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The American Enlightenment's Other Side

The American Enlightenment's Other Side

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October 22, 2010

June 2000 -- When Objectivists think of themselves as heirs to the Enlightenment, in a political sense, they typically trace their roots back to the Jeffersonians. But of course the American Enlightenment had another faction, the Federalists, who have at least a strong claim to be better known among Objectivists. Though the Federalists were products of the natural-rights tradition, they understood the dangers of democracy and disorder. Though they were central figures in the American Revolution, they were not deluded by the rhetoric of the French Revolution.

And though they saw the benefits of commerce and manufacturing, some of them at least knew that a desire for trade at all costs amounts to appeasement. Quite apart from their political views however, the Federalists deserve to be studied as individuals who, shaped by the culture of the Anglo-American Enlightenment, testify to its impact on human character.


In the last four years, Richard Brookhiser has emerged as the author most responsible for bringing about a renewed popular awareness of the Federalists. He is the author of Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington (The Free Press, 1996) and Alexander Hamilton: American (The Free Press, 1999). Currently, he is at work on a collective biolgraphy that will cover four generations of the Adams family.

Brookhiser, who lives in New York City, is a senior editor at National Review and a columnist for the New York Observer. He writes for numerous magazines and newspapers, including Time, Vanity Fair, and the New York Times and appears frequently on "Charlie Rose," "Politically Incorrect," and C-SPAN.

Navigator: Let's begin with the later and lesser man. Objectivists take a special interest in the philosophy of the Enlightenment and usually think of the Jeffersonians as representing that philosophy in America. How would you situate Hamilton's philosophy and politics within the context of the Anglo-American Enlightenment?

Brookhiser: The big influences on Hamilton were the economists he read and also the philosophers of natural law and English constitutional law. The philosophers of natural law have sort of dropped off our map of what intellectual history was. We don't read Hugo Grotius anymore. I tried for the Hamilton book, but it's really hard. He's a very dense, bad writer. But he was a big figure in his day, as were Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui and Pufendorf. These were on the lists of names that people read, and they were very important to Hamilton. He was a lawyer; that was his profession when he wasn't in the army or in politics. And he liked the law. I think he understood it, and he certainly took it very seriously. So, in his legal arguments, he will toss in references to Grotius and to Vatell, in addition to references to Blackstone, to Coke, and the more standard English legal philosophers. I think that's where you look for his intellectual background.

Then you also look at the economists he read, which includes Adam Smith, but also other people who have fallen by the wayside in terms of our memory of them. There was a Scotsman named Steuart [Sir James Steuart, author of An Inquiry into the Principles of Political Oeconomy, 1767]. Another Scotsman whom Hamilton was very much taken with and got a lot of his information from was named Malachy Postlethwayt, who is totally forgotten today. But Hamilton was reading his book [Universal Dictionary of Trade and Commerce] when he was a colonel during the war and copied stuff out of Postlethwayt into his artillery company pay book. So this is how he swatted up information and economic practicalities.

The Atlas Society: Presumably Hamilton read Locke's Treatises on Civil Government, but had Hamilton also read the philosophies of Locke or Hume, and was he at all influenced by them?

Brookhiser: Yes, Hamilton loved Hume. He was a great fan of Hume.

And Hume actually got him into a bit of trouble. Because Hume is an English Tory and he made a defense of corruption within the British system, by which he meant the ministry's giving of appointments to members of Parliament in order to influence them, in order to sway them. Hume thought this was a good thing; this was how you make the system work. Of course, the Constitution says that the members of the legislature may not be given posts by the executive branch, specifically to avoid that kind of thing.

So, there was the famous dinner hosted by Jefferson, when Washington had left town and told the members of his administration to mind the store. Jefferson had [Vice-President John] Adams and Hamilton and [Secretary of War Henry] Knox over for dinner one night-this is in April 1791, I believe-and the question comes up, How valuable is the British Constitution? Adams says it is the greatest constitution in the world, if purged of its corruption. And Hamilton says, If you purged it of its corruption, it would be ineffective. That is what makes it work; that's what makes it the greatest. Jefferson, of course, carefully writes this down and is absolutely appalled. If you need a moment where Jefferson marks Hamilton down as the Great Satan, that is probably it.

The Atlas Society:  I can believe it. Cato's Letters were a relentless attack on corruption.

Brookhiser: Yes.

