The case for Alexander Hamilton (II)

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?

  1. In the previous post, I looked at Hamilton as a man, at his character, life and background.
  2. 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

  • monarchy,
  • aristocracy (which literally means rule of the best) and
  • democracy.

But they have to stay in balance, because an excess or corruption of any one of these elements will destroy liberty, by becoming, respectively,

  • tyranny,
  • 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:

  1. the political revolution in governance and
  2. 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.

80 thoughts on “The case for Alexander Hamilton (II)

  1. When they wrote public treatises, such as The Federalist Papers (discussed below), they adopted Roman pen names. Hamilton, for instance, was Publius.

    It is my understanding that Publius—while chosen by Hamilton—was used as the collective pseudonym for all three authors of the Federalist Papers, i.e., Jay and Madison were no less Publius than Hamilton.

    If the National Gazette was the Fox News of the day, did they also have an MSNBC analogue?

    • Yes, the opponent of the National Gazette was the Gazette of the United States. The names obviously don’t tell you anything.

      But they make Fox and MSNBC today look TAME!

      You are probably right about Publius. I got confused because Hamilton used lots of pseudonyms, and so did all the other writers of the day. So there were Catos, and Civises and so forth. All Roman.

    • The reason why FNC and MSNBC look tame by comparison to 18th century media is probably precisely because of the erstwhile habit of adopting pseudonyms. Today, all punditry comes with a name and a face attached to it, which results in at least some measure of restraint due to the risk of being held accountable for one’s allegations. Back then, de facto anonymous hit pieces were published in major newspapers, so anything went.

  2. Brilliant! The best tribute one can pay to an historical figure is to demonstrate their ongoing relevance and legacy and you’ve done that perfectly.

    Also, your line “the most effective political strategy in American politics is relentlessly repetitive attack until reality becomes what the attacker wants it to be” is worthy of the man himself!

    • Thank you, Thomas. And now that I’ve pontificated on the great man, let me ask you: Which one or two things jump from your memory of the book? Anything shock or move or stir you?

    • First, and most important is how much “history” depends on who writes it. Clearly Jefferson and Monroe had the power of the pen after Hamilton was killed.

      Second, when I was in school it was vogue to try to downplay George Washington because he had become such a towering figure, but the book clearly shows what a real leader he was.

      Which I supposed leads to the last observation, which is very pessimistic–is how undeserving our current government is of the legacy it is supposed to be carrying on.

  3. Wow, there’s a lot packed into this post. My brain is all a-twitter….

    So, I haven’t taken near enough time to digest this properly, but I thought I’d put down some thoughts while I do. I find it intriguing, even though you try to head the parallel off in the post, that Hamilton and Hobbes both witnessed devastating wars (Hamilton, the American Revolution; Hobbes the English Civil War) and, as a consequence, envisioned a strong central authority at the head of their respective governments. Obviously, Hobbes was more extreme than Hamilton, but I think it’s an interesting parallel. I dunno … like I said … brain hasn’t digested….

    It strikes me as particularly amazing that something like The Federalist Papers was published in the newspaper at that time, that that was the level of discourse; whereas, now, we have the 24-hour news networks and what Jon Stewart calls the “political pundit perpetual panic conflictinator.” But, judging by the esteemed Patrick Henry’s remarks, perhaps The Federalist Papers were an exception even in their time.

    I s’pose I would call myself a Kluthian aristocrat (you see what I did there ;)) or an “elitist,” in the parlance of our time. I value the hell out of a really good and thorough education, and when I see modern politicians actively deriding that same thorough education, it fills my gut with a deep, hand-trembling nausea.

    As a side note, American politics has to be the only place where being called an “elitist” can be seen as derogatory. Can you picture, for instance, someone standing outside a burning building and yelling, “Send me the most mediocre firefighters you can find!”

    But … and this is where I always stumble … how do we measure “best” as in “rule of the best”? I really, really, really value education, but I also know that not everyone has an opportunity to get a good education (and, of course, some don’t want to). So then do I say those people can’t be in our government? But that conflicts with my American everyone-should-have-the-opportunity-to-do-anything brain. And I also know that there are things an education alone cannot provide. And then–and then!–there are the systems by which our government functions, where the “best” can only do so much without having to juggle lobbyists, corporate sponsors, unions, and whatever political party they are affiliated with–

    Ahg … brain cramp.

    • I think only you would notice that I tried “to head the parallel off in the post”, as you put it. 😉 Yes, I did. In the word “Leviathan.”

      The same exact thought that you had occurred to me as I was writing. Hobbes: fear of anarchy. Hamilton: ditto. But Hamilton took it further, I guess. Fear of the olig-, and the mon-, as well as the an-. ==> Balance.

      And I was also thinking your next thoughts as I was writing.

      Aristocracy originally meant rule of the best. Linguistically, that was pure, because both root words are Greek. But then aristocracy became a hereditary status, and thus changed meaning.

      So then we needed a new word, and had to choose a linguistic mut: Meritocracy. Latin + Greek, awful, like “television”.

      The issue — and thanks for the “Kluthian aristocrat” 🙂 — is clearly not about whether “the best” are better qualified for a given task than the less-than-best. Surely they must be.

      Instead, the issue is about how we determine who is best for a given task. So it is about ACCESS to elites, not the existence of elites.

      Where you and I see injustice is when access becomes blocked. The old-boys network, the country-club, the legacy-admission process to the Ivy League, etc.

      this is very tricky indeed for a liberal (ie, libertarian), for it gets into the estate tax and so forth. We all know that excellence in specific domains CAN be passed from one generation to the next — the rich can buy tennis and riding and piano lessons, and the poor cannot.

      So: open access. Fluidity on the way into AND OUT OF the “elite”. That’s what we must be for.

      But then, by all means, respect for the elite as one element in a balanced overall system.

      Finally, regarding the “a deep, hand-trembling nausea” you feel. I think we all feel it here. I certainly do.

    • Interesting observations, Chris. I especially like this one…

      As a side note, American politics has to be the only place where being called an “elitist” can be seen as derogatory. Can you picture, for instance, someone standing outside a burning building and yelling, “Send me the most mediocre firefighters you can find!”

      One could apply that to the belief (fake, I think) that moderates (or either party) are what the “American public” wants. I often make jokes about my own striving for mediocrity (since it is a goal I can easily succeed in attaining). But I am not so sure that “moderation” also equals “mediocrity.”

      The history of the building of the foundation of this nation is one of great intellects and egos battling each other to install keystone blocks of their own design, I think. It is amazing to some, a miracle to others, that these great men happened to live at the same time in the same land and, therefore, build that foundation. I happen to think it was inevitable that there would be many great men who would become leaders at such a time due to the circumstances of its beginnings. Men who wished to seek their fortune and achieve some level of greatness were attracted to a land where such things were possible regardless of prior stature. In other words, America was the “land of opportunity” well before it became a nation.

