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Hamilton Was Right

Reassessing the political thought of a Founding Father

Toward the end of his work, Michael Federici writes, “It is rare to find books or articles on Hamilton that do not in some way make comparisons between him and Thomas Jefferson.” This is understandable given that their differences, far from being just theoretical or temporal, have played and continue to play a role in determining the direction of our economic and political development. What is somewhat remarkable, however, is that Hamilton usually does not fare very well in these comparisons.

The contrasts drawn between the two are all too familiar: Jefferson articulated the American creed in the Declaration, he was a real republican who reposed faith in the people, whereas Hamilton, out of step with the temper of the times and ever fearful of the masses, favored a strong central government with an aristocratic, if not monarchical, character. Even many conservatives, especially those with libertarian leanings, find Jefferson to their liking because they associate him with unalienable individual rights, a federal government with limited powers, and a decentralized political system. From their vantage point, Hamilton fares very poorly.

The significance of Federici’s work, in my estimation, can best be understood in this context because it presents persuasive evidence that Hamilton may well deserve a place in the pantheon of conservative statesmen, while it simultaneously undermines Jefferson’s credentials for any such status. This is not to say that these are Federici’s conclusions, although he unquestionably believes that a major reappraisal of Hamilton’s legacy is in order. Rather, they are warranted simply in light of the totality of Hamilton’s political thought that he surveys.

As Federici acknowledges at various points, Hamilton was not a systemic and comprehensive political theorist. Such is true of virtually all the Founding Fathers, though to a greater extent with Hamilton than, say, John Adams or James Wilson. This means, as Federici puts it, that often “his political ideas have to be teased out his writings and one has to be aware that Hamilton was often writing not to explicate philosophical truth but to accomplish a political objective.” Therefore, the range of Hamilton’s theoretical concerns was largely confined to the concrete issues within his immediate political universe. Given this orientation, he did not embrace or espouse any ideology, nor was he wont to engage in abstract political thought. And, although he was influenced by various political theorists, Hume and Montesquieu being among the most notable, Federici concludes that he does not fit comfortably into any school of political thought.

The character and foundations of Hamilton’s political thought are apparent, however, from Federici’s revealing treatment of Hamilton’s imagination, in which Federici employs Irving Babbitt’s distinction between the “idyllic imagination,” evidenced in the thought and approaches of both Rousseau and Bacon, and the “moral imagination” that fashioned Burke’s thinking. Federici offers compelling reasons to believe that Hamilton’s imagination was akin to Burke’s.

Hamilton, for instance, rejected “the idea that human nature is malleable,” which, in turn, contributed mightily to his realism “about the possibilities of politics.” He “was not enamored with the wisdom of the people or with plebiscitary forms of democracy” and, along with Marshall and Washington, he saw an imperative need for “constitutional checks and restraints” in order to control the “will to power.”

Yet his “moral and political realism … the product of an imagination imbued with Christian and Classical realism regarding the human condition” clearly did not prevent him from advocating change. Indeed, Federici remarks, “few Americans did more than Hamilton to change the nation’s political and economic institutions.” But lasting and beneficial change or reform for Hamilton, as for Burke, could only take place “within the parameters of a structure of reality … defined by historical experience.”

As Federici shows, these views and assumptions, among others, serve to highlight the basic differences between Hamilton’s views and those of Jefferson (the latter deriving from Jefferson’s “idyllic imagination”). These differences, not surprisingly, manifest themselves in their respective attitudes toward the Jacobins and the French Revolution. Federici points out that Jefferson, even after the culmination the French Revolution, could write, “The liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the context, and was ever such a prize won with so little innocent blood?” Hamilton, on the other hand, condemned the revolution along the same lines as Burke and concluded that for “a deluded, an abused, a plundered, a scourged and oppressed people,” the Revolution has left “not even the shadow of liberty.”

Federici’s concerns go well beyond comparing the political thought of Hamilton and Jefferson. A chapter is devoted to Hamilton’s positions on various and wide-ranging foreign-policy issues, including Washington’s neutrality proclamation, which prompted the Hamilton’s “Pacificus” essays and Madison’s response as “Helvidius”—an exchange that raised fundamental issues over the direction and control of foreign policy that are still very much with us today. Also included is analysis of Hamilton’s “Camillus” essays defending the controversial and unpopular Jay Treaty that failed to secure any substantial concessions from Great Britain over its longstanding violations of the Paris Treaty.

