In the months leading up to the last election, I happened to be reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton and was struck by some of the similarities between the 2016 presidential election and that of 1800. As a result, I wrote the following essay. My intended audience was the undecided voter. If you like history, I think you’ll find it interesting (it may also appeal to Broadway fans since Chernow’s book is also the inspiration for the hit Hamilton musical). Without further ado:
Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson bitterly disagreed on nearly every major policy decision. While Hamilton supported a Federalist vision of commerce-based economy with strong financial institutions, Jefferson advocated the Republican dream of an agrarian-based society of diffusive state power.
Even while serving together in George Washington’s cabinet, they both undertook viciously personal campaigns to attack one another in leading newspapers. Without exaggeration, they were political archenemies both during and after the Washington administration.
Amazingly, however, Hamilton advocated for a Jefferson presidency during the 1800 election. What could account for Hamilton’s surprising reversal? The answer was Aaron Burr.
Hamilton had watched Burr’s rise in New York politics with great trepidation. He quickly realized that Burr would do or say almost anything for the sake of political convenience. In other words, he was a man devoid of principle. The most important political issue for Aaron Burr was the promotion of Aaron Burr.
When Jefferson and Burr tied in the 1800 presidential election, Burr refused to yield to Jefferson despite a prior assumption that Burr would serve as vice president. As a result, the Federalist-controlled Congress was cast in the role of deal-maker.
Enter: Hamilton. Hamilton disagreed bitterly with Jefferson’s political principles. But Hamilton recognized that Jefferson had principles. For Hamilton, the choice was difficult but clear. It is better to support a man who opposes all of your principles than to support a man who has none at all. To that end, he fervently penned letters to his fellow Federalists advocating for a Jefferson presidency. Once in power, Jefferson proved far less radical than Hamilton and the Federalists had feared. He did not dismantle the national bank or abolish all internal taxes as he once advocated. Instead, the practical realities of governing in the best interests of the nation forged a more moderate executive.
With history as a guide, I turn to the present election. Donald Trump is a man of no principles. The stances he has taken have changed so rapidly over the years and even over a single election cycle that no one can be sure of what he actually believes. The man has espoused diametrically opposed views in single sentences. He has changed his stances on, to name but a few policy areas, immigration, national security, reproductive rights, gun control, and even the role of government itself. We have no idea what he actually stands for. The only constant is the political expediency of his scantily explained, shifting positions. Like Burr, Trump’s only concern is the promotion of himself.
Electing an individual whose only principle is the aggrandizement of his own power paves the path towards tyranny. Trump is a demagogue who uses fear to achieve his aims. We have seen this before. From ancient Athens to the 21st century, demagoguery has led to the denigration of government and even the downfall of democracies.
Remember that a nation gains strength from her institutions, and institutions gain strength from age. Remember too that our Republic is relatively young, and so, therefore, are our institutions.
Those pillars of democracy- freedom of the press, an independent judiciary, and even the presidency itself- are at risk. Donald Trump has openly expressed a desire to curtail free speech, admitted to a willingness to use the legal system to prosecute political enemies and even scores, and called into question our electoral system itself.
Democracy is not a given. It must be protected. It must be preserved. Don’t let animosity towards Hillary Clinton blind you. Engage. Fight.