A Newsletter Takeover by Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman
"Hamilton's seal is testimony to the precise nature of his fears," but "the man had no graphic sense."
The hosts of Now & Then are in charge today! On their new podcast, Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman connect the headlines of today to the past. Like all good historians, they cite their sources, and I asked them to expand on one from “Entangling Alliances,” the pilot episode on the Biden Doctrine and American foreign and domestic relations. They chose Alexander Hamilton’s “Design for a Seal of the United States,” but before I hand over the newsletter, a note on today:
On June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger led Union soldiers into Galveston, Texas, and announced an end to legalized slavery. Yesterday, the Senate voted unanimously in favor of a bill to establish Juneteenth National Independence Day as a federal holiday. "I want to say to my white colleagues on the other side: Getting your independence from being enslaved in a country is different from a country getting independence to rule themselves," Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Michigan), replied to Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Kentucky), one of 14 members of the House of Representatives, all Republicans, who voted against the bill. (Also this week: 21 Republicans voted against awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to Capitol Police for their service during the January 6 insurrection.) I doubt they’ll read Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annette Gordon-Reed’s new book, On Juneteenth, a blend of history and memoir, but you really should. To learn more, listen to her interview with Terry Gross and read Jennifer Szalai’s glowing review.
Hamilton’s proposed seal shows a leader in a new country clinging to the edge of the North American continent, who was aware that the nation’s survival would depend on its ability to carve out a political system independent from Europe.
For the first several years of the country’s existence, it was not at all clear that such a hope would materialize. Lawmakers began to split into factions almost as soon as the Constitution was ratified, and in 1793, the overthrow of the French monarchy made European affairs central to American politics: the Federalists aligned their worldview with English adherence to strong institutions; the Democratic-Republicans aligned theirs with the French revolutionaries.
The attempt of prominent Pennsylvania Republican politician George Logan in 1798 to enlist French help in electing a Republican government forced a reckoning. Logan went to France to advise French diplomats on how to court public opinion to swing voters into the Republican camp, with the expectation that a new Republican government would work more closely with France than with England.
Federalists in Congress were outraged that a private citizen was deliberately working to undercut the administration by negotiating with a foreign power, and even Republicans recognized that trying to control internal politics by weakening national sovereignty was suicidal. Logan arrived back home to find that, in his absence, Congress had passed what we know as the Logan Act, making it a crime for unauthorized people to negotiate with foreign governments to alter government policy.
The principles behind the Logan Act have generally been honored ever since, until recently. They were on the table again quite dramatically in the 2016 election, when the campaign of Republican candidate Donald J. Trump worked in tandem with operatives working for the Russian government to swing voters away from Trump’s Democratic opponent, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton.
On September 19, 1796, having decided against running for a third term of office, in part because he couldn’t stand the factionaism that was making his life miserable, President George Washington wrote a farewell letter to the American people. In it, he warned them that “Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence (I conjure you to believe me, fellow-citizens) the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government.”
He recognized that anyone crossing the ocean to enlist help in drumming up support at home demonstrates a lack of faith in democracy. Rather than trusting the voters to choose their leader, such people feel justified in doing whatever it takes to put in place a president of their own party.
Hamilton’s enthusiasm for designing an allegorical seal perhaps feels a little quaint in the twenty-first century, but today’s world of mass communications and their manipulation by global oligarchs makes the principles behind it more important than ever.
In a historian's hunt for insight into the past, informal or private writings sometimes hold the most promise. Of course, official records have much to reveal about peoples, places, and the course of events. But particularly when delving into the world of politics, private writings of public figures sometimes offer access to a less structured and thus less guarded form of writing -- and thinking. At their best, they are a window into someone's innermost thoughts and feelings. The more confidential or informal they are, the more revealing they can be.
A stellar example of this kind of document is a confidential memo written by New York Federalist Alexander Hamilton in 1796, roughly a year after he stepped down as Secretary of the Treasury. For unknown reasons, Hamilton chose at that point to design a national seal for the United States. He seemingly kept his thoughts private; the design is undated, and there's no indication that he sent it anywhere. That's probably for the best; as his idea makes amply apparent, the man had no graphic sense. But it offers a striking glimpse at his innermost thoughts about the United States and its place in the world.
He described his seal as follows:
A Globe with Europe and part of Africa on one side--America on the other--the Atlantic Ocean between...A COLOSSUS to be placed on the Globe, with one foot on Europe, the other extending partly over the Atlantic towards America.
The colossus would be wearing symbols of the French Revolution. Facing it on North America would be "the Genius" of America, represented by Pallas, "a female figure with a firm composed countenance in an attitude of defiance." ("If...it did not render it too complicated," he added, perhaps the Ocean could be "in Tempest & Neptune striking with his Trident the projected leg of the Colossus." Clearly, "too complicated" is an understatement.)
What does this image show? Perhaps most strikingly, it's a near-howl of anxiety about the threat of the French Revolution, and America's place on the world stage. Less than ten years old with little to no national structured armed forces in place, the United States seemed all too vulnerable to attack or infiltration by a foreign country. Most fearful of all -- at least, to the Federalists, in power -- was the raging political and social uproar of the French Revolution. Hamilton's seal is testimony to the precise nature of his fears. The "colossus" of the French Revolution was ominously close to planting itself on American shores. America needed to fend it off -- now.
The image is striking testimony to Hamilton's fears of France and foreign influence, and thereby, to the fears of many Federalists, offering a near Freudian glimpse of their political mindscape. But more than that, his design captures a level of emotion that doesn't always make it into the formal historical record, but that holds profound insights into a period's politics, policies, and political ethos. Emotion as historical evidence: it's a tool with great power in explaining politics, an idea that we're seeing demonstrated all too clearly in the politics of today.