1. Skip to navigation
  2. Skip to content
  3. Skip to sidebar
Source link: http://archive.mises.org/15940/hamiltons-curse-2/

Hamilton’s Curse

March 8, 2011 by

What DiLorenzo offers is not a biography of Hamilton but instead a critical examination of his ideas and a historical exploration of how they have shaped American history. DiLorenzo contrasts the statist, mercantilist, and nationalist philosophy of Hamilton with the strict constitutionalism of Jefferson. FULL ARTICLE by Art Carden

{ 38 comments }

Bob Williams March 8, 2011 at 10:04 am

Since my undergraduate days under William Savage at the University of Oklahoma (and later at Walsh University under William Zumbar), I noticed how the Hamiltonians, enamored by Gibbons’s DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE, employed Orwellian doublespeak and propaganda long before Eric Blair was credited with the term, in support of their aim to resurrect a Roman-type government, not in Europe, but here in North America. This area of American history (1776-87) has been woefully neglected, so I’m happy to see Tom DiLorenzo addressing this.

Curt Howland March 8, 2011 at 10:13 am

I refer people to _Hamilton’s Curse_ repeatedly since reading it when it came out. If I can get someone to read only one Mises.org related book, and they’re American, this is the one I recommend.

If there is one thing about the book that makes it so good, it’s that it’s short! That’s not a negative, it means that the information is dense, the writing quick and clear, and it doesn’t get bogged down with less relevant asides, or overwhelming detail.

When I get settled in New Hampshire, I’m going to buy my third copy because for some reason the ones I loan out don’t come back.

J. Murray March 8, 2011 at 10:42 am

Too cold up there. I never understood why the Free State project didn’t pick New Mexico. Roughly the same population, but doesn’t have ice.

Horst Muhlmann March 8, 2011 at 11:11 am

The real reason that New Hampshire was a dumb choice by the Free State Project is because they wanted 20,000 liberty minded people to move there, while 10,000 “Massholes” move to NH each year. In two short years, the FSP’s efforts are neutralized.

Jim March 8, 2011 at 11:36 am

I think you confuse the people trying to flee Massachusetts with their government.

tfr March 8, 2011 at 11:56 am

“Massholes” refers to those who move from Massachusetts to NH and then try to turn it into Massachusetts. Either that, or the jerk with the Mass. plate who thinks he owns the road! I did, in fact, move here from Mass., but I am probably more libertarian than most natives.

Alpheus March 9, 2011 at 3:28 pm

In this sense, I have concluded that so-called liberal states are viral: they convince their people of the need of Government Programs; they then raise their taxes so high that everyone has to leave; those people then advocate for the need of Government Programs in their new home states.

We need to do a better job of vaccinating people from such disease. And we need to detoxify those who flee their sick states.

Horst Muhlmann March 8, 2011 at 11:59 am

I do no such thing. People who flee high tax states tend to advocate the policies of their old state in the new state. The “Massholes” are turning New Hampshire into Massachusetts North.

Bill March 8, 2011 at 12:43 pm

I agree. I’m from southern Maine and its worse here. At least in New Hampshire a lot of those people are still working in and around Boston, so they tend to care about their money. Maine just gets all the rich, retired “Massholes”.

On a side note, I did pledge with the Free State Project to move to New Hampshire by 2013.

Phinn March 9, 2011 at 2:29 pm

We get the same effect in Florida. It’s being overrun with Yankees and Canadians, who seem to love nothing more than finding new ways to increase the power of the state. With the great wave of Boomer retirements that’s just beginning, it only looks to get worse in the coming years. Not only are their accents, general incivility and questionable taste in food annoying to those of us who enjoy Southern culture, they also seem to favor northern-style building laws and “development plans.”

These are the same kind of people who, a generation or two ago, moved from New York to Florida to retire and invented the modern Homeowners Association, which as far as I can tell, is just voluntary communism. I have to acknowledge their right to create these restrictions on their own property, but for the life of me, I can’t see how anyone would want to subject himself to such a thing.

I like New Hampshire, but have to believe that a critical mass of people who have an innate, cultural affinity for freedom will have to find someplace more south and/or westerly.

Gilbert W. Chapman March 8, 2011 at 3:07 pm

H m m m . . . If you think New Hampshire is bad, you should have lived within the boundaries of the Green Mountain State (Vermont) right next door, as I did for 23 years.

Jacob Steelman March 8, 2011 at 4:27 pm

It is not surprising that amongst the founding fathers there was a Hamilton. It would be difficult to assemble such a group whose purpose was to form a government in America as part of the British Empire or to be independent of the British Empire and not have someone seeking to take advantage of the power that would flow from having a separate government in America. What is surprising and what makes the American experiment so unique is that we had a Jefferson amongst the founding fathers. We owe the greatness of the United States to Jefferson and his ability to influence the discussions and debates of the founding fathers to create a very limited government. Imagine that Jefferson had not prevailed!

