A portrait of Alexander Hamilton (c. 1806).
John Trumbull/National Gallery of Art (Wikimedia Commons)
q&a / power

The Many Alexander Hamiltons

An interview with historian Joanne B. Freeman.
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HUMANITIES: Do you think Alexander Hamilton would have made a good president? What qualities did he possess that might have helped him? What other qualities might have hurt him?

FREEMAN: I don’t think that Hamilton would have made a good president. He was too extreme in his politics; too impulsive; too unwilling to suffer fools; too convinced that he was always right; and too wary of the workings of democracy and the politics of the street. Interestingly, he knew that “the people” generally didn’t like him. In fact, he valued his unpopularity; by his reasoning, it proved that he was doing what was right rather than pandering to the public like a demagogue. Of course, what Hamilton viewed as pandering might have been seen as the open dialog of a democratic politics to others.

HUMANITIES: Hamilton frequently complained of factionalism, as did George Washington in his famous Farewell speech, which Hamilton wrote. What drove him to this view, and did he in any way believe that factionalism and partisanship were avoidable?

FREEMAN: Hamilton wasn’t alone in his fears about factionalism and political parties. Although people at the time expected plenty of clashing ideas, the idea of an organized political party pursuing its own interests seemed to threaten the idea that the new national government could achieve the general good. Thus Washington’s warning about partisanship in his Farewell Address, and thus the prevailing assumption in the late 1790s that the seeming rise of political parties signified a nation in crisis. It’s worth noting that some of Hamilton’s complaints about factionalism were gripes about its impact on him. The “Jacobin scandal-club,” as he called the Republican party, made many a swipe at his reputation.

HUMANITIES: Possibly my favorite transition in The Essential Hamilton begins at page 256. In just a couple of pages we go from Hamilton the statesman to Hamilton the smack talker to Hamilton the doting and moralistic father. How many Hamiltons were there?

FREEMAN: I hadn’t noticed that transition, but I love it! There were a lot of Hamiltons. Like all of us, different facets of his personality and persona came into view at different times, depending on the demands of the moment and his view of them. Certainly, there was a Statesman Hamilton. Just as certainly, there was a Smack-Talker Hamilton and a Family Man Hamilton, though he was less present for his family during his public life than he might have been, and felt great guilt about that towards the end of his life. There’s also Knee-Jerk Extremist Hamilton, Public Sphere-ish Hamilton (the newspaper writer), Charity-Giving Hamilton, Distrustful-of-Democracy Hamilton, Lawyerly Hamilton, and many more.
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