Friday, January 24, 2014

Western Tradition Compendium: Hamilton, Jay and Madison

Hamilton, Jay, and Madison – The Federalist Papers

The American founding fathers were pretty rich. John Hancock, for example, was one of the richest men in the North American colonies. Ben Franklin, in his own Autobiography, declares how his media empire allowed him to retire relatively young. Washington owned a cozy 500 acres of Virginia soil complete with slaves, and Jefferson 5,000 of the same. They would need to win a Revolution, but also create a country.
            The Federalist Papers argued the need for a stable, strong federal government. Each of the three authors championed a functional state after the Revolution, writing under the pseudonym Publius (referring to the Roman aristocrat who overthrew the monarchy – rather fitting). A brief account of each of these three founders would suffice to represent their positions regarding the nature of government.
            Alexander Hamilton (1755/57-1804) took the ideas furthest. He had been an aide to Washington during the Revolution, and served as his first Secretary of the Treasury. His views on federalism led to his being leader of the Federalist Party. As Treasurer he managed the American debts incurred from the war and created the First Bank of the United States. Hamilton was violently disliked by some, including Aaron Burr, Vice President under Jefferson. In a duel Burr shot Hamilton, who died a day later.
            John Jay (1745-1829) was a man of many accomplishments. During the Revolution he was a diplomat to Spain, then the country’s second Secretary of State, followed by first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and finally Governor of New York in Hamilton’s Federalist Party. He influenced the development of American foreign policy, and the powers of the judiciary. Twice he ran for President.
            James Madison (1751-1836) was the last to die of the three authors, and saw the American experiment continued furthest. During the Revolution he served in the Virginia legislature, later drafting the Bill of Rights in the Constitution and serving in the House of Representatives. Ideologically Madison would shift further from Hamilton, and with Jefferson founded the Democratic-Republican Party. He later served as Secretary of State, and in 1808 was elected as fourth President of the United States. During his years in office he oversaw the War of 1812, and set the groundwork for a period of United States history known as the Era of Good Feelings.
            The Federalist Papers were significant persuasive political writings, and are the best documents to encapsulate the American Revolution, and the problems of revolutions generally. The issues Hamilton, Jay and Madison dealt with in creating a new republican government would be the same faced for Haiti, France, and the South American states liberated by Bolivar, all of which would meet the task with varying degrees of success. Creating a new country is not easy on paper, much less in practice, nor is ensuring it will preserve freedoms and attain permanence. France, to take an example, enjoyed five different governments – monarchies, empires and republics – between 1815 and 1915. Hamilton ensured the financial success of the country, Jay the judicial and foreign policy, and Madison framed the Constitution and guided the nation through the British attempt to destroy the fledgling republic.
            Students sometimes ask me where the Washingtons, Franklins, and Jeffersons are these days. Where are those extraordinary men who made this nation what it is today? Who is our Washington? Petraeus? Michael Mullen? Who would be our Benjamin Franklin? Steve Jobs for his creativity? Or Rupert Murdoch for his media empire? Who is an architect, writer, statesman, farmer, inventor, and philosopher like Jefferson? From this arises the question: Would a new Revolution just not be possible these days, because men now aren’t what they once were? Or, a more chilling thought, considering the founders wealthy means spurred them to act, is it just that the elite of today are more interested in yachts than fixing our society’s problems?

            True, revolution seems unlikely in America today. Despite the Middle East and continuing world uprisings America is rather entrenched in the system devised by those founders. The notion of writing a new Constitution from scratch strikes many Americans as horrid. So too the notion of standing off against American troops in Times Square. As Saul Alinsky, who organized organizers lamented in 1971, “As I look back on the results of those years, they seem to be a potpourri, with, I would judge, more failures than successes.” Maybe Walt Whitman was right, and Yankee phantoms do not belong here anymore… 

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