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Dialogue of the Two Founders in Limbo Concerning the Present State of the Nation

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Dialogue of the Two Founders in Limbo Concerning the Present State of the Nation

Derek Suszko

Derek Suszko is a brand-new associate editor for The St. Croix Review.


The conversation here presented is presumed to have taken place in an apartment of Limbo sometime after the deposition of the statue of Thomas Jefferson, which stood in the Council Chambers of New York City Hall. As part of the penance of Limbo, to which the souls of the two Founders were condemned for their part in the creation of political factions in the United States (though, respecting their achievements in other regards, they were spared more inglorious fates), they have been doomed to be ever privy to the course taken by the nation they founded, though eternally powerless to intercept it. In other respects, however, their eternal retirements have been satisfactory, though necessarily without bliss. The following dialogue presents a faithful transmission of the discourse that transpired on this memorable occasion.

The Dialogue:

Hamilton: “Are my condolences, then, so unwelcome to you?”

Jefferson: “It satisfies you to offer them, but they do no good to me. I am already so familiar with your mockeries that I might’ve expected a better grace in your endeavor to hide your insincerity. I wonder why you took such pains to come see me.”

Hamilton: “Did you think I could do otherwise? You do me wrong to presume my insincerity on this point, for you must see, as I do, that such a development as this can hardly pertain to you alone, but to us all. As to our partisanship, put that past. If death cannot shake the habit of animosity, then what hope is there for those on earth?”

Jefferson: “I would have been content to continue our avoidance — but I see you can’t resist mocking the misfortune of my fallen name; you only enforce our amity in the high privilege of your unsoiled reputation.”

Hamilton: As of yet unsoiled. “Is it possible you don’t see that the fate of one of us is sufficient proof of the fate of all?”

Jefferson: “I see you more celebrated than ever.”

Hamilton: “That is only the portal to disgrace. They put me on the stage to patter intolerable snatches of song and debase me as a chum of the commons. Did I make any secret in our time, how much I despised and feared the swath of pliable humanity? If only they knew how little I thought of them, they would learn to despise me better, and my monuments (which you must admit were always less plentiful) will go the fate of yours. We still are entangled together, you and I.”

Jefferson “I never saw it that way. There was a great gulf between the manner of my life and yours and so too with our fates. Had I lived as you did, as a machinator and a schemer in the delicate craft of power, I should never have been so loved. My words have doomed me. Others of our compatriots will suffer a loss of admiration though none will fall as precipitously as I have fallen.”

Hamilton: “Why, sir, you’ve hit it. It’s only because you had the furthest to fall, and for the sake of your well-earned bitterness, I’ll forgive you your digs. You’ll find in all ages that the figures of the most sentimental reverence take it harshly when they are uncovered as human. Men are not judged evil by their words or actions but by the distance between them. Had any of your pettily pragmatic deeds come to public light, or had you been caught in office in the coils of such a mistress, you would have fared better, for then your broken aura might’ve begun in life. But such things having been uncovered after your deification, it is bound to go hard for you, for then you countenance the betrayal of a god. But in truth what do we care for them? Can they drink of the cup which you drank of? Say they call you a hypocrite; yet they don’t know (being immune from awareness of themselves) that the truest hypocrite is the one most worthy of pity, for he endures the sufferings of the enlightened mind: the bad dreams of agonized aspirations.”

Jefferson: “I begrudge them nothing. Those who condemn me, condemn me justly. If it is incumbent for the perfection of the citizenry and the refinement of republican government, that the errors of former generations are corrected — and the representatives of those generations be cast aside — then I submit myself to the consequence.”

Hamilton: “Ah, sir you were always primed to find the poetry in public life — and all poets covet martyrdom. You would say, like a sophist, ‘history is many weathers and no man blows in all winds.’  I didn’t come for such stultifying platitudes as these — I came, sir, so that I could hear you revile those far-enlightened citizens who blot out your good name, that I could hear you blast their audacity for thinking of you as they do. It wounds your pride, I know. Call them rabble, and demand their continuing obsequies. For you know even better than I what sorry figures they’d be without Jefferson in the vanguard of their history.”

Jefferson: “You speak as though I still retained the power of my personhood. The life of the world has long been given over to others, and it is futile to castigate the ages that refine us. I do not denounce the legacy I gave my country, and if my pride remains with my nation I need reserve none for my long-antiquated self.”

Hamilton: “You say they refine us as though they were our betters.”

Jefferson: “Many of them are, if you would consider them carefully. Even where they falter, I perceive the over-indulgent expression of pure intentions.”

Hamilton: “Ah, sir, you never wore humility with so clear a conscience as your more aristocratic liveries. You consider the present citizens of the United States with the sympathy of a creator who would rather sustain the renunciation of his creations than renounce the integrity of his art in having so created them. It takes a great deal of pride to renounce one’s pride — the man without pride is incapable of it. But you see we are alone and quite deceased. You may speak truly to me about what you think of them.”

