The Magazine

DUELING WITH HAMILTON Why National Greatness Doesn't Mean Big Government

Feb 9, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 21 • By DAVID FRUM
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Michael Lind


Hamilton's Republic

Readings in the American Democratic Tradition


Free Press, 320 pp., $ 25

In the 1970s, odd-looking people with shaved heads used to hang around the edges of college campuses, searching for students who appeared lonely, hungover, or adrift. Offering a meal or a place to stay for the night, they would lead the student off to a building that looked like a church, toss garlands around his neck, and intoxicate him with the scent of incense. Unless the student quickly dashed out of the place, he would soon be selling flowers in airports.

Two editors of THE WEEKLY STANDARD recently had a very similar experience. William Kristol and David Brooks published a set of articles here and elsewhere cautioning conservatives against strident attacks on the federal government. Liberals and Democrats had immolated themselves in the 1960s, Kristol and Brooks argue, by criticizing the U.S. government so bitterly that they verged on the unpatriotic. Conservatives and Republicans are in danger of repeating that error. The federal government is here to stay; instead of fruitlessly denouncing it, conservatives and Republicans should be thinking hard about how to use its immense powers to enhance the greatness of the nation.

At which there arose a great chorus of "Hare Krishna, Hare Rama," from liberal columnists and television pundits. Kristol and Brooks were lavishly complimented by the left for separating themselves from Timothy McVeigh, Newt Gingrich, and other right-wing extremists -- for awakening at last to the splendor and magnificence of the past sixty years of liberal politics.

It was an awkward moment for both would-be proselytizers and the proselytized, and rather more awkward because Kristol and Brooks had been so badly misunderstood. They weren't surrendering to the liberal traditions of the Democratic party; they were trying to reinvigorate the activist traditions of the Republican party. Despite the courtesies paid by their articles to Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson, they were looking past those men to another tradition: the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, and, beyond them, of the Whigs and Federalists.

Historically, it was the Republicans who were the party of activist government. As the elder Henry Cabot Lodge -- like his son, a Republican senator from Massachusetts -- put it in his 1885 introduction to the collected works of Alexander Hamilton, "Two schools of political thought have existed in the United States, and their struggle for supremacy has made the history of the country. One was the national school, the other was the school of states rights. . . . One was founded by Alexander Hamilton, the other by Thomas Jefferson."

As if to confirm Lodge's point, at nearly the same time Lodge was writing, a Democratic president, Grover Cleveland, was vetoing a federal appropriation for stricken Texas farmers -- because, he thought, the Constitution did not explicitly grant the federal government the power to do it. The Democratic party before 1933 stood for free trade, states rights, and strict economy in government, while the Republican party championed protectionism, pro-business federal activism, and a strong and costly navy.

In this, the Democrats between the Civil War and the Depression saw themselves as the heirs of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson -- it was Jefferson, not Ronald Reagan, who quipped that if we waited for the government to tell us when to plant, we should soon lack bread -- while the Republicans traced their ancestry instead to the Federalists and the Whigs. During the 1790s, Federalists were the ones who argued that the United States was a nation, not a federation of sovereign states: They championed America's first central bank, the creation of a navy, and vigorous federal protection of property. During the 1840s and 1850s, Whigs were the ones who defended high tariffs and federal aid for roads and canals, while insisting that states could not nullify federal laws.

Nationalist Republicans versus states-rights Democrats -- this was the fundamental division of American politics before the New Deal. But the Federalist-Whig tradition of nationalism that once belonged to the Republicans has been claimed far more often by the Left than by the Right over the last sixty years. Even before the 1930s, back at the turn of the twentieth century, the progressive Herbert Croly had dreamt of somehow using " Hamiltonian means for Jeffersonian ends." And liberals and Democrats have been trying, fitfully, to apply that slogan ever since.