2016 election: What would Hamilton do?

A painting of Alexander Hamilton.
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A painting of Alexander Hamilton.

This article was originally published on Medium.com.

Alexander Hamilton was America's first pundit. He was never elected president, but he molded the office from Day One, advising George Washington on how to speak, how to act, and how to mingle with visitors. (Sample advice: Avoid showing "extensive disgust.") Long before he was the most coveted ticket on Broadway, Hamilton unleashed countless thoughts on politics — 27 volumes! He opined on every election, even if it killed him. (It did.) So let's imagine that he dodged a bullet and could somehow watch our 2016 election. What would he think of this mess?

For starters, he might chuckle at our collective despair. True, the Federalist Papers do not contain the phrase "grab them by the genitals." And "locker room talk" cannot be defended. Yet we have a nostalgic sense that the Founders were these marble statues who wore powdered wigs and said high-minded things about government.

But they were also human, flawed, and sometimes petty. While serving as Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson secretly paid tabloids to write scathing take-downs of Hamilton; some slandered him as a "cowardly assassin," a monarchist, or even in bed with the British — the original Birther movement.

Hamilton counter-punched, scribbling essay after essay under pseudonyms like "Anti-Defamer" and "A Plain Honest Man," which made him the nation's first Anonymous Commenter. And you think the insults in 2016 are nasty? John Adams thought Hamilton had "a super-abundance of secretions which he could not find whores enough to draw off." (It's a shame they didn't have Twitter.)

Hamilton would likely be puzzled, if not horrified, by how Trump and Clinton handle the concept of "disclosure." Tax returns, Medical records, charitable donations, emails? Hamilton faced those kinds of inquiries. In 1792, a skeptical Congress pressed Hamilton, then Treasury Secretary, for a detailed reconciliation of his financial programs.

Hamilton did not obfuscate. He did not delay. He did not say he would "wait until after the audit." He worked day and night and through the Christmas holidays, then unleashed a 21,000-word report that came with detailed, anal-retentive tables and the 18th century version of spreadsheets. He hid nothing. "It is certain," he patiently explains, "that I have made every exertion in my power, at the hazard of my health, to comply with the requisitions of the House as early as possible." (Imagine Trump taking this tack.)

"You think the insults in 2016 are nasty? John Adams thought Hamilton had 'a super-abundance of secretions which he could not find whores enough to draw off.'"

Both Trump and Clinton have been accused of scandal after scandal. Hamilton had those, too. (Granted, no Founding Father, to my knowledge, ever threatened to sue the alleged victims of sexual assault.) When it seemed that the tabloids might leak documents that could be misinterpreted as financial misconduct, Hamilton hatched a preemptive PR move.

"The charge against me is a connection with one James Reynolds for purposes of improper pecuniary speculation," he begins. "My real crime is an amorous connection with his wife."

He then shares every juicy detail of his extra-marital affair, launching the nation's first sex scandal. This came with a personal and political cost. Yet Hamilton believed that leaders should tell the truth and stick to their word, no matter the price, and that "a promise must never be broken." He took his code of honor seriously. (Exhibit A? The duel with Aaron Burr.)

Then again, it's also possible he had hoped that no one would get past the title of his 11,000-word confession, "Observations on Certain Documents Contained in No. V & VI of 'The History of the United States for the Year 1796,' in Which the Charge of Speculation Against Alexander Hamilton, Late Secretary of the Treasury, Is Fully Refuted. Written by Himself." (Imagine Clinton taking this tack.)

Taking a longer lens, many see the 2016 election as a choice between a flawed candidate and a catastrophic candidate. Hamilton faced the same decision. "If there be a man in the world I ought to hate," Hamilton admitted, "it is Jefferson. With Burr I have always been personally well." Yet Jefferson "is by far not so dangerous a man and he has pretensions to character . . . [Burr] is far more cunning than wise, far more dexterous than able.

In my opinion he is inferior in real ability to Jefferson." Still not clear enough? Hamilton tells a friend that Burr is "one of the worst men in the community. The appointment of Burr as president would disgrace our country abroad . . . No agreement with him could be relied upon." If Federalists backed Burr, they would be "signing their own death warrant." Hamilton felt it "a religious duty to oppose his career."

In other words: #NeverBurr.

It would take "False Equivalence" to a cartoonish extreme to suggest that Trump / Clinton is identical to Jefferson / Burr. And of course no one can divine what Hamilton would really think, how he would vote, or if he would align himself with today's Republicans or Democrats. (Historians still debate this.)

But in the waning days of this wrenching election, what would he do? He would write, tweet, write more, tweet more. He would press the candidates for substance, ask the tough questions, and then do what he thought was best for America… focus groups and polling be damned. For Hamilton had many maxims, and this one was foundational: Being Right Trumps Being Popular.

Commentary by Jeff Wilser is the author of Alexander Hamilton's Guide to Life, from Three Rivers Press. Follow him on Twitter @jeffwilser.

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