Thursday, December 15, 2016

The chancellor: Hamilton as a modern model of a medieval archetype

Three men of humble birth who rose to manage kings and presidents.
There's an immortal trope in fairy tales--and in political history--that when corruption is afoot in the kingdom, the fault lies not with the wise king himself, but with his wily vizier. You know him by many names: Jafar, Grima, Haman.... He's typically a man of obscure origins whose talents have nonetheless gained the king's attention and allowed him to rise above his station to become the real power behind the throne. Of course, the king's noble heart blinds him to this upstart's devious schemes until the hero unmasks the vizier's betrayal and saves the day.

The villain of Aladdin and the Prince of Persia games was inspired by an historical figure, Ja'far ibn Yahya Barmaki, a vizier to one of the early Islamic caliphs. Ja'far brought papermaking and Greek science to the Islamic world, only to be beheaded by the caliph for (allegedly) sleeping with the caliph's sister.

A skeptic might say "it's a feature, not a bug" in traditional monarchy. That is to say, the unpopular chancellor is a convenient fall guy for the king to blame and sack when his policies go adrift. While there's probably some truth to that theory, what I find more fascinating is how the trope of the evil chancellor is a survival of the old nobility's suspicions of lower-born bureaucrats--how "new men" undermine their standing in relation to the ruler. What are fairy tales and myths, if not artful expressions of what we really hold dear? I suddenly realized that some of us in 21st century America have our own bogeyman embedded in our founding mythos when, sometime last month, I scrolled past an article shared by former Congressman Ron Paul's Facebook page. Dr. Paul; or at least, his social media manager; naturally had to weigh in on the "Hamilton" controversy erupting at that moment. (Summary for those who missed it: liberal stage actors express disapproval of Trump at end of performance attended by Pence. In other news...) While most of the Republican world was clutching their pearls with some form of "how dare they disturb Pence's night of entertainment?", Paul's site pulled a bait-and-switch by reposting excerpts from an article criticizing not the actors, but Pence from daring to patronize a musical about the worst American who ever lived (emphases mine):
"But Governor Pence’s bigger mistake was to somehow believe that Alexander Hamilton is someone that he should admire.  This is hugely ironic, since Hamilton was the founding father of corrupt crony capitalism funded by a crooked central bank, exclusively for the benefit of the one-percenters of his day.  He stood for everything that the Trump campaign stood against. Hamilton was the consummate statist and imperialist and political water boy for the big business interests of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston (the Federalists) who wanted to essentially establish the rotten, corrupt, imperialist, British mercantilist system in America. The very system the American Revolution had just deposed, in other words.  Hamilton was a traitor to the principles of the Revolution who spent the last fifteen years of his life attempting to transform the American government into a government for crony capitalists, by crony capitalists, of crony capitalists, all centrally planned by clever Machiavellian political manipulators like himself."

This trip down the time machine with rehashed Jeffersonian propaganda goes on and on:
"Alexander Hamilton was the founding father of constitutional subversion who denounced the Constitution as “a frail and worthless fabric” because it imposed so many limits on governmental powers.
He was the inventor of the subversive idea of “implied powers” of the Constitution and of using the General Welfare Clause to create a government of unlimited powers.  He was perhaps the first to spout The Big Lie that the states were never sovereign, the lie that was at the heart of Lincoln’s case for invading his own country in order to destroy the system of federalism and states’ rights that had been primarily the work of the Jeffersonian tradition of the founding generation. Hamilton and his political heirs (like Lincoln) worked mightily for some seventy-five years to destroy the Jeffersonian, states’ rights tradition of federalism and decentralized government once and for all.  Instead of self rule, they believed, Americans needed to be ruled by their wise “Yankee” betters.  Or else.
The Hamiltonians eventually succeeded at this when the War to Prevent Southern Independence destroyed federalism and consolidated all political power in Washington, D.C., after which corporate welfare, protectionism (another form of corporate welfare), a nationalized money supply, and military imperialism —  Hamilton’s Orwellian-named “American System” — was cemented into place.  It was really an American version of the British mercantilist/imperialist system."

