“… of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.”
So wrote Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist Papers. He could just as easily have written those words today.
Last Sunday night, the Broadway production, Hamilton, a retelling of the Founding Father’s life, loves, and losses entirely in rap and song, won eleven Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Leslie Odom Jr. won the Tony for Best Leading Actor in a Musical for his portrayal of Alexander Hamilton’s fatal “frenemy,” Aaron Burr. Odom said recently that what playing Burr has taught him is to ask the question: “What is the future going to say about us now, what are our kids going to look at us and say, ‘how could you not stop that person from getting into power’?”
Hamilton is probably as close as we Americans can get to an original work by William Shakespeare, the Bard of Avon – and not just because the story of Hamilton’s rise and fall is in many respects Shakespearian in its scope and tragedy, as well as in its discourse on power, but also because the language of song – and rap in particular – is like Shakespeare’s language in his plays, relying as they both do on mastery of the many, many figures of speech.
And that makes sense since rhetoric and the figures of speech were themselves derived from the memory tricks used by the great poets, such as Homer, to remember their long epic poems and to make those poems memorable and emotionally compelling to the audience
Not coincidentally, we might never have heard of Alexander Hamilton were it not for his mastery of rhetoric.
Alexander Hamilton was born in and spent part of his childhood in Charlestown, the capital of the island of Nevis, in the Leeward Islands. Early in his childhood, his mother moved with the young Hamilton to St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. When he was only seventeen-years-old, Hamilton described a storm that devastated St. Croix on the evening of 31 August 1772. Hamilton wrote a letter to his father that masterfully combined the literal and the figurative: “The roaring of the sea and wind – fiery meteors flying about in the air – the prodigious glare of almost perpetual lightning – the crash of the falling houses – and the ear-piercing shrieks of the distressed, were sufficient to strike astonishment into Angels.” Hamilton personified the storm as Death itself: “Death comes rushing on in triumph veiled in a mantle of tenfold darkness. His unrelenting scythe, pointed, and ready for the stroke.” And he extended the metaphor, “On his right hand sits destruction, hurling the winds and belching forth flames: Calamity on his left threatening famine disease and distress of all kinds.”
Hamilton’s hurricane letter generated such a sensation that a subscription fund was taken up by local businessmen to send him to North America to be educated. Such was the power of rhetoric and the figures of speech to alter the course of Hamilton’s life that in turn altered the course of the United States.
The greatest speech-makers of all time have all used rhetoric and have fully understood its power. At the same time, the masters of rhetoric have understood how easily oratory can be misused to manipulate an audience. Such an approach is often associated with dictators and sleazy politicians who appeal to the worst nature in people – something that we have seen Donald Trump do on countless occasions.
In 1939, Wystan Hugh Auden blessed us with these thoughts in his poem entitled Epitaph on a Tyrant:
Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.
Auden may have had Adolf Hitler in mind when he wrote those words, but they do sound like he could be writing about someone in today’s headlines
The ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, in Rhetoric, his treatise on the art of persuasion, and the first in-depth study of the subject, wrote: “An emotional speaker always makes his audience feel with him, even when there is nothing in his arguments; which is why many speakers try to overwhelm their audience by mere noise.” And Aristotle’s teacher, Plato, warned that a rhetorician could persuade any audience, no matter how intelligent, that he was more of a doctor than a real doctor.
Sound like anyone we know today?
It is interesting to note that in the opening paragraph of his 1897 essay on the kind of person who abuses the power of rhetoric, Winston Churchill thought “the day of oratory is passing.” I wonder what he would think in 2016! But in 1897 – and indeed for his entire political career – it was unthinkable to Churchill, and to many other statesmen, that anyone but they would write their speeches. Churchill wrote: “Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory. He who enjoys it wields a power more durable than that of a great king. He is an independent force in the world. Abandoned by his party, betrayed by his friends, stripped of his offices, whoever can command this power is still formidable. Many have watched its effects. A meeting of grave citizens, protected by all the cynicism of these prosaic days, is unable to resist its influence. From unresponsive silence they advance to grudging approval and thence to complete agreement with the speaker. The cheers become louder and more frequent; the enthusiasm momentarily increases; until they are convulsed by emotions they are unable to control and shaken by passions of which they have resigned the direction.”
This abuse of power is a key reason Founding Fathers such as Alexander Hamilton feared men “commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants,” as he wrote in the “The Federalist #1,” the first of the eighty-five Federalist Papers that promoted ratification of the United States Constitution. The Papers were Hamilton’s idea, and he wrote most of them. He recruited John Jay who wrote a handful, and James Madison who wrote the rest (a few jointly with Hamilton). Madison, writing in “The Federalist #10,” penned these words: “Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people.”
A man “of factious temper” – in other words, Donald Trump – who betrays the interests of the people poses a considerably graver risk today than two centuries ago because the threats we face today, including nuclear war and human-caused climate change, are more related to human existence than many other threats.
I do not need to remind you that the demagogue named Donald Trump has declared that if elected President, he would use all the powers of the Office to block both national and global action on climate change – including EPA’s Clean Power Plan, all domestic climate-related regulations, and the Paris climate agreement.
I also do not need to remind you that such a devastating action would be the end of America as we have come to know it, an end of the America that the Founding Fathers strove to create and protect. So what will the future say – and what will we say to our children when they ask: How could you not stop that person from getting into power and preventing this disaster from happening?
The answer is in our hands.