On Dec. 15, 1792, James Monroe, Abraham Venable, and Frederick Muhlenberg confronted Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton with evidence that he was involved in a corruption scheme. The plot involved unpaid back wages intended for Revolutionary War veterans. The evidence was payments to someone named James Reynolds, who was in jail for his role in the caper.
Reynolds was hoping that this evidence would either shift the blame from him onto Hamilton or force Hamilton to use his influence to help Reynolds. According to Reynolds, the payments from Hamilton were for the scheme. For his part, Hamilton admitted to giving Reynolds money, but it was not for the alleged scheme. Instead, it was to keep quiet an affair Hamilton had with Reynolds’ wife.
What Reynolds had done is put Hamilton in a bind. He could admit to having an adulterous relationship with Maria Reynolds or he could falsely admit complicity in the financial scheme. Presumably, Reynolds thought Hamilton would rather deal with a money scandal than a sex scandal. He would use his political influence to suppress the financial scheme and avoid having to admit to the affair.
This was the young republic’s first sex scandal and its first test. As Montesquieu noted, the spring of republican government is virtue. This is a moral commitment to uphold the rules of the system and live within those rules. A virtuous citizen was one who ignored monetary compensation and made a commitment to resist and eradicate corruption. The Hamilton-Reynolds affair was a test of this concept.
Rather than falsely admit to corruption, Hamilton revealed the true nature of his relationship with Maria Reynolds. He also detailed the unsavory and dishonorable behavior of James Reynolds. He even turned over the letters from both Maria and James Reynolds acknowledging the affair and the blackmail. In other words, Hamilton placed his republican virtue ahead of his personal reputation.
This event has largely been forgotten, but it is useful in thinking about the moral environment of the American empire. If a modern politician was caught in the same dilemma as Hamilton, it would not be a dilemma at all. The most likely response would be a shrug and a dismissal. Insider dealing is now the norm in Washington, and the place operates like a large outdoor key party.
We have a recent example of this. This year it was acknowledged that the members of the Federal Reserve were trading on inside knowledge. Since they control the flow of money in the world economy, they pretty much know the future. They made sure to profit from this knowledge. Instead of a scandal threatening to take down the system, it was a one-day story that was quickly forgotten.
This is not a new thing or the sign of a sudden decline in public virtue. Twenty years ago, Jamie Gorelick and Franklin Raines oversaw massive corruption at Fannie Mae, which helped trigger the mortgage collapse. These two walked away with millions, despite causing trillions in damage. Nothing happened to them. They felt no pressure to apologize, and they certainly felt no shame for their crimes.
It is tempting to write this off as a general decline of public morality or the corruption of the political class. It goes further than that. The truth itself has been purged from the public square and the general culture. This is most obvious with the mass media that Donald Trump famously mocked as “fake news.” His taunt worked because it identified the only thing we can trust about the news: It is always fake.
A good example is the latest indictment regarding the Russian collusion hoax from the Trump years. Special counsel John Durham has charged Igor Danchenko with multiple counts of lying to the FBI. Danchenko is a Russian national who was employed by the Clinton campaign to peddle the Russian collusion hoax. He worked with Christopher Steele on the fake dossier at the center of the scandal.
Political dirty tricks are nothing new, and the Clinton machine made Richard Nixon look like a choirboy when it came to dirty dealing. What matters here is every news outlet in the country ran with this story. The New York Times reorganized their political coverage to focus on this issue. The Washington Post had several full-time reporters working the Russian collusion beat. The cable channels made it their singular focus.
The thing is, they knew it was a lie all along. That is the other part of this story that is now leaking out in these indictments. Durham has also charged Perkins Coie partner Michael Sussmann in connection with this hoax. Sussmann was shopping this thing to every government agency and every media outlet. He was allegedly riding around on a golf cart at the DNC convention, pushing this story to media outlets.
In other words, everyone in Washington knew this was just a Clinton dirty trick, but they played make-believe for years helping to sell it. The former head of the FBI, James Comey, did multiple interviews where he said the dossier was probably true, even though he was told from the beginning that it was fake. That is the other thing being revealed in these indictments: The FBI knew it was fake all along.
The thing is, most of these people could plausibly claim to have been duped and then apologize for being stupid. The chattering skulls on the cable channels, people like Rachel Maddow, who sold this hoax for years, could turn it into a win. Imagine her blubbering an apology for having been so foolish as to trust the Clintons. She would get buried in passionate hosannas from the mass media.
That would require shame or at least the understanding that humans on this planet feel shame when caught doing something wrong. Of course, that requires an understanding of the difference between right and wrong. That requires the belief that there is such a thing as truth that transcends our wants and needs. No one in public life thinks there is such a thing as truth. For them the difference between the truth and a lie is utility.
This turns out to be the spring of liberal democracy. Republicanism relies on the moral stamina of the people to defend truth and liberty. Liberal democracy depends on the ability of those with power or seeking power to trick 50 percent plus one into believing that their version of truth is better than the truth itself. Liberal democracy is just a formalized version of the Hobbesian state of nature. It is a war of all against all.
This is why Americans in the present-day empire could not recognize the republican virtue of an Alexander Hamilton. Ours is a system that hates the truth, so it despises men who seek it and embrace it. This age is a wilderness of lies in which the winner is the one most able to trick his fellow citizens to his advantage. As a result, there is a casual acceptance of the war on truth and morality.
Reality is the thing that does not go away when you stop believing in it. The reality of the human condition is you cannot escape the truth of it. One of those truths is that there is an enduring moral order and moral truths are permanent. This is the flame that keeps the dissident warm in this winter of Western civilization. In the great liberal democratic war on truth, the truth will prevail. That is the ultimate lesson from the Hamilton story. Vēritās līberābit vōs.
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