Sunday, May 11, 2003

Interpreting the Republic: The Intellectual Legacy of Alexander Hamilton
By Alexander Marriott May 8, 2003 History 251: Historical Investigation

On July 14, 1804, mourners gathered at the funeral of Alexander Hamilton in New York City to hear his friend and fellow crafter of the United States Constitution, Gouverneur Morris, deliver the eulogy. Morris told the gathered crowd of Hamilton’s efforts to help the country and of his anti-democratic political philosophy by saying,
"You know how well he performed the duties of a citizen – you know that he never courted your favor by adulation or the sacrifice of his own judgment. You have seen him contending against you, and saving your dearest interests, as it were, in spite of yourselves." Hamilton, like many of the founding fathers, based his political philosophy on what he believed to be just and correct, not what was popular or politically expedient. His own brand of politics contributed to the important political disputes of the Early Republic, and to several of those after his death. The crafting and ratifying of the Constitution, the fight over the Bank of the United States, and the question of how to interpret the Constitution, were all areas where Hamilton offered a view contrary to that of the Jeffersonian Republicans and the Anti-Federalist ideas held by the majority of the American public. Despite these obstacles, Hamilton’s interpretation not only survived, but thrived in all branches of government and forced his enemies to confront his consistently reasoned approach. Hamilton’s propensity to speak his mind gained him more enemies than friends, even amongst the people who called themselves Federalists such as John Adams, and it incurred the wrath of his killer, Aaron Burr. His force of will was responsible for propelling his ideas like the central bank and the implied powers of the Constitution, unpopular as they were, into law and the minds of the jurists who sat on the Supreme Court. Though they were temporarily defeated after he was killed, these ideas would eventually be picked up and carried by others, albeit in a somewhat modified way, but the spirit of them still belonged, and belongs still, to Hamilton.

Alexander Hamilton’s intellectual contributions to the United States began in 1787, when a Convention was convened to revise the Articles of Confederation, but the aim of the Convention soon became the creation of an entirely new charter for the government. The framers of that charter decided early on that the government they would attempt to craft would be Republican in nature, something not tried with such a large country since the days of Rome. Hamilton, representing New York, stood out in the Convention when he advocated the idea of having an executive for life, but this was not taken up seriously by many, which was not very surprising considering most of the men at the convention (Hamilton included) had been heavily involved in winning independence from a monarch. The reason for Hamilton’s support of this idea was, chiefly, his fear of democracy and its potential to infringe on private property rights, as well as the potential of a temporary executive to be bribed by foreign powers in the hopes of staying in power longer. All of the founders realized these were potential problems in any Republic and, "In their quest to build a republican economy and society, therefore, they could perceive intimate connections between such seemingly remote and discrete matters as, for example, the need to open export markets for American produce and the need to sustain the virtuous character of a republican people."

“The virtuous character of a republican people,” was the concern of all the founders as a Republic was dependent upon the people to run, fund, and support it. If the people were to fall out of step with virtue and the ideals upon which the Republic was founded then its survival would be in jeopardy. Hamilton held this particular view dearly and was willing to risk his life in order to keep Aaron Burr, who he perceived to be a less than virtuous, from gaining official power.

Alexander Hamilton’s life ended just one year short of his fiftieth birthday on the dueling grounds of Weehawken, New Jersey. When the election of 1800 ended in a tie between Burr and Thomas Jefferson it went to the House of Representatives. Hamilton advocated the “contemptible hypocrite” Jefferson over Burr, whom he said was “One of the most unprincipled men in the [United States].” Whether Hamilton’s active lobbying against Burr had any effect on the outcome is uncertain, but certainly it gained him Burr’s attention.

