Commentary Magazine


Topic: original intent

Bad History: Vox and Alexander Hamilton

Earlier today I wrote about Ezra Klein’s lame defense of the Obama presidency in which he mistakenly asserts that the office is inherently weak. Blaming the Founding Fathers for the president’s incompetence is easier than owning up to the collapse of faith in the crusade for hope and change. Rather than taking a hard look at the president’s own lack of basic political and leadership skills, Klein claims Obama is in a no-win position, an assertion that can only be accepted if you ignore the vast expansion of presidential power in the last century.

But there is one more point about Klein’s essay that bears refutation. He concludes it by taking a swipe at the doctrine of original intent when it comes to interpreting the Constitution. He writes:

That said, the Founding Fathers have been dead for some time, and even when they were alive they disagreed about quite a lot. Anyone who confidently claims they know how the Founding Fathers would feel about today’s political problems is a liar. It’s likely that Alexander Hamilton would have some questions about airplanes and African-American presidents before he’d render an opinion on congressional productivity.

It is true that there is a lot that the authors of the Constitution would find that was difficult to understand about the America of 2014. But the point of that document was to create a structure for governance. It is a work of sheer genius and has, despite its critics on the left, stood up very well to the test of time. While original intent can sometimes be a dodgy exercise that both left and right play at when it suits them, if you want to know the mindset of the Founders one can easily do so by reading either The Federalist Papers (which were written principally by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton) or Madison’s Notes on the Federal Convention.

But leaving that debate aside, Klein’s potshot at Hamilton tells us more about his own intellectual pretensions than the shortcomings of the man who was killed by Aaron Burr. In fact, if any of the founding fathers would have been at home in 21st century America it was Hamilton. He may not have known much about manned flight, but, in contrast to Madison, Jefferson, and most of the rest of his contemporaries who embraced foolish notions about the United States being principally a nation of yeoman farmers, he envisaged the emergence of America as an industrial and commercial giant as well as global power. As many scholars have pointed out, though we venerate Jefferson and to a lesser extent Madison as the men who made our country, it is Hamilton’s America we live in, not theirs.

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Earlier today I wrote about Ezra Klein’s lame defense of the Obama presidency in which he mistakenly asserts that the office is inherently weak. Blaming the Founding Fathers for the president’s incompetence is easier than owning up to the collapse of faith in the crusade for hope and change. Rather than taking a hard look at the president’s own lack of basic political and leadership skills, Klein claims Obama is in a no-win position, an assertion that can only be accepted if you ignore the vast expansion of presidential power in the last century.

But there is one more point about Klein’s essay that bears refutation. He concludes it by taking a swipe at the doctrine of original intent when it comes to interpreting the Constitution. He writes:

That said, the Founding Fathers have been dead for some time, and even when they were alive they disagreed about quite a lot. Anyone who confidently claims they know how the Founding Fathers would feel about today’s political problems is a liar. It’s likely that Alexander Hamilton would have some questions about airplanes and African-American presidents before he’d render an opinion on congressional productivity.

It is true that there is a lot that the authors of the Constitution would find that was difficult to understand about the America of 2014. But the point of that document was to create a structure for governance. It is a work of sheer genius and has, despite its critics on the left, stood up very well to the test of time. While original intent can sometimes be a dodgy exercise that both left and right play at when it suits them, if you want to know the mindset of the Founders one can easily do so by reading either The Federalist Papers (which were written principally by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton) or Madison’s Notes on the Federal Convention.

But leaving that debate aside, Klein’s potshot at Hamilton tells us more about his own intellectual pretensions than the shortcomings of the man who was killed by Aaron Burr. In fact, if any of the founding fathers would have been at home in 21st century America it was Hamilton. He may not have known much about manned flight, but, in contrast to Madison, Jefferson, and most of the rest of his contemporaries who embraced foolish notions about the United States being principally a nation of yeoman farmers, he envisaged the emergence of America as an industrial and commercial giant as well as global power. As many scholars have pointed out, though we venerate Jefferson and to a lesser extent Madison as the men who made our country, it is Hamilton’s America we live in, not theirs.

Hamilton might be surprised at the election of an incompetent like Barack Obama but I doubt he would be shocked at the evolution of our society on race over the course of the centuries to come. He was a virulent opponent of slavery (he was president of one of the country’s earliest anti-slavery societies) and thought the faculties of blacks were as good as those of whites, something that is hardly surprising since he grew up in a biracial environment in the West Indies.

The point here isn’t just that Klein is being unfair to Hamilton. The first treasury secretary needs no defense against jibes from the likes of the founder of Vox. But it says something that a liberal website that poses as the smart citizens guide to politics and culture would be so illiterate when it comes to one of the chief architects of our nation.

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