Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 479
SOURCE: "The Anas: Explanations of the 3 Volumes Bound in Marbled Paper," in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, edited by Saul K. Padover, The Heritage Press, 1967, pp. 107-20.
[ The third president of the United States, Jefferson is best known as a respected statesman whose belief in natural rights,...
(The entire section contains 50162 words.)
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- Critical Essays
SOURCE: "The Anas: Explanations of the 3 Volumes Bound in Marbled Paper," in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, edited by Saul K. Padover, The Heritage Press, 1967, pp. 107-20.
[The third president of the United States, Jefferson is best known as a respected statesman whose belief in natural rights, equality, individual liberties, and self-government found its fullest expression in the Declaration of Independence. During the early years of the American republic Jefferson, by his outspoken opposition to Federalist policies, became the leader of the Republican (now Democratic) Party. As such, he was a bitter opponent of the Federalists' chief spokesman, Hamilton. In the following excerpt from a portion of his memoirs originally published in 1818, Jefferson offers a contemptuous portrait of Hamilton.]
Hamilton was not only a monarchist, but for a monarchy bottomed on corruption. In proof of this, I will relate an anecdote, for the truth of which I attest the God who made me. Before the President set out on his southern tour in April, 1791, he addressed a letter of the fourth of that month, from Mount Vernon, to the Secretaries of State, Treasury and War, desiring that if any serious and important cases should arise during his absence, they would consult and act on them. And he requested that the Vice-President should also be consulted. This was the only occasion on which that officer was ever requested to take part in a cabinet question. Some occasion for consultation arising, I invited those gentlemen (and the Attorney General, as well as I remember), to dine with me, in order to confer on the subject. After the cloth was removed, and our question agreed and dismissed, conversation began on other matters, and by some circumstance, was led to the British constitution, on which Mr. Adams observed, "Purge that constitution of its corruption, and give to its popular branch equality of representation, and it would be the most perfect constitution ever devised by the wit of man." Hamilton paused and said, "Purge it of its corruption, and give to its popular branch equality of representation, and it would become an impracticable government: as it stands at present, with all its supposed defects, it is the most perfect government which ever existed." And this was assuredly the exact line which separated the political creeds of these two gentlemen. The one was for two hereditary branches and an honest elective one: the other, for an hereditary King, with a House of Lords and Commons corrupted to his will, and standing between him and the people. Hamilton was, indeed, a singular character. Of acute understanding, disinterested, honest, and honorable in all private transactions, amiable in society, and duly valuing virtue in private life, yet so bewitched and perverted by the British example, as to be under thorough conviction that corruption was essential to the government of a nation. Mr. Adams had originally been a republican.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 870
SOURCE: "Professional Life—Duel and Death," in Alexander Hamilton, 1882. Reprint by Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1883, pp. 237-84.
[Lodge was an American politician, historian, and author, who coedited the North American Review with Henry Adams from 1873 to 1876, and who later served as associate editor of the International Review. His works of American history and biography include A Short History of the English Colonies in America (1881), Alexander Hamilton (1882), and Daniel Webster (1883). In the excerpt below, from his biography of Hamilton, Lodge summarizes his subject's accomplishments in glowing terms.]
Hamilton is one of the statesmen of creative minds who represent great ideas. It is for this reason that he left the deep mark of his personal influence upon our history. His principles of finance, of foreign affairs, of political economy, and of the powers and duties of government under the constitution may be found on every page of our history, and are full of vitality to-day. But Hamilton is identified with two other ideas which go far deeper, and which have been the moving forces in our national development. He did not believe in democracy as a system of government. He strove with all his energy to make the experiment of the constitution succeed, but he doubted its merit at the outset, and finally came to the conclusion that in its existing form it was doomed to failure. He believed in class influence and representation, in strong government, and in what, for want of a better phrase, may be called an aristocratic republic. Curiously enough, this theory was put in practice only in the South, where Hamilton had scarcely any followers.
The other great idea of which he was the embodiment, was that of nationality. No other man of that period, except Washington, was fully imbued with the national spirit. To Hamilton it was the very breath of his public life, the essence of his policy. To this grand principle many men, especially in later times, have rendered splendid services, and made noble sacrifices; but there is no single man to whom it owes more than to Hamilton. In a time when American nationality meant nothing, he alone grasped the great conception in all its fullness, and gave all he had of will and intellect to make its realization possible. He alone perceived the destiny which was in store for the republic. For this he declared that the United States must aim at an ascendant in the affairs of America. For this he planned the conquest of Louisiana and the Floridas, and, despite the frowns of his friends, rose above all party feelings and sustained Jefferson in his unhesitating seizure of the opportunity to acquire that vast territory by purchase. To these ends everything he did was directed, and in his task of founding a government he also founded a nation. It was a great work. Others contributed much to it, but Hamilton alone fully understood it. On the other side was Jefferson, also a man who represented ideas, that of democracy and that of a confederacy, with a weak general government and powerful states threatening secession. The ideas which these two men embodied have in their conflict made up the history of the United States. The democratic principles of Jefferson, and the national principles of Hamilton, have prevailed, and have sway to-day throughout the length and breadth of the land. But, if we go a step farther, we find that the great Federalist has the advantage. The democratic system of Jefferson is administered in the form and on the principles of Hamilton, and while the former went with the current and fell in with the dominant forces of the time, Hamilton established his now accepted principles, and carried his projects to completion in the face of a relentless opposition, and against the mistaken wishes of a large part of the people.
To attempt to measure the exact proportions of a great man is neither very easy nor perhaps very profitable. This biography has been written to little purpose if it has failed to show the influence of Hamilton upon our history, and this of itself is a title of the highest distinction. It is given to but few men to impress their individuality indelibly upon the history of a great nation. But Hamilton, as a man, achieved even more than this. His versatility was extraordinary. He was a great orator and lawyer, and he was also the ablest political and constitutional writer of his day, a good soldier, and possessed of a wonderful capacity for organization and practical administration. He was a master in every field that he entered, and however he may have erred in moments of passion, he never failed. Weakness and incompetency were not to be found in Hamilton. Comparisons are valueless, because points of difference between men are endless. John Marshal ranked Hamilton next to Washington, and with the judgment of their great chief justice Americans are wont to be content. But wherever he is placed, so long as the people of the United States form one nation, the name of Alexander Hamilton will be held in high and lasting honor, and even in the wreck of governments that great intellect would still command the homage of men.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2496
SOURCE: "Alexander Hamilton," in The Dial, Chicago, Vol. VI, No. 61, May, 1885, pp. 5-7.
[In the excerpt below, Boutell provides a laudatory account of Hamilton's life and works.]
When New York ratified the Federal Constitution, the people of that State celebrated the event by a festival procession, in which was borne a flag with the portrait of Washington on one side and that of Hamilton on the other. The enthusiasm of the hour, which recognized these great men as foremost among the founders of the republic—as the men who knew how to build and save a State—has been justified by the political history of succeeding years, and especially by the fierce and bloody struggle of our own time. That we are to-day a united and powerful nation, and not the weak and hostile fragments of a once great republic, is owing to the triumph of those sentiments of nationality which Hamilton strove throughout his life to foster and strengthen.
To estimate aright Hamilton's greatness, we need to remember that while he was a many-sided man, and great in many different ways, as statesman, lawyer, financier, orator, writer and soldier, he was greatest in the successful solution of those difficult problems of civil government which most profoundly affect human welfare, but in respect to which men are most liable to err. While the science of political economy was in its infancy, he exhibited a mastery of its principles which placed him beside Adam Smith and Turgot. He saw, as with an unerring instinct, the kind of government best suited to the needs of a handful of people as they emerged from the war of Independence, and which would also prove adequate to the needs of the greatest of nations. Although he had never been in Europe, he was able to forecast the movements of European governments with a correctness that led Talleyrand to say of him, "He divined Europe."
In his lifetime, it was the fashion of his opponents, the State-rights men of that day, to call him a monarchist. His writings abundantly prove the falsity of this assertion. He was, above all things, a practical statesman, and never wasted an effort in attempts to establish a government unsuited to the genius of the people. But what he did believe in, and saw was essential to the very existence of the nation, was a strong central government, supreme in its own domain, springing from the people and acting directly upon them, and sufficiently expansive to meet the wants of a continental republic. To establish such a government, he exerted to the utmost all the powers of his richly-gifted nature. This was the great work of his life; and for this work he is entitled to rank, not merely among the greatest statesmen of his time, but among the great benefactors of the race.
No man ever labored more diligently to produce an enlightened public opinion. His tongue and pen were never idle. He had an abiding faith in the ability and disposition of the people to form correct judgments on public affairs when properly instructed. As a political controversialist, he had no equal. His bitterest enemy, Aaron Burr, said of him: "If you put yourself on paper with him, you are lost." Jefferson thought that Madison was the only person competent to measure swords with him. He was not a literary artist like Burke. His power as a writer consisted in the clearness of his statements and the strength of his arguments. He persuaded men, not by stirring their passions or charming their fancies, but by convincing their judgments.
No adequate report of Hamilton's speeches has been preserved, from which to judge of his powers as an orator; but from the testimony of the ablest of his contemporaries, and from the effect which his speeches produced, we know that he is entitled to rank among the great orators of the world. His greatest efforts as an orator were put forth in the Constitutional Convention at Poughkeepsie. When that convention of sixty-five members assembled, forty-six were opposed to the adoption of the Constitution, and only nineteen were in favor of it. The opposition to it was headed by Governor Clinton, one of the most astute and influential politicians of his time. Some of the ablest debaters in the State were arrayed on the same side, and at their head was Melancthon Smith, a most acute dialectitian. Day after day the great debate went on, the speeches of Hamilton filling men with wonder at their power, and melting them to tears with their pathos; but on the test votes the majority against the Federalists was always two to one. Finally, Melancthon Smith, overpowered by the arguments of Hamilton, gave up his opposition, and one after another of his followers joined the Federalists, till on the final vote there was a majority of three in favor of the Constitution. We know of no triumph of oratory in modern times surpassing this.
Although the specimens of Hamilton's oratory which are preserved to us are exceedingly meagre, it is not difficult to see what was the secret of his oratorical power. He had the requisite physical qualities—the charm of voice, of eye, of action. He had the requisite intellectual equipment—clearness of perception, argumentative power, and fullness of information. And in addition, he had the moral earnestness, the intensity of conviction and the force of will essential to arouse and sway an audience.
Hamilton's loyalty to his adopted country is one of the most interesting features of his character. His faith in its future greatness and his devotion to its welfare never wavered. And when the clouds of disaster were gathering thick and dark above it, he exclaimed, "If this Union were to be broken, it would break my heart." Opposition to slavery was no uncommon thing in these early days, but few expressed that opposition so strongly as Hamilton. "I consider," he said, "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." His views on this subject, as on every other, took a practical form. On the 14th of March, 1779, he wrote a letter of introduction for his friend, Colonel Laurens, to the President of Congress, in which he advised the raising of negro troops in the South. After stating the reason why he thought the negroes would make good soldiers, and why such a plan seemed necessary for the safety of the South, he goes on to say:
An essential part of the plan is to give them their freedom with their swords. This will secure their fidelity, animate their courage, and, I believe, will have a good influence on those who remain, by opening a door to their emancipation. This circumstance, I confess, has no small weight in inducing me to wish the success of the project; for the dictates of humanity and true policy equally interest me in favor of this unfortunate class of men.
The first two papers in the volume before us illustrate the precocity of Hamilton's genius. Very young men have exhibited marvellous skill in music and painting, in mathematics and the acquisition of languages. But we know of no other instance in which a boy in his eighteenth year has produced such essays on government as these papers on the rights of the colonies. His great admiration for the English Constitution at first inclined him to side with the mother country. But maturer reflection satisfied him that the colonies must be governed by laws of their own making, and be taxed by their own representatives, or lose forever the qualities that made England great. The case of the colonies against the mother country was never more ably stated than in these essays. On their first appearance they attracted universal attention, and so marked was their ability that they were attributed to the pen of John Jay. From this time on, Hamilton was constantly seeking, by letters, by pamphlets, and by newspaper articles, to impress others with his views of public affairs. And this he did, though his days and nights were full of the most arduous labors. Some of the papers in this volume were produced amid the confusion and excitement of the camp, others were the work of hurried moments snatched from the exacting labors of the law. An interesting anecdote, illustrative of Hamilton's habits in this respect, is related in the autobiography of Jeremiah Mason. Speaking of William Coleman, the editor of the New York "Evening Post," Mr. Mason says:
His paper for several years gave the leading tone to the press of the Federal party. His acquaintances were often surprised by the ability of some of his editorial articles, which were supposed to be beyond his depth. Having a convenient opportunity, I asked him who wrote, or aided in writing, these articles. He frankly answered that he made no secret of it; that his paper was set up under the auspices of General Hamilton, and that he assisted him. I then asked, "Does he write in your paper?" "Never a word." "How, then, does he assist?" His answer was, "Whenever anything occurs on which I feel the want of information. I state the matter to him, sometimes in a note. He appoints a time when I may see him, usually a late hour of the evening. He always keeps himself minutely informed on all political matters. As soon as I see him, he begins in a deliberate manner to dictate, and I to write down in short hand (he was a good stenographer); when he stops, my article is completed."
