Even the Founding Fathers Couldn’t Envision a President Like Trump

Liesl Schillinger on Alexander Hamilton, Alexis de Tocqueville, and the Power of the Presidency

Of course President Trump was acquitted in the Senate yesterday. Any other outcome, any charge against him—not even counting the ones the House of Representatives impeached him for last December—was unthinkable from the first.

It is ridiculous, for instance, to suggest that an American president would ever seek the company of minions and mistresses. There is no way an American president would consider cozying up to Asiatic despots; and he would never, ever, associate with anyone who dispatched murderous henchmen to do his dirty work in Istanbul. Don’t take my word for it: this is what Alexander Hamilton wrote in March 1788 in a scathing and satirical op-ed, known today as Federalist No. 67, which mocked paranoid Americans who feared that, if the US Constitution (which hadn’t been ratified yet) installed a presidency atop this country’s hierarchy, the man who came to power might one day turn tyrant. It was outrageous and “extravagant” to suggest, Hamilton wrote, that a US President, aka Chief Executive, aka Magistrate, might behave as badly as King George III, whom the colonists had just gotten rid of after a bloody seven-year war.

Alexis de Tocqueville, visiting this country half a century later, was utterly persuaded, and cited Hamilton at the top of his somewhat patronizing explainer on the comparative “inferiority” of America’s Executive Power structure to France’s monarchy. In a republic like America, Tocqueville explained in Democracy in America, the Senate reins in the President; it “supervises him in his relations with foreign powers and in his appointments to offices so that he can neither corrupt nor be corrupted.” The president is a humble man, not a pompous potentate, despite his title: “the ruler’s demeanor remains simple, unaffected, and modest,” he wrote. And, unlike the French king, Tocqueville added, “The President of the United States is answerable for his acts.” Don’t tell that to Lamar Alexander.

In 1788, Hamilton couldn’t have foreseen Stormy Daniels, Kim Jong Un, Jamal Khashoggi, or Access Hollywood, more’s the pity.

For three years, in the second week of my class, “Facts/Alternative Facts: American Media from Tocqueville to Trump,” at The New School in New York, I’ve asked my students to read Alexander Hamilton’s colorful description of what an American president would be like (or rather, what he would NOT be like) in  Federalist No. 67. I also ask them to read Alexis de Tocqueville’s description of the “Executive Power.” Both men were convinced that an American president would be nothing like a king. I ask my students to describe Hamilton and Tocqueville’s likely attitudes to the current Chief Executive. Would the West Indian-born immigrant and the French aristocrat find their faith in the probity and humility of the American leader justified? Or would certain factors challenge their idealistic convictions, written so early in this country’s history? What might those factors be?

This term, as it happened, those two readings fell during the closing arguments of the impeachment trial of the 45th American President, Donald J. Trump, in the US Senate. Ironically, though perhaps not surprisingly, Alexander Hamilton was invoked on the Senate floor by both the prosecution and the defense the very week that my students were filing their homework assignments. But the congressmen, lawyers and legal scholars who raised their names—Adam Schiff and Patrick Philbin, Alan Dershowitz and Jay Sekulow, to name a few (there were more)—did not quote from Federalist No. 67, or from Tocqueville’s “The Executive Power.” They chose other passages. Fair enough. Why ration anyone’s words, amid the loghorreic bounty of the proceedings?

Adam Schiff started off the trial’s opening day, Wednesday, January 22nd, with a quotation from a letter Hamilton wrote to George Washington in which he discussed the potential dangers to this country of a rogue president: “When a man unprincipled in private life desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper, possessed of considerable talents, having the ability of military habits—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.’” This sentence was very long, and a little disjointed, not to say run-on; but it was sonorous, and it landed in the ears of Congressmen and anyone else who was listening with impact and resonance. For Jay Sekulow, a member of President Trump’s defense team, it exploded like a cannon. Incensed, he called Schiff’s deployment of civic-minded Hamiltonian caution “out of context”—which made sense, if you rejected the context of democracy.

By the time of the closing arguments, on the eve of our class, the team for the defense had annexed their favorite Federalist paper to pluck out bits that served the President’s cause. Trump’s Deputy Counsel Patrick Philbin, speaking in the somber tones of a disappointed parent, quoted Madison’s Federalist No. 65 (originally published March 7, 1788, four days before Federalist No. 67) to chide the Democrats for partisanship. “A partisan impeachment is one of the greatest dangers that the Framers saw in the impeachment power,” Philbin said. “And in Federalist No. 65, Hamilton specifically said that impeachments could become ‘persecution of an intemperate or designing majority in the House of Representatives.’”

The ideals of the 1780s and the 1830s are still current, still vital, in 2020, even if they’re couched in antiquated language that we must strain to enfold in our contemporary idiom.