Gilbert W. Chapman March 8, 2011 at 6:38 pm

Actually, it all can be explained quite easily by a twist of fate. Jefferson was in Europe during the Constitutional Convention. The question remains: Would Jefferson have been able to overcome the “Hamiltonians” through negotiations with Madison ? ? ?

Dick Fox March 8, 2011 at 7:36 pm

Myths exist on the right and on the left. This view about Hamilton is one of the right wing myths and DeLorenzo is not even the best at it. Hamilton wrote more than almost any other of the Founding Fathers, the Federalist Papers being only one source, and yet where are the Hamilton quotes to support Delorenzo’s claims? They do not exist.

But the myth goes even farther. Had Jefferson prevailed with Washington it is highly doubtful there would have been United States. First, each state would have been responsible for its own debts and ultimately its own army and its own currency. Each state would have been an autonomous government and the national government created in the ineffective Articles of Confederation would have withered away. Jefferson would never have purchased the Louisiana Territory for two reasons. First, Jefferson would not have had the power or the governmental structure to make the purchase. Second, the credit of the United States would have been nonexistent. Before Hamilton no one would loan money to the United States. Each state would have had to borrow on its own and no single state could have made the purchase. Had Jefferson prevailed there would have been 13 countries along the east coast of North America and any number of countries in the interior and on the west coast.

The myth of Jefferson is strong, but it was Jefferson who hired the slander of John Adams, from a CNN article on Jefferson”…the key difference between the two politicians was that Jefferson hired a hatchet man named James Callendar to do his smearing for him. Adams, on the other hand, considered himself above such tactics. To Jefferson’s credit, Callendar proved incredibly effective, convincing many Americans that Adams desperately wanted to attack France. Although the claim was completely untrue, voters bought it, and Jefferson stole the election.” Just as Adams, Hamilton never engaged in such tactics. His involvement with news papers gave us the Federalist Papers.

Finally, DeLorenzo does provide some quotes but they are all from men who also accuse Hamilton with out citing one quote that supports their case.

I am still looking for a serious academic study of Hamilton and his economic and political philosophy. It is certainly not contained in Delorenzo’s book.

Phinn March 9, 2011 at 2:34 pm

Each state would have been an autonomous government and the national government created in the ineffective Articles of Confederation would have withered away.

This is a problem … why?

Joe March 11, 2011 at 4:47 pm

Phinn,
Below is the answer from James Madison and the reason why the articles were superceded.
http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/mjmtext:@field(DOCID+@lit(jm020120))

Gilbert W.Chapman March 11, 2011 at 9:27 pm

Good Evening, “Joe” ~

I stand corrected. Somewhere within my comments herein I suggested that if Jefferson had been present at the Constitutional Convention, Madison may have served as an ‘arbitrator’ between Hamilton and Jefferson.

Now that I have studied the ‘piece’ on the Articles of Confederation you suggested “Phinn” might find informative, I’ve little doubt that had TJ been present at the convention, he wouldn’t have ‘had a prayer’ in persuading Madison and Hamilton to his way of thinking.

Thank you for your contribution to this 64 year old man’s continuing education ! ! !

Perhaps it really all comes down to this: Hamilton and Madison were ‘street smart’, while Jefferson was more of a dreamer than a pragmatist in some regards (who hired others to do his ‘dirty work’ ~ re: Callender, as noted above).

v March 8, 2011 at 7:52 pm

Greetings Thomas
Pray the Liberty Dollar jury has knowledge of this book Hamilton’s Curse
US v. BVNH Case # 5:09-CR-00027 Federal District Court Stateville NC March 7th trial time
end the fed res and dept of fed education
Prayerfully v 2 Maccabees 3:22-40

Drigan March 9, 2011 at 2:51 pm

Thank you for that, it’s good to know that God is on the side of those who save money with the intent of helping those in need.

Jacob Steelman March 8, 2011 at 7:53 pm

The United States would have been much better off under the Articles of Confederation rather than the centralized government that was created and now threatens to destroy the United States.

Gilbert W. Chapman March 8, 2011 at 8:05 pm

Excellent points, Mr. Fox; and I would like to offer a possible explanation for the lack of a serious study regarding Hamilton’s econmic and political philosophy.

To be candid, I ‘worship’ both Hamilton and Jefferson, both were remarkable men, particularly in contrast to our nation’s most recent Treasury Secretarys and Presidents, not to mention Secretarys of State.

I have always felt the void in studies on Hamilton is because his ideas were not fully developed, and , therefore, there isn’t an an enormous body of work to ‘study’. Let’s remember that he was fairly young, in contrast to Jefferson, when he died, and he certainly didn’t have the leisure time Jefferson (while wandering around Montecello) had to ponder economics and politics.