Hamilton's fame as a financier, as the creator of the national credit, is so great that we are apt to overlook his greatness in other respects. But as a lawyer he stood at the head of the New York bar, and his opinion on the constitutionality of the act creating the United States Bank has been a model for all succeeding arguments on the implied powers of the Constitution. The manner in which this argument was produced (it was in great part written in a single night) illustrates the rapidity with which his mind worked, even upon the greatest themes. The famous opinion of Chief-Justice Marshall on this subject was little more than a reproduction of Hamilton's arguments.
Hamilton began life as a soldier, and though his position as a staff-officer, after the first year of the war, gave him but little opportunity for the display of soldierly qualities, yet Washington was so impressed with his military abilities that, when placed for the second time in command of the army, he insisted that Hamilton should be the next to him in command. In his letter to President Adams on Hamilton's military qualifications, Washington said: "He is enterprising, quick in his perceptions, and his judgment is intuitively great; qualities essential to a military character." We have sometimes wondered, had we then gone to war with France, what new laurels Hamilton would have won in fighting the armies of Napoleon. To the close of his life, Hamilton kept himself ready to obey the call to arms. He never was free from the fear that at any time war might break out with foreign nations, or among these newly united but jealous States. That he might, in such an emergency, be prepared to command the armies of his country, he felt that he must keep his soldier's reputation without a stain. It was his solicitude for that reputation that led him to accept Burr's challenge. And so he perished, yielding to the requirements of a false code of honor, rather than have the suspicion of cowardice tarnish his soldier's fame.
Of all the great men of the Revolution, Hamilton deserves to stand nearest to Washington, for the importance of his services and for the unselfishness of his devotion to the country. He never sought public office. He declined the position of Chief-Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. At a great personal sacrifice he accepted the most difficult and important place in Washington's cabinet; and when he had organized the Treasury Department so perfectly that his methods have remained substantially unchanged to the present time, and had lifted the nation out of almost hopeless bankruptcy to a position of the highest financial credit, and had assisted in shaping that foreign policy which has kept us free from the complications of European politics, he returned to the practice of his profession so poor that little was left him besides his household furniture. After his retirement from office, he was constantly consulted by Washington on all important affairs, and he spared no pains in giving to every subject submitted to him the most thoughtful attention. So that, although nominally out of office, he never ceased to be in the public service. We may say of him as Burke said of his dead son: "He was made a public creature, and had no enjoyment whatever but in the performance of some duty."
Hamilton was a man of exceedingly generous and kindly disposition. While minutely exact in regard to all his pecuniary obligations, he was ever ready to lend a helping hand to others—especially to an old army comrade. He had no personal quarrel even with the man who killed him, and made quite an effort to relieve him from pecuniary embarrassment only a short time before the fatal duel. He died at the age of forty-seven. Had he lived to the allotted period of human life, what might he not have accomplished! His work as the leader of the party in power was over, for the government had passed into the hands of Jefferson and his followers, and was there to remain for the next twenty-one years. But had his life been spared he would have enriched our jurisprudence; and he would doubtless have given to the world some work on civil government, the fruit of life-long studies, and meditations, and experience in public affairs, which would have been a storehouse of political wisdom for all coming time.
A few months before Hamilton's death Chancellor Kent spent a night with him in his charming home. In the course of the conversation Hamilton spoke of a work on civil government which he had in contemplation. Referring to this, the Chancellor writes:
I have very little doubt that if General Hamilton had lived twenty years longer he would have rivaled Socrates or Bacon, or any other of the sages of ancient or modern times, in researches after truth, and in benevolence to mankind. The active and profound statesman, the learned and eloquent lawyer, would probably have disappeared in a great degree before the character of the sage philosopher, instructing mankind by his wisdom, and elevating his country by his example.
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SOURCE: "Alexander Hamilton," in The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. LIX, No. CCCLI, January, 1887, pp. 115-23.
[The following is an approbatory overview of Hamilton's character and works.]
As one reads the writings of Alexander Hamilton, it is impossible to escape a sense of regret that he was not born within the limits of the thirteen colonies in British America. The most distinguished statesman of the United States should have been a son of their soil, a product of their civilization, a result of their formative influences. It was a strange freak of chance or destiny which placed so magnificent an intellect in the head of a child to be born illegitimately, of obscure parentage, on the insignificant island of St. Kitt's. Many a mother, under the like embarrassing circumstances, would have so managed the infantile career of the unwelcome little waif that the world would have lost, nor have ever known it, one of the grandest and most useful brains of this hemisphere. One may fancy that Dame Nature, humorously inclining to amuse herself with a grotesque practical joke, devised the notion of dropping this overshadowing mind into this tiny, neglected, and remote nook. It was a perilous jest, which might easily have become a costly blunder; but, fortunately, matters were rectified by Hamilton himself, who, finding himself, as we know by his own boyish confession, troubled with a "prevalent ambition" at about the age at which children are more wont to be troubled with getting their permanent teeth, wisely established himself in New York. He had been there but a short time, and was getting well advanced in his "teens," when he published the earliest of those writings which have justly been deemed worthy of preservation as being of real historical value. Nor did many years elapse before he began to instruct his countrymen, indeed to illumine the coming generations, with some of the most profound treatises on government and finance, and some of the ablest state papers, which have ever been written in any age or country.
But though this brilliant and precocious fugitive from little St. Kitt's became one of ourselves only through the process of immigration, there was nothing more striking in his history than the rapidity and thoroughness with which he became Americanized. I do not remember to have seen this fact anywhere so brought out as it ought to be, for the utter transformation whereby this child of a French mother by a Scotch father, born and reared in a tropical settlement, became an integral part of an entirely different people was nothing less than wonderful. We recognize Washington, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Pickering, as distinctively American; all, save perhaps Washington, may be regarded as types quite as much as individuals; and while large numbers of their countrymen resembled one or another of them in moral and mental traits, it is obvious that they could have sprung from no other race, and could have found their special development amid no other surroundings or social influences. Lafayette was a young man when he came to this country, in a condition of extremely receptive enthusiasm; yet his perfect Frenchness was not even visibly modified here. Gallatin remained an Americanized Swiss all his life, and could never get rid of his foreign accent. But Hamilton was at once fully and absolutely an American, and almost as much a type as were those eminent men above named. He seems never to have thought of himself, nor to have been regarded by any one else, in any other light. His position, feelings, ideas, sympathies, all his habits of thought, his ways of considering questions, his points of view, could not have been more national if his ancestors had come over in the Mayflower. If we read his writings, especially all his correspondence, which is the best evidence on such a question, with an especial view to studying this aspect of nationality in mind and character, we cannot but be greatly struck by it. He feels, thinks, and speaks not as one who has cast in his lot with a people whom he admires and understands, but as himself being absolutely and in fact one of those people. Thus he always so regarded himself as an American that he felt no protestations necessary; he forgot, and made others forget, that he could have any other character. Every line in these eight volumes of his writings bears evidence of this perfect assimilation, extraordinary even in a country in which assimilation seems the order of nature. It is no contradiction of this to say that he probably owed to his French blood a vivacity and a power of making himself agreeable and attractive in society which few Americans enjoyed; neither to say that of all the Americans of his day he was far the most cosmopolitan. It may be added that he, Franklin, and Gouverneur Morris were the only Americans who were cosmopolitan at all. The trait did not mark our great men in that time. Even John Adams could not acquire it, though he had such extensive experiences on the Continent and in England, regions which Hamilton never in his life had the good fortune to visit. Nor could Jefferson get it, though half of his heart was always with France, and though he prided himself on the comprehensiveness of his knowledge, the scope of his sympathies, and the liberality of his views, which he conceived to embrace all civilized human kind. But Hamilton's cosmopolitanism was due to the expansiveness of his intellect and grasp of his mind, which were too large to accept the limitations established by the thoughts and ways of any one people. With him cosmopolitanism was a purely mental characteristic.
The quiet manner in which Hamilton laid entirely aside, far remote from sight or memory of himself or others, the fact that he was not sprung of old American stock, was not an autochthon of the North American colonies, is only one among several evidences of a peculiar trait in his character. In just the same way, his writings indicate that he neither spoke nor apparently thought at all of his social origin. Who he was, what he might be expected to be according to the principles of descent and heredity, were questions which he so tranquilly ignored that the few persons who ventured to ask or to answer them did so covertly, and whispering among themselves. He simply stepped into a position among those who were socially and intellectually the best and foremost people; and in doing so did not seem to be challenging a right, but only to be appearing where he naturally belonged. What he, in this easy and careless fashion, took for granted was granted, at once and by everybody. No one ever doubted that he belonged where he placed himself. He did not present as credentials the status of any ancestor, near or remote; he only easily offered himself, his own brains and his own breeding. No one ventured to say that these were not perfectly satisfactory. Almost, if not quite, his only remark concerning his father occurs in a paper wherein, in the course of some business arrangements, he had to speak of certain pecuniary assistance rendered to the old gentleman; he then says, "Though, as I am informed, a man of respectable connections in Scotland," etc. Was there ever shown a more utter indifference to the source of one's being,—to one's antecedents, as the phrase is? No man, not even Lord Thurlow, was ever more frankly ready to start with himself, so to speak; and Hamilton was a man of such force, such impressiveness, and in matters of detail so perfectly finished that the world let him start and stand as and where he chose, quite as a matter of course and without question or comment. In precisely the same way, when little more than a boy, he never seems to have thought that his juvenility was a matter of the slightest consequence, as in a certain sense it was not. He spoke and wrote what he thought, on the one hand without humility, and on the other hand equally without that conscious assumption which almost always marks the efforts even of the ablest youths. The value of his thoughts, opinions, and arguments was intrinsic in them, and had nothing whatsoever to do with the greater or less number of years during which he happened to have been in the world,—a matter which, as he never thought of it himself, so also other people generally seem to have forgotten, except in the way of occasional admiration. A striking instance of this is found in his temporary alienation from Washington. There is something imposing in the spectacle of this stripling indulging in a quarrel with the great and impressive commander in chief, and describing it in a letter, perfectly temperate and dignified in tone, as if it had been in every respect a falling out between persons equal in all else save the mere matter of military rank.
Since the first generation of citizens of the United States passed away, it has become a lamentable and growing habit of the country to breed small politicians with that exuberant fecundity with which tropical swamps beget noisome reptiles. Now and again a real statesman towers among the unwholesome and insignificant groups, like an oak loftily overtopping the expanse of stunted and too often noxious underbrush. At last, the henchman and the heeler, the wire-puller and the manipulator of primaries, have attained such consequence that they close around and destroy the statesman before he can develop his independent proportions, just as the poisonous ivy can strangle in its fatal embrace the young tree which might otherwise grow to noble size. A century ago these dramatis personte were unknown among the villains upon the stage of public affairs. Then the political "machine" was uninvented, with the countless other more praiseworthy machines which restless Yankee ingenuity has since devised and carried to excellence approaching perfection. It is true that in those days even cabinet officers could conduct mean intrigues, and could slander and covertly backbite not only each other, but Washington himself. The times were not ideal, but the prizes of the public service were not sufficiently valuable to compensate for any great squandering of time, labor, or virtue. Even the public men most open to criticism in that earlier and simpler era, reversing the proportions of our day, devoted probably three fourths of their energy to advance what they deemed the public welfare, and allied their political fortunes with broad doctrines of policy and genuine principles of statecraft. Nor was it because a policy or principle seemed likely to be popular that they adopted it, but because they believed in it; so that their allegiance to political creeds grew out of and illustrated their intellectual constitution. If one seeks evidence of this, it may be found not alone in their public acts and writings, but in their private correspondence. Of Hamilton this statement is peculiarly true. If he was ambitious to rise, at least it was not by jostling and displacing others that he endeavored to get to the front. It was the prevalence of principles and policies in which he honestly had faith which he first sought to secure; his own power he regarded only as the natural and logical sequence of the success of these; and it was hostility to these, not hostility to himself personally, which he conceived to be a just cause for political antagonism upon his part. All his letters show a singular absence of the purely personal element in his valuation of men, and in his advice in matters of candidacy.