The Atlas Society: Hamilton admired the French finance minister Jacques Necker. But was Hamilton's economic thinking closer to Necker's or to Adam Smith's?

Brookhiser: It was closer to the Scotsman, and to Steuart even more than Smith.

What Hamilton admired about Necker was, I think, the inspiring way Necker talked about being a finance minister. Necker wrote his memoirs between his two tenures as chief finance minister in France. He was in an interval of retirement, and he paints the job in very glowing terms. He says that finance ministers are the ones who make the happiness of the state and they're really second in importance only to the king. This is the job that makes things happen. Hamilton reads that as a young man and he sees as a role he can play. So Necker's is a personal inspiration rather than a guide to policy or ideology.

The Atlas Society: You mention three "fatal flaws" in Hamilton: lust, ambition, and honor. Do you think of those as tragic flaws? Did they have anything to do with his untimely demise?

Brookhiser: I think his preoccupation with honor is the key and most destabilizing factor in his life. You always have to remember where Hamilton came from, and remember that this was a painful and shameful memory to him. It was something that he wanted to leave behind.

He came from the Caribbean, which was a highly stratified society: a tiny number of slave owners, a huge mass of slaves who were brutally worked to death, even more than slaves in the American South, at an even greater pace. Caribbean sugar plantations were about as bad as chattel slavery ever got.

And Hamilton is in this world, at a kind of middling level between the planters and the slaves, the professional-service class. His father is trying to make it as an agent for commercial houses. His mother runs a store. But they are not married. His mother had run away from her husband. She and James Hamilton are just living together. They have lived together for twelve years, but they are never able to get legally married, and this is a shaming thing. Hamilton's father then abandons the family when Alexander is 9 years old; his mother dies when he is 11.

So, at the age of 11, Hamilton is an illegitimate, poor orphan, working as a clerk in a merchant's house in St. Croix. This is the furthest back that any Founding Father was in his early life. Hamilton is able to get out of there, partly because of his great talents; partly because his employer recognizes his talents and sends him the mainland to get an education. Then the war happens, and Hamilton is able to be a soldier. This is an honorable occupation, and he serves very well as an officer, restoring the honor that he has lost. But the fear of a further loss is always in his mind.

I think this is why he took the code of dueling so seriously. He was not unique in that; there were lots of duels during the Revolutionary War and in the aftermath, particularly among veterans. But I think his background clouds Hamilton's judgment regarding duels. His oldest son is challenged to a duel in 1801 and asks his father for advice. Hamilton tells him it is immoral to kill men in duels, therefore you should waste your first shot. But he also tells him that, as a gentleman, you must go through with this. So Philip Hamilton, his older son, is killed. And Hamilton himself was killed three years later by Aaron Burr, under the same circumstances: wasting his first shot. There is a contradiction between his morality and his sense of honor, and it has fatal consequences.

The obsession with honor and his past are also related to his sexual escapades, which get him in trouble. He has the first sex scandal in American political history, which is the Reynolds affair. Without going into the whole story, which is a very interesting story, Maria Reynolds and her husband are blackmailers and they get Hamilton in a honey trap. They are looking for powerful men to entrap and they catch him. Hamilton comes out of it as well as you could, being a double adulterer. (He is married and Maria Reynolds is married.) But part of Hamilton's attraction to Maria Reynolds, I think, was that she seemed a recapitulation of the situation between his mother and his father. When Maria Reynolds first appeared in Hamilton's office, she presented herself as a beautiful woman in distress, abandoned by her husband. For Hamilton, it's the past happening all over again, only now he is not a helpless little boy; he is Secretary of the Treasury; maybe he can make it work out differently.

The Atlas Society:  I can't resist a couple rounds of What If? If Washington had lived, do you think he could have persuaded Hamilton not to duel Burr?

Brookhiser: I don't think Hamilton would have told him the duel was coming. It was a private affair of honor between two gentlemen, only the seconds knew and a few other people. I think Rufus King knew about it ahead of time and Gouverneur Morris, but I don't think Hamilton would have told Washington.

Navigator: Second "What If?" If Hamilton had survived, do you think that he, as a nationalist, could have repaired the Federalist Party and made it successful?

Brookhiser: Well, the opportunity for the Federalists was probably the election of 1812, when they made an alliance with a renegade Republication, DeWitt Clinton, and they did pretty well. If they had managed to take Pennsylvania, they would have won. The problem for Hamilton being a leader in such a situation is that Hamilton would not have been antiwar. I think Hamilton would have wanted the United States to be better prepared, and he would have criticized the war policies of the Republicans. But he would not have truckled to Britain, which is what the New England Federalists were doing.