Like many of Dr. Paul's other, increasingly embittered posts of late, this hatchet-job on the memory of Alexander Hamilton; an immigrant who rose from orphanhood and obscurity and hazarded his life in battle multiple times to win independence; wasn't well-received by his readership (save, perhaps, his most die-hard followers). Nevertheless, it's hard to fault the Paulites entirely because they're taking cues from one of this country's most successful smear jobs, two centuries in the making--and, to be fair, the bastard of St. Croix plays perfectly into the trope of the Evil Chancellor which we've subconsciously inherited from days of yore.

Today, after a long hiatus, I'm pleased to take a long, leisurely walk through the annals of history with you as we explore how the Chancellor has manifested himself over the ages. But before we hop into those terrrrible Middle Ages you and I both know and love so well, let's take a brief look at the life of General Hamilton, this time without the Jacobin-tinted glasses.

Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804): America's evil vizier

It's true enough that Hamilton was never even Vice President--he was something more. (Then, as now, the Vice Presidency was mostly ornamental in nature, leading John Adams to call it "the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived".) At age 34, President Washington bestowed upon his old protégé the unassuming title of Secretary of the Treasury. On paper, Hamilton was junior to Vice President Adams and Secretary of State Jefferson... but only Hamilton had actually fought in the War of Independence and commanded Washington's complete trust. While Adams played the courtier in Europe and Jefferson, as Governor of Virginia, fled Benedict Arnold's army and let Richmond burn to ash, Washington and Hamilton put their lives on the line of battle for independence--usually in the same tent, as Hamilton was effectively the General's chief of staff. As the war progressed, Washington's trust in Hamilton grew until the latter was ghostwriting whole letters perfectly in Washington's voice and even issuing orders in his name. And just as Washington secretly allowed his aide-de-camp to influence his strategy during the war, so too did he take Hamilton's advice into account in all matters of statecraft, well beyond mere economics, in our first presidency.

The first Cabinet. Rather like Donald Trump, Washington favored military men. Excepting Jefferson, all men above were high-ranking Army officers in the War of Independence.
Hamilton, who considered the British Constitution the finest government model on earth, probably saw himself as a stand-in for the mother country's First Lord of the Treasury... better known to most of us under the name of "Prime Minister"! In England, he who controls the nation's purse strings controls the entire government--and so it was in Washington's presidency, with the bastard from Nevis effectively managing the rest of the Cabinet while the Declaration of Independence's author was consigned to being a voice of opposition. To illustrate Jefferson's fear over the influence his rival held: according to biographer Ron Chernow, Hamilton oversaw a staff of over five hundred Treasury employees. Jefferson's State Department, by contrast, had a measly twelve. Hamilton's invisible hand continued to pull strings after he stepped down from the post, and indeed, even after Washington himself retired. President Adams had to fire some of his Cabinet members after finding out that they were taking orders from Hamilton instead of him.

As President Adams readied for possible war  with
revolutionary France, Washington wouldn't even accept
leadership of the Army unless Adams appointed
Hamilton as second-in-command.
It's said that in order to make an omelette, you need to break some eggs. To build up the American empire, Hamilton had to make a lot of enemies in the process, particularly those who imagined the newborn United States as a quiet republic of rural landowners where everyone kept to themselves, instead of a mercantile behemoth destined to one day take its place among the major powers of the world. Further, in order for his President to stand above partisanship, Hamilton ended up taking all of Washington's would-be critics to himself as well: the convenient scapegoat whenever someone drew the short end of the stick on a policy or ran into a tax they didn't like. Jefferson and James Madison, fellow members of the southern planter aristocracy, saw Hamilton's vision as a threat to everything the Revolution stood for and so took it upon themselves to create an opposition league, complete with its own newspapers, slogans, and scathing op-eds. The political party system was thus born.

In my late re-examining of Alexander Hamilton's life, I was struck with how many similarities and recurring themes his biography shares with certain medieval and Renaissance figures whom I've always found compelling. The surest way to rise above one's station in a feudal society was by mastery of the quill. The keeping of accounts and the managing of bureaucracies were two skills that existed firmly outside of the training bred into the average knight of the warrior aristocracy that ruled medieval Europe. They had neither the talent nor the interest in such mundane matters, but the more savvy and ambitious rulers at least valued their importance. Therefore, the administration of county and kingdom was typically entrusted to a clerk; and in this era, that literally meant a cleric, for the clergy were the class of men most likely to be taught the art of letters in the course of learning how to administer the sacraments. The more talented they were, the further they would ascend in an otherwise stratified hierarchy, and the more jealousy they would arouse from those of noble blood who believed their privileges were being trampled afoot. This was just the sort of course taken by one of the medieval Church's most famous saints: Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury... and, for a time, chancellor to King Henry II of England.

