Careful With Those Modifiers

Via my weekly PBS newsletter:

Alexander Hamilton
Monday, May 14, 2007

One of the most controversial men of his age, Alexander Hamilton was a gifted statesman brought down by the fatal flaws of stubbornness, extreme candor, and arrogance. His life and career were marked by a stunning rise to power, scandal, and tragedy. He had one of the most notorious love affairs of any public figure in American history, and met his death in a startling act of political violence – the famous duel with Aaron Burr.

But his contributions as a statesman survive. As first Secretary of the Treasury during the tumultuous early years of the republic, Hamilton led the transformation of the young country into a commercial and industrial powerhouse. He was the one founder who had a vision, not of what America was, but of what it could become.

This two-hour American Experience tells the story of the underappreciated genius who laid the groundwork for the nation’s modern economy – including the banking system, Wall Street, and an “opportunity society” in which talent and hard work, not birth, determined success.

Broadcast Date: Monday, May 14, 2007

Web site Launch Date: May 10, 2007

Sounds interesting, and I’ll definitely try to watch/tape it. But what is up with this: “He was the one founder who had a vision, not of what America was, but of what it could become”? Are you s-e-r-i-o-u-s?

The one founder who had a vision of what America could become? Nobody else had a vision?

That may come as a surprise to James Madison and John Jay, who co-wrote the Federalist Papers with Hamilton. Madison is credited by many as the architect of the unique combination of limits on government, and God-given rights of man, that has proven to be quite successful. Our form of government has changed the world, by both putting forward the idea that man has God-given rights in the first place, and then proving that this a priori assumption is crucial to guaranteeing those rights of man. And the fact that other cultures and nations can’t (so far) duplicate this success testifies to the miraculous nature of it.

This is not to take anything away from Hamilton, and the economic miracle that is the United States throughout its history is definitely a major factor in that success, as well.

But it is just not true that Hamilton is the one founder who had a vision for what America could become. Not even close. Ever heard of Ben Franklin? Thomas Paine? John Locke, the philosoper who wrote The Second Treatise of Government, and is credited with being the main political philsopher that drove the revolutionary American model? In 1690? For those not proficient in math, that is 97 years before the publication of the Federalist Papers.

More at this page.

I shouldn’t be surprised though. It isn’t just PBS and their non-Founding-Father-worshiping ilk that doesn’t recognize the miracle of the birth of the United States government. Our whole school system ignores it, as well. Oh, sure, they focus on dates and the names of people, and who wrote what. That’s nice. That and 3 bucks might get you a crappy overpriced coffee at Starbuck’s.

Do they also teach why this was important, and how revolutionary these ideas were, compared to the history of world governments up to that time? America was a pretty clean break from what had been tried before, and it was an explicit attempt to fix what was wrong with the very idea of a government that grants rights based on power, wealth, and whimsy.

Do they also teach the crucial differences between the philosophies driving the American Revolution vs. the French Revolution, which occurred just a few years later and was largely inspired by the Americans? And how these philosophies – enforced equality, by law, from the French Revolution, vs. God-granted liberty, from the American – have morphed into the different types of societies we have today? I.e., what happened over 200 years ago is highly relevant in today’s world?

Imagine that – history as a teaching tool. Who knew?

The American Revolution was not just some dates and names from history; it was a truly world-changing event, that has helped change the entire world for the better, both economically and ethically. Even the murderous excesses of bad actors like Stalin and Hitler are understood to be even greater on the atrocity scale when measured against a place like America. It’s too bad only immigrants understand this today, instead of our own children, who grow up here but don’t understand what makes it unique.

And, great as Alexander Hamilton’s contribution was, it wasn’t all his idea.


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