Hamilton and Madison, friends turned enemies, and how their Constitutional brilliance protects us today
James Madison and Alexander Hamilton were once close political allies, who then turned into bitter rivals. But their wondrous Constitution and the government it formed continues to function quite well today, even amid partisanship and extreme political views. In truth, the wonder of the Constitution is actually more apparent more than two centuries after the Federalists pushed through its ratification.
Yesterday, I listened to a TED talk by Noah Feldman on this very subject titled “Hamilton vs. Madison and the birth of American partisanship”. You can click here to access the audio and transcript of that TED talk. As someone who has always loved history, particularly the history of our Founding Fathers, I was interested as soon as I read the title. I must confess that I have always had a particular admiration for Alexander Hamilton (his political brilliance, not his personal life or morals). Thus, anything related to Hamilton has an extra measure of interest for me. As I listened to Mr. Feldman review the history of Madison and Hamilton first working together as Federalists and then becoming political enemies, I was all the more intrigued.
Noah’s talk is not just a recitation of historical events, though there is some of that (presented in a very appealing manner, not just something for history buffs). Rather, the thesis of his speech is that partisanship has existed from the very beginning of American history, and part of the wonder of our Constitution is that it provides for and protects against such partisanship in an amazing manner. Feldman does a fine job describing the polarizing views and policies espoused by Madison and Hamilton during their time, in part, so that we can understand that what we are seeing in Washington today is not all that dissimilar from what existed in their day. Further, people who are worried that today’s extremism (among other adjectives) will somehow break the fabric of our government and society, should take a deep breath and realize that the Constitutional form of government established by our Founding Fathers (Madison, Hamilton, Jefferson, Adams, Washington and many others) has survived more than the test of time and centuries of assaults and societal evolutions. Indeed, the state of our society and world today is rather calm compared to what has come before. Here are some closing comments from Mr. Feldman’s excellent address:
The takeaway of this brief excursus into the history of partisanship, then, is the following: partisanship is real; it’s profound; it’s extraordinarily powerful, and it’s upsetting. But the design of the Constitution is greater than partisanship. It enables us to manage partisanship when that’s possible, and it enables us actually to overcome partisan division and produce compromise, when and only when that is possible. A technology like that is a technology that worked for the founders, it worked for their grandchildren, it didn’t work at the moment of the Civil War, but then it started working again. And it worked for our grandparents, our parents, and it’s going to work for us.
So what you should do is really simple. Stand up for what you believe in, support the organizations that you care about, speak out on the issues that matter to you, get involved, make change, express you opinion, and do it with respect and knowledge and confidence that it’s only by working together that the constitutional technology can do the job that it is designed to do.
Stand up for what you believe, but take a deep breath while you do it. It’s going to be OK.
Sage advice. I would recommend that you take 15 minutes to listen to all of Noah’s talk (or read the transcript available on the same web page). Next time you are losing sleep over political news and wondering if our government will be “broken” by the folks in Washington, remember that some of the most brilliant minds ever to walk the earth collectively (with help from Heaven) wrote and implemented the most protective, most ingenious and most enduring form of government the world has known. Yes, we have our challenges and problems to address in America (and globally), but we need not worry that our government structure is about to crumble. Hamilton and Madison are a striking example that what we face now has come before and somehow, both our government and the people it serves made it through.