But how applicable is that Hamilton quote to the impeachment proceedings?
Reps. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) and Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) both used the following Hamilton quote to begin the impeachment trial proceedings — Schiff on Wednesday, and Nadler on Thursday:
When a man unprincipled in private life desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper, possessed of considerable talents, having the advantage of military habits — despotic in his ordinary demeanour — known to have scoffed in private at the principles of liberty — when such a man is seen to mount the hobby horse of popularity — to join in the cry of danger to liberty — to take every opportunity of embarrassing the General Government & bringing it under suspicion — to flatter and fall in with all the non sense of the zealots of the day — It may justly be suspected that his object is to throw things into confusion that he may ‘ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.’
The quote is from a note Hamilton wrote in response to George Washington. Schiff offered the quote in full and suggested it was part of the reason founders like Hamilton put the power of impeachment in the Constitution. Nadler went further in implicitly connecting it to Trump, calling it an “an especially striking portrait” and saying: “Hamilton was a wise man. He foresaw dangers far ahead of his time.”
(Nadler, for what it’s worth, truncated the “considerable talents” part — perhaps not wanting to give Trump too much credit — and the “military habits” part — perhaps because it doesn’t apply so neatly to Trump.)
These are not the first times these words have been recalled in reference to Trump. Both Schiff and Nadler used them during impeachment proceedings last month, and they’ve occasionally cropped up in opinion pieces about Trump over his first three years in office. Conservative columnist William Kristol wrote a piece for the now-defunct Weekly Standard in January 2018 titled “Did Alexander Hamilton Predict the Rise of Donald Trump?” that cited the quote. Historian Ron Chernow referenced it in a piece for The Washington Post in October arguing that Hamilton had a Trump-ish politician in mind.
“Given the way Trump has broadcast suspicions about the CIA, the FBI, the diplomatic corps, senior civil servants and the ‘deep state,’ Hamilton’s warning about those who would seek to discredit the government as prelude to a possible autocracy seems prophetic,” Chernow wrote.
Around the same time, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) tweeted the full quote on a thread and said it was “Alexander Hamilton arguing for including impeachment in the Constitution.”
It may justly be suspected that his object is to throw things into confusion that he may ‘ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.” - Alexander Hamilton arguing for including impeachment in the Constitution.— Brian Schatz (@brianschatz) November 14, 2019
Schatz definitely goes too far in linking the quote directly to impeachment and the drafting of the Constitution. He’s wrong that Hamilton offered it in the context of impeachment; it was from a note the then-treasury secretary wrote in response to Washington about tax policy, and the letter doesn’t even mention impeachment. It was also from 1792, five years after the Constitution was drafted.
Jay Sekulow, one of President Trump’s defense attorneys, called using the Hamilton quote “inapplicable and completely out of place” when he addressed reporters at a break late Thursday.
“They’re not only taking the wrong law, they’re taking the wrong quotes from the Founding Fathers … It would be really appropriate if they cited the right provisions and what the Founding Fathers were actually talking about,” Sekulow said.
So can the quote be logically tied to the current debate?
Paul Blumenthal argued in HuffPost that the connection was tenuous. The policy Hamilton was pushing for involved raising taxes to finance debts held by investors. Washington had written to him noting that the objections he had heard included the idea that it would push the United States away from a republican form of government and into more of a monarchy. Hamilton, Blumenthal argued, was essentially arguing that it was instead his political opponents — the “popular demagogues,” as Hamilton put it, who favored a more direct democracy — that could pave the way for monarchy.
But even in that context, it’s difficult to say Hamilton wasn’t thinking about a Trump-ish character — and what it would mean for the country. As Chernow wrote, Trump has cast suspicion upon what seems like just about every institution of American government at one time or another. His “private life” has been messy, and very publicly so. He’s fond of playing up his “fortune” — whether you read that as monetary or otherwise. His aides describe a remarkably volatile — perhaps more charitably, “bold” — temperament, including in a new book by The Washington Post’s Carol D. Leonnig and Philip Rucker. Trump has certainly shown a knack for exploiting cultural grievances to create a popular movement for himself. He has also aligned with the extreme elements of the conservative movement, such as Alex Jones, whether you call them “zealots” or not. And Democrats would argue that Trump has benefited from the chaos he has sowed — that he has indeed thrown “things into confusion that he may ‘ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.’ ”
In the same letter, Hamilton adds another potentially applicable quote just before the above one.
“The truth unquestionably is, that the only path to a subversion of the republican system of the Country is, by flattering the prejudices of the people, and exciting their jealousies and apprehensions, to throw affairs into confusion, and bring on civil commotion. Tired at length of anarchy, or want of government, they may take shelter in the arms of monarchy for repose and security.” Again, Hamilton’s point is more about the impact of populism run amok, but he’s also warning about the kind of people who could exploit it.
The quotes would be neater for Democrats’ purposes if Hamilton had truly uttered them in the context of impeachment or in something more than personal disagreement with his political opponents. But the point stands about what kinds of people he warned against. And for that reason, we might expect the quotes to keep coming up.