Jefferson “You say I created them?”

Hamilton: “For a time, it could be said so. Of all the men that lived, you were one of the very few who baffled Nature concerning the composition of man, though now she comes to re-claim her prerogative.”

Jefferson: “I hardly understand you.”

Hamilton: “Oh, you do, sir. You are sheepish, but I’ll conjure the philosophy out of you. You will grant that the mind of man, once it has risen above sustenance, has two basic needs: to believe that the world is intelligible and to believe that it is capable of acting with freedom. But see how antithetical they are! Man’s essential nature gives him the first need, for which he supplies himself deities and such images of authority as make the terrible powers of Nature understandable. But man himself has evolved into the second need by much circuity, and by the influence of such persons as you, who have preached no higher good than for him to be free. This is not his natural bent, for the desire for intelligibility craves the certitude of an absolute, which a system of liberty can never impose. Liberty depends on the inherent respect for the reality of other domains of consciousness, but such a respect squashes the intelligibility of the world. By founding a government on the principle of liberty have we not created a great pendulum for human political society? Look to the present state of America — our America we would say — and you will readily see what it lacks. They have been so long in liberty that they can scarcely stand it, and those ideologies and loyalties that promise them the full explication of the miseries of life and the perfect demonization of their enemies, are balms of clarity to them in the troubled wash of freedom. You can comprehend, by the great oscillation of these opposing needs, that there can be no permanent political structures, and no political philosophies which can abide for them together. Our Constitution, I grant, was a pretty piece of work — but I fear it has nothing to assuage the awesome assault of man’s great confusion.”

Jefferson: “You’re seeking to provoke me into refuting you.”

Hamilton: “I haven’t asked you anything. I say only that you shouldn’t be cheap with your time when it is given to you so liberally.”

Jefferson: “The dynamism you displayed in life . . . .”

Hamilton: “Oh, sir, long departed. You’ll recall that my death was the death of my party. I perceived the beginning of the spoliation of the country even in your tenure.”

Jefferson: “You lacked the requisite faith in such an experiment as ours, and still do now. Our Constitution does not leak, but reiterates, its freedom. Liberty has no better advertisement then the specter of despotism; it is under such conditions that it regains its original fervor. I rejoice, then, at the challenge of the present time. You speak of man’s nature, driven by urges and compulsions. But you do not see that man, though compelled by the unsavory desires of coercion and oppression, has within his faculties the natural disposition to contrariness — which is the evidence of at least a partial freedom — and which he may deploy to overcome his own baseness. For the Constitution was not entrusted to the generations without containing within it the means to enrich them also; it obliges the citizen to concern himself with the preservation of the freedoms of his countrymen for the sake of his own. The equilibrium of American political civilization arose because its citizens proved capable not only of conceiving that they might have been any other citizen but also that they had within themselves the freedom to attain the condition of any other. Man cannot conceive of his own liberty until he has conceived of the liberty of another, and the Constitution binds him to this recognition. If we must use your words then this is surely the absolute which you crave. The relative principle of man’s individual perspective depends on the absolute principle of the dependence of each on each.”

Hamilton: “Oh, sir, the faith which you place in the citizens is touching, but misapplied. You ask too much of man. Man is not a multi-conscious beast, ever peering from new perspectives and memories — he must always carry with him the continuity of himself. The mind of man must be a stand-in for the world. The altruism which the Constitution so lovingly endows its citizens is not a salutary invitation. There are few men who can believe in a God who is not a God for all others. You ask for the citizen of a particular faction to believe that his own freedom is protected by the proponents of opposite factions, and I tell you this can never be. For no man holds his morality so tight that he refuses to invoke its application to others — else he would not believe it himself. It is impossible for individual man to believe that another’s experience has equal validity to his own, for even if he acknowledges by deduction that this must be true yet his behavior can never extend so far as to truly reflect it, for he remains at all points inevitably himself. We cannot call this selfishness when there is no alternative. Better that you pitied man than that you trusted him, and if our Constitution survives, it is only in spite of the citizens and not because of them.”

Jefferson: “I could speak of many demonstrations against what you say. The integrity of the citizens was evident in your own time, and at all times since.”

Hamilton:My time?”

Jefferson: “You’ll recall that during the administration of my predecessor, how, under your influence, the Congress endeavored to unravel the freedoms of expression (which had been ratified only some short years before) under the guise of sedition?”

Hamilton: “Well, sir . . . .”

Jefferson: “What was the result? The first transfer of power to the political opposition . . . .”

Hamilton: “Ah, sir, your colors are finally showing. Will you still be gloating? You, who said only moments ago our times have passed into irrelevance?”