St Thomas Becket (1118-1170): from Cheapside to Chancellor

The historical Thomas Becket was probably not quite so lowborn as one of my all-time favorite films (1964's Becket, starring Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole) suggests. The film, based on an earlier play, recycles the legend that Becket was born of conquered Saxon peasants. This backstory was more likely contrived by Becket's enemies in the nobility, rather like a medieval "birther" conspiracy. Nevertheless, his origins from amongst a merchant family in Cheapside, London suggested he would probably never rise above a middle-class burgher's lot in life.... unless, of course, he joined the clergy, furthered his education, and gained the attention of a prominent bishop. This he did, eventually entering the household of Theobald, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Primate of England.

Theobald found the young Thomas a promising lad and paid for his education in canon law abroad. Following his return, Thomas was ordained to the diaconate and given the office of Archdeacon of Canterbury: the Archbishop's right-hand man, a title commanding tremendous authority in its own right. The modern Catholic Church has opted to split the ancient archdeacon's responsibilities between the vicar-general, the chancellor, and one or two other diocesan offices, but the archdeacons of the medieval Church were forces unto themselves. They were at once prime ministers and regents, with the power to manage the Church's temporal goods near-independently of the bishops themselves. The more worldly bishops of the age were probably happy to leave the archdeacons alone to do this while they played as courtiers or built episcopal palaces for themselves. In any event, Thomas Becket, aged about 34, was already the number-two man in the English church.

Not long after, Theobald elevated his protege even higher by recommending Thomas for the newly vacant office of Lord Chancellor: the keeper of the royal seal and senior-most civic official in the kingdom. This, in itself, in unsurprising given that every single Lord Chancellor prior to Thomas, going back to the Norman Conquest, was also a cleric (usually a bishop).

Henry II and Thomas Becket according
to one of my all-time favorite films.
But if Theobald gave his archdeacon away in the hopes of having an inside man in the royal court, he was to be disappointed. As Chancellor, Thomas Becket proved to be a king's man through and through: zealous in executing Henry's will in all matters, even to the point of encroaching against the Church's tax exemptions. He seems to have cultivated Henry's personal friendship during this time (probably not quite to the extent made famous by the film), and made himself a reflection of the King's glory. If King Henry was scheduled to process through a village decked in a gold tunic with twenty horses, Thomas would precede him in a silver robe with a team of fifteen horses, and then give it away to a beggar, all the more to demonstrate the King's generosity. All the while, the nobles of the realm glared and seethed at the upstart's place in the sun.

Perhaps it was not a conscious betrayal of the Church so much as it was simply in Thomas's nature to excel in whatever job he was given, which led him to execute the Chancellor's office with such rigor and magnificence. When Theobald at last gave up the ghost, King Henry saw a chance to return the late archbishop's favor by returning Thomas, now firmly a king's man, back to Canterbury as a new puppet prelate. Once the mitre settled on his head, Thomas Becket famously began to take his new job even more seriously than his old one--and made a foe of his former friend in the process. The ensuing war over the rights of the Church reached a fever pitch when Henry, in a moment of rage, uttered aloud in his court: "will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?" Four of his knights took the outburst in deadly earnest and slew the archbishop right at the altar of his own cathedral during Vespers a few days after Christmas.

The sword blow heard 'round the world: December 29, 1170.

The murder of Becket sounds like sheer lunacy to have taken place in the Age of Faith, but it also goes to show how much contempt the gentry and nobility of the kingdom had for him, even well after he had resigned his royal office. Here was a man who needed to be punished for reaching above his station, consequences be damned. In the end, it was the humble monks of Canterbury Cathedral who had the last laugh, as they took the lash to King Henry's bare backside in an act of penance. The common-born Saint Thomas of Canterbury's cult soon overshadowed King Edward the Confessor's and grew to become the premier saintly devotion in England for over three centuries to come.