Hamilton always thought we should trade with Britain: A phrase he used to a British diplomat was, "We think in English." He thought there was much more commonality of interests between the United States and Britain than there could be with France. But he was also more careful than his extreme Federalist friends to insist that Britain treat us well and respect our rights. I cannot imagine that he would have put up with some of the things that New England Federalists swallowed. When the British fired on the Chesapeake in 1807, an unprovoked attack on one of our frigates, New England almost takes the blow. Hamilton would never have done that.

The Atlas Society:  It's an interesting mixture in Hamilton. As Treasury Secretary, he's pro-business and pro-trade. And yet he is very much a solider. Traditionally, one thinks of the business perspective and the military perspective as being opposed.

Brookhiser: But in him they're joined.

The Atlas Society: How would you relate Henry Clay's American System to Hamiltonianism?

Brookhiser: It's much more protectionist than Hamiltonianism. Hamilton did believe in protective tariffs, but he always argued that they should be for infant industries-he didn't use that phrase, but that's what he meant. Once the American manufacturers were capable of standing on their feet, they should. This begs the question of who decides when that moment comes and how do you get them to agree that they are no longer infants but now adults and so their protection should be taken away. This is always the great political problem and Hamilton never addresses that in any of his writing. But he never sees protection as any sort of permanent regime, and I think he would have felt that some of the tariffs that Clay supported were excessive.

The Atlas Society:  How about internal development?

Brookhiser: Yes, he is in favor of internal development. But, interestingly, in about 1799 he proposes some constitutional amendments he thinks the country needs. He wants to break up larger states. He wants to make various changes, all by constitutional amendment. And one of them is to give the federal government the power to make internal improvements. So he would like the government to have that power, but he doesn't think you can get it by the "necessary and proper" clause. That is an interesting wrinkle in his constitutional interpretation. Whigs, and even Republicans before the party split, were in favor of just going ahead and doing it.

The Atlas Society:  Looking at the United States pre- and post-Civil War, it emerges from the conflict with a more national government and a stronger government. Can we characterize this as Jeffersoniamism before, Hamiltonianism after?

Brookhiser: The one reservation I'd make, and it's a big one, is that both Hamilton and Jefferson are arguing in a context where income taxes are unconstitutional. I haven't found a passage where Hamilton argues that there should ever be an income tax. So the constitutional amendment that gives us an income tax would have struck both of them as quite a puzzling development.

The Atlas Society:  It would have struck anybody as puzzling.

Brookhiser: We're still puzzled by it.

The Atlas Society:  But, in general, do you see the United States today as more Hamiltonian than Jeffersonian?

Brookhiser: Certainly, Hamilton's vision of what the society would look like has come to pass. It is not an agrarian republic, which was Jefferson's ideal. It is a republic with commerce and with manufacturing, and now with the New Economy on top of that. The area where I think Jefferson has prevailed is in the prevalence of demagogy in American politics. I think Thomas Jefferson is the great early master of American demagogy and all of our later demagogues follow in his footsteps. Hamilton was unwilling to sink to the level of demagogy, even as he could not rise to the level of inspiration. Jefferson could do both. He could be truly inspiring, legitimately inspiring, and also fearfully demagogic. He can go back and forth in the same paragraph, and I think that is ultimately why he and his party prevailed.

The Atlas Society: What would you cite as an example of Jefferson's demagogy?

Brookhiser: Well, I think of Jefferson's capacity for demonizing enemies, for imagining monarchist plots where they didn't exist, for railing against colleagues in the Washington administration as being secret Anglomen: either British agents or supporters of monarchy, or both. This was (a) inaccurate and (b) very politically self-serving, because Jefferson knows who will benefit from this talk. It will be Thomas Jefferson. So, I think all the demagogy of class warfare that we have had too much of this century is taken from Jefferson's template. It is not something that Jefferson framed in exactly those terms, but Jefferson lays the template for it.

However, that should not prevent anyone from admiring Mr. Jefferson's services to his country and to the cause of liberty.

The Atlas Society:  Some years back, National Review ran a fictional dialogue between Hamilton and Jefferson. If it were repeated today, what contemporary issues would they find most worthy of comment?