The student of history feels, then, as he studies the works of the men who were busied with the birth and childhood of our republic, that he is among great statesmen. They were so. The fact is beyond a question. They were men of large ability, generously developed by the rare responsibilities of the formative era in a country too young and too poor to have nourished selfishness; they were substantially honest; they were, for men in public life, exceptionally disinterested; they generally had honorable purposes and high aims. One has only to read their writings to be convinced upon these points. These writings, indeed, it may be supposed, are read much less than they ought to be; for in their respective sets of eight, ten, or a dozen clumsy octavos they look far from alluring. Yet, seriously, a large part of them will very well bear reading. Especially is this true of the Hamilton volumes and those of Jefferson. Beyond question Hamilton's are the most broadly valuable. We may read the others in order to gain a knowledge of the history of the times; we may read his not only for this purpose, but also to gather knowledge useful in all ages so long as modern civilization and modern habits of polity and of business shall endure. A large proportion of his public papers bear upon questions of finance, internal taxation, tariff, protection, encouragement of manufactures, commerce, national banking, a multitude of subjects not less important to-day than when they were freshly written; and these topics cannot now be discussed in satisfactory shape by any one of our publicists unless he is familiar with all that Hamilton had to say on the subject in hand. What Hamilton did say is liable to be undervalued now, because it will seem to many persons trite and familiar. So it is; for no small part of what he taught has entered into and informed the views of the American people upon matters of public policy; and such a criticism would be like that of the gentleman who went to see Hamlet played, and came away remarking that Shakespeare was a fellow of no originality, for the whole play was only a string of quotations. The Tables of Contents in these eight volumes [of The Works of Alexander Hamilton, edited by Henry Cabot Lodge] may rattle dryly on the ear, but the perusal of the pages themselves will be found surprisingly agreeable, even by the "general reader" who shall have the enterprise to undertake it. For those who do so Hamilton possesses one great advantage: he wrote admirable English, and had a style which is read with ease and pleasure. In this he excelled his contemporaries. Washington, if one could wish to speak unkindly of him, would narrowly escape being called illiterate; if we do not sneer at what he wrote, it is out of our great respect for what he did, and because he had the help of other men's pens in his lifetime, supplemented by the aid of very loyal and helpful editors and biographers since his death. Adams, when writing what he did not expect to publish, wrote like a plain man of sense, and readably enough; but no human being can now force a way through the stilted dullness and stale erudition of the lucubrations which he designed for the enlightenment of his much-to-be-pitied readers in his own generation. Jefferson is very agreeable, and more modern in some respects than were his contemporaries; yet he inundates his subject with such a torrent of words as deprives us of the pleasure to be derived from confidence in the accuracy of his statement or the soundness of his thinking. Madison, less open to direct criticism, is dry and tedious. But Hamilton is read with rapidity and pleasure. His style is vigorous and masculine, and but little defaced by the tiresome elaboration and propriety of the day. The singular clearness of his mind illumines his language; he neither wastes words nor leaves anything obscure. Many of his papers deserve study on rhetorical grounds, as examples of exposition and argument. He furnishes some of the finest specimens in existence of that most effective of all the forms of argument, the argument through statement. After he has arrayed his facts he seems to have left nothing further to be done; his mere statement of his position often embodies both its explanation and its defense. It was this faculty which made it impossible for Hamilton's opponents, numerous and industrious as they were, to prevail against the schemes which he proposed to Congress. He had such a way of enlisting reason in his service that discussion seemed superfluous. Perhaps it may be said that his arguments came disguised in the clothing of facts. In logic, in rhetoric, or in controversy, there is no higher art, no more formidable skill. It is a curious as well as a very useful and instructive study to compare his papers, in this especial point of view, with the documents of the other side, notably with those prepared, certainly with no slight eloquence and plausibility, by his arch opponent, Jefferson. Hamilton forces conviction to-day as he did in his own time.
Probably the student of Hamilton's writings will regard it as a fair judgment rather than an outgrowth of partiality to set him at the head of all statesmen of the United States, and among the few very greatest of the world. He had a native aptitude for the problems of statesmanship; it was the kind of work which his mind was created to do. By way of furnishing a scale to measure this, it may be said that it involved, as one department or faculty only among many, such a capacity for constitutional law that in this respect Marshall did not surpass him, though Marshall left a monumental reputation reared upon this sole basis. One has the consciousness of strength, of power, in his way of thinking; his brain seems to work in an atmosphere so clear that every fact and every argument must stand out in sharply cut outlines; there can be no distortion, neither any error in perspective, in relationship or proportion, where all is pure lucidity. There is also extraordinary grasp and breadth,—nothing is so remote as to escape just appreciation; there is fullness of knowledge which makes contradiction hopeless, and with this there comes as a detail a singular accuracy of information extending to every minute part of the business. He never seems ingenious or subtle, never surprises the reader by bringing him to an unexpected conclusion through byroads. He is seen always to travel along the straight turnpike. What escape then remains from implicit confidence in the result? Such was and still is the state of mind in which Hamilton leaves his reader. Of all the men of that day, Jefferson alone can be compared with Hamilton in controversial ability or in skill with his pen, and Jefferson is only near enough to provoke comparison, not to profit by it. For he was less accurate, less clear, less honest in thought, and less simple in exposition; ingenious and sophistical when it serves his turn, he fails to give the impression of having grasped truth so surely. But he had what Hamilton lacked,—the capacity to attract and persuade the masses, to gather a devoted following among the people at large. Hamilton, in respect of sheer intellect, stands easily preëminent; but when he left state papers, financial and constitutional topics, he could not talk humanitarianism and so-called philosophy as Jefferson could. One conceives that he thought this style a trifle disingenuous, and too much interlarded with humbug. Suffrage substantially universal without universal intelligence established a condition of the constituent body by no means well adapted for Hamilton's success. Perhaps this lack of control over the people is to be regarded as a shortcoming in a statesman; if so, it was in Hamilton a serious defect.
There is one more observation which cannot be omitted in any remarks upon Hamilton's writings, and this is the noble tone which pervades them. The reader sees not only patriotism, not only political honesty and of course personal integrity, but he must be struck with a certain high spirit, a loftiness of aim, a pride of consciously pure purpose. Morally, these volumes are elevating. Hamilton was eminently human, a man of strong passions, not wholly devoid of prejudice, occasionally, though very slightly, suspicious. These traits led him into a few mistakes in his judgments of men, a few blunders in matters of policy. Yet amid times of great excitement and of bitter animosities there was only one instance in which he did anything that seems beneath the standard of a perfectly honorable and exceptionally highminded man. When it is frankly said that there is one such instance, it should also be said that probably few men holding public office in any country have had all their doings so fully known as were those of Hamilton. Obscurity never covered any act or word of his which could provoke criticism; it is undeniable that he had very singular ill-luck in this respect.
Hamilton had the imperious, or rather the imperial temper. There was about him the atmosphere of command. One perceives it clearly throughout his correspondence, though it does not appear in an offensive way. He never addressed his political associates or followers in a dictatorial form; yet his letters none the less plainly emanate from the controlling mind. Clearly enough he is one giving advice to those who will take it, and who will do well in taking it. He did not conceal this fact by an intentional art of expression. It was a common understanding between himself and his correspondent that his knowledge was best, his counsel wisest, his insight deepest, and that his friends would recognize the palpable truth. So they generally did. If he could not lead the ignorant masses, at least he governed nine tenths of the intelligent and thinking people in the United States, and rarely did they question, and never revolt. Seldom did he fall into serious error; once only, in his behavior before the election of Jefferson, he lost his judgment unpardonably, and laid himself open to the criticism of the more independent thinkers of his party. Generally he was greatly wiser than the chief men among the Federalists, and notable instances of the sound influence which he endeavored to exercise may be noticed in his letter to Pickering of June 8, 1798, wherein he advises to "mete the same measure" to France and to England; and in his letter to Wolcott, a few days later, wherein he beseeches the party to go cautiously in the matter of the Alien and Sedition laws: "I hope sincerely the thing may not be hurried through. Let us not establish a tyranny. Energy is a very different thing from violence," etc. But these sage counsels, far above the level of Federalist intelligence, unfortunately proved of little avail.
Hamilton retired from public life at the age of thirty-eight years,—for his military service in Adams's administration was a nominal affair,—and died at the age of forty-seven years. Jefferson was in active public service until he was within a month of his sixty-seventh birthday; and Andrew Jackson left the presidency eleven days before he was seventy years old. Moreover, Jefferson and Jackson each had for eight years all the power attendant upon the highest office in the nation. The three have exercised greater authority in shaping the political customs and doctrines of the American people than have any other of our public men; and certainly neither long life nor high office placed either Jefferson or Jackson ahead of Hamilton in this regard. Jefferson gave shape and expression, coupled with a powerful party organization, to what may be called genuine American democracy. Open as he may be to criticism in matters of detail, he was a great statesman, he did good work, and he left the government and the national politics substantially in excellent condition. Jackson wielded the widest influence for harm that has ever been exercised in the country: he led and organized democratic ignorance as Jefferson had led and organized democratic intelligence; he inaugurated the "spoils system," which Jefferson, though with somewhat itching fingers, had refused to handle, at least with any real efficiency; he introduced the low and personal tone into politics, and made the politician succeed the statesman in public affairs. But Hamilton, whose day of power preceded that even of Jefferson, organized much more than a party or a political system: he organized the very government of the United States; he infused into that vast and complicated machinery so wonderful a combination of strength with smoothness of running that those who came after him could neither remodel it nor easily throw it out of gear. His was the constructive intellect, which fortunately came earliest in the order. The student of American history prior to the slavery and civil war period, who wishes to understand the principles of the government, the spirit of the politics, and the genius of the people of the United States, must study the works of Hamilton and of Jefferson and the doings of Jackson,—not his writings!—for the order of time between these three is the order of logical sequence in our history and in our political development. To borrow a simile from physics, it may be said that Hamilton, with most of the intelligence of the nation at his back, and Jefferson, with the bulk of the population behind him, came into collision; and the resultant of the two opposing forces sent the American people along the course upon which they have ever since been moving, subject only to such deflections as are attributable to an occasional Jacksonian, or other irruptive influence.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5955
SOURCE: "Political Thinkers—The English Group," in Main Currents in American Thought, An Interpretation of American Literature from the Beginnings to 1920: The Colonial Mind, 1620-1800, Vol. I., 1927. Reprint by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955, pp. 297-326.
[Parrington was an American historian, critic, and educator. He was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for the first two volumes of his influential Main Currents in American Thought (1927); the third volume remained unfinished at the time of his death. In the following excerpt, Parrington presents Hamilton as a key theorist of American industrial economy.]
Of the disciplined forces that put to rout the disorganized party of agrarianism, the intellectual leader was Alexander Hamilton, the brilliant Anglo-French West Indian, then just entered upon his thirties. A man of quite remarkable ability, a lucid thinker, a great lawyer, a skillful executive, a masterly organizer, a statesman of broad comprehension and inflexible purpose, he originated and directed the main policies of the Federalist group, and brought them to successful issue. For this work he was singularly well equipped, for in addition to great qualities of mind and persuasive ways he was free to work unhampered by the narrow localisms and sectional prejudices that hampered native Americans. He was rather English than American, with a certain detachment that refused to permit his large plans to be thwarted by minor, vexatious details, or the perversity of stupid men. He was like the elder Pitt in the magnificence of his imperial outlook.
Such a man would think in terms of the nation rather than of the state. He would agree with Paine that the continental belt must be more securely buckled. The jealousies and rivalries that obstructed the creation of a centralized Federal government found no sympathy with him. He was annoyed beyond all patience with the dissensions of local home rule. In his political philosophy there was no place for "the political monster of an imperium in imperio "; he would destroy all lesser sovereignties and reduce the several common-wealths to a parish status. For town-meeting democracies and agrarian legislatures he had frank contempt. The American villager and farmer he never knew and never understood; his America was the America of landed gentlemen and wealthy merchants and prosperous professional men, the classes that were most bitterly anti-agrarian. And it was in association with this group of conservative representatives of business and society that he took his place as directing head in the work of reorganizing the loose confederation into a strong and cohesive union. When that work was accomplished his influence was commanding, and for a dozen years he directed the major policies of the Federalist party. His strategic position as Secretary of the Treasury enabled him to stamp his principles so deeply upon the national economy that in all the intervening years since he quitted his post they have not been permanently altered. That we still follow the broad principles of Hamilton in our financial policy is a remarkable testimony to the perspicacity of his mind and his understanding of the economic forces that control modern society. And hence, because the Hamiltonian principles lie at the core of the problem which has proved so difficult of solution by modern liberalism, the life and work of Hamilton are of particular significance in our democratic development.
Hamilton was our first great master of modern finance, of that finespun web of credit which holds together our industrial life; and because his policies opened opportunities of profit to some and entailed loss upon others, they have been debated with an acrimony such as few programs have endured. About the figure of the brilliant Federalist the mythmakers have industriously woven their tales, distorting the man into either a demigod or a monster. The individual has been merged in the system which he created, and later interpretation has been shot through with partisan feeling; political and economic prejudice has proved too strong for disinterested estimate. Any rational judgment of Hamilton is dependent upon an interpretation of the historical background that determined his career, and in particular of the state of post-Revolutionary economics; and over such vexing questions partisans have wrangled interminably. Thus Sumner, in his life of Hamilton, asserts dogmatically that Federalism was no other than the forces of law and order at war with the turbulent, anarchistic forces unloosed by the Revolution, and that the putting down of the scheme of repudiation was the necessary preliminary to the establishment of a great nation. In the light of such an interpretation, Hamilton the far-seeing, courageous and honest master of finance, was the savior of nationality, the one supreme figure rising above an envious group of lesser men. But, as has been sufficiently pointed out in preceding chapters, the historical facts are susceptible of quite other interpretation; and as our knowledge of the economic struggle then going on becomes more adequate, the falsity of such an explanation becomes patent. If, on the other hand, we concede that the crux of the political problem in 1787 was economic—the struggle waging between farmer and business groups for control of government—then the position of Hamilton becomes clear; he was the spokesman of the business economy. He thought in terms of nationality and espoused the economics of capitalism, because he discovered in them potentialities congenial to his imperialistic mind.