Sure . . . Hamilton wrote the best parts of the Federalist Papers . . . But, I’ve always wondered if he would have chosen to re-write and re-think portions if he had lived as long as Jefferson.

Just a thought on my part, but, then again, like you, I’m not really a big fan of Mr. DeLorenzo.

Dick Fox March 8, 2011 at 8:32 pm

There are myths on the right and on the left. This myth of Hamilton has been perpetuated by some on the right for a long time and DeLorenzo is not even the best.

Hamilton was one of the most prolific writers of all the Founding Fathers, the Federalist Papers are only a small example, yet DeLorenzo does not back up his claims with quotes from Hamilton. Rather he uses quotes from Hamilton’s critics. Art notes this without realizing it when he writes, “He Potrays Hamilton as a schemer, quoting contemporaries who felt that he was intentionally confusing in his economic proposals as a means of hoodwinking the uninitiated.” In fact in his Report on the Public Credit he spends most of his time educating congress. In his report he demonstrates an understanding of monetary policy exceeding most economists of our day.

But Hamilton is only half of the discussion. The Jefferson myth is as bad. “Jeffersonian strict construction” existed only in myth. Art wrote that Hamilton was “statist, mercantilist, and nationalist,” yet Jefferson proved he was statist in his foreign policy using troops without the approval of congress, he was an extreme mercantilist as manifest in the Embargo Act of 1807 and the Nonintercourse Acts, and nationalist as proven by his purchase of the Louisiana Territory.

But even more Jefferson was a political hack. CNN wrote of Jefferson’s campaign against John Adams for president, “…the key difference between the two politicians was that Jefferson hired a hatchet man named James Callendar to do his smearing for him. Adams, on the other hand, considered himself above such tactics. To Jefferson’s credit, Callendar proved incredibly effective, convincing many Americans that Adams desperately wanted to attack France. Although the claim was completely untrue, voters bought it, and Jefferson stole the election.”

Had Jefferson prevailed the United States would not have existed. There would have been no Louisiana Purchase for two reasons. First, Jefferson would not have had the governmental structure or the power to make the purchase. Second, he would not have had the money. Before Hamilton no one would loan the United States anything. Each state would have been its own country with its own army and its own currency. But no country could have funded such a purchase. North America would have been a string of countries along the east coast, with various countries in the interior and along the west cost.

I could go on but I will close. The book on the economic and political thought of Alexander Hamilton is still to be written, but it is definitely not this book by DeLorenzo.

Gilbert W. Chapman March 8, 2011 at 9:32 pm

Thank you again, Mr. Fox.

Me thinks I’ll continue to believe that Robert Irving Warshow, when he wrote, “Alexander Hamilton ~ First American Businessman” (Garden City Publishing Co., Inc – Garden City, New York), did a far better job of capturing the essence of Hamilton in 1931 than Mr. DeLorenzo has eight decades later.

Jacob Steelman March 8, 2011 at 9:49 pm

The fact that Hamilton was a strong advocate of a central bank says it all. It is the ultimate deceit of the citizens to advocate the creation by the government of a central bank which becomes THE manipulator of the country’s financial system rather than the private marketplace. Whether you like Delerenzo or not Hamilton’s advocacy of such a deceitful scheme as creation of a central bank is undeniable.

Gilbert W. Chapman March 8, 2011 at 11:04 pm

Mr. Steelman ~

Like you, I detest the central banks of today. However, let’s just for a moment put Hamilton’s actions in perspective. Do you really believe that the ‘Mickey Mouse’ system of banks we had immediately following the revolution would have accomplished what Hamilton did in regard to international trade, wartime states’ debts, transportation projects, etc.? Let’s get real here . . . ‘private’ banks were hardly the benefactors for our young nation then, anymore than they are today. In my view, Hamilton chose the lesser of the two evils available.

Jacob Steelman March 8, 2011 at 11:59 pm

Your argument as I understand it Mr Chapman is “I don’t believe in the central bank but…..” or “I believe in the free market but….” These “buts” are always the argument of the statist interventionists to justify intervening in the private market and dictating what goods and services consumers should have rather than let the consumers decide. Hamilton and all the Hamiltons of the world desire an economy and society fashioned as they (the ruling elite) see fit rather than allow the consumers to be free to choose. Your argument is what has allowed the progression from these early interventions to the Federal Reserve system created in 1913 which has been the primary generator of death and destruction throughout the world by inflating to help finance WWI, WWII, the Korean conflict, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the Iraq War, the Afghanistan War, the invasion of Grenada not to mention the Great Depression, the GFC and all the financial ups and downs during the 20th Century. Your argument is that an economy should be run by the ruling elites at the point of a gun.

