and speaking of being scared of the future

Ever wish you could go back in time, your knowledge of the present intact, and show ’em how it’s done?

There’s a new biography of Alexander Hamilton. Author Ron Chernow describes Hamilton as being a ”messenger from a future we now inhabit.” Even as he laid out a visionary model for the American economic system that we easily recognize today, Hamilton also set the fledgling political infrastructure firmly on a path towards today’s DC-centered

two parties + professional bureaucracy. And this disadvantaged immigrant did so while embroiled in great scandals. No wonder the American system succeeds so well in our time — it was created by someone who would feel right at home.

But this time-travel simile has hardened a feeling that’s been chilling me. I think we’ve pretty much gotten things working the way they were set up to. There are serious problems to be sure, but they are not problems that the American system was meant to overcome. So now what? Who from the past has acted as a messenger from our near future? What

prophet had tuned in on the needs and circumstances of the twenty first century? With Hamilton recognizably put in his place, I feel somewhat visionaryless for the future.

About Stearns

Howard Stearns works at High Fidelity, Inc., creating the metaverse. Mr. Stearns has a quarter century experience in systems engineering, applications consulting, and management of advanced software technologies. He was the technical lead of University of Wisconsin's Croquet project, an ambitious project convened by computing pioneer Alan Kay to transform collaboration through 3D graphics and real-time, persistent shared spaces. The CAD integration products Mr. Stearns created for expert system pioneer ICAD set the market standard through IPO and acquisition by Oracle. The embedded systems he wrote helped transform the industrial diamond market. In the early 2000s, Mr. Stearns was named Technology Strategist for Curl, the only startup founded by WWW pioneer Tim Berners-Lee. An expert on programming languages and operating systems, Mr. Stearns created the Eclipse commercial Common Lisp programming implementation. Mr. Stearns has two degrees from M.I.T., and has directed family businesses in early childhood education and publishing.


  1. Hamilton was an intriguing guy. As a graduate of Hamilton College, I’ve always felt some kind of privileged kinship with him — despite knowing actually very little about him.

    As for current visionaries, I keep thinking the Philip K. Dick was always right on the money. Which is why I’m alway so jumpy, I guess.

  2. Achieving commercial success twenty years after you’re dead does lend some validation; Dick’s ideas have certainly taken hold of our imagination. But I’m looking for someone whose ideas are actively shaping political and economic institutions and infrastructure.

    An FDR who wasn’t just responding to crisis, or a J.D. Rockeffeler with some sense of humanity beyond how people can be used. Or a real life person with the scope of Monty Meekman or that industrialist guy in “Contact”, but hopefully a good guy. If I still believed in the New Economy and Cyber Utopia, I might be looking for some sort of cross between Richard Stallman, Nicholas Negroponte, and Bill Gates. (That’s a joke.)

    Hamilton was an abstract writer of influence, but he was also a person of action with very concrete and long-lasting results. I feel as though the American System as he invisioned and directed it has become pretty fully realized. That doesn’t mean that it’s necessarilly at a zenith headed for decline. But it makes me nervous to see how well Hamilton fits with the present, and how our problems for the future are outside of this vision. Maybe I’m just borrowing trouble.

  3. He got his “perfect” monarch in George Bush. Hamilton favoured centrism and an executive that had near absolute power. It is inevitable that entropy towards centrism would occur, Bush has increased the rate of centrism to near absolute power. The talk of “activist judges” is the talk of an executive that dominates the legislative and the last barrier to absolute power is the judicial. The same occurred in Victoria when the Liberals dominated the assembly and council.

    I am with Madison, I am a great admirer of his vision. That the US hasnt become Madison’s vision is not a failure of the Republican model, but a failure of the leaders that claim themselves proponents of freedom and Consitutional Republicanism. The war of 1812 was masterful, Madison did nothing to eviscorate freedom such as Lincoln or Bush did in the same circumstances.

    Madison believed that republicanism and a free people would ultimately win, the war of 1812, which placed great stress on the US proved it. Madison remained true to his republic and the US came through.

    I cant say I am a fan of Hamilton, though his writing in the Federalist Papers is on par with Madisons (and Jays). The shootout he had with Burr is bizarre. Especially the bit where he wrote his son that a christian would fire into the air. Burr, a pretty good example of a scallywag, had no such qualms. I recall reading “Burr, Hamilton and Jefferson”. I didnt understand it until I had immersed myself more into US history.

    I also managed to get through Ralph Ketchums’ “James Madison”…. argh what a tedious task. One of the few books I had to force myself to read. I have a similar book on Munroe waiting for me as well. In the queue is also bio’s on Franklin and Sam Adams.


  4. Tell me more about how you feel Madison’s handling of 1812 was masterful.

    My naive recollections from High School history aren’t so clear. I kind of thought that Britain had a right to block shipping to Napolean, but was wrong to intern or impress our sailors (sound like Guantanamo?). I thought we lost every land battle, failed to keep up our shipping, and that the only reason Britain finally agreed to let us alone was that thanks to Spain and Russia, Napolean and our support of him was finally becoming moot.

    I like Madison, but I’m ignorant of his mastery in this case. If you ignore the battle deaths and getting our capital trashed, things did work out ok in the long run, so I would like to know if there’s some lesson here that might apply to, say, stopping terrorism in a moral but effective way.

  5. You are right the war didnt go well militarily, America was a middling power back then and bobbled like a cork on the ocean of the major power’s diplomacy and military aggression. Madison’s cabinet was also pretty volatile at the time as well, IIRC Munroe hopped positions in the cabinet positioning himself to be the next President.

    What I liked about Madison was that he was not prepared to compromise the Republican principles of the US republic that he had fought so hard to implement. That included the bill of rights. To Madison; a free people will always win against an oppressor. And a Republic was a formal and modern implementation of these views for a free people to give consent.

    To Madison, denying habeous corpus, spying on the population or anything that was arbitrary executive will, meant the republic was traded for tyranny, and the very values that made a free American people strong, would be lost. With those trading of values by the executive, the war would be lost.

    To Madison to war was successful as a fight for the Republic and republican principles in a time of great stress for the republic and a time of great temptation for the executive. Madison rose above it, he also had his philosophy of a free people overcoming advertisty by remaining to the principles of being a free people.

    George Bush is the anti-Madison. His evangelical and inflexible worldview is closer to King George’s than it ever will be to the philosophy of Madison or Jefferson. Freedom to Bush is a word fixation, not a concrete value, to which all are born in perfect freedom. Bush’s actions and executive arbitrariness speak of freedom as a nationalist value; ie the bill of rights is a citizens privilege, not a universal check on the eventual and inevitable entropy towards corruption, tyranny and centrism in government.

    George Bush thinks god provides him through the wealth of America the ability to guide freedom. He is so wrong. Locke wrote that every human is born “in a state of perfect freedom”. In an ordered society we give up the ability to assault and thieve to a civil authority, to ensure our own safety of person and possessions. In an ordered society, anything beyond that is oppression, allowed, consentual or not.

    Every form of oppression, whether legislative or physical comes at an increasing cost. Tyrants and dictators suck the wealth out of their areas of influence in an effort to maintain their power. Oppression carries exponential costs that are ultimately unsustainable. That coupled with humanites natural desire to do what they want makes all oppression ultimately temporary. Though not without suffering during that temporary period.

    I would have been more impressed if the Iraqi’s had managed to create their own view of government, that encompassed their competing interests for individual freedom, rights, equity and their religion. Personally, I thought Iran would do it first; creating a new dialog on freedom by managing to reconcile individual rights with the muslim faith. Having Iraq next door awash in US dollars probably put a kabosh on that for now.


  6. Musings… I don’t now if this is obvious to people familiar with the standard view of American history, or if I’m out in left field. As I see it (rightly or through rose-coloreds):

    The founding fathers all shared a common vision that government should be as strong and centralized as it needs to be, and no more.

    – Jefferson thought the minimum size should be that which was necessary to protect individuals from those in power (e.g., from government at various levels). He was the founder of what was considered the leftist view until Reagan coopted the “small federal government as a goal” sound bites for the Republican party.

    – Hamilton thought the minimum size should be that which was necessary to protect individuals from the mob. He was the found er of what was considered the rightist view until FDR coopted the “federal government is here to help and protect” sound bites for the Democratic party.

    Ironic, no? But maybe the reversal is some sort of natural progression that I don’t understand. Anyway, it seems to me that each of these four guys have really defined how we live, with Madison sort of correcting and keeping both Jefferson’s and Hamilton’s sides honest. But it also seems that Hamilton’s view is closest to whatever we all hold in common today.

    My instinct is that it may be time to define (or find someone who has already defined) some new axes by which we can measure the role of government.

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