It's Time To End Hamilton's Curse

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For more than a century now, Americans have lived in what pundit George Will once called "Hamilton’s Nation." Will was referring to the fact that government policy has long been primarily guided by the Big Government, interventionist political philosophy of Alexander Hamilton. Liberal writer Michael Lind edited an entire book of essays celebrating this fact entitled Hamilton’s Republic. About every other month or so, neoconservative pundit David Brooks authors another New York Times or Wall Street Journal op-ed urging a "revival" of the Hamiltonian political agenda, as though it needs reviving.

To repudiate Hamilton’s political legacy is, according to Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow, "to repudiate the modern world" itself. Brooks and William Kristol began their crusade for "national greatness conservatism" with a September 15, 1997 Wall Street Journal article that urged Americans to "reinvigorate the nationalism of Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay and Teddy Roosevelt."

In his book, Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth, historian Stephen F. Knott informs us that Hamilton should be given ALL the credit for "the America that explored the outer reaches of space, welcomed millions of immigrants, led the effort to defeat communism, produced countless technological advances, and abolished slavery and Jim Crow . . ." When Time magazine asked him who his heroes were shortly after the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, House Speaker Newt Gingrich named Hamilton first (followed by John Wayne, Kemal Ataturk, and Father Flanagan).

What most Americans probably know about Hamilton is that he was a founding father, one of the authors of The Federalist Papers, and that his picture is on the ten-dollar bill. But he was much more than that, as the above-mentioned writers surely know. As Jeff Taylor remarked in Where Did the Party Go? William Jennings Bryan, Hubert Humphrey, and the Jeffersonian Legacy, "Hamilton, under the influence of the two political theorists most distasteful to Jefferson, Hobbes and Hume, was frankly the champion of the leviathan state." This is why in my forthcoming book, Hamilton’s Curse, I discard Ron Chernow’s advice about "repudiating the modern world" and explain why Hamilton’s political and economic legacy must be repudiated if America is to ever again be known as the land of the free.

Hamilton’s Curse

Hamilton worshipped government power for its own sake, and sought a government that would seek "imperial glory" (his words). He disrespected people like Jefferson who believed the primary purpose of government should be the protection of natural rights to life, liberty and property. He frequently complained of "an excessive concern for liberty in public men" and called for a government of "more energy." As Clinton Rossiter wrote in Alexander Hamilton and the Constitution, "Hamilton . . . had perhaps the highest respect for government of any important American political thinker who ever lived." His "overriding purpose" was "to build the foundations of a new empire" that could "reach out forcefully and benevolently to every person." (Forcefully, yes; but government is never "benevolent.")

Hamilton was the founder of the American nationalist tradition. As Clyde Wilson has pointed out, there is a sharp difference between nationalism and patriotism. Patriotism is "the wholesome love of one’s land and people," says Professor Wilson. Nationalism, on the other hand, is an "unhealthy love of one’s government, accompanied by the aggressive desire to put down others — which becomes in deracinated modern men a substitute for religious faith." Patriotism is necessary for people who wish to preserve their freedom; nationalism is not. In fact, it is always a great enemy of freedom. There is little wonder why so many contemporary statists, from "liberal" historians to the neocon establishment, idolize Alexander Hamilton.

And what does "Hamilton’s Republic" look like, from a government policy perspective? It is one that is run by a dictatorial chief executive with king-like powers, for one thing. At the Constitutional convention Hamilton presented his real agenda: a "permanent" president who would appoint all the governors, and who would have veto power over all state legislation. "A king!" is what his Jeffersonian detractors accused him of asking for, and they were right. He failed at the convention, but few could deny that modern American presidents are every bit as king-like as Hamilton wanted them to be — and more. How else could one describe a president who can bomb any country in the world at will, and without the least bit of congressional approval?

Hamilton lied through his teeth in The Federalist Papers when he spoke favorably about states’ rights and federalism, for his proposal for a "permanent president" would have all but destroyed any semblance of true federalism or "divided sovereignty," as James Madison labeled it. That destruction was essentially accomplished in 1865, after which the states became mere appendages of the central government. The final nails in the Jeffersonian, states’ rights coffin were pounded into place in 1913, with the advent of the Federal Reserve, the income tax, and the Seventeenth Amendment providing for the direct election of U.S. senators. In Hamilton’s Curse I call this the "Hamiltonian Revolution of 1913."

Hamilton was a frenetic tax increaser as the nation’s first Treasury Secretary. He championed a standing army as well, not so much to defend against foreign invaders as to intimidate Americans into paying all those burdensome taxes he had in mind for them. He proved this when he accompanied George Washington and 10,000 conscripts into Western Pennsylvania during the Whiskey Rebellion, a tax revolt over Hamilton’s federal whiskey tax by Pennsylvania farmers. Hamilton wanted to hang the two dozen or so tax protesters that were rounded up, but George Washington pardoned them all, infuriating the nation’s first Tax Collector-in-Chief.

The relentless crusades for the imposition of heavier and heavier taxes on everything and anything by all levels of government that curse America today are part and parcel of the Hamiltonian tradition. Hamilton never supported the idea of income taxation per se, but the centralization of political and economic power in Washington, D.C. that the federal income tax accomplished in 1913 can be considered to be the very pinnacle of Hamiltonianism.

Hamilton was an advocate of military adventurism in pursuit of what he called "imperial glory." Jefferson, Madison, and other founders thought this was the surest route to destroy American liberty, and they were right. Today, Hamilton’s agenda of the pursuit of "imperial glory" is called "national greatness conservatism."

It was Hamilton who fathered the idea of a central bank run by politicians in the nation’s capitol. As such he is America’s founding father of central banking and all the economic miseries it has created, from the Great Depression to stagflation to the bursting of the latest housing price bubble.

With regard to economic policy, Hamilton was a British-style mercantilist who wanted to use the coercive powers of the state to subsidize selected businesses, who would in turn support the state and its growth. He was the founding father of "crony capitalism." Americans had just fought a revolution against such a system, and Hamilton wanted to turn around and adopt that very system in America. His political heirs finally succeeded during the Lincoln administration, and have been building on that "success" ever since.

Hamilton was also a protectionist who believed in some of the most bizarre theories used to justify government interference with free trade, such as his complete discounting of any value at all being attached to transportation costs. (His political disciple Lincoln would later repeat these hoary superstitions.)

Hamilton championed the creation of a large national debt for the sake of having a large national debt. The reason he gave for this was that the owners of the debt would be the more affluent people of the country, who would then be tied to the government and always be supportive of it, just as welfare recipients are today. They would be sure to support future tax increases, he reasoned, to ensure that they would not be shortchanged on their principal and interest. "A national debt, if it is not excessive, will be to us a public blessing," he said.

Thanks a lot, Al. Today’s national debt exceeds $9 trillion, and that figure does not count the additional tens of trillions of dollars in unfunded Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and government pension liabilities. Every baby born is already thousands of dollars in debt.

A man as politically astute as Hamilton was most certainly had to be aware that the nature of politics would guarantee that a national debt would quickly become "excessive." (And it did.) He spent his entire adult life lobbying for "excessive" government and demeaning and scheming against those, like Jefferson, who opposed it. (Jefferson, in contrast, once said: "I consider the fortunes of our republic as depending, in an eminent degree, on the extinguishment of the public debt").

Hamilton was also the founding father of constitutional subversion. In contrast to Jefferson’s strict constructionist views, which sought to use the Constitution as a limitation on governmental powers, Hamilton thought of the Constitution as a document that could be "reinterpreted" by clever lawyers like himself and his political compatriot, Chief Justice John Marshall, to provide a "rubber stamp" on almost any governmental activity. He was the inventor of the subversive notion of "implied" powers of the Constitution. As Rossiter explained (approvingly): "It seems certain that Hamilton would have affixed a certain certificate of constitutionality to every last tax . . . . Hamilton took a large view of the power to tax because he took a large view of the power to spend."

Having failed to create a "national" government at the Constitutional convention, Hamilton and his colleagues set out to pervert the document and "remold the Constitution into an instrument of national supremacy," wrote Rossiter. Hamiltonian judicial activists have succeeded beyond anything Hamilton could have imagined.

Hamilton did not lobby for the notorious Sedition Act that was enacted by his own Federalist Party (and which essentially made it illegal to criticize the government), but he did support it once it became law. Thus, he can also be considered to be one of the founding fathers of governmental assaults on free speech.

Hamilton’s Republic is a republic of excessive public debt; inflationary finance fueled by a central bank that is the cause of perpetual boom-and-bust cycles; a dictatorial executive branch aided and abetted by "black-robed deities" who have "reinterpreted" the Constitution so much that the founders would not even recognize what is called "constitutional law"; a tax burden that is even more excessive than that borne by medieval serfs; a standing army that is misused at the expense of genuine defense of America; an arrogant, imperialistic, and monopolistic government in Washington that rarely pays any attention at all to the citizens of the once-sovereign states; government policy that routinely benefits big, politically-connected businesses and wealthy individuals at the expense of the rest of society (neo-mercantilism); and protectionism.

Every one of these policies has been a curse on America. That is why every one of them, from central banking to public debt to judicial activism, was vigorously opposed by Hamilton’s nemesis, Thomas Jefferson, and his political heirs, until they were finally snuffed out for good by the Lincoln regime and the near total monopoly of power that the Republican Party enjoyed for the ensuing six decades.

The next time you hear Congressman Ron Paul, Republican candidate for president, calling for the abolition of the Fed and the income tax; a defense policy that defends America; drastic reductions in executive power; free trade and free markets; and a return to Constitutional principles, including the principle of states’ rights, you are being given a chance to finally put an end to Hamilton’s curse. Ron Paul is our Jefferson. Every other presidential candidate, Democrat and Republican, is a Big Government Hamiltonian, through and through.

Thomas J. DiLorenzo [send him mail] professor of economics at Loyola College in Maryland and the author of The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War, (Three Rivers Press/Random House). His latest book is Lincoln Unmasked: What You’re Not Supposed To Know about Dishonest Abe (Crown Forum/Random House).

Thomas DiLorenzo Archives at LRC

Thomas DiLorenzo Archives at Mises.org

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