The Perils of Hamiltonianism


Whiskey Rebellion historian William Hogeland over at Boston Review notes with alarm in a very long, very detailed, and very good essay the recent waves of cross-ideological Alexander Hamilton love, from Ron Chernow, from David Brooks to the Brookings Institute:

Neo-Hamiltonians, like the latter-day Jeffersonians of the '30s and '40s, have been eagerly chopping up the past to make it conform to their political aims. Hamilton's national vision and founding economics are far more troubling—and therefore more compelling—than his promoters acknowledge. And because Hamilton's legacy is being invoked as a beacon for current policy, the emerging picture is a dangerous one.

Why so dangerous? Hogeland gives all the details at length, including Hamilton's disturbing roles in the Newburgh Crisis and the Whiskey Rebellion, the growth of domestic taxation and debt. This sums up the gist of his message:

But if opinion-shapers really want to strengthen democracy by enhancing competition, opportunity, and mobility, Hamilton is not their man. Nor did he want to be. Neo-Hamiltonians of every kind are blotting out a defining feature of his thought, one that Hamilton himself insisted on throughout his turbulent career: the essential relationship between the concentration of national wealth and the obstruction of democracy through military force.

And in conclusion, re: the Whiskey Rebellion:

[Hamilton] was in a white heat. Using the military to trounce the rule of law and violate civil rights was integral to his vision of federal power, national wealth, and a strong union.

The historian Joseph Ellis, in Founding Brothers, is one of the few recent popular writers on the founding period who take a clear-eyed look at the latter phase of Hamilton's career, which began with suppressing western Pennsylvania. He cites the all-important source Richard Kohn, concluding that Hamilton's success in the Whiskey Rebellion inspired an almost obsessive military focus as he grew older. Out of office, Hamilton continued to order around his hacks in the Adams cabinet (or as the PBS biography puts it, he "advised" them), hoping to contrive an all-out war with France. Hamilton also envisioned leading the U.S. army into Spanish Florida, then continuing into Central and South America. He also suggested that the federal government should put the entire state of Virginia "to the test" militarily, something his fans write off as mere venting and posturing, but which Ellis takes seriously.

Hamilton is routinely credited as favoring a strong executive branch. What he really favored, from Newburgh through the Whiskey Rebellion, from the quasi-war with France through his response to the anti-federalism of the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions, was an executive branch run by him, strong enough to do anything it deemed in the national interest. For Hamilton, personal and military force, unrestrained by the slightest consideration of law, were joined ineluctably to American wealth, American unity, and America modernity.

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  1. I find myself becoming, more and more, an Aaron Burr fan.

  2. So, Hamilton is Grindelwald to Madison’s Dumbledore.

  3. Looks like we need another Aaron Burr to thin out the neo-Hamiltonians. We can call him neoBurr.

  4. Hamilton – Our Founding Statist

    Im stealing that line from someone, but not sure who.

  5. What kind of freedom would America have had without banks and financial markets? Hamilton created those things, over the objections of Jefferson, who saw them as distractions from useful plantation work. Speaking of which, no founder was more hostile to slavery than was Hamilton.

    Also, Hamiton’s legal work helped secure freedom of the press, and his ‘elitism’ was such that he wanted the common people to be well-armed.

  6. the only thing cool about Hamilton is his background and his thoughts on the judiciary as outlined in a few of the Federalist Papers.

  7. When did the Neil Smith libertarians take over Reason?

    Just joshing… :->

  8. What is laughable is taking the “thought” of any long-dead politial leader–whether it be Hamilton, Jefferson, or John C. Calhoun–and using it to “solve” the policy issues of the present day. Even if we knew what Hamilton “really” thought, how would that help us know what to do in Iran or Iraq? People who praise Hamilton or denounce him are using him as a stick to beat their opponents. Use your own fist, dude! Or a simple, honest knee in the groin!

  9. But, hey, kudos to Brian for the “ineluctably.” Kind of reminds me of Joyce’s “ineluctable modality of the visible.”

  10. AV —

    I sort of haltingly agree that invoking this or that “founding father” or other historical luminary can be a bludgeon to insert an appeal of authority in place of more honest analysis, but…

    Far more often, such pronouncements about the uselessness of past thinker’s ideas simply due to their being in a different historical and social context from the contemporary one is just a crude mask for anti-intellectual populism…

    …and so I am nearly automatically suspicious when someone says “forget about Hamilton (et al.); what does he know about Terrorism/Iraq/Nuclear Power/Gay Marraige/(insert issue du jour), anyway?”.

