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Understanding the Founders

Posted By Alan Keyes On 10/30/1998 @ 1:00 am In Commentary | Comments Disabled

The other day a person called in to my radio show and prefaced his
remarks with words to the effect, “Oh, all the president did was
commit a personal and private mistake.” And he went on to imply that
this kind of behavior is commonplace in the White House.

A few days later, I caught a little bit of Crossfire on CNN. Anne Coulter was the guest, and they were talking about whether the Founders meant it when
they wrote that only virtuous men should serve as president, and if you weren’t virtuous, if your conduct violated virtue, you should be impeached. And Anne Coulter was, of course, saying that was the Founders’ position. The liberal, Bill Press, said “Oh, you mean to tell me that the Founders meant that only virtuous people would become president?” And he laughed.

Let’s think about this for a moment. Press, and the Democrat Party he
has served, find it absurd that the Founders wouldn’t want somebody in
office who was committing adultery. Now either pro-Clinton Democrats
hold that the Founders saw no need of virtue in the persons who hold
public office, or that they considered fidelity and chastity to be no
parts of virtue. Or these modern Democrats think they themselves are not
bound to say anything that makes sense in any way at all, that words are
not for conveying our ideas and finding and telling the truth, but
rather are weapons like spears and grenades, and that they themselves
can speak nonsense and tell lies because they don’t have any interest in
truth or respect for the truth.

I will not assume that the Democrats are so corrupt as to be traitors to
speech and reason, nor will I think them so ignorant as to suppose that
the Founders wanted vicious presidents. What is left? Press and his
friends must be ridiculing the notion that the Founders of this country
considered sexual propriety to be a part of virtue.

And I sat there, in my living room, marveling at how being in front of
a camera can give someone like Bill Press the effrontery to posture and to spout demonstrable falsehoods. Because, you see, what he said was false. Of course it was false. How do I know that? Because the Founders showed what they thought about sexual impropriety and virtue in the case of Alexander Hamilton, and they reacted to Hamilton’s impropriety very harshly
indeed.

I did my doctoral dissertation on Alexander Hamilton. And studying
Alexander Hamilton years ago, I noticed a number of things. First, in
raw talent and intellectual power Hamilton was probably the most capable
individual of his time, and many of his colleagues would have
acknowledged the fact — even Madison, Monroe, John Adams, and others
whose names we know better. And when Hamilton gave a speech at the
Constitutional Convention which went on for six hours, they all sat in
rapt attention and hung on his every word, even though this was a man
who was only in his twenties at the time the Convention took place. He
had started his career in his late teens, and yet had earned the respect
of people twice and three times his age, because of his brilliant and
penetrating intellect, and the power of his personality. He was also,
apparently, a remarkably charming person; he had all kinds of wonderful
personality traits. He was a very effective man. And he was very close
to George Washington, was his right hand man for a period during the
Revolutionary War, and then later was very, very important in shaping
Washington’s first administration. He was the man who wrote most of the
draft of Washington’s farewell address. He established the secure
foundation of our currency, and wrote the first plan for developing a
national infrastructure, canals, roads, and so forth. Hamilton made
major contributions to the intellectual formation of the era, and he
also was a master politician, orchestrating things behind the scenes to
promote the political fortunes of the people with whom he worked.

If anybody in that generation was marked by destiny for real leadership
and the presidency, it was Alexander Hamilton. He had two strikes
against him, one of which probably wouldn’t have mattered enough to be a
permanent barrier: He was illegitimate. His political enemies called him
a bastard. But you’ll notice in the tale that I tell you, that bastardy
never stood in the way of his rocketing to the top, because the people
in the Founding generation had a great respect for talent and for the
notion that you had to respond to whatever capacities it might please
God to give people. And so I don’t think his illegitimacy would have
been a permanent barrier.

But do you know what was a permanent barrier? Do you know the reason he
wasn’t even considered as somebody who might eventually become president
of the United States? It’s because, while he was secretary of the
Treasury, he got himself involved in a scandal: he had an affair with a
married woman, and even though it was hushed up, his colleagues and a
congressional committee knew all about it.

And that was it. That was it for Alexander Hamilton. He could go so far
and no farther. In fact, before the end of the Washington administration, he resigned from his secretaryship. And though he was the universally acknowledged head of his party, the Federalists, the next president was John Adams, not Alexander Hamilton.

The adultery did later become public; he had to make an excruciating
public confession about it, and it was a terrible business. But, even
before it became a public scandal, that sexual impropriety was a
disability, it was a barrier to rising to that high office, in the minds
and judgment of the Founding Fathers. Once it became a matter of
general public knowledge, Hamilton could never hold elected office in
the American Republic, and he never did.

All these things our cynical modern academics claim to have discovered
about who was sleeping with whom in those days don’t mean a thing. There
was a public standard, and it was applied to Alexander Hamilton. It was
the chief thing that limited his career in spite of what was
acknowledged to be his enormous talent and ability.

So I watched Bill Press, not knowing whether I should feel pity or
anger. If you knew anything about the Founding period, you hoped that he
was simply ignorant, because if he wasn’t … well, if he wasn’t, then
he was lying through his teeth, trying to fool uninformed people by
sneering: “Oh, you can’t be serious that the Founders would actually
consider as disqualifying improper sexual activity.” And the point of
this sneer is to cover his party chieftain, Bill Clinton. How sad! Or,
worse, how base!

Of course the Founders would have judged this kind of thing severely.
They wouldn’t have given three seconds worth of thought to this whole
matter with Bill Clinton. They wouldn’t even have had to speak with each
other. Once the facts were on the table, they would have just looked at
him and he would have known. He would have started to write his
resignation letter. That’s what would have happened. He would have had a
little meeting with his Cabinet, which would have consisted of
distinguished people, like an Alexander Hamilton, and this would have
been laid on the table and they would have all looked at him, and he
would have started writing his resignation letter. They wouldn’t have
even had to say a word. There wouldn’t have been an argument or a
disputation about it.

And if Bill Press doesn’t know it, then he needs to go back to history
and do his homework, and if he does know it then he needs to stop lying
to folks on Crossfire. But either way, Anne Coulter is right. I just
thought I’d share that with you, because I think that a little knowledge
of Hamilton’s career and the conduct that created barriers to his
success gives you a clear sense of what the Founders meant by virtue.
And what they meant by virtue went beyond capacity, it went beyond
ability, it went beyond effectiveness in getting the job done. It had
something, everything, to do with character and integrity and a
discipline that kept some respect in life for the standards of public
decency.

The Founders would never have given eight or nine or twelve months of
nervous pseudo-deliberation to the question of whether Bill Clinton
should be impeached. He would have been out of there long ago. So I
think it’s a sign of the degeneracy in our thinking that we’re having
such a struggle with this, because they wouldn’t have had to struggle at
all, not for a second.


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