Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is What Next: How to Get the Best from Brexit.
I can’t get the Hamilton soundtrack out of my head. It was my 11-year-old who started it: obsessed with the hip hop musical, she prevailed on me to buy her the CD. Several car journeys later, I am almost as infatuated as she is.
For anyone who doesn’t yet know about it, Hamilton is perhaps the most successful show in the history of Broadway. It comes to London in November, but every ticket has been sold until the end of June 2018. Plenty of critics have already gushed about why it works so well: the catchiness of the tunes, the subtlety of the lyrics, the deftness of the characterisation and the clever twist of telling the story of America’s birth through rap music sung by a largely non-white cast. Robertson Davies once remarked that no one can quote a single memorable line from an opera libretto; but Hamilton has the unusual property that, the more you listen to it, the more you appreciate its poetry.
I hope the musical will revive its principal’s reputation, rather as a recent HBO mini-series rescued that of his Federalist Party colleague and rival, John Adams. Hamilton and Adams, the two brightest Federalist stars, were for a long time overlooked in popular discourse and even in academic circles. Why? Because even the most dazzling stars fade in daylight. The daylight, here, is the effulgent prose of Thomas Jefferson, who loathed both men, and whose penmanship was so brilliant that, ever since, we have tended to see the era through his writings.
We read Jefferson today, not from antiquarian interest, but because he is so uncannily apt to our own time. No other statesman of the era compels our attention in the same way – except, perhaps, Edmund Burke. I could fill the rest of this column with Jefferson’s remarks about representative democracy, the devolution of decision-making, newspapers, banks and paper currency, and you’d be stunned by their contemporary appeal as well as by the power and beauty of his language. I’m not sure anyone has improved on his First Inaugural Address: “A wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labour the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government.”
Hamilton was the more prolific writer, and arguably the more thoughtful. But, up against lines like that, what chance does he have with a modern audience?
It took me a while to see that there was a gap – sometimes an embarrassing gap – between how Jefferson wrote and how he behaved. He gave the revolution its best slogans, but did no fighting. He wrote exquisitely about the evils of faction, but acted abominably toward his rivals. He inveighed against slavery, but owned slaves. Of course, a gap between words and deeds is part of the human condition, and Jefferson’s flaws do not detract from his intelligence, his wit, his patriotism or his courage. It’s just that we should be wary of being seduced by smooth lines.
Those smooth lines define our view of the period, rather as Churchill’s define our understanding of Britain in the 1930s. If we remember John Adams at all, it is often as Washington’s unassuming sidekick. It took a TV series to remind most Americans of his greatness as a lawyer, a constitutional theorist and the USA’s first Ambassador to London and second President. Likewise, traces of Democratic-Republican propaganda adhere even now to Alexander Hamilton – the wannabe aristo, the centraliser, the man who favoured dodgy bankers over honest farmers, the crypto-royalist and so on.
Only recently did I come to see that Hamilton and his Federalists got many of the big calls right. They were right that America could be much more than an agrarian economy. They were right that the French Revolution was not, as Jefferson thought, an imitation of their own, but an altogether uglier creature. They were right, above all, to see that an alliance between the United States and Britain would benefit both, and laid the foundations for a relationship which has done more than any other to spread freedom and happiness across the continents.
A handful of Burkean Americans – notably Myron Ebell and Roger Kimball – helped me on my journey away from unmoderated Jeffersonianism. So did the man who popularised the word “Anglosphere”, the American writer James C Bennett. Still, Burkeans have always been a small minority within the generally radical American Right – for reasons superbly adumbrated by John Micklethwait and Adrian Woolridge in The Right Nation. Hamilton, adroit advocate that he was, has lacked advocates of his own. Until now.
Hamilton created a functioning government almost from scratch. While others sloganised, he built an elegant financial system, a post office, a coast guard and the basic institutions of what he saw as being a minimal but efficient state. As Bennett puts it:
“Hamilton was one of the first Americans, and the first anywhere, properly to understand the ‘Anglosphere toolkit’ — the mix of sound money, chartered banks, exchanges, large unobstructed internal markets, well-funded internal transport improvements and an adequately-sized fleet, encouragement (but not control) of science, clearly-defined and relatively low revenue tariff structures, a fair, unbiased justice system treating nationals and foreigners equally, and a well-controlled national debt with good national credit and an abhorrence of repudiation.”
Though the Jeffersonians had the better lines, the Hamiltonians often had the better policies. They may have favoured a strong executive by the standard of their age; but they would recoil with horror at the powers wielded by the federal government today. They understood that there was nothing artificial about what we would now call the services sector. They knew in their bones that America had a special destiny.
The musical doesn’t simply redress the balance. Its final number – “Who tells your story” – is about the randomness of reputation. It reminds us of a point that is often missed, even by professional historians: that nothing so distorts our understanding of an era as stirring prose. Jefferson will always have that; but now, more than two centuries on, Hamilton has the stirring verses.
What’s that? You expected something more contemporary? Something about the election? Oh, I’ll have plenty to say about British politics over the next six weeks. But we shouldn’t always let the immediate displace the important. Why, after all, is our party seeking re-election if not to make Britain an even better place to live? The principles on which we seek to govern – impartial justice, secure property, limited government – are old ones, at least in the language in which you are reading these words. We should never tire of telling their story.