The Future Alexander Hamilton Warned About Has Arrived
Our Founding Father envisioned a Senate that was representative of the people. What we got was something else entirely.
This weekend, Americans will gather for a Fourth of July display as highly anticipated as any fireworks show, but far more fitting for the social distancing era: Hamilton will be streaming on Disney+. My fellow Democrats, for whom Lin-Manuel Miranda’s soundtrack has become a kind of hymnal, will eagerly (and in my case tunelessly) sing their way through a founder’s revolutionary rise, political struggles, and untimely demise.
But as we celebrate America’s 244th birthday, it’s worth looking at a bit of the Founding Father’s biography that doesn’t get a musical mention. One of Alexander Hamilton’s guiding beliefs was that our republic should reflect the will of the people, not the will of the states. Today, Hamilton is more popular and respected than ever (even if his extramarital affairs are also more well known, thanks to the musical). But the kind of democracy Hamilton envisioned is increasingly under threat: More and more, America is becoming a country where states have power and people do not.
On issue after issue — gun violence prevention; climate change; taxes; responding to Covid-19; or police brutality — the states, as represented in the Senate, are standing between the will of the people and the actions of their government. This was not the future Hamilton envisioned. As fans of the musical know, he was nominated to the Constitutional Convention. There, the single most contentious issue was how to allocate lawmakers among the states in the House and Senate. High-population states, led by James Madison’s Virginia, argued that representatives in both chambers should be handed out according to population; the more people your state has, the more legislators it gets. But small states such as Delaware disagreed. They demanded equal representation, regardless of population size.
It will come as a surprise to no one that Alexander Hamilton had a strong, and quite articulate, opinion on the subject. “As states are a collection of individual men, which ought we to respect most, the rights of the people composing them, or the artificial beings resulting from the composition?” He asked his fellow delegates. Then, rather witheringly, he answered his own question. “Nothing could be more preposterous or absurd than to sacrifice the former to the latter.” Hamilton, in other words, was arguing that if the majority of people wanted to do one thing, and the majority of states wanted something else, the people’s choice should win.
Hamilton’s view went to the heart of America itself. Our republic was ultimately not a collection of places, but a collection of people. The “consent of the governed” refers not to the preferences of the states, but of the individuals who comprise them. Our most well-regarded Founders agreed with Hamilton on this point. Yet in the end, they were forced to compromise: The House was apportioned based on population, but the Senate gave each state an equal number of votes, no matter how large or small their populations grew. As a result, the sacrifice Hamilton decried as “preposterous” today increasingly defines the country. We respect the rights of the states more than we respect the rights of the people who compose them. And our democracy is just as imperiled as Hamilton thought it would be.
It’s true that the Senate’s two-votes-per-state composition, the kind of arrangement that so infuriated Alexander, has existed since the Constitution was ratified. But the consequences of that arrangement are very different than they were just 40 years ago. Partly, this is because of the manner in which America’s population has expanded: Like a gangly teenager, we’ve grown in profoundly asymmetrical ways. When the Constitution was first ratified, the smallest population state, Delaware, was about one-thirteenth the size of the largest population state, Virginia. Today, Wyoming is one sixty-eighth the size of California. The Senate has always been unfair, but it’s more unfair than it used to be.
No less important, that unfairness now clearly benefits one political party over the other. One reason Hamilton and Madison ultimately accepted a Senate that benefited small states was that when the Constitution was ratified, those states were fairly evenly distributed between North and South. Today, the most crucial fault line in American politics is no longer regional, but partisan. Because rural states tend to have smaller populations, and because Democrats are increasingly the party of cities, the basic inequality of the Senate now strongly benefits Republicans.
To understand just how much a government of the states rather than the people helps the GOP, one must look no further than the 2016 election. In that race, Donald Trump won 30 states, or 60% of the total, while losing the popular vote by approximately 2%. For Democrats to win a majority in the Senate, they need to win at least 10 seats from red states. Republicans, meanwhile, can get to 60 Senate votes without winning a single blue-state seat.
Once you know this basic fact — that the average state, and therefore the average senator — is more conservative than the average American, many political mysteries suddenly become clear. Why don’t we have universal background checks for firearms purchases? Why is beer enthusiast Brett Kavanaugh a Supreme Court justice? Why is it so hard to fight climate change, even during the brief periods when Democrats have full control of the federal government? When Americans want one thing and Washington does another, we tend to blame individual senators. But as Hamilton would surely remind us, we’d be better off blaming the structure of the Senate itself.
Fortunately, it’s not too late to restore the kind of democracy that Hamilton and his fellow founders (even the ones he rap battled in Washington’s cabinet) envisioned. The logical place to start is by granting statehood to D.C. and Puerto Rico, which would add two likely blue states into the union while enfranchising millions of Americans who currently lack representation in Congress. This wouldn’t be nearly enough to undo the Republican advantage in the Senate, but it would ameliorate it, and bring the views of the average senator closer to the views of the average American. The House of Representatives passed a D.C. Statehood bill at the end of June. If the Senate changes hands in January, there should be no higher priority than getting such a bill to a new president’s desk.
But ultimately, structural reforms are only part of the solution. As Lin-Manuel Miranda reminds us, who tells the story matters, too. For decades, Americans who care about protecting our democracy have allowed a new collection of would-be oligarchs to hijack our shared memory of our nation’s founding. We’ve stood by as terms like “tyranny of the majority” or “federalism” were redefined to provide excuses for power grab after power grab. We didn’t merely lose the debate; we didn’t even bother showing up.
That needs to change. Just as Hamilton itself reclaims a bit of American history, casting it in a new and powerful light, it’s time to tell the true, full story of how our democracy came to be, and who it’s meant to serve. Authoritarianism looms, but we are far from helpless in the face of this threat. At this moment, when history has its eyes on us, we can never be satisfied with a country that puts its artificially constructed states above flesh-and-blood people.
Like Hamilton himself, we have a chance to fight for, and to define, our democracy. Let’s not throw away that opportunity.