  11. I would add to Ken’s point that Hamilton – unlike Jefferson – saw the value of a diversified economy with strong commercial and manufacturing sectors. And his support for a stronger executive (at least in his earlier days) can be interpreted as a reaction to the parliamentary supremacy preferred by some of the other founders. As distasteful as an over-powerful executive is, is it really any worse than an over-powerful legislature? At least there’s only one bum to kick out.

    All of which is to say, we’ve had our thesis and now our antithesis – by and by someone will come along and complete the cycle. (And then we’ll all go off and bother John Quincy for a while, because Hamilton will be played out for this generation. And then in the 2030s, the neo-neoHamiltonians will emerge…)

  12. All of this commentary re: Hamilton as a would-be tyrant is identical to the way Burr has has always been portrayed — especially by Jefferson and his cronies. Thank goodness the slaveholders won out in the end, preserving democracy for one and all! And all that time and effort both Hamilton and Burr contributed to end slavery in New York must have been a ruse to help them raise an all-black army — which they would then use to crush freedom!

    Hamilton did start to take on some increasingly imperialistic attitudes in his old age, though it also seemed to go hand in hand with some increasingly self destructive tendencies (for one thing, he’d always been opposed to dueling). Personally, I think he was starting to lose his mind.

    But for what it’s worth: the Federalist Papers were hardly the work of someone who wanted to be a dictator.

  13. Burr did the US a favor by plugging him.

  14. …and so I am nearly automatically suspicious when someone says “forget about Hamilton (et al.); what does he know about Terrorism/Iraq/Nuclear Power/Gay Marraige/(insert issue du jour), anyway?”.

    Positions should have philosophical foundations and there is nothing inherently wrong with adopting some portion of the founder’s philosophies. IOW, darn good point.

  15. What kind of freedom would America have had without banks and financial markets?

    Hamilton didn’t invent banks or financial markets, he wanted complete government control over banks and financial markets. Which would have brought us the same ‘freedom’ — and prosperity — as enjoyed in the state-dominated economy of the Soviet Union.

    Jefferson never actively opposed banks or financial markets, he simply didn’t use government intervention to promote them. In the authoritarian-based Hamilton-Neocon mindset, however, if you are not with us, you are against us, and if you do not enthusiastically support what we are doing, then you must be guilty of the most extreme straw-man position that we can accuse you of.

    Thus Jefferson, an accomplished writer, architect, and inventor, is portrayed by the Hamiltonians as a hopelessly romantic hayseed, while Hamilton, a political hack whose sole creative innovation appears to have been the hair trigger which misfired and gave Burr the duel, is portrayed as the prophetic genius who singlehandedly wrought the modern American state.

    What kind of freedom would America have under Jefferson’s vision? Well, the freedom that we had for two centuries, because Jefferson became President and Hamilton became a corpse. If it had been the other way around, historians might have seen Napoleanic Europe as a freer and more peaceful place than Hamiltonian America.

  16. Hamilton? I never liked the son of a bitch, myself.

  17. I have said for years that anyone who tries to defend or promote limited government by quoting from Hamilton’s Federalist Papers is undermining their position. The Hamiltonians took the name Federalists to confuse the public as to their aim of dismantling the existing confederate government and replacing it with an overbearing centralized national government.

    Hamilton successfully tagged his opponents with the name Anti-Federalists and to this day Americans have little understanding of what constitutes a truly federal government.

    As it became clear that Hamilton’s constitution would be ratified (under a scheme that defied the existing law) the Anti-Federalists proposed adding the Bill of Rights to the document. Hamilton argued that these amendments were not necessary, that the states would still provide adequate protection of civil liberties. He even scoffed that “freedom of the press” was a meaningless phrase.

    Those who promote limited government would better serve themselves by reading from the Anti-Federalist Papers. Twenty years ago, I wrote a research paper contrasting these writings and to this day, I am so infuriated with Alexander Hamilton that I draw horns on his head on ten dollar bills. Yeah, I know, it’s juvenile, but it makes me feel better.

  18. I recall reading in my old history books that Alexander Hamilton actually prefered the US become a monarchy. Federalist Papers or no.

  19. Joe S.:

    Hamilton founded the Bank of New York (1784) and the Bank of the United States (1791), the former as a private individual, the latter in his capacity as treasury secretary. That was essentially the beginning of banking in America. (One other institution, the Bank of North America, operated from the early 1780s.)

    Trading of scrip in the Bank of the U.S. was the beginning of the stock market. Before then, there was nothing like active trading of liquid shares.

    Hamilton’s federal assumption of state debts was the beginning of the treasury market. Before that, bonds were traded, if at all, at fractions of their face value, and the U.S. was the equivalent of a subprime mortgage holder.

    As for Jefferson, he told Washington he hated living in NY among the “new created paper fortunes” and even years later wrote:

    I sincerely believe… that banking establishments are more dangerous than standing armies –Thomas Jefferson, 1816.

  20. As someone who’s alma matter was the arch-rival of Mr Jefferson’s University, I’m a big fan of Hamilton. Ditto on what was said above that an industrial economy is superior to an agrarian economy, and Hamilton was dead right about this.

    And remember, Hamilton grew up a literal bastard in the sticks (west indies) and not in the centers of privilege and power that Virginia, Philly and Boston were. So he has all kinds of street cred with me.

    And you Burr apologists can bite me 😉

  21. Hamilton always seemed a contrast of two men to me.

    His work in the Constitutional Convention and his writing of large pieces the Federalist Papers is a very good thing he left us. And while he may not have done it for what we may consider pure reasons he had at least something to do with making truth a defense in a slander trial. And while you may like it or not his assumption plan certainly had a lot of influence.

    On the other hand he was not a very good political operator. He may have been a force in creating the Federalist Party, but he certainly caused the death of it. His repeated attacks on Adams in the press and his using Adams Cabinet against him pretty much doomed the party. It seems very likely he would have gone Napoleon if he could have.

    So I have to say that while Hamilton did good things for this country he was a man that needed shooting and the act of killing Hamilton may have been the second best thing Aaron Burr did while Vice President.

    Bonus points for who can guess what the best thing was.

  22. Hamilton’s great gifts to libertarianism were his (self-exemplary) belief in class-independent meritocracy, his absolute distrust of majoritarianism and direct democracy, and his support of Madisonian notions of checks and balances (particularly judical review — which he argued was a self-evident component of Article III judicial power long before Marbury v. Madison).

    All else is historical detritus.

  23. Dammit, this is all so complicated and nuanced. Can’t anyone reduce this man to a soundbite so I can either worship at his shrine or spit on his grave?

  24. RC,
    Hamilton lied about the state of the government under the Articles of Confederation, saying it couldn’t pay off the war debt. In fact the debt was eventually paid under the Constitution the same way it had begun to be paid under the Articles of Confederation, i.e, the states ceded their western holdings to be sold to pay it off.

    The Articles provided a way for them to be amended or abolished, but the Hamiltonians in their constitutional convention made up their own rule for implementing the new constitution. This is why the thought of a constitutional convention to this day strikes fear into the hearts of those who know what precedent has been established.

    I know that isn’t short enough to be a good sound bite, but I hope you will join me in spitting on Hamilton’s grave, if not drawing a few horns on his head whenever you get a ten dollar bill.

  25. Libertarians tend to paint the “neo-Hobbseian” Hamilton as the bad guy to the “anarcho-agrarian” Jefferson’s good guy. It ain’t that simple, gang. Hamilton’s view on slavery, for example, was potitively radical by the standards of the day.

    BTW: I liked the Chernow book; while sympathetic to Big Al and his ideas, it’s not a puff piece by any stretch of the imagination.

  26. When I was running things over there, half these comments would have been axed under the no-threats-of-bodily-harm rule. (Kidding, kidding! You can’t threaten the dead. Or libel them.)

    Besides, you’re wasting your time with this Hamilton/Jefferson argument. They both signed on to the Constitution, and the real problem was moving away from the Articles of Confederation in the first place.

  27. Amen to what Cavanaugh just wrote!
    Jim Walsh,
    So, Hamilton wanted to rule all his subjects equally. bfd.

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