The Wit of Alexander “Publius” Hamilton

Posted by on Apr 18, 2013 in Articles | 0 comments

The Wit of Alexander “Publius” Hamilton

When the new Constitution was proposed to the American people in September, 1787, its critics came out swinging. Those opposed to the Constitution — and they were many, they were loud, and they were not stupid — adopted Roman pseudonyms in their pamphlets such as Brutus, Cato, etc. Why Roman? Because Rome was longest living republic in history, and everyone at that time was studying Roman history to see how the Romans did it, and what the strengths and weaknesses were of the Roman constitutions, etc.

By adopting names like Brutus and Cato, all of whom were Roman statesman at the END of the Roman republic, the critics of the Constitution were suggesting that the 1787 proposed Constitution would spell the END of the American republic, very short-lived.

A Friend of the People

But Hamilton did an end run around them. He adopted the pen-name, Publius. Publius was one of the FOUNDERS of the Roman republic, when it was NEW. He did more than anyone to set Rome on the course of 500 years of republicanism! The full name was Publius Valerius Publicola. “Publicola,” in Latin, meant, “friend of the people.” So if the American “Publius” was a “friend of the people,” his enemies were enemies of the people. More importantly, by adopting the name “Publius,” Hamilton was suggesting that the new Constitution was just the beginning of a new republic that would live long, not the end.

Labels Matter

Further, critics of the critics of the Constitution were not organized and they had no label to identify themselves as somehow joined together in a common thought (kinda like the Right today, eh?). But Hamilton! He single-handedly re-defined the word “federalist.” It used to mean “federated,” or power split apart between multiple levels of government. But Hamilton began to use the word “federal” to describe the newly proposed national Constitution.

Thereafter, he and anyone who supported the Constitution were “federalists.” So what did that make critics of the Constitution? Answer: ANTI-federalists. Anyone who knows anything about marketing or campaigning knows that it is a losing proposition to be positioned as “anti” anything. Thus Hamilton labeled his opponents with a label they did not want. Brilliant.

Hamilton plays with and redefines important language in Federalist #39. It’s so much fun to parse this stuff out, and see what was really going on in a brilliant mind. It almost makes one feel as brilliant, just being a student of it. Our situation is very different today, of course. So we cannot merely get up in public and quote Hamilton or any of the founders. Our audience is very different from the audience they had. But there is much we can learn from them in terms of messaging style, strategy, and most importantly, the fundamental principles informing everything we do and say in the service of freedom.

The Staunchest Hamiltonians

But with regard to Mr. Hamilton: Does anyone know who became the greatest Hamiltonians in American history? Answer: PRESIDENTS Jefferson and Madison! Yes, the Jefferson and Madison of the 1800s were strikingly different from the Jefferson and Madison of the 1790s. History, and the human nature that makes it go, is so deliciously ironic. If only men were angels, and acted perfectly consistent with the principles of right… But, alas, they are M.E.N., imperfections and all. What so fascinates me is how these all-too-human beings were able to do the good they did. Wow.

Nobody’s Perfect

Put another way: Compared to the standard of perfection, any human being falls short, including all of us here. Compare anyone in the rough and tumble of real political life to the pure theory of free market economics, or the pure theory of constitutional republicanism, and the men will fall short of the measure. For those who want to compare men to angels, or equate God with the Good, that is easy fodder. But rather than pointing out how every human being has fallen short of some standard, which is easy to do, I am more interested in understanding the good some do, and why. Whatever disputes there were between Hamilton versus Jefferson and Madison, consider the backdrop: Thousands of years of kingship and tyranny! Compared to that, the debate between Hamilton and Jefferson on the “necessary and proper” clause, for example, seems like small potatoes. That fight was over how to understand the Constitution, versus the Progressive claim that we should abandon the Constitution altogether. More succinctly: What A Ham, Tommy J, and Jimmy Madison had in common was far more important than where they differed.

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