    • Ha, yeah, Andreas, I guess Hamilton was more thorough in his fears of extremes than Hobbes. Too bad he or any of the other Founding Fathers didn’t see the 24-hour hype machines–I mean, news networks–coming. Or the powerful influence money, in the form of campaign contributions and political party funding, would have. But, then again, they were the wealthy and the privileged back then … so maybe they did see the money aspect….

      Tricky indeed … the rich can also fund political machines and the poor cannot. The day a political party passes a law that limits the amount of money anyone can use in the political arena (and therefore the influence from corporate entities (including the political parties themselves) over law-making) is the day I’ll … consider believing in the “American Dream.”

      Woo … that got a little bitter!

      Thanks, Douglas. I can think of a couple of friends of mine who insist that they are “centrists” and not “moderates” because of the mediocrity connotation. Which, fair enough…. The trick, I s’pose, is sustaining a passion for “moderate” beliefs. Also, there doesn’t exist a codified centrist platform, so they have that speed bump to deal with too.

      Heh, you take a markedly more optimistic take on the founding of this country than I do. I think we were lucky, frankly, that the ideas bouncing around in the pop culture of the time were Enlightenment empiricism and social contract theory. I had a history professor who noted that the American Revolution was, perhaps, the only revolution in the history of the world that did not involve an accompanying radical change in social hierarchy. I have no doubt that the early settlers were attracted to a “land of opportunity” seeking fortunes and what-not … but the cynic in me wonders how much the creation of the United States by the Founding Fathers was a way for many of them to ensure they kept those same fortunes (and their new found political power) for themselves.

    • Your final point is especially perceptive: Chernow, in his new biography of Washington (which I am now reading) emphasizes that America’s was a “conservative revolution”. That oxymoron is not the only thing ironic about it. Fascinating side story, for instance, on what happened to the runaway slaves of the founders after the war. “liberty”… for whom, as ever…

    • @Chris, I certainly agree with you about the desire of those who fomented and facilitated the Revolution had certain selfish ulterior motives. They also risked that wealth and power by engaging in it. Revolutions are always a gamble. Win and you are likely to increase your wealth and power (though this doesn’t always work out), lose and you lose it all and possibly your life.

      @Andreas, I wonder about that term, “conservative revolution.” A conservative at the time was a Tory; a person who wished to remain under the rule of the king. Is there a meaning I do not grasp?

  4. I’ve always viewed the US as a natural outgrowth of Rome, via the British Empire. It seems that similar characteristics run through the three. I did not know of Hamilton’s fascination with Roman government, which puts even stronger relations between the Old and New Rome.

    • Welcome to The Hannibal Blog, Jacob.

      Yes, in their iconography, ALL the great empires after Rome seem to have tried to claim that heritage. “Caesar”, for instance, became Czar/Tsar and Kaiser. Napoleon took all his aesthetics from Roman architecture.

      So did we, of course. Just look at our buildings.

      I guess the subtleties arise when different empires and historical figures decide which part of the Roman empire they admire most. The early Republic? The Caesars? The Rome of Scipio, or Cato, or Augustus, or Marcus Aurelius or….. the Byzantines?

      Since you mention Britain: I guess historians make the analogy explicit by referring to a Pax Romana, a Pax Britannica and a Pax Americana.

      As you see, you got me thinking …

  5. If only you taught history at the high school level, Andreas…

    Thank you for this concise summary of the tension in Hamilton’s day and its relationship, in your view, to the American political scene today.

    To go from the hope expressed before and after Obama’s victory, and all of the rhetoric that led to it, to this current election and its shift, indicates that some serious mistakes were made by the current administration. They had two parts of the puzzle, executive and legislative. Certainly, they blew it.

    Those mistakes (perhaps some hubris too) provided the opening for the loud Tea Party people.

    I see our decline from elegance of thought and speech to a coarseness seen on TV and in the malls. This coarseness is not partisan: it is grunge of the lowest sort.

  6. I beg to differ with you, sir, regarding your comment that Knox did not have much to do within Washington’s presidential administration.” Obviously, you do not know much about Secretary of War, General Henry Knox. I suggest you read, Washington’s General, Henry Knox, by North Callahan.

    • Did I really say that Knox “did not have much to do”?

      Oh yes, I see that i did. Well, there I go again, being flippant. But how come you’re only offended on behalf of Knox, and not Jefferson, who was also in the sentence?

      Anyway, you’re absolutely right, of course. I will put Callahan on my reading list.

      While we’re on that subject: Everybody, what’s the best, most engrossing, biography of Jefferson?

    • Not sure about best and most engrossing—and I personally detest wine—but I enjoyed this one. It seems that Jefferson was a wine aficionado, and this book discusses his meticulously scientific approach to managing his wine cellar and how it mirrors his approach to everything else, including government. It includes plenty of journal entries and his correspondence with various wine suppliers.

      Speaking of doing stuff in one’s spare time, hard to believe that the guy was a politician on the side.

    • What an interesting book recommendation! Jefferson on wine.
      I just read about a Jefferson biography about to be published that’s apparently going to be the standard. Perhaps worth waiting a few months…

    • It’s not the best biography, but I did enjoy Hitchens’ Thomas Jefferson: Author of America. It’s only 169 pages, normal sized font, and very short pages. Given what I know of your reading list its brevity might be worth looking into. That said, Hitchens recommends R.B. Bernstein’s Thomas Jefferson and Merrill Peterson’s Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation (in that order) of the “condensed Jefferson biographies.”

      What’s the new Jefferson biography called you read about?

  7. Thomas’s saying that “…….how undeserving our current government is of the legacy it is supposed to be carrying on……..” may reflect more that America’s current leaders must work within a constitution hammered out in the 18th century, in an America that couldn’t have been more different from today’s America if it tried.

    The sclerotic governance seen in today’s America is as good a reason as any to scrap this long-out-of-date constitution and to put a completely new one in its place. A brand new constitution would shake things up everywhere, would help eliminate antiquated thinking and beliefs, and thus bring about a genuinely new America.

    America’s constitution is (I think) the world’s oldest. And by far. All the more reason to trade it in for a brand new one.

    A parliamentary constitution might be the way to go.

    • I’m with Thomas on this. A parliamentary system would be the best way to break the stranglehold that the two major parties have on our government. However, I do not see any parliamentary system being efficient enough to be a world power. In my opinion, the US would have to fall to the status of secondary power (like GB or France) before it would tolerate a constitutional overhaul. Changing to that system would mean we have dropped to that status or would do so almost immediately.

    • I have mixed feelings about parliamentary systems. I think they are far more superior in forcing politicians to be accountable to the voters for their policies. Yet… do we really think voters are always the best judges of that? Also, in a huge diverse nation like the United States a parliamentary system would probably severely limit the voice of all of our diverse interests since policy usually becomes dominated by 1 party.