Thomas Cardinal Wolsey (1473-1530): the chessmaster

Simon Sudbury's skull
Though the shrine of Saint Thomas put Canterbury on the map, few of his successors lived up to his legacy of sanctity and fortitude as archbishop. Quite the contrary, more of the archbishops seem to have followed the younger Becket's footsteps. They continued to serve the king as chancellors, often to the detriment of their flocks. The trope of the Evil Chancellor caused Simon Sudbury (Archbishop of Canterbury from 1375 to 1381, as well as Chancellor) to pay the ultimate price for serving two masters. In 1381, peasants driven to violence by taxation and other economic turmoils stormed the Tower of London to take their frustrations out on the one they blamed most for their ills: the Chancellor-Archbishop. So unpopular was he that his own guards, like the Praetorians in the final scene of Gladiator, stepped aside to let the mob have their way. The archbishop's mitre didn't save Simon's head from being clumsily hacked off his head (it took eight blows to do the job) and put on display on Tower Bridge. If he cried out to his illustrious predecessor, Thomas Becket, his prayers were unheard: when Simon was Bishop of London, he discouraged the people of his see from taking pilgrimages to Saint Thomas's shrine in Canterbury, only adding to their hatred of him.

As for King Henry II... his dynasty, the Plantagenets, came to an end in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth when the forces of Henry ap Tuddor defeated and slew Richard III on the field. Tudor became Henry VII and, in a sense, ushered the end of the Middle Ages in England. For his entire reign, Henry VII's claim to the throne was questioned and threatened by the possibility of uprisings from powerful lords. Determined to ensure the Wars of the Roses would never erupt again, Henry used his yet-another-evil chancellor, Cardinal Morton, to ruthlessly tax the nobility, especially by the levying of fines against "livery and maintenance" (basically, the great lords' use of private armies and their own ranks of civil servants). One of Henry's many policies to divide and conquer the nobles was in his reliance of the burgher class to run his kingdom.

Thomas Wolsey, said to have been a butcher's son, rose to prominence in much the same way as Thomas Becket. He entered clerical life early, showed promise in his studies (graduating from Oxford at 15), and became a chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury. At some point, he gained the king's attention and transferred his service to the thus became a royal chaplain. When Henry VII died and his son, the 18-year old Henry VIII came to the throne, Wolsey was in the perfect position to secure his own rise to prominence.

In his youth, Henry VIII was more interested in pleasure than governing, but felt the need to at least staff his court with officers more amenable to his ambitions for military glory in the field. Showcasing his brilliance and flexibility in changing his views to whatever the king happened to be supporting at the time, Wolsey began as Almoner and acquired one title after another until, by 1515, he was a cardinal, Archbishop of York and bishop of several other sees besides, and Lord Chancellor. For the next fifteen years, the butcher's son ruled England in the king's name: an alter rex (other king). After 1518, he was also named papal legate, effectively guaranteeing his control of the entire English church. Wolsey's critical role in orchestrating diplomatic relations between the great kingdoms of Europe prove how far a man of humble origins could go in the Church hierarchy of that age--the "butcher's son" moved kings from one alliance to the next like pieces on a chessboard. The most famous of his efforts to secure peace in Europe was the 1520 summit between his master and King Francis I of France.

Well before the tyranny of his later years, Henry VIII was renowned as an enlightened prince for a budding golden age in Europe; an image he would have had to maintain at the summit by what we now call "conspicuous consumption". The two rivals met near Calais, along the border between their realms. So splendid were both their camps that the summit was forever known after as the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Wolsey, as chief architect of the meeting, had to play his part as well. The Legate arrived with 300 servants: more than the Archbishop of Canterbury's and the dukes' retinues combined... and a hundred more than the King's. As the cardinal celebrated Mass for the two eminent princes, the nobles gritted their teeth at Wolsey's flaunting of power and laid in wait for the right moment to strike back.

