Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s founding fathers, has become the man of the hour, perhaps of the year, thanks to actor and playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda and his smash hit Broadway musical’s nomination for an unprecedented 16 Tony Awards.
Hamilton’s story is certainly compelling, but does it have anything to teach us more than two centuries after his untimely death at the hands of Aaron Burr? To an almost uncanny degree, yes.
Hamilton ultimately supported his bitter enemy, Thomas Jefferson, for the presidency against his long-time acquaintance and sometime friend Burr.
Why? The best answers are in letters written in December and January, 1800-1801, when the House of Representatives was considering how to break the tie vote between Jefferson and Burr, with each state having only one vote.
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As Hamilton wrote to Gouverneur Morris, who represented Pennsylvania in the Constitutional Convention, “The public good must be paramount to every private consideration.”
Hamilton set out a full bill of particulars against Burr in a letter to John Rutledge the next week: Burr is “one of the most unprincipled men in the United States.” He is, “in every sense a profligate, a voluptuary in the extreme … His very friends do not insist upon his integrity.”
No one could think him qualified to be president “based on his public service.” Most tellingly,“No mortal can tell what his principles are. He has talked all round the compass … The truth seems to be that he has no plan but that of getting power by any means and keeping it by all means.”
He possesses “an irregular and inordinate ambition … He knows well the weak sides of human nature,” and he skillfully manipulates “the passions of all with whom he has intercourse.”
Writing to Federalist Sen. James Bayard of Delaware, who would ultimately cast the deciding vote in the House of Representatives to elect Jefferson over Burr, Hamilton describes Burr as exhibiting “great Ambition unchecked by principle.”
It is a fool’s errand to debate what Hamilton would have thought of most issues that concern us today. But no one should doubt the seriousness of his commitment to the public good.
One might disagree with him, but not on the grounds that he was in any sense personally corrupt. So imagine what he might advise today’s Republicans tempted to support the 21st century version of Aaron Burr — Donald Trump.
Hamilton had no illusions about Thomas Jefferson; he did not convert to Jeffersonian principles. But the point is that Jefferson had principles, and he had also been a notable public servant.
Hamilton also sounded a note of cold realism: If Federalists put Burr in the White House, they would have to take full responsibility for his actions.
If they acquiesced to the election of Jefferson, they could continue to be the opposition party, able to make the claim that placing the “lesser evil” in office did not make them full allies of whatever he might wish to do.
All Republicans upset about Donald Trump’s hostile takeover of their party and, more ominously, the prospect of his becoming president, should be asking themselves, “What would Hamilton do?”
Sanford Levinson is the W. St. John Garwood and W. St. John Garwood, Jr. Centennial Chair in Law at The University of Texas at Austin.