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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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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.