Why I like Hamilton

 

Posters have demanded that now that I have revealed myself as anti-Jeffersonian, I have to explain the case for Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton may have been the most important American in our history who never became President. Here are some reasons why I like him:

1. In contrast to Jefferson, he was not born to wealth or land, but was an original Horatio Alger story. He was an illegitimate child born in the Caribbean island of Nevis (for this, John Adams would call him the “bastard son of a Scotch pedlar”). His talents brought him to the attention of local merchants, who essentially gave him a scholarship to study in America.

2. Hamilton was personally brave — he served for most of the Revolutionary War as Washington’s aide-de-camp, but near the war’s end he led a frontal assault on a British position outside New York.

3. Hamilton was an outstanding (and fast!) writer. He was one of the co-authors of the Federalist Papers, and contributed some of its most important elements, such as the explanation of the Presidency and judicial review. His anonymous essays defending Washington’s proclamation on neutrality led an exasperated Jefferson to write: “Hamilton is really a colossus to the antirepublican party. Without numbers, he is an host within himself.”

4. Hamilton remains the leading American thinker on the Presidency. He defended it vigorously during the ratification of the Constitution with such lines as “energy in the executive is a leading character in the definition of good government,” and explained putting a single President at the head of the executive branch because “decision, activity, secrecy, and dispatch will generally characterize the proceedings of one man.” For my extended riff on these themes, check out my book, Crisis and Command, which traces how Hamilton’s thinking has provided the foundations for the Presidency ever since.

5. Hamilton was right on judicial review too. He didn’t defend it because the judges are somehow smarter than the people, or because they have a right to decide all controversial social questions, but because the judges’ constitutional duty is to not participate in any unconstitutional actions of the government. The judiciary, he said, should be “the least dangerous branch” because it had “neither Force nor Will, but merely judgment.”

6. Most importantly, Hamilton thought that the government was not sovereign in the United States (unlike Great Britain at the time), but that all power lay in the people. The Tea Partiers would find a lot of support in Hamilton’s explanation of government.The Constitution was only the contract by which the principals (us) delegated limited powers to our agents (the government). No act of our agents could violate the original terms of the deal, or, as Hamilton put it in Federalist 78: “the constitution ought to be preferred to the statute, the intention of the people to the intention of their agents.”

7. Hamilton was right about the bank and the national debt. He succeeded in having the new government assume the revolutionary war debts of the states and the Congress, but also remarkably understood that the new U.S. bonds could be used to create a stable financial system centered around a national bank. He was certainly right about this, and Jefferson (whose innate fear of cities included banks and stock markets, I think) wrong.

8. Hamilton was right, and Jefferson wrong, about our foreign policy. Hamilton believed that the U.S. should either be neutral or on the side of Great Britain in the early decades of the Republic, despite the fact that he had personally fought the British on the battlefield. The growth of the special relationship between the U.S. and Great Britain shows that Hamilton’s basic insight was correct — the U.S. had and would have extensive economic relations with Britain, and Britain’s navy and peaceful relations on the Canadian border were critical to US security. Jefferson, who admired the French and their Revolution, was almost certainly wrong that siding with France in this period was in our nation’s best interests (as the War of 1812 demonstrated).

9. And to continue the threads about Jefferson and slavery, Hamilton was an abolitionist. He was right about that one too.

Why do people still think Jefferson superior to Hamilton?

There are 20 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. Profile Photo Inactive
    @tabularasa

    The only thing missing from John’s posting was Q.E.D. John is too humble, but it should be there.

    I’ll bet Hamilton was a lot more fun to hang out with.

    • #1
  2. Profile Photo Contributor
    @TommyDeSeno

    I’m a Hamiltonian myself, but lest we start worshipping him, let’s point out one area where he was wrong in the Federalist papers:

    He argued that in the Federal/State relationship, the States would always have the upper hand.

    The argument could be made that since the Federalist papers were an argument to gain support for the proposed Constitution, that he was just throwing out some rhetoric to appease the Jeffersonians.

    But if that’s the case, and he really didn’t believe States would have the upper hand, then he wouldn’t be the limited government hero he is made out to be.

    I don’t think he was disingenuous, so I’m going with the first choice – he was simply wrong about the States having the upper hand in the Federal/State relationship.