      If the two major parties continue to increase their polarization I think a parliamentary system might make more sense. Our system seems better designed for more heterogeneous parties, which is traditionally what they’ve been here. Hmm… I don’t know which way to go!

    • “……..If the two major parties continue to increase their polarization I think a parliamentary system might make more sense…….”

      A parliamentary system makes it easier for candidates from fringe parties to be elected. The lack of a parliamentary system in the US is no doubt why there are no SOCIALISTS, communists or Greens in the Congress or Senate.

      This is yet another factor that makes the US so different from the other major world democracies, all of which have representation by fringe parties in their parliaments or legislatures.

      Perhaps Jonathan Franzen is right in saying that the US has always been a slightly rogue nation.

    • A parliamentary system makes it easier for candidates from fringe parties to be elected. The lack of a parliamentary system in the US is no doubt why there are no SOCIALISTS, communists or Greens in the Congress or Senate.

      Who says there are no socialists, communists, or Greens in the House or Senate? They are just not open about it. Ours tend to be more stealthy and not wear the labels.

    • Well besides the fact that Bernie Sanders is a self-described socialist, there is something else amiss in that argument. A quick point, our system could be tweaked in a variety of ways that doesn’t alter it to a parliamentary system that would allow other party candidates a chance to win election (e.g. changing how we draw districts would be minor change with potentially large consequences).

      The other problem I see with how you’re setting up your praise of parliamentary systems (remember: there is a lot I like about them!) is even when minor party candidates win office in a parliamentary system they have dramatically lower power relative to the governing party in the parliament compared to an individual, say Senator, of the minority party in the US relative to the party in power.

      The US system emphasizes competing interests while a parliamentary system emphasizes governance by coherent parties. So minority parties might get plenty of recognition but I’m not sure they get that much power. Trade offs.

    • In my naive and bright-eyed opinion, proportional representation and limiting the amount of money special interest groups and private individuals (including, by a twisted kind of reason, corporations) can hurl at a candidate would be two of the biggest steps in reforming our political system.

      Proportional representation sidesteps Duverger’s Law, which states that a political system based on a single-member district plurality (like the US) inevitably leads to two-party dominance and ever-increasing polarization … like in the US. Not even parliamentary systems are except from this; look at Britain. Sure, there is a wider spectrum of political parties represented in its government, but general elections are still dominated by the Labour and Conservative Parties.

      Heh … Firefox’s spell-check thingy is telling me “Labour” is spelled wrong.

      But proportional representation would break the two-party dominance of the system and actually work to moderate the crazies by introducing many more coalition governments. Ah, I get dreamy-eyed just thinking about that. It wouldn’t be perfect, but it would at least more accurately represent the citizens of Congressional districts. Because even heavily gerrymandered districts would still elect some representatives based on the percentage of the voting.

      But good luck convincing anyone in our government to change to that….

    • @Dan regarding minor parties having minimal influence. In NZ we have a system called MMP (mixed member proportional system). For parliamentary elections, we get two votes, one is for the party we want to rule and the other is for the person you want as your representative (MP, which is like a congressman). The person you vote for doesn’t have to be with the same party you cast your party vote for.

      What makes it interesting is that there are more seats in parliament than there are electoral (congressional) districts and each party has a “list” of candidates ranked 1 through x. Based on the number of votes a party gets, they get an allocation of seats in parliament. The leader of the party with the majority of the seats becomes prime minister.

      What happens is that you end up with unelected MPs (they are in because the party got votes but the people didn’t) and sometimes they can become very influential. Down here there are 9 MPs from the Green party. None of them got elected in their local districts but they got in because people cast their party votes for the Green party.

      There are two major parties here–National (Republicans) and Labour (Democrats) and about half a dozen minor parties, including the Greens. Because National and Labour rarely get a clear majority, in order to rule they need to enter into coalitions with minor parties and that can make them very influential.

      I personally think it’s a great idea and is just what the US needs because it (1) gives more voices in government and (2) tempers the excesses of a single party. But the proto Tea Partyites down here hate it for those very reasons and in 2012 the issue of eliminating MMP is going to be on the ballot.

    • It would break my heart, Thomas, if NZ eliminated MMP because a mixed member proportional parliamentary system is exactly the kind of system I want to see more of in the world. I guess it has two things going against it, though. It diversifies political representation to accurately reflect the views of the citizenry and forces politicians to work together to get things done. The horror.

      Also, members of any major party have a vested interest in changing the system; they only have more power and influence to gain from doing so. Ahhhhh, Cynicism, my old friend, come keep me company….

    • n my naive and bright-eyed opinion, proportional representation and limiting the amount of money special interest groups and private individuals (including, by a twisted kind of reason, corporations) can hurl at a candidate would be two of the biggest steps in reforming our political system.

      @Chris, we have something called the First Amendment which should preclude limiting these things (although there are already limits to individual political contributions and limits for many other entities). If you oppose corporations as entitled entities under that, would you also oppose other organizations? For example, unions and associations and guilds and PACs. And then how do we classify political parties under that rule?

      Every time we seek to limit the influence of some, we create a serious restriction of liberty.

    • Ah, yes. Money as “free speech.” In answer to your question, yes. Be they unions, associations, guilds, or PACs, even our political parties, I think they should be much more limited than they are now in the amount of money they can contribute to an election . In my mind, the millions and millions of dollars they throw into campaigns amounts to a kind of poll tax. It doesn’t bar people from actually voting, but it does deafen politicians’ ears to the poor schlubs who can’t afford to fund an ad campaign. It prioritizes the issues that those corporate entities think are important and fosters a moneyed aristocracy (and not the Kluthian kind) that maintains a powerful influence over governance.

      Let’s assume money is speech. Limiting (not eliminating) the speech of a very few in order to promote the speech of everyone else is very, very worth it to me.

    • I’m not for limiting speech of any kind, but I’ll leave that one alone for right now.

      @ Chris, I’m actually very interested in proportional representation and think reforms like instant runoff voting have a lot going for them. Of course, none of them requires a parliamentary system.

      @ Douglas, Thanks for sharing about New Zealand. That’s indeed an interesting case I haven’t looked into. I live in the US so I have obvious familiarity with that, but my only parliamentary experience comes from briefly working in the British House of Commons, so that colours 😉 most of my thinking on parliamentary systems.

      My larger point was that giving power to minority viewpoints isn’t a strength of either system. I’m not even sure we should seek to give minority parties or interests too much political power. I believe the key is to give them liberty through secured rights. But wherever you come down on that, I don’t believe it is obvious that minority political interests are better served in a US-like Congress or a parliamentary system.

    • @Dan–I agree. I think the tightrope is a question of giving minority parties a voice and a seat at the table rather than giving them power beyond their democratic/numerical representation of the society as a whole. In NZ we’ve seen the positive and negative effects which has led to the current debate.