One of the most celebrated events at the Field of the Cloth of Gold was when Henry VIII challenged Francis I to a wrestling match. Henry quickly lost.
The summit's greater purpose was, in part, to give force to the Treaty of London signed two years prior. Another brainchild of Wolsey's, the Treaty was beyond ambitious for 16th century Europe. It aimed to bind the leading 20 powers of Christendom in a perpetual peace. Its provisions banned Christian states from going to war with one another. If one state broke the peace, the terms of the treaty would require every other signatory to declare war against the violator. By keeping the peace, all the powers would conserve their resources for a renewed crusade against the Turks. The Treaty was, of course, a pipe dream, destined only to be trampled into the dustbin of history by the ambitions of England, France, and the Holy Roman Empire. Nevertheless, Rome recognized its visionary quality and gave Wolsey the prestige he needed to become a contender for the Papacy in the conclaves of 1521 and 1523. Ultimate power, so it seemed, was now but one heart attack away for the ever-ascending Archbishop of York.

Wolsey debates More over the matter of Henry VIII's annulment.
Whether by the grace of God or the machinations of Emperor Charles V, the 1523 conclave passed Wolsey over in favor of Giulio de Medici, Clement VII. This outcome would eventually prove ruinous for Wolsey's prospects since it was Clement VII who, years later, blocked all of Wolsey's efforts to secure an annulment for Henry VIII's marriage to Queen Katharine of Aragon. In this so-called "Great Matter", the Cardinal's sole failure in a lifetime of successes shattered the King's confidence in him. While he was away from England on a diplomatic mission, the Boleyns and Howards took advantage of Henry's fickleness and convinced him that Wolsey had fumbled the annulment trial on purpose. On his return, Wolsey, who had heretofore relied entirely on the King's patronage to maintain his status in court, found himself a pariah in court and, soon enough, without a job. There was nothing left for him to do but go to York and fulfill his long-neglected vocation (he had not actually been to York the whole fifteen years he had been archbishop). For a few months, far from the distractions of court life, it seems the world-weary Wolsey was making an honest attempt at shepherding his flock. The Boleyns' revenge, however, was not yet complete. They knew Henry could change his mind again and restore the cardinal to his good graces. And so, Henry was persuaded to revoke his pardon and summon Wolsey back to London on charges of treason. The cardinal, afflicted with poor health, died in transit, saying "if I had served God as diligently as I have done the King, he would not have given me over in my grey hairs".

Favourites in the age of absolutism

After the Cardinal, Henry only ever entrusted the chancellorship to laymen, but he continued to draw on the best and brightest of the realm's educated middle class in order to execute his vision... even if that meant executing his chancellors whenever his ambitions took a new turn. Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, and Richard Rich may have been as far apart in beliefs as heaven and hell, but like the statesmen of today, all three caught the King's eye through a combination of university education, civil or military service, and legal practice (and, of course, a recommendation or two from Cardinal Wolsey). Like Wolsey, the next two Thomases were undone, in part, by the jealous whispering of the nobility behind closed doors.

Henry VIII's reign nailed shut the coffin of merry ole England, and with his death came too the end of burghers and other baseborn men ascending to high office. Successive kings into the age of absolutism had their favourites, but they were chosen from among old playmates in the nursery, not lawyers or ex-mercenaries. This was the age of the Duke of Buckingham and the Cardinal-Duc de Richelieu. The French maintained the tradition of entrusting high offices to cardinals, but there were no butchers' sons in red hats to be found here. Cardinals Richelieu (whom Dumas' Musketeers called their equal in class if not in office) and Mazarin were both nobly born. After Mazarin's death, Louis XIV determined he would thenceforth rule the kingdom on his own. Where the old medieval order had commoners play their part among the three estates, no such place existed for them in the gilded cage of Versailles.

Little did the great lords and ladies of the realm know that Versailles would become their cage, trapping their ambitions within its walls. It was the maxim "keep your friends close, and your enemies closer" set in marble.

Built around his father's old hunting lodge, far enough from Paris to avoid the smell and noise pollution of the chattering rabble, Versailles was a spectacle designed to enthrall the aristocracy and, in the process, finally put a leash on their designs. The third estate existed chiefly as a source of taxable revenue to fund Louis's palaces and foreign wars. Give them an inch and they'll take your head, as befell England's Charles I. Even so, Louis needed a man who knew money, regardless of his origins--in France's golden age, there was no master of coin greater than Jean-Baptiste Colbert.