Gilbert W. Chapman March 9, 2011 at 7:25 am

“An economy should be run by the rulng elites at the point of a gun,” is not what I said, Mr. Steelman.

What I did suggest was that Hamilton may not have been wise enough to have seen that the application of anything much other than what he proposed, and enacted, to create a sound American economy was plausible.

In other words, he ‘played the cards he had been dealt’ as best he could 200+ years ago. Nothing more, nothing less.

What I find interesting is that no historian/economist has ever written a book specifically addressing any alternative courses of action to what Hamilton did during the time and place he operated within.

Granted, Hamilton was no ‘saint’ . . . but . . . he was no ‘sinner’, as King George III, Wilson, FDR, Nixon, TR, and Obama were. In principle, what Hamilton laid out for a US monetary system was sound; what future Presidents, Congresses, Treasury Secretaries and Chairs of the Federal Reserve (all politicans) did with his ‘blessing’ is quite another story.

For DeLorenzo to have addressed ONLY Hamilton’s flaws was wrong (and mean spirited) . . . It’s that simple.

Hamilton’s contributions to America’s economic advances 20 decades ago will be long remembered; DeLorenzo’s ‘critque’ of Hamilton will (fortunately) be long forgotten in less than a decade from now.

Dick Fox March 9, 2011 at 9:38 am

Jacob Steelman,

You are simply parroting what you have heard others say.

First, the reason for the Constitutional Convention was because the Articles of Confederation did not give the federal government any power to enforce its laws. Now you might like this but what that means is that the states were essentially independent countries with the federal government simply a place for them to meet, similar to the UN. You need to study the Articles with a skeptical mind.

Second, you do not understand the Central Bank as created by Alexander Hamilton compared to the Federal Reserve. Hamilton specifically designed the bank to be separate from the control of the government and absolutely did not print money. The bank was primarily established as a depository for tariff revenue and federal government gold holdings. Hamilton expressly stated that the Constitution prohibited the states from printing paper money and the same should apply to the federal government. I suggest once again that you study the actual design of Hamilton’s central bank versus the design of the Federal Reserve bank. They are as different as night and day.

Gilbert W. Chapman March 9, 2011 at 10:06 am

Thank you, Mr. Fox.

You are much better at addressing Mr. Steelman’s misunderstandings of Hamilton’s objectives than I am.

John B March 9, 2011 at 1:17 pm

I think the following is cause for much confusion, and so while it might seem like splitting hairs, it seems to me a hair worth splitting.
You say of Hamilton and those who thought and think like him: “They couldn’t grasp the spontaneous order of the free market.”
I completely agree with you in that they were as wrong as JM Keynes who was no doubt inspired by the same ghost.
But the point is that the free market is an order caused by people being directed by the order that is already there; human needs and preferences.
It is not actually a spontaneous order in that it did not occur spontaneously out of nothing. It is the logical outcome of the order that already exists.
What Hamilton and Co would seek to do is, in fact, to impose an order on the situation that does not conform to the natural order already existing.
Thus, what they are doing is doomed to failure because they will not accept the system that conforms to that order already established (reality), and that is spontaneously inherent in our day to day transactions.

Gilbert W. Chapman March 9, 2011 at 2:07 pm

Mr. B ~

No . . . You are not splitting hairs; and I mostly agree with you.

Where I differ with you (and DeLorenzo and Steelman) is whether or not Hamilton was trying to reestablish a natural order of spontaneity after the Revolution that would enhance a new nation’s opportunties to expand industrial production. Jefferson thought it would be great if if we continued to pursue the limited wealth creating society of agriculture. If Jefferson came back to life today, he would cry when he looked up the Empire State Building, while Hamilton would declare, “Great . . . those generations that followed me pulled it off.” And, Franklin would want to dine with Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett would love to chat with Washington.

Each of those men in colonial times envisioned different futures for our country, whether it be Adams, Madison, Washington, Hamilton or Jefferson. Hamilton (no doubt) felt (rightly or wrongly)tariffs, etc. would assist the young nation in building a strong economic and industrial foundation. Jefferson obviously thought otherwise, and believed agriculture was the road to prosperity.

I stated in an earlier comment that I worshiped BOTH Hamilton and Jefferson. And I do, as I think all Americans should. Each made major contributions that we have all benefited from: Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, on the one hand with Jefferson; and the laying of a monetary and industrial foundation on the other hand with Hamilton. The fact that future politicians ‘messed up’ the goals of both of those men should not demean their efforts.

Where I feel many economists/historians fall short is some (like DeLorenzo) feel Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian views are mutually exclusive. Whereas, I feel that both views are worthy of praise, as well as criticism.