      Also, I was wondering what you meant by the phrase: “give them liberty through secured rights.”

    • I meant that most choices in life don’t need to be settled through a political process. Instead we let all people, which includes minorities of all types, have as much liberty as possible as long as their liberty doesn’t infringe too deeply on other people’s liberties. I know that’s all very vague; so for a classic example, everyone gets an equal right to free speech – we’re not going to censure a politically unpopular viewpoint. To take a contemporary example, I very much disagree with a lot of Islamic positions and they’re also a very small minority in the US, but I firmly believe that we shouldn’t stop them from practicing their religion – they can build a mosque even in unpopular places – and we should give them every opportunity to argue for their views. Or if you’re a socialist or green you can freely assemble and advocate for your positions. It’s also why I favor liberal migration laws and policies that don’t anchor people too much – if you don’t like a place you can move to a place where they do things a bit differently.

    • @Chris

      Let’s assume money is speech. Limiting (not eliminating) the speech of a very few in order to promote the speech of everyone else is very, very worth it to me.

      We don’t have to assume, the USSC has defined it as such. See “Buckley v. Valeo” 1975 But, regardless, any restriction on speech (in any form) and any restriction on political participation only serves those in power and strengthens them against those not in power. Let’s say, I am trying to start a political movement. And let’s say I am filthy rich because I invented the Magic Gizmo (which, of course, is wildly popular and is desired by young and old alike). Can I not use that money to advance my cause? Especially if my cause is to ensure equal justice and greater freedom for all? And cannot my rival, the inventor of the Infernal Gadget, who is also filthy rich oppose me with his (in my opinion) ill gotten gains? Isn’t it up to the voter to decide who is right and who is wrong for the country? Or would you have the state do that?

      You would restrict both me and my Evil Opponent. Which might be reasonable. You would also restrict anyone wishing to gain political office. You would restrict someone who might have supported the same goals as I because you would not allow me to finance a surrogate.

      Of course, we could always demand that all candidates receive public funding and operate their campaigns within the strict limits that the State (read: incumbents) demands.

      But then where’s our freedom?

      It is disturbing that campaigns cost so much (and say so little) but limiting funding sources won’t change that. That is a the result of people wishing to win office and hiring public relations and marketing firms to get them there. Those people may be either good or bad. Let the voters decide. Or do you think them incapable of doing so “correctly?”

      @Dan, that was Chris who wrote about NZ’s system. I know very little about it.

    • Yes, I’m familiar with the Supreme Court decisions. Whilst making my comments, I was thinking specifically of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which effectively removed the limit of what a corporation, union, or special interest group could spend on political campaigns.

      I think you’ve stretched my comment to be more than I thought it was. Perhaps I did not elucidate it well enough. I was talking primarily about elections. I did not say you could not start a political movement or use your money to further your cause. Nor did I say the state should choose our government officials. It’s also very easy to speak in abstractions, such as claiming you would “ensure equal justice and greater freedom for all.” I can’t think of any politicians who have made that claim, let alone followed through on it.

      I will say again, I think serious campaign finance reform would be a big step for the US. We have more options in my mind than our current system and a totalitarian hell-scape. I admit the “Let’s assume money is speech” was perhaps a tad glib, stemming from my belief that money is not speech; it’s money. That, however, is my personal belief; the other being law. Similarly, I don’t believe corporations are individuals. They’re corporations. Just as unions are unions. And I disagree with their being given the same rights as individuals under our current system. Again, that’s just my personal belief, and there’s little to nothing I can do about it. I maintain, however, that under our current system the voices of the super-rich are given exponentially more influence and attention then anyone else’s. Or, to put it another way, all speech is free, but some speech is freer than others.

    • @Chris,

      Yes, I’m familiar with the Supreme Court decisions. Whilst making my comments, I was thinking specifically of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which effectively removed the limit of what a corporation, union, or special interest group could spend on political campaigns.

      I can understand that (even suspected as much) but it was the logical extension of “money=speech”. The difficulty you have with seeing corporations as individuals is shared by many. This is why I refer to them as “entities” rather than “individuals.” They are, like unions et al, organizations of individuals with a common purpose. One might consider them, in terms of politics, a “political bloc” of sorts. If we outlaw them from political participation, we risk outlawing other political blocs from participation in the future. I realize this sounds like the old “slippery slope” argument. Still, I see it as a real possibility. I have come to believe that we must be protective of all rights and widen them, not restrict them.

      One of the problems in restricting corporate donations is that it will eventually (I believe) lead to restricting others, just as my question implied. You may feel that this is not a bad thing and it may not seem so at this point in time. But we have no way of knowing what the unintended consequences might be. Could it lead to the restriction on PACs? Why not? PACs are nothing more than clearing houses for political contributions. Started by the CIO, a federation of labor unions,they were adopted by as a strategy by businesses to counter the power of unions to influence politics.

      I always see corporations as the bogeymen in the battle against political corruption but the truth is that politics is always the struggle for power and the exploitation of that power. In that, anyone or any group can be the influence for corruption.

      A corporation is an entity, it has interests which can be helped or hindered by legislation. Just as people do. People who work within the corporation have a vested interest in legislation that affects the corporation’s ability to grow or even just remain viable. This is no different than any union or political bloc. Any group of people can exert power and influence through donations to politicians or campaigns or political parties. It is always been thus. It is natural for people to seek to influence. Any restriction will be circumvented in time unless the entire process is strictly controlled. And I don’t think either of us would like to see that.

      More freedom, not more restriction, is preferable to me.

    • More freedom, not more restriction, is preferable to me.

      Um, fair enough. Though as you’ve now framed the discussion, you stand for freedom and I am somehow anti-freedom when, in fact, it is a concern for freedom that motivates my views. Your proposition rests on the assumption that more laws automatically mean less freedom, which I think we can both agree is wrong. Anarchy is not the best possible situation.

      Calling corporations entities or bogeymen or even frogs does not change the fact that they are given the same rights as individuals, which gives them a disproportionate amount of influence in the political arena. According to the 2006 US Census Bureau, 98.5% of Americans make less than $250,000 a year, whereas many corporations earn millions and millions (if not billions) of dollars each year. Any individual trying to oppose a corporation faces a fight with odds not even as good as David v. Goliath. It’s more like David v. an entire boardroom of Goliaths, with an army of shareholders supplying them weaponry. Furthermore, given our globalized economy, most major corporations are international entities, which means foreign citizens are now allowed to wield that disproportionate amount of power in US elections over 98.5% of US citizens.

      Also, corporations are not unified in purpose the way a person or even a union or PAC is. Corporations are unified by industry, not ideology. That is a qualitative difference. I work at Target, which means the Target management and I are unified in the purpose of getting people in the Chicago area access to retail goods. We do not share a common purpose in regards to health care reform or tax rates or the rights of same-sex couples, etc. etc. etc. However, after Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the upper-management of Target are able to exploit my labor and the profits accruing from it for their own political ends. That certainly isn’t freedom.