The career of Hamilton followed logically from the determining facts of temperament and experience. He came to New York an alien, without position or influence, ambitious to make a name and stir in the world; and in the America of his day there could be little doubt what doors opened widest to preferment. He made friends easily, and with his aristocratic tastes he preferred the rich and distinguished to plebeians. Endowed with charming manners and brilliant parts, he fascinated all whom he met; before he was of age he was intimate with all the Whig leaders, civil and military, on Washington's staff and elsewhere, lending his brains to the solution of knotty problems, prodding stupider minds with illuminating suggestions, providing himself the clearest thinker in whatever group he found himself. It was by sheer force of intellect that he gained distinction. Singularly precocious, he matured early; before his twenty-fifth year he seems to have developed every main principle of his political and economic philosophy, and thereafter he never hesitated or swerved from his path. He was tireless in propaganda, urging on the proposed Constitutional convention, discussing with Robert Morris his favorite project of a national bank, outlining various systems of funding, advocating tariffs as an aid to domestic manufacture, and sketching the plan of a political and economic system under which native commercialism could go forward. His reputation as an acute and trustworthy financial adviser was well established with influential men north and south, when the new government was set up, and Washington turned to him naturally for the Treasury post, to guide financial policies during the difficult days immediately ahead. But so able a man could not be restricted within a single portfolio, and during the larger part of Washington's two administrations Hamilton's was the directing mind and chief influence. He regarded himself as Prime Minister and rode roughshod over his colleagues. Major policies such as that of no entangling alliances must receive his careful scrutiny and approval before they were announced; and in consequence more credit belongs to Hamilton for the success of those first administrations than is commonly recognized.
But when we turn from the administrator and statesman to the creative thinker, there is another story to tell. The quickness of his perceptions, the largeness of his plans and efficacy of his methods—his clear brilliancy of understanding and execution—are enormously impressive; but they cannot conceal certain intellectual shortcomings. There was a lack of subtlety in the swift working of his mind, of shades and nuances in the background of his thought, that implied a lack of depth and richness in his intellectual accumulation. Something hard, almost brutal, lurks in his thought—a note of intellectual arrogance, of cynical contempt. He was utterly devoid of sentiment, and without a shred of idealism, unless a certain grandiose quality in his conceptions be accounted idealism. His absorbing interest in the rising system of credit and finance, his cool unconcern for the social consequences of his policies, reveal his weakness. In spite of his brilliancy Hamilton was circumscribed by the limitations of the practical man.
In consequence of such limitations Hamilton was not a political philosopher in the large meaning of the term. In knowledge of history he does not compare with John Adams; and as an open-minded student of politics he is immensely inferior to Jefferson. Outside the domain of the law, his knowledge does not always keep pace with his argument. He reasons adroitly from given premises, but he rarely pauses to examine the validity of those premises. The fundamentals of political theory he seems never to have questioned, and he lays down a major principle with the easy finality of a dogmatist. Compare his views on any important political principle with those of the greater thinkers of his time, and they are likely to prove factional if not reactionary. The two tests of eighteenth-century liberalism were the doctrine of individualism, and the doctrine of the minimized state; and Hamilton rejected both: the former in its larger social bearing, and the latter wholly. He was not even abreast of seventeenth-century liberalism, for that was strongly republican, and Hamilton detested republicanism only a little less than democracy. Harrington and Locke were no masters of his; much less were Bentham or Priestley or Godwin. He called the French revolutionary writers "fanatics in political science"; to what extent he read them does not appear. The thinkers to whom he owed most seem to have been Hume, from whom he may have derived his cynical psychology, and Hobbes, whose absolute state was so congenial to his temperament. But political theory he subordinated to economic theory. He was much interested in economics. With the Physiocratic school and its agrarian and sociological bias he could have no sympathy, but with the rising English school that resulted from the development of the industrial revolution, he found himself in hearty accord. Capitalism with its credit system, its banks and debt-funding and money manipulation, was wholly congenial to his masterful temperament. He read Adam Smith with eagerness and The Wealth of Nations was a source book for many of his state papers. To create in America an English system of finance, and an English system of industrialism, seemed to him the surest means to the great end he had in view; a centralizing capitalism would be more than a match for a decentralizing agrarianism, and the power of the state would augment with the increase of liquid wealth.
But granted that he lacked the intellectual qualities of the philosopher, it does not follow that his significance diminishes. On the contrary his very independence of contemporary European theory enlarged his serviceableness to party. He was free to employ his intelligence on the practical difficulties of a new and unprecedented situation. English liberalism did not answer the needs of Federalism, if indeed it could answer the needs of the country at large. The time had come to decide whether the long movement of decentralization should go further, and confirm the future government as a loose confederacy of powerful states, or whether an attempt should be made to check that movement and establish a counter tendency towards centralized, organized control. If the former, it meant surrendering the country to a democratic laissez faire, and there was nothing in the history of political laissez faire as it had developed in America, that justified the principle to Hamilton. It had culminated in agrarianism with legislative majorities riding down all obstacles, denying the validity of any check upon its will, constitutional, legal or ethical. The property interests of the minority had been rendered insecure. There had been altogether too much laissez faire; what was needed was sharp control of legislative majorities; the will of the majority must be held within due metes and bounds. Even in the economic world the principle of laissez faire no longer satisfied the needs of the situation. Parliamentary enactments had aided British interests in their exploitation of America before the war; it was only common sense for an American government to assist American business. The new capitalism that was rising stood in need of governmental subsidies. Business was languishing; infant industries could not compete on even terms with the powerful British manufacturing interests, long established and with ample capital. From a realistic contemplation of these facts Hamilton deduced the guiding principle that has since been followed, namely, that governmental interference with economic laws is desirable when it aids business, but intolerable and unsound when it aims at business regulation or control, or when it assists agriculture or labor.
Throughout his career Hamilton was surprisingly consistent. His mind hardened early as it matured early, and he never saw cause to challenge the principles which he first espoused. He was what a friendly critic would call a political realist, and an enemy would pronounce a cynic. With the practical man's contempt for theorists and idealists, he took his stand on current fact. He looked to the past for guidance, trusting to the wisdom of experience; those principles which have worked satisfactorily heretofore may be expected to work satisfactorily in the future. Whoever aspires to become a sane political leader must remember that his business is not to construct Utopias, but to govern men; and if he would succeed in that difficult undertaking he must be wise in the knowledge of human nature. At the basis of Hamilton's political philosophy was the traditional Tory psychology. Failure to understand human nature, he believed, was the fatal weakness of all democratic theorists; they put into men's breeches altruistic beings fitted only for a Utopian existence. But when we consider men as they are, we discover that they are little other than beasts, who if unrestrained will turn every garden into a pigsty. Everywhere men are impelled by the primitive lust of aggression, and the political philosopher must adjust his system to this unhappy fact. He must not suffer the charge of cynicism to emasculate his philosophy; "the goodness of government consists in a vigorous execution," rather than in amiable intentions; it is the business of the practical man and not of the theorist.
It needs no very extensive reading in Hamilton to discover ample justification for such an interpretation of his political philosophy; the evidence lies scattered broadly through his pages. At the precocious age of seventeen he laid down the thesis, "A vast majority of mankind is entirely biassed by motives of self-interest"; and as political systems are determined by the raw material of the mass of the people, they must be conditioned by such egoism. A year later he discovered in Hume the central principle of his philosophy:
Political writers, says a celebrated author, have established it as a maxim, that, in contriving any system of government, and fixing the several checks and controls of the constitution, every man ought to be supposed a knave; and to have no other end, in all his actions, but private interest. By this interest we must govern him; and, by means of it, make him co-operate to public good, notwithstanding his insatiable avarice and ambition. Without this, we shall in vain boast of the advantages of any constitution.
At the age of twenty-seven he reiterated the doctrine, "The safest reliance of every government, is on men's interests. This is a principle of human nature, on which all political speculation, to be just, must be founded." Obviously this was not a pose of youthful cynicism, but a sober judgment confirmed by observation and experience.
Accepting self-interest as the mainspring of human ambition, Hamilton accepted equally the principle of class domination. From his reading of history he discovered that the strong overcome the weak, and as they grasp power they coalesce into a master group. This master group will dominate, he believed, not only to further its interests, but to prevent the spread of anarchy which threatens every society split into factions and at the mercy of rival ambitions. In early days the master group was a military order, later it became a landed aristocracy, in modern times it is commercial; but always its power rests on property. "That power which holds the purse-strings absolutely, must rule," he stated unequivocally. The economic masters of society of necessity become the political masters. It is unthinkable that government should not reflect the wishes of property, that it should be permanently hostile to the greater economic interests; such hostility must destroy it, for no man or group of men will be ruled by those whom they can buy and sell. And in destroying itself it will give place to another government, more wisely responsive to the master group; for even a democratic people soon learns that any government is better than a condition of anarchy, and a commercial people understands that a government which serves the interests of men of property, serves the interests of all, for if capital will not invest how shall labor find employment? And if the economic masters do not organize society efficiently, how shall the common people escape ruin?
Such are the fundamental principles which lie at the base of Hamilton's philosophy. He was in accord with John Adams and James Madison and Noah Webster, in asserting the economic basis of government, with its corollary of the class struggle. He not only accepted the rule of property as inevitable, but as desirable. As an aristocrat he deliberately allied himself with the wealthy. That men divide into the rich and the poor, the wise and the foolish, he regarded as a common-place too evident to require argument. The explanation is to be sought in human nature and human capacities. For the common people, about whom Jefferson concerned himself with what seemed to Hamilton sheer demagoguery, he felt only contempt. Their virtues and capacities he had no faith in. "I am not much attached to the majesty of the multitude," he said during the debate over the Constitution, "and waive all pretensions (founded on such conduct) to their countenance." His notorious comment—which the American democrat has never forgiven him, "The people!—the people is a great beast!"—was characteristically frank. Hamilton was no demagogue and nothing was plainer to his logic than the proposition that if the people possessed the capacity to rule, their weight of numbers would give them easy mastery; whereas their yielding to the domination of the gifted few proves their incapacity. A wise statesman, therefore, will consider the people no further than to determine how government may be least disturbed by their factional discontent, and kept free to pursue a logical program. Under a republican form good government is difficult to maintain, but not impossible. The people are easily deceived and turned aside from their purpose; like children they are diverted by toys; but if they become unruly they must be punished. Too much is at stake in government for them to be permitted to muddle policies.
It is sufficiently clear that in tastes and convictions Hamilton was a high Tory. The past to which he appealed was a Tory past, the psychology which he accepted was a Tory psychology, the law and order which he desired was a Tory law and order. His philosophy was not liked by republican America, and he knew that it was not liked. Practical business men accepted both his premises and conclusions, but republicans under the spell of revolutionary idealism, and agrarians suffering in their pocketbooks, would oppose them vigorously. He was at pains, therefore, as a practical statesman, to dress his views in a garb more seemly to plebeian prejudices, and like earlier Tories he paraded an ethical justification for his Toryism. The current Federalist dogma of the divine right of justice—vox justiciae vox dei—was at hand to serve his purpose and he made free use of it. But no ethical gilding could quite conceal a certain ruthlessness of purpose; in practice justice became synonymous with expediency, and expediency was curiously like sheer Tory will to power.
In certain of his principles Hamilton was a follower of Hobbes. His philosophy conducted logically to the leviathan state, highly centralized, coercive, efficient. But he was no idealist to exalt the state as the divine repository of authority, an enduring entity apart from the individual citizen and above him. He regarded the state as a highly useful instrument, which in the name of law and order would serve the interests of the powerful, and restrain the turbulence of the disinherited. For in every government founded on coercion rather than good will, the perennial unrest of those who are coerced is a grave menace; in the end the exploited will turn fiercely upon the exploiters. In such governments, therefore, self-interest requires that social unrest shall be covered with opprobium and put down by the police power; and the sufficient test of a strong state lies in its ability to protect the privileges of the minority against the anarchy of the majority. In his eloquent declamation against anarchy Hamilton was a conspicuous disciple of the law and order school. From the grave difficulties of post-Revolutionary times with their agrarian programs, he created a partisan argument for a leviathan state, which fell upon willing ears; and in the Constitutional convention, which, more than any other man, he was instrumental in assembling, he was the outstanding advocate of the coercive state.
In his plan of government presented to the Convention, the principle of centralized power was carried further than most would go, and his supporting speeches expressed doctrines that startled certain of his hearers. He was frankly a monarchist, and he urged the monarchical principle with Hobbesian logic. "The principle chiefly intended to be established is this—that there must be a permanent will." "There ought to be a principle in government capable of resisting the popular current."
Gentlemen say we need to be rescued from the democracy. But what [are] the means proposed? A democratic assembly is to be checked by a democratic senate, and both these by a democratic chief magistrate. The end will not be answered, the means will not be equal to the object. It will, therefore, be feeble and inefficient.
The only effective way of keeping democratic factionalism within bounds, Hamilton was convinced, lay in the erection of a powerful chief magistrate, who "ought to be hereditary, and to have so much power, that it will not be his interest to risk much to acquire more," and who would therefore stand "above corruption." Failing to secure the acceptance of the monarchical principle, he devoted himself to the business of providing all possible checks upon the power of the democracy. He "acknowledged himself not to think favorably of republican government; but he addressed his remarks to those who did think favorably of it, in order to prevail on them to tone their government as high as possible." His argument was characteristic:
All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and well born, the other the mass of the people. The voice of the people has been said to be the voice of God; and, however generally this maxim has been quoted and believed, it is not true to fact. The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give, therefore, to the first class a distinct, permanent share in the government. They will check the unsteadiness of the second; and as they cannot receive any advantage by a change, they therefore will ever maintain good government. Can a democratic assembly, who annually revolve in the mass of the people, be supposed steadily to pursue the public good? Nothing but a permanent body can check the imprudence of democracy. Their turbulent and uncontrollable disposition requires checks.
