When I was young I was, as many young geeks are, a fan of Benjamin Franklin -- the Founding Father who, as one of his biographers put it, seems to look at us across the ages and wink. But I understand now that if I will ever have anything in common with fun-loving, well-rounded Franklin, it'll only be after I pass through my current workaholic, information-addicted, argumentative phase.
I gotta stop being Alexander Hamilton.
Maybe I'm overstating the case. I didn't design the modern American economic system. I didn't create the Bank of New York or the Coast Guard or U.S. currency. I haven't levied unpopular taxes on whiskey (and honey, I never will). I've yet to drill soldiers under the noses of my enemies, then overrun the opposition's defenses under cover of darkness. If you find my face on a $10 bill, it's a counterfeit. Sure, I've co-founded two publications as opposed to his one, but both mine are shuttered dot-com-era magazines and his is the New York Post, which survives and thrives and gives me a guideline for wise conduct, to wit: Never die in such a way as to make the cover of the New York Post. That would mean dying in some spectacular and possibly undignified fashion, and since I also have no intent to depart this world having been shot by the Vice President (note to self: cancel duel with Dick Cheney), Mr. Hamilton and I will be diverging in this as well.
Early American history's a lot more fun once you actually crack the source material and realize these guys were all products of the Enlightenment -- one of the most ferociously word-happy, snark-ridden, information-soaked ages ever, including our own. And Hamilton, that poor kid from the sticks who moves to New York and becomes a Big Dang Deal (confidante of Washington! early abolitionist leader! guy whose funeral shut down the entire city!), was the guy who couldn't stop soaking and snarking. With his murderously high output -- he was capable of writing thousands of words a day, and had the kind of organized mind that led to clean copy, no revision required -- he'd have been a fearsome blogger.
And that's not including the RSS feeds he'd feel compelled to follow and the other blogs on which he'd post comments. This is after all a guy who published not only a pamphlet flaming a sitting president of the United States but a detailed multi-page account of his own adultery... (gads, and my family thinks I overshare in my blog). Gouverneur Morris, a close friend and something of a party animal himself (in the work-hard-play-hard sense), stressed himself into a case of writer's block trying to find something non-shocking to say in his eulogy, as tonight's American Experience documents amusingly. (Corollary to previous NY Post rule: Don't live in such a fashion as to make your eulogist twitchy.)
There's the Hamilton in me; we're both living in a world where discourse is a matter of outshouting the other guys. And who can shut up? And who can look away? Dear heavens, what if we miss something? Ben Franklin, he'd know how to stop -- I'm betting every now and then old Ben would fire up his RSS reader, take a look at how many posts he hadn't read over the weekend, and hit that so-tempting Mark All Read link. Just knock them all out and start over, feeling assured that whatever he'd missed would either sink into irrelevance or (if it was that important) come back around. Hamilton... no. Wouldn't be able to skip a thing, and couldn't help but weigh in. Believe me, I understand.
As has been said, there's very little more dangerous to themselves or others than great men when bored. Fortunately, we are top-notch at self-inducing boredom in America these days, so good that we have pretty much quashed the ability to identify or nuture greatness. It's death by 100 blog feeds, 500 cable channels, thousands of magazines, and then there's all that Paris Hilton gossip to keep up with.
We are Hamilton, but without that irresistible urge to act in, rather than only comment upon, the public sphere. We have no sense of the urgency of the moment, no great struggle into which we can sink our ambition and insecurity and restless urge to communicate and connect. The current run-up to next year's election is only interesting for being early. The cheap shots and nasty politicking would be old stuff to Hamilton; maybe the only thing that would unnerve him is how many people feel qualified to comment on it out here on the Internets.
What would get Hamilton going these days? What attracts greatness? The environment? Social justice? International monetary policy? Would the great pamphleteer and lightning-fast political thinker -- the man who whipped out many of his contributions to the seminal Federalist Papers in mere hours, who delivered unto Congress over a few months the blueprint for an American economic system as intricate, organic and alien to then-conventional wisdom as the guts of the TARDIS -- be like me, blog like me, wade daily through the information morass like me? Would he sink, would he swim, would he burn out, would he obsess about his Technorati ranking? Would he find a way to make it matter? Would he know when to shut up? Would he know when to unplug?
And do we all still get to be Ben Franklin in the end?