Perhaps Madison summarized it all beautifully in one statement, “If all men were angels, there would be no need for governments.” Fortunately, in at least some parts, the best of both Hamilton and Jefferson have survived, with little or no help from, and in spite of such successors as Baker/Geithner at Treasury, and Bush II/Obama in the Presidency, and with only one exceptional Chairman at the Fed (Volcker).

And, in conclusion, “Yes”, I’m more of a Hayekian than Rothbardian, simply because, “No men are angels.”

Jacob Steelman March 9, 2011 at 3:19 pm

It is Hamilton’s vision of the future that has given us what we have today unfortunately – the command and control economy and the welfare-warfare state. Whereas a Jefferson view of the future were it to have survived would have given us much less government and thus a more prosperous economy based on a market that had greater freedom not less as we have today. There is no middle ground here – either you believe in free markets and free minds or you do not. There are no short cuts in running a business nor in the creation of a society and an economy. If the quality of the foundation has impurities in it the house will collapse sooner rather than later and so it is with a society and an economy. Whether or not Hamilton had good intentions or not his “short cuts” created impurities in the foundation of the United States which ultimately weakened the foundation. Today we are paying the price for this as the United States’ empire begins to collapse. The problem of libertarians including myself is that we just want to be left alone to pursue our own life but unfortunately when it comes to government there are the Hamiltons (we will assume of good intentions but desiring to take short cuts) and the Hank Paulsons,the Ben Bernankes and the George Bushs (having evil intentions of theft, power and war) who seek to expand the power of government over our lives. Fortunately, libertarians have the Mises Institute, lewrockwell.com and other beacons of freedom to keep us focused on the correct path and warn of the dangers of “short cuts” and remind us There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.

Gilbert W. Chapman March 9, 2011 at 5:13 pm

Like you, I believe that Hamilton may have had good intentions, in contrast to Paulson, Bernanke, and the Bushs, not mention Geithner.

And that, my friend, is why I find DeLorenzo’s book on Hamilton so objectionable. Grover Cleveland (perhaps) came the closest to a Libertarian (well at least he did not desire to be intrusive) president.

Yet, for sound reasons, I suspect that Professor DeLorenzo would choose to expound upon Cleveland’s few weaknesses, and never mention the number of bills he vetoed in an effort to restrain government’s intrusion into the private sector.

All I’ve been saying is that I agree with you, Hamilton was not ‘perfect’, but as an historian/economomist, DeLorenzo’s objectivity pales when contrasted with our first Secretary of Treasury.

Jacob Steelman March 12, 2011 at 3:57 am

Thanks for the Madison notes which Madison would use as arguments for a strong central government. They are in fact the best argument for having no government since they are the standard type of government interventions which we have throughout history and in which the strong central government of the United States of America advocated by Hamilton and Madison have engaged. Giving any power to individuals is disaster for the private marketplace and peaceful society. Thus if these states were so corrupt and abusive of power as to warrant a central government stepping in why would giving a super powerful government more power correct the problem. As we have seen by evolution it has not. An economy and society founded on such a premise is due to end up as has the United States has today unfortunately. It is the evil of giving men and women power that Rothbard so correctly saw has sowing the seeds of destruction of an economy and society as that power continues to increase each day. It is the fatal flaw in the libertarian limited government argument which I have argued for many years. Rothbard saw as few others have seen the impossibility of a limited government staying limited for very long if at all. Rothbard saw the king had no clothes on and said it. DiLorenzo has said the same thing about Hamiliton.

Gilbert W.Chapman March 12, 2011 at 8:57 am

Mr. Steelman ~

Such as shame that you, DeLorenzo and Rothbard weren’t at the Constitutional Convention, and the meetings were dominated by such lessor minds as Franklin, Madison, Hamilton, Washington, et al.

I’ve little doubt that if Mises and Hayek had been there, they would have been mocked into submission by the three ‘gifted ones’ (You, Tom & Murray). Hamilton and Madison would have, of course, been completely ignored, and then dispatched to the stables to ‘tend the horses’, while Franklin was allowed to stay, but only because he was to old to clean out the barn. Washington? Well . . . He chaired the meetings . . . So you guys would probably have kept him on; but, only if he remained absolutely silent during the proceedings.

Jacob Steelman March 12, 2011 at 2:33 pm

Engaging in intellectual debate is not mocking those with whom you debate. In fact had Mises and Hayek been at the meetings of the American founders they would have taken issue with the arguments of Hamilton and Madison et al for a strong central government over the weaker Articles. Certainly Mises and Hayek would have taken issue with Hamilton’s advocacy of a central bank and his other statist ideas.

As you recall the framing of our current discussions come from Art Carden’s article about DiLorenzo’s book and the legacy left to us from Hamiliton’s ideas.

