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.


Michael Lind's new anthology, Hamilton's Republic, brings the Croly theory up to date. In the introduction to this artfully edited selection of readings, Lind proposes a political line of descent that begins with the Federalist Hamilton and the Whig Clay, proceeds through Abraham Lincoln, and then -- ever more exotically -- reaches out to include Frederick Douglass, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and, finally, Lind himself. Lind's justification would have been familiar to Croly:


Throughout American history, Hamiltonian democratic nationalists have favored intelligent activism by both the federal and state governments to promote the public interest. At different times government activism has taken the form of sponsoring internal improvements or infrastructure projects like the construction of turnpikes, canals, railroads, the airline industry, and the Internet; raising tariffs to protect infant industries, and then pressing for reciprocal free trade with other countries when those industries had matured; and establishing national social insurance programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid to cushion workers against fluctuations in the economy.


Later in his collection (in an essay co-written with John Judis), Lind goes further still: "We think the goal of social policy should be to reduce the growing disparity among economic classes."


Hamilton approving of Medicaid? Hamilton advocating the redistribution of income from rich to poor? These are unlikely thoughts, and Lind properly confesses a nervous awareness that "attempts to project contemporary viewpoints on historical figures can become ventriloquism in a cemetery." That doesn't stop him from trying, but it should at least have given him pause.


Fascism and other horrific abuses of nationalism in this century very understandably cause today's nationalists to assert that what they have in mind is a specifically "democratic" form of nationalism. But the truth is that devotion to democracy loomed very small in the minds of Alexander Hamilton, John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, and the other advocates of vigorous government in the first sixty years of the republic. "The people, sir, is a great beast!" Hamilton once exclaimed in a moment of exasperation.


The truth is that Hamilton and his admirers were nationalists in large part precisely because they opposed democracy. In 1804 (by which time the Federalist party was visibly dying), Hamilton was approached by a group of Bostonians seeking support for their plan to withdraw New England from the Union. He fiercely rebuffed them: Divide the Union, he warned, and the democratic "fever" will burn hotter than ever within the broken bits. The Constitution, though still too democratic for Hamilton's liking, at least ensured that the president (elected, in those days, by an electoral college chosen by state legislatures), the Senate (likewise elected by state legislatures), and the judiciary were insulated from popular control. An independent New England, adopting a constitution in the opening years of the nineteenth century, would be unable -- Hamilton seems to have feared -- to defy the new spirit of direct democracy.


And as for Lind's suggestion that the Federalist tradition would look with favor upon economic redistribution -- nearly all that can be said is that it would have left the original Federalists gasping. True, John Adams (a very heterodox Federalist) expressed great distrust of the political ambitions of the rich, and his son, John Quincy Adams, was prepared to accept the presidential nomination of the bizarrely populist Anti-Masonic party in 1832. But most Federalists unashamedly regarded themselves as the party of the natural leaders of society, and it was candor on this point, as much as anything else, that led them to disaster in the election of 1800.


The Federalist Hamilton -- like the Whigs John Marshall, Clay, and Daniel Webster -- believed in the strictest protection of property, which they all regarded as the touchstone of civilization. They so revered property that they defended its rights even under the most disturbing circumstances: Hamilton insisted on paying Revolutionary debts at one hundred cents on the dollar, even though the bulk of them had long since been bought by foreign speculators; Marshall ruled in the 1810 Supreme Court case Fletcher v. Peck that the Georgia legislature could not retract land grants it had made, even when it was beyond dispute that the claims had been obtained by blatant and wholesale corruption.


The most eloquent of all nationalists, Daniel Webster, earned his greatest fame with a series of Supreme Court cases -- the Dartmouth College case, McCullough v. Maryland, and Gibbons v. Ogden -- that defended the rights of corporations to go about their business without interference by state legislatures. (It's true that McCullough did establish the constitutionality of a central, national bank, but it must be remembered that the bank in question, the Second Bank of the United States, was 80 percent privately owned.)


These are not men to look to for arguments on behalf of redistributing wealth. Indeed, they saw resisting demands for the redistribution of property as one of the principal justifications for the Union. As Hamilton observed in the eleventh of the Federalist Papers: "A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole Union, than a particular member of it."


Similarly, though Lind claims Whig support for his own desire to expand current federal civil rights laws to reach gender and sexual orientation, Jean Edward Smith -- in the careful and useful new biography John Marshall: Definer of a Nation -- points out that Marshall held in 1830 that the Constitution "was not intended to furnish the corrective to every abuse of power which may be committed by state governments. The interest, wisdom, and justice of the representative body and its relation with its constituents" -- a polite nineteenth-century reference to the power of electors to give their politicians the boot -- "furnish the only security against unwise legislation generally."