Jefferson: “I mention it only for the sake of example.”

Hamilton: “Well, I remember. Ha, Adams the saint! What defamation can touch him now? Could we send him an embassy, what might we tell him? For you know up there they see nothing of the events on earth. That is our especial penalty. Who could’ve conceived of the final tally: Adams above, we here, and Burr below!”

Jefferson: “Will you let me speak?”

Hamilton: “Well, sir, what would you say about it?”

Jefferson: “That faction, which I regret to say you led, sought the installation of despotism and was defeated and its acts repealed. But your fidelity to the Constitution was greater than the fidelity to the despotic principles, and you accepted defeat by the mechanisms of free government. And thus it has ever been: the forces of liberty rally to defeat the agents of creeping despotism, and the Constitutional principle stands supreme. I grant that the citizen may be deceived, and may at certain times be captured by the lure of despotism, either, as you suggest, by the demagogue, or by the tyranny of the mob. But a government of liberty presents for factions the reality that an acquiescence to the temporary triumph of their opposite is preferable to a condition of potentially total suppression under a despot. Defeat is easier when a man has in mind that he can play again.”

Hamilton: “Well, sir, these are old disputes. But I won’t speak of the events of our time. It was the privilege of our generation to experience the novelty of liberty, but this can hardly be said for the present generation. The present generation is afflicted by the void of meaning, which is the curse of too much liberty. Such rational calculations as you’ve outlined are well for such a man as you are, but it is the handicap of great men that they cannot very easily put themselves in the mind of the multitude. I maintain that the essential nature of man requires the intelligibility of the world, and if the world is intelligible it cannot be subjective, but must partake of absolute truths. It was manageable, in the days when the mass of citizens revered religion, for this absolute to be pushed outside worldly bounds and left to unearthly demonstration. But not so for the secular generations, which must find salvation in the traffic of the world. Liberty suffers because it can only validate moral principles on majoritarian or pragmatic bases; it must acknowledge the nuances of moral partisans while also insisting on the absolute respect for reciprocity — the right of others to hold contrary beliefs. But how can liberty keep this from being relativized on condition of its own principles? It must protect itself by absolute claims. And absolute claims will always be despotic to the disagreeing mind. The Constitution was conceived for the United States not for a temporary passage of history but for all time, but I see now the fallacy of such idealism. You would compel men to the misery of unintelligibility rather than concede that our Constitution is unfit to govern a generation which has no desire for the burden of its freedoms.”

Jefferson: “And have we such a generation now?”

Hamilton: “I see that we do. Should they not revere us as inheritors? Many of them hate what we have given them and would gladly cast off their progeny.”

Jefferson: “The life of man is not often as barren as you present it, and this generation is neither especially miserable nor lacking in what you call intelligibility. The meaning indigenous to life is not found in lofty comprehensions of the world but in the daily, even monotonous, acts which carry us on our way to death. I pity that man more than any who can only find his happiness in the arena of public affairs, and I thank Nature that there are not so many of them. For man’s essential interest will always be directed to the private fulfillment of his own happiness — and such a project can only involve himself and a few others.”

Hamilton: “You speak of man’s interest! What is man’s permanent interest but to be outraged at his condition? Is man not a social animal? Does he not comprehend himself by comparison? For man, proud man, finding that he thinks, and carries on life in the solitary sway of the single mind, cannot perceive himself without the status of exemption — and this single thought is both his fear and his pride. It presses him both to be a tyrant over his fellows and then to be tyrannized. Man would make a bacchanal of life if only he didn’t have to live among others; and then for shame at the excesses of his desires and the licenses he presumed to claim, he would seek out new masters in the murky glow of his guilt. Most men do not find transcendence in their personal lives, and so must seek it in the bosom of the popular crowd or the radiance of the despot.”

Jefferson: “Transcendence is more valued for being indefinite, and the best governments are those which are most godlike; I mean God as He is — elusive to the point of perpetual doubt. He keeps the state of being most unknown, most malleable — and therefore best loved. The tyrant is much too defined to be truly reverenced for long, and all pernicious ideologies impose much too rigidly on the already formidable strictures of life. But the government of liberty keeps the advantage of the elusiveness of its principles. The fulfillment of liberty remains forever in esperance. Liberty is never perfectly achieved but remains an aspiration always, and in the endless pursuit of freedom it is good for the people to be purified by the challenge of despotism. Such a challenge has arrived for this generation, but I trust that the lovers of freedom, who have long lay dormant in the false optimism that the despotic impetus had been swept away, will prove worthy of the inheritance which we have bequeathed them.”

Hamilton: “Inspiring as ever, my dear sir. But you see these shades which surround us and kennel our eternities — who could possibly heed you?”     *

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