“What DiLorenzo offers is not a biography of Hamilton but instead a critical examination of his ideas and a historical exploration of how they have shaped American history. DiLorenzo contrasts the statist, mercantilist, and nationalist philosophy of Hamilton with the strict constitutionalism of Jefferson.”‘

To advance liberty and improve the lives of all individuals suffering at the hands of the ruling elites who continually endeavor to force us to live by their standards and forego our individual demands it is critical to point out the fallacy of arguments and policies that do not advance free markets and free minds. Advocating government intervention never advances the freedom of individuals but is merely a scheme intended to substitute the special interests and advancement of the ruling elites for the advancement of the individual participating in the private marketplace and society.

Gilbert W.Chapman March 12, 2011 at 4:44 pm

Good Evening, Mr. Steelman.

Tho Bishop March 13, 2011 at 5:04 pm

Last week’s blog on Thomas DiLorenzo’s Hamilton’s Curse reminded me of the objections I had with his book. None of these objections deal with DiLorenzo’s critique of Hamiltonian economic policy; in fact DiLorezno’s book was my first exposure to the Ludwig von Mises Institute and DiLorenzo’s brilliant explanation of the consequences of Hamiltonianism was so effective that it completely changed my perspective of American history and stressed to me the importance of sound economic understanding. This is typically one of the first books I recommend to people interested in learning more about the credibility of revisionist history.

My complaint with DiLorenzo’s work deals mainly in his portrayal of Alexander Hamilton – the man. Those otherwise unfamiliar with General Hamilton would leave DiLorenzo’s work with the impression that Hamilton was a manipulative schemer who laughed maniacally in his dungeon as he carefully orchestrated the eventual enslavement of America. In fact DiLorenzo couldn’t even bring himself to give Hamilton credit for his abolitionist views. As biographer Ron Chernoff points out, Hamilton was a proud and active member of the abolitionist New York Manumission Society and that as a legal adviser, “helped defend free blacks when slave masters from out of state brandished bills of sale and tried to snatch them off the New York streets.” Though his work as an abolitionist does not absolve the faults of Hamiltonianism, I fail to see the benefit of unfair criticisms. It seems to me that DiLorenzo’s goal in Hamilton’s Curse went beyond pointing out the fallacies of Hamilton’s policy objectives and instead sought to trarnish his legacy in general. I contend that DiLorenzo overreaches.

Hamilton the Man

What attracted me to DiLorenzo’s book was actually the brilliance of Hamilton’s life. I admired Hamilton and wanted a different viewpoint. The story of Alexander Hamilton is a uniquely American one: the bastard son of a disgraced Scot of noble blood, Hamilton came to this country due to the charity of the inhabitants of his Caribbean island who recognized young Alex’s natural talent. Entering New York’s King’s College on the back of the charity of others, Hamilton would grasp the opportunity and never look back. As a collegiate, Hamilton wrote letters in defense of American independence that were so eloquently written that many prominent New Yorkers thought they stemmed from the pen of John Jay. When shots were fired in Lexington and Concord, Hamilton took arms in the defense of colonial liberty. In short time young Hamilton caught the eye of General George Washington, and at age 22 he would become the campe-de-aide for Washington and entrusted him with the most sensitive of missions. Hamilton would finally be allowed to lead his own battalion during the decisive Battle of Yorktown where he characteristically rose to the opportunity.

After the Revolutionary War, Hamilton became an extremely successful New York attorney after choosing self-instruction rather than the more typical route of apprenticeship. Demonstrating his belief in the necessity of protecting the rights of all Americans, the veteran Hamilton made a mark defending the rights and property of loyalist-New Yorkers. Washington’s colonel became a devoted nationalist during his military service and was recognized for his devotion to his adopted country. It was inevitable that Hamilton would work his way into early-American politics and worked closely with James Madison to call for the Constitutional Convention.

In Philadelphia, Hamilton unveiled his vision for American government: a President serving for life on good behavior, Senators serving for life on good behavior, and an Assembly elected every three years. In Hamilton’s vision, the President would have absolute veto, the Supreme Court would have immediate jurisdiction of all lawsuits and the Federal government would appoint the State governors. As Hamilton expected his proposal went nowhere, but Hamilton would fight for the ratification for the product created at the Convention, most notably as chief writer of the Federalist Papers. In spite of his preference for centralized power, Hamilton will be forever known as the founder of the ironically named Federalist Party.

It was as Treasury Secretary that Hamilton would leave his most disastrous mark in American history. Inspired by Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Chief Finance Minister of the “Sun King” Louis XIV, Hamilton encouraged an economic policy consisting of a central bank, government subsidization of industry and protectionist tariffs. Though Hamilton himself can be praised for his being above corruption while at the Treasury, his actions directly led to privileged men “in the know” to enrich themselves from his policy. In describing Hamiltonian economic policy, I will defer to DiLorenzo who writes:

Hamilton was an American mercantilist, and he and his party (and its political heirs, the Whigs and Republicans) advocated special-interest policies that would primarily benefit politically connected merchants, manufactures, speculators, and bankers at the expense of the rest of the public.

