Ever since I got myself on a post-Revolution/pre-Constitution kick this week, I’ve done some nosing around the bookshelves. Down came Ron Chernow’s mighty biography Alexander Hamilton.

In it, Chernow is a touch disdainful of the Virginia junto’s (thank you, Gore Vidal!) attitude toward Daniel Shays and the rebels in western Massachusetts. Washington is heard to proclaim, “Good God!” They’re disposed to believe land “to be the common property of all.” Madison worries that “an abolition of debts public and private and a new division of property are strongly suspected in contemplation.” And Jefferson tells Madison “loftily from Paris”: “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”

Then there was Hamilton:

Ordinarily a veritable Niagara of opinion, Hamilton was initially mute about Shays’s Rebellion. He kept silent because he sympathized with the farmers’ grievances, however much he despised their methods. Hamilton wanted the federal government to take over state debts left from the war. Instead, Massachusetts, by trying to settle its own debt, had crushed the farmers with onerous taxes. “The insurrection was in a great degree the offspring of this pressure,” he later wrote. In Federalist number 6, he argued that “if Shays had not been a desperate debtor, it is much to be doubted whether Massachusetts would have been plunged into a civil war.” The rural uprising vindicated his sense that the federal government had to distribute the tax burden equitably across the states.

Chernow here seems to track with Michael Lind’s portrait of Hamilton in The Next American Nation:

Ironically, it is Jeffersonianism — the poisonous amalgam of white supremacy, states’ rights, and antigovernment rhetoric, which has come in both agrarian and pro-industrial forms — that has legitimated or promoted the grossest forms of racial and class inequality for centuries in the United States. Though often maligned as a champion of plutocracy, Hamilton favored luxury taxes on the rich as a way of “taxing their superior wealth,” praised inheritance laws that would “soon melt down those great estates which, if they continued, might favor the power of the few,” and denounced poll taxes — a version of the regressive flat tax favored by Jeffersonian conservatives — in order to “guard the least wealthy part of the community from oppression.”

This view of Hamilton, and Hamiltonianism, evokes one of the great paradoxes of American political life, one that still resonates today: Activist government, which begets economic dynamism, is for the common man, the strivers, while small government is for the plutocracy and the idle aristocrats.

In our day, of course, such activism has led to onerous burdens of a different kind — but in Hamilton’s day, when tyranny was synonymous with nobility (before the French Revolution, that is), a properly functioning central bureaucracy would have seemed a necessary component of a vibrant commercial republic.