Brookhiser: Maybe foreign policy. We seem to be talking a lot about that right now. The end of the cold war has raised the question of what our policy should now be and in what direction it should go. I think Hamilton was a foreign-policy realist. I think he was the first intellectual of American foreign-policy realism. And I think Washington was the source of this. A lot of Hamilton's ideas can be traced to his contact with Washington, serving on Washington's staff for four years during the Revolutionary War. I think Jefferson's behavior was often quite realistic, although his rhetoric tended not to be.

Their great clash, Hamilton's and Jefferson's, was over Revolutionary France and the questions: Did they share our ideals and, if they did, what should the consequences of that be? Jefferson thought they shared our ideals and therefore we should be their ally and their support. Hamilton didn't think the ideals of the two revolutions were the same and, on top of that, he thought that similarities of that kind should not direct foreign policy. Nations had to be guided by their interests. That is an insight he shared with Washington.

The Atlas Society:  Well, then, let us turn to Washington. By his dates (1732-99) and his achievements, he was a much greater part of the American Enlightenment scene. But how would you locate his ideas in the context of the Enlightenment?

Brookhiser: One good indication of Washington's Enlightenment outlook is in his Circular to the States, which was in effect his first Farewell Address. This was a paper that he prepared in June of 1783, when he was about to step down as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, and it was sent to each of the thirteen governors.

There is a long paragraph in there where he describes America's situation at the moment of its independence. Not only has the war been won, but it's also clear that the peace has been concluded, and the army can go home. This paragraph has three sentences. There is a long first sentence that describes America's physical and geographical situation, really its natural resources. But then the second sentence deals with its social and intellectual situation. And he says: "The foundation of our empire was not laid in the gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition, but at an Epocha when the rights of man were better understood and more clearly defined than at any former period." That is the defining clause of this long sentence, through which he is clearly putting himself and America within the Enlightenment.

Then he goes on to give details. He says that "the researches of the human mind after social happiness have been carried to a great extent." In other words, we understand more how social happiness or political success might be produced. "The Treasures of knowledge, acquired through a long succession of years by the labors of Philosophers, Sages and Legislatures are laid open for our use." So he is including working politicians in this group. "Their collected wisdom may be happily applied in the Establishment of our forms of government." And then the next clause is "the free cultivation of Letters, the unbounded extension of Commerce, the progressive refinement of Manners, growing liberality of sentiment, and, above all, the pure and benign light of Revelation have had ameliorating influence on mankind."

So he starts off the sentence by saying we are not in "the gloomy age of ignorance or superstition," but he also clearly seems to believe, at the end of the sentence, that there can be a "pure and benign light of revelation." That guides us to his religious opinions, about which he was pretty reticent, although not utterly opaque.

The Atlas Society:  The "pure light of revaluation" seems similar to Jefferson's effort to refine out the pure truth of Christianity.

Brookhiser: Leaving him almost Unitarian or Deistic.

The Atlas Society:  Was Washington a more typical Christian?

Brookhiser: Washington is a little hard to figure out, although I do not think impossible. He was an Episcopalian-an Anglican or an Episcopalian-all his life. He was a vestryman. His attendance at church was fairly regular, although not by any means "every Sunday."

He never took Communion, although Martha always did. I don't know what to make of that and I don't know any historian who has figured it out. There was a case in Philadelphia where an Episcopalian minister gave a sermon, when Washington was in church, criticizing people who did not take Communion. And Washington apparently never went back to that church, seeing the sermon as perhaps directed at him.

Washington makes a few references, in public and private writings, to Christ-very few, although some of them are important. The 1783 Circular to the States I just read from ends with an exhortation that Americans should imitate Christ, that that will lead to their political happiness.

But the word that comes up a lot in his writing, both public and private, is "Providence." He seems to have felt that Providence was an active force, that it was the disposer of events. He speaks of the interpositions of Providence throughout the Revolutionary War. My hunch, my biographical hunch, is it that the moment when this was fixed in his mind was probably Braddock's defeat in 1755, when Washington is a 23-year-old colonel, Virginia militia colonel, on General Edward Braddock's staff. Braddock is taking an army into Western Pennsylvania to try to capture Fort Duquesne, what is now Pittsburgh, which the French hold. They're set upon and more than decimated, one of the greatest debacles of British imperial war.