      Money is one of the best determinants of a successful political campaign; the more you spend, the more likely you are to win. This is a strong indicator that money is such a powerful influence in politics that it overrides rationality (unless you’re going to make the argument that the candidate with the most money is always the best candidate). It’s never a simple matter of just letting people decide. If that were the case, we wouldn’t have (or need) any laws to govern our behavior. But human beings are not solely rational agents. In fact, there are times when I wonder if human beings are even mostly rational agents. However (and here’s where I reveal my bias), I believe we should create a political system that maximizes rationality over other influences.

      I don’t like slippery slope arguments because they are always predicated on arguing something other than what the opposition is saying. They also equate every political view (regardless of how moderate or extreme it is) with an extreme one.

      Person 1: “I think same-sex couples should be allowed to marry.”
      Person 2: “What’s next–bestiality?!”
      Person 1: “Um … no. An animal is qualitatively different from a consenting adult.”

      I am not talking about “outlaw[ing]” anyone who has a right to participate in our political process from our political process. I’m not talking about constructing a totalitarian regime that controls our every political decision. Removing regulations gives more power to those in power or those with the most money (it just so happens–coincidentally, I know–that in our system those are the same people). I’m talking about regulating the system in order to maximize its fairness for every citizen of the United States, so that the maximum number of freely spoken voices are heard, not just the shrillest.

      Also … I admit that I am baffled by these two statements:

      Any restriction will be circumvented in time unless the entire process is strictly controlled. And I don’t think either of us would like to see that.

      Are you saying the best possible political process is one in which none of the rules are actually enforced? If so … I disagree.

    • This is going to be as short as I can possibly make it.

      You are wrong:

      About corporations being treated the same as individuals. I refer you to

      See the section on corporations…

      “The law also prohibits contributions from corporations and labor unions.”

      You should also examine just how much you, as an individual, are restricted now by law in regard to political contributions.

      About “slippery slope”, you appear to be confusing with “Strawman” arguments.
      A “Strawman” would be like you saying I am in favor of anarchy, or even implying it.

      You, as an employee of a corporation, are no more the corporation than a union member is the union. You do, however, have a vested interest in the health and success of the corporation. If you are also a shareholder then you have an additional interest. The corporate board is the ones who would oversee the lobbying and support for political matters, just as the national union heads are the ones for a union.

      I do not wish to see anarchy nor do I wish to see no rules whatsoever regarding political activity. On the other hand, I hold a firm belief that any restrictions placed on any political activity will be (by design) advantageous to the incumbents and detrimental to non-incumbents. It is obvious to me though I realize others may not see it as clearly as I do. More freedom means less restriction. I do not think you are anti-freedom. I think you sincerely believe that imposing more restriction would be an improvement for the political process. We simply disagree about this. These are opinions. We are each entitled to believe as we wish and to debate our opinions. While I think people can be (and a number routinely) misled by slick campaigns, I think most people are quite capable of seeing through them… IF they choose to. To clarify, while I think people can be sheep I also think they don’t have to be. I do not wish to save them from themselves.

    • You are correct in saying that I was wrong about corporations being treated as individuals, as of January 2009, when that guide was last updated. My argument was a bit simplistic in regards to the various nuances of campaign finance. Corporations and unions and individuals are all regulated in how much they can directly contribute to a specific candidates. The guide, however, does not address indirect campaign contributions or the implications of Citizens United v. FEC, which happened in 2010.

      A Strawman is when someone misrepresents an argument by saying, “You’re saying x,” when it is, in fact, y. A Slippery Slope is when someone says, “What you’re saying (inevitably) leads to x, so it basically is x,” when that may or may not actually be the case.

      I didn’t mean to imply that you are (secretly or otherwise) advocating anarchy. I’m really sorry if that’s how you took it. I said, “Your proposition rests on the assumption that more laws automatically mean less freedom, which I think we can both agree is wrong. Anarchy is not the best possible situation.” I was trying to point out something implicit, and the last sentence was meant as an example of what we both agree on, not something I believe in opposition to you. I can see how that could be misinterpreted. I’m sorry.

      Also, whilst writing this comment, I took the time to stare at “Any restriction will be circumvented in time unless the entire process is strictly controlled. And I don’t think either of us would like to see that,” which I asked you about as a genuine appeal for clarification, but I think (fear) may have come across as an accusation (like, “See, I told you you were a crazy anarchist nut-jub and here’s my proof!”). I now think you were saying that there will always be loopholes and people who exploit them, unless the State completely clamps down and controls the situation; that is, unless the State controls, in a totalitarian way, the entire election process–which I totally agree with (as you said!). So that’s completely my misreading of your comment. I thought by “controlled” you were referring to enforcing “restrictions” along the lines of what we have now. I missed it; that’s on me.

      I’m not saying I’m restricted by law more than corporations or anyone else. I’m saying I’m restricted by socio-economics. The amount of money I have (or, rather, don’t have) restricts my participation and influence in political affairs; whereas, I see other people with millions to throw away, who do so without, as far as I can tell, regard (or the intelligence/awareness) to actually making the country or our political process any better for the country. That really, really frustrates me, so some of what I believe stems from that frustration.

      So, I’m thinking about all of this and it seems to me that it all sounds really familiar and familiar in the sense of to connected to this blog, and then I do a search on The Hannibal Blog for “liberalism” and find this post. It appears we are carrying out a classic case of Austrian School v. Ordoliberalism. Those crazy continentals….

    • @Chris,
      I would think mentioning a slippery slope is not the same as arguing it. Indeed, I prefer the term “unintended consequences” rather than “slippery slope”. All actions have consequences, some obvious (and maybe intended) and some not so obvious (and likely unintended). In terms of laws, these unintended consequences can have great and unwanted impact. I only mentioned them because I think any law, but especially ones which restrict rights, need to be carefully considered before being enacted. Not to argue against a law but to argue for caution in supporting it.

      Until the laws change (and I was assuming that the laws have not changed yet because the that government website has not yet been updated to reflect that), the restrictions stand. I would examine why you think that the wealthy (corporations or individuals) are always (I infer this) opposed to what you might want. I think we have plenty of corporations which are pro-Obama, for example, as we have corporations that are not. In terms of individual legislation, a corporation’s interest and your own may match up nicely… or not.

      The ability for a candidate to get his message out (I have issues about how those messages are presented) depends upon money. It always will. Liberal donors (including corporations and individuals) will be countered by conservative donors. At least, that is how I see it. I do not worry about the money so much as I worry about the packaging of candidates. I don’t see how restricting money/donations will improve that.

      The money from rich donors and corporations and unions, et al, can have both a positive influence and a negative one. Think about the last time corporate backing has caused you to support the candidate. My gut instinct tells me that has never happened. In fact, I would suspect that it has done the opposite more often than not.

