Dear Senator: Hamilton Had the Answers

Dear Senator Moynihan:

Soon after President Bill Clinton was impeached, you announced that you were reading the Federalist Papers . This meant you were reading primarily the words of Alexander Hamilton, who conceived the series and wrote two-thirds of the essays, including all those dealing with the Presidency. They ran in New York newspapers, like Op-Ed pieces. Which of us writes so well?

Like you, Hamilton was a politician, and an intellectual; like you, he was not a native New Yorker. But like you, he became the quintessential smart city kid.

You have been re-reading Hamilton, not reading him, for you have long admired him. Indeed, the last time I heard you speak, which was at Eric Breindel’s funeral, you quoted the phrase from Federalist No. 70 on “energy in the executive,” which you said poor Eric had. Your thoughts now rightly turn to the nation’s Chief Executive, and what the energy of the office and the behavior of the incumbent require of you as a Senator.

Hamilton was first dragged into the Clinton scandals when the White House compared Mr. Clinton’s behavior to Hamilton’s during the Reynolds affair, an adultery scandal of the 1790’s. The many lies in the White House’s version of the Reynolds affair, which you would not have needed The New York Times ‘ follow-up story to spot, were as gross as Mr. Clinton’s more recent claim that he resembles Nelson Mandela. Instead of trying to clean up these moral and intellectual messes (a full-time job in this administration), you have turned to Hamilton’s thoughts.

The core of his thoughts on the Presidency is to be found in the Federalist , in Nos. 67 to 77. The core of this core is the opening of Federalist 70, where Hamilton asserts that a “vigorous executive” is compatible with “republican government.” If it were not, republican government would be impossible. There speaks the former staff officer, who had watched an impotent Congress struggle with the problems of debt and the Army’s pay.

Hamilton outlines the prerequisites for vigor: unity (one man for the job, not a committee); fixed terms; fixed pay; “competent powers.” But how can an office made vigorous be kept in check? One answer Hamilton gives is the exposure inherent in the job. Intriguers and flatterers might become state governors, he writes in Federalist 68, but surely more would be expected of Presidents. He writes that “there will be a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue.” If the glare of national life does not winnow out the unfit, there is another remedy: “actual punishment in cases which admit of it” ( Federalist 70). Since the argument from exposure failed in Hamilton’s lifetime, as Aaron Burr nearly became the third President (Hamilton’s efforts to stop him ultimately cost him his life), that leaves punishment.

Private passions, Hamilton knew, can generate cases of serious misconduct. Federalist 6 is a sermon on “great national events, either foreign or domestic,” caused by “personal considerations.” Hamilton cites as one of many examples “the celebrated Pericles,” who “in compliance with the resentment of a prostitute … attacked, vanquished, and destroyed the city of the Samnians.” Hamilton is following Plutarch here, not the more reliable Thucydides. But the point is not what actually happened in ancient Athens, but what he feared for America.

Federalist 6 takes on extra bite because Hamilton became embroiled with a blackmailing adulteress, if not an actual prostitute, four years after writing it; his defense of himself would be that his folly led to no “great national events.” Now perjury is not as serious an “event” as destroying a city (though bombing Sudanese aspirin factories and random Iraqis may be). But how serious did Hamilton consider it?

In 1795, President Washington was falsely accused of overdrawing his expense account. Hamilton wrote a defense of his old boss, ending with a scornful list of the “heinous charges” that had been made against him-“violation of the Constitution, violation of the laws, exertion of arbitrary will.” The climax of the list was “intentional perjury!” “Perjury” was capitalized. Eighteenth-century writers scattered capital letters pretty freely, but not on peccadillos. Then there is the discussion of “religion and morality” in the Farewell Address, which Hamilton drafted for Washington a year later. Of all their “connections” with “political happiness,” Hamilton singled out one: the sense of “religious obligation” that attaches to “oaths” in “courts of justice.” The moralizers of the 1790’s called in religion not to promote family values, or to keep kids off drugs, but to discourage lying under oath.

Why this vehemence? Hamilton had the professional prejudices of a lawyer, whose clients ranged from merchants suing each other to a laborer accused of stuffing his girlfriend down a well. But he was also a passionate theorist of the law, which he saw as a check on mob violence, a remedy against deadbeat debtors (especially rich ones, like Thomas Jefferson) and grease for the wheels of commerce. The law was a root of American order; perjury was a worm attacking it. Perjury in the executive branch might well strike him as a high crime or misdemeanor.

Finally, there is Hamilton’s great speech of June 27, 1788, at the New York State ratifying convention for the Constitution-a masterly disquisition on power and trust. “Sir, when you have divided and nicely balanced the departments of government, when … you have rendered your system as perfect as human forms can be, you must place confidence, you must give power.” Checks and balances, he is saying, can’t solve all our problems. Rulers must have virtue as well as freedom to act. What then should the people do when the only confidence they can place in the men currently in power is that they will abuse it?

All this you have read. But perhaps you will be guided by another New Yorker, Representative Timothy J. Campbell, whom you described with an admiring wink in Beyond the Melting Pot . He asked a favor of President Grover Cleveland, only to be told that it was unconstitutional. “‘Ah, Mr. President,’ replied Tim [you wrote], ‘what is the Constitution between friends?'”