Over a decade ago, I watched a talk where Joanne Freeman, a historian of early American history, contributed to a panel discussion on Alexander Hamilton and controversy. In her introduction, she described the confused bewilderment of a colleague about her choice of subject – why, he inquired, would you want to study that man? His response, she seems to suggest, was not too unusual – for Hamilton has probably enjoyed the distinction of being the most hated “founding father” of American history. Indeed, although he falls in and out of favor – and whether or not he is smiled upon at any given moment often correlates, it has been noted, to the current trend in the GDP – his enemies, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, have benefitted until recently from a far more illustrious career of providing historians with alter egos and generally being given the benefit of the doubt, sometimes to the point of absurdity.
All of this came to mind recently while I composed lectures on the first party system for a course I am teaching this spring. As I wrote them, I realized I had somewhat forgotten just how much fun it is to teach early American political history – not because the elites who wrote the constitution and then engaged in a no-pulled punches squabble about what they even meant by it were brilliant, or foresighted, or virtuous, but because so much of the time, they were not any of these things at all. Indeed, it is hard to think of any detailed narrative drama of pitched political battle that is quite as much fun to relate as that of the first party system. Everyone was so astounded and concerned about what was happening to the new nation that it brought out, adorably, the worst in everyone.
Of course, when historians tell these stories we tend to pick sides, consciously or not. Personally, I’ve always preferred Hamilton over Jefferson – initially this was because I thought too highly of Hamilton, and now it is because I think more poorly of Jefferson. (With a significant shift in political perspective, even spending so much time talking about these guys feels a little gratuitous; doesn’t obsessing over who had the less elusive republic distract us from the racism and sexism the actual one was built on?) Yet when I think back to my undergraduate days of Hamilton fandom – which, believe me, was a thing – I believe it was partly because Hamilton has had his share of haters through the ages that I was drawn to his persona. For Hamilton is one of those figures which people just love to hate – and hating people, it turns out, seems to serve several useful functions for almost any intellectual community.