Washington & Hamilton: An Interview with the Authors

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In addition to being a history buff, I’m a bit of a groupie when it comes to historians. I definitely have my favorite authors. Today, two of my newest favorites, Dr. Stephen Knott and TonyWilliams, answer a few questions about the pivotal relationship between George Washington and Alexander Hamilton.

 Q: Dr. Knott, it looks like you’ve written several books spanning a number of Presidents. What was it that compelled you to write this particular book?

Steve - I had been wanting to write for some time a book on what I viewed as the most critical relationship of the founding era, that of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. This relationship has been slighted or ignored by many historians and biographers who have tended to focus on the more poetic relationship between Thomas Jefferson or James Madison, or Jefferson and John Adams. When Tony Williams approached me with the idea that we pool our efforts to write such a book, I jumped at the opportunity.

Q: Tony, your writing is, at first glance, a bit more eclectic although focused also on America’s founding. If there’s a common theme, I’d say you seem to target “pivotal moments” in the same way Steve writes about Presidents. Am I reading that right? And why this subject as the topic for your next book?  

Tony - My books focus on trying to understand the American character from the colonial period and founding. I think that the word “pivotal moments” is a good description.  My primary interest and area of expertise is the American Revolution and founding. I am presently writing a solo biography of Alexander Hamilton that will be published next year, and I am preparing a book on James Madison.

Q: Even if you’re an expert in the subject, there’s got to be a significant amount of research involved in writing a book like this. How long does it typically take from conception to completion?

Steve - Tony may remember this differently, but we had both, separately, begun to write about this critical relationship, so when we decided to pool our efforts it went relatively quickly, perhaps nine months to a year. There was a significant amount of research involved, but the internet provides remarkably quick access to the papers of all the founding fathers. Being a transplanted Virginian, Tony knows Washington better than I do, and I had written a book on Hamilton many years ago, so we complimented each other quite nicely.

Q: What’s the biggest misperception you think people have of Alexander Hamilton? George Washington?

Steve - There are so many misperceptions surrounding Alexander Hamilton – that he was an elitist, a plutocrat, a monarchist, a dictatorially-inclined adventurer, and some have even gone so far as to suggest that he had fascist inclinations. All of these misconceptions can be traced back to the campaign directed by Jefferson and his lieutenants to destroy Hamilton. Hamilton was the first American victim of the politics of personal destruction, and the effects of that campaign can be felt to this day. It was a remarkably successful public relations, or propaganda effort, whose echoes still can be heard in the writings of many progressive historians and biographers.

The greatest misconception surrounding George Washington concerns his alleged lack of intellect and the idea that as president he was controlled by the conniving immigrant from the Caribbean, Alexander Hamilton. No person ever controlled Washington, yet the Jeffersonian went to great lengths to make the case that he was either a puppet of Hamilton’s, or had entered his dotage and was unware of Hamilton’s malicious schemes. This is all fiction, but it still resonates in some quarters.

Q: You state a few times that Hamilton was viewed as a monarchist, then and now. I tend to hear the charge of “statist” levied against him more often these days. Was he either?

Steve - The monarchist charge stems from Hamilton’s speech at the Constitutional Convention in June, 1787, when he proposed a president elected for life (pending good behavior) and a Senate elected for life as well. This was anathema to the anti-Federalists, and in fact was seen as somewhat extreme by most of the delegates at the Convention, but it was likely a tactic designed to make the more moderate nationalist or centralizing proposals appear more reasonable, more palatable. Nonetheless, when Madison broke with Hamilton and allied himself with Jefferson, Madison broke the pledge of confidentiality that all the delegates to the Convention had sworn themselves to, and informed Jefferson of Hamilton’s “monarchical” speech. They knew they had a weapon to use against Hamilton, and they wielded it with consummate skill. Labeling someone a monarchist in the 1790s was the equivalent of calling someone a communist in the 1950s. It was designed to remove you from the public sphere. Bottom line: Hamilton was not a monarchist, but was intent on infusing as many elements of permanence and stability into the Constitution as he possibly could. He was particularly determined to do this when it came to the most important issue any government faces: matters of war and peace. He was also not a statist, despite what many of his libertarian critics say about him. He wanted an ‘energetic government’ but one that was focused on truly national questions: war, international commerce, foreign relations. The idea that he would have endorsed the New Deal or the Great Society is ludicrous. He considered most matters to be appropriately dealt with at the state and local level, and mentioned his concern in The Federalist Papers that the power over a man’s subsistence was a power over a man’s will. This is not the thinking of someone who would have favored the modern welfare state.

