One great thing about long driving trips is the time available to listen to good books.  On a trip to Portland Oregon we got a good way through an excellent reading (Scott Brick in Audible; 36 hours) of Ron Chernow’s much acclaimed 2005 biography of Alexander Hamilton – made more famous by the smash Broadway play that followed it.  It is a rich, deeply researched book, not just of biography but politics, contention, sex scandals and a master’s course in virulent personal invective.  I don’t know if Chernow read all of Hamilton’s 22,000 pages of collected essays, articles, diatribes, letters and journals, but he must have come pretty close.

What was most interesting to me, in our own difficult times, is how riven the early years of the United States were, along personality, regional, economic and, almost immediately, along party lines – despite the fear and warnings about the dangers of “factions.”  Much is said today about the incivility in the United States, among ordinary folks and in congress.  Since at least the Newt Gingrich’s 1996 Go-Pac memo of nasty ways to refer to the opposition, or its projects, contempt has been riding a bull market.  With the campaign of Donald Trump, his election, and taking office, the fires of anger, disgust and contempt have raged even hotter.  It turns out, this is how the country was born.

Even during the writing of the Constitution people were at each other’s throats.  Some of the work was done in secrecy, leading to accusations of a “wicked cabal” at work.  Patrick Henry compared the document to “the tyranny of George III.”

Far from being the saints of our imaginations, Jefferson, Hamilton, Monroe, Adams were all capable of turning a fine maligning phrase, and often did. Jefferson and Hamilton could barely stomach each other, and not just because of clashing personality styles.  They represented, and led, the two forces that continue in the country today, that of centralized national government with powers to over-rule the states (Hamilton and the Federalists) and that of state-power,  suspicious to the point of paranoia about Federal power (Jefferson and the Republicans.) And what made the Republicans so suspicious? Why slavery of course.  The stronger the federal government was, the more likely it would impose a prohibition on slave holding; by 1804 all northern states, predominantly in the Federalist camp, had banned slave ownership.  As Chernow has it, Jefferson and Madison, both Virginians,  cleverly changed the focus from the evils of slave holding, and the resulting accumulated wealth of plantation owners, by loudly and repeatedly inveighing against the concentrated wealth of the bankers, monopolists and merchants in the north.

For most of his public career, Hamilton was blasted by Jefferson and the Republicans as being a closeted Monarchist, with secret deals to re-install the Royalty of England over the U.S.  On one occasion Jefferson wrote that Hamilton “was not only a monarchist but for a monarchy bottomed on corruption.” And it was not purely political.  When Hamilton and his wife caught yellow fever and fled Philadelphia, Jefferson in a letter to a James Madison heaped abuse upon Hamilton for “cowardice, hypochondria and fakery.” “Inverting reality” as Chernow  tells us, an early “swift boating” of a courageous man.  Even the competing cures for Yellow Fever took on political baggage: the Federalist cure (doses of Peruvian Bark [quinine], cold baths and brandy)  vs the Republican cure (bleeding and bowel purging.)

Much of the public participation in these uncivil wars followed the leadership of purely partisan newspapers  the Gazette of the United States for the Federalists, and the  National Gazette, for the Republicans  –the MSNBC and FOX news of the day. Rather than, as now, the media carving out the talking points for the politicians, it was more the opposite.  Jefferson, Hamilton and others not only sent leaks, anonymous accusations and pseudonymous editorial content, but contributed to the founding and financing of the papers.

Jefferson called The Gazette of the United States “a paper of pure Toryism … disseminating the doctrines of monarchy, aristocracy, and the exclusion of the people.”  The National Gazette, first appearing in  October 1791, soon became the most outspoken critic of the administration of Adams, Hamilton, and Washington, and an ardent advocate of the French Revolution.  Both papers, and dozens of others across the colonies engaged in campaigns of abuse, of persons and party,  in news reports, in virulent editorials, and in poems and skits of every kind.

In Washington’s second term, the nastiness had run so deep for so long that he had trouble finding men for his cabinet. When Hamilton sounded out Senator Rufus King he, like four before him, declined –because of “‘the foul and venomous shafts of calumny’ constantly shot at government officials.”

Hamilton fired off one letter asking the New York Attorney General, under the Sedition Act, to criminally prosecute the editor of the newspaper Argus for libeling him.

“One principal engine of effecting the scheme [of overturning our government] is by audacious falsehoods to destroy the confidence of the people in all those who are in anyway conspicuous among the supporters of the government.”

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Even in Hamilton’s own Federalists there was a large split, with he and John Adams regularly coming to verbal blows.  On one occasion Hamilton issued a veiled challenge to a duel with then President Adams.  During the summer of 1800 he had heard more than once that Adams thought him “a British lackey.” Hamilton in answer called the allegations “a base, cruel and wicked calumny, destitute even of a plausible pretext to excuse the folly or mask the depravity which must have dictated it.”

Abigail Adams, not to be left out, told husband of Hamilton: “Oh, I have read his heart in his wicked eyes.  The very devil is in them.  They are lasciviousness itself.”  Not that Hamilton didn’t earn some reputation like that.  For a year he had paid intimate respects to a married Maria Reynolds while yielding to her husband’s repeated requests for “little loans.”  By the time Abigail made her remark, the affair was long over and Hamilton a doting father and husband.  But in a foreshadowing of the Clinton affairs almost two hundred years later, the news was broken by scurrilous low-lifes, encouraged by high political players, to defame and diminish a formidable opponent.

