Alexander Hamilton was among the most popular names on the House floor this week as members considered the impeachment of President Donald Trump. But almost everyone who cited the Founding Father got the context of what he said completely wrong.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) cited Hamilton as a soothsayer who supposedly “predicted the rise of Donald Trump with staggering prescience” in his 1792 description of a demagogue: “a man unprincipled in private life, desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper.”
As Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) saw it, Hamilton warned instead against an impeachment split along partisan lines. “There would always be the ‘greatest danger’ that impeachment would be driven by partisan ‘animosities’ instead of ‘real demonstrations of innocence or guilt,’” McCarthy said, paraphrasing Hamilton.
This same quote struck Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), the lone member to vote “present” on Trump’s impeachment, as an explanation of why she couldn’t support impeachment even though she believes Trump is guilty of wrongdoing.
“The Founders of our country made clear their concerns about impeachment being a purely partisan exercise,” Gabbard said in a statement, citing Hamilton.
Before the vote, Hamilton featured heavily in impeachment reports from Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee and both parties on the House Intelligence Committee. Constitutional law professors marshaled Hamilton quotes to both support and oppose impeachment in testimony during the impeachment inquiry. And more than 1,500 historians leaned on Hamilton to endorse Trump’s impeachment.
Hamilton really did have a lot to say about impeachment. And some of his quotes provide actual insight into the meaning and purpose of impeachment ― at least when in context.
But for Trump’s impeachment, Hamilton rarely comes in the correct context. He is presented not as an actual historical figure but as a Founding Father tarot card, his meaning to be interpreted at the reader’s pleasure — and whether or not the quote is read upside-down or right-side-up.
Start with the quote invoked by Schiff to say that Hamilton predicted Trump, the demagogue, as the great threat to our system of government:
“When a man unprincipled in private life desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper, possessed of considerable talents, having the advantage of military habits—despotic in his ordinary demeanour—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 & bringing it under suspicion—to flatter and fall in with all the non sense 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.”
It might feel good for some to apply this quote to Trump, as if Hamilton would disapprove of him too. But that misses Hamilton’s point here entirely. The people most likely to share this tweet to dunk on Trump would almost certainly hate what Hamilton was actually expressing.
The quote comes from a 10,000-plus word note Hamilton, then the secretary of the treasury, wrote in reply to a letter from President George Washington in 1792. Washington’s letter listed a series of “objections” he had heard from political friends and foes to Hamilton’s proposed plan to raise taxes on producers in order to finance bondholder debts held by wealthy financial investors. This was the nation’s earliest plan to redistribute wealth upwards and concentrate power among the rich.
One of those objections listed by Washington was that “the ultimate object of all this is to prepare the way for a change, from the present republican form of Government, to that of a monarchy; of which the British Constitution is to be the model.”
This objection really grinds Hamilton’s gears, and his response shows it. Hamilton was an elitist who disdained popular democracy and the lower classes. He was an aristocrat who believed the “rich and well born” should be granted special purview over government.
“The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right,” he argued. “Give therefore to the [rich] a distinct, permanent share in the government.” He was the original “wE’rE a rEPuBLiC nOt A dEMoCRacY” guy.
For these positions, and many others, his political opponents tarred him as a monarchist. (Politics during the founding era were actually much nastier than today’s.) He didn’t like it. So he hit back.
When he is denouncing “popular demagogues,” Hamilton is attacking, without naming, specific political opponents — those who favor a more popular democracy. The accusation of a plot to create an American monarchy is an “absurdity” that “refutes itself.” However, if someone were to do such a heinous thing, Hamilton says, it would be done by “popular demagogues.” And by that he means his political opponents, those who favor greater popular democracy.
In short, what Hamilton is saying is, “No monarchist, you’re the monarchist!” This impulse seems familiar.
People using this quote to say that a demagogue seized control of the government when President Andrew Jackson extended the franchise to non-propertied white men could come close to invoking Hamilton’s spirit. But it doesn’t seem to fit in an impassioned defense of American democracy.
And then there’s the quote preferred by Republicans who opposed Trump’s impeachment — and Gabbard, who used it to justify her non-vote.
Both Republicans and Gabbard state that Hamilton issued a warning that “the greatest danger” for impeachment is if it is “regulated more by the comparative strength of parties, than by the real demonstrations of innocence or guilt.”
They intend this quote to mean that any vote to impeach in the House of Representatives that splits along party lines lacks justification or merit — that nothing could be worse, according to the Founding Fathers, than a partisan impeachment. This is not at all what Hamilton wrote.
Hamilton’s supposed warning against a partisan impeachment comes from the Federalist Papers, a collection of 85 then-pseudonymous articles written mostly by Hamilton (and also James Madison and John Jay) to influence public opinion in support of the Constitution drafted at the Constitutional Convention in 1787.
Hamilton makes the case in Federalist 65 that impeachment, due to its political nature, will almost certainly be driven by “pre-existing factions,” or what we now refer to as partisanship. His admonition about partisanship is directed not at the decision to impeach a president by the House, which he presumes will be partisan, but at the trial in the Senate.
“The prosecution of [impeachable offenses], for this reason, will seldom fail to agitate the passions of the whole community, and to divide it into parties more or less friendly or inimical to the accused,” Hamilton wrote. “In many cases it will connect itself with the pre-existing factions, and will enlist all their animosities, partialities, influence, and interest on one side or on the other; and in such cases there will always be the greatest danger that the decision will be regulated more by the comparative strength of parties, than by the real demonstrations of innocence or guilt.”
The “greatest danger” that Republicans are pointing out is that the trial will be driven by “the comparative strength of parties, than by the real demonstrations of innocence or guilt,” according to Hamilton. He goes on to argue why the Senate, with its more esteemed membership and less direct connection to the will of the people, is an acceptable body to host the impeachment trial.
Although House Republicans (and Gabbard) may have (intentionally) missed this point, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) at least understood that Hamilton was talking about the Senate when he said the Senate would act to cool the temper of the House after it “fulfilled Hamilton’s philosophy.”
But McConnell doesn’t appear to heed Hamilton’s warnings too much — he has already declared that he is “not an impartial juror” — but believes his political opponents should.
Only Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) got his Hamilton reading right when he asked, “Will the nation see what Alexander Hamilton saw, a body of government with ‘confidence enough … to preserve, unawed and uninfluenced, the necessary impartiality?’ Or will the nation see the Senate dragged into the depths of partisan fervor?”
Schumer’s reading could well just be by chance. If it’s dealt upside-down next time, he might have a different read.