      Create two lists sometime. On one side, list the organizations and individuals who have influenced you to back a candidate through their donations and then make a list of those which have influenced you to oppose a candidate.

      I wonder, would you also restrict non-monetary support from the wealthy? I am speaking here, of course, of celebrity endorsements. Don’t the famous also have more influence than you? And, while you contemplate that, you might also make two lists like you did with the money donors.

      And then reconsider my issue with “unintended consequences.”

      But I think we are hogging the forum a bit. So I will refrain from further debate. You may have the last word, as it were.

    • Ah, good sir, but you assume I am a Democrat. Or at least support Obama. While I do consider him a “lesser evil” than McCain/Palin, I can’t call myself a Democrat. I won’t. I stopped banking on the lesser of two evils a few years ago. Now I support candidates I believe in (as opposed to abstractions I may or may not believe in).

      Given the entire structure of our political system, liberal donors are equal to Democratic donors and conservative donors are equal to Republican donors. They may counter each other, but independent candidates and third parties get the shaft. The major parties are able to blanket the media and the country with so much noise and distortion that third parties get washed out. They don’t even have a chance. How many debates can you think of in the last few elections to which third party and independent candidates were even invited? Yeah. They get muzzled, while Democrats and Republicans get bullhorns.

      I like the phrase “unintended consequences” about a million times better than slippery slope. And, given the connotations each of those has in my brain, I’d say unintended consequences more accurately describes your views, at least as I understand them. The thing is, everything has unintended consequences. Sometimes those can be horrific, but usually they’re not. And when they are (or even if they’re not), we can fix them. I don’t entertain the delusion that we can fix everything in one fell swoop or that everything about any changes we make will be perfect. But we gotta start somewhere. Well, I want to start somewhere. Then we’ll see where we get from there.

      Your gut is correct, naturally, in that I’ve never supported a candidate based solely on whoever is supporting said candidate. Anyone can say they support whoever; that’s not really persuasive for me. It’s never about that. It’s about the money–the money that that support means to the candidate. Too bad corporations/unions/celebrities don’t simply endorse a candidate and then not give them any money … I’d encourage that.

      Democrat/Republican is not the only dichotomy in politics, but there are powerful, powerful forces in our system that force us only to see that one. I’d put “money” at the top of that list (hmmm … maybe I should make a list of those). As self-evident as you see the need for less restrictions, that’s how much I see the need for reform. Go fig. But I did enjoy our tête-à-tête, excepting the one misunderstanding. It’s always nice to flesh out ideas and you can’t really do that well unless you talk them out with someone. And it helps if that person is intelligent.

      We may stop debating, but nothing should ever be the last word…. 😉

  8. Creak, creak.

    I think the reason the U.S. Constitution has survived for so long is that it’s vague enough so that everyone can interpret it their way and short enough to leave plenty of room for the democratic process to fill in the blanks.

    And in my view, the reason some folks want a new Constitution is that they perceive the current one as allowing too much wiggle room for their ideological opposition to operate. They see a Barack Obama or a Sarah Palin respectively rise to prominence, and it follows that we need a new constitution in order to prevent such a thing from ever happening again.

    I’m not opposed to a new constitution, but I do question the motives of people who call for one. And precisely because I strongly suspect that calls for a new Constitution are mainly driven by the hope that it will enhance the power base of one’s own camp, I see virtually zero chance that any meaningful agreement could ever be reached regarding the text of a new constitution.

    At least I’d be curious to read any proposals that would stand a snowball’s chance in hell to get the votes necessary to pass a constitutional amendment, which, I suppose, would have to be equal to the level of approval necessary to pass a new constitution.

    Unless, of course, the new constitution—like the current one—contains a clause that favors its own passing—e.g., calls for a simple majority rather than a supermajority—which will necessarily raise serious questions as to its validity, for how can you pass a law on the basis of a clause in the not-yet-passed law itself? Ergo, I suppose that half the country wouldn’t accept it.

    In explaining why the time was right for revolution, Thomas Paine wrote that “we are sufficiently numerous, and were we more so, we might be less united. ”

    Well, two centuries later, we are certainly more numerous and less united. Good luck agreeing on a new constitution.

    • That pretty much says it all. Not only that, before anything was done on a new constitution, there would have to be massive education of the public as to what exactly a constitution is and what it is supposed to do, cannot do, and should not do. I’m afraid the debate would overlook structuring of the government and focus on flag burning, abortion and guns.

    • Exactly. The Constitution that Philippe envisions would have to be drafted and ratified by some aristocratic minority—defined as “rule of the best”—and then, of course, the Fox News watching hoi polloi wouldn’t accept it.

      There’s your Second Civil War.

    • @Cyberquill

      Exactly. The Constitution that Philippe envisions would have to be drafted and ratified by some aristocratic minority—defined as “rule of the best”—and then, of course, the Fox News watching hoi polloi wouldn’t accept it.

      And if that new Constitution favored that “hoi polloi” rather than the progressives? I believe you were right about the motives behind a Constitutional Convention.

      I think that a Constitutional Convention would exacerbate the political-social division we have today. We cannot easily divide this nation to create two (or more) nations. There was a chance of it in the mid-1800’s but the seceding states failed. Now, we are divided not only by region but within regions. Imagine a nation having a few states on the west coast, several on the east coast, and a few in between and its rival nation taking a majority of the center?

    • If the new Constitution favored that hoi polloi, then Phillipe would recruit and train an army of Canadian volunteers and invade the United States with the goal of toppling the government and instituting a new one, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

      Similar feats have been accomplished before. Maybe they’ll need a little help from the French.

    • Feel free to venture your own hypothesis, Geraldine.

      Actually, as I was writing that sentence I was pondering whether “in America” was superfluous or inppropriate. Ie, whether the sentence should read “Irony rarely wins.” Anywhere.

      But some cultures — Britain, eg — do seem more receptive to irony and others less. A pity. Lacking sense of irony often goes hand in hand with hypocrisy….

    • Does not irony come out of being able to see oneself (or ourselves) as others might see one (or us)?

      It does seem to me that most Americans cannot see themselves as others others see them. America as a nation seems acutely self-centred, so that America seems – not to put too fine a point on it – insular.

      This insularity – resulting in an inability to learn from the experiences of others, and to compare with them – may be the root of so many of America’s political, cultural, and economic problems.

      Perhaps irony also comes out of being a mature or old culture. American culture, in addition to being insular, may simply be too young to have developed a good sense of irony.

      However, there is a form of humour that is quintessentially American. It is the wisecrack.

    • One of the weaknesses of irony, as I understand it, comes from its dependence on artifice and distance. There are always (at least) two levels to an instance of irony, what for lack of better terms I’ll call the surface and deep meanings. So, already, in order to see both layers of meaning, the speaker/creator of the irony and the audience/receiver of the irony have to step back from the situation, lest they only see the surface meaning. This creates a distance between them, a smirk. Taken to an extreme, as in the worst postmodern metafictions (and this coming from someone who celebrates the works of Thomas Pynchon), it becomes impossible to actually say anything and mean it sincerely. The situation devolves into just a game of sly and mysterious referents.

      I would actually say that America is plagued by way too much irony. At least in public discourse and most certainly on the internet, sarcasm (a particularly aggressive and vicious form of irony) has become requisite. Talk about creating distance … irony here serves to actively antagonize people. I know that I have a strong reflex to irony that I have only recently tried to get under control. It’s such an anarchic impulse, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, except that it’s rare that an ironist then takes the time to build something in the place of that which was just torn down. Or said ironist ends up creating a space in which it is impossible to build anything (I’m looking at you postmodernism!).

      Another weakness I see in irony is how easily it can be misinterpreted. Or distorted. How many satires have been abused by those the satirist original meant to critique? I feel like this is a natural consequence of the two layers of meaning. It makes it that much easier for someone to only see one of them (usually the surface/wrong one), especially if that person only wants to see one. It’s too cerebral, maybe, which is too bad because I really do like it, at least when it is employed as a scalpel (and not a broad sword).

      One of the strangest things about the two years I spent in China, actually, was the relative void of irony in the dominant Han culture. I had to largely recalibrate my sense of humor, especially when, as a teacher, I would employ humor to try to connect with my students. It did allow them to be heart-achingly sincere, which I, at times, was completely unequipped to deal with. Students telling me I changed their lives and meaning it! Oh, the blushing … And you can’t tell me that Chinese culture is young! Though they are extremely insular….

      I met a New Zealander teaching at the same university in China as me who, being from a country with the queen on its currency, seemed at times incapable of not being ironic. I will never forget what one of my students said in response to one of his jokes or wry observations as we were walking across the campus (I wish I could remember the joke/observation):

      “Ah,” she said, as though noting the color of a wall, “irony.”

  9. Although I said that America’s constitution should be scrapped for a brand new one, I can’t imagine this happening in the long foreseeable future, for the conditions are absent for so drastic a change.

    These conditions are usually a catastrophic defeat in war, accompanied by an occupation by the victorious enemy; or an overthrow of a dictatorship; or armed revolution by the dispossessed classes; or strong secessionist tendencies in large parts of the country, which would cause a total break-up.

    Absent these conditions, the present constitution is safe.

    More’s the pity.

    • Agreed. Not sure, though, if it’s a pity. What I like about the current one is that it’s short enough it may induce some people to actually read it. A new constitution would probably be 9,000 pages long. (I tried to read the New York State Constitution once. Dozed off about a quarter into the thing. I just thought it was funny that—what with separation of church and state and all—its preamble actually contained the phrase “grateful to Almighty God for our Freedom.” And that’s the latest version from 2004.)

      Thomas Jefferson was among those who believed that a constitution should not outlive its makers and that no generation should be governed by the “dead hand of the past.”

      So apparently, Mr. Jefferson sat down and calculated a generation to be exactly 19 (!) years. Most likely, since he wasn’t present at the Constitutional Convention, the good man had no real sense of what a hassle it was to get the darn thing passed and ratified the first time, let alone the nationwide fuss and feathers it would entail to draft a new constitution every 19 years. (You can imagine James Madison falling off his chair when he read his buddy’s proposal.)

    • These conditions are usually a catastrophic defeat in war, accompanied by an occupation by the victorious enemy; or an overthrow of a dictatorship; or armed revolution by the dispossessed classes; or strong secessionist tendencies in large parts of the country, which would cause a total break-up.

      And, yet, none of these conditions existed at the time of the Constitutional Convention that gave us the US Constitution. What existed was a country that was falling apart under the Articles of Confederation, a nation of 13 squabbling states with no means to actually settle disputes or provide a cohesive core.

    • @Cyberquill

      Yes, Shays’ Rebellion could be classified that way, I suppose. Though I would see it as more a symptom of the problem in the mid-1780’s and the aftermath of the Revolution than a threat to the Confederation. Shays was pretty much confined to Massachusetts and not a widespread rebellion though it is possible that that was a risk that the Founders wished to avoid.

  10. Loved this piece Andreas! One of your best for sure. If I may say so, you struck a wonderful balance throughout the post. From setting up nice juxtapositions (e.g. “monarchy, aristocracy, democracy” – “tyranny, oligarchy, mob rule”), contrasting Hamilton versus his opponents, the contrast within the opponents themselves (e.g. Henry’s statements), agrarianism versus industrialism, to using history to illuminate the present, and more -I’m very impressed.

    As a chess player I also liked your use of “en passant.”

    Not that it would ever conceivably change, but do you have a personal opinion on if it’d be beneficial to go back to the state legislatures choosing senators?

    • Thanks, Dan!

      Re the choice of senators: I certainly don’t think it’s the most pressing of our concerns. Also, I take a very dim view of STATE legislatures, so I don’t think that reverting to the original custom would re-introduce an element of aristocracy (ie, meritocracy) into our government.

      But I do, occasionally, wonder whether a new and improved electoral college would be worth considering.

    • I agree it’s not the most pressing of our concerns. And I have similar feelings about state legislatures. Yet, I do think the structure of our government in general is “the most pressing of our concerns.” It seems to be the most overlooked aspect of politics even though the structure of government is often what leads to the type of decisions we get from our elected officials. So it’s possible (if potentially unlikely) that a change like that could have a dramatic effect on the quality of decisions (negative or positive) our Senate makes – and that, after all, is one of the bodies that makes policy to deal with our pressing concerns. So without having studied this issue I’m inclined to agree with you, but I always intrigued (and want to learn more about) with how structure -not personality- is the thing that most often really matters in public policy.

      On the electoral college, I remember an Economist piece from years ago remarking that it tends to moderate Presidential picks – I remember thinking that made sense, but the more I thought about it the more I became unsure about that. Yet, I tend think all of our modern presidents have been pretty moderate, but that might be just because they have to appeal to the whole nation – not a specific consequence of the electoral college. I wouldn’t mind a system that put some more emphasis on urban America – Hamilton might favor that too. Maybe a popular vote would do that.

      My pet interest I’ve been wanting to look into is proportional representation, maybe by instant runoff voting or something.

  11. @Andreas, Chris, Philippe
    How can I add to what has already been said, with the exception of ‘ditto’. :0

    Well, I’ll venture to say, with some trepidation, that I think irony rarely wins in America due to innocence. In my view, Americans don’t relate to the past (failures and successes) in the same way as Europeans. Irony presents unwanted incongruities, offending a direct way of thinking. It’s not the preferred teaching tool.

    I like irony but cannot understand wisecracks. Sometimes, I’m offended by them when no harm was meant at all. At least, I hope not.

  12. Brilliant post!

    Your final point about Hamilton’s supposed elitism and Jefferson’s folksiness gave a voice to feelings I’ve had for a while. My US history book (and teacher) portrayed them that way exactly. As I remember it, Hamilton created the First Bank of the United States, and most of its shares were sold to private hands. Historians didn’t question the creation of the central bank, but they criticized his motives: Hamilton wanted the get the wealthier classes behind the new federal gov’t, and giving them new wealth from shares (which they would assuredly buy) would cement them into the new system. To me, however, Hamilton laid down the foundations of the only system (capitalism) that pulls people out of poverty.

    But I do think you’re a little unfair to Jefferson. After the very formal and proper presidencies of Washington and Adams (they wanted to give the new position an air of importance), Jefferson sought to make the presidency extremely informal. In other countries across the pond diplomacy has rigid formalities, all of which Jefferson scrapped. He even wrote a memo to his administration stating “when brought together in society, all are perfectly equal, whether foreign or domestic, titled or untitled, in or out of office”. In other words, he tried very hard to not be elitist (of course, that memo doesn’t apply to slaves or women).

    The slavery problem for Jefferson was sort of tragic—he had to make arguments that blacks are genetically inferior (a sick “scientific” racism) to show that his claims in the Declaration of Independence don’t apply to them. Hamilton, meanwhile, said, “The contempt we have been taught to entertain for the blacks makes us fancy many things that are founded neither in reason nor experience, and unwillingness to part with property of so valuable a kind will furnish a thousand arguments to show the impracticability or pernicious tendency of a scheme which requires such a sacrifice”. Hamilton saw the evil of slavery, and he understood why slave owners would make logical loops to sanctify the practice.

    Hamilton even thought a cash-crop economy based on slavery would hurt the South in the long term, preventing it from developing a strong manufacturing sector. Clearly Hamilton was a brilliant economic thinker. Why isn’t he included in the pantheon of great economic thinkers (or, at least that how it seems to me… Please prove me wrong if you can)? At the moment all I conclude is that he was one of the first to apply economics to reality, but he didn’t actually make any great intellectual contributions to the discipline. How does he fit into economics?

    • Great comment, Luke. You’re clearly a connoisseur of the Founding Fathers.

      Re your question of how Hamilton fits into economics: Perhaps he’s like my great uncle, Ludwig Erhard, in that he is seen to have executed or implemented a socio-politico-economic vision, rather than having actually conceived that vision.

      In Erhard’s case, the conceivers were the Ordoliberals; in Hamilton’s case, it might have been … Adam Smith?

  13. I just came upon this, and am happier than I can say to see someone taking a reasoned look at my much-adored (and bizarrely much-neglected) Hamilton. AH was, in my view, romantic and idealistic emotionally but highly pragmatic intellectually. These traits combined to particularly useful effect in his work to get the US on a stable footing. If he was to gain the personal glory that was his emotional motivation, he had to make sure that the US would (a) survive and (b) thrive, and he set about those aims with all the resources at his disposal.

    I also regard Madison as the closest thing to a soulmate Hamilton had, and it is perhaps worth noting in that respect that after Hamilton had died, and Madison had enjoyed the experience of running a war on Jeffersonian economic principles, Jemmy realized, “O-o-o-ohhh…yeah, I get it now” and quietly established the second BUS, which was identical to Hamilton’s first (which Jefferson of course had allowed to expire, against the advice of his own Sec. of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin — Gallatin having changed his mind about Hamilton’s economic policies after having actually examined them, declaring Hamilton’s work “the most perfect system ever devised by man”). So JM and AH had a sort of rapprochement, at long last, after Hamilton was kaput.

    A couple of things other than disputes over vision, principles, direction (or ad hominem attacks because Hamilton came from pretty close to the gutter), etc. etc. I think factored in to some of the opposition Hamilton engendered. His logical arguments were often holistic and consequently lacked a “high-concept” hook. Also, his emotionality seriously interfered sometimes. He would put things over-dramatically for effect, or out of frustration.

    And he got a little wacky when he got a full wind in his sails sometimes. An anecdote from early in his career: towards the end of the Rev. War (during the taking of Yorktown), the British would lob what were basically bombs that would plop down and then explode a bit later. When the Continentals saw one of these things drop down, the SOP was to yell “SHELL!” so everyone knew to take cover before the thing went off. Seems sensible enough. Well, not to young Hamilton, who decided that it was not soldierly to run away from death that way. He thought it would be cooler, I guess, to just stand there — at least in theory. So he was arguing with Gen. Knox about whether or not it was okay to holler SHELL when one dropped down, Hamilton saying no, it’s undignified and unmanly to yell and run and Knox replying that perhaps the circumstances *warranted* yelling and running, when of course a shell dropped into the area. One of the soldiers gave the call, and everybody ducked for cover — including Hamilton, who actually tried to take shelter behind (the very meaty) Knox. (Knox suggested afterwards that perhaps this settled the argument, and Hamilton…uncharacteristically remained silent.) Not, of course, that Hamilton lacked physical courage — he didn’t in the slightest. George Washington wouldn’t have stood still for a danged unexploded shell either. No one would. But Hamilton was the sort of person who *every now and then* would blather on and on about how awesome it would be to just stand there and get blown up like a dimwit, even though ultimately of course he knew better. (During Charles Lee’s court-martial, Lee took Hamilton apart by citing chapter and verse about the ridiculous, theatrical personal risks Hamilton took under fire whenever he got the chance. I don’t think it’s JUST because Washington so valued Hamilton as an aide that Hamilton didn’t get a command until the VERY END of the war.)

    Anyway, that is a longish anecdote to suggest a general pattern with him, that he could be VERY mouthy and sometimes rather silly when he got romantic notions in his head, and I suspect that made it more difficult for other people to differentiate when it was Ferociously Intelligent, Dedicated Hamilton speaking or when it was Sorrows of Young Werther Hamilton on a tear.

    • Welcome to the HB, Kate, and thanks for this colorful anecdote. It really captures him in all his complicated, contradiction-prone richness.

      Re the Hamilton-Madison relationship as it evolved (from soulmate to enemies to, as you say, post-mortem rapprochement): it must be one of the most interesting relationships in history, right up there with that between Hannibal and Scipio, about which I make a big deal in my book. Somebody could write a great book just about H-M.

      Love the comparison to Young Werther.

  14. Interesting, but very one-sided. It is best when reading accounts of history to look at all the views before making up one’s mind. Whilst this does provide one such account, it is in stark contrast to much else that I have read or heard. Best I think not to join a side, but rather to TRY to obtain an objective view of events.

    As for Jefferson’s love of slavery. One need only read the original declaration of indepence, penned by Jeferson, to see that he was most against slavery!! Congress, however, struck from this declaration the most anti-slavery parts of it (although allowing the “all mean are created equal” to remain).

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