Washington is one of the few senior officers who survive. Braddock is killed. Most of Washington's peers in the officer corps are killed. He has two horses shot out from under him. He has bullets shot through his coat. And after this, Washington writes a friend a letter in which he says "See the mysterious works of Providence, the transience of human things." So I think that was a very sobering experience to him as a 23-year-old. That's my hunch.

The Atlas Society:  What about Washington's political views? Perhaps because he was never a very learned man, Washington seems to have relied heavily on George Mason. To what extent was Washington's political philosophy and sense of public virtue a reflection of Mason's considerable learning?

Brookhiser: Mason certainly was important to him in the run-up to the Revolutionary War. But I think you have to understand Washington's reliance on his more intellectual colleagues through the fact that he changes mentors at different points in his career. On the run-up to the war, he is very close to Mason and obviously relying on Mason. In the early 1780s, he relies a lot on James Madison. He is also relying on his former staff colonel, Alexander Hamilton. Then during the 1790s, he and Madison drift apart, and he relies more on Hamilton for the practicalities of setting up an American financial system. So, yes, Washington has a debt to the intellectuals of his day, but he's never reliant on any one of them.

There is a letter he writes to one of his in-laws, Bryan Fairfax, in 1774, where he is saying that "abler heads" than his own had explained to him what the British are doing is against the British Constitution and the history of the British Constitution. It's a violation of it. But then he also says that "an Innate Spirit of freedom first told me" that these measures were wrong. So the reference to "abler heads" is clearly a reference to Mason or people like him. But he is also saying I had an innate spirit of freedom. The first impulse was my own.

The Atlas Society: That recalls the phrase "a manly republicanism." He doesn't seem like the kind of man who would easily bend the knee.

Brookhiser: No, he wasn't.

The Atlas Society:  You've described Jefferson's politics as that of an English squire, the idea being that the Virginia planters were a provincial offshoot of the British squirearchy. But Washington was very much a Virginia planter. Would you describe his politics as that of an English squire or was he something else?

Brookhiser: I think the important modification with Washington was his military service, first in the French and Indian War and then as Commander-in-Chief during the Revolution. There he gets a continental perspective, and he also gets a very different perspective on what happens when a government is unable to raise necessary revenue. The Commander-in-Chief, more than any one else in America during the Revolutionary War, would be in the position to feel the pinch of that. He feels in his own person all of the complaints of his officers and soldiers and sees what a mess it makes when you can't get pay, food, supplies, the necessities. And this takes him, I think, out of and beyond the squire-planter role.

The Atlas Society: In which taxation is seen mostly as an outgo?

Brookhiser: Yes, as an outgo-and always combined with a suspicion of the capital, wherever the capital may be, whether it's London or New York or Philadelphia or Washington, D.C.

The Atlas Society:  This is the "Country versus Court" syndrome?

Brookhiser: Exactly. I see a lot of the Virginia frame of mind as just being a transposition of Country Party ideology to the United States. And I have always thought that the best-you know, there are lots of scholars who have written about the "Court versus Country" dichotomy-but I've always thought the best way to understand it is Thackery's Henry Esmond.

The Atlas Society: Really?

Brookhiser: There it is. There you get the origins of it in the reign of Queen Anne. If you really want the psychology of it, and also an understanding of how it can go in a radical Whig direction or a nominally Tory-reactionary direction, start with Henry Esmond.

The Atlas Society:  Washington was alone among his generals in believing that his soldiers could win, even the darkest hour. What inspired his confidence in the army?

Brookhiser: Well, it was his confidence in himself-or, not even quite that, it was his confidence that he would keep doing his job. He was going to keep doing his job and he would be there in every necessary situation, whether it was planning, whether it was working out logistics, or whether it was in battle leading his men. I am often struck that there is one battlefield utterance of Washington's that I think we can confidently assert he actually said-it is reported numerous times, in numerous situations and battles, so I believe it is something he did spontaneously say: He addressed his troops as "my brave fellows."

It's not the only way to motivate men. Frederick the Great said, 'Do you dogs want to live forever?" That's another way to motivate men. But Washington said, "my brave fellows." When he is leading them, he is always linking himself to them and implicitly saying, "All right, here we are. We're all in this together, now let's go do it."

The Atlas Society:  Turning from Washington the Commander-in-Chief to Washington the president: Only two presidents-Washington and Franklin Roosevelt-had the opportunity to appoint every member of the Supreme Court. What is your assessment of the Washington Court? What does it reveal about his political moral thinking?

