Unknown knowns: Why we think we love Hamilton and Adams

Alex HamiltonLike many historian-types, I love Hamilton, the musical, and am ambivalent about David McCullough’s John Adams.  The American public apparently agrees with the former, and is more positive about the latter.  John Adams was one of the publishing best-sellers of the last quarter-century.  As for Hamilton, anything that has to do with public life that’s been praised by both Dick Cheney and Barack Obama must be pretty popular.  Both are brilliantly executed exemplars of their genre, which is why they are so popular.  But there’s another reason, too.  It’s because they gloss over what previous generations, more mindful of their history, knew, and we are now choosing to forget.  Neither Adams nor Hamilton liked democracy.Let’s start with McCullough’s treatment of John Adams.

It was Paine’s “feeble” understanding of constitutional government, his outline of a unicameral legislature to be established once independence was achieved, that disturbed Adams most.”  McCullough, John Adams, p.g 97.

McCullough’s characterization places Adams in a flattering light, as someone understanding political structure better than Paine.  But this explanation begs the question of why Adams, in his apparent wisdom, so abhorred the idea of a unicameral legislature.  In Adams’s own account of a conversation between him and Paine, he told the pamphleteer that Paine’s plan was “so democratical, without any restraint or even an Attempt at any Equilibrium or Counterpoise, that it must produce confusion and every Evil Work.”  In other words, Adams feared democracy.  Better to leave that out if we want him to be a hero.

In Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda performed a similar trick with Hamilton’s opening address to the Constitutional Convention.  Aaron Burr sings,

Hamilton, at the Constitutional Convention…

There as a New York junior delegate…

Goes and proposes

his own form of government!

His own plan for

a new form of Government!

Talks for six hours! The convention is listless!…

Why do you always say what you believe?

Ev’ry proclamation


free ammunition for

your enemies!     “Non-Stop,” Hamilton Original Broadway Cast Recording

Miranda”s Hamilton’s sin is that he is too forward with his ideas, drawing the implicit contrast (explicit elsewhere in the musical) with Burr, whose main flaw is avoiding taking positions on anything.  But again, what’s left unsaid is the substance of Hamilton’s speech, and why it was so objectionable, what ammunition it actually gave Hamilton’s enemies.  The main reason?  He offered up a plan that was pretty close to constitutional monarchy.  In other words, Hamilton feared democracy.  Admitting that would be too much burden for a hero to carry.

Why do we love these guys now?  Because we’ve played up the things that we’ve decided we value. For Adams, his authenticity and dedication to national independence.  For Hamilton, his striving and his financial plan.  For both, their professed opposition to slavery.  Meanwhile, we’ve chosen to forgotten their signal common political position: a deep distrust of democracy.

Whatcha thinkin'?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.