Saturday, June 18, 2016

Hamilton's ghost in the Gettysburg Address

Nearing the end of Ron Chernow's Hamilton led me to dip into the Federalist Papers last night. No sooner did I crack the volume and start in on No. 1, written by Hamilton, when lo, deja vu ensued. Not because I'd read the words before, though I probably have, but because I felt I was reading the Gettsyburg Address. Here's Hamilton:
After an unequivocal experience of the inefficiency of the subsisting federal government, you are called upon to deliberate on a new Constitution for the United States of America. The subject speaks its own importance; comprehending in its consequences nothing less than the existence of the UNION, the safety and welfare of the parts of which it is composed, the fate of an empire in many respects the most interesting in the world. It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.
And Lincoln:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
The two define the stakes similarly. For Hamilton, republican government cannot survive and thrive unless a strong federal government can make decisions for, and act for, the whole. For Lincoln, republican government cannot survive unless the federal government can reassert its authority over the whole. The strength of the federal government is deemed the sine qua non of self-government in both cases. (In subsequent Federalist Papers, Hamilton and Jay make the case at length that the weaker existing confederation cannot thrive, or ultimately survive, and so can't safeguard self-government.)

For both Hamilton and Lincoln, the stakes are global: the United States is the great demonstration project, the great departure from reliance on inherited authority and privilege.

Interestingly, Hamilton immediately follows the definition of the stakes above with a cold realist discussion of motive in politics:
This idea will add the inducements of philanthropy to those of patriotism, to heighten the solicitude which all considerate and good men must feel for the event. Happy will it be if our choice should be directed by a judicious estimate of our true interests, unperplexed and unbiased by considerations not connected with the public good. But this is a thing more ardently to be wished than seriously to be expected. The plan offered to our deliberations affects too many particular interests, innovates upon too many local institutions, not to involve in its discussion a variety of objects foreign to its merits, and of views, passions and prejudices little favorable to the discovery of truth.
For Lincoln, the furnace of horrific war burns pure the question of motive. The living have to do their imperfect part to live up to the purity of devotion of the hallowed dead -- though there's also the acknowledgment that the living can't live up to that last full measure of devotion. As the Address is hypnotically short, so is all that messiness of motive -- like the horror of the half-buried corpses at the site -- abstracted out. In a way, the uncanny brevity of the Gettysburg Address (it's shorter than the opening paragraph of the Federalist Papers)  makes a sharp contrast with Hamilton preternatural specificity and depth of argument.

I'm sure that this conceptual connection between Hamilton and Lincoln is not news to those who study these things, and that many writers and speakers in the four score and seven years between them made the basic equation between a strong union and the viability of self-government. But sometimes, when you come to something cold, it's worth recording how it registers.

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