    • #2
  3. Profile Photo Member
    @

    I must protest, for Hamilton is my least favorite founder since he, in contrast to Jefferson, championed an overbearing and interveneing government:

    1. Hamilton promoted the construction and maintenance of the Bank of the United States, a forerunner to the Federal Reserve that engaged in fractional-reserve banking, caused inflation, and introduced the American economy to the business cycle.

    2. Hamilton endorsed ever higher taxes. Specifically, he promoted a carriage tax, numerous excise taxes and tariffs, a whiskey tax (which provoked the Whiskey Rebellion), and a national property tax (which provoked the Fries Rebellion). Once the Whiskey Rebellion ensued, Hamilton and Washington then led a 13,000 plus army of conscripts to smother it.

    3. Hamilton promoted gratuitous government borrowing. In particular, he wanted the central government to assume the war debt of the individual states. States like Virginia that paid their war debt already were forced to pay for the war debt of states like Massachusetts who had not settled their debt yet.

    4. Hamilton championed the centralization of power and pioneered the collectivist habit of interpreting the Commerce Clause, the Necessary and Proper Clause, and the various other Constitutional Clauses as sanctions of government expansion.

    • #3
  4. Profile Photo Member
    @
    7. Hamilton was right about the bank and the national debt. He succeeded in having the new government assume the revolutionary war debts of the states and the Congress, but also remarkably understood that the new U.S. bonds could be used to create a stable financial system centered around a national bank. He was certainly right about this, and Jefferson (whose innate fear of cities included banks and stock markets, I think) wrong.

    Right in what respect? Constitutionally or economically? Certainly not the latter, since free-market economists since Ludwig von Mises in the early 1900s have demonstrated that central banking causes price inflation and the boom-and-bust cycle. Both national banks maintained fractional reserves, accepting demand deposits and then lending the money from those deposits to borrowers like the federal government.

    Nor do I think that the Constitution, interpreted from a laissez-faire perspective, sanctions the formation of any central bank, let alone a fractional central bank. A central bank certainly is not explicitly endorsed by the Constitution. But of course, its conceivable that a loose interpretation of the Constitution could lend legal credit to the formation of a central bank.

    • #4
  5. Profile Photo Member
    @

    I recommend Dr. Thomas DiLorenzo’s Hamilton’s Curse as a critique of Hamilton’s intellectual legacy and I would offer the following conditional claim: if one opposes President Obama’s economic policies for their sheer statism, then one must oppose Hamilton’s policies as well.

    • #5
  6. Profile Photo Member
    @AaronMiller
    John Yoo:

    Jefferson, who admired the French and their Revolution, was almost certainly wrong that siding with France in this period was in our nation’s best interests (as the War of 1812 demonstrated).·

    Admiration for the French Revolution is enough reason for me to distrust anyone.

    • #6
  7. Profile Photo Inactive
    @tabularasa

    I’m confused about what is statist about paying off the debts from the revolutionary war and in getting the fledgling country on to a sound financial footing. I also find the argument that Hamilton=Obama pretty unconvincing. Does anyone really believe the relatively modest measures that Hamilton recommended for a government that was mininscule compared to today’s somehow leads inexorably the statism of Obama? The causal connection between Hamilton’s rather modest policies of the late eighteenth century and Obama’s economics of the early 21st century is tenuous, at best. I think Hamilton would be appalled at what Obama is doing.

    And just where was Jefferson when all the fighting was going on? France, which was important, but, unlike Hamilton and Washington, he never put his life on the line.

    • #7
  8. Profile Photo Inactive
    @RobertKelly

    Murray Rothbard, who essentially established the Mises Institute, was a huge proponent of Hamilton vs. Jefferson. Hamilton was not a big proponent of central banking and creating money out of thin air. John Adams constantly bickered with his spendthrift friend Jefferson about debt. The question is moot today, as the Fed can create money by changing the decimal point on a spreadsheet.

    • #8
  9. Profile Photo Member
    @
    tabula rasa: I’m confused about what is statist about paying off the debts from the revolutionary war and in getting the fledgling country on to a sound financial footing.

    Its not my claim that paying off such debts, per se, was statist – it was how such debts were paid off. To begin, Hamilton sought to nationalize the war debt, charging the central government with remunerating holders of war bonds. Now during the war the individual state governments sold war debt instruments and taxed their own citizens to reimburse holders of war debt instruments (King George the 3rd, in his peace treaty, agreed to an end to hostilities with each state).

