He was a Bonapartist two decades before Bonaparte

Thursday, November 29th, 2018

Alexander Hamilton was always the odd man out in American politics:

He was not born in any of the original thirteen colonies. He was born on the tiny Caribbean island of Nevis to a Scottish father and a half-British, half-French mother; he was born out-of-wedlock in an era that took illegitimate births very seriously. When his father found out that his mother had been married before and even had a child with another man, he abandoned the family. Hamilton’s mother died when he was thirteen years old, leaving him orphaned. The boy was sent to live with his uncle who committed suicide not long afterward. Nobody can claim that Hamilton was born with a silver spoon in his mouth.

Hamilton was adopted by a local Nevis merchant and seemed destined to live an unremarkable life in trading. Everything changed, however, when he wrote a letter to his adoptive father about a hurricane that had struck the island while his father was out at sea. A family friend, struck by the powerful language and clever expressiveness of the letter, decided to publish it in a journal. It was a distinctive honor for a young man who was mostly self-educated. In the end, the letter impressed influential people on Nevis enough for them to gather a small fund to send Hamilton to be educated in New York.

Perhaps the only thing more unusual than how Hamilton came to the thirteen colonies was the political philosophy that was shaped by his mostly self-taught mind. There was always something earthy and practical in his ideas. Although he wore the same white breeches and powdered wigs as his peers and mouthed all the same silly slogans about the rights of man, Hamilton was never truly a classical liberal. Hamilton was a man wholly out of place and time, a foreigner in his own tongue, a stranger in his own home, a man who had slipped through the gaps of one era and fallen into another. He was a Bonapartist two decades before Bonaparte. He was a Caesarist one thousand eight-hundred years after Caesar lay dead on the marble steps of the Curia Julia.

Hamilton understood something that few Americans of his era understood; in fact, he understood something that even fewer Americans of our era understand. The core of Hamilton’s philosophy is something that liberals of all stripes, classical and modern, try their best to ignore or deny: good government comes from good leaders. Government is, by necessity, an executive function.


  1. Gaikokumaniakku says:

    Good government comes from good leaders. Good leaders also give rise to stability, during which bad leaders can sneak into government. Sometimes good leaders fail and cause instability — during which bad leaders can seize power.

    After a sufficient period of bad leadership, some nerd sits down and reinvents anarchist theory.

  2. Harry Jones says:

    Before we can start figuring out how to get good leaders we need to define the term. What is a good leader?

    “Someone just like me” won’t work.

    I propose a consequentialist approach. A good leader is one who brings about a good result.

    That breaks the problem down into two smaller problems:

    1. What, can we all agree, is a good result?

    2. What sort of leader tends to bring about such a result?

  3. Kirk says:

    I did a long, ruminative post on this, and the internet ate it. I think. I’ll try to recap, if it doesn’t shake free.

    Long story summed up: The need and call for a “leader” is a recapitulation of the Hitlerian “Fuhrerprinzip” ideal, and… It doesn’t work. It really, really doesn’t work with most self-appointed “leaders”, and I am highly suspicious of the entire proposition, to be honest.

    Enshrining a “leader” as the go-to guy for solving every problem is an error of such epic proportions as to defy the constraints of the English language. Dude who is “good in war” is not at all likely to be the same guy you want running things during times of peace. That’s an historically verifiable fact, and one that is irrefutable. No leader in history has ever managed to “do it all”, and the impulse for the masses to find someone who can…? That’s ninety-nine and nine-tenths of the problem. You go enshrining a guy like Steve Jobs as a leader in a company like Apple, and he’s going to warp the entire company around his ego. Quite like the charismatics we throw up all the time in the religious world.

    The human desire to be told what to do, which is what this longing for a “good leader” really is, is a fundamental source of most of our problems. Most of us know the “right thing to do”, but we’re too weak to actually, y’know, do it, until we have someone to tell us to do it.

    I think this need for “leaders” and “good leadership” is an indicator of immaturity and lack of real moral fiber in the polity. Why would you need a guy to come in and drag your ass out of the bunk every morning, in order to make you do what you know you need to do, for various and sundry reasons, and clean the ‘effing latrine? WTF?

    Our model for how this shit works is flawed, and the expectations we have of the poor bastard who winds up holding the bag as “leader” are another whole part of the mess.

    I remain convinced that this whole “leader” thing is something we need to grow out of, or we’re going to be dealing with the likes of Hitler, Stalin, or Pol Pot for all eternity.

