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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?