Tuesday, March 12, 2013
MADNESS IN GREAT ONES MUST NOT UNWATCHED GO
According to Chernow, Hamilton is the least well-known, and perhaps the least understood of the Founding Fathers. Unlike Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison and Monroe, Hamilton never became President. Unlike Franklin, he was not held in almost universal veneration for his scientific discoveries or inventions. And he has the rather dubious distinction of being the only Founding Father to be killed in a duel ... by another Founding Father, and the sitting Vice President, Aaron Burr.
Hamilton was one of those people who was both greatly admired and even worshipped by many, and also held in complete and utter disrespect and fear by others. Needless to say, Burr was not a big fan. But Hamilton had aggressive detractors in Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and especially Adams, all of whom were political rivals and believed that he was becoming too influential over Washington and was gathering too much political power for himself. Because of their particular animus towards him, Hamilton was constantly attacked for being pro-British and a secret monarchist, despite his heroism in the Revolution ( he played a pivotal role in storming a British redoubt in the war-ending Battle of Yorktown ), a cut-throat capitalist ( despite his personal generosity towards friends and strangers, particularly orphans, and political generosity towards parts of the new republic that needed federal help ), an elitist ( despite his humble beginnings as an orphan born in the West Indies ), and much worse.
The lessons are jarring and revealing. Hamilton was a man who suffered from several character flaws, and was unstable, erratic and dangerous to know or be around. He may well have been bi-polar, certainly not a crime, but enough to give pause to any claim to greatness. Yet, he is considered a great historical figure. And, in our own hyper-partisan and hyperbolic age, where verbal attacks on a person's reputation and even a person's ethnic background passes as enlightened discourse, we realize that, despite the more than 200 years since Hamilton's passing, not much has changed. Hamilton was a train wreck of a human being, yet he rose to be one of the great leaders of his age. We must try to learn the lessons of history: we have Hamiltons among us now. For better or worse, these people shape our current and future destinies. Chernow's excellent biography tells us that we had better pay close attention to those we elect or appoint to lead and guide us. God help us all.