  4. Kirk says:

    There are actually many different levels to this stuff, and some of them aren’t readily apparent to the average eye.

    You have your great strategic leaders, who set the thrust for grand enterprise, and then there are the guys down in the dirt, running things at the nano-level. Guy who can manage NASA taking us to the moon? Odds are, not the guy to have running the ditch-cleaning crew down at Cape Kennedy.

    I divide leaders into several classes, based on approach to what they do: Inspirational, Coercive, Consensual, and Accidental. The first three are self-explanatory, but that last one, isn’t. That’s the poor bastard who gets pushed into taking charge by sheer misadventure, and because the people around them aren’t up to the task. You sometimes see this at accident scenes, where someone looks around at the chaos, and says “OK, this simply will not do…”, and then starts taking charge. Sometimes, these people are “natural leaders” from other fields, doing what they do, but other times, it’s simple exasperation with the ineptitude of their fellow monkeys, and the guy or girl who does it is acting out of frustration and sheer irritation. “You eeeediots… Get over here, and help me lift this!” kinda thing.

    The impulse we have to look around for someone to tell us what to do, and to validate what we’re doing is a mark that we’re really not that far removed from the ape that was forced down out of the trees. The fact that we’re still looking for that “main monkey” is something we ought to find disturbing, because it’s both atavistic and entirely inimical to true civilization. We enshrine some inbred asshole as the Holy Roman Emperor, and then wonder how and why it all went wrong as the idiot leads us to disaster. And, much as I hate to say it, elective leadership is as flawed in its own way as hereditary. So, the inevitable conclusion?

    The problem is the entire concept of “leadership” as we’ve ideated and actuated the whole mess. Adolf Hitler stands up in front of a crowd, mesmerizes them with his bullshit, and then takes the nation off to war. Nowhere did any significant element in the German nation stop and say “Hey… WTF? What is this asshole doing…? Is this what I want to be a part of, really…?”. You’ll find a lot of Germans who admit to thinking that abusing the Jews was kinda ‘effed up, but did any of them actually do anything effective about it? Nope; they all followed the Pied Piper that was Hitler off into the sunset, and drowned in the miasma that was WWII. Where he clearly warned them that he was going to take them.

    The impulse towards seeking a leader, and then investing them with inappropriate authority and trust is where we get into most of our trouble as groups of humans. You see the good-looking guy or girl up there on the podium, and you think “Oh, that Bob/Sally… They’re so sure of themselves, so confident, so… Attractive. I’ll do what they want to, ‘cos…”. Basically, because we’re stupid, and unable to think rationally for ourselves, under the dazzlement that is the usual thing for charismatic leaders.

    Back when we were first down out of the trees, the ease with which we could be swayed by the strong, self-assured male ape might have been a survival trait. What it is, these days? A definite negative, for long-term civilized survival.

    And, don’t get me wrong: I am not plumping down for anarchy. What I’m getting at is that if you want to live long, healthy lives, you need to have a healthier attitude towards the monkeys that are trying to move to the head of the pack, because making infallible plaster saints out of them ain’t a smart thing. A guy may be a really great combat leader, but be totally inept at running a day care or doing anything really, y’know, productive…

    Leadership has many aspects, and many different approaches to it. The key thing is, however, that we do not make the fundamental error of thinking that a leader who is good at one thing is automatically worthy of being adulated and given other things to do.

    Audie Murphy was a great guy to have around, running a small unit in WWII. Same guy, moved up to do things at a much higher level, say running a Corps? Not a good idea. Likewise, putting him in charge as a leader in some other setting? Again, not a good idea. Some skills of leadership transfer, but the fingertip-knowledge he would need to be effective as, say, the dean of a college? Not present, and putting him in that position would be a disaster.

    But, we keep doing just that…

  5. Kirk says:

    I think that original post is one with the builders of the pyramids, so… Here goes.

    Coming up in the Army, you got to see all sorts of leadership techniques, styles, and leaders. Some of it worked in some situations, some worked in others, and the key takeaway that I have from all of it is that ain’t nothing in the world of “leadership” that applies to all men in all places and all situations. In fact, the entire ideation of “leader” which we have is essentially dysfunctional, because of this.

    The most educational experience vis-a-vis the concept of “leadership” was working with a veteran Special Forces team which we were tasked to support. These were all senior guys, well-versed in their specialty of crafting indigenous troops into the ideal guerrilla warfare outfit. This was from well before the SF community warped over into super-commando Delta-operator territory, BTW.