Brookhiser: Well, I don't know how much it reveals, because the Court becomes a major branch with John Marshall's Chief Justiceship and in the Jefferson administration. The Court has so little to do during Washington's administration that John Jay takes a break from his job as Chief Justice to go over and negotiate Jay's Treaty in 1793 and 1794, and nobody thinks he is being derelict in his duties. So the appointment of Jay was certainly taking a very serious and able man in putting him in the position of Chief Justice. But the Court really doesn't come into his its own until after Washington dies.

The Atlas Society:  Does that in itself reveal anything about his political thinking: That this was not a branch that was going to be active?

Brookhiser: Not necessarily. There was some thinking that the Court might serve as an advisory council and on one occasion the Court was actually asked for its advice. Was it on a treaty or was it some piece of legislation? I'm blanking on the details now. Anyway, they were eager to do this, but since they had just complained about some onerous requirement of work, they could hardly turn around and offer their advice on this piece of legislation. But it is because of that that the Court never became the equivalent of a Governor's Council, which a lot of the colonies had had.

There were a lot of these little, seemingly trivial decisions that were taken in the Washington administration that had huge effects.

Another one had to do with the Senate's giving advice and consent on treaties. If you read the Constitution, you could imagine the Senate's being consulted as treaties were being written. And Washington actually did go to the Senate when he had to negotiate a treaty with the Creek Indians. He and Henry Knox, the Secretary of War, went in there and they read the proposals of what they were going to offer the Creeks. Then the Senators said, "Oh, can you read those again," and then the Senators said, "It's noisy outside. Can we close the windows?" It was a very frustrating session, and Washington lost his temper. He is supposed to have said, under his breathe, he'd be damned if he'd ever go there again. He did go back, however, and they finally settled on what the treaty offer was going to be, but he never went there again for any other treaty, nor has any other president. So the advice and consent provision is now understood to be consent only, once the treaty is negotiated.

The Atlas Society:  Washington also established the social and political precedents for appropriate presidential behavior? What aspects of Washington's concept of the office still exist in the modern presidency?

Bookhiser: The one that exists, even if only in abeyance from time-to-time, is the dignity and importance of the office. That's hard to say during the Clinton years, and yet I think a lot of the disappointment that people felt (even if they ended up believing that Clinton ought to stay in office) was from the sense that the president should not be like any other politician, that he should also be something more than that.

But there was one delegate to the Constitutional Convention who thought that this elevation might be a bad effect of Washington's being the first president. That was Pierce Butler of South Carolina. He is writing his brother telling him what they have done, and he is explaining that the presidency has been tailored with Washington in mind. That is, Washington was the president of the Constitutional Convention, so when the delegates were figuring out the presidency they had sitting before them the man who was certainly going to be the first president. Butler says that he will fill the office fine, but maybe we have made it a too grand thing, so that even after he is dead, he will be the instrument by which his country is oppressed. It is a very interesting argument that Butler makes.

The Atlas Society:  Certainly, the presidency mixes a few aristocratic head-of-state postures with its democratic head-of-government postures. But in calling for more attention to Washington's sense of reserve, you seemed to be implying that the scales have dipped too far in favor of the democratic.

Brookhiser: Well, you can't stand completely athwart your time. But you have to try to steer it in the proper direction or away from a bad direction, and I do think the scales probably have dipped too far. You couldn't today be as reserved as George Washington was, but you could probably be more reserved than a lot of our recent presidents have been and our current wanabees are.

The Atlas Society:  Some general questions. Many eighteenth-century Americans compared themselves to various citizens of the Roman Republic, particularly Cato. Whom did Washington and Hamilton admire?

Brookhiser: Washington certainly admired Cato, particularly in Joseph Addison's presentation of him. That was Washington's favorite play. He had it staged at Valley Forge. He read it as a young man together with Sally Fairfax, on whom he had a crush. He quotes lines from it over and over again in his letters. So clearly that had a powerful effect on him.

