“Give all the power to the many, they will oppress the few. Give all the power to the few, they will oppress the many. ”– ALEXANDER HAMILTON
I’m listening to a biography of Alexander Hamilton right now, (which is fascinating btw; click here if you’re interested in getting the book for yourself.) and I love the way the author explains the theoretical struggle Hamilton faced. This was a struggle that was a bit unique to Hamilton, and is unique to America. Hamilton’s inner turmoil beautifully mirrors America’s lifelong inner turmoil.
So, if you want a little history lesson and a peak into one of America’s greatest and most influential minds, read on.
CHILDHOOD VIOLENCE AND ANARCHY
Hamilton was born in Charlestown on the island of Nevis and eventually ended up living on the island of St. Croix. On the island of St. Croix, slaves made up 90% of the population, while the other 10% were made up of the wealthy white land owners. Because of this, Hamilton experienced something that few of the other founding fathers experienced. He was both sympathetic towards, and almost considered himself one of, the marginalized slaves. He saw them beaten, killed and sold on a regular basis and hated the trade with a passion.
However, because the majority of the island’s population was made up of slaves, it was common for the slaves to revolt against their owners. These rebellions were violent and brutal. This meant that in times of peace, the wealthy land owners were always living in the fear of another potential rebellion. There was no peace, but always the constant threat of war, bloodshed and horror.
It is here that Hamilton developed his strong distaste for the anarchy of the slaves while at the same time developing a distaste for the tyrannical rule of the land owners. Ultimately, he developed a very low perception of human nature, having seen the brutality and violence of mankind on display from both the masses and the elites.
Hamilton was fortunate to escape the horrors of St. Croix and make it to the colonies. He ended up studying at King’s College (after having been turned down by Princeton where Madison and many other founders studied) and under the tutelage of Dr. Myles Cooper, a staunch loyalist and supporter of the King.
“As the debate over the question of standing up to King and Parliament came to a head, Myles Cooper was at the forefront, writing articles and speaking from the pulpit, collaborating in plan and in print with Samuel Seabury (who wrote his tracts under the name “A Farmer”). If any New Yorker were asked to name the most prominent spokesmen for the loyalist cause in the early 1770s, Myles Cooper would have been among the first to come to mind.” – Illinois Review
If Hamilton had been accepted into Princeton, he would have studied under John Witherspoon, a powerful voice for the American revolution, an avid supporter of a small government and one of the primary influences on James Madison, the Father of the Constitution.
But, Hamilton was not accepted and instead, ended up studying under one of the more notorious loyalists at the time. This greatly contributed to Hamilton’s propensity to lean towards a stronger federal government with a stronger executive office.
Historians often note how monarchical Hamilton truly was, even though, in his formative years, he was a true American patriot, championing the cause of liberty and fighting for American independence.
In other words, on one hand, Hamilton believed in and supported a stronger government (akin to the King and Parliament of Britain), because he detested the violence and avarice of unruly mobs and the eventual tyranny such mob power would bring. Yet, at the same time, he detested a government who violated precious human rights and destroyed liberty, even if that liberty did result in more unruly behavior.
Perhaps nothing exemplifies Hamilton’s two competing beliefs than the following story:
…late at night on May 10, 1775, an angry mob decided to attack King’s College. It was run by the Church of England, after all, so it was directly associated with the King… and the dean and other teachers were well known and vocal loyalists themselves. If you’re looking for a stand-in for a tyrannical king, looking for someone to tar and feather, who better than Myles Cooper?
As the mob appeared at the fence, tearing down the gate and shouting for Cooper to come down and take his punishment, young Hamilton and his roommate Troup woke up and sprung into action.
They hurried other students to rush to Cooper’s room, and to tell him to get dressed, to pack a bag quickly, and escape, while Alexander Hamilton and Robert Troup rushed down to the front door, to face down the crowd.
The mob might have expected some friendly students to open the door for them, but they certainly didn’t expect what they got: one of their own, giving them a lecture on proper wartime behavior!
Many in the mob recognized Hamilton from recent actions, or from his now famous speech “in the Fields” on July 7, 1774, and they must have been amazed to see him opposing their plan to punish the King’s local spokesman, who was known to be, as Troup put it, “a most obnoxious Tory.”
But Hamilton was horrified at the prospect of mob action. 15 years before the Paris mob was to shock the world with their random assassinations of innocent civilians, even then he knew that this was no way to fight an honorable revolution, purportedly based on the freedom philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment.
Young Hamilton – using all his command of the English language and his understanding of the underpinnings of the Glorious Cause of Independence – gave the crowd a lecture, and thereby gave Cooper a chance to escape out back.
By the time the long-winded young patriot finally wound down and ceded the floor, Myles Cooper had indeed run out the back, leapt over the fence, and headed for his friend Peter Stuyvesant’s house, where he spent the night.
LIBERTY, THE REVOLUTION AND THE CONSTITUTION
Hamilton, perhaps more than any other founding father, knew the dangers of the revolutionary mob. Yet, at the same time, he’d experienced the horrors of tyrannical power. The story above beautifully exemplifies the young Hamilton’s grasp of human nature and its affect on governments and peoples. While he championed the patriot cause, perhaps more than anyone else, he did not lose himself in the emotion of the fight for independence. Instead, he realized the dangers of an emotional, mindless mob. Such power in the people could end up destroying liberty in an even worse fashion than the slow and steady destruction by the King of England.
This seemingly beautiful contradiction of beliefs made Hamilton the genius that he was and brought desperately needed wisdom and insight to the founding of this great country.
Hamilton, along with Madison, wanted to create a government that somehow tiptoed the fine line between total anarchy and total despotism. Give too much power to the people by establishing a weak and small government?
The result? Total chaos and ultimately anarchy, which eventually devolves into tyranny.
Give too much power to the government? The government ends up abusing and using this power to oppress and control the masses, destroying liberty.
This is why the Constitution is the way it is. It created a government that allowed for a bit of both: anarchy and tyranny. The U.S. government is fettered by checks and balances on all sides, but strong enough and disconnected enough from the people, that the people cannot fully influence through mob rule.
It teeters towards anarchy at times and towards tyranny at other times, but never falls fully one way or the other.
And what other option is there when dealing with human nature?
Friends, is Hamilton’s inner turmoil not also America’s inner turmoil? Do we not daily see the struggle between mob rule and tyrannical overreach?
Has the past year and a half not the perfect amalgamation of them both?
Have we not struggled all year to balance the two extremes? We fight to stay afloat amidst gross government overreach into our private businesses and homes during the pandemic while we also clamor for more government control as we watch our cities and suburbs be ravaged by the avarice, hate, and violence of mobs fed up by the same government.
Do you see the fine balance—American’s own inner turmoil? In one breath, we call for more government to squelch the mobs and the riots that liberty flames, while in the next breath we cry out against the same government because of its growth in power amidst this pandemic.
There is no answer to this turmoil. This beautiful contradiction started in the heart of one of America’s greatest founders and has been America’s greatest weakness and strength.
It’s a tight rope, friends, one from which I pray we never slip.
The Liberty Belle