February 6, 2018


Was Alexander Hamilton a Great Man? (William Murchison, 2/06/18, Imaginative Conservative)

In an era of sublime confusion regarding the Republic's purposes, if any, one can do worse than hark back to Hamilton, who had a crystal-clear vision of the kind of nation he wished the United States to become. McDonald writes:

His vision was grander [than that of the other Founding Fathers]: he sought to transform the American people into free, opulent, and law-abiding citizens, through the instrumentality of a limited republican government, on the basis of consent, and in the face of powerful vested interests in the status quo. The others were content merely to effect a political revolution. He set out to effect what amounted to a social revolution.

The revolution would proceed in accordance with Hamilton's own values. His notion was that money should become the agent of transformation--in McDonald's words, "the universal measure of the value of things." So consecrated, money would make society "fluid and open to merit;" industry would become "both rewarding and necessary." And America's greatness would be guaranteed.

An audacious, even a presumptuous, design. Hamilton was, at all events, in no doubt as to what should be done. As McDonald points out, "his true genius...was for running things, for organizing and regularizing human activity and establishing procedures whereby work could most effectively be done."

The Hamilton known to schoolboys is something of a haughty aristocrat. And in fact his social design called for the best men to run the country. Yet these would be men raised up by their own merits, not by birth or preferment. McDonald tells us that Hamilton hated "the American system of pluralistic local oligarchies [that] made everyone dependent upon those born to the oligarchy. He hated the narrow provincialism that the system nourished and fed upon." Not least did he resent the system's failure to reward hard work.

What was wanted, then, was "efficient fiscal machinery," beneficial to all; so crucial to life and to government that "it would be almost impossible to dismantle the machinery short of dismantling the whole society."

Accordingly, as Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton worked to have the federal government assume the debts of the states. The public debt, as a whole, would not be paid off quickly; rather, payments would be stretched out over time in order to expand the supply of money. Mere paper would thus become a form of capital. A mint and a national bank were likewise wanted, and in due course Hamilton procured their establishment. No laissez faire economist like his contemporary Adam Smith, Hamilton sought government protection and subsidies for American industry. He believed, to be sure, in what we should nowadays call private enterprise. In McDonald's words, Hamilton thought that

The function of government should be to promote a general spirit of improvement. It should reward productivity and punish dissipation, idleness, and extravagance. Taxes should be designed to encourage industry, never to impede it. Regulation of productive activity should be confined to inspection to prevent frauds and ensure the highest quality and marketability of products. [...]

To Hamilton's opponents, McDonald concedes nothing. The great man is right, all the rest are wrong. Well, in fact, the anti-Hamiltonians often wound up looking foolish--as when, to cite only one instance, they too fervently backed revolutionary France and Burke's "red fool fury of the Seine." It is easy to see, in retrospect, that Hamilton's desire for well-mannered but non-deferential relations with Great Britain was far the wiser policy.

On the other hand, the bitter agrarian opposition to Hamilton's policies merits, at the very least, an attempt at understanding. Hamilton made it clear by 1791 that "the aim of his program as a whole was the abandonment of the leisurely, agrarian life-style to which Americans had long been accustomed." And why not? shrugs McDonald. The agrarian life-style was oppressive and somnolent. Through comĀ­merce and manufacturing, Hamilton wished to "liberate and energize" America. Whether America wished, in just this way, to be liberated and energized was a question that scarcely bothered him. Yet, in fact, attachment to agrarian values is an enduring facet of the American character. Hamilton--and McDonald--would have performed a greater service had they not contemptuously waved aside such values as beneath the attention of intelligent men.

Posted by at February 6, 2018 3:24 AM