The argument scarcely needs refuting today, although curiously enough, it was rarely questioned by eighteenth-century gentlemen. It was the stock in trade of the Federalists, nevertheless Hamilton was too acute a thinker not to see its fallacy. It denied the fundamental premise of his political philosophy. If men are actuated by self-interest, how does it come about that this sovereign motive abdicates its rule among the rich and well born? Is there a magic in property that regenerates human nature? Do the wealthy betray no desire for greater power? Do the strong and powerful care more for good government than for class interests? Hamilton was found of appealing to the teaching of experience; but he had read history to little purpose if he believed such notions. How mercilessly he would have exposed the fallacy in the mouth of Jefferson! It was a class appeal, and he knew that it was a class appeal, just as he knew that success knows no ethics. He was confronted by a situation in practical politics, and in playing ignobly upon selfish fears he was seeking to force the convention towards the English model. He had no confidence in the Constitution as finally adopted, and spoke in contemptuous terms of its weakness; whereas for the British constitution he had only praise, going so far, according to Jefferson, as to defend the notorious corruption of parliament on the ground of expediency: "purge it of its corruption"—Jefferson reports him as saying—"and give to its popular branch equality of representation, and it would become an impracticable government; as it stands at present, with all its supposed defects, it is the most perfect government which ever existed." The argument savors of cynicism, but it is in keeping with his philosophy; the British constitution owed its excellence to the fact that in the name of the people it yielded control of the state to the landed aristocracy.
It was as a statesman that the brilliant qualities of Hamilton showed to fullest advantage. In developing his policies as Secretary of the Treasury he applied his favorite principle, that government and property must join in a close working alliance. The new government would remain weak and ineffective so long as it was hostile to capital; but let it show itself friendly to capital, and capital would make haste uphold the hands of government. Confidence was necessary to both, and it was a plant of slow growth, sensitive to cold winds. The key to the problem lay in the public finance, and the key to a strong system of finance lay in a great national bank. This, Hamilton's dearest project, was inspired by the example of the Bank of England. No other institution would so surely link the great merchants to government, he pointed out, for by being made partners in the undertaking they would share both the responsibility and the profits. It was notorious that during the Revolution men of wealth had forced down the continental currency for speculative purposes; was it not as certain that they would support an issue in which they were interested? The private resources of wealthy citizens would thus become an asset of government, for the bank would link "the interest of the State in an intimate connection with those of the rich individuals belonging to it." "The men of property in America are enlightened about their own interest, and would easily be brought to see the advantage of a good plan." Hence would arise stability and vigor of government.
Moreover, the bank would be of immense service in the pressing business of the public debt. In regard to this difficult matter Hamilton was early convinced that only one solution was possible: all outstanding obligations, state and national, must be assumed by the Federal government at face value, and funded. Anything short of that would amount to repudiation of a lawful contract, entered into in good faith by the purchaser; and such repudiation would destroy in the minds of the wealthy the confidence in the integrity of the new government that was vital to its success. It was true that speculators would reap great and unearned profits; but the speculators for the most part were the principal men of property whose support was so essential that any terms were justifiable, and nothing would bind them so closely to the government as the knowledge that it would deal generously with them. It was true also that thousands of small men would lose by such a transaction; but under any existing social economy the small man was at a disadvantage, and the present state of affairs was not such as to justify Utopian measures. To alienate the rich and powerful in order to conciliate the poor and inconsequential seemed to him sheer folly. The argument of expediency must prevail over abstract justice; the government must make terms with those in whose hands lay the success or failure of the venture.
His report on the public credit, of January 14, 1790, is one of the significant documents in the history of American finance. It is the first elaboration by an American statesman of the new system of capitalization and credit developed in eighteenth-century England, and it laid a broad foundation for later capitalistic development. To less daring financiers of the time the public debt was no more than a heavy obligation to be met; but to Hamilton it offered an opportunity for revivifying the whole financial life of the nation. Let the debts be consolidated and capitalized by a proper system of funding, and the augmented credit would multiply capital, lower the rate of interest, increase land values, and extend its benefits through all lines of industry and commerce. It was a bold plan and it encountered bitter opposition, which was not lessened by the heavy taxation that it called for. In his tax proposals Hamilton revealed his political philosophy so nakedly as almost to prove his undoing. His doctrine of the blessing of a national debt smacked rather too strongly of English Toryism for the American stomach.
A national debt, if it be not excessive, will be to us a national blessing. It will be a powerful cement to our Union. It will also create a necessity for keeping up taxation to a degree which, without being oppressive, will be a spur to industry.… It were otherwise to be feared our popular maxims would incline us to too great parsimony and indulgence. We labor less now than any civilized nation of Europe; and a habit of labor in the people, is as essential to the health and vigor of their minds and bodies, as it is conductive to the welfare of the State.
A further struggle was encountered over the proposals of an internal revenue and a tariff. In his advocacy of the former Hamilton encountered the vigorous opposition of the backcountry. The total lack of adequate means of transportation rendered the problem of a grain market a chronic difficulty to the frontier farmers. The most convenient solution lay in distilling, and so whisky had become the chief commodity of the farmer that was transportable and brought a cash price. In placing a tax upon distilled liquors, therefore, Hamilton struck so directly at the economic interests of thousands of backwoodsmen, as to bring a rebellion upon the new administration. He knew what he was doing, but he calculated that it was safer to incur the enmity of farmers than of financiers; nevertheless the fierceness of the opposition surprised him, and aroused all the ruthlessness that lay in the background of his nature. He called for the strong arm of the military and when the rising was put down, he was angered at Washington's leniency in refusing to hang the convicted leaders. In his advocacy of a tariff he was on safer ground, for he was proposing a solution of the difficult situation confronting the manufacturers. Something must be done to revive industry so long stagnant. The old colonial machinery had been destroyed and new machinery must be provided. Industrial independence must follow political independence; and the easiest way lay in providing a tariff barrier behind which the infant industries of America might grow and become sufficient for domestic needs.
In his notable report on manufactures, submitted on December 5, 1791, Hamilton showed his characteristic intelligence in his grasp of the principles of the industrial revolution. Certainly no other man in America saw so clearly the significance of the change that was taking place in English industrialism, and what tremendous reservoirs of wealth the new order laid open to the country that tapped them. The productive possibilities that lay in the division of labor, factory organization, the substitution of the machine for the tool, appealed to his materialistic imagination, and he threw himself heart and soul into the cause of industrial development in America. He accepted frankly the principle of exploitation. He was convinced that the interests of the manufacturers were one with the national interests, and he proposed to put the paternal power of the government behind them. With the larger social effects—the consequences to the working classes, congestion of population, the certainty of a labor problem—he concerned himself no more than did contemporary English statesmen. He was contemptuous of Jefferson's concern over such things. He had no Physiocratic leanings towards agriculture; material greatness alone appealed to him; and he contemplated with satisfaction the increase in national wealth that would accrue from levying toll upon the weak and helpless.
Besides this advantage of occasional employment to classes having different occupations, there is another, of a nature allied to it, and of a similar tendency. This is the employment of persons who would otherwise be idle, and in many cases, a burthen on the community, either from bias of temper, habit, infirmity of body, or some other cause, indisposing or disqualifying them for the toils of the country. It is worthy of particular remark, that, in general, women and children are rendered more useful, and the latter more early useful, by manufacturing establishments, than they would otherwise be. Of the number of persons employed in the cotton manufactories of Great Britain, it is computed that four-sevenths, nearly, are women and children; of whom the greatest proportion are children, and many of them of a tender age.
If the material power and splendor of the state be the great end of statesmanship—as Hamilton believed—no just complaint can be lodged against such a policy; but if the well-being of the individual citizen be the chief end—as Jefferson maintained—a very different judgment must be returned.
Although the fame of Hamilton has been most closely associated with the principle of constitutional centralization, his truer significance is to be found in his relation to the early developments of our modern capitalistic order. In his understanding of credit finance and the factory economy, he grasped the meaning of the economic revolution which was to transform America from an agrarian to an industrial country; and in urging the government to further such development, he blazed the path that America has since followed. "A very great man," Woodrow Wilson has called him, "but not a great American." In the larger historical meaning of the term, in its democratic implications, that judgment is true; but in the light of our industrial history, with its corporate development and governmental subsidies, it does not seem so true. As the creative organizer of a political state answering the needs of a capitalistic order—a state destined to grow stronger as imperialistic ambitions mount—he seems the most modern and the most American of our eighteenth-century leaders, one to whom our industrialism owes a very great debt, but from whom our democratic liberalism has received nothing.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8376
SOURCE: An introduction to Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, American Book Company, 1934, pp. xi-lxxii.
[In the excerpt below, Prescott traces Hamilton's career as both a political theorist and participant in government.]
Hamilton's interests of public concern were mainly political. His work as a lawyer was secondary; that as a financier and economist, as will appear, was subordinate to his political activity. We are here concerned, therefore, primarily with the development of his political theory and its applications.
When the outbreak of the Revolution converted Hamilton, at the age of nineteen, from a student to a soldier, his political views, as in spite of his precocity we might expect, were drawn not so much from his own mind as from his reading and from the revolutionary atmosphere of the time. A memorandum kept in 1776 contains a list of books indicating the quality of his reading. This ranges from Orations—Demosthenes, through many works political and financial—Lex Mercatoria and Hobbes's Dialogues—to Smith's History of New York; and is followed by serious notes and reflections. If we may trust his own statement, he had at first "strong prejudices" on the loyalist side—perhaps a significant admission—but was won over by "the superior force of the arguments in favor of the American claims."
What were the theories of government, inherited by Hamilton and his contemporaries, between which they might choose to find "arguments" fitted to support their "claims"? When Englishmen gave up the notion of rule by divine right, they attempted to solve their political difficulties by suiting government rationally to human needs. Reviving ideas that had come down to them from antiquity and the middle ages—the state of nature, the law of nature, natural rights, the social compact—they gave them new and vigorous discussion. From this emerged, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, three main tendencies in government: first, the notion of an enlightened absolutism; secondly, that of a limited and responsible rule under a constitution; and finally, that of a democracy. The first is best represented by Hobbes in his Leviathan (1651). Having a poor opinion of men and believing them moved solely by their passions, Hobbes pictured them in a state of nature as equal and free indeed, but miserable indeed also—constantly at war, and their life "poor, nasty, brutish, and short." To escape anarchy they surrendered their natural rights to a sovereign, making an indefeasible contract. Henceforth the duty of the sovereign, after vigorously protecting his own sovereignty, was to promote the welfare of the people; the duty of the subject was entire obedience. This doctrine sets up a benevolent, but absolute and paternal government. Though Hobbes contemplates a monarchical sovereign, there is nothing in his theory to prevent the sovereign being an absolute parliament or congress. This theory was obviously not one to attract the American revolutionists; but in considering Hamilton we must keep it in mind and later revert to it.
Locke, who developed the second theory in his Two Treatises on Government (1690), and who fathered the ideas prevailing in the eighteenth century, had a better opinion of mankind. In a state of nature men lived tolerably, but finding it convenient in order to protect a certain precious portion of their natural rights—particularly that of property—they contracted to form a government, which, however, derived its powers from their consent. Not merely a theorist but also an apologist for the revolution of 1689, Locke took care to include in his theory the principle that if government disregarded the people's welfare, the contract was thereby broken and government dissolved. The third, the democratic theory, most Americans were not yet quite ready for. This of Locke, however, suited them exactly. Having lived under pioneer conditions, they were familiar with equality, freedom, and "natural rights"; they could interpret their characters as "social compacts"; and they were governed mainly by laws made with their own consent. Above all, they could use the arguments by which Locke had justified one revolution to justify another. "If," says Locke, [In Two Treatises on Government] "a long train of abuses, prevarications, and artifices, all tending the same way, make the design [of tyranny] visible to the people … it is not to be wondered at that they should then rouse themselves." This theory supplied "the glittering generalities that became the political gospel of the American revolutionists." And with these "generalities" Hamilton, at first at any rate, was very much impressed. Later, with greater experience, he developed quite different views, as, if we take up his writings, we shall see.
As in 1774 the people of the New York colony were dividing themselves into Whigs and Tories, the "no-trade agreement," recently adopted by Congress, was warmly debated. A forcible pamphlet, by "A Westchester Farmer," attacking it, called forth many replies, among them A Full Vindication of the Measures of Congress (1774) and The Farmer Refuted (1775), from the pen of Hamilton, a student at King's College. These pamphlets, which exhibit their immaturity in a jocosity which fortunately he later abandoned, were able enough to give him reputation as he "Defender of Congress"; and being the only public expression of his political views before 1781, they deserve some examination. "All men," he declares in the first, "have one common original; they participate in one common nature, and consequently have one common right.… The pretensions of Parliament are contradictory to the law of nature, subversive of the British Constitution, and destructive of the faith of the most solemn compacts." Presently, however, he proceeds from abstract right to more realistic argument, and with some show of the information and thoroughness which are the sources of his later strength, he examines the consequences of interrupted trade. Here very early he hit upon one of his important ideas. One of these consequences will be the extension of American manufactures; and "if, by the necessity of the things, manufactures should once be established … they will pave the way still more to the future grandeur and glory of America; and by lessening its need for external commerce, will render it still securer against the encroachments of tyranny." This is almost a brief summary of the argument of his famous "Report on Manufactures."
