The musical Hamilton has certainly piqued interest in the Founding Father who did the most among those who never became President—and was also the guy who introduced we Americans to the tawdry sex scandal (if only Gary Hart had delivered as complete and humiliating a public explanation as Hamilton did for his sleazy indiscretions). But not having a vast cash reserve, I skipped on the Broadway show and merely listen to a Hamilton playlist on Spotify and the excellent Ron Chernow biography that inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda.
The audiobook is Russian-novel long—36 hours, 2 minutes on Audible—and fascinating. Of course, I didn’t know much at all about Hamilton except that Aaron Burr shot him dead in Weehawken, and that he did enough before that to get his face on the $10 bill.
And boy, was I missing out on a lot. Hamilton’s fingerprints are all the U.S. government. And his work remains relevant today. The Electoral College is pretty much his doing. He writes about it in the 68th essay of the Federalist Papers (yeah, he wrote the majority of 85 essays explaining and popularizing the Constitution, and almost every one of his is brilliant; it’s one thing to be a gas bag and another to be a brilliant gas bag).
Hamilton’s purpose in inserting the Electoral College was to put a circuit breaker in the system as a check on the electorate, whom he really didn’t trust.
Two-hundred-plus years later, that Electoral College finds itself smack in the middle of it. For those of us, and I count myself among them, who worry that the American people last month made a grievous choice (likely, it now appears, with the help of Russian intervention), this is exactly why Hamilton sought to include this mechanism.
Myself, I think the problem is less with the duties of the Electoral College electors and more with the increasing discrepancies between popular vote and Electoral College vote totals. This excellent piece by Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig spells out why the Electoral College isn’t just an increasingly ineffective institution, but an unjust one, as its “winner-take-all” approach in most states effectively disenfranchises nearly half the electorate in every election. I doubt his argument will get a fair hearing before Jan. 20, 2017, but I wish it would. And I hope that it does before the next election, as I think it would move our system closer to every vote counting. (For those who want the Electoral College to take a more Hamiltonian tack and pressure the electors to consider their votes for Mr. Trump, there’s this.)
It’s hard to contemporize an historical figure. I’m not sure that late-18th Century Hamilton would have found Lessig’s argument a particularly comforting thought. Back then, he was no fan of direct representation.
But I think his experience as part of the first Presidential Cabinet—and builder of institutions from scratch—would provide real insight into this time when cabinet nominees seem to be selected precisely to abolish the government institution they are selected to lead. The idea that a president could arrive wearing a suicide vest, elected to blow up those governmental structures, was not foreign to him.
And yet, as a curious, practical immigrant from the West Indies who loved the promise of his adopted country and was always in pursuit of a more-perfect system of governance, he always had his sights set firmly on a better future—to me, it’s his most unabashedly positive American trait. I think he would see the merits in Lessig’s intellectual evolution of fair representation.
At least, that’s the story I tell myself as I alternately listen to the story of this amazing man and the latest news on NPR.
Like the Dixie Chicks sing, I Hope.