On January 11, Alexander Hamilton’s birthday, there are several lessons from his life that are worth noting during the stalemate in Washington over immigration policy and border security.

First, let’s consider Hamilton’s status as the son of unmarried parents, who was abandoned by his father and orphaned at an early age. He was born on Nevis and spent his early years on St. Croix, shunned by neighbors and peers because of his birth status.

He was, however, far better off than the African slaves there, who were subjected to horrific treatment which disgusted Hamilton and made him “conspicuous among the founding fathers for his fierce abolitionism,” according to biographer Ron Chernow.

In America, Hamilton’s political enemies often derided him as an unworthy immigrant, but his contributions to our fledgling nation now are widely recognized and celebrated. Throughout our history, immigrants have enriched American life and culture and made huge contributions, as noted here.

What is the lesson for us today? In a world beset by tribalism and resentment of those not like us, we have a responsibility to promote diversity and to advocate for opportunity for all.

Second, let us consider the importance of civility. In Hamilton’s time, there were deep divisions between our leaders, which ultimately cost Hamilton his life. Chernow described it this way: “Poison-pen artists on both sides wrote vitriolic essays that were overtly partisan, often paid scant heed to accuracy, and sought a visceral impact.”

It sounds discouragingly like the environment today, and in this, obviously, the founders were not good role models to be admired. They did, however, find ways to compromise for the good of the nation – a value that now appears to be sorely lacking. We recently celebrated the life of President George H.W. Bush, whose willingness to treat others with respect and to compromise for the good of the nation was legendary.

I had the privilege of serving in President Bush’s Administration, and President Reagan’s, as well, and remember that political opponents not only respected each other, but actually were friends. The camaraderie shared by Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill, D-MA, was legendary.

I will never forget the feeling that Bush’s re-election was lost the day that Treasury Secretary Nick Brady returned from the Hill and told me he and Budget Director Dick Darman had agreed to the tax increase that would break the president’s infamous “No new taxes” pledge. That compromise was the right thing to do, and Bush did it without regard to his personal interest.

Reagan specifically rejected the all-or-nothing approach that seems to dominate thinking by both sides in Washington today when he said, “Die-hard conservatives thought that if I couldn't get everything I asked for, I should jump off the cliff with the flag flying – go down in flames. No, if I can get 70 or 80 percent of what it is I'm trying to get, I'll take that and then continue to try to get the rest in the future.”

Hamilton is remembered for the Federalist Papers that made the case for adoption of the U.S. Constitution, but we should note that before it came time to seek public approval for the new Constitution, Hamilton was at the center of the internal debates at the Constitutional Convention.

The early American states were deeply divided, and there were signs that the fledgling confederation would not long survive. Hamilton was dogged in his pursuit of the principles he believed in: most clearly the need for a strong federal government and for balance of power between the three branches – an ingenious system that has proven over time to be the savior of our country from the extremes of any one person or party.

But success in that convention was neither easy nor inevitable, and it required a Great Compromise to bring it to conclusion. Let’s hope that preliminary reports of a possible compromise on border security in Washington blossom into true progress.

Today, incivility may be on the rise again, but it is not inevitable. We can argue passionately for our positions, but we also must listen with respect to those who disagree; making it possible to work together, to find solutions.

So today, on Hamilton’s birthday, in a world increasingly divided by tribalism and nationalism, let’s remind ourselves of the importance of diversity, civility, and the power of compromise in finding solutions that improve lives for all. 

Note: This post is an updated and evolved version of my acceptance remarks upon receipt of the Alexander Hamilton Medal from the Institute for Public Relations on Nov. 30, 2018.