It’s become a fad in the so-called resistance to Trump to project on the American founding generation not mere wisdom and judgment but the gift of prophecy. “220 Years Ago George Washington Warned Us about Trump,” reads the headline for an article in “The Hill,“ a good example of its type. Drawing on the famous farewell speech, the article concludes that our first president had “his inner eye” on our current president.
Nobody has taken this brand of pseudohistorical silliness farther than Peter Daou, a prolific Clinton supporter and busy social-media personality. According to Daou, Alexander Hamilton too gazed into the future and saw a vision of the 2016 election. Many, many times now, Daou has reported on Twitter how gobsmacked he was to discover Hamilton’s predicting, in 1792, that “the only path to a subversion of the republican system of the country is by flattering the prejudices of the people, and exciting their jealousies and apprehensions, to throw affairs into confusion, and bring on civil commotion.”
As if that weren’t mindblowing enough, in the crystal ball appears a figure so horribly familiar that Daou calls the epiphenomenon chilling: “When a man unprincipled in private life,” Hamilton goes on,
desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper, possessed of considerable talents. . . — despotic in his ordinary demeanor — known to have scoffed in private at the principles of liberty — when such a man is seen to mount the hobby horse of popularity — to join in the cry of danger to liberty — to take every opportunity of embarrassing the general government and bringing it under suspicion — to flatter and fall in with all the nonsense of the zealots of the day — it may justly be suspected that his object is to throw things into confusion that he may “ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.”
Believe it or not,And yes” Daou assures us of the quotation, “it’s real, believe it or not.”
But it’s only sort of real, and the quotation’s slipperiness illustrates the futility, for any real resistance to the current presidency, of this “wowza!” brand of founder-worship. Clipped misleadingly out of Hamilton’s “Objections and Answers,” where the secretary was responding, with some understandable heat, to a barrage of criticisms of his policy and aims, the passage has been edited to remove a term contradicting the supposed profile of Trump — the ellipses in the big section replace “the advantage of military habits” — as well as some material exposing the author’s not always edifying tactics for self-defense. Many of Hamilton’s contemporaries and forebears took precisely the line expressed in the quotation — pandering to a misguided populism is a dictator’s means of overthrowing a republic — and employed similar language when attacking, on that basis, political enemies who were attacking them. Here, Hamilton was folding into a common, even banal mode of discourse on demagoguery in general a pointed attack on an unnamed someone in particular (“unprincipled in private life,” “known to have scoffed in private”), casting him as a daemonic threat to the liberty and stability of Hamilton’s time, not ours.
Part of what’s been cut from the quote makes it especially clear that Hamilton is subtweeting. He introduces the section that Daou likes, beginning “When a man,” with this: “Yet it would not be difficult to lay the finger upon some of their party who may justly be suspected.” The historian Jack Rakove, for one, thinks the unnamed target is Burr, but whoever it is, such quotations should serve to remind us that when they made these remarks, the founders were throwing shade on each other. Dozens of Daou’s many followers, bedazzled by an image possibly blended with that of Broadway’s Alexander, have posted remarks like “prescient!” Masked as a girding of the loins against Trump, Daou’s Hamiltonianism is really just a retreat to fantasia.
Other offenders in this mode include the author Thomas E. Ricks, here also making use of Twitter: “Thomas Jefferson on Trump: ‘Bad men will sometimes get in, and … may make great progress in corrupting the public mind and principles.’ (23 March 1801).” Like the Hamilton quotation, this is out of context — so far out, in this case, that it becomes nearly meaningless. Bad men will sometimes get in? Wow, that’s observant, mister “Sage of Monticello.”
In full, however, the passage at least has a point to make:
I sincerely wish with you, we could see our government so secured as to depend less on the character of the person in whose hands it is trusted. Bad men will sometimes get in, and with such an immense patronage, may make great progress in corrupting the public mind and principles. This is a subject with which wisdom and patriotism should be occupied.
Interesting. Sort of. But for all of the philosophical Greco-Roman generalizing, when these guys say “unprincipled in character” and “bad men” and mounting “the hobby horse of popularity” and “corrupting the public mind,” they mean the other party. They’re not insincere. They really do think their political enemies are out to destroy everything good and must be stopped. That’s why they’re enemies. But they have nothing to tell us about Trump, because Jefferson’s really talking about Hamilton and Hamilton’s really talking about Burr and Paine’s really talking about Washington and Adams is really talking about Jefferson and anybody else he can think of . . .
History has to be good for something other than this doofy quote-mining.