The point might be put even more strongly: From the fact that the Federalists and the Northern Whigs from 1790 to 1850 wanted a more centralized Union than the one they had then, it must not be concluded that they would also want a more centralized Union than the one we have today.


To advocate "Hamiltonian means for Jeffersonian ends" is to assume that public policies are like screwdrivers that can twist clockwise or counter- clockwise with equal ease. In fact, the means we choose in politics determines the ends we reach. Revolutionaries used to believe that you could achieve perfect freedom via a brief detour through absolute dictatorship. The error of both Croly and Lind is of course by no means as sinister; but it is every bit as mistaken.


Hamilton was an astute man, with a practical turn of mind, and he understood the connection between ends and means. His program formed a coherent whole, and he advocated it with his eyes open to all its costs. He knew that protectionism would depress the incomes of farmers and consumers, and he was prepared to live with the consequences.


Lind, perhaps to his credit, is not so ruthlessly realistic. He favors protectionism, but only because he is under the illusion that it will advance economic equality. Its malign consequences -- exacerbating political tension between those with the clout to get protection and those who lack it, upending the world economy, and binding business and political leaders together in unwholesome combinations -- are not so much accepted by him as left unrecognized.


If the Federalist-Whig tradition is troublesome for today's Left, however, it is equally a problem for today's Right. Kristol and Brooks are right to argue that the language of national unity and greatness inherited from Hamilton, Marshall, Quincy Adams, Webster, and Lincoln is the mode in which conservatives should speak. The problem that those great men faced national disintegration along sectional lines -- is very similar to the problem that Americans face today: national disintegration along ethnic lines. Their ideas deserve remembering at a time when the ideal of citizenship with equal rights for all and special privileges for none is under attack again, this time from advocates of group rights, multiculturalism, and reverse discrimination.


But it is also worth remembering the mistakes that destroyed the Federalists and Whigs, for those too resonate today. The Federalists mistrusted spontaneous action, in politics as well as economics. Their insistence on top-down direction of the national economy suited the American condition as poorly as did their insistence that party leaders should lead and party members merely obey. The Federalists never accepted the democratic destiny of America, and it killed them. It is a message the Republican National Committee needs to consider: When, even before party members had actually voted in the primary, Newt Gingrich gave his blessing last year to Brooks Firestone, a Republican congressional candidate in California, you could almost see the ghosts of old, "ourleaders-know-best" Federalists like Oliver Wolcott and Rufus King nodding-and the ghost of Thomas Jefferson smirking.


The Whigs in turn were wrecked by their determination to hold together at any cost their coalition of Southern slaveholders and Northern industrialists. Jeffersonian doctrine had regarded Congress as supreme. Jackson fiercely asserted presidential prerogatives. The Whig party was formed by uniting the primarily Southern ultra-Jeffersonians, who feared Jackson's ambitions, with the mostly Northern former Federalists who objected to Jackson's policies. The only way to keep them together was to ban all discussion of the moral issue of slavery: They were the ultimate "no litmus test" party. And the price paid for this ideological vagueness, even before the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision smashed the Whig coalition to smithereens, was repeated political defeat and nearly complete ineffectuality on the rare occasions when they did win.


This is not to argue that conservatives should allow themselves to be fooled by the congeniality of Jackson's and Jefferson's libertarian oratorical flourishes. The Whigs were to a great extent right about the highhanded and arbitrary Andrew Jackson. The Constitution was only fortythree years old when General Jackson became president, and during the years of his presidency, the free institutions of the other newly independent republics in the Americas were collapsing -- unable to survive a popular military hero. Jackson's authoritarianism was unnerving in a new and untested political system, and his financial ideas were truly crackpot.


Likewise, Jefferson was no unspotted hero. He prosecuted newspaper editors who criticized him just as ferociously as the Federalists ever had, and -- for all his interest in science -- his mind could veer off in alarmingly hare- brained directions. In 1790, while Hamilton was exhaustively studying the money markets of London and Amsterdam before establishing the gold content of the new American dollar, Jefferson thought the United States should peg its currency to the value of an ingot of silver equal in weight to a thousandth of a cubic foot of rainwater.


But weirdly enough, and often by accident, Jefferson and Jackson turned out to be right on the big economic issues of their day. By quashing Hamilton's tariff plan, Jefferson may have slightly slowed American industrialization. But he also ensured that American farmers and workers continued to enjoy the highest standard of living on earth which gave them the purchasing power to fuel a self-sustaining industrial boom after 1820. By destroying the Bank of the United States, Jackson disarranged the monetary policy of the United States for thirty-five years. But he also established once and for all that America's financial system would be decentralized and highly competitive.




David Frum is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.