Like many Americans, I was captivated by the Broadway musical Hamilton. The innovative blend of hip-hop and traditional Broadway ballads, the historical focus, the relevance to current issues, and above all the brilliant story-telling were all electrifying for me. So much so that I determined to read the book which inspired the whole thing: Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton.
It’s a wonderful story. It chronicles the rise of an ambitious lawyer from obscurity to fame on the coattails of a popular and charismatic president, with an elite life centered on New York City and dedicated to public service, whose career eventually becomes embroiled in unending scandals which are never proved but which are touted by the opposing party as evidence of their sure corruption…
Then it hit me. Hillary Rodham Clinton is our 21st-century Alexander Hamilton.
Not exactly. There are, of course, significant differences between the two — one’s a woman, one’s a man. Alex had the most faithful of wives, Hillary a less faithful husband. Hamilton was considered an excellent orator, Clinton a capable but often uninteresting speaker. And our 18th-century subject took a much more bitter and contemptuous tone toward his rivals than the 21st-century version, even taking into account the bitterness of the recent campaign. And yet…
Let me first point to a few biographical similarities. Hamilton was born to a middle-class family on the island of Nevis, where he displayed an unusual quickness of mind; after the publication of one of his pieces in the local paper, the island gathered funds for his education at a top school in the northeastern United States. Hamilton was educated at King’s College (now the Ivy League Columbia) in New York.
Hillary was born to a middle-class family in Chicago, where she also displayed unique gifts, and was educated at top northeastern schools, earning her law degree from the prestigious Yale University.
For many years after that, Hamilton’s career was tied to his mentor and friend, George Washington. First he was an aide-de-camp to the general during the Revolutionary War, eventually becoming a trusted adviser in key organizational and military decisions. Later, when Washington was elected president, the great man selected Hamilton as the first secretary of the treasury — the young man became one of Washington’s intimate allies and helped write his acclaimed farewell speech.
In the same vein, Hillary’s career was tied to that of her husband and partner, William Jefferson Clinton. She sacrificed a promising law career to support him in the governorship of Arkansas and later in the presidency of the United States, while acting as a trusted adviser and advocate for his policies during that time. Just as Hamilton’s prominence was at least partially due to his connection with Washington, so Hillary can trace at least part of her recognition to her spouse.
There is another point, a striking one. Both Hamilton and Hillary moved to New York City and became symbolic of the cosmopolitan, financial, liberal, elitist culture that the city houses. Hamilton was involved in the formation of the historic Bank of New York as well as the first central bank of the United States, believing they were central to US economic success. He dressed in high fashion and was usually praised by merchants and city dwellers across the country. On the other hand, farmers and rural citizens tended to despise him for his advocacy of commerce and of a strong central government. It was partially on the distrust of these people that opponents relied for their populist attacks on Hamilton.
And Hillary Rodham Clinton? She has been paid for speeches at some of the most notorious big banks in the United States — Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, MorganStanley — and was supported by most bankers during her recent presidential run. In general, city dwellers like her and country dwellers hate her; the rural-urban divide in the 2016 election is well documented and mirrors the love-hate relationship of 18th-century America with Hamilton.
There are other strange parallels. Both served in the cabinet of powerful presidents. Both led parties based primarily in the northeast against parties based primarily in the south. Both were ambitious and did not trust common people to always make wise decisions for the country. Both got caught up in sex scandals, Hamilton of his own making and Hillary with her husband’s. But I will conclude with the similarity which led me to this insight in the first place: the clouds of scandal.
I’ll start with Hillary, since the basic outlines will be familiar to modern readers. Hillary is accused of dozens of scandals — 25 and counting, according to wnd.com. The primary themes are corruption and ambition: Hillary and Bill Clinton, the story goes, are crooks who have enriched themselves at the expense of the American people and who will do anything for power. The latest election cycle focused on Hillary’s private email server, which was allegedly used to hide her secret dealings with campaign donors and banks and foreign governments and a host of suspicious actors (I’m not personally convinced; this article does a good job of explaining why not).
The conservative press, from Fox News to Breitbart, has pressed these allegations of corruption for years. The House of Representatives conducted a two-year, multi-million dollar investigation into Hillary’s conduct during the Benghazi terror attacks, finding no conclusive evidence of wrongdoing. During this time, Hillary has developed a reflexively combative attitude toward conservatives and the conservative press, coming to believe that they are eternally dedicated to the destruction of her political career and party.
Alexander Hamilton faced remarkably similar charges, two hundred years ago. As with the Clintons, the primary themes were corruption and ambition: Hamilton was a crook who had enriched himself at the expense of the American people and would do anything for power.
The opposing party (the Democratic Republicans) published unfounded reports that Hamilton planned to set himself up as a dictator, or planned to bring King George III’s grandson and set him up as a dictator, or planned to make George Washington a dictator with himself as second-in-command.
But the most persistent accusations against Hamilton stemmed from his treasury secretary days, when stock market betting had been common. Opponents insisted that he had colluded with banker friends to manipulate the stock market and put thousands of dollars in their pockets and in his own. The House of Representatives instigated a multi-year investigation into his conduct, which found no conclusive evidence of wrongdoing.
In this saga, perhaps Hamilton’s darkest days came when a batch of letters were published recording his payments to a shady Philadelphia crook. Democratic Republicans began an outcry, insisting that this put Hamilton’s dishonesty beyond a doubt. To clear his name, Hamilton published the rest of the related papers as part of a personal defense which revealed the nature of the transactions: he had been involved in an affair with the man’s wife, and had paid him money not to publish the affair in local papers. But this foolhardy campaign only reassured his opponents that they were onto something — having admitted to adultery, surely Hamilton was also a swindler.
Through the end of his life, allegations of corruption against Hamilton never disappeared.
Alexander Hamilton never became president. It looks likely that Hillary’s last chance at the presidency may have passed as well. They may both live out their lives fighting in private life for the causes they espoused in public service.
I make no political statement here. The parallels themselves are simply remarkable. Hate them, love them, Hillary and Hamilton will be forever bound in my mind.