Monday, July 26, 2004


It's what I'm missing right now in American politics and public life. Oh, not selfish ambition: there's plenty of that. But a kind of morally guided ambition to do public good, and to feel the pure joy that derives from that. It was an essential quality in the democracies of ancient times. It was recognized as such by our Founders.

Ron Chernow's new Hamilton biography describes the young immigrant lad at the point of making his first foray into public political life, as a college student, with the Revolution gathering.

Eager to make his mark, Hamilton was motivated by a form of ambition much esteemed in the eighteenth century -- what he later extolled as the "love of fame, the ruling passion of the noblest minds, which would prompt a man to plan and undertake extensive and arduous enterprises for the public benefit." Ambition was reckless in inspired by purely selfish motives but laudable if guided by great principles.

Not only did he devote himself to giving the nation independence, a balanced government, and a sound economy, he promoted and founded industries deliberately because America needed them. He took part in the biggest entrepreneurial venture of his day. Unbridled capitalism? Proto-Enron? No way. Investors were promised profits, but the company was called the "Society for Useful Manufactures." Profit and patriotism. He tried to make money and do good for the American people at the same time.

Then again, Hamilton was one of the first in the United States to be lacerated by sexual blackmail and slanderous tales of bribes and embezzlement, as the recompense for his devotion to public causes. And the ancient Athenians and Romans had their Hamiltons, too. Once you've made your mark, you become the mark for those whose only ambition is to tear down.