Living With Hamilton's Curse

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Hamilton’s Curse: How Jefferson’s Archenemy Betrayed the American Revolution — and What It Means for America Today. By Thomas J. DiLorenzo. Crown Forum. 2008. 245 pages.

After you read the dedication of Hamilton’s Curse, you know that the book is going to be good: "Dedicated to the memory of Professor Murray N. Rothbard, a brilliant scholar and tireless defender of the free society." DiLorenzo proves to be an outstanding practitioner of a Rothbardian brand of history, a fact that should come as no surprise to readers of his earlier books, The Real Lincoln, Lincoln Unmasked, and How Capitalism Saved America.

DiLorenzo’s title, 18th century in its expansiveness, succinctly sums up his main theme. Thomas Jefferson supported the American Revolution in order to promote individual liberty. To secure this end, it was essential that the central government be strictly limited in its powers. America, in the Jeffersonian view, was an alliance of sovereign states, and the adoption of the Constitution, though it increased the power of the national government, did not fundamentally change this arrangement.

Alexander Hamilton disagreed. He bemoaned the limited powers given to the central government under the Articles of Confederation and continually agitated for a new scheme of authority. At the Constitutional Convention, it became clear how radical were his plans. He favored a permanent president and senate and wanted the federal government to have the power to appoint state governors.

What was behind this radical plan of centralization, fortunately rejected by the majority of the convention? DiLorenzo follows up the brilliant suggestion of Cecilia Kenyon that Hamilton was the "Rousseau of the Right." Rousseau thought that society should be guided by the "general will," but what exactly that concept entailed has perplexed later commentators. It cannot be equated with what the majority of a certain society wishes: it is only when the people’s decisions properly reflect the common good, untrammeled by faction, that the general will operates. But if the general will need not result from straightforward voting, how is it to be determined? One answer, for which there is some textual support in Rousseau, is that a wise legislator will guide the people toward what they really want. Those who dissent will "be forced to be free."

This was precisely Hamilton’s view. Government, directed by the wise such as himself, would guide the people toward what was good for them. Clinton Rossiter, a Cornell political scientist,

catalogued how some version of "the general will" appears hundreds of times in Hamilton’s speeches, letters, and writings… Hamilton more pointedly than any other political thinker of his time, introduced the concept of the "public good" into American thought. (p. 23, quoting Rossiter)

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January 2, 2009

David Gordon [send him mail] is a senior fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute and editor of its Mises Review. He is also the author of The Essential Rothbard. See also his Books on Liberty.

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