I was privileged to see this portrait of Colbert
in person at the Met in New York just last month....
Colbert (1619-1683) was raised in a family of merchants, though beyond that we know little of his early life. His rise to prominence mirrors that of the Thomases in Henry VIII's court: that is, it all started by gaining a cardinal's attention. Cardinal Mazarin brought Colbert on as a secretary but then grew to entrust him in serious matters while the Cardinal was away. Once Louis XIV came of age and Mazarin died, he never again had a prime minister... but Colbert came close. The King's greatest obstacle to reshaping France as a modern world power was the archaic tax system he inherited. The two greatest landowners, the aristocracy and the Church, were mostly exempt from taxes thanks to centuries of privileges conceded by kings past. The bourgeois, too, were adept at dodging taxes by claiming exemptions of dubious authenticity. In the end, the royal treasury was filled chiefly by whatever meager scraps could be collected from peasant farmers.

Even while Mazarin's secretary, Colbert identified the troubles plaguing Louis's purse and their prescription: an overhaul of the tax system and initiatives to stimulate and expand trade in both Europe and the New World. The King saw Colbert's merits and conferred one office after another upon him over the years: Superintendent of Buildings, Controller-General of Finances, and Secretary of State in the King's Household, to name but a few among dozens. To impose direct taxes on the nobility was beyond his grasp, but Colbert was able to hit them with indirect taxes and confidently stamp out fraudulent exemptions. Once a steady stream of taxable revenue was established, he then set his sights to establishing corporations, securing trade monopolies, and enacting laws to prevent French laborers from leaving the country. Colbert was the first man to articulate the economic theory we now call mercantilism, which of course had already catapulted Spain and the Italian city-states to power and prestige earlier in the era.

After decades of loyal service, Louis XIV's esteemed finance minister died at age 64, probably overworked, never to be matched by any of his successors. For all his efforts, Colbert was never quite able to balance the royal checkbook, so spendthrift was the King in pursuing glory for France and himself. These habits were to prove ruinous by the time of Louis XVI's reign. It's worth mentioning that Colbert plays the role of an "evil chancellor" in Dumas' The Man in the Iron Mask, whom the great author casts as planting false evidence to ruin his predecessor, Nicholas Fouquet. It also bears mention that Colbert was a figure of inspiration for the man who would enact many of the same economic reforms in America: Alexander Hamilton.

The Chancellor vs. the agararian myth

If there's one recurring theme to the opposition against all of these great personalities through history, it's probably that each one of them, Hamilton most of all, acted in the ruler's name to undermine the role of the great landowner or gentleman farmer. Our pundits today are diagnosing the rise of Trump as a battle in the ever-widening divide not between red and blue states so much as between urban and rural America. The Paulites are right to say that Hamilton's policies favored city over country folk. Madison and Jefferson, being lords of vast tracts of land and hundreds of slaves, were right to fear the Federalists' encroachment on their way of life. What the Paulites fail to mention is that Hamilton's biggest backer was the most famous gentleman farmer of all: George Washington. 

Our first President conducted himself much like a modern-day monarch: aside from making great progresses through the land while being drawn by a fancy carriage and liveried servants and speaking of himself in the third person, Washington preferred to act as a non-partisan figurehead in the public eye. He rarely spoke his mind in the papers or in speeches, but Hamilton's policies on the national debt, the first national bank, and the whiskey tax were all made a reality by Washington's approval--the two knowing fully well that Hamilton would take the brunt of the heat whenever the Jeffersonians ran another hit piece on the administration's latest act of imperialism. Although Washington embodied the gentleman farmer above all the other Founders (no one showed quite such a keen interest in agricultural science or a desire to leave the public spotlight to return to his plow), he knew that a land of perpetual yeoman farmers wouldn't survive a return visit from Great Britain. For the Union to keep her independence, she would have to become like the mother country: an economic power with strong commercial hubs.