The Farmer Refuted, though later by only a few weeks, marks a striking advance; its careful examination of colonial rights under the charters, for example, exhibits the research and acumen which made Hamilton a great lawyer. It is most interesting, however, as showing a conflict in his mind between what might roughly be called Lockian and Hobbesian principles. He begins by rehearsing the familiar arguments, appealing "more especially" to "the law of nature, and that supreme law of every society—its own happiness." He presently finds "the fundamental source of all the errors" of his opponent in "a total ignorance of the natural rights of mankind." Curiously, he detects a "strong similitude" between his opponent's low notions of man in the natural state and "those maintained by Mr. Hobbes." But after all, "the sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records. They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of divinity itself; and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power." Hamilton, however, was perhaps not as much of an anti-Hobbesian as he supposed. Elsewhere in this pamphlet, writing with less revolutionary enthusiasm but perhaps greater sincerity, he appears more realistic. Arguing shrewdly concerning the relations of the colonies to Europe, he finds these governed by anything but altruism. Americans cannot trust to the good will of England, which already discovers "a jealousy of our dawning splendor"; for "jealousy is a predominant passion of human nature." He cites from Hume, who held Hobbes's low opinion of human nature, a passage which perhaps colored all his later views. "Political writers," he quotes Hume as saying, "have established it as a maxim that, in contriving any system of government… every man ought to be supposed a knave; and to have no other end but private interest. By this interest we must govern him; and, by means of it, make him cooperate to public good, not withstanding his insatiable avarice and ambition." If such, politically, are the motives of mankind, it is vain to trust to the wisdom or justice of the British Parliament. "A fondness for power is implanted in most men, and it is natural to abuse it when acquired." Such abuse can be met only by forcible resistance. Natural rights are very fine, Hamilton now seems to say, but they belong to those who can obtain and defend them. Here, then, there are two strains of thought, two attitudes toward human nature and human rights, confused and unreconciled; the thought is not yet integrated. The second, as we shall see, indicates the direction in which Hamilton's thought eventually moved. We may note further that Hamilton closes by acknowledging himself, perhaps only formally, "a warm advocate for limited monarchy, and an unfeigned well-wisher of the royal family." However, in proposing that, though sovereignty should remain in a common monarch, coordinate legislatures should be provided for his English and American dominions, he is advocating the very principle of decentralization, or states' rights, which he spent his later life in combating. But experience, "the parent of wisdom," will clarify his views.
Thoughtful Americans of the 1770's realized, as Hamilton was wise enough to do very early, that the forces behind the Revolution might break down not only British domination but the ties of ordered government at home; that the prevailing notions of "natural right" and "consent of the people," carried too far, would lead to disintegration and anarchy. "The same state of the passions," Hamilton writes in 1775, "which fits the multitude … for opposition to tyranny and oppression, very naturally leads them to contempt and disregard of all authority.… When the minds [of the unthinking populace] are loosened from their attachment to ancient establishments and courses they … are apt more or less to run into anarchy." Troops, he recommends, should be stationed in New York to preserve order. Realization of this danger grew stronger with experience, and experience came rapidly. When in 1777, barely turned twenty, Hamilton was made an aide to Washington, he found himself in a position with many advantages. He was thrown into the very midst of momentous affairs, he was in intimate relations with the wisest statesman of his time, and he probably soon knew more about continental affairs than any one else, save Washington himself. He continued his study of finance and administration, not merely in books but in events. He matured his character and his views.
He soon found that men who had had too much of English government were determined to have as little as possible of their own. The jealousy of the states had been transferred from Parliament to a Congress, which, weak in its personnel, half legislative and half administrative in its functions, full of corruption and divergent interests, could act only on sufferance and was growing more and more inefficient. The result was failure in recruitment and supply, and disintegration of the finances. In 1780 he says of the army: "It is now a mob rather than an army; without clothing, without provision, without morals, without discipline." Nothing could have been more distressing to one of orderly temperament. Seeing these evils meant with Hamilton devising a remedy—even though he were as yet powerless to apply it. As usual he sought the underlying causes, and found one of these in a direction to which he had given much attention. "It is by introducing order into our finances—by restoring public credit—not by gaining battles, that we are finally to gain our object." He devotes two notable letters to this subject. The first, probably of 1779, contains this characteristic sentence: "A great source of error in disquisitions of this nature is the judging of events by abstract calculations; which, though geometrically true, are false as they relate to the concerns of beings governed more by passion and prejudice, than by an enlightened sense of their interests." Henceforth Hamilton is to be influenced mainly by practical considerations. After careful review of actual conditions he proposes a national bank, the earliest known project of that character in America. In the second letter, of the following year, to Robert Morris, he deals more fully with the finances. Utilizing the experience of other countries and then carefully calculating the possibilities of taxation, he concludes that the government must borrow, and he again proposes, as an instrument, a national bank, with a detailed plan for its establishment. "A national debt," he says, in words later turned against him, "if it is not excessive, will be a national blessing." His purpose, however, is not merely financial but also political, for he adds: "It will be a powerful cement of our Union."
Another letter, to James Duane, written between the dates of those just mentioned, ranking among the most significant of his papers, makes a landmark in the development of his theory. In this he is seeking "the defects of the present system, and the changes necessary to save us from ruin." One defect is "want of method and energy in the administration" due to the lack of "a proper executive." The revolutionary jealousy of strength in administration has trusted everything to the legislature. This might be remedied by separating the executive functions, and assigning them to single responsible ministers—of war, finance, etc. But "the fundamental defect is want of power in Congress," arising partly from "an excess of liberty in the states," partly from timidity and want of vigor in Congress itself. "Nothing appears more evident to me," he says, "than that we run much greater risk of having a weak and disunited federal government, than one which will be able to usurp the powers of the people." The danger is "that the common sovereign will not have power sufficient to unite the different members together, and direct the common forces to the interest and happiness of the whole." The goal, then, is national strength and unity. Congress, therefore, should "consider themselves vested with full power to preserve the republic from harm,"—that is, Congress should assume all powers necessary to the ends of government. If this be considered too bold, it should call a convention which may grant these powers. Those necessary he carefully enumerates, and, be it noted, they are, with minor exceptions, those granted under the Constitution in 1787. Let Congress, he concludes, assume an air of authority and confidence, for "men are governed by opinion; this opinion is as much influenced by appearances as by realities."
As a step toward action Hamilton attempted to place these ideas before the public in a series of papers, significantly entitled the Continentalist. "The extreme jealousy of power … attendant on all popular revolutions" has fatally reduced the authority of Congress. But "in a government framed for durable liberty, not less regard must be paid to giving the magistrate a proper degree of authority to make and execute the laws with rigor, than to guard against encroachments upon the rights of the community; as too much power leads to despotism, too little leads to anarchy, and both eventually to the ruin of the people." In a federation, like the United States, the real danger is anarchy—with state discord and foreign interference. The only safety is in a strong central government. The government must have the "power of the purse," for "power without revenue … is a name"; and the power of regulating trade, for trade will not regulate itself and a regulation national in scope is necessary. From the contemptible actuality—"a number of petty states, with the appearance only of union, jarring, jealous, and perverse, without any determined direction, fluctuating and unhappy at home, weak and insignificant in the eyes of other nations"—from this he turns, in his often quoted conclusion, to the "noble and magnificent perspective of a great Federal Republic, closely linked in the pursuit of a common interest, tranquil and prosperous at home, and respectable abroad." Hamilton is already an architect of government; he has devised his essential plan, if not all of his specifications; he has, by publishing it, taken a step toward its adoption. He is in fact prepared to become one of the builders of the nation he has already in imagination conceived. In other words these papers, of 1779 to 1781, contain or imply the essential principles in Hamilton's political theory. His appeal is no longer to the abstractions of "natural right," but to "experience and reason"; he is no longer troubled by confusion and conflict; and he now speaks with entire conviction and confidence. From this time, 1781, his principles develop but they do not change.
The student of Hamilton is impressed by a remarkable agreement between his political thought, in its maturity, and his personal character. Life, career, and thought were unusually integrated. He was ambitious, as Washington said after long intimacy,—adding, however, that his ambition was "of that laudable kind that prompts a man to excel in whatever he takes in hand." He found it easy to excel, for he had, within his range, extraordinary ability. He had concentration of purpose and of will, which accounted largely for his strength; and this accorded with his idea of strength and unity in a sovereign state. He had courage and tireless energy; it was natural for him to conceive an equally bold and energetic government. He was scrupulously honest; and he had a strong sense of governmental and international obligation. He had a passion for order, and easily mastered details by ordering them; he was by temperament the foe of anarchy and the friend of ordered government. He was a born organizer and executive; and he was fond of comparing efficient government to a machine smoothly running under the control of its engineer. Coming to New York an alien and alone, he had neither the strength nor the weakness of local ties and sentimental attachments. He was thus fitted to take "continental" views. Though he was not without patriotism, and though he found in the new world a field favorable to his ambition and invention, he would perhaps have been equally at home had his lot fallen in another age or country—in the England of Pitt or the France of Colbert. He perhaps cared less for the people of his adopted country than for his appointed task of providing them with an efficient government. "His sympathies," says a friendly biographer, "were always aristocratic, and he was born with a reverence for tradition." He thought accordingly that government should be in the right hands, and that its conduct should command an honor and respect akin to that due to right behavior in a private gentleman. Though inventive and no slave of the past, he was fond of appealing to history, and especially to experience. He was a realist, not a visionary or a romantic,—not, in his own words, among those "enthusiasts who expect to see the halcyon scenes of the poetic or fabulous age realized in America." His deficiencies appear only when he is compared with the greatest men; he lacked the serene wisdom of Washington, the sympathy and humanity of Lincoln, and these deficiencies affected his policy.
As the Revolution closed Hamilton saw clearly not only the national need and the remedy, as we have seen, but also the difficulties, which were great. "Peace made," he wrote in 1782 to his friend Laurens, "a new scene opens. The object then will be to make our independence a blessing. To do this we must secure our Union on solid foundations—a herculean task—and to effect which mountains of prejudice must be leveled." To Washington he wrote a year later: "The centrifugal is much stronger than the centripetal force in these States; the seeds of disunion much more numerous than those of union." For five more years he saw the country slipping deeper into anarchy, into bankruptcy in its finances and reputation. Entering Congress in 1782 he had experience with its disability; he urged measures for strengthening the government, but had to abandon them, he says, for "lack of support." In a Vindication of Congress (1783), he found the fault not in the personnel but in the system. "In these circumstances" he urged that all should unite "to direct the attention of the people to the true source of the public disorders—the want of an efficient general government."
At last came an opportunity for effective action. Sent in 1786 as delegate to the Annapolis Convention, he framed an address which was unanimously adopted, recommending that Commissioners be appointed by the States to meet at Philadelphia, to devise such "provisions as shall appear to them necessary to render the Constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union." He was presently chosen as delegate to the Convention of 1787.
The problem confronting this famous body was formidable,—to provide a government. It was natural to seek precedents; for men of English race—provided they were not experimentalists or visionaries—to seek them in the English constitution. This had on the whole secured both stability and freedom; and this had already served as model for the colonial governments. Evidently, however, it must be modified to suit their purposes. Having got rid of one king, most of them did not wish another. They must transform their monarchical model into a republic. They knew, indeed, that modern examples of republican government had not met with reassuring success; they could not know that their own experiment would eventually furnish the most notable one. All was project and experiment. The essential question, however, was how far they should go in modifying their English model by the introduction of republican and democratic principles. The whole problem was further complicated by the difficulty of adjusting the relations of the already existing state governments to the proposed central one.
Though for well-known reasons Hamilton's share in the convention was not large, it discloses very interesting developments in his theory. He at once placed his views before the convention in a speech, submitting at the same time a draft for a constitution, and from time to time he made other speeches. Closed doors permitted him to express himself with the greatest frankness. In a word, he favored, first, as near an approach as possible to the English model; secondly, as complete a subordination as possible of the states to the federal government. His speech, however, must be briefly examined.
The only solution, he believes, is "one General Government" with "complete sovereignty," for "two sovereignties cannot exist within the same limits." Two objections indeed arise: first, the expense of such an all-embracing government,—which, however, will not be too great if the burden of the state governments is largely removed; and, secondly, the size of the country; he despairs of extending republican government over so great a territory. He hesitates about proposing any other form, but in his private opinion he has "no scruple in declaring that the British government is the best in the world"; and he "doubts whether anything short of it will do for America." In the words of Necker: "It is the only government which unites public strength with individual security." In every community there will be a natural division into the few and the many. Each of these interests should have power, and they should be separated, one checking the other. The people should have their voice in an Assembly; but the voice of the people is not the voice of God; "the people are turbulent and changing. They seldom judge or determine right." Give, therefore, the few a distinct permanent share in government. The English House of Lords "is a most noble institution," a barrier against "pernicious innovation" attempted by either Crown or Commons. And so with the executive: you cannot have a good executive on the democratic plan; nothing short of the excellency of the British executive can be efficient. Accordingly he proposes an Assembly to be elected by the people for three years; a Senate and an Executive to be elected by electors chosen by the people, to hold office during life. Will this be a truly republican government? Yes, if all officers are chosen by the people, or by a process of election originating with the people. To give the general government full sovereignty the states must be, not extinguished indeed, but completely subordinated—reduced to "corporations for local purposes."
Hamilton then did not propose a monarchy or an oligarchy, though in his balanced constitution he gave great weight to the principles which those features in the English system represent. It should be especially noted, indeed, that he proposed an assembly chosen by universal manhood suffrage—an unheard-of innovation in that day when a property qualification was everywhere a requirement. In general, however, the provisions of his proposed constitution look toward unity, strength, stability, and conservatism.