    Some state governments settled their debt contracts before others (e.g., Virginia settled its debt before Massachusetts). By nationalizing the debt, Hamilton effectively forced citizens of some states to pay for the expenses of governments of other states that did not represent them. Such an act subverted the principle of federalism, of decentralized political power, and set a dangerous precedent. It also gave Hamilton an opportunity to endorse a whiskey tax (to finance the now federal debt remuneration) and to unleash the military upon his fellow countrymen in Pennsylvania.

    • #9
  10. Profile Photo Member
    @
    tabula rasa: I also find the argument that Hamilton=Obama pretty unconvincing. Does anyone really believe the relatively modest measures that Hamilton recommended for a government that was mininscule compared to today’s somehow leads inexorably the statism of Obama? The causal connection between Hamilton’s rather modest policies of the late eighteenth century and Obama’s economics of the early 21st century is tenuous, at best. I think Hamilton would be appalled at what Obama is doing.

    The difference between Hamilton and Obama is, I believe, simply a matter of degree, not of principle. Both have had their moments, but imagine if Obama ordered the national guard to collect the taxes he has either passed or has yet to pass in order to finance the orgy of borrowing and stimulus spending he’s been engaging in. There would be considerable dissent within the military (I know I wouldn’t show up for “drill” that weekend) and probably numerous attempts on his life. He would be labelled as a Stalinist, and rightly so. In the end, they are both advocates of central banking, inflationary monetary policies, ever higher taxes, ever more government borrowing, and a collectivist interpretation of the Constitution.

    • #10
  11. Profile Photo Member
    @
    And just where was Jefferson when all the fighting was going on? France, which was important, but, unlike Hamilton and Washington, he never put his life on the line.

    Surely you do not suggest that, at the time of the Revolution, one could express one’s patriotism only through military service. Some are fit to fight while others have a comparative advantage in other endeavors. Would Thomas Jefferson or Thomas Paine have better served the Revolution by battling the British inside of doing the intellectual work required to identify and justify the objectives of the Revolution? I disagree.

    • #11
  12. Profile Photo Member
    @

    It might be argued that Hamilton’s loose construction argument re: the Bank worked out for the country, which I think is Mr. Labeit’s argument up there aways. Surely the Market Revolution was built on the two Banks of the United States, and though it was a precipitant of the Civil War, the Market Revolution brought us more material prosperity and power than any people in history. (It of course was not unalloyed goodness. I’m sympathetic to the Southern position against the Market Revolution too; George Fitzhugh makes a particularly exciting case agin’ it.)

    But I think TJ gets the better of Hamilton on the constitutionality of the Bank. It simply cannot be that elastic a document. (The elasticity is not, as well, an unalloyed evil. But it does seem to tend towards no good.)

    Both men were necessary to create the creative tension out of which the early republic emerged. We are blessed to have had them both, and needn’t pick favorites (since Samuel Adams was clearly the indispensible man).

    • #12
  13. Profile Photo Member
    @DuaneOyen

    We need libertarians- for the pull toward freedom, and for the intellectual rigor added to the debate when the rest of us start with reality instead of idealistic dreams.

    But attempting to apply ultra-libertarian idealism to the US today is not particularly productive. It makes no difference what Ludwig Von Mises scholars say about Hamilton’s defense of the central bank or how the Revolutionary War state debt was handled if the parties at that time saw it differently.

    The situation of individual state debt obligations described by Michael was a primary reason for the abandonment of the Articles (eliminating economic warfare between the several states was another major issue) and replacing them with a federal Constitution.

    How can we say today that what Hamilton, Washington, et al did in 1789 and 1790 were unconstitutional when the Congress that voted to implement his recommendations, including the National Bank, were the same people who wrote and had just ratified that same Constitution?

    That, to me, is the same as the second-guessing screeds over Iraq War decisions that characterizes leftist antiwar politics today. You make decisions based on what is known at the time the decision has to be made.

    • #13
  14. Profile Photo Contributor
    @UrsulaHennessey

    10. He founded the New York Post! (At the time – 1801 – it was the New-York Evening Post.)

    • #14
  15. Profile Photo Member
    @DuaneOyen

    Hear hear. Hamilton was no more a centralizing statist for believing in an effective executive than either Washington or Reagan was for being one.

    • #15
  16. Profile Photo Contributor
    @JohnYoo

    On Hamilton and the central bank. Surely Hamilton was right that the United States needed a central bank of some kind. I am no macroeconomist, but wouldn’t Milton Friedman want a central bank and a single currency for the United States? My understanding is that Friedman has criticized the Federal Reserve’s decisions on monetary policy — but not the existence of monetary policy. Providing for a reliable currency, that can store value and thus allow for reliable economic transactions, would strike me as one of the most important functions of a national government.

    While I think Andrew Jackson was right to attack the Bank of the United States, which had started to interfere with politics (to the point of putting members of Congress on the payroll), the damage from having no central bank and coherent monetary policy can be seen in what happened in the panics and depression after.

    • #16
  17. Profile Photo Member
    @
    John Yoo: On Hamilton and the central bank. Surely Hamilton was right that the United States needed a central bank of some kind. I am no macroeconomist, but wouldn’t Milton Friedman want a central bank and a single currency for the United States? My understanding is that Friedman has criticized the Federal Reserve’s decisions on monetary policy — but not the existence of monetary policy. Providing for a reliable currency, that can store value and thus allow for reliable economic transactions, would strike me as one of the most important functions of a national government.

    Milton Friedman believed in central banking, but Friedrich Hayek and von Mises did not. This is why the habit, adopted by left-collectivists, of labelling Dr. Friedman as some free-market fundamentalist is erroneous. But I guess we will have to agree to disagree when it comes to monetary policy, as I see it merely as a troublemaker. I think an actual money market (not referring to short-term debt) is possible, with gold and silver operating alongside each other as exchange media without government intervention.

    • #17
  18. Profile Photo Member
    @
    Duane Oyen: It makes no difference what Ludwig Von Mises scholars say about Hamilton’s defense of the central bank or how the Revolutionary War state debt was handled if the parties at that time saw it differently.

    How so? Either its true that a central bank is a necessary economic institution or its not true. The Founders could have easily resorted to European history if they wanted to understand the nature of central banks, especially ones that operate on a fractional reserve. Such banks have historically failed to abide by their demand deposit contracts, lending other people’s money without their consent and thereby engaging in embezzlement.

    • #18
  19. Profile Photo Inactive
    @tabularasa
    Michael Labeit: Would Thomas Jefferson or Thomas Paine have better served the Revolution by battling the British inside of doing the intellectual work required to identify and justify the objectives of the Revolution? I disagree. · Jul 26 at 7:00pm

    I don’t recall any “sunshine patriots/summer soldiers” statements from TJ. Hamilton was an intellectual too, but he chose to fight.

    That’s one of the problems today. The TJ-types wish to do the “intellectual work,” while leaving the heavy lifting to schmucks like Hamilton and Washington. You may recall how dishonorably TJ treated Washington behind his back in later years. His intellectual dishonesty during that period is hardly the stuff of greatness (and no one would call it brave). The brave man will look you in the eye when he disagrees with you. TJ couldn’t do it.

    I actually like much about TJ, but on this issue, he’s not in the same league as Hamilton.

    • #19
  20. Profile Photo Contributor
    @JohnYoo

    Just to defend Hamilton from the claim that he wanted a centralized national government along the lines of the New Deal or Obamacare. Hamilton, like most founders on the side of the Constitution, believed that a stronger national government was necessary to overcome the interstate fighting under the Articles of Confederation — but that doesn’t mean he and all the others would have wanted to powerful administrative state of today. It was all about balance.

    Here he is in Federalist 17:

    “The administration of private justice between the citizens of the same State, the supervision of agriculture and of other concerns of a similar nature, all those things in short which are proper to be provided for by local legislation, can never be desirable cares of a general jurisdiction.”

    If the federal government ever tried to regulate local affairs like agriculture or manufacturing, the law “would be as troublesome as it would be nugatory,” — i.e., unconstitutional.

    In New York, Hamilton told the state ratifying convention that the federal government would not have power over a state’s civil or criminal institutions or “penetrate the recesses of domestic life,” or “control, in all respect, the private conduct of individuals.”

    • #20
Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.

Comments are closed because this post is more than six months old. Please write a new post if you would like to continue this conversation.