Still another chapter centers on those economic and finance policies that constitute Hamilton’s most enduring legacy: his “Report on Manufactures,” his success in pushing for the national assumption of state war debts, and, among others, the creation of a national bank. In both the economic and foreign-policy fields, his policies were designed with an eye to the security and independence of the new nation: on the foreign-policy side this amounted to “protecting the ship of state from ideological and imperial powers”; on the domestic, “building a diverse and productive economy that could serve the nation’s economic and military needs.”

In many ways, Federici’s discussion of Hamilton’s theory of constitutionalism and his commentary on the Constitution, gleaned primarily from the Federalist essays, is the most interesting. Hamilton believed that civic virtue—i.e., subordinating personal self-interest for the common good—was essential for a just and enduring constitutional republic. At the same time, given his views on human motivation, he was convinced that this virtue could never prevail in the political arena for any length of time without the benefits of a natural aristocracy. Consequently, with Madison he perceived the need for “fit characters” in representative institutions; characters who, always mindful of justice and the common good, would “refine and enlarge the public views.” He also shared with Madison the belief that provision for delay and deliberation was essential to allow for passions to cool and, as he put it, provide “time for more cool and sedate reflection.”

Federici makes clear, however, that in important ways, Hamilton’s positions on restraining either oppressive majorities or government are at odds with views that seemingly prevail today. In The Federalist, for example, he argues against a bill of rights on various tenable grounds that belie the charge that he was opponent of self-government. The “primary signification” of rights, he observes, has been the grant of rights by kings to the people. As such, he concludes, they have no place in the proposed Constitution because the “people surrender nothing … and … retain everything.” He emphasizes the Preamble’s “We the people” by way of affirming that the Constitution’s consensual foundation “is a better recognition of rights” than the “aphorisms” found in the various states’ bills of right.

In discussing the push to elevate “liberty of the press” to the status of a constitutional right, Hamilton points to other considerations, namely, the difficulties in clearly defining it and its potential conflict with the legitimate powers of government such a taxation. Significantly, he adds, the observance of any such right depends, in the last analysis, on “public opinion … the general spirit of the people and of the government.” (The validity of this proposition is evident in today’s America.)

Finally, he maintains, stipulating “things shall not be done, which there is no power to do” offers “a colourable pretext” for contending that the national government possesses plenary, not simply delegated, powers. Nor, as increasingly seems to be the case today, did Hamilton look upon the Supreme Court as the last resort in blocking oppressive measures, correcting for political failures, or addressing minority concerns. He is adamant that the Court should exercise only “judgment” and not “will,” the prerogative of the legislature. Beyond this, he holds that only in the event of an “irreconcilable difference” between a law and the Constitution can the Court legitimately nullify the law; a test so stringent that the Court would have occasion perhaps once or twice in a century to invalidate laws. In sum, as Federici rightly comments, Hamilton’s thoughts on judicial power bear scarcely any relationship to modern theories of judicial review.

Suffice it to say that Federici deals with virtually every aspect of Hamilton’s political thought—his penchant for order, the grounds of his loose construction of the Constitution, his reactions to the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions and, inter alia, the character of his nationalism. He was not, Federici notes, entirely consistent in his treatment of issues, tending, for example, “to overestimate the possibilities of politics when power rested in his hands.” But for Federici, Hamilton’s “central weakness” is his failure to recognize “what Tocqueville and others would later identify as the rich American tradition of state and local communities, including the place of sectional and private groups and associations in the affairs of the country.” For this reason, he continues, “Hamilton overestimated the extent to which government can control or manage the lives of people and communities it governs.”

Yet it must be said that Hamilton, having experienced first hand the mismanagement and failures of government during and after the Revolutionary War, and whose historical knowledge of the ancient confederacies gave him reason to fear that the states might undermine the Union, had good reason for advocating a strong national government. As well, we should not forget that Hamilton never espoused the kind of extensive, intrusive governmental powers that most of the American people today, including many “conservatives,” have willingly accepted.

Above all, our estimate of Hamilton must also take in account the role he played in our Founding. In Federici’s estimation, “No American did more to bring it [the Constitution] into existence, ensure its ratification, and nurture in its infancy.” This estimate may be generous, but if it is, not by much.

We owe thanks, then, to Federici for this comprehensive and very thoughtful work that should go a long way toward restoring Hamilton to his rightful place among our Founding Fathers.

George W. Carey is professor of government at Georgetown University.



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