warren G. Harding, revered Hamilton, and his Treasury Secretary, Andrew Mellon, erected a statue of the first Treasury Secretary that stands to this day outside his former cabinet department. But Harding’s and Mellon’s embrace of Hamilton was guaranteed to offend progressives and populists, and when the Great Depression came, Hamilton was held almost as culpable as Mellon and Herbert Hoover.

Other than Thomas Jefferson, no American contributed more to Hamilton’s negative image in the American mind than Franklin D. Roosevelt. The only book review FDR ever wrote was of Claude Bowers’ Jefferson and Hamilton: The Struggle for Democracy in America (1925), a sophomoric account of Jefferson’s gallant resistance to Hamilton’s plutocratic plotting. FDR loved the book, and would go on to present the same caricatured account in many speeches and letters. It was Roosevelt who elevated Jefferson into the American Pantheon with Washington and Lincoln, and it was Roosevelt who led the drive to erect the beautiful tidal basin memorial to the Sage.

Hamilton’s reputation during the Second World War sank so low that he was seen by many as Joseph Goebbels in a waistcoat and breeches. His defenders were compelled to argue that he would, in fact, have opposed the Nazis. At the height of the war one of the leading Broadway shows was The Patriots – the plot of this multiple-award winning play revolved around a cigar chomping Hamilton stomping around the stage all the while proclaiming that the American people were “drunken swine.” FDR invited the playwright to stage a command performance in Washington and to attend the dedication of the Jefferson Memorial.

This image held well into the 20th century, but began to breakdown partly in response to Hamilton’s status as the sole immigrant among the key founders. This status will likely secure his reputation in an increasingly diverse America. Hamilton’s standing has also improved due to increased scholarly appreciation of the role of race in American society. Jefferson’s role as one of the largest slave owners in Virginia stands in contrast to Hamilton’s founding membership in the New York Manumission Society. And, fair or not, it appears to be an iron law in American history that as one falls the other rises. Jefferson would have it no other way; as the Sage himself once put it, “opposed in death as in life.”

–Written by Stephen F. Knott, author of Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth