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Why Republican Never Trumpers are turning to Alexander Hamilton for guidance

Alexander Hamilton
Washington University Law School
1806 Alexander Hamilton portrait by John Trumbull

A great many Republicans have publicly sworn never to support Donald Trump for president. We’ll leave their reasons for another day, but you know some of the reasons. They made those pledges when they still believed it was possible to prevent him from becoming the actual nominee of their party. Now that belief has turned to grief. And some of them will decide to come around.

From the other side — those who will remain members of the Republicans Against the Republican Nominee caucus — you will start hearing references (they’ve already begun) to a remark made by Federalist Alexander Hamilton in the run-up to the election of 1800 when the Federalist nominee, President John Adams, was seeking a second term.

Here’s the quote, which Hamilton put in writing to his Federalist co-conspirators and the accuracy of which is not in dispute and which will, in a sense, be the motto of those Republican Never Trumpers who decide to remain Never Trumpers:

Hamilton: “If we must have an enemy at the head of Government, let it be one whom we can oppose, and for whom we are not responsible, who will not involve our party in the disgrace of his foolish and bad measures.”

How, in the early days of the Republic, did things come to this pass?

Hamilton — a top aide to George Washington, a military hero, the nation’s first Treasury secretary, and one of the most influential members of the Federalist Party — despised Adams for various reasons stretching across policy differences and personal grudges. (The feeling was mutual.)

Hamilton decided he would rather see his long-time political enemy, Thomas Jefferson — the leader of the opposition, then known sometimes as the Anti-Federalists, sometimes as the (don’t freak out) Democratic Republican Party — in the White House than Adams. (The White House, by the way, had only just opened for business, as had the city of Washington.)

Jefferson and Hamilton, who had served together in George Washington’s cabinet, also hated one another, which made it even more awkward for Hamilton to oppose Adams. Hamilton first tried a scheme that was designed to sabotage Adams in the Electoral College and bring about the election of Adams’ running mate.

(At this stage, the electors cast two ballots, but didn’t designate which one was for the person they wanted for president and which one for vice president. You can see the potential for mischief. That situation was improved by the adoption of the 12th Amendment in 1804.)

But when that Hamiltonian scheme faltered, Hamilton decided he would rather see Jefferson defeat Adams. And he encouraged his faction of the party to do what they could to bring that about, which led him to write the quote above to his co-conspirators.

You can easily see why some Republicans would rather have even Hillary Clinton in the Oval Office (and then spend the next four years blocking everything she tries to do) than have Trump (the fake Republican and colossal jerk) hold office in the name of their party, which would leave them constantly torn between the normal expectation of loyalty to a president of your own party and their hatred of Trump the blowhard who hijacked their party’s nomination.

If you want to know more about how Adams and Hamilton came to such a pass, there’s a pretty good account of it here and a shorter version at the end of this piece. The Hamilton quote is also featured in this Washington Post article about the dilemma of the Never Trump crowd.

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Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Jim Million on 05/05/2016 - 08:55 am.

    Typical Denial (and ignorance)

    Might these Hamiltonian reactionaries know that old Alexander was leader of the pack that did the original NYC real estate projects, laying out the gird and ultimately leveling Manhattan to make development more profitable?

    Don’t you absolutely love irony?

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/05/2016 - 09:31 am.

    Pardon my schadenfreude

    …as the current iteration of the G.O.P. commits hara-kiri, which seems a plausible possibility even if Trump wins in November (shudder). The Party Of The One Percent may find itself out in the electoral cold, and maybe for good, as disaffected voters, persuaded by Trump that the G.O.P. establishment does not, and never had, their interests at heart, turn on the party that has duped and used them for a couple generations. He’s already proved that he can largely do without the powers-that-be. What will Mitch McConnell do if Trump wins (shudder, again) and nominates someone even more of an anathema to the tender constitutional sensibilities of Mr. McConnell as a replacement for the recently-departed Justice Scalia?

    This doesn’t make Democrats blame-free in the “duped and used” department, but if there’s an area where Republicans have enjoyed a clear and prominent leadership role in recent decades, it’s been in providing tax and other government benefits to the people who need them the least.

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/05/2016 - 09:41 am.

    Great quote!

    Politics change,
    but people don’t.

  4. Submitted by Jim Million on 05/05/2016 - 11:33 am.

    Are the Times finally a-Changing?

