THR Web Features   /   January 8, 2021

A History Lesson from Alexander Hamilton

The Founders knew us better than we know ourselves.

Richard Hughes Gibson

( Inside the US Capitol on January 6, 2021; CNN.)

It’s obvious to everyone that we witnessed events of great historical significance on January 6. Yet what that significance amounts to is far from certain, not least because the issue immediately at stake—the peaceful transfer of executive power—has yet to be fully effected. As I watched the speeches from the reclaimed Senate floor into the evening of that sad day, I was moved by the way the normally humdrum business of counting the electoral votes had become an occasion for soul-searching. Instead of the typical paeans to democracy we hear on such occasions—if we even bother to tune in on them—we heard far more searching reflections on the American republic and its history.

I witnessed one senator after another searching for parallels and analogies to explain what had happened, what the storming of the very chamber from which they spoke meant about the United States, past and present, and what it augurs for our future. Several senators, including Cory Booker, spoke passionately about the only previous attack on the Capitol—in 1814, when British troops torched the building. Booker went on to contrast that moment of infamy with an image of Civil Rights-era protestors “who once stood arm in arm on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, and said that together, ‘we shall overcome.’” Those last words, as I took them, were an attempt to find a hopeful model of collective action that might guide our conduct in the days ahead. There were also, as one would expect, many gestures to the founders, though they were far from hollow. Senator Ben Sasse, for one, lamented that he couldn’t give the speech he’d planned, recalling John Adams’s demonstration in 1801 that an executive would abide by the will of the people and hand over power after losing the election—an action that had astonished European observers. But the events of January 6, Sasse sadly admitted, had driven him off script.

The words that most struck me, though, were those of Michael Bennet, the senior senator from Colorado. The infiltration of the Capitol, he said, had reminded him of something he often thought about when he stood on the chamber floor: “that the Founders of this country, the people that wrote our Constitution, actually knew our history better than we know our history.” Bennet specifically cited their knowledge of the forerunners of the “mob riot” he had only shortly before witnessed firsthand—the “armed gangs” that roamed the streets in the last days of the Roman Republic, “doing the work for politicians” and preventing “Rome from casting their ballots for consuls, for praetors, for senators.” Bennett continued: “These were the offices in Rome, and these armed gangs ran through the streets of Rome, keeping elections from being started, keeping elections from ever being called. And in the end, because of that, the Roman Republic fell and a dictator took its place.” As Bennet concluded, the inventors of the American Republic didn’t just know this history; it was “what the Founders were thinking about when they wrote our Constitution.”

Bennet, I knew, was right, and when I rose the morning after that terrifying attack on the citadel of our democracy, I decided it would do me good to hear the Founders themselves on this point. So I turned to the Federalist Papers, to the the ninth installment, and found exactly the wisdom I had sought on the meaning of events like the one we had just witnessed. Alexander Hamilton—the author of that brilliant essay—begins with his usual eloquence and assurance:

A FIRM Union will be of the utmost moment to the peace and liberty of the States, as a barrier against domestic faction and insurrection. It is impossible to read the history of the petty republics of Greece and Italy without feeling sensations of horror and disgust at the distractions with which they were continually agitated, and at the rapid succession of revolutions by which they were kept in a state of perpetual vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy. If they exhibit occasional calms, these only serve as short-lived contrast to the furious storms that are to succeed. If now and then intervals of felicity open to view, we behold them with a mixture of regret, arising from the reflection that the pleasing scenes before us are soon to be overwhelmed by the tempestuous waves of sedition and party rage. If momentary rays of glory break forth from the gloom, while they dazzle us with a transient and fleeting brilliancy, they at the same time admonish us to lament that the vices of government should pervert the direction and tarnish the lustre of those bright talents and exalted endowments for which the favored soils that produced them have been so justly celebrated. 

From the disorders that disfigure the annals of those republics the advocates of despotism have drawn arguments, not only against the forms of republican government, but against the very principles of civil liberty. They have decried all free government as inconsistent with the order of society, and have indulged themselves in malicious exultation over its friends and partisans. Happily for mankind, stupendous fabrics reared on the basis of liberty, which have flourished for ages, have, in a few glorious instances, refuted their gloomy sophisms. And, I trust, America will be the broad and solid foundation of other edifices, not less magnificent, which will be equally permanent monuments of their errors. 

Here, Hamilton summed up what he and his contemporaries saw when they looked back at ancient Greece and Rome: two societies that squandered their gifts, falling into a “state of perpetual vibration” relieved by only brief periods of relative calm. When I first encountered these words some two decades ago, I delighted in Hamilton’s exuberant language. The argument about avoiding the shared fate of Greece and Rome didn’t seem particularly concerning. It seemed only to express the anxieties of person living in a more “tempestuous” age.

But “tyranny,” “anarchy,” and “sedition” no longer sound like words from the remote past. And “party rage” seems tailor-made to our hour. Reading Hamilton’s words again, I nod in agreement with Bennet—that the Founders indeed “knew our history better than we know our history.” But they didn’t just know our republic’s ancient origins better than we do. Bennet went further, drawing the lesson home: “There’s a tendency around this place,” he declaimed, “to always believe that we’re the first people to confront something when that’s seldom the case, and to underappreciate what the effect of our actions will be.”

Hamilton’s history lesson doesn’t end with the citing of a historical parallel. The demise of democracy in Greece and the Republic in Rome weren’t just dire examples of how the American project might go awry. They were the very evidence that “advocates of despotism” have used—and continue to use—to justify their repressive systems in the name of the public good. Hamilton grasped that the world was watching the American experiment. Its success would prepare the way for other such experiments—“not less magnificent.” Taken together, these democracies would, Hamilton hoped, permanently refute the argument for despotic rule.

But here we are again. During the last four years, I have repeatedly resisted the urge to name dire precedents to our own convulsed times. Bennet reminds us—indeed insists that we remember—that our times do have precedents, and that those precedents, as the Founders grasped, should move us to deliberate action to shore up our public institutions. The world is watching again to see what transpires, champions of democracy and despotism alike. How carefully will we heed Hamilton’s warning about the fate of Greece and Rome, how forcefully will we speak out against “domestic faction and insurrection,” and how devoted shall we remain to the peaceful transfer of executive power? Unless we resist the “distractions with which we are continually agitated,” we can be sure that  “party rage” will destroy even more than our most cherished public buildings.