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Ron Chernow: Washington & Hamiltons Relationship


– Let me say that even though
those lives are so different there are certain parallels in
terms of where these two men have come from because– Hamilton is an illegitimate
orphaned boy from the Caribbean, is painfully
aware of his lack of status, is tremendously ambitious in
terms of wanting to enter into high society and into the political world. He’s an autodidact, he’s
constantly improving himself but he really is an outsider
trying to fight his way into the inner ranks of
society and government. George Washington story,
although he was born at a much higher level. As I recall, his father had
10,000– an enormous amount of acreage and slaves. But Washington too, was
very self-conscious about what he referred to as
his defective education. He wants to enter the upper
ranks of Virginia gentry and so he was, in his way, as
hard-charging and ambitious as Hamilton was. And had a similar consciousness
of being an outsider. Also both of them, as young
men, had an unusual capacity for befriending powerful,
older men who became their mentors and champions. And so I think, and we can
talk about this when we come to the show because– have
you seen the show yet? – [Interviewer] No. – Okay, this is actually
very central to the show, because Lin Manuel Miranda asked me, “Would Washington have seen Hamilton as a younger version of himself?” And I said, “Yes, their
personalities were so unlike but there was something
about their situations which would have seemed familiar to Washington.” Now, Hamilton always said
that their personalities could not have been more different. He used the word disposition,
he said, “Our dispositions could not have been more alike.” But what we mean by
personality, I think is what he meant by dispositions. And Hamilton was a brash
and head-strong personality. He was very mercurial and
brilliant and very impulsive. Washington was the opposite,
Washington was cautious, thorough, slow, methodical
in his approaches to things. So that their personal
style could not have been more dissimilar. But these two men complement
each other in a way that just feels uncannily right. George Washington was a very
smart man, I think that he was much, much smarter than people realize. But he was not an original
thinker, either in terms of political theory or in statecraft. Washington could not have
been one of the contributors to the Federalist Papers. Washington could not have
forged the provisions of the Constitution, and
could not have forged a lot of the policies of his administration. But what Washington had
in abundance was judgment, which was often the very thing that Alexander Hamilton lacked (laughter). To my mind, George Washington
had what I would call a reactive genius that many people noticed that when presented with a set of options, he had an amazing ability
to latch onto the right one. He couldn’t have generated a
lot of those options himself but because of his judgment,
his patriotism, his character, he could spot the right one. And he was a tremendous
talent scout and assembled around him so many of the
great figures of the time. So what we see is that during
the years when Hamilton is operating under the direct
tutelage of George Washington, whether during the Revolutionary War, at the Constitutional Convention or during Washington’s presidency, Hamilton goes from strength to strength. At moments he almost seems invincible. The second that he’s no
longer operating under George Washington’s kindness,
we see how fallible his judgment was and how self-destructive
his behavior could be. But Washington established
a set of guidelines within which Hamilton
operated and had managed to– this is taking nothing away
from Hamilton to say it, but managed to get this
extraordinary performance out of Hamilton again
and again, and early on, recognized what an enormously
intelligent young man he was. So I think this was really the
most productive partnership of the early years of the Republic. The only one that obviously
can rival it would be Madison and Jefferson. But it’s really Washington
and Hamilton who were setting the stage by having
to win the Revolution, enact the Constitution and
create the Federal Government. And then, Madison and
Jefferson carried that into a second phase of the country. So I think they’re just an unbeatable team and it’s one of those
cases in history where the whole is worth more
than the sum of the parts. And I think that if you
tried to– well certainly, if you picture Hamilton’s
career without Washington, it would have been much
more limited career. And when Washington
died, Hamilton made the famous statement,
“Washington was an aegis,” that is a shield, “most essential to me.” We can more easily imagine
Washington’s career without Hamilton,
certainly, in terms of the Revolutionary War and the
Constitutional Convention. More difficult, though, I think
in terms of his presidency because Hamilton’s accomplishments
as Treasury secretary are so fundamental to especially
that first term in office, that it it difficult to
imagine what Washington’s first term would have looked like. And that was not a gap, I
think, that either Madison or Jefferson could have supplied. Hamilton had a genius for
statecraft and Hamilton combined the political– he was
both political theorist and a brilliant technocrat. And that particular
combination, I mean, Madison was certainly his equal as a
political theorist or Jefferson. But they didn’t combine that
gift for forging policies, creating governmental institutions.

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