In 1804, Burr ran for Governor of New York as an independent candidate, hoping to gain enough support from Federalists to secure victory, but again Hamilton was there to stop the “embryo-Caesar in the United States” from winning. In an address to a gathering of Federalists in Albany, Hamilton raised the specter of the French Revolution and Jacobins to characterize Burr and his political ambitions. This not only struck straight at the heart of Federalist fears about democracy, namely the destruction of property rights, but was also consistent with what Hamilton had been saying of Burr’s political philosophy since the 1800 election: "It is probable that if he has any theory ‘tis that of a simple despotism. He has intimated that he thinks the present French constitution not a bad one." This link of Burr to French Revolutionary thought is a continuing theme of Hamilton’s critiques and Federalist critiques of Jeffersonians in general. The egalitarian and democratic overtones of the French Revolution alarmed Hamilton and he was well aware that they alarmed his fellow Federalists as well.

Burr lost the 1804 election and soon afterwards came into possession of a published letter that Dr. Charles Cooper had written publicly to call out Hamilton’s comments about Burr as slanderous. In this letter Cooper alleged that Hamilton had insulted and expressed a “despicable opinion” of Burr in public. This precipitated Burr’s challenge and Hamilton’s acceptance on the grounds that his honor and future career couldn’t survive an apology or a refusal. Hamilton lost the contest and Burr’s political career ended as he was a man without political support and was charged for murder in both New Jersey and New York. Despite this seemingly ignominious end, not only of Hamilton, but of his ideas as well, they would both survive; Hamilton in memory, his ideas in active thought and governmental policy.

As soon as the Convention adjourned in September of 1787, Hamilton and John Jay approached James Madison, who had been the strongest supporter of the new constitution from the South, to write a series of essays to persuade the New York ratifying convention to accept the new Constitution. These essays soon found their way into papers all over the country, Hamilton authoring fifty-one of the eighty-five pieces. James Madison biographer, Ralph Ketcham, sums up Hamilton’s contribution this way, "Hamilton set the theme for the work, and expressed “Publius’” sense of mission and enlightened outlook, when he wrote in the opening essay that “it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force.”"

Although much of what Hamilton had proposed had been rejected in the Convention he realized that the new constitution was certainly closer to his theories than the Articles of Confederation and therefore he set himself to offering up consistent reasons for adopting the new charter. Thomas Jefferson theorized that Hamilton had wanted a British style system at the Convention, and failing to get it, decided to mold it out of the new constitution which Hamilton had said was, "A shilly shally thing of mere milk & water, which could not last, & was only good as a step to something better." This is indeed telling of what Hamilton’s ideas really meant in terms of Constitutional interpretation, for a “thing of mere milk & water” could be read any number of ways for any number of purposes. It also shows a disconnect between the founders, Hamilton merely thought the Constitution would serve as another Articles of Confederation, to be replaced by something more effective and presumably better later on. Whilst others like Madison thought the Constitution could serve indefinitely with an amending process to work out any serious flaws, the implicit endorsement of slavery for example, that were in it. But however the new constitution was to be interpreted later on, it was adopted due to the diligent intellectual efforts of Hamilton, Madison, and Jay, who were all called Federalists at the time because they were all advocating the adoption of the new Federal Government. It didn’t take long however, after the new government was established, for this alliance to fall apart. Hamilton’s work as Secretary of the Treasury ensured this ideological split, with Madison and even other Federalists like John Adams.

George Washington appointed Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury because, according to Gouverneur Morris, Washington, "Sought for splendid talents, for extensive information, and above all, he sought for sterling, incorruptible integrity. All these he found in Hamilton." Hamilton faced a rather desperate situation in America’s finances, a tremendous war debt still existed, establishing the infrastructure for the new government would cost a great deal of money, and America’s credit was in poor condition. He proposed the creation of a National Bank to hold the government’s money and make it grow, like a private bank, which meant making loans and taking deposits from private and public entities. This proposal blew apart any alliances that may have still existed between Madison and Hamilton, and it drove a wedge into the Federalists, as the supporters of the Constitution had been called. John Adams later put the basic argument against the bank down in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, saying, "This System of Banks begotten, hatched and brooded by Duer, Robert and Gouverneur Morris, Hamilton and Washington, I have always considered as a System of national Injustice. A Sacrifice of public and private Interest to a few Aristocratical Friends and Favourites." Adams was pointing out that putting the Federal Government at the head of such a potentially powerful economic force invited immense corruption because whoever was in power could approve loans to whomever the current ruling executive thought were friends or had helped out in campaigning. That whilst the goal of fixing the nation’s finances was noble and urgently necessary, Hamilton’s solution only invited a whole host of new evils to combat and in due course, the corrupting of the entire government. Angering his Federalist colleagues wasn’t the only consequence of his National Bank proposal, it also drove other former Federalists like Madison and Jefferson to the intellectual fields of the Anti-Federalists, like George Mason and James Monroe, who saw a perfect opportunity to get back into the debate.

Historian Saul Cornell tells of how Madison moved towards the Anti-Federalist view of the constitution because of Hamilton’s Bank idea in that when the debate to ratify the constitution was taking place the Anti-Federalists demanded that the government be restricted to the powers laid out in the document itself. Madison initially fought back, agreeing with Hamilton, claiming that the government would be crippled by such a move and become as useless as it was under the Articles of Confederation. But when Hamilton proposed the Bank, Madison saw what was possible under this new doctrine of implied powers and promptly reversed course. Madison became more consistent in the process, arguing the Anti-Federalist position, that the government should stay within the expressed powers of the Constitution.

Thus Hamilton had the effect of showing Madison just how far from the enumerated powers of the Constitution one could go if the document wasn’t to expressly limit the authority of the government and instead be the “shilly shally thing” Hamilton had said it was. The financial situation was a matter that had to be dealt with though and, despite Jefferson’s advice that, "All that was ever necessary to establish our credit, was an efficient government & an honest one declaring it would sacredly pay our debts, laying taxes for this purpose & applying them to it," Hamilton’s Bank became law. Hamilton then advocated, through the Bank, the granting of privileges and protective tariffs for native industries to counter the effects of similar policies in Europe. Historian Drew McCoy shows the irony of this position by pointing to the fact that, while Europe was in upheaval and these very policies of privilege granting had brought much of Europe to its knees in war and economic collapse, Hamilton and the Federalists were trying to steer the United States down precisely the same course as if they weren’t paying any attention.

Regardless of the observable effects of similar policies in other parts of the world Hamilton proceeded with his economic plans and reforms until he resigned from the post in 1795. Though his economic policies lived on in various incantations, such as Henry Clay’s “American System” or even the current Federal Reserve System (while not precisely the same, both are predicated upon much of the same rationale that Hamilton’s Bank was), it was his method of interpreting the Constitution that angered many of his contemporaries and is the one of the most important parts of his intellectual legacy to the United States. Thomas Jefferson reflected upon the nature of Hamilton fourteen years after his death in saying, "Hamilton was indeed a singular character. Of acute understanding, disinterested, honest, and honorable in all private transactions, amiable in society, and duly valuing virtue in private life, yet so bewitched & perverted by the British example, as to be under thoro’ conviction that corruption was essential to the government of a nation."

Hamilton’s fixation with the British constitution is important because it helps in establishing why Hamilton advocated a “broad construction” of the Constitution. The British system, having no written charter aside from the Magna Carta, could technically come to do anything in terms of securing its viability and stability as a state. The Democratic-Republicans, as those who followed Jefferson and Madison came to call themselves, recognized Hamilton’s affinity for the British system and feared that,
"The subversion of the Constitution through constructive interpretation … Unchecked, Hamilton and the Federalists would destroy the federal system and create the sort of consolidated national government that Anti-Federalists had prophesied." The fear that Hamilton’s ultimate goal was some sort of Parliamentary Monarchy that would fail to protect individual rights and become irreversibly corrupted drove many people in the opposition and his own party to be wary of him and the ideas he forwarded which were seen as harbingers, by some, of British politics.

One such harbinger was Hamilton’s theory of “broad construction,” which rested upon the premise that the Constitution implied extra powers to the government, beyond the enumerated powers, in the “necessary and proper” clause at the end of Article One, Section Eight. Madison objected to this idea in the instance of the Bank because,
The doctrine of implied powers struck “at the very essence of the Government as composed of limited and enumerated powers.” The only safe role of interpretation was to take the word “necessary” seriously. If, as in the case of a national bank, there were other ways, clearly constitutional, to tax, to borrow money, and to regulate the currency, then a national bank was not necessary, and was therefore not constitutional. To argue, as Hamilton’s supporters did, that the bank’s “convenience” justified it was in Madison’s view to abolish all limits to federal power.

This makes sense because what is convenient is an entirely subjective concept, for while it may be “convenient” to some to expropriate land to raise an army, it is hardly constitutional or just. Yet this would seem to be Hamilton’s aim, to confirm the theories of Jefferson, that Hamilton wanted the British system in America and was trying to affect the necessary changes through the method of “broad construction.”

British mercantilism was marked by policies similar to the National Bank, and similar initiatives that allowed the government to dole out favors and become involved in a great number of things that were beyond its constitutional prerogatives. As Adams had told Jefferson, an Aristocratic class was created where private citizens would become enriched by public funds and corruption would spread throughout the government as people flocked to get favors and privileges. Even though Andrew Jackson would effectively kill the Hamilton version of the central bank, the underlying idea that created it as well as the constitutional justification for it would live to see more friendly people in power. Though Hamilton died, his ideas on economic policy and the limits of Federal power lived on through others like Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams, both of whom heavily advocated internal improvement projects, protective tariffs, and a central bank. But with Hamilton’s death these ideas weren’t argued for consistently or all at once any longer and therefore reemerged piecemeal over time.

Still trying to reconcile the crowd, Gouverneur Morris implored the assembled mourners “to protect his fame,” for, "It is all he has left – all that these poor orphan children will inherit from their father. But, my countrymen, that fame may be a rich treasure to you also. Let it be the test by which to examine those who solicit your favor. Disregarding professions, view their conduct, and on a doubtful occasion ask, would Hamilton have done this thing." Hamilton had fought for British-style institutions and his own political philosophy at the Constitutional Convention, but he was defeated. He fought for a National Bank and for a “broad construction” of the Constitution and was successful, temporarily. It is ironic that Hamilton died trying to save the Republic from a “dangerous man” in Aaron Burr, when if one had asked Madison or Jefferson to name a dangerous man they would probably have pointed to Hamilton and his affinity for British government with its tendency towards corruption and lax limitation on governmental power.

Did Hamilton’s death amplify the impact of his ideas? It would be hard to believe that the absence of such an articulate and eloquent man could have had any net benefit for his vision of the American Republic. In fact the death of any person leading an intellectual argument can never be good, unless there is someone of equal ability to take their place. In Hamilton’s case there was no one immediately available to pick up the banner and run; Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams were never in power long enough to do so, nor did they accept his entire political philosophy anyway.

As to whether Hamilton’s ideas on constitutional interpretation lived on, the answer is “absolutely.” John Marshall and Joseph Story were both Hamiltonian in their approach to Constitutional interpretation and both served on the court for many years after the death of Hamilton. As a result the Court generally interpreted the Constitution broadly until Marshall was supplanted by Jackson appointee Roger Taney. But what is easily one of Hamilton’s most important legacies to the United States, “broad construction” theory has been and is still very prominent amongst constitutional scholars and jurists. It has been applied in almost every important constitutional case in the last century and a half, from antitrust suits to the use of the “interstate commerce” clause to justify a whole host of government activities not expressly granted in the Constitution.

Had it been anyone else uttering them, Hamilton’s ideas might have been rejected as the ramblings of some disaffected loyalist, but Hamilton’s persistence and logical consistency, as well as his heroic service in the Revolutionary Army, forced people to confront and answer him. Madison was forced to turn back on his earlier position regarding the question of how to interpret the Constitution when faced with the logical extension of it, in the form of Hamilton’s National Bank idea. Hamilton’s ideas were reasoned and logical and he forced his opponents to present reasoned and logical refutations of them.

The final irony in all of this is, that amidst all of this talk of reason and logic Hamilton died in a most irrational and illogical fashion on the dueling grounds of Weehawken, leaving a bleak legacy for his family and a bleaker one for his political partners, the Federalists, who all but disappeared a decade after his death.

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