Phil Kadner: American pols behaved badly in Hamilton’s day, too

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Portrait of Alexander Hamilton, 1895. / Art Institute of Chicago.

No matter how bad the political situation looks in America today, it can’t match the craziness and backstabbing of our founding fathers.

Alexander Hamilton was a great American, often brilliant and sometimes an incredible idiot. His life story was the inspiration for the popular musical created by Lin-Manuel Miranda, which just opened in Chicago.

I say Hamilton was an idiot because he not only cheated on his wife and paid blackmailers hush money, but published a long public document confessing all while apparently forgetting to mention the affair, or his intention to go public, to his wife.


His reason for saying he did have sex with that woman? To explain that he never used public funds to pay for her husband’s silence. Hamilton, you see, considered himself an honorable man worthy of the public’s trust, if not his wife’s.

Hamilton was killed in a duel because he refused to apologize, or simply modify, unkind remarks he had made about Aaron Burr. I suppose you could say that was honorable as well. He showed up to the duel with no intention of firing at his opponent, according to historians, in order to make a point. According to the book “Alexander Hamilton” by Ron Chernow, Hamilton may have talked his eldest son into making he same point previously during a duel, which resulted in his death.

Undeterred, Alexander Hamilton took the same approach with the same result, leaving behind a widow and several children with no means of financial support. Oh, well, I guess Hamilton made his point.

It’s important to know this sort of thing because we have a tendency to deify our founding fathers. Whatever flaws they may have had, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Hamilton appear to be gods compared with the people running for elected office and running our country today.

I read Chernow’s book, on which the musical “Hamilton” is based, after hearing Miranda describe how the book inspired him. Like many people, I would never have opened the pages of the biography if the musical’s creator had not discussed it. I thank him for that.

Among the things I found fascinating were the bitter political disputes among Adams, Jefferson and Hamilton that make the Clinton-Trump campaign look like a playground squabble. Remember, these three men risked their lives in the revolution against England. They were responsible for creating the first real democracy in the history of the world, where all men were created equal.

And after they had succeeded, achieving the impossible together, they turned on each other.

At one time or another, each of these fellows became convinced that the other was bent on destroying the fledgling country, perhaps even turning control over to England or France.

Hamilton was a monarchist, Jefferson said.

Jefferson wanted to lead the U.S. into a French-style revolution, Hamilton claimed, lopping off the heads of anyone who disagreed with him.

As for Adams, the Alien and Sedition Acts approved by the second president, caused Jefferson to call him a despot.

Reading Chernow’s book, it’s impossible not to feel bad for President George Washington, our first president.

Hamilton served as Washington’s secretary of the treasury. Jefferson was Washington’s secretary of state.

Each of them published venomous attacks against the other during this time using phony names, which was common. Washington wrote each of them begging the men to become team players. He told them how disappointed he is in their childish conduct.

Jefferson and Hamilton each assure Washington, in writing, that their behavior would stop. They apologized. And then they immediately launched into more vicious attacks, hoping to destroy the reputation of their former colleague.

They believed the other fellow’s beliefs would lead to this fledgling nation’s destruction. Caring deeply about their country, they wanted to destroy the other man’s character. They felt it was absolutely necessary. Their patriotic duty.

Just like we do today.


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