This is undeniably true, and certainly is a worrying thought; but Hamilton specifically said a lot of other things, too. (Hakeem Jeffries, a Democratic House manager, pointed out on the last day of Senate questions, January 30, that Hamilton had been cited 48 times during the course of the trial). Indeed Hamilton’s written words make it abundantly clear that his wariness of designing Representatives in the impeachment context was no less keen than his wariness of a power-hungry president, in any context, who would seek to “direct the whirlwind” to his personal advantage, making his impeachment and removal necessary for the preservation of the republic.

Yet it may be conceded that, as Hamilton polished Federalist No. 67, back in 1788, he was sanguine about the possibility that such a reprobate might ever pop up on the national scene. That is to say: he doubted it. Trying to buoy support for the ratification of the Constitution and to win over skeptics of the Presidency, he denounced fearmongers who caricatured a potential US head of state as a kind of Herod, “surrounded with minions and mistresses, giving audience to the envoys of foreign potentates in all the supercilious pomp of majesty.” He scoffed: “The images of Asiatic despotism and voluptuousness have scarcely been wanting to crown the exaggerated scene. We have been almost taught to tremble at the terrific visages of murdering janizaries, and to blush at the unveiled mysteries of a future seraglio.”

In 1788, Hamilton couldn’t have foreseen Stormy Daniels, Kim Jong Un, Jamal Khashoggi, or Access Hollywood, more’s the pity. So he railed against the haters with a clear conscience: “It is impossible not to bestow the imputation of deliberate imposture and deception upon the gross pretense of a similitude between a King of Great Britain and a magistrate of the character marked out for that of the President of the United States,” he wrote. But just because Hamilton had “marked out” an admirable character that would suit the country’s notional leader didn’t mean that the real thing was guaranteed to match his rosy vision. You almost get the sense that Hamilton was being catfished through the presidential ether.

Tocqueville, not being American, prudently took fewer liberties in his characterization of the Chief Executive. Rather than paint an invidious portrait of the US President using the British monarch as foil (not that the British ruler in 1831, the elderly King WiIliam IV, would have cut much dash as a bogeyman) he defined the differences between the French Monarchy and the American presidency. He found many. For one, he explained, the American head of government, “has little power or wealth or glory to distribute to his friends,” which makes his influence “too small for any faction to feel that its success or its ruin depends on his elevation to power.”

You almost get the sense that Hamilton was being catfished through the presidential ether.

For another, he argued, hereditary monarchies like France’s had an advantage in foreign relations that an American president wouldn’t: they profited from their dealings with other royal families and heads of state, which made diplomacy a personal matter for them. He explained: “The private interest of a family is always intimately connected with the interest of the state, and therefore state interests are never for a moment left to look after themselves.” He seemed to find that a good thing. (Tocqueville, it bears repeating, was an aristocrat, unused to checking his privilege.)

Tocqueville’s distinctions don’t hold up all that well lately, nor do Hamilton’s indignant assurances of presidential virtue. One of my students observed as much in his paper: “Our current president,” he wrote, “extends his vision of executive power far past either of theirs,” and “seems more in line with Tocqueville’s description of a monarch than of a president.”

Still, let’s avoid “intemperate” or “designing” persecution of these quotable early chroniclers of the American experiment, and accept that Hamilton and Tocqueville wrote in good faith. They were prognosticators, not fortune tellers; and there was no Google, no internet, and no PolitiFact, in 1788 or 1831, to set them straight. (Nor, it’s worth remembering, was there a Washington Post, or a New York Times yet, to track their pronouncements.)

But today—one day after Trump was acquitted by the Senate in a trial that allowed no witnesses or evidence, challenging Hamilton and Tocqueville’s assumptions—their high-minded words do not need revision, they need closer attention. The ideals of the 1780s and the 1830s are still current, still vital, in 2020, even if they’re couched in antiquated language that we must strain to enfold in our contemporary idiom. But this is something we are capable of doing, as anyone knows who has seen or listened to Hamilton, the hip-hop musical about Alexander Hamilton and the birth pangs of American democracy. That show opened on Broadway in 2015, two months after Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the presidency, and is still playing now, almost five years later.

On Broadway, Alexander Hamilton, in frock coat and knee-breeches, says something so simple that any kid in jeans, any congressman in a suit, can understand it. “Let me tell you what I wish I’d known,” he sings, as he prepares to revisit milestones in this country’s history: “You have no control.” The vision of this country, he explains, is carried forward not by those who created it, but by those who come after, who remember them. Joined by the voices of the chorus, he then asks a question that is charged with consequence, a question that echoes this week across the nation, not only onstage, but in the American classroom, Congress and conscience: “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?”

Liesl Schillinger
Liesl Schillinger
Liesl Schillinger is a New York–based critic, translator, and educator. She grew up in Midwestern college towns, studied comparative literature at Yale, worked at The New Yorker for more than a decade and became a regular critic for The New York Times Book Review in 2004. Her articles and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, New York, Vogue, The London Independent on Sunday, The New Republic, and many other publications. Her recent translations include the novels Every Day, Every Hour, by Natasa Dragnic (Viking, 2012), The Lady of the Camellias, by Alexandre Dumas (Penguin Classics, 2013), and Free Day, by Inès Cagnati (New York Review Books, 2019).





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