CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – I came here during the holidays to visit an old friend who’s fallen on hard times.
Amid the cultural sensation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” on Broadway, the protagonist’s arch-rival, Thomas Jefferson, has momentarily lost his place of honor in the founding narrative. If Alexander Hamilton is the hero, the Sage of Monticello, though not the villain (that’s Aaron Burr) is an impediment.
In truth, Jefferson and Hamilton were indispensable, the yin and yang of American democracy: Jefferson’s love of liberty and Hamilton’s taste for centralized power created the balance that built the world’s economic and military superpower. And they had common cause in defending their creation.
Their system was under threat in 1800, when a quirk in the electoral college left the federalist-controlled House of Representatives to award the presidency to one of two republicans, Jefferson and Burr. Miranda portrayed Hamilton as reluctantly drawn out of retirement to endorse Jefferson, but Hamilton’s letters show he was zealous in persuading fellow federalists to choose Jefferson – a man with whom he had more ideological differences than with Burr.
The danger to the new country, Hamilton argued, wasn’t ideological disputes, but the possibility that an unprincipled man would exploit public passions.
Hamilton’s letters from 216 winters ago, which I re-read this week, provide much relevance to this moment, as our 45th president assumes office.
Hamilton was no apologist for Jefferson, whose politics were “tinctured with fanaticism,” and who was “a contemptible hypocrite.” But, Hamilton wrote to Federalist James Bayard of Delaware, Jefferson is not “zealot enough to do anything in pursuance of his principles which will contravene his popularity, or his interest. He is as likely as any man I know to temporize – to calculate what will be likely to promote his own reputation and advantage; and the probable result of such a temper is the preservation of systems, though originally opposed, which being once established, could not be overturned without danger to the person who did it. . Add to this that there is no fair reason to suppose him capable of being corrupted, which is a security that he will not go beyond certain limits.”
Some Federalists thought the non-ideological Burr would be more malleable. But, Hamilton countered, a man without theory cannot be “a systematic or able statesman.” Burr is “more cunning than wise … inferior in real ability to Jefferson,” Hamilton wrote. “Great Ambition unchecked by principle … is an unruly Tyrant.”
The former Treasury secretary warned that Burr’s trafficking in “the floating passions of the multitude” would lead him to “endeavour to disorganize both parties & to form out of them a third composed of men fitted by their characters to be conspirators.”
Hamilton recounted that when Burr was told something wasn’t permissible under the American system, Burr replied “les grands ames se soucient peu des petits morceaux” – great souls care little about small things. This led Hamilton to conclude that “Burr would consider a scheme of usurpation as visionary.”
Hamilton issued similar warnings in the winter of 1800-01 to James Ross of Pennsylvania, John Rutledge Jr. of South Carolina, Oliver Wolcott Jr. of Connecticut and Gouverneur Morris of New York.
Certainly there was personal enmity between Hamilton and the bankrupt “voluptuary” he called Burr. But underlying Hamilton’s aggressive campaign for Jefferson was a fear that America’s democracy was too fragile to survive Burr’s ambition.
“He is of a temper to undertake the most hazardous enterprises because he is sanguine enough to think nothing impracticable, and of an ambition which will be content with nothing less than permanent power in his own hands,” he wrote Bayard. “The maintenance of the existing institutions will not suit him, because under them his power will be too narrow & too precarious; yet the innovations he may attempt will not offer the substitute of a system durable & safe, calculated to give lasting prosperity, & to unite liberty with strength. It will be the system of the day, sufficient to serve his own turn, & not looking beyond himself.”
“The truth,” Hamilton wrote, “is that under forms of Government like ours, too much is practicable to men who will without scruple avail themselves of the bad passions of human nature.”
Hamilton’s view of Burr would later become universal. Jefferson would come to see his former running mate as “one of the most flagitious 1 / 8villainous 3 / 8 of which history will ever furnish an example.”
Hamilton’s intervention gave the country the triumphant presidency of Jefferson, sparing the young nation an unscrupulous man exploiting public passion to usurp power.
Will we be as lucky in 2017?
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.