Steve Bannon’s September 10, 2017 60 Minutes sparked considerable discussion among both the left and the right. Bannon is always good for that.
After Charlie Rose insisted that immigration built America, Bannon retorted that he was wrong and then seemingly reinforced the idea that “nationalism” has defined American history:
“You couldn’t be more dead wrong. America was built on her citizens. … Look at the 19th century. What built America’s called the American system, from Hamilton to Polk to Henry Clay to Lincoln to the Roosevelts. [It was] a system of protection of our manufacturing, financial system that lends to manufacturers, OK, and the control of our borders. Economic nationalism is what this country was built on. The American system.”
The left took this as an insult to unlimited immigration and fired off several shrill pieces attacking Bannon’s perceived jingoism and nativism. After all, they argued, Alexander Hamilton was an immigrant.
That isn’t the problem. Bannon was correct about immigration. The United States is not a “nation of immigrants.” Hamilton arrived in the British North American colonies from a British Caribbean colony, which meant he technically moved from one British possession to another. That isn’t “immigration” as the left defines it.
Most American leaders in the 18th century were third and fourth generation colonials, born in North America, who considered their native colonies their “country.” Hamilton was different but no more or less a British subject than Thomas Jefferson or George Washington.
Certainly, immigrants were used as laborers throughout American history, but to suggest that non-citizen immigrants “built” America, as the left does, is to 1) believe that most non-skilled American workers were immigrants (they weren’t) and 2) accept the Marxist narrative of history that labor would build things without capital. Both are fallacies. How Alexander Hamilton... Best Price: $1.73 Buy New $5.59 (as of 04:25 EDT - Details)
But that is not Bannon’s fault. That is leftist mythology.
Bannon suffers from a different type of mythology, that of the “nationalist myth” of American history.
According to the “nationalist myth,” the founding generation really wanted a strong central government to cement American exceptionalism but those pesky states kept acting up and Americans were forced to fight a war to settle supremacy once and for all. As Bannon suggests, it was nationalism that created everything good in America.
Neither Bannon nor the left are to blame for their misreading of American history. We have all been indoctrinated in some way to defend an American historical fairy tale. Hamilton, Henry Clay, John Marshall, Joseph Story, James Wilson, Abraham Lincoln, and other expositors of the “nationalist myth” were definitively “American” and it’s easy to read history backwards, to see the present as an inevitable outcome spawned from the dominant vision of American nationalists.
To quote Bannon’s response to Charlie Rose, that is “dead wrong” and Hamilton mythmaking is responsible for all of it.
Americans have been led to believe that Hamilton’s economic dream is somehow free market capitalism ordained and established by the founding documents. Hamilton’s system later became known as the American System which as Bannon suggests capitulated American business into the twenty-first century.
Except the Hamiltonian or American system was not free market anything. It was corruption and crony capitalism of the highest order. Certainly some people became filthy stinking rich because of it, but they did so because the general government unconstitutionally began picking winners and losers through higher protective tariffs and federally funded internal improvements like road, canals, and later railroads.
Anyone who thinks American taxpayer support for Elon Musk’s Tesla brand is a terrible idea can thank Hamilton’s crony capitalist system. The same can be said for virtually every Gilded Age railroad magnate. Government corruption stuffed their pockets.
Hamilton wanted it that way. He once told Thomas Jefferson and John Adams that corruption is what made the British constitution the best in the world. Hamilton then did his best to ensure that corruption found its way across the pond often through artful lying. Only nationalism made that possible. If you love political and economic corruption, Hamilton is your guy and nationalism is your standard.
Hamilton’s opponents often knew the score. They railed against the fusion of government and finance capital and feared the effects of nationalism on the American political system. Most forget, or more than likely don’t know, that these men, the Jeffersonian Republicans, were in the majority for much of the first eighty years of American history. Hamilton’s financial system never really got off the ground until the Civil War removed all obstacles to strong central control. His “implied powers” vision of government certainly had supporters, particularly in the federal court system where it was codified in several dubious Supreme Court decisions, but Americans consistently sent “strict construction” majorities to Congress throughout the antebellum period.
Hamilton got his Bank of the United States, but it failed re-charter in 1811. Nationalists foisted a Second Bank of the United States on America in 1816, but it failed re-charter in 1836. Central banking did not see the light again until the 1860s, not coincidentally when most of the opponents of Hamiltonianism were out of the Union. Tariffs were typically for revenue only in the antebellum period. That changed during the War. Federally funded internal improvements did not have substantial legislative backing until Reconstruction. Even the greatest nationalist president in the nineteenth century, Lincoln, received less than forty percent of the popular vote in 1860 and only fifty-five percent of an entirely Northern vote in 1864. Nationalism was by no means that popular, and it certainly was not constitutional.
Hamiltonianism never won in antebellum America. It took the bloodiest war in American history to enshrine his vision for the United States while concurrently creating the “nationalist myth.”
American history has been turned upside down. Economic nationalism did not build America. Neither did Hamilton or the American system. Federalism and rugged individualism sparked the American age.
Hamilton’s opponents are regarded as a footnote, the stinging gadfly on the rump of good government, and are largely forgotten. But they were right from the beginning, and we should heed their warnings.
One thing can be said for American nationalism. It has led to every major war, every bad policy, every bit of government corruption at the federal level, and every political conflict in American history. Americans don’t like top-down government unless they control the levers of power. The only solution is to rebuke Hamiltonian nationalism and return to the Jeffersonian vision of federalism and limited central power. There would be fewer wars, less political conflict, and a happier and more prosperous people.
That would take a massive paradigm shift, or maybe just a better understanding of real American history.