    Working with these guys was a revelation; there was NO identifiable “chain of command” you could see. It was all situational–If they were doing stuff that related to construction, the guy-in-charge was the team Engineer NCO. Some of the tactical stuff we did was confusing as f**k to us, because if we were doing X, then it was one guy, if we were doing Y, then another guy was in charge. Encounter something new? There’d be a bit of hemming and hawing, and the guy with the best, most workable idea about how to deal with the situation was the one in charge. And, everybody followed seamlessly. Who was in charge appeared to shift moment-by-moment, to us conventional guys, and the putative “leader”, the officer, well… He just kind of rode herd on the team, and basically validated whatever the leader of the moment did.

    As a working environment, it was confusing as hell to us outsiders. Inside it? It must have been a far different thing than the way we did things out in the line units. You could kind of see the outlines of how it all worked, and the dependence it had on motivated professionals who were experts in their fields, and who were not in the least ego-driven. Their planning sessions, which I got to sit in on a couple of times, were visions into a different reality than the one I knew as a line Engineer leader–Collegial, zero hierarchy visible, and with informed input from everyone on the team. Couple of times, I didn’t even realize there was anything going on around me, but it later turned out that they were hashing out the operational plan for the next few days we were working with them around me, while I was thinking we were waiting for the meeting to start.

    It was a vision into a very different world than I was used to, and I always kind of felt like that guy who was whisked away by fairies to dance among the tussocks of fairy-land, and then rudely returned to the filth of the work-a-day reality I knew out in the line.

    There’s an adage out there that goes “He who leads best, leads least.”, along with that homily about the best leader being invisible, and that everyone should say at the end of things “Look what we did…”, rather than saying “Wow, look how great X is, as a leader… He did this…”.

    Root thing to be observed here is that imposed “leadership” cannot compete with that which wells up from within–That SF team would have been a much different organization if the members were not able to subordinate themselves to the group goal, and easily let a guy who had a better idea and approach to the specifics of that sub-mission take charge.

    In other words, you need to have good subordinates who instinctively grasp the fundamentals, and who can seamlessly cooperate to work together in unison. Without that, you cannot somehow force things to work out, at all.

  6. Harry Jones says:

    I’ve tried to be what Kirk calls the Accidental leader. What tends to happen is I end up doing all the work and solve the task myself, only to discover later that the bosses didn’t actually care, and I was the only one who didn’t know that.

    You’re not a leader if no one follows you. You’re not independent if you’re doing other peoples’ work for them. And you’re a sap if you’re addressing insincere concerns.

    These days I solve my own problems and leave other people to solve theirs. I’m always on the lookout to share information and insights, but I won’t do anyone else’s homework.

    I’ve discovered that I have the power to make a huge difference, but only if I don’t conform and don’t obey. I’ve also discovered that I can’t predict the difference I will make without better understanding of human psychology. I have been – and sometimes still am – the bull in the china shop. But with moderate knowledge of human nature I can look after my own interests. And some things deserved to be smashed anyway. But I only disrupt systems that are in the way of my own needs. Ruthless, not reckless.

    All of this rules out leadership. To aspire to be a leader, you must think that you know what’s best for everyone. I don’t presume to know what’s best for everyone. I don’t even think there is a universal common good. I think of my attitude as post-leadership.

    The closest I come to leadership is offering information and insights. I’ll lead them to water, but I won’t make them drink. And when you partially deprogram people, you can’t always know what program will activate next.

    The closest I come to following is seeking information and insights wherever I can find them. Even stupid people have information, and even wrongheaded people have insights, but you have to cast a wide net.

  7. Pseudo-chrysostom says:

    In order to have well functioning systems, people need to be responsible for things. Which is to say, people can know who to blame for things going boink.

    In a well functioning system where people know who to blame for things going boink, in those odd times where things might go boink, ignorant mundanes with vanishingly short future horizons can be snookered by unscrupulous social climbers into dissolving the whole edifice altogether, thus creating vacuums for the unscrupulous social climbers to advance in the chaos, where they might not have amounted to much otherwise.

    Thus, just as a finely chiseled statue or minutely circuited mainframe is much more entropically stable as a pile of rubble or solid mass of slag respectively, we arrive at more chaos-invariant forms of governance where noone appears to be responsible for anything and the most successful forms of power are those which can occult themselves and appear powerless.

    Dysfunctional systems persist because noone can really find anyone to blame for things going boink.

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