I Was Obsessed With Hamilton Before it Was Cool


Back in 2006, when I was a sophomore in high school, I read Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton. Had I more foresight, artistic genius, charm and tenacity, perhaps I, too, could have written the award-winning musical that reintroduced America to the objectively best-looking founding father.

I did not. But I did carry the story of Hamilton with me, including, for over a decade, this one line:

“Such is my opinion of your abilities as a critic that I very much prefer your disapprobation to your applause.”

Hamilton was many things. The first secretary of the treasury. The founder of the precursor to the Coast Guard. The main author of the Federalist Papers. Arguably the only founder who understood that the executive would be the strongest branch in the federal government. Still more arguably the only founder who understood how strong the federal government would be. An illegitimate son. A father. A husband (albeit not a very faithful one). But mostly, I think, he is that line, penned in “The Farmer Refuted” in defense of the American Revolution in 1775.

“Such is my opinion of your abilities as a critic that I very much prefer your disapprobation to your applause.”

In other words, I think so little of how you think that I’d rather you disagree with me.

It’s the sort of line that, today, would probably be dismissed as elitist. And that is fair. Hamilton was the original liberal (in the big-government sense) elite. But he was an elite of the people. What I mean by that is this:

There are certain people who are born into this world believing that they can think and talk and write with audacity. Most of the founders were among them. Hamilton was not. He was born the illegitimate son of a Scotsman in the West Indies. He made his way to New York, to King’s College (now Columbia University), and then fought for the revolution, the Constitution and the administration. He had to fight for himself along the way. There is plenty he got wrong, but he also got a lot right, though he was ever reminded by men older and richer and more established than he that it was wrong for him to even be there (John Adams called him the “bastard brat of a Scottish peddlar,” and they were in the same political party!).

Hamilton is remembered as arrogant, and yes, there is a certain arrogance in telling someone you prefer his disapprobation to his applause, but I think – I have always thought – that part of the reason he is remembered as such is that in America there is, and always has been, a sort of monopoly on who gets to speak out and show off.

All sorts of people lay claim to Hamilton today. Those with the strongest claim are perhaps those most hesitant to make it. Kids who come from nowhere – which is not, of course, really nowhere – to New York City, or who rise up through New York City. Kids who speak their mind and don’t care if they’ve gone on for too long, or that they’re not wearing clothes the old-money way because what even is old money but money you didn’t make. They don’t care if you disagree, because they’d rather have your disapprobation anyway. Then they’re told that they live in a bubble and are out of touch by people who have inherited land and wealth (see: Thomas Jefferson, and also lots of other people). But they’re actually bursting bubbles.

All this is to say that I don’t think Hamilton would have minded being insulted by being called elite, and I don’t think he should have been. He was elite. He managed, despite everything, to be that.

Happy birthday, A.Ham.

Collage by Emily Zirimis.

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