Though Hamilton himself did not serve (nor get along with) Federalist President John Adams, Hamilton was a favorite amongst Adams cabinet – much to Adams disgust. Hamilton’s Federalist Party would lose the White House to Thomas Jefferson in the election of 1800 and the philosophy of the Federal government followed; Hamiltonian nationalism replaced by Jeffersonian liberalism. The American public reacted well to the change: Virginian Jeffersonians controlled the White House for the next 24 years, 1816-1824 became known as the “Era of Good Feelings” and Jefferson’s Republican Party became the sole political party in the country until the controversial election of 1824 (an election where the Jefferson-backed William Crawford received more electoral votes than future-Whig leader Henry Clay and likely would have won the Presidency if not for a debilitating stroke.)

The defeated Hamilton would spend his final years focusing on religion and attacking the Jefferson Administration, mainly through the creation of the newspaper known today as the New York Post. Hamilton was famously killed in a duel with the Vice President of the United States at the same site his firstborn son, Philip, dueled to the death three years earlier.

DiLorenzo’s Hamilton

Hamilton’s impressive narrative inspired me. If Hamilton could begin to change his world by the time he turned 22, so would I. After reading DiLorenzo’s book, however, I was forced to take another look at my new hero. As I took to studying economics, DiLorenzo’s critique of Hamiltonian policy held up – his characterization of Hamilton doesn’t.

DiLorenzo’s Hamilton is a devoted enemy of liberty who fancied himself something of an American Napoleon. DiLorenzo often relies upon the opinion of Thomas Jefferson and his allies in painting Hamilton’s character. For example, in pointing to Hamilton’s lengthy defense of a national bank, DiLorenzo writes: “He authored another long-winded report on the supposed constitutionality of the bank, a report that Jefferson believed was, like the others, intentionally confusing.” Obviously using the opinion of Hamilton’s greatest rival to decipher Hamilton’s intention is questionable scholarship. DiLorenzo again points to a Jeffersonian perception of Hamilton as he point outs, “historian John C. Miller noted that Jefferson’s party had ‘suspicions that the army had been strengthened in 1798 not to fight Frenchmen but to suppress opposition to Federalist policies.”

Four times in his book DiLorenzo quotes Hamilton’s description of the Constitution as a “frail and worthless document”, the implication that the author of the Federalist Papers had little use for the document and that he merely played the role of advocate so he could boost his own political power. Did DiLorenzo catch a slip-up from the duplicitous Hamilton? Let’s look at the quote, found in a letter to Gouverneur Morris, in context:

Mine is an odd destiny. Perhaps no man in the U States has sacrificed or done more for the present Constitution than myself. And contrary to all my anticipations of its fate, as you know from the very beginning, I am still labouring to prop the frail and worthless fabric. Yet I have the murmur of its friends no less than the curses of its foes for my rewards. What can I do better than withdraw from the scene? Every day proves to me more and more that this American world was not made for me.

This letter was written during the darkest days of Hamilton’s life following the death of his son and after Jefferson’s success had relegated Hamilton into a political outcast. Does this sound like an enemy of the Constitution? Or does it sound like a defeated man tired of constantly being painted as its enemy? The recipient of his letter would later state at Hamilton’s funeral that, “His speculative opinions were treated as deliberate designs and yet you all know how strenuous, how unremitting, were his efforts to establish and preserve the Constitution.”

Hamilton’s Curse

Though Hamilton was a product of the island of Nevis, he was perhaps the loudest voice advocating America to resemble European powers. Though I disagree with DiLorenzo’s view of Hamilton, I cannot deny the reality that Alexander Hamilton was a nationalist mercantilist. How did Revolutionary America create such a leader? I point to Hamilton’s upbringing and intellectual development. Where DiLorenzo sees a manipulative power hungry politician, I see a well-meaning patriot who dedicated himself to creating the best country possible for his fellow Americas. Where DiLorenzo sees intentional malice, I see the tragedy of a guy who simply got it wrong.

Lets start with Hamilton’s upbringing. As Ron Chernoff notes: “Island life contained enough bloodcurdling scenes to darken Hamilton’s vision for life, instilling an ineradicable pessimism about human nature that infused all his writing.” Even as a boy, Hamilton’s writings are tainted with this darkness. Noted young Hamilton, “And let me tell you, in this selfish, rapacious world, a little discretion is, at worst, only a venial sin.” His worldview led Hamilton to always be attracted to the philosophy of David Hume.