Q: My favorite hero from the American Revolution is Lafayette. Like Hamilton, he was an aide and close confident of Washington – another one who could claim to be “like a son” to the general. I wondered if you had any insights on what the two men thought of each other.

Tony - Yes, Washington and Lafayette had a very close relationship over many years in which it was, as Steve said, affectionate.  General Washington had a close eye for talented young men as aides and officers, and Hamilton and Lafayette were among the closest (and had their own close friendship).  Lafayette viewed the American Revolution’s fight for freedom with a Romantic vision, and idolized Washington.  Washington had a magnanimous affection for Lafayette.  The relationship bore fruit during the Revolutionary War, but Lafayette returned to France, so that relationship could not have remotely the same impact on the founding and shape of the country that Washington and Hamilton had. 

Q: I saw Michael Newton’s tweet asking if you felt the alliance between Washington and Hamilton was even more important than that between Madison and Jefferson to the founding of this country. How would you respond?

Steve - This would be a heretical statement for many scholars of the founding era, but I do believe the alliance between Washington and Hamilton was more important than any other. If you remove Washington from the scene, it is unlikely that the United States wins the American Revolution. Washington was not necessarily a great General, but he understood something very important – if he could keep his army alive, the “Glorious Cause” had a chance to succeed. With Hamilton at his side, that Army did survive. And Hamilton, perhaps more than any other man, continually urged Washington to remain in the public square, to help convert the sacrifices of the “Glorious Cause” into something tangible and permanent. It was Hamilton, along with Madison, who led the call for the Annapolis Convention, which in turn led to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. And Hamilton played a key role in persuading Washington to attend the Convention, and preside over its sessions. Washington’s presence at the Convention was critical toward winning public acceptance of the Constitution. He was trusted, and was, in fact, the only national figure that Americans from New Hampshire to Georgia would have recognized. Hamilton then appeals to Washington’s ego, and more importantly his sense of honor, to accept the presidency under the newly established government. The two men go on to erect a number of institutions, and set a number of precedents, that allow the United States to emerge, decades and centuries later, as a superpower. Washington was the indispensable man, and his alliance with Hamilton was the indispensable alliance.

Tony - The Madison and Jefferson relationship was undoubtedly important.  To some degree, it bore fruit in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (though Jefferson was in Paris at the time).  They formed an oppositional party in the 1790s, and did not build any American institutions besides a political party.  Later, they served as presidents and helped usher in what some historians call a “democratic revolution” in 1800, but they didn’t really build original institutions in the early 1800s anywhere close to what Washington and Hamilton did in the 1780s and 1790s.  In terms of building lasting American institutions, Madison’s triumvirate of nationalism in the 1780s with Washington and Hamilton was probably more important to the creation of America that what Madison did with Jefferson. 

Q: I always imagined Hamilton as a tragic figure – so much potential yet his life was cut short on a duel. Your book change my mind somewhat on the way he ended his life. First of all, he shot into the air which tells me he had finally gained some control over himself. He seems to also have found a sincere faith. It’s this last part that intrigues me the most. When I read it, I wondered if this wasn’t part of the reason Jefferson was so keen on the separation of church and state. I may be making connections that just aren’t there, but it’s obvious there was no love lost between the two men and Jefferson could be rather petty. Thoughts?

Steve - Not all Hamilton biographers would agree with this, but I do think the loss of Hamilton’s eldest son in a duel broke his heart and led him back to his faith. Additionally, I don’t see his proposal for a Christian Constitution Society as a cynical get out the vote effort for the Federalists. I think he was genuinely horrified by Jefferson’s romance with the French Revolution, and all that represented. But Jefferson was devoted to the idea of separating church and state long before his war with Hamilton, so I don’t think there’s a connection between his stance on this matter and his relationship with Hamilton. I would say that Jefferson was a petty man in the sense that he resented Hamilton for being 12 to 14 years younger than him and in my view smarter than him . . . Plus Hamilton could be brash, and lacked the gentility prized by the Southern gentry. It was gauche to be so direct, and that put off the chronically shy Jefferson who hated personal confrontation and utilized surrogates to do his dirty work for him.

Tony - Hamilton is certainly in many ways a tragic figure.  He might have contributed to the creation of the American republic for at least three more decades if he would have lived a full life and not been shot by Burr.  On the other hand, he was to some degree damaged political goods late in his life between the Reynolds affair and the factional in-fighting among the Federalists.  My estimate is that he would have continued to be an important player in national politics though would probably not have won national political office. 

Q: One of my favorite lines in your book is about Hancock. You say that he would be “a mere footnote in American history were it not for the presence of his oversized signature on the Declaration of Independence.” (I take it you’re not buying the king can read it without his glasses story.) Of course, there are other books that praise Hancock, e.g., Harlow Giles Unger’s John Hancock: Merchant King and American Patriot. I always wonder if authors who write about the Founding Fathers get so close to their subjects that they give them a sort of favored-son status. Like parents, they’re reluctant to criticize their own children, but their happy to criticize the other kids on the neighborhood. Not accusing you of that as your portrayal of Hamilton and Washington is somewhat unvarnished, but wondered if you see that too.

Steve - Great point. It happens all the time. Authors fall in love with their subjects. Perhaps I am guilty of that as well. But I’d like to think that I didn’t fall in love with my subject, but I am passionate about the truth. And the truth is for over two hundred years people who should know better have spread, in many cases intentionally, distortions about Hamilton and the Federalists. This has been done for a variety of reasons, one of which is as parochial as you can get, which is to elevate the importance of Virginia in the founding of the United States. The other, more important reason, is most historians are of a progressive bent, and Jefferson’s emphasis on equality (or I should say, his theoretical emphasis on equality) appeals to them. As does his cheap populism – Hamilton is the father of Wall Street, a bastion of American life that they find particularly loathsome. Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Franklin Roosevelt all propagated the idea that Hamilton was our founding plutocrat, and that Jefferson began the work of defending the rights of the common man that was continued by Jackson and FDR. The odd thing is that if you happened to be a “common” free black in the north during the late 18th and early 19 centuries, you would have a very different take on just who was the champion of the common man. The same holds true for Native Americans…. That’s what motivated me more than any love for Hamilton or Washington. History is important to a nation, and myths that distort that history can be quite harmful. Far too many public figures and authors have propagated these populist myths in the service of an ideological agenda that pays little heed to the truth.

Tony - My own interest in Washington and Hamilton also stems from an interest in examining the principles and actions of the American founding and educating the general public in those ideas.  I have to admit that Washington is still my favorite founder because I am continually impressed by Washington’s great virtue of being entrusted with power to serve the republic and then surrendering that power.  His contemporaries called him Cincinnatus after the legendary Roman general who served the republic and returned to his plow.  I have a very strong interest in Alexander Hamilton’s success story as an immigrant to America, how he embraced the American principles of liberty and self-government, and then helped to establish American constitutional and economic institutions.  Their relationship was so profoundly important to the creation of America that I am still staggered that Washington & Hamilton is the only book ever written on the subject.

Q: I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask if you’d seen Hamilton the Musical. I have not, and I doubt it will be playing in North Dakota anytime soon. If you have, what did you think of it?

Steve - I have seen the musical, and I will be seeing it again this summer. My wife took me as a birthday present. We loved it. I had followed the musical’s progress for years, and I have to confess that when I first heard about it I figured it would be a major flop… Who would go see a hip-hop musical about the nation’s first Treasury Secretary? Obviously, I could not have been more wrong. I guess this is why I’m in academia and not making a killing on Broadway. The one thing that irritated me about the musical is the two references to Martha Washington naming her randy tomcat “Hamilton.” It’s complete fiction, but Lin-Manuel Miranda stops at one point in the performance and looks at the crowd and says “that’s true.” It’s not true. He got that from Ron Chernow, who mentions the bogus tomcat tale in his biography of Hamilton. It’s just one of the many myths that continue to bedevil Hamilton, and it’s propagated by folks who should know better.

Tony - If someone has an extra $1,500 for a ticket, I’ll gladly see the show.  Seriously, I have not seen it, but I want to.  There is a very interesting debate going on in the blogosphere about whether the play presents an accurate view of Hamilton.  Conservatives argue that the play presents Hamilton from a progressive point of view, while liberals complain that the play paints Hamilton as too much of an abolitionist against slavery.  For my part, I have seen a lot of young people at my lectures and book-signings who want to speak and learn more about Hamilton, the other founders, and the American Revolution.  Many of them have read our book, the Chernow book, David McCullough, or Joseph Ellis as they seek to learn more.  That is a very good result of the play. 

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