My readers may be surprised that a self-styled medievalist would take the side of the city and commerce over the agrarian myth so beautifully illustrated in manuscripts like the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry and idealized in Tolkien's Shire. These are treasured and time-honored concepts, but I would invite you to consider a few examples of the city's contribution to medieval culture:
  • First, that the Church, the ideal society of the medieval age, is divided not by nation or county, but by dioceses drawn around cities. Virtually all bishops were bishops of a particular city. The perfect society is described by Saint Augustine of Hippo in De Civitate Dei: The City of God.
  • Second, that while the feudal hierarchy was extolled as a reflection of the hierarchy in heaven, no serious moral philosopher of the age applauded the condition of serfdom. There's a reason why so many serfs fled to the cities in the hope of emancipation from their lords. The medieval city, with its charter of liberties, was a symbol of freedom--not slavery.
  • Third, the full flowering of the medieval spirit and imagination in Gothic art and architecture took root above all in the cities, especially those of the mercantile city-states of Italy and the Low Countries. The output of feudal England and France in high Gothic art and architecture is but a drop in the bucket compared to those of Venice, Florence, Genoa, Bruges, and Amsterdam. Where the great kingdoms saved the expenses of Gothic architecture for cathedrals and royal palaces, the city-states used their empires of trade to furnish entire city blocks, down to their own private homes, in the splendid Christian pointed style that directed all eyes up to heaven.

There's no doubt that, in the years since Hamilton's death, much evil has been done by the misuse of the economic powerhouse which he built ("as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be"). On the other hand, the honest inquirer must admit that, just as the Commercial Revolution of the 14th century catapulted merchant families like the Medicis into the palaces of kings and popes and thereby expanded the Third Estate's share in medieval/Renaissance society, it was the genius of a bastard orphan from a faraway island in the Caribbean, who stayed up late into the night pouring over dense economic treatises while dreaming of a better future for himself as a young lad, that built up the empire which so many immigrants after him sought refuge and work. 

In 1846, as a million Irishmen passed through Ellis Island to seek a better future when agriculture failed them back home, Manhattan saw the completion of the rebuilt Trinity Church, where Alexander Hamilton was affiliated (if not quite a regularly communicating member) and buried, in the new Gothic Revival style. Just as the medieval guildsmen of old raised up grand Gothic edifices to compete with other cities and visibly proclaim God's blessings as far as the eye could see, Trinity Church's spire soared 281 feet, making it the tallest building in the entire country at that time. As I walked through the nave during a visit to Manhattan last month, admiring the "high Federalist Gothic" handiwork which mentally transported me to any one of the great chapels of medieval England, I wondered to myself if the merchant families that rebuilt Trinity Church to evoke such past glories were conscious of the same spirit that first brought those churches to life.

Trinity Church, Manhattan: an exemplification of the "high Federalist Gothic" style in America.

The Modern Medievalist's family paid respects to A. Hams, buried outside Trinity Church. To steal a line from Batman v. Superman (or, I suppose, Wren's tomb at St. Paul's Cathedral): "If you seek his monument, look around you." New York was a fantastic city to visit!


  1. Excellent piece!

    A minor objection: the horrors of the Great Famine that those Irish were fleeing weren't caused simply by a "failure of agriculture", they were also the result of a deliberate British decision to continue exporting food out of the country in spite of the famine.

    1. I agree. There were a lot of small items in the article that I wanted to qualify or expound on, but all of the tangents would've overburdened the piece even more than it is.

      You're right, though, that the Irish Potato Famine was largely a man-made crisis in addition to a natural one. One of the problems of the independent farmer mythos embraced by neo-Confederates in Civil War discussions (for example) is that, in truth, the large plantations were as much a part of the modern industrial economy as anything else. Even into the Great Depression, southern farmers were relying on single crops, cash crops, overfarming the soil without rotating fields, and so forth: all symptoms of an industrialized approach to agriculture. Their successors are the big agro-businesses like Monsanto.

  2. Excellent ideas on Hamilton and the realities of cities versus countryside. That is the issue, and one that Jefferson warned us of. That once the majority of people lived in cities, it would change us. And so it has.

  3. A brief disclaimer: the opening for my last article might suggest that I don't like Ron Paul, which is untrue. It's hard not to admire his Catonian commitment to honesty and transparency in the dealings of government. If every statesman had that attitude, the world would be a better place.

    However, politics is the art of the possible--not a religion where everything must conform to a prescribed set of doctrines (in Paul's case, libertarianism). Every time Dr. Paul posts a complaint about something like how the Donald is keeping jobs from going overseas or that he's filling his Cabinet with seasoned veterans (or trashing the legacy of Founders who held a different philosophy of governance), all he does is lose a couple thousand followers.... and when doctrinal purity has you down to preaching to the choir instead of compromising with other statesmen to work toward a common good, you're useless as a politician.