Where most Founding Fathers held a very romantic view of the American Revolution, Hamilton recognized the horrors of the mobs that helped sparked it, often resorting to barbarous measuring such as tarring and feathering and riding the rail. Hamilton’s loyalist college president, Dr. Myles Cooper, was a target of one of these mobs when collegiate Hamilton bravely stood before them and spoke. He admonished the mob, telling them their actions “disgrace and injure the glorious cause of liberty.”

Occurrences such as this made Hamilton fear the chaos of anarchy and he viewed that government needed to be strong enough to calm the passions of men. In the Federalist Papers Hamilton would later write: “In a nation of philosophers a reverence for the laws would be sufficiently inculcated by the voice of an enlightened reason. But a nation of philosopher is as little to be expected as the philosophical race of kings wish for by Plato. And in every other nation, the most rational government will not find it a superfluous advantage to have the prejudices of the community on its side.”

This view of mankind explains the fundamental difference in philosophy between Hamilton and Jefferson. Jefferson viewed government as an institution that threatened the rights of man; Hamilton viewed it as a means to ensure a peaceful and prosperous society – as long as it accurately represents the interest of its subjects.

But did this necessarily force Hamilton to be a nationalist? The elder Hamilton certainly was, which explains his rejection of the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. I think it is interesting, however, to look at Hamilton’s collegiate writings. In his first great success, The Farmer Refuted, Hamilton sounded rather Jeffersonian when he wrote, “The nations of Turkey, Russia, France, Spain, and all other despotic kingdoms in the world, have an inherent right, whenever they please, to shake off the yoke of servitude (though sanctioned by the immemorial usage of their ancestors), and to model their government upon the principles of civil liberty.” Throughout the article Hamilton frequently speaks of the sanctity of human rights. “I am inviolably attached to the essential rights of mankind and the true interests of society. I consider civil liberty, in a genuine, unadulterated sense, as the greatest of terrestrial blessings. I am convinced that the whole human race is entitled to it, and that it can be wrested from no part of them without the blackest and most aggravated guilt.”

What do I attribute to this reversal of philosophy? Hamilton’s military service. A liberal government is best suited for peace, not war and the difficulties General Washington had in securing appropriate funds from the Continental government is well documented. Hamilton had a first hand view of these difficulties. The nature of military service to lead great American minds to nationalism over liberalism is further validated by an American President DiLorenzo speaks favorable of: Andrew Jackson. Though Jackson, as Murray Rothbard noted, held sound economic philosophy, he combined it with a nationalist governmental philosophy. When South Carolina threatened to secede over the issue of tariffs, Jackson threatened to invade the state.

DiLorenzo implies that Hamilton’s monarchist visions are incompatible with Jefferson’s liberalism. When I first encountered Hamilton’s vision for government, I too found myself a bit turned off. It was an article from Mises Daily that forced me to reconsider its merits. Hamilton understood the danger of democracy, fearing that such a system would produce demagogues who, as Chernoff writes, “fed off poplar confusion while proclaiming popular rights.”

Of course it is Hamilton’s economic policy that draws the majority of DiLorenzo’s scorn and for very good reason. In order to understand how a man of Hamilton’s talent could produce such a terrible economic program, we must recognize that he did not benefit from the experiences, nor the writings, of Ludwig von Mises or the rest of the Austrian School. In fact the economic science as a whole was still new with Richard Cantillon’s Essai sur la Nature du Commerce en Général written just 25 years before Hamilton’s birth and the Wealth of Nations 20 years after. Furthermore the British Empire, who had the most powerful economy in the world and whose success Hamilton aspired to replicate, was founded on mercantilism that contradicted Smith’s vision. Hamilton educated himself with voracious reading; unfortunately, as Murray Rothbard points out, “The mercantilists, dominant in economic thought for the preceding century or two, were special pleaders whose tidbits of analysis were pressed into the service of political ends, either in subsidizing particular interests or in building up the power of the state.” Hamilton gobbled down these works, fueling his mercantilist visions.

Conclusion

It is easy to demonize those we disagree with – especially for classical liberals, like myself, whose philosophical foundation forces us to view the advocates of large and energetic government as enemies to our natural rights. Though Hamilton’s economic philosophy cannot be defended, and though I recognize the consequences of it and his intellectual heirs as the source of great injustice in today’s world, we must constrain ourselves to attacking ideas – not the character of those behind them. Not only do I reject DiLorenzo’s portrayal of Hamilton, but I also believe it undermines the greatest lesson we can learn from it. Alexander Hamilton represents the ideal government bureaucrat: a brilliant man beyond corruption who dedicated his life to serving his country. And even he was wrong. If Alexander Hamilton couldn’t successfully micromanage our economy, how can we place such faith in any leader?

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: