Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Lost Art of Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton
(period portrait)
Yesterday I read a friend's Facebook thread about the impasse in Washington. His threads attract people of opposing viewpoints, and the discussions often become lively. One participant argued in favor of the portion of the legislative obstinancy the Republicans own. A subsequent poster put up these words, which come from Alexander Hamilton's Federalist Papers, No. 70, as an overall summation of the current political situation.
Men often oppose a thing, merely because they have had no agency in planning it, or because it may have been planned by those whom they dislike. But if they have been consulted and have happened to disapprove, opposition then becomes, in their estimation, an indispensable duty of self-love. They seem to think themselves bound in honor, and by all the motives of personal infallibility, to defeat the success of what has been resolved upon contrary to their sentiments.

Men of upright, benevolent tempers have too many opportunities of remarking, with horror, to what desperate lengths this disposition is sometimes carried, and how often the great interests of society are sacrificed to the vanity, to the conceit, and to the obstinacy of individuals, who have credit enough to make their passions and their caprices interesting to mankind. Perhaps the question now before the public may, in its consequences, afford melancholy proofs of the effects of this despicable frailty, or rather detestable vice, in the human character.*

The precise mood or meaning of many posts on the internet is not usually clear. Hamilton's words are clear. The pro-GOP poster's response to these words, that he couldn't bother with them because it would take too long to translate them, may leave emotions and meanings that are not expressed. It's nearly impossible to tell how much humor that poster intended and at what level of sarcasm. My reaction to his comment was emotional. Immediately I wanted to pour my own sarcastic humor over the irony of the situation: a conservative dismissing the foundational words of one of America's truly great conservatives as time-wasting gibberish. For purposes of this post, I will mostly address the fact of the text's easy dismissal, which may occur to most of us.

I myself was a stranger to The Federalist Papers until reading this Facebook thread, which has, apparently and mercifully, been deleted or at least purged of that part of the discussion. Growing up I always heard about how important The Federalist Papers were to understanding American political history. Unfortunately for me, the recommendations usually came from people I did not agree with, such as George Will, or people I thought might want me dead, such as contributors to The American Scholar under Joseph Epstein's reign as editor-and-troll-in-chief. In other words, it was sheer bigotry on my part that I did not get around to reading Alexander Hamilton. The words I've quoted have afforded a personal revelation of Hamilton's eloquence, and the mere presence of his words on this page make me want to write better.

Hamilton's words are not an easy read these days. Usually our best writing does not reach this level of complexity, a complexity meant to bear a lot of meaning shaded in delicate ways. For this reason we can call the writing effete. Who needs it? The poet Marianne Moore wanted to write in a plain American language "cats and dogs can read!" This passage does not qualify, but it is prose as American as you could ask for. Hamilton wrote as a member of an elite to other members of the same American elite at a time when literacy was not assured in the population. We are not that elite audience these days even if we are fortunate enough to know how to read. People who occupy similar positions to Hamilton in our society and government no long use the complexity of language he used in The Federalist Papers. If someone wants to complain that they need a translator to read Hamilton, can we really be shocked?

And yet we live with the heritage of these words, not just Hamilton's words but an era of them written by his cohorts that show a richness of spirit politicians do not dare show today without being slammed on cable news shows.

"...opposition then becomes, in their estimation, an indespensable duty of self-love."

We could translate this to say, "They oppose things because they're stuck on themselves," but we would lose slyness, a sarcasm moderated--moderated!--by that softening phrase "in their estimation" which itself opens into other shades of meaning. We could, in short, write a press release for Michele Bachmann.

Which raises a series of questions. Would Michele Bachmann need a translator to read this passage? If members of the House GOP attended workshops to "get" the meaning of Hamilton's words, would they also perceive the moderation and wisdom of the eloquent human being who wrote them? Do we still have a recognizable American political discourse when we no longer care to trouble ourselves with the language in which it founders conducted it? Most importantly and less partisanly: Is it possible at all today to have political discussions in language that expresses deep human concern. If we reject, out of bigotry, ignorance or laziness, the political expression of human concern, can we expect government that has human concern at its heart? Today we must see the consequences of language gone flat and sentiments too shallow to afford the depth of compromise.

We live in a time when language must sell things and sell them quickly. A genie has been let out of a bottle, it seems, and perhaps we will eventually become the inanimate objects we desire to trade so much. Certainly we will resemble them in death. In an elitist dream world of mine, no one would get into political office without being able to understand Alexander Hamilton and his elite of strange and eloquent Americans. That complex foundational language would serve as a shibboleth allowing only the most humane a passage into halls of power.

In my egalitarian fantasy, almost everyone would understand Hamilton to begin with. Hamilton was an obstinate man by most accounts, maybe as opinionated as anyone in Congress today. But he could question himself. He had a heart and knew how to look at it. That would be our general state of affairs.

*I am almost certain the inspiration for posting this quote in the thread came from an opinion piece in The Atlanta Journal Constitution . That is where I've copied the quoted text.

1 comment:

  1. I think we can at least be taken aback by the attitude of impatience to take the extra full *minute* necessary -- tops -- to understand the writing of Hamilton and our other *founding fathers*. It's this championed stupidity of those that call themselves "Tea Party" that most offends me about them. Taking that name is the ultimate insult to our founding fathers that they cannot be bothered to understand. These people want power, but seem to refuse to use their heads. Recipe for disaster imo.

    I had no trouble with that passage and think Hamilton nailed the public frustration over the shutdown even better than the Lincoln quote that's been floating around about it.

    "Do we still have a recognizable American political discourse when we no longer care to trouble ourselves with the language in which it founders conducted it?" I don't know about 'recognizable', but what we have now is certainly not worthwhile because of this.

    "...can we expect government that has human concern at its heart?" Given the issue the shutdown is over, health care for those who otherwise cannot afford it, no, it appears we cannot.

    Got room for one more in your egalitarian fantasy?

    - Charlie