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We the People: Alexander Hamilton’s reach extends to the present, and not just with the musical

UPDATED: Sat., April 24, 2021

This is an undated photo of an etching of Alexander Hamilton.  (AP)
This is an undated photo of an etching of Alexander Hamilton. (AP)
By Steven Stehr For The Spokesman-Review

Each week, The Spokesman-Review examines one question from the Naturalization Test immigrants must pass to become United States citizens.

Today’s question: Alexander Hamilton is famous for many things. Name one.

Hamilton has recently garnered renewed attention owing to the success of the smash Broadway musical of the same name (a touring version of the show is scheduled to be in Spokane in May 2022). But he was also a formidable presence during the early days of this country and helped to shape some enduring debates of the American experiment.

Alexander Hamilton was something of a “Zelig” in his times, always seemingly present at historically important events. He served with distinction in the Continental army throughout the American Revolution. Hamilton first led an artillery company in the New York militia; he then served with George Washington and crossed the Delaware with him to fight in Trenton and Princeton. He so impressed Washington that in March 1777, Hamilton was named his aide-de-camp and promoted to lieutenant colonel. He later served as the first Secretary of the Treasury in Washington’s administration, creating the nation’s financial system.

Hamilton may be best known for his death following a pistol duel with then-Vice President Aaron Burr on July 11, 1804, but his reach extends into contemporary American politics in several important ways.

He was the most prolific of the writers of The Federalist Papers, a series of essays published in New York newspapers between October 1787 and May 1788 in support of the Constitution. The collection was the work of three of the “founders” who wrote under the name “Publius.” Besides Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison were the others. In fact, Hamilton wrote 51 of the 85 essays advocating for the ratification of the Constitution.

Hamilton, and the Federalist political party he represented, were advocates for a strong, centralized federal government. Against this view stood Madison and other members of the Democratic-Republican Party who were wary of too much central control and favored state’s rights. Although Madison and his supporters largely won the initial debate, the proper distribution of powers both within the federal government, and between the federal and state governments, has periodically reached the boiling point throughout American history.

These issues were paramount in the dialogue in the years prior to the Civil War, in the debate regarding school desegregation in the 1950s, in the run up and aftermath of the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, and at other crucial junctures. The federal power versus state’s rights argument continues today, most notably in the current conflicts regarding voting rights, marijuana legalization and gun control.

Hamilton played a central role in the bitter and contested presidential election of 1800, foreshadowing the partisan polarization of future periods. The contest was a rematch of the 1796 contest and pitted Thomas Jefferson, a Democratic–Republican, against incumbent president John Adams, a Federalist Hamilton supported. Historians recognize this as the first distinctly modern election because of the intense competition for electoral votes, regional divisions and the use of propaganda and smear campaigns by both parties.

The acrimonious campaign featured personal attacks and slander, which ushered in a new type of two-party politics in the United States. The central issues of the election were also recognizably modern: taxes, tariffs, immigration, foreign policy and which party most strongly supported Democratic and American values (and which did not).

Under the complex voting rules at the time (candidates and their running mates received votes separately, a practice ended in 1804 by the 12th Amendment to the Constitution), Jefferson and Burr tied in the Electoral College with 73 votes each, while Adams received 65 , throwing the election to the House of Representatives, which was controlled by the Federalists. Following an extended deadlock, on the 36th vote, Hamilton convinced several Federalist representatives to switch their support to Jefferson because of his dislike of Burr. Hamilton disagreed with Jefferson’s principles, but he believed that Burr didn’t have any.

This period of party polarization was also characterized by the type of political discourse that we have become all too familiar with in the contemporary age. Historians have called this post-revolutionary period the “Age of Passion.” One wrote that the 1790s featured a “decade-long shouting match.” Hamilton was an enthusiastic participant in what we now call “the politics of personal destruction.”

Name calling, intense personal rivalries and “hyperbolic claims of inherent catastrophe” at the hands of political opponents were all part of the political dialogue throughout much of Hamilton’s political career. This fractious period ended, if only temporarily, following the War of 1812, ushering in of the so-called “Era of Good Feelings.”

Hamilton’s life ended before his 50th birthday, shot in the duel that was the culmination of his long, bitter feud with Burr.

Burr was indicted for murder, but the charges were later dropped. The criticism and animosity he received ended his political career. The duel would also mark the end of the partisan competition between the Federalists and the Republicans. The Federalists, weakened by the loss of Adams in the presidential contest, were delivered another blow by the death of Hamilton.

He, of course, lives on through the magic of Broadway, his life memorialized through music, dance and elaborate period costumes.

Steven Stehr is the Sam Reed Distinguished Professor in Civic Education and Public Civility at Washington State University in Pullman.

This article is part of a Spokesman-Review partnership with the Foley Institute of Public Policy and Public Service at WSU.

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