The Real Lives Book Club Selection for January and February of 2019. It was one BIG book!
The #RealLivesBookClub started two years ago out of my desire to talk with other readers about non-fiction biographies, autobiographies and memoir. Now we meet monthly to discuss books selected by the group. I am grateful for these people so willing to share insights and friendship, not least because they help keep me accountable in reading.
At the start of 2019, we dived into Ron Chernow’s mammoth book Alexander Hamilton. Mercifully, we elected to cover the nearly 800-page book over a two-month period. The group consensus was that the book was an enjoyable piece—well-written, extensive for its research and informative of the people and time in our history. I didn’t do a great job of taking notes of everyone’s comments, but will do so in future book reviews because I realized on this one in particular what we can glean from re-reading them later.
For this post, since I’m not a historian, I asked my son Oliver (a history major) who attended this particular discussion to engage in a brief conversation about some of the themes I found most interesting in the book. He was so kind as to elaborate on the topics. Below is a transcript of our discussion:
SHERRY: I wanted to do a review of Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, but it was so overwhelming, and there is so much history that I honestly didn’t think I could tackle it by myself. The first theme that still seems relevant today is the climate of infighting and partisanship. Boy has that been around forever!
OLIVER: Absolutely. I think what I was surprised about was the contentiousness during the election of 1800, and just how vicious and quick to lie people were in the process. I think that “lie” is maybe not even the right way to think about it, rather, people were quick to believe anything negative that they heard about the other candidate. That, plus their assertions that the other side wasn’t just wrong, but that they were essentially trying to destroy the government and the country was a suprise. I think that phenomenon ebbs and flows in American history. The most obvious example of this conflict between opposing political viewpoints that really spiraled out of control was the Civil War. But I do think there are echoes of it today as well.
Certainly, there are lots of people who believe everything that our current president Donald Trump says no matter how outlandish, for example. All sorts of conspiracies gain traction because essentially everything you hear that is negative about the other side you automatically believe. I think that this is true to an extent on both sides, maybe not to an equal extent, but it is true.
This situation has existed throughout American history, and sometimes there are glimmers of some truth in a belief. For example, with the Civil War a lot of these slave holding politicians from the south were saying, “Well, look, you’re trying to ‘limit’ the expansion of slavery, but in truth you really want to destroy slavery.” And there were a lot of so-called “moderates” who said, “No, no, we just want to stop the expansion.” But as a matter of fact, there was a growing feeling among Northerners that, yes, it should be destroyed as an institution. In that sense, their conspiracy theory actually ended up working out and being sort of correct.
SHERRY: So, going back to that initial point of the animosity between two sides—it has been a feature of our country from the beginning. There has always been one side versus another and this villainizing of the other side, while overlooking one’s own side of transgressions, seems to be the norm.
OLIVER: I think it is important to note that it’s not just about this duopoly of power. Within the parties there were a lot of fissures that were important such as those during Adam’s administration. Adams was a Federalist and paranoid, so he was quick to point out that he felt that the real power was being wielded by Hamilton, although Hamilton wasn’t even in the government at the time. So even within the Federalists, there was a struggle for power.
SHERRY: In relation to that, I was struck by how similar the divisions are today. Partisanship, a distrust of the other side, a villainizing of the other side, and real unwillingness to find common ground a lot of time.
OLIVER: Absolutely. Compromise is akin to losing and that concept is alive and well. One example from the book was Adams’ desire to bring Jeffersonian Republicans into his cabinet. Jefferson essentially said, “I’d much rather watch you fail and attack you.” Compromise is not what they want. They want to have the total power.
SHERRY: Somebody has to be a winner, and somebody has to be a loser.
OLIVER: Ultimately, I think the personal desire for power is there, but I do think that for a lot of those guys they had beliefs, too, and felt that their side was better equipped to run things.
SHERRY: And that is what makes the topic of immigration, which we are still dealing with, such a surprise to me. It does seem remarkable we are still debating about immigration even though we are a country of immigrants. The fact that Hamilton himself was an immigrant and he was okay with Alien Sedition Act is startling.
OLIVER: I think to have this come from a first-generation immigrant was deeply ironic, but certainly second and third generations have a very long history of being distrustful of immigrants and worried about the cultural impact of new people. It is a fear of “outsiders” that has been there since the very beginning. Again, it does come down to a power struggle where you look at this new group coming in and you’re worried that they are going to take the limited economic resources. So, basically, it becomes a fight about how you are going to cut the pie.
SHERRY: And yet we are all taking from a pie that wasn’t ours in the first place. I mean, we took over the country as immigrants and have been taking from the pie ever since.
OLIVER: The country’s original sin is racism—racism in the form of enslaving African people and bringing them over against their will, and racism against the Native Americans by stealing their land. It shouldn’t be too surprising that the same racist sentiment carried through.
I think that, on the same spectrum when we talk about immigrants, obviously now there is this sense of a “white identity” that would include people who have Irish, German and English ancestry. However, back in the mid-1800s when Irish immigrants came here, a lot of people saw them as being racially separate. Racism is definitely a part of the national character.
SHERRY: I don’t know whether to be optimistic or pessimistic in this, but as human beings we do seem predictable. We take sides. There must be winners and losers. And we distrust those we feel are not quite like us.
OLIVER: I don’t know if it makes sense to be optimistic or pessimistic about it. I guess you can be both. I think it is more about understanding that those are proclivities that are just baked in. We must look for those tendencies in our society and in ourselves so that we can hopefully not repeat the mistakes of the past. There is an old saying that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. What we want to try to do is make this stanza of the overall poem a little less violent and little less hateful.
SHERRY: We can only hope. The final thing I wanted to discuss was the struggle between states and federal power that was prevalent throughout the book. Disputes about budgets, taxes, and authority of law were ongoing then as they are now. One example from the book was the debate over keeping state militias or maintaining a federal army.
OLIVER: I think it’s important to remember that when the Constitution was framed, you were looking at all of these states that, in fact, had been self-governing and not politically connected to each other for decades and decades going back to the 1500s for some of them. So, they had long political histories as separate political entities. Old habits die hard, and there were a lot of vested interests to keep the status quo.
I think that the other issue is that a lot of people at the time felt the Constitution betrayed the Spirit of ’76 and were very distrustful of federalized government. Famously, of course, Hamilton was a big proponent of a strong central government with strong executive. That was what he wanted. But that ran counter to a lot of the propaganda being put out by the American insurgents during the Revolutionary War. Part of their justification for fighting Britain and separating was the belief that centralized executives like a king or centralized government like the parliament shouldn’t have the right to impose themselves on far-flung territories. These days you can drive from New York to Richmond in a few hours, but back then those places were truly separate geographically and practically speaking, and it wasn’t obvious that we should have this government that imposes a lot of the same rules on both of them.
SHERRY: Today it seems sort of interesting with all these states that eventually became the United States. It seems sort of schizophrenic because we have all these different cultures from different parts of the country under one umbrella.
OLIVER: I think that maybe Hamilton’s point was that the reason you want to unite all of these states into one was so that the government would have power, teeth, and be more effective. His idea was that it would just work better. Whether or not the people in Massachusetts and the people in Virginia share the same culture wasn’t the point. Hopefully, they would share the same goal of being part of a prosperous nation, and he felt that was the best way to get there.
SHERRY: That is a nice place to end, the idea that we all want to be part of a prosperous nation. Thanks Oliver. You helped me put it all in perspective.
OLIVER: Hamilton was in the thick of a lot of the important and interesting debates of the day. To know about his life is to understand the political history of this country. He was in the thick of almost all of it when he was alive.
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