George Washington himself, although all but unassailable from both sides, nevertheless took his beatings — first of all in trying to negotiate among his feuding cabinet and move the country forward, but also as the recipient of vicious attacks, especially in his second term.  Accused of “aping royalty in his presidential etiquette” a newspaper adjudged that in his behavior “a certain monarchical prettiness must be highly extolled, such as levies, drawing rooms, stately nods instead of shaking hands, titles of office, seclusion from the people.”  Another alleged his “princely ignorance.” Washington, along with Hamilton regarded some of the criticism as treasonous. Even Jefferson got in on it.  In a letter to Madison he said that Washington was taking the newspaper attacks very badly, but that he had brought them on himself.  “Naked he would have been sanctimoniously reverenced, but enveloped in the rags of royalty they could hardly be torn off without laceration.”

And it was not just the elected or appointed political men.  Entire cities and regions had their opinions and turned out to express them.

While most of America rejoiced at the proclamation of the French Republic, as news of the Terror began to be heard, opinion sharply divided.  Federalists were appalled by news of the streets running in blood; the Republicans treated such reports as “fake news” and if true, that there must be good reason.  The King, after all,  when guilty of a crime should be treated like any other citizen.  Jefferson was particularly sanguinary, writing in a letter that ” the French revolution had heartened American Republicans and undercut Hamiltonian ‘monocrats,’ … the liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest. Rather than it should have failed I would have seen half the earth desolated.”  Republicans paraded with French Tri-Colors in their hats and called each other “citizen,” while Federalists counter demonstrated with black cockades.

When in 1795 when John Jay brokered the  “Jay” treaty with England tension grew even higher.

On a wall near his house in Manhattan graffiti appeared:

“Damn John Jay. Damn everyone who won’t damn John Jay. Damn everyone who won’t put up lights in the window and sit up all night damning John Jay!”

As the rhetoric grew heated tens of thousands took to the streets. Civil war was feared, even wished for. Republicans, despite the Terror and the continental wars unleashed by the new Republic, stood strongly by France. Beneath their revolutionary fellow feeling they were concerned that stronger relations with England, America’s strongest trading partner, would boost the fortunes of the Federalists, the party of merchants and bankers, and would inevitably lead to abolition of slavery.  Hamilton and the Federalists for their part were deeply concerned that the US would be dragged into the wars and that the new economic and trading engine which had brought into being would be broken, plunging the country into poverty and disorder, sundering the Union.  The Republicans were called “the war party.” In pseudonymous essays Hamilton accused them of “servile and criminal subservency to the views of France.”  Support of England or France was a proxy for deep internal divisions.

And the oaths and wishes were rich in metaphor and invention.  Hamilton was referred to as a “the tool of the propertied class, a mushroom excrescence;”  Washington was accused of “princely ignorance of the country;”  Hamilton called Aaron Burr “an embryo Caesar;” another, according to Jefferson, was “afflicted with the morbid rage of debate.” Hamilton replied in a newspaper to charges being levied about him that the author was  “contemptible” and “a despicable calumniator.”  Somehow there is more elegance and vocabulary shown in these than in our current displays of  “feminazi,” “asshole,” “poor little snowflake,” or “nothing burger.”

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None of this is to say that therefore, what we are experiencing today is the same-old same-old. Cynicism won’t save us. After all, even if mobs took to the streets of Philadelphia and New York, even as close as civil war may have seemed, the instruments of violence at hand were far less.  The complexity of technology, trade, and economic networks was far less.  More people were, or could be, self-sufficient. Time between act and re-act was measured in weeks and days instead of minutes and milliseconds. Time was more generous.   Even if the French attacked the East Coast in “The Quasi War” of 1798-1800 as many (Federalists) feared, the damage would have been trivial compared to what is possible from an attack today.  Not only that, while those prominent in shaping the early years of the country can fairly be called amateurs –with no governing experience behind them– the likely results of the amateurishness of today’s high officials is of a different order.  Federal, State and Local governments have enormous complexity and inter-relatedness, codified laws and a two hundred year tradition of stability.  As any four year old knows, complex constructions, days in the making, can be destroyed with a careless foot or an angry arm.  The falling apart of the early Republic would have been a blip in history; the falling apart of the U.S. today would bring catastrophe, and not just along the Eastern seaboard.

Reading, or listening, to Alexander Hamilton, fills in enormous gaps in our understanding both of the very beginnings of the United States and of the continuity of human behavior.  I for one, was astounded at what I didn’t know. Through genius, reflection, constant political struggle and no little amount of luck the Founding Fathers were able to to pass on to us what we now have in hand. Passing it on to the future is not so certain.

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Ron Chernow won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Biography and the 2011 American History Book Prize for his book, Washington: A Life. He is also the recipient of the National Book Award for Nonfiction for his 1990 book, The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance. His biographies of Alexander Hamilton and John D. Rockefeller Sr.were both nominated for National Book Critics Circle Awards,

Scott Brick’s Audible reading is very good though he does let slip from time to time certain intonations emotionally coloring characteristics or actions not necessarily in the text.  It is not disruptive, but is there.  I also wonder at his pronunciation of Maria Reynolds (as Chernow, in interviews, calls her) as Mariah.

Beach reading? Not so much, but certainly during the long, lazy afternoons after the sand is gone and the wine is on.

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