Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Civic Hacker Profile: Alexander Hamilton

Ben Franklin
In yesterday's post, "Why Good Hackers Make Good Citizens," Catherine Bracy of Code for America presented a brief profile of an early American civic hacker -- Benjamin Franklin. Today I'll highlight a couple civil hacks from another founder of our country -- Alexander Hamilton.

In her post, "6 unexpected historical figures with the civic hacker mindset," Bracy talks about some of her favorite American civic hackers from the early days of US history. Alexander Hamilton is one of those six, so we'll take a look at him in this post, and tomorrow I'll talk about a civic hacker from the same era who saw things quite differently from Hamilton. About Hamilton, Bracy says:
"My favorite founding father, Hamilton anticipated the biggest threats to the nascent United States and took it upon himself to make sure they were addressed. He was a main instigator for the Constitutional Convention and famously drafted the Federalist Papers, creating the political will to get the Constitution passed. After that, he set up the financial systems that allowed America to become financially independent from
Alexander Hamilton
and became our first Treasury Secretary."
Hamilton was a leading advocate of the US Constitution and wrote 51 of the 85 essays in The Federalist Papers, with his fellow Federalist authors being James Madison and John Jay. This collection of essays promoted ratification of the new US Constitution which was developed at the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention. The essays are one of the most studied and referenced sources of the early American leaders' views and intentions about USA democracy, legal systems, government's checks and balances, and other foundational aspects of how the new country should grow, be ruled and interact with both its citizens and the world around it. Writing those highly influential essays was definitely civic hacking.

James Madison and Alexander Hamilton were supporters of a strong national government and favored federal power over states' and individuals' rights. Hamilton stated those views when debating governing principles at the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention, as documented in "Notes of the Secret Debates of the Federal Convention of 1787."
"All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and well born, the other the mass of the people. The voice of the people has been said to be the voice of God; and however generally this maxim has been quoted and believed, it is not true in fact. The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct, permanent share in the government. They will check the unsteadiness of the second, and as they cannot receive any advantage by a change, they therefore will ever maintain good government. Can a democratic assembly, who annually revolve in the mass of the people, be supposed steadily to pursue the public good? Nothing but a permanent body can check the imprudence of democracy. Their turbulent and uncontroling disposition requires checks."
I'm not a history aficionado, but it's fascinating to read the discussions the country's founders had when trying to structure how their new country was going to operate. I lean more toward the Jeffersonian view of individual's rights vs Hamilton's preference of a strong federal government dictating how things will work. I probably wouldn't have gotten along that well with Hamilton, which sort of says that civic hackers will not all agree on what's most important to work on or how to accomplish things.

After helping hack the principles and documents by which the United States of America (remember our favorite cartographer, Amerigo Vespucci?), Hamilton later helped hack the country's financial system as the first Secretary of the US Treasury Department. I'm not saying Hamilton could foresee the financial system shenanigans that led to the Great Recession of 2008, but it would have been nice if he had included a few checks and balances against that sort of stuff. So much for "rich and well born" doing so well to "check the imprudence of democracy."

I wonder what Hamilton would think about Bitcoin and other cryptocurrency. Similar to Hamilton being viewed as a civic hacker of the our nation's financial system, if America adopts Bitcoin as a currency with credibility equal to that of the US dollar, or if America establishes its own cryptocurrency, it's likely key players in the early days of cryptocurrency will be thought of as civic hackers.

In tomorrow's post I'll present a few ways in which Thomas Jefferson was an American civic hacker.

p.s. -- As stated above, I'm not a historian or even reasonably well-education in American history. Apologies for any incorrect facts or misinterpretations of civic hacking in the late 1700s (which nobody really knows for sure). Feel free to comment on this post if you want to present your view or the view of various interpretations of our country's past.


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