    I do believe Mr. Schoch is quite correct in plausible forecast. I would temper attribution to the “Party By the One-Three Percent,” however. Shouldn’t we admit both parties are controlled by the top echelon of respective food chains? Most Republican supporters are well below the upper elite class. The strategy of Trump seems to be one of “middle up” marketing; while, historically, the Democrat focus seems one more of “bottom up” promotion. Both parties seem to get their shares of disaffected working people, whatever classification.

    The ultimate repudiation of all traditional/conventional/same-old-same-old candidates by most Republican primary voters sure seems to reach well down through the lower core. Indiana is without doubt the example of that, given its still strong evangelical super conservative segments. They didn’t do it for Cruz, likely because they recognize themselves as traditional market targets, wisely not believing his message. As my Indy daughter told me over the weekend: There are still a lot of them around.

    Certainly, Bernie Sanders represents similar discontent for many left of middle. No wonder he is more than a mere bump in the HRC expressway back to Washington. It’s a very interesting and revealing year of populism, something not to be ignored. I believe the trend will grow on both sides, regardless of November.

    If anything, those on the real Right should feel far more diminished at this moment than those on the legitimate Left, shouldn’t they? Looks to me as though the Sanders supporters will remain a vocal and influential issue for Corporate Democrats, that Blue one-three percent, or whatever.

    Fair scenario? Whatever, this is a really prudent time to be a true Independent (I), scorned as we are by both party corporations. We may finally make a difference in a Red and Blue world. Maybe we will rise to “Iridescent” from “Irrelevant.”

    [Merriam-Webster,”Iridescent”: having a rainbowlike play of colors]

  5. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 05/05/2016 - 03:59 pm.

    Hamilton’s statement doesn’t fit now

    Hamilton: “If we must have an enemy at the head of Government, let it be one whom we can oppose, and for whom we are not responsible, who will not involve our party in the disgrace of his foolish and bad measures.”

    “For whom we are not responsible”, but the GOP IS RESPONSIBLE for Trump being the nominee. Years of stupid politics, stonewalling, shutting down the government, etc. etc. Plain and simple the GOP has absolutely earned TRUMP. They broke it now fix it.

    • Submitted by David LaPorte on 05/05/2016 - 05:27 pm.

      I think that Erik was referring to Hillary

      If Hillary was elected president, the GOP could oppose her at every turn, as they have for Obama. And could claim that everything bad was her fault. As they have for Obama.

      You’re right that the GOP couldn’t run away from Trump. But they are not responsible for Clinton, so she’s the safer choice for the long term health of the GOP.

  6. Submitted by Justin Adams on 05/05/2016 - 06:42 pm.


    This is why I’ve read everything Eric has written since 2005., He always has exactly the right Hamilton quote for the moment.

    I don’t have anything on-point to add, but I’m pleased they displaced Jackson, and not Hamilton, on our currency.

  7. Submitted by Curt Carlson on 05/06/2016 - 08:47 am.

    A possible hitch

    One potential fly in the Hamiltonian ointment could be down-ballot races. If Clinton prevails, her fund-raising attention to party coffers, combined with Trump-induced diminished right-side turnout, could change the complexion of Congress in a way that would make Republican obstructionism more difficult.

  8. Submitted by Jim Million on 05/06/2016 - 10:03 pm.

    Back to the cyber dorm room

    Can we really believe we have come to raising Alexander Hamilton for any contemporary review?

  9. Submitted by John Nevelten on 06/27/2016 - 09:58 am.

    Even more relevant: Jefferson over Burr

    Skipping all the messy details of a different system in place at the time, the 1800 election was eventually decided by a vote in the House of Representative between Jefferson and Burr.

    Hamilton viewed Jefferson as a radicaL, and also had a number of grudges against Jefferson after years of political battle and personal insult. Nevertheless, he put country above both ideology and personal feeling and wrote:

    “Mr. Burr loves nothing but himself. . . . Jefferson is in every view less dangerous than Burr.”

    I am a Republican, but despite our years of grudges against Clinton, I actually think she is less inconsistent with Republican and conservative values than is Trump, and certainly is less dangerous.

    It should not take a lot of courage for Republicans to follow Hamilton’s example: any resulting duel will be fought with tweets, not bullets.

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