The Magazine

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

Feb 9, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 21 • By DAVID FRUM
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.