September 25, 2012

1 SAMUEL 8:

Founding Fathers, Founding Villains : The New Liberal Originalism (William Hogeland, Boston Review)

It's true that, as treasury secretary, Hamilton did everything he could to strengthen federal authority and build the nation on the concentrated wealth of the lending class. When opposition to his plans grew intense, he was eager to ignore constitutional protections of individual rights in the interest of a small group of government-connected insiders, the public bondholders. The view of Hamilton as a betrayer of founding values therefore plays not only among conservatives of the Leahy type but also among certain liberals.

Roger Hodge is one of them. In The Mendacity of Hope, his view of practical aspects of Hamiltonian finance is more nuanced than Leahy's, but he joins Leahy in denouncing Hamilton for spoiling the best hopes of the founding generation. "Undeniably," Hodge asserts, "Hamilton had been trying to corrupt the government by cultivating a moneyed class dependent on it."
Like Leahy, Hodge defines Hamiltonianism--the first treasury secretary's cultivation of the money class--as a corruption of our constitutional republic. Hodge's target, too, is Obama, whom he, like Leahy, presents as an avatar of Hamilton. And, like Leahy, Hodge gives us a hero to fight the villain: James Madison.

But Hodge's and Leahy's Madison is a flimsy construction, and their idea of a U.S. Constitution lacking any essential Hamiltonian contribution is not history but wish. Both authors refuse to look backward from the pivotal moment in the early 1790s when Madison startled Hamilton by suddenly opposing him. They ignore Madison's dedicated efforts in the 1780s, as Hamilton's partner, to pursue a federal authority that would not only vitiate the states' power but also suppress popular, democratic approaches to public finance. When the War of Independence was winding down, the two young lawyers worked together in the Confederation Congress to impose a tax, to be collected by federal officers, earmarked not for support of troops but for making interest payments to the small, interstate class of rich investors who had bought Congress's bonds. That tax was planned as a wedge for further taxes, collected throughout the country by a top-down, well-armed government in support of government lenders. Madison especially looked deep within the Articles of Confederation for an overarching power--an implied one--to levy the tax without amending the articles.

His effort failed. Yet in the desire to sustain a large public debt to bondholders, supported by federal taxes, American nationalism flourished. Far from opposing Hamilton's vision of America as a great economic power knit together by collectors of regressive taxes, in the early 1780s Madison criticized Hamilton only for, as Madison put it, "let out the secret" by expressing that vision so honestly.
The partnership with Hamilton went on. Madison's fans routinely cite those parts of the famous essay we call "Federalist Ten" where Madison explains how a republican government may balance the deleterious effects of factions without repressing them. Rarely do we see quoted parts of that essay expressing a fear and loathing of popular, democratic finance as deep as anything ever expressed by Hamilton; or parts that call failure to pay investors in the public debt a major flaw of the confederation, curable only by creating a national government with power to enforce its finance policies. 
Throughout the framing convention, the ratification debates, and the amendment process, Madison's persistent desire was for the most vigorous kind of national authority, for reasons he shared with Hamilton.

In the Constitutional Convention, Madison's and Hamilton's hyper-nationalism did in some ways fail. Sovereignty was divided, against Madison's wishes at the time, between the national government and the states. Yet all-important fiscal provisions gave immense power, explicitly, to the federal government and took power away, explicitly, from the states. Imagining a U.S. Constitution free of inspiration and provisions that we call Hamiltonian is imagining a constitution other than ours. And a Madison free of Hamilton is not the Madison we call the Constitution's father.
That dissonance causes trouble for authors who want to read the 1790s Madison, who became Hamilton's enemy, back into the Madison who authored the Constitution. 

Had the Founding been about weak central government we'd still be governed under the Articles of Confederation.

Posted by at September 25, 2012 5:28 AM
  

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