James Madison vs. Donald Trump

How would you rate Trump in his presidency? I don’t watch the daily news, but I do hear about the significant events through the grapevine; the most recent “Shit Hole” remark is not entirely surprising and falls in line with Trump’s previous propensity to say unpresidential remarks. But what does it mean to be “presidential?” Since I am fully immersed in Plato right now, my brain is constantly scanning for the root definitions of words. According to Plato, to be “presidential” would require one to be a “statesman” – a position of power which disseminates the knowledge of the “good.” What is the knowledge of the “good?” In a sense, it is the correct understanding of human morality and virtues.

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The question, however, gets more complicated because Plato argues we can never entirely obtain knowledge of the “good;” we have to try our best to seek out knowledge throughout our lives through dialogue and personal revelation. So does Trump seem to be on a lifelong journey of wisdom? To follow Socrates example, we’ll leave that question unanswered. Another component of understanding true “statesmanship,”  is to understand past examples in history. How can people honestly know what a good President looks like if their only comparisons are those of living memory: Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George Bush Sr, Ronald Reagan, etc. To further add to the conundrum, how many of these Presidents have been personally studied – what do you actually know about their intrinsic virtues and morals? In an attempt to get to the base of understanding “good” leadership, I am reading all the United State President’s biographies. My most recent is on James Madison – James Madison: A Life Reconsidered by Lynne Cheney. Next week I will post on James Monroe.

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James Madison was born on March 16th, 1751 to the Virginian planter class. He grew up accustomed to slavery and didn’t do much to further its abolition – less than George Washington and John Adams. Madison suffered from epilepsy at a time when epilepsy was thought to be a personal weakness, and he was a frail man in general – barely breaking the 5-foot barrier. Because of his health conditions, he took to erudition and became a prominent Virginian politician after attending modern-day Princeton. He was mentored by Thomas Jefferson and was close to leading figures of the Revolutionary War.

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Madison championed religious freedoms in the Virginian Constitution and cherished Enlightenment ideas. He was the father of the United States Constitution which was his political Magnum Opus. To push ratification of the Constitution, he partnered with opposite party member – Alexander Hamilton – to publish the famed The Federalist Papers.  Madison straddled party lines for the sake of his country and in the end, helped America form a stable central government while maintaining individual freedoms through the Bill of Rights. He would go on to serve in Congress, as Secretary of State, and as the 4th President of the United States.

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Madison was by far a not a perfect President and did not make satisfying decisions with respects to the War of 1812. His leadership skills were weak when it came to acts of force, and he had difficulties inspiring fellow cabinet members. By the end of his presidency, his successor James Monroe was practically running the government in his place. Madison’s gifts were behind the scenes, and he is most responsible for the United States withholding the Constitution we hold dear today. A Constitution which he designed to be changed according to ultimate liberties – the abolition of slavery to name one. Without Madison, the United States would never have had a Government which could defend itself from foreign attack while simultaneously preserving the rights of individual citizens.

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While in office, Madison had many opponents and is actually credited with forming the first political party with Jefferson. He was a scholar who believed in himself even though many people pushed him to the side because of his physical impediments. Was Madison “Presidential?” He is by far not the best President I have read about, but I do appreciate his quest for compromise and his pursuit of genuine liberty – a liberty that had to balance between the British Monarchy and French Jacobins. His virtues seem to be cooperation, determination, flexibility, and idealism. So how does Madison compare to Tump? I’m going to pull a Socrates again and let you ponder that question.

The Greatest Founding Father – Alexander Hamilton

Every 4th of July I get excited about cookouts, patriotic swimwear, and most importantly, Founding Fathers. The Founding Fathers were the men who helped found the United States of America and are remembered mostly by their white wigs and stern portraits. Many of these influential members have been in the limelight recently via the popular Broadway play Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda. This play motivated me to read about its main character, Alexander Hamilton; I thought it appropriate to use the same biography that inspired Miranda – Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow.

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Hamilton is most well known for his portrait adorning the 10 dollar bill and dying in a duel against the former Vice President Aaron Burr. Unfortunately, it was this duel that cost Hamilton his rightful place in high school textbooks – unexpectedly dying at the age of 49 allowed his enemies to perpetually smear his name and downsize his accomplishments. In opposition to history’s unfair treatment, I feel confident in declaring Alexander Hamilton the greatest Founding Father of all time. I’ve read the biographies of George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson – none of those great men matched Hamilton’s political accomplishments and moral fortitude.

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Hamilton was born as an illegitimate child on the island of St. Croix in 1757. His family life was far from ideal and he had to work extremely hard to rise up from the poverty that consumed his future prospects. He was a precocious child and by the time he was a teenager, merchants were noticing his work ethic and his magnificent writing style. Some wealthy families desired to sponsor Hamilton’s education – allowing him to move to the mainland and later enroll in what is now Columbia University in New York City.

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While studying at Columbia in 1774, Hamilton was taken under the wing of many revolutionary mentors who shaped his eventual desire to fight for American independence. Once the fighting did commence, Hamilton helped form local militias and was actually an artillery captain in several engagements: The Battle of White Plains, the Battle of Trenton, and the Battle of Princeton. Although he desired to be on the frontline, higher up officials later employed him as an aide-de-camp because of his writing skills.  His incessant work ethic caught the attention of George Washington who made Hamilton his Chief Staff Aide. As Chief Staff Aide to George Washington, Hamilton ran the Continental Army with his behind the scenes paperwork – Washington was the figurehead but Hamilton was the orchestrator.

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After the war, Hamilton took up a law practice and pushed more than any other Founding Father for the ratification of the Constitution. His famous Federalist Papers argued for a stronger central government and the states to be a united body. Once the Constitution was adopted, George Washington was elected President and he quickly nominated Hamilton as the first Secretary of the Treasury. As Treasury Secretary, Hamilton changed the United States forever by forming the first National Bank which took responsibility for state debts. This genius move forced the states to unify under the central government and showed foreign countries that America was a stable investment.

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It was Hamilton’s push for a stronger central government that drove his political opponents mad. Thomas Jefferson hated Hamilton and paid people to publish false reports that the Treasury Secretary was a monarchist and wanted to anoint a British King. This rift between Hamilton and Jefferson formed the first underpinnings for political parties in America. Hamilton was seen as a Federalist and Jefferson a Republican (no connection to the modern day party) – Federalists were stereotyped as the aristocratic class who were pro-British while Republicans were stereotyped as the agrarian class who were pro-French. Hamilton was accused of pocketing money from the Treasury Department and his reputation was constantly being smeared – all accusations were pursued by Congress but Hamilton was found completely innocent.

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The Federalists would be pushed aside by the Republicans when Thomas Jefferson was elected President; Hamilton at that time was seen as an evil adulterer, monarchist, and money monger. His political decline culminated with a duel with Thomas Jefferson’s Vice President – Aaron Burr. Hamilton purposely did not aim at Burr because he believed Burr did not wish to kill. Unfortunately, he was completely wrong. Hamilton died the day after -leaving his wife and seven children behind. A parade commemorating his death in New York City was said to be bigger than the funeral parade for George Washington.

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Alexander Hamilton is the Greatest Founding Father because in the words of Chernow, “No other founder articulated such a clear and prescient vision of America’s future political, military, and economic strength or crafted such ingenious mechanisms to bind the nation together.” Hamilton not only got his hands dirty with nation building but also kept his hands clean from owning slaves – he actually was a practicing abolitionist. I think this passage sums up his place as #1…

We have left behind the rosy agrarian rhetoric and slaveholding reality of Jeffersonian democracy and reside in the bustling world of trade, industry, stock markets, and banks that Hamilton envisioned. (Hamilton’s staunch abolitionism formed an integral feature of this economic vision.) He has also emerged as the uncontested visionary in anticipating the shape and powers of the federal government. At a time when Jefferson and Madison celebrated legislative power as the purest expression of the popular will, Hamilton argued for a dynamic executive branch and an independent judiciary, along with a professional military, a central bank, and an advanced financial system. Today, we are indisputably the heirs to Hamilton’s America, and to repudiate his legacy is, in many ways, to repudiate the modern world.
-Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton