Given the ubiquity of opinion polls – especially in this election season – and the keen attention devoted to parsing their statistical snapshots of public moods and preferences, it can be easy to assume that the term "public opinion" has always described an aggregate of individual opinions. But this way of thinking about public opinion is more a reflection of the influence of polling itself, and a cultural sensibility that regards having opinions as necessary to being a well-rounded individual. Americans obsessed over public opinion long before pollsters began to measure it, even back in the days when "opinionated" persons were widely regarded selfish and unsociable nuisances. The concept of public opinion has had a much more complicated and varied career than we might expect. Understanding that career can help us to take better measure of the distance between the political culture of the past and the present.
Alexander Hamilton also seems to be everywhere these days, thanks in large part to Lin-Manuel Miranda's award-winning Broadway musical. While American historians have found much to praise in Hamilton: An American Musical, their estimation of Hamilton the man remains, as it has always been, mixed. For some, the musical's portrayal of Hamilton as a hard working, go-ahead immigrant elides Hamilton the man's elitist disdain for popular democracy and his designs for an aristocracy of wealth. Historians who adhere more closely to the Hamilton presented in Ron Chernow's 2004 biography (the basis for Miranda's musical) see a well-intentioned and effective, if personally flawed, proponent of national greatness and economic opportunity. The collective portrait that emerges from historical scholarship is Janus-faced, with one Hamilton looking forward to America's dynamic, liberal-capitalist future, and the other gazing back in admiration at the British constitution and a hierarchical, well-ordered society in which everyone (excepting Alexander Hamilton) knew their place.
The concept of public opinion nicely illustrates this ambivalence in Hamilton's mind. The term had only recently entered the Anglo-American political vocabulary, and Hamilton realized, perhaps as well as any politician of his generation, that it represented something new. In an enlightened age, governments, whether republican, monarchical, or despotic, could no longer ignore popular opinion. Even if there was a "room where it happens" – there were other spaces where it could also happen: newspapers and pamphlets, public meetings and parades, taverns and coffeehouses, caucuses and elections.
But for Hamilton, the emergence of public opinion did not necessarily lead to political democracy. Rather, he saw public opinion as a public resource that enlightened statesmen could use to strengthen government, quiet discontent, and possibly even reorient American economic mentalities. Tellingly, the first Treasury Secretary and "ten-dollar founding father" frequently likened public opinion to public credit, describing it as a volatile compound of passions, prejudices, and interests that had to be managed and mollified. "Public opinion" meant confidence in the government, not criticism of it. Hamilton designed his financial program to instill that confidence and manage it over time. The assumption and funding of the national debt, the minting of money, the promotion of manufacturing, and the chartering of the Bank of the United States, would tie the interests of the wealthy to the new Federal government. Hamilton also hoped his program would encourage a more widespread familiarity with commerce and finance that might temper unruly revolutionary and agrarian enthusiasms.
Hamilton's political opponents – Thomas Jefferson and James Madison among them – assailed his financial program as little more than a plot to install a parasitical "paper aristocracy." While there was some truth in this, Hamilton maintained that corruption would not ensue if honorable men wielded power. Public opinion played a vital role in this, functioning as a court of honor whose judgments brooked no appeal. Once lost or damaged, honor, like credit, could not be easily restored or repaired. The force of public opinion insured that public men with a zealous "regard to reputation" would be responsible leaders. This, at any rate, was the theory. But in practice, distinguishing the honorable from the dishonorable was a vexatious and polarizing business. The rapid proliferation of political newspapers made it even more so. Dueling, which promised to decide questions of honor among gentlemen, did nothing of the sort. But Hamilton, fearing that his "usefulness" as a public man was at stake, accepted Aaron Burr's challenge. You know the rest of the story.
The amalgam of political economy and aristocratic honor that informed Alexander Hamilton's theories of public opinion might seem distant and irrelevant to us. But in the early twentieth century, "realist" political scientists dismayed by the seeming failures of popular democracy found in Hamilton a kindred spirit. For Walter Lippmann, Hamiltonian nationalism and institutionalism was an antidote to idealistic and populist notions that a "reasoned righteousness welled up spontaneously out of the mass of men." Dismissing as naïve a popular faith in the "omnicompetent citizen" and deliberative democracy, Lippmann imagined a more Hamiltonian and limited role for public opinion as a judge of public character and a resource to be studied and mobilized by the "organized intelligence" of experts. These ideas would, in turn, exert considerable influence on the development of opinion polling.
Mark G. Schmeller is an associate professor of history at Syracuse University. His book, Invisible Sovereign: Imagining Public Opinion from the Revolution to Reconstruction examines the way public opinion has changed since the Revolutionary War.