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Karen Telleen-Lawton: Alexander Hamilton and the Presidential Election

The divisiveness surrounding this campaign is as rancorous as we’ve ever had — or is it?

I have found some morbid relief in reading Ron Chernov’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, made more famous by the wildly popular Broadway rap musical.

The book and musical follow Hamilton’s life from an out-of-wedlock boy in the West Indies to a Founding Father and first Secretary of the Treasury, author of Washington’s economics policies and creator of the first national bank and the Coast Guard.

One of many things I didn’t know about Hamilton was how much he played the role of healer after the Revolutionary War. When a massive crowd gathered, for instance, demanding all Tories be expelled for supporting the British, he offered a longer view.

“First impressions and early habits give a lasting bias to the temper and character,” he told the crowds, urging forgiveness. “The world has its eye upon America.”

Street talk regarding the proposed articles of the Constitution was equally acrimonious. “As often incredulous citizens studied the document in taverns and coffeehouses, many reject it at first blush,” wrote Chernow. “The convention’s secrecy encouraged suspicions of a wicked cabal at work.”

Our union survived because people (albeit only propertied white males) participated in the process of forming the United States. Their conflicting ideas and deeply held beliefs clashed with each other even as they fought for self-governance.

It was never pretty. Chernow wrote:

“The rancor ushered in a golden age of literary assassination in American politics. No etiquette had yet evolved to define the legitimate boundaries of dissent. Poison-pen artists on both sides wrote vitriolic essays that were overtly partisan, often paid scant heed to accuracy, and sought a visceral impact.”

How did we succeed in creating the USA? Chernow contemplates whether the times themselves created the people.

Americans often wonder how this moment could have spawned such extraordinary men as Hamilton and (James) Madison.

Part of the answer is that the Revolution produced an insatiable need for thinkers who could generate ideas and wordsmiths who could lucidly expound them. The immediate utility of ideas was an incalculable tonic for the founding generation.

The fate of the democratic experiment depended upon political intellectuals who might have been marginalized at other periods.

Indeed, Hamilton might have been a marginalized character at most times. Moreover, he and Madison often fought on opposing sides regarding the provisions of the Constitution. They both believed, however, that “public opinion should be distilled by skeptical, sober-minded representatives.”

Their messy disagreements, played out in taverns, essays and anonymous circulars, resulted in the document we have plied for truth and justice in the centuries since.

Our democracy will always depend on thinking people: intellectuals as well as extraordinary and ordinary people listening, reading and thinking. We need to consider not only ourselves and our families but of all of us together, the larger community of the United States.

It is true we have an awkward choice. Many yearn for something different than an establishment politician. But Hillary Rodham Clinton is tough and extremely competent. Moreover, she is no worse than the best politicians we have had.

Every founding father was imperfect, down to George Washington, who couldn’t bring himself to free his slaves during his lifetime: even those who were his own children.

On the contrary, Clinton’s opponent is no better than the worst politicians we have had in history.

Vote like your children and grandchildren are watching, because they are. Vote as if their futures depend on it, because they do. Above all, vote.

— Karen Telleen-Lawton’s column is a mélange of observations spanning sustainability from the environment to finance, economics and justice issues. She is a fee-only financial advisor (www.DecisivePath.com) and a freelance writer (www.CanyonVoices.com). Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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