It has been said by defenders of Hamilton against the charge of "monarchical principles" that he was here advocating a system beyond that in which he really believed, merely to counteract tendencies in an opposite direction. His record both before and after the Convention, indeed in the Convention itself, does not bear this out. He was perfectly frank and explicit. "He acknowledged himself not to think favorably of a republican government, but addressed his remarks to those who did think favorably of it, in order to prevail on them to tone their government as high as possible." He recalls the prevalent opinion that a republican form of government is dependent on the virtue of its citizens; and finds the prospect not reassuring. "The science of policy," he says, "is the knowledge of human nature.… Take mankind as they are, and what are they governed by? Their passions. There may in every government be a few choice spirits, who may act from more worthy motives.… Our prevailing passions are ambition and interest; and it will ever be the duty of a wise government to avail itself of the passions, in order to make them subservient to the public good." The English system, in its wisdom, recognizes and profits by the evil in human nature. Hume, he says, "pronounced that all the influence on the side of the crown which went under the name of corruption, was an essential part of the weight which maintained the equilibrium of the constitution."
In these speeches of 1787 Hamilton probably expressed more definitely and frankly than anywhere else his true policy of government. When, however, as he expected, the Convention adopted what seemed to him a weaker plan, he was too wise and too magnanimous to withhold his support. "No man's ideas," he said, "were more remote from the plan than his own were known to be; but is it possible to deliberate between anarchy and convulsion on the one side and the chance of good to be expected on the other?" He urged that all delegates should sign, and when the Constitution was submitted he became its most effective supporter.
The Federalist was so entirely conceived and planned, and so largely written by Hamilton, that it will always be thought of as his work. Of the compromise constitution now submitted, however, he must be regarded not as the author, but as the highly effective, if not quite wholehearted advocate. An expression in the first number is significant: "My motives must remain in the depository of my own breast. My arguments will be open to all.… They shall at least be offered in a spirit which will not disgrace the cause of truth." It is not hard in the Federalist to detect shiftings of position for the sake of more effective advocacy. Hamilton could now find, for instance, along with depravity, "other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence." There was thus some hope even for a republic. Though he had before and probably still believed in "complete sovereignty," he could now turn a defect into a virtue: "the vigilance and weight" of the states will serve as an effective check against federal usurpations.
Fortunately, however, he could on the whole support the Constitution with sincerity. If a compromise, it was a compromise in the right direction, and the country had gone a long way toward meeting his views. In 1776 the leaders were intent on "dissolving bands"; now on forming at least a "more perfect union." The Federalist, therefore, carries over indeed, but does not dwell upon the ideas of '76—natural rights, the social compact, the necessary-evil theory of government; its argument is little related to them. Much more conspicuous is the idea that "the citizens of America have too much discernment to be argued into anarchy.… Experience has wrought a deep and solemn conviction in the public mind that greater energy of government is essential to the welfare of the community." The problem indeed is the perennial one,—of combining "stability and energy in government with the inviolable attention due to liberty and to the republican form." Liberty will not suffer, however, under a government deriving ultimately from the people, and provided with a most effective system of checks and balances. Even a Bill of Rights is unnecessary. It is the other principle of strength that is in danger of being slighted. Hamilton has been forced to compromise on the Constitution, but he has by no means modified his views.
In brief, his argument rests ultimately on principles with which we are now familiar. He has no use for "the reveries of those political doctors whose sagacity disdains the admonitions of experimental instruction." Experience has abundantly shown that the selfishness of man inevitably brings dissension and aggression—between individuals, states, nations. Let us not think that human nature has improved—even in an American republic. Alike to avoid domestic strife and foreign attack, a firm government is necessary; and only a government having powers adequate to its ends will ensure national stability and permanence. "These powers ought to exist without limitation, because it is impossible to foresee or define the extent and variety of national exigencies, or the correspondent extent and variety of the means which may be necessary to satisfy them." It is the plain duty, then, of the American people to ratify and establish such an authoritative government, and to give it their support. Only by so doing can they secure true freedom, threatened alike by tyranny on the one hand and anarchy on the other. Thus would Hamilton reconcile two apparently opposed principles; true liberty comes only from submission to a just, self-constituted authority. Thus might becomes right, because might secures right. The antagonisms are reconciled in the more inclusive conception of political justice.
Though the Federalist papers are said to have been written hurriedly—"in the cabin of a Hudson River sloop; by the dim candle of a country inn"—they represent Hamilton at his best. Their style has become classical in the sense that it has served as a model for later writings on the Constitution and for opinions of the Supreme Court. In no sense a man of letters, Hamilton made his way in life largely through the use of his pen. His boyish description of a West Indian hurricane won him an education; his reply to the "Westchester Farmer" led to a military secretaryship under Washington. Writing in this capacity countless letters, he learned even under pressure to write well. His skill was widely recognized. His friend Laurens thought he held the pen of Junius; his opponents, Callender and Jefferson, considered him the Burke of America, the "Colossus" of the Federalist party. To natural gift he added industry. He was tireless in investigating his subject, in seeking its governing principles, in tracing these principles in their remotest applications; and he could support his conclusions with complete confidence. If in the letters of Publius or Camillus his elaboration is sometimes excessive, he always carries his reader along by his logic, lucidity, and force.
Though too busy to formulate a theory, he occasionally indicated his notions of style. "Our communications," he says in 1796, "should be calm, reasoning, and serious, showing steady resolution more than feeling, having force in the idea rather than in the expression." And again, "Energy without asperity seems best to comport with the dignity of a national language."
He is here speaking of public communications, in which he is ordinarily severe,—without humor, figure, or ornament. In private letters he could be graceful. Hawthorne notes of one of these: "It gives the impression of high breeding and courtesy, as little to be mistaken as if we could see the writer's manner and hear his cultivated accents … There is likewise a rare vigor of expression and pregnancy of meaning, such as only a man of habitual energy of thought could have conveyed into so commonplace a thing as an introductory letter."
Hamilton's style cannot be highly individual, else it would have given a clue to the authorship of the disputed letters in the Federalist. It approaches a common or standard style—formal but earnest and business-like—in which the statesmen of the period seem naturally to have expressed themselves. In the political writers of the Revolution and early Republic, who thought independently and maturely, and who felt too strongly to be insincere, America may be said to have come of age and to have made its first substantial contribution to literature. Among these Hamilton holds high rank.
In the writings already examined, particularly in those on the Constitution in 1787, we have Hamilton's political theory developed in virtual maturity and completeness; in the future it is only elaborated and applied. His work was now not to plan government but to execute it. Concerned here with his thought, we may therefore pass somewhat rapidly over the less formative, though more eventful, portion of his career. Appointed in 1789 Secretary of the Treasury, he found himself in a position of great influence. Having the support of Washington and of Congress, he became the directing mind in the new administration. For the first and only time he was in power, with practically a free hand to realize his notions of government. His business was to make the paper constitution work,—at the outset, and in the right way; in Madison's phrase, to administration it into efficiency; in his own words, to provide "additional buttresses to the Constitution, a fabric which can hardly be stationary, and which will retrograde if it cannot be made to advance." The task suited his love of power, his sense of public duty, his joy in difficulty to be overcome.
Wise politicians, he had noted in one of his earliest memoranda, ought to "march at the head of affairs," and "produce the event." How then produce the event? He had, if possible, to contrive measures which should be immediately and strikingly effective, and at the same time provide a basis for permanent development. The exigencies of the moment, however, were decisive. To restore the public credit was the first step toward buttressing the national government.
The measures Hamilton adopted, all directed to this one purpose, may be very briefly noted. In his Report on Public Credit (1790) he advocated full payment of public debts,—including those incurred by the States "as the sacred price of liberty." He would thus "cement the Union" by establishing the national credit, and by enlisting the support of all holders of public securities. In his Report on a National Bank (1790) he revived, in new form, the project of his Letter to Morris of 1781. He remembered how an English government, after a revolution, had chartered the Bank of England, in order to solve its financial difficulties, and at the same time to solidify the Whig mercantile interest in its support. By incorporating a similar syndicate he could accomplish the same purposes. He must of course draw upon the "implied powers"; he had long since seen that only thus was it possible to meet the needs of government. In his famous Report on Manufactures (1791) he proposed government aid to "infant industries," in order to assure in war a "national supply," to establish economic along with political independence, and in general to develop the national resources. Contemplating a wise central management of the whole American estate, he foresaw local swallowed up by national interests in a country self-contained and self-sufficient.
In urging government interference to this end Hamilton was pursuing an economic policy entirely parallel to his political one. In both one notes a kinship with seventeenth-century thought. The old theory of mercantilism, favoring national regulation of trade, had in European countries gradually given way to one more in accord with modern ideas. In the economy of a state, as in other sciences, human and physical, philosophers had traced laws—the laws of nature and of reason; of God also, for "neither men nor governments make them nor can make them. They recognize them as conforming to the supreme reason which governs the universe." The true political economy, then, was to trust to nature's laws and abandon all foolish human interference. This philosophic position was reenforced by the growing power of the mercantile classes, now ready to profit by freedom. Thus was developed, first in France by the physiocrats, then in England by Adam Smith, the doctrine of laissez faire. Though before writing his report Hamilton had carefully read the Wealth of Nations, he was as little inclined, either by temperament or by his realistic view of American conditions, to adopt this abstract doctrine of economics as he was any of its congeners in politics. Here again he would trust not to a providential operation of the "laws of nature," but to the well-considered policy of a paternal government.
Especially in connection with these measures, all financial in character, there is danger of a misleading "economic interpretation of history,"—of finding their key in an economic purpose. A recent writer [V. L. Parrington, in The Colonial Mind, 1927] makes Hamilton the protagonist in a great struggle between capitalism and agrarianism, coolly devising a system favoring the privileged classes to which he belonged at the expense of the common people whom he despised. Mixed and human as his motives may have been, this view does not on the whole accord with his expressions, with his habit of thought, with the habit of thought of his time. He had indeed a keen sense of property rights; he might even have subscribed to Locke's dictum that "government has no other end but the preservation of property." His measures were on their face economic, and had large economic consequences in which he was by no means uninterested. Could he have foreseen the tremendous economic development of which he was laying the foundations he would doubtless have gloried in it. As far as the two can be separated, however, his ends both seemed to him, and actually were, political. He knew nothing of the modern science of economics, with its forces determining political events. Like other statesmen of his time he had read and thought upon political economy,—that is, on the business side of a political state. His interest was in business only as furthering the interests of the state.
A typical example may be found in the much discussed assumption of the state debts. For this there was little economic motive, the national government having quite debts enough of its own without assuming others. The true motive was political: "If all the public creditors receive their dues from one source … their interest will be the same. And having the same interests, they will unite in the support of the fiscal arrangements of the government." Furthermore, this measure would replace state by national tax-gatherers, and bring his government to every door. The final argument for every measure is the old one: "It will be a powerful cement for our Union."
To hold him responsible for building up Northern capitalism would be like holding his democratic states' rights opponents guilty of building up the slavery capitalism of the South. The true issue was not between capitalistic and agrarian interests, not even between aristocratic and democratic control, though both these conflicts were involved in the problem. The issue for Hamilton was where the older critics placed it: between ordered government and the disintegrating forces unloosed by the Revolution. He would increase national authority by drawing on every available source of interest or good will. He favored capitalism as a centralizing, opposed agrarianism as a decentralizing influence. It was blindness to ignore classes. One might temporarily suffer; another, employed as an instrument, might be temporarily advantaged. In the long run, he believed, his policy would benefit both, and the wise statesman considers the permanent welfare of the whole. Individuals, classes, interests, states, must be duly organized, according to their character and weight, into an ordered government.
Familiar now with Hamilton's principles, we shall have no difficulty with his foreign policy, directed to the same ends. The new American sovereignty, the first outside Europe, must be not merely recognized, but established and adjusted in its international relations. His ultimate purpose had been stated in the Federalist. "Let the thirteen States, bound together in a strict and indissoluble Union, concur in erecting one great American system, superior to the control of all transatlantic force or influence, and able to dictate the terms of the connection between the old and the new world." The key, at the outset, lay in non-interference and neutrality: "peace and trade with all nations, … political connection with none." Any other policy would be expensive, interfere with the development of the Constitution, and make the United States a football in the European struggle for empire. The new nation, still weak, must indeed proceed cautiously, for "America, if she attains to greatness, must creep to it." Its policy, however, must be entirely realistic. It must of course observe international obligation; but within the bounds of honesty and justice, it must be directed neither by friendship nor enmity, but solely by national interest.
The outbreak of European war in 1793 turned Hamilton's attention, with that of the country, sharply to international affairs. Peace and independence were threatened by both England and France. Hamilton, however, had only to apply, amid great difficulties and so far as conditions would permit, his established principles. American welfare should be the only guide. Gratitude to France and resentment against England, though natural fruits of the Revolution, are alike childish in foreign policy. "I would mete the same measure to both of them, though it should even furnish the extraordinary spectacle of a nation at war with two nations at war with each other." And again, with the significant word underlined: "We are laboring hard to establish in this country principles more and more national, and free from all foreign ingredients, so that we may be neither 'Greeks nor Trojans,' but truly Americans."
The proclamation of neutrality of April, 1793, probably the most important action of Washington's administration in foreign affairs, had Hamilton's entire support. It will hardly do to give him credit for thus establishing the Monroe principle, which, going beyond neutrality, undertook to exclude the "system" of the Holy Alliance from every "portion of this hemisphere"; this point Hamilton was never called upon to decide. His whole policy, however, was permanently embodied in Washington's Farewell Address, which he had a large share in preparing; here, it might be said, he joined Washington in warning the country against weakening the Union, against factional divisions, and against foreign entanglements.
After his resignation from the Treasury in 1795, as has been frequently noted, there was a lowering of Hamilton's behavior. He gave up to party, even to intrigue, what was meant for mankind. There is a corresponding loosening of his principles,—at least misapplication or exaggeration of them. The hidden forces of democracy, now marching against him, like Birnam Wood on Dunsinane; the poison of French revolutionary doctrines, covering the earth like a miasma,—these were enemies beyond the weapons which even Hamilton carried. One notes a change of tone. Already as he addresses the "pretended republicans" of the Whiskey Rebellion, in 1794, his firmness seems verging on a truculence which suggests alarm: "It is our intention," he says, "to begin by securing obedience to our authority, from those who have been bold enough to set it at defiance." These "pretended republicans" were only too closely related to those of France. From the beginning Hamilton had looked with suspicion on the French Revolution,—on its "mere speculatists" and "philosophic politicians." As it ran its course his feeling grew to foreboding, horror, detestation. In 1793 he thought the revolutionists butchers, atheists, and fanatics. In 1798, with the "despots of France" waging war against us, he was moved to solemn warning and adjuration: "Reverence to the Supreme Governor of the Universe enjoins us not to bow the knee to the modern Titans who erect their impious crests against him and vainly imagine they can subvert his eternal throne."
Now forsaking his previous policy of neutrality, he urged on a war with France which events soon proved avoidable. The motives of this change should be weighed carefully by the student of his statesmanship. He hoped to defend American shores against the enemies of liberty, religion, and ordered government. He probably hoped at last to discipline the people, concentrate the federal power, and discomfit its democratic enemies. It is even said that, forming ambitious plans of conquest, he hoped to lead an army into Louisiana and Mexico, and after acquiring by arms what was later got by purchase, to "return laurel-crowned, at the head of his victorious legion, to become the first citizen of America." He is thus represented as approaching in grandiose ambition, though not perhaps in perfidy, that final antagonist whom he so often styled the Cesar or the Catiline of the Republic. That this view can be held, with or without conclusive evidence, by competent historians is significant.
In this connection we may note Hamilton's only memorable references to education and religion—in two letters to Bayard of Delaware. In the first, anxious to find a president for Columbia College, he states the requirements: "That he be a gentleman in his manners, as well as a sound and polite scholar," and so forth,—and lastly, "that his politics be of the right sort." In the second he proposes, as a cure for what he somewhere calls "Godwinism," the founding of a "Christian Constitutional Society … its objects to be: 1st. The support of the Christian Religion; 2d. The support of the Constitution of the United States." These letters, which both turn shortly to politics, show, among other things, the narrowness of his effective thought and its exclusively political character.
In a letter written near the end of his career Hamilton struck an unusual note of despondency. "Mine," he says, "is an odd destiny. Perhaps no man in the United 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 laboring to prop the frail and worthless fabric.… Every day proves to me more and more that this American world was not made for me.… The time may ere long arrive," he adds, "when the minds of men will be prepared to make an effort to recover the Constitution, but … we must wait a while."
Hamilton was clearly undervaluing his own labors. If he seemed to fail, it was because he had gone too fast and had neglected elements of the problem which to the country seemed essential. In the further development of the Constitution it was necessary to go back and pick up principles which were the result of hard-won victories in the pre-constitutional period—local and individual rights, democratic participation in government—principles which he had passed over but which must now be incorporated with his work. He lacked sympathy and experience with the people, and underestimated their power. His character was, so to speak, completed in that of Lincoln, who, with equal devotion to the Union, had the humane understanding to give it a broader base. This lack perhaps led Woodrow Wilson to say that he was a great statesman, not a great American. The verdict is a harsh one, considering his great services to America—services too well known to be recounted here. The essential idea animating and quickening his political activity throughout was that of a strong, united, and permanent American nation. "In a time when American nationality meant nothing, he alone grasped the great conception in all its fulness, and gave all he had of will and intellect to make its realization possible."
Hamilton's ideal conception of government was never realized, but it has perhaps made some contribution to the general theory of politics. By a recent writer it has been identified with that of Hobbes—the "leviathan state." With this indeed it has something in common—in its outlook, even in its principles. Hamilton believed in an undivided and indefeasible sovereignty, and in the subject's duty of disciplined obedience. He believed it the duty of the sovereign jealously to protect its own sovereignty, and to provide for the subject's welfare by well considered and strictly enforced laws. He believed in a wise and benevolent paternal government. Not, however, in an absolute one. Taking over the conception of the strong state as he found it in Hobbes and elsewhere, he modified it to suit his own purposes, by adapting it to American conditions, by attempting to make it at once strong and responsible. He clearly added to it a new element in combining it with universal manhood suffrage. He took care to introduce also other principles of representation and carefully devised safeguards on the popular will. Thus he sought to make his state not only powerful and permanent, but balanced and responsible—indeed the more permanent because balanced and responsible. He attempted to reconcile apparently conflicting, but, as he thought, essential principles by turning the leviathan state into a republic. Though not in its fulness realized, his conception has influenced the political thought not only of America but of Europe.…
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SOURCE: "Jeffersonian Democracy," in Freedom and Organization: 1814-1914, George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1934, pp. 259-73.
[A respected and prolific author, Russell was an English philosopher and mathematician known for his support of humanistic concerns. In the following excerpt, Russell compares the political philosophies of Jefferson and Hamilton, noting that the success of the Jeffersonian Republicans ironically led to the advent of Hamiltonian economic policies in the United States.]
In the first Congress elected under the new Constitution, the business of using democratic machinery to make the rich richer was brilliantly inaugurated. During the War of Independence, the Government of the United States and the Governments of the several States had borrowed money, and had often given promises to pay to soldiers in place of cash. These debts had sunk to a small part of their nominal value, as there was great doubt whether they would ever be redeemed. Congress decided to redeem them at par. No pains were taken to prevent interested persons from obtaining knowledge in advance of this intention, with the consequence that rich speculators bought up the debts, very cheaply, from retired veterans in country places, who had not yet heard what was going on in Congress. There was an orgy of corruption, in which shrewd business men, most of whom had taken no part in the war, profited at the expense of old soldiers and other simple folk. There was much indignation, but it was powerless to influence the course of events.
The prime mover in these transactions was the Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, one of the ablest and most important men in history. There is no evidence that he was personally corrupt, indeed he left office a poor man. But he deliberately promoted corruption, which he considered desirable as giving due influence to the rich. What others defended only from self-interest, he defended disinterestedly; for instance, he advocated the growth of manufactures, partly because he thought child labour a good thing. "Women and children," he says, "are rendered more useful, and the latter more early useful, by manufacturing establishments, than they would otherwise be. Of the number of persons employed in the cotton manufactories of Great Britain, it is computed that four-sevenths, nearly, are women and children; of whom the greatest proportion are children, many of them of a tender age." He disliked democracy, and admired England. Throughout his career, he aimed at making America resemble England. He hoped that plutocracy would develop into aristocracy, and he rightly regarded corruption as the best method for causing plutocracy to prevail over democracy.…
He became the leader of the Federalists, and accomplished a great deal in the way of a wide interpretation of the powers of the Federal Government. He used the tariff to encourage manufactures. He consolidated financial, commercial, and industrial capital, and so built up a party which controlled America, except to some extent in foreign policy, from 1789 till Jefferson's accession to the Presidency in 1801.From 1790 and 1794, both Hamilton and Jefferson were members of Washington's Cabinet. At first, on his return from France, Jefferson failed to apprehend the drift of Hamilton's policy, and helped him to secure the assumption of the States debts at par by the Federal Government—an action which he subsequently regretted. Before long, a bitter hostility developed between Jefferson and Hamilton, and they became the respective leaders of two violently hostile parties. No two men could have been more antithetical. Jefferson stood for democracy and agriculture, Hamilton for aristocracy and urban wealth. Jefferson, who had always been rich and prominent, believed men to be naturally virtuous; Hamilton, who had had to struggle against poverty and the irregularity of his birth, believed men to be fundamentally corrupt and only to be coerced into useful behaviour by governmental pressure. Jefferson, secure on his estates and among his cultivated friends, believed in the common man; Hamilton, who knew the common man, sought out the society of the socially prominent. Jefferson, whose multifarious interests made him happy and unambitious, was of a forgiving disposition and high-minded in all his political campaigns; Hamilton, whose vanity needed the re-assurance of success, was venomous as an enemy and unscrupulous in controversy. Both in a measure succeeded, and both in a measure failed: Jefferson made America the home of democracy, Hamilton made it the home of the millionaire.
In politics, the victory went to Jefferson; in economics, to Hamilton. Hamilton's party went to pieces, largely because he lost his head, but it could not have controlled the government much longer than it did, however ably it had been led. The expansion of America westward increased the number of voters who believed in Jeffersonian democracy; so did the foreign immigration, particularly of the Irish, since Hamilton and his party were pro-English. Later developments, by increasing the area devoted to agriculture, only increased the hold of democracy on American politics. Politically, Hamilton's attempt was a forlorn hope.
From an economic point of view, the history of his policies has been very different. For various reasons, at first more or less accidental, American manufactures enjoyed a gradually increasing measure of protection; as the tariff was frequently an issue in elections, employers and employed in industry had the same economic interests. Consequently, in spite of some sporadic movements in the '30's, there was little proletarian politics, and industrial regions tended to be solidly conservative. Corruption, deliberately introduced into the body politic by Hamilton, found increasing opportunities in the development of the West, first in connection with the allotment of new lands, and then in the financing of railways. The West, while it struggled against the power of Eastern capital, was invariably defeated, partly by corruption, partly by its inability to formulate a programme. The Western farmer's own convictions, like the Constitution of his country, forbade disrespect for the rights of property, and these very rights secured his subjection to the banks. The rich in America grew richer than any men had ever been before, and acquired a degree of power far exceeding that of the monarchs of former times.
Agricultural democracy of the Jeffersonian type can succeed in a country like Denmark, which offers little opportunity for large-scale capitalistic developments. But in a vast region such as the United States, where the agriculturist is in essential dependence upon the railway, an agrarian liberalism cannot hope to succeed. To master the great forces of modern capitalism is not possible by means of an amiable go-as-you-please individualism. By fastening this now inadequate philosophy upon American progressives, Jefferson unintentionally made the victory of Hamiltonian economics more complete than it need have been.
The philosophies of which these two men were the protagonists dominated American life until the year 1933.
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SOURCE: "Alexander Hamilton's Place in the Founding of the Nation," in American Themes: Selected Essays and Addresses of John Allen Krout, edited by Clifford Lord and Henry F. Graff, Columbia University Press, 1963, pp. 19-32.
[In the following essay, originally a paper delivered before a meeting of the American Philosophical Society in 1957, Krout stresses Hamilton's importance as a pioneer American economist and advocate of centralized government.]
Every successful nation-builder of modern times—Colbert in the seventeenth century, the elder Pitt in the eighteenth, Cavour and Bismarck in the nineteenth—understood the relation of economic strength to political power, and the links between each of these and national security. Alexander Hamilton was no exception. If he seems, at times, to tower above the others in that company of talented men who brought into being the United States of America, it is because he stated more precisely and more forcefully than most of his fellows the principles which would enable his generation to use economic policy as an instrument to achieve both national unification and national power. He was not concerned primarily with the development of a consistent theory or the formulation of an ideal system. His thinking about national power was strongly conditioned by two facts: first, that the young Republic was an almost insignificant weakling in the power politics of western Europe, and second, that despite the influence of the American Revolution and the immediate impact of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, the theories and practices of mercantilism still dominated the thought and action of those who wielded political power.
It is useless to speculate on the course which Hamilton might have taken, had conditions been different; but there is fascination in reading his eloquent exposition of the international advantages of free trade which appears in the opening paragraphs of his Report on Manufactures, submitted to the Congress in 1791. Here is no mercantilist brief, no slavish copying of British practices. It is a convincing demonstration of one of Hamilton's greatest sources of strength as a political realist—his courageous facing of the facts, however intricate, whenever he chose a plan of action.
Action, not theory, was the central theme of his entire career. There was little of the cloistered study about him. From his early years on St. Croix in the British West Indies to the hour he left Washington's Cabinet, he found himself trying to resolve increasingly complicated problems rather than to formulate logical theories. Even in little King's College, where the academic pace was much too leisurely for him, he became involved in public affairs. To be sure, he worked hard on the classics and moral philosophy; he read rapidly in Plutarch's Lives, Bacon's Essays and Hobbes's Dialogues, but nothing could keep him out of the momentous debate between colonies and mother country. His pen was soon active in the war of pamphlets, and so effective was his argument that he had established a reputation as one of the abler writers of his generation before the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord.
For Hamilton the war years, in spite of his close association with Washington, were cruelly disappointing. His craving for military fame was never satisfied; yet his military service inspired, or at least did not seem to impede, his logical thinking about the problems that caught his imagination. His brilliant reports on army organization and administration, as well as his penetrating analysis of the business of raising money to fight a war, still make exciting reