Hamilton wanted weak government?

Via Twitter, from Bill Chapman and then J.L. Bell, : a nice, straight-ahead, witty piece here by Tim Hodson of Sacramento State, on how rightwingers like Armey, Bachmann, et al, make up stuff about American history. Hodson writes:

… For example, Dick Armey recently proclaimed the Jamestown Colony as “socialist venture” that left “everybody dead and dying in the snow.”  Let’s see:  Jamestown was founded as a for-profit venture by the London Company, a joint stock company in 1607, or about two hundred years before French thinker Saint-Simon first wrote about socialism.  Perhaps Armey confused Capitan John Smith, soldier of fortune and tireless promoter of North America as a place to get rich, with Karl Marx. After all, both men had beards.

Armey also invoked the Federalist Papers as a guide to small government and insisted that Alexander Hamilton believed in a weak national government.   …

Love it. Things do get a little dicier, at least to me, when further along Hodson says:

… many conservatives trotted out the canard that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery.  Sorry, folks, that just ain’t so …

The apodictic “yes, it was!” “no,  it wasn’t!” on this question, with all of its oft-cited chapter and verse on each side, feels old to me, and fruitless. Maybe there’s a fresher and more complicated way to air that matter out? Anyway, the piece is smart and fun and worth checking out.

5 thoughts on “Hamilton wanted weak government?

  1. I didn’t hear Armey’s remarks, however I just read the article you referenced above. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black! Hodson loses his objectivity in his superciliousness. He obviously has his own axe to grind and it detracts from the validity of his argument.

    Hamilton was one of the foremost in the fight for a stronger central government, in reading the Federalist papers and the anti-Federalist writings of Richard Henry Lee, it’s clear that it’s a matter of proportion. The government under the Articles of Confederation was but a step removed from anarchy and everyone acknowledged that it wasn’t working. Anything in comparison would be strong. Founders like Madison, Jefferson, and even Hamilton would be apoplectic at the amount of government we have today. I can’t imagine Hamilton signing on to the recent finance bill, for instance.

  2. Interesting. These seem to me to represent some underlying foregone conclusons:

    — the government under the Articles of Confederation was but a step removed from anarchy

    — even Hamilton would be apoplectic at the amount of government we have today

    I hold no brief for a confederation over a nation, but that’s the issue in the federalist/antifederalist battle — not “strength.” They are two entirely different forms of organization — a difference in kind, not proportion (this matter is routinely mischaracterized). Entirely separate issues are the proper role of the executive in a national government and the proper degree of what today is called activism in a national legislature. As I’ve discussed elsewhere and at length, Hamilton wanted the most extreme kinds of strength in both (he was writing those big-government laws passed by the first Congress), believing such approaches to be in the best interest of the country — as long as strength originated with him. In the 1780’s Madison and Hamilton had enjoyed a nationalist alliance based on mutual (possibly deliberate?) misunderstanding of nationhood and republicanism. In the 1790’s, clarity prevailed and they were at deadly odds.

    I consider it fruitless to look to the founders for advice on such things as today’s finance bill, since they didn’t agree with one another on anything and couldn’t see the future. Hamilton, however, was constantly pressing for massive public-private partnerships, including bailouts (the revenue bill was nothing but that, for the bondholding class who were too big to fail), yoking the wealth of the investor class to national projects and prosperity, yoking the nation to high finance; to a huge, carefully managed public debt; and to a gigantic, pervasive treasury bureaucracy with weakly checked enforcement capabilities. (And look at the Duer scandal for some queasily familiar downsides of unregulated privileging of government crony stock speculation.) That’s why today’s Hamiltonians (like both Paulsen and Orszag) claim AH, rightly enough, as the founder of big, capitalist, corporate, growth-oriented modern America.

  3. Alas you are right in at least one regard :-) It is easy to make bold statements that appear to be assumptions, if you don’t back them up. So, let me see if I can articulate why I made these statements.

    First, with regard to the Articles of Confederation. Of course they were vastly different forms of government. The Articles united a group of 13 nation states in a loose confederation. Washington and others strove to create a union, a new country, rather than a factional coalition of sovereign nation states. He tried to overcome regional partisanship, especially that of his own Virginia. The Confederation did not fill this bill. It was powerless to levy taxes, unify currency, protect borders, or negotiate in any sort of meaningful manner with strong European powers. Getting 13 independent states to agree with unanimity on most anything was impossible. Is the word anarchy semantically to strong a word? Maybe. If so, I’ll back off one step and modify my statement to suggest it was 2 steps removed from anarchy.

    It is interesting that you refer to the alliance between Hamilton and Madison. I don’t think there was any misunderstanding of nationalist intent. I think that Madison “evolved” a bit in his thinking over time. (To use a modern politician’s terminology.) All of the Founders seem to be more than a little Utopian in their hopes for the fledgling republic they hatched. For federalists like Hamilton and Washington, they expected that their class would continue to furnish high minded intellectuals who would exercise benign disinterest. They did not anticipate the vast democratization that would rapidly take place within a generation. Hamilton evinces this carefree optimism in his arguments in Federalist 81 when he tries to dismiss the anti-Federalist arguments on the likelihood of judicial abuse by suggesting that an ordinary degree of prudence and integrity in the national councils will insure us solid advantages from the establishment of the proposed judiciary, without exposing us to any of the inconveniences which have been predicted from that source.

    The anti-Federalists, on the other hand were more realistic about human nature and sought to limit government from the start. Madison initially thought that the Bill of Rights was unnecessary, because, after all, why should things need to spelled out that weren’t prohibited in the Constitution? He was being optimistic. By the time he wrote the 10th Federalist he was beginning to come to terms with the reality that men weren’t “angels”. His efforts to get the Bill of Rights through congress may have started as a pragmatic gesture, but was certainly something he grew to believe in, even as you point out in remarking on his ultimate antipathy toward Hamilton.

    Hamilton certainly was an advocate for stronger central government and dreaded the mob-rule he saw in democracy. However, he was more of a Utopian, an unduly optimistic about society’s ability to produce men of the Founders’ caliber. Gordon Wood does a much better job of explaining this in his books Revolutionary Characters and Radicalism of the American Revolution than I am able to convey in a few lines here. Hamilton advocated establishing good credit for the United States, uniting the states through the assumption of their debts by the federal government, and in creating stable revenue streams (taxation.) Some of what he did smacked of corporatism, in particular chartering the first national bank. However, all that Washington and Hamilton did was new and precedent setting. They were walking on untrod ground.

    Now, as for your statement:

    I consider it fruitless to look to the founders for advice on such things as today’s finance bill, since they didn’t agree with one another on anything and couldn’t see the future.

    Heings are human beings, as sophisticated as we think we are, human nature has not changed. The financial principles that the Founders argued for, in particular establishment of credit and the desire and importance of paying off the debt, is just as relevant today as it was then.

    Yes they had differences of opinion on many issues, but they were more in accord than they were not. For instance Washington was elected unanimously 3 times, first as General of the Continental Army, and then as president twice.

    In reading many of the Federalist and anti-Federalist papers, you can see there are frequently areas of agreement openly discussed. In particular I think of some written by Richard Henry Lee in regard to the absence of a Bill of Rights.

    Incidentally, your comment seems to indicate that you are a believer in Historicism. Am I correct?

  4. Thanks for these thoughts. Way too much here for a comment — maybe I’ll try to work up some cogent responses in a post or two. But just to clarify our many disagreements, which I think are interesting:

    The Articles united a group of 13 nation states in a loose confederation. Washington and others strove to create a union, a new country, rather than a factional coalition of sovereign nation states.
    No, I don’t think that’s the salient difference. The new government, unlike the confederation, had the power to obligate and act upon every person throughout all the states, and a concomitant responsibility to all its citizens as well. That’s a nation. There was nothing “loose” or “weak” about the confederation, it just wasn’t anything like a national government (though Hamilton and others kept trying to get it to act like one). And anarchy is something else altogether.

    On Madison and Hamilton: Madison’s evolution has perplexed everybody for a long time and remains fascinating to me — because, you know, as you’re implying, he couldn’t *really* have “evolved” into an antifederalist, not really, not Madison. How he went from Publius to the VA-KY Resolutions is not to be gleaned by looking at a purely intellectual evolution. I think both AH and JM had what you’re calling “utopian” ideas about what the new country might mean, and each came crashing into the other’s idea of utopia; neither was more nor less “realistic”; neither can be well-understood via “The Federalist.” (It can clarify things to view Madison’s 1790’s critique of Hamilton as coming utterly and exclusively from the right.)

    I ultimately dissent from almost every impression created by the very learned and adept Wood, so the bit about AH and “corporatism, “etc.,” I’ll leave aside for now. Except: No, the ground was not untrod. England had well-trod it already.

    …they were more in accord than they were not. For instance Washington was elected unanimously 3 times, first as General of the Continental Army, and then as president twice. … In reading many of the Federalist and anti-Federalist papers, you can see there are frequently areas of agreement openly discussed.
    Too briefly: Relying on what the founders wrote, in the absence of a detailed political analysis of what they did — and why certain results occurred — is to my mind a big mistake.

    Incidentally, your comment seems to indicate that you are a believer in Historicism. Am I correct?
    No.

  5. Well, first off, thanks for taking the time to engage. I fear I am not as eloquent and will have to be careful of my use of hyperbole in conversations with you as it’s clear I can’t get by with it!

    So, let me give you one point in this discussion immediately and we can dispense with it further. My use of the term anarchy was exaggeration at best, and simply incorrect. Obviously true anarchy is politically a very different thing than the inability for independent nation states to agree on currency, trade, or taxation. We are in agreement at least that the confederation was nothing like a national government, which is what many of the federalists sought. Fair is fair, and I cede the point.

    I’m not sure where you’re going with the bit about Hamilton and Madison and his (faux) evolution, so I’ll leave that until, either I have an epiphany and suddenly comprehend, or you elaborate. I don’t fundamentally disagree with much here. We may be in violent agreement.

    As for Gordon Wood. I am in fact still mulling around his works in my mind. Where you and I (and perhaps Gordon Wood) disagree is in the radical nature of the American Revolution. Unlike many who would co-opt the Founders as being conservative, I don’t believe they were. Instead they evolved republicanism into a radical (and untrod :-) belief that rights come from God and that government does not provide them. In such a world, the meanest citizen is entitled to the same protections under the rule of law as the mightiest aristocrat. It was not a system that had ever been tried before. The French did not start from this basis and felt that man’s reason was sufficient. You state that this ground had been trod in England. No, it had not. This was a radical concept that turned the paternalistic society of patronage upside down. (Here I agree with Wood’s analysis.)

    Finally, I agree wholeheartedly with your statement:

    Relying on what the founders wrote, in the absence of a detailed political analysis of what they did — and why certain results occurred — is to my mind a big mistake.

    I’ll be the first to admit my ignorance – this is a process and I have to start somewhere. But I don’t think that’s what I’m doing. I’m sifting through lots of biographies, histories and the original writings. I’ve learned that Founders weren’t conservative in the true sense of the word. They were liberal in the classical sense.

    So, yes, context is everything.

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