Why were Alexander Hamilton's policies so unpopular in his time but now he is considered America's greatest Secretary of the Treasury? Why were Alexander Hamilton's policies so unpopular in his...
Why were Alexander Hamilton's policies so unpopular in his time but now he is considered America's greatest Secretary of the Treasury?
Alexander Hamilton was unquestionably brilliant; yet his brilliant was oftentimes superceded by his overweening arrogance. John Adams, a member of Hamilton's own party, once described him as the "bastard brat of a Scotch peddler."
Aside from his personality deficiencies, Hamilton argued for a strong national government and a broad construction of the Constitution with regard to the powers of the Federal government. He did so at a time when the nation had just adopted the Constitution and there was still considerable sentiment that the Federal government should remain weak with most power entrusted to the individual states. Hamilton's chief opponents were Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, both advocates of a strict construction of the Constitution. They feared that if that document were liberally construed, the U.S. would soon find itself subject to a despotic government similar to that against whom we fought the Revolutionary War.
Unpopular as his policies were at the time, Hamilton was much more farsighted than he is given credit for being. History has proven that his policies were the correct ones to put this country on sound financial footing. He was adventurous in his policies, but his thinking was in the long run quite correct. No one at the time, probably not even Hamilton, realized how correct he actually war.
I would argue that there are two reasons for this.
First, Hamilton was not a pleasant person by most accounts. He was said to be rather arrogant and sure of his own brilliance. The link below quotes one of his contemporaries as saying
His manners are tinctured with stiffness, and sometimes with a degree of vanity that is highly disagreeable.”
Because of this, things that he proposed were often resisted due to his personality.
Second, things that are good in the long run are not always popular in the short run. Hamilton's policies were good for the US in the long run because they set up a system that allowed businesses to grow. This sort of policy often annoys the majority of people because it seems like the government is giving privileges to the rich elites instead of taking care of the common people. Later on, such policies can look like a great idea when the economy grows. This has happened in the case of Hamilton.
The country was very divided in the 1790s, when Alexander Hamilton was our first Secretary of the Treasury. Poorer people, especially those in the western rural farming communities, were suspicious of the Federalists and their motives. They felt that the eastern cities and merchants were being favored, so they didn't want to pay taxes to a federal government. Hamilton knew that our debts needed to be paid, so he established a sales tax, a tax on imports, and a tax on whiskey and other liquors. Check out the Whiskey Rebellion for how Pennsylvania farmers responded to that.
Of course, today, Hamilton is viewed as having put us on solid financial ground, which made the expansions and economic successes of the 1800s possible.
One of Hamilton's unpopular ideas was to repay the national debt. From farmers to Madison and half of Washington's cabinet, the opinion was that such a move would take too much money from the ordinary person and put too much money in the pockets of the East coast financiers who would then have amplified power while being the only ones to benefit. Another unpopular action was the chartering of a national bank. Today, repayment of national debt (or attempts thereat) and the function of a national bank (The Federal Reserve) are bedrock financial policy, realities that mitigate previous historical opinion of Hamilton.
I think #2 makes an excellent point when he talks about the way in which Hamilton's policies took a deliberately long term view. One of the problems with government policy is that it is short-termist, desiring to improve things in the short term, and it does not take a long-term view, as the politicial system does not encourage this. Hamilton definitely did take a long term view, and we can see the benefits of this now in our day and age, yet his policies did not have the short-term immediate effect that perhaps voters of the day expected.