Alexander Hamilton came from a different background than the other Founding Fathers, one that gave him a different worldview and philosophy of governance and freedom.
It is a philosophy that was bitterly contested at the time — and still is today, especially in this “Tea-Party” year. But overall, Hamilton’s vision is the one that prevailed. We today are, to a surprising extent, living in Hamilton’s America. So what was that vision?
- In the previous post, I looked at Hamilton as a man, at his character, life and background.
- In this post, I try to describe the ideas that such a character, life and background produced, and their timeless (but, as you’ll see, tragic) legacy.
Balance in government
Recall from the previous post that Hamilton, illegitimate and foreign-born, felt like an outsider in America, felt vulnerable as result, and had reason to be pessimistic about human nature, for he had seen, in the West Indies and in revolutionary America, atrocious human acts.
In particular, he had seen how dangerous mobs could be.
Recall also that he was a superb intellect, deeply versed in the classics.
It was therefore natural that he should appreciate an ancient concept, dating all the way back to Polybius and Aristotle: that balance is necessary to preserve liberty.
The government that best reflects human nature, in this view, blends the elements of
- aristocracy (which literally means rule of the best) and
But they have to stay in balance, because an excess or corruption of any one of these elements will destroy liberty, by becoming, respectively,
- oligarchy or
- mob rule.
Thus, for example, Aristotle and Polybius considered Carthage and Rome balanced, but Athens during the time of Socrates to be too democratic to be stable. In Hamilton’s own day, the French Revolution might illustrate the point even better: tyranny and oligarchy (the ancien régime) gave way to mob rule (the guillotine), which gave way to another tyranny (Napoleon), without any intervening liberty in more than motto.
In particular, Hamilton and several other important Founding Fathers, especially James Madison, shared with the classical philosophers an admiration of Rome. When they wrote public treatises, such as The Federalist Papers (discussed below), they adopted Roman pen names. Hamilton, for instance, was Publius (after Publius Valerius, the first consul of Republican Rome).
Early in their careers, Hamilton and Madison were intellectual allies in this respect. They wanted a republic, not a democracy. They feared tyrannical minorities and majorities equally. Thus they became the most important individuals in the creation and passing of America’s Constitution.
Madison had more intellectual input into the actual document, and was the note-taker during the Constitutional Convention. But Hamilton and Madison then collaborated in campaigning for that Constitution to be ratified by the states. (The document, much as we esteem it today, was very controversial and ratification was a close call.)
The Federalist Papers
This meant above all explaining and interpreting the proposed Constitution, which Hamilton and Madison, along with John Jay, later the first Chief Justice, did with one of the most impressive literary achievements in history: The Federalist Papers.
The Federalist Papers are a collection of 85 essays, of which 51 are attributed to Hamilton, 29 to Madison and 5 to Jay (so Hamilton was clearly the main author). The essays amount to about 175,000 words. And they wrote them in the space of only seven months, in their spare time (!), for they were still pursuing their main vocations during office hours — Hamilton as a lawyer.
Here is a measure of how important The Federalist Papers continue to be: By the year 2000, they had been quoted 291 times in Supreme Court opinions, with the frequency of citations rising with the years. (p. 261 in Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton)
And in these Federalist Papers, we see Hamiltonian values — meaning the ancient values of balance — on display. Hamilton envisioned:
- a strong executive, (≈ monarchy)
- a strong legislature (≈ democracy), and
- an independent judiciary that could and should, if necessary, overrule the “popular will” if it destroyed liberty. (≈ aristocracy)
Judicial Review (and Prop 8 )
That this last bit is the “aristocratic element” might take a bit of explaining. To be sure, it is not the only aristocratic element in America’s overall structure. The electoral college originally had actual powers to select the president. Members of the upper chamber of the legislature — called the Senate, in direct allusion to Rome — were elected by state legislatures rather than the voters (an idea that many in the Tea Party want to bring back). And so on.
But the judiciary seems to me to be the most important aristocratic check on both potential tyranny and mob rule. In Federalist Nr 78, Hamilton wrote that
no legislative act … contrary to the constitution can be valid.
This sounds simple and obvious now, but it is not actually in the Constitution. In effect, Hamilton said that the Supreme Court (ie, a meritocratic elite) must be able to overturn legislation (ie, the popular will). Hamilton thus prepared the way for a later Supreme Court decision (Marbury v Madison, 1803) that established the concept of judicial review.
And that, of course, is what we have today. If you want to see the inherent and eternal tension that Hamilton foresaw, look, for instance, to the controversy about California’s “Prop 8“:
- it is a ballot measure (ie, an expression of the popular will),
- in which a majority voted to restrict a right (marriage) of a minority (gays and lesbians),
- before a federal court overturned that vote.
Each side in the Prop 8 debate is screaming “tyranny” at the other, but Hamilton’s notion of balance will prevail. Hamilton, in the 18th century, would certainly have been surprised by the context (gay marriage) but not by the principle involved.
Center and periphery: “enumerated” and “implied” powers
That example of Prop 8, in which a federal judge has overturned a state ballot measure, also shows another aspect of Hamilton’s vision: there also had to be a balance between the core and the periphery, between central government and state government.
Recall the previous post again: Hamilton was actively fighting — as George Washington’s chief of staff, mostly — in the Revolutionary War, whereas some of the other Founding Fathers, and specifically Hamilton’s future enemies (I will get to them in a minute), remained in the comfort of their plantations or with the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, with its bustling dinner-party circuit.
What vantage point did that give Hamilton on the fledgling nation?
He saw that the nation was not viable as such. If the United States then has an equivalent today, it would be the United Nations.
America was fighting a professional army and navy (the Brits) with a ragtag force of militiamen who had no uniforms, and often no shoes and weapons. These Americans enlisted for a year at a time, which meant that Washington feared that his entire fighting force might literally disintegrate and vanish at the end of each enlistment period.
The nation, such as it was, had no powers of taxation. At all. So it had no money to pay its soldiers. And it could not issue debt. It relied on the individual states both for money and for soldiers. On occasion, the American troops mutinied, once even marching on Philadelphia and sending Congress to flee from its own soldiers.
This was not an abstract matter for Hamilton or Washington: They were starving and freezing with their soldiers at, for instance, Valley Forge, a miserable plateau in Pennsylvania where the Americans wintered in 1778-9.
The painting above (of Washington and Lafayette on horseback, with perhaps Hamilton as the rider behind them?) does not really do the misery justice. According to Chernow’s new biography of Washington, the Americans (unlike the soldier in the picture) had no shoes, no coats, sometimes no shirts, and were dying of cold, disease and starvation.
So Hamilton and Washington formed a vision of a strong center, one that could feed and clothe its soldiers and hold the states together. For the center to be strong, it would have to have a professional army, and powers of taxation and borrowing (“Aha,” say the Tea Partiers of 2010…).
When opponents later charged that the Constitution did not explicitly mention the things necessary to build such a strong central government (for example a Central Bank), Hamilton replied that
it is not denied that there are implied as well as express powers.
And thus Hamilton, almost en passant, submitted another evergreen argument into American politics, which you hear debated this year by Tea Partiers parsing “enumerated” and “implied” powers.
But Hamilton was not for a Leviathan (I believe he would be shocked by the bloat of our federal government today). He definitely envisioned the central government, though strong, as sitting atop states that remained otherwise sovereign in their daily affairs. Hence the “federalist” nature of the new country, and the name Hamiltonians called themselves: Federalists.
The federal balance that Hamilton conceived was so stable that Switzerland, in 1848, imported it wholesale and Germany, a century later, in large part.
The first American Capitalist
Alexander Hamilton was the only Founding Father who grasped not just one but both revolutions occurring in his time:
- the political revolution in governance and
- the industrial revolution.
For background: America was an agrarian society. The colonies were dependent on Britain for manufactures. There were no companies as such (both the legal form and the accounting systems did not exist in any form recognizable to us). Banks as such did not exist. Stock exchanges did not exist.
Hamilton’s enemies, primarily Thomas Jefferson, wanted to keep it that way. To Jefferson, an agrarian America was more “pure” than an industrial America. Here, arguably, likes the origin of America’s schizophrenia regarding “Main Street” versus “Wall Street”. But let’s remember (recall once again the previous post) that the agrarian “purity” of which Jefferson talked was based on slave plantations such as his own in Virginia. It was pre-capitalist, yes, but in a feudal, illiberal, dehumanizing way.
Hamilton, on the other hand, wanted to abolish slavery and looked ahead to a capitalist era. He read Adam Smith’s (then new) Wealth of Nations. He grasped modern concepts of finance. He wanted America to manufacture things, and to finance this new economy with banks and securities.
So he entered the most fruitful period of his career, as the first Treasury Secretary. Washington was president, and the only two other members of the cabinet were Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State and Henry Knox as Secretary of War. But neither Jefferson nor Knox had much to do, whereas Hamilton became a de facto prime minister to Washington in putting the new country together. Within a few years, Knox had a dozen civilian employees in War, Jefferson had six at State, and Hamilton had … more than 500 at the Treasury. Knox was a jovial nature and didn’t care. But Jefferson was seething.
Hamilton was too busy to care. Within a few years, he created:
- a central bank,
- a monetary policy and paper currency to go with it,
- a stock exchange,
- a coast guard and customs service to collect the tariffs that were to finance the government (there was no income tax).
In short, he seeded the modern American economy.
The tragic lesson: American inversion of reality
You may agree by now that Hamilton was a genius and that, yes, his vision, more than any other Founding Father’s, created the nation we know. But I personally have learned more from the tragic aspect of his career.
The tragedy has to do with the political inversion of reality that was threatening to undo Hamilton’s career when he died so prematurely in his duel.
And that, too, may be the Founding Fathers’ legacy to us.
What am I talking about?
Opposition to Hamilton and his ideas started early. Some compatriots always found something sinister in his charm and success and genius, in his foreign origins and cosmopolitan attitudes, and in specific opinions such as Hamilton’s abolitionism.
For example, during the struggle in the states to ratify the Constitution, the anti-federalists began posing as populists, even though the most prominent of them were rich slave owners. Patrick Henry of Virginia — the very same Henry who famously said “Give me Liberty or give me Death!” — argued against the Constitution by telling delegates that
They’ll free your niggers.
Others, less blunt than Henry, wrapped their scorn in the emerging meme of the day, which painted Hamilton as a closet monarchist or aristocrat, whereas the (slave-owning) agrarians were the true democrats.
George Washington, who usually kept a dignified distance from the political swamp but reliably sided with Hamilton, wryly observed the irony:
It is a little strange that the men of large property in the South should be more afraid that the Constitution will produce an aristocracy or a monarchy than the genuine, democratical people of the East.
By the “people of the East” he meant the mostly northern farmers, merchants and industrialists in Hamilton’s circles.
Hamilton himself also deployed his irony. In a newspaper piece in 1791, referring to Madison and Jefferson, he wrote (Chernow, p. 307):
As to the negroes, you must be tender upon the subject … Who talk most about liberty and equality …? Is it not those who hold the bill of rights in one hand and a whip for affrighted slaves in the other?
But irony rarely wins in America. Then as now, the most effective political strategy in American politics is relentlessly repetitive attack until reality becomes what the attacker wants it to be. Jefferson was the worst offender, but Madison, Hamilton’s erstwhile soulmate, was just as bad after he split from Hamilton and went over to the “Republican” side.
And let’s reflect on that label the Jeffersonians chose, for a moment. Why call yourself “Republican” if not to imply that your opponents are un-republican? Everything you’ve read in this post so far tells you that Hamilton was a true republican, and yet Jefferson and his cronies now campaigned to make people think the opposite.
And cronies they had plenty. (Both sides did, to be fair). The Fox News of the day was the National Gazette, first published in 1791, a newspaper that served as the mouthpiece for Jeffersonian attacks branding Hamilton as a monarchist, tyrant and what not.
And thus it was that
- the future presidents Jefferson and Madison, the patrician owners of slaves and plantations, became known and remembered for generations as the folksy democrats who were close to the land and people, whereas
- Hamilton, the illegitimate quasi-orphan from the Caribbean who had worked his way to success with sheer talent and grit and who wanted to free the slaves, became the elitist aristocrat.
I have, in the paragraphs above, suggested several modern analogs to the issues raised in this post. But I will leave you to ponder this last subject on your own. And I will end, very much as Hamilton might, on that note of pessimism.