It is interesting that the one event in his career which most closely tracks an event inCato is the suppression of the officers' mutiny. Cato is in his last republican stronghold, waiting to fight off Julius Caesar, and some of his officers have had it; they propose to mutiny, but Cato shames them out of it. A somewhat similar thing happens in Newburgh, in early 1783, when the American officer corps has not been paid for years. They see the war is over and they are going to be sent home; a leaflet from "a fellow solider" appeals to them to threaten Congress. This is the only way that they will get paid. But Washington addresses them and tells them that they must not do this, that this will betray their own ideals, and, indeed, their own service over eight and a half years. At the end of the meeting he offers to read a letter from a Congressman demonstrating Congress's good intentions. Then he takes a pair of reading glasses out of his jacket, saying, "Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country." That is the end of the mutiny. They break down in tears, because what he is showing them is, "I've been at your side for all of these eight and a half years and I am going to be loyal and so should you be."

Now, the difference between Cato and Washington is that, in the play, Cato then turns to one of his loyal aides and tells him to execute all of these guys. And Washington precisely does not do that, he wants to save them for republicanism, so he appeals to the better parts of their nature and makes those prevail. He is superior to his model.

As for whom Hamilton admired: Well everybody admired Cato, he was a popular figure to admire because he defends the republic against Caesar, who is the great villain of Roman history in American minds, although people admire him as a general. Hamilton does write some letters to Washington in the early 1790s where he compares Aaron Burr to Caesar and Thomas Jefferson to Cataline. He thinks that Jefferson is a demagogic figure who will destabilize politics; he sees a Burr as a dangerous military man who will take advantage of the destabilization; and he sees himself as Cato, who is stern and not very popular, but in fact is trying to defend the republic as best he can.

The other figure that Hamilton admired was an Athenian politician named Phocion. He is one of Plutarch's subjects and Hamilton takes his name for a pen name. The amusing story about Phocion in Plutarch is this: Once, when Phocion gave his opinion to the people and was met with the applause of the assembly, he turned to some friends and asked, "Have I inadvertently said something foolish?" Hamilton had a bit of that streak in him. He always said what he thought and if you disagreed, he was baffled. He assumed you were wrong and he couldn't figure out how you could disagree with him.

The Atlas Society:  From Rome to the Regency. In order to explain the late eighteenth century, you frequently draw on comparisons to the world of Jane Austen. To which of her characters would you compare your two subjects?

Brookhiser: Hamilton is the hardest. I think of Mr. Darcy because they are both proud. Now, it is a different kind of pride and it manifests itself in a different way and I don't think Hamilton was ever cold and reserved, which Darcy was proud of being. But there was a certain kind of pride and self-esteem that sometimes got Hamilton into trouble.

For Washington, I think it's Captain Wentworth. I was looking back in Persuasion last night, and there's a moment in there where Anne Elliott is being oppressed by this horrible child. I forget whose kid he is.

The Atlas Society: Her sister's boy.

Brookhiser: Right. Then the child is taken off her back and she realizes that Captain Wentworth has done it. And he's done it with such tact! He's done it at the right time, he's done it without saying anything, he hasn't taken undue notice of her distress. So, she's overcome with gratitude, both for his doing it and the way in which he's done it.

There are many, many moments when Washington behaves with similar tact: doing exactly the right thing without calling undue attention it. The gesture with the glasses at Newburgh is probably the most famous public instance. But there's also one thing Washington does for Hamilton at the height of the Reynolds affair. When this whole controversy over Hamilton's adultery is blowing at gale force, he gets a note from Washington, and it says: "Not for any intrinsic value the thing possesses, but as a token of my sincere regard and friendship for you, and as a remembrancer of me; I pray you accept a Wine cooler which sat on my table when I was president." And he says that he and Mrs. Washington send their regards to you and your family. "I remain your sincere friend, and affectionate humble servant, George Washington." He doesn't mention the Reynolds affair at all but clearly it's related to this. And there's just something about the perfection of that gesture that reminded me of Captain Wentworth.

The Atlas Society:  If your readers glean only one lesson from each of your books, what would you hope those lessons might be?

Brookhiser: It's harder to take a lesson from the Hamilton story, because I think there are elements of tragedy in it. Or the lesson is complicated. From Washington, who had a more successful career, and a career that was more what he wished it to be, if I had to write the Washington book in four words-it's sixty-three thousand words, but if I had to do it in four, the words would be: He really meant it.

And that is the striking thing about this man: The consistency of his behavior with his ideals, and his efforts over twenty-four years to make the two line up. It's an inspiring thought-because that's something that we could do. But it's a dismaying thought-because that's something that we could do.

These questions were prepared for Navigator by Richard Chew, a doctoral candidate at the College of William and Mary who specializes in America's early national period.

This article was originally published in the June 2000 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.