Thursday, June 09, 2011

Who's Afraid of Alexander Hamilton?

So it seems to be a recurring issue in discussions about the founders that Alexander Hamilton is basically the odd ball who was working against the liberty and freedom so cherished by Jefferson and Madison--and later Adams when he reentered the Republican fold. Of course, one needs to always be mindful of the partisan political situation of the 1790s that pitched Hamilton and George Washington himself against Jefferson and his friends. Adams became disliked by both Hamilton's allies and Jefferson's for a specific series of reasons relating to the abortive war with France in 1798-1799. But all of these men were working to address serious issues relating to the fragility and survival of the republic as it came perilously close to war during the 25 year period surrounding the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. Jefferson, not Hamilton (or Washington for that matter), failed to separate himself from the French Revolution when it became obvious to many that that struggle no longer had anything to do with liberty. That disagreement fundamentally colored much of the interpretive invective both figures and their followers hurled at one another. Hamilton was a British sympathizer in the European war (or against the French) and thus a secret monarchist while Jefferson was pro-French and therefore an unstable Jacobin demagogue. When Hamilton was killed in a duel in 1804 (Washington, his great defender, died in 1799) there was no one of his stature left to either defend his ideas and actions or protect his legacy. Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and later Andrew Jackson were content to let Hamilton remain a misguided and dangerous bogeyman rather than critically reexamine their own actions later on to admit at least to themselves where Hamilton may have the better arguments. It's absurd to exalt Jefferson over Hamilton in terms of legacy to the republic (his only post of real prominence was as Washington's Tresury Secretary from 1789-January 31, 1795) when it was President Jefferson who embraced and established a number of terrible precedents in his second term to enforce his misguided policy of embargoing all American commerce (thus requiring the Federal government to rigorously enforce the policy on the borders, which led to wholesale violations of the fourth amendment in the effort to stymie illicit trade). Even Jefferson's Treasury Secretary, Albert Gallatin--the man in charge of enforcement--admitted the policies required to make the embargo work were utterly arbitrary and worse than war if they lasted for very long.

Hamilton, a veteran of the Revolutionary War who fought at the battle of Yorktown as well as serving for several years in the important post of aide-de-camp to General Washington, never had to justify his place as an American in his own day. [He also served in the Continental Congress after the war, had written an influential pamphlet series in the very beginning of the struggle before ditching Columbia for the Continental Army, and was, of course, extremely influential and important in the ratification fight in New York and nationally] Certainly Jefferson would never publicly have questioned Hamilton's motives for fear of having his own Revolutionary experience--being chased away from Richmond as Governor by the British as they captured and ransacked the capital of the Virginia--laid at his feet (for a period he was openly condemned as a coward). Plus, unlike Hamilton, Jefferson never openly went about doing anything, he always worked behind the scenes even to the point--in Washington's opinion--of being blatantly duplicitous. Hamilton, on the other hand, never shut his mouth and was unafraid of saying unpopular things to the people—to the point of being hit in the head with a rock during a particularly close and bitter election in New York City. All of these men had serious issues and made serious mistakes, but trying to pin the failures of the founding on one man alone or even predominantly is silly, absurd, and supremely unfair. Particularly to such a man as Alexander Hamilton.

If you think the mere fact that Jefferson came to hate and despise Hamilton so much is, ipso facto, all the evidence one needs, consider this; Franklin Delano Roosevelt hated Alexander Hamilton--thought he was the original heartless capitalist monster--and loved Thomas Jefferson so much that he built him a huge monument. If simply having worthy admirers makes one ok later on, consider that when Jefferson finally forced Washington to choose between himself and Hamilton, Washington simply let it be known that Jefferson had made that decision for them both already.

Below are what I consider to be the best of the best of Hamilton scholarship that make an irrefutable case for the man's values, courage, brilliance and undying commitment to liberty and freedom. As well there are links to his writings which are almost uniformly excellent. Was he wrong sometimes, occasionally quite disastrously? Absolutely. But only Washington ever came very close to getting most things correct--major things anyway--and yet his errors are also large and glaring. Hamilton, like all of them, was a flawed hero, but a hero all the same.

But whatever else you read, avoid "politically incorrect" guides to American history and such hack job "scholarship" being offered by people like Thomas J. DiLorenzo. Those sources are worse than useless as they are fundamentally dishonest about context, evidence, and any number of other things.

Gerald Stourzsh

Ron Chernow

Forrest McDonald

John Lamberton Harper

Karl-Friedrich Walling

Alexander Hamilton: Writings

The Federalist Papers


Michael said...

I think the issue is that he was a monarchist and said that presidencies should last forever.

Alexander V. Marriott, ABD said...

Hamilton was not a monarchist. There is no basis in the historical records for such a claim. However, such a claim always has and always must rest on Hamilton's speech in the Constitutional Convention where he expressed his deep worries and fears over the ability of a republic of such expansive size to survive--particularly from the corruption of foreign influence. He proposed an elective presidency to serve during good behavior (so, yes, possibly for life, like the modern Supreme Court Justices--though they are not, of course, elected) as a hedge against that and to take away the temptation of the ambitious men who would seek such an office to engage in dangerous behavior to remain in office during the periodic elections. It was rejected by his colleagues and he accepted that, moved on, and fought for the ratification of the Constitution as drafted harder than just about anyone else save James Madison and James Wilson.

Michael said...

Oh ok. Thanks for clearing that up. I think the other problem with him is his sponsoring of the Bank of the United States.

Alexander V. Marriott, ABD said...

Yes, the Bank of the United States is certainly a legitimate area of complaint, but it's important to remember that Hamilton was not very original on this point. The Bank was modeled on the Bank of England--a private/public partnership that could finance the public debt plus have the added benefit of extending a steady supply of credit throughout the country. Jefferson and Madison railed against the Bank when proposed and passed, but when both men came into power, both accepted it as a valuable institution that leant stablility to the government's financing. When the Bank failed to gain recharter in 1811, despite President Madison's backing, the country was left without a valuable means of securing credit internally and externally just as it was about to go to war. After the conflict the much more famous "monster" Second Bank of the United States was chartered. The point here is not that Hamilton was right because he eventually got even many of the Jeffersonians to agree the Bank was a good idea, but that the state of economic thought at the time was progressing towards a more consistently pro-capitalism and expressly laissez faire attitude that in the 1830s and 1840s led to the death of the second bank, protectionism, and most state and federal internal improvement projects.

Michael said...

Alexander, do you know if Hamilton's favoring commerce was from a mercantilist standpoint as opposed to a free-market one

Alexander V. Marriott, ABD said...

That's an excellent question. Hamilton favored free trade assuming Great Britain would agree, but in lieu of Britain becoming a free trader--something that didn't happen until 1846--Hamilton advocated a limited (both in scope and time) protection of the American market to spark the creation of domestic commerce and manufactures. It's important to remember that the state of economic theory up to 1804--the year Hamilton died--was very primitive. Adam Smith favored free trade for Great Britain, but only in 1776 when Great Britain had already become the world's premier industrial and commericial power. Neither Smith nor Hamilton thought it was necessarily wise policy to not protect the home market to some extent during more primitive periods of development. And, of course, neither were mercantilists--Smith from the standpoint of economic theory, while Hamilton, of course, fought an eight year war against the tyrannical abuses of mercantilist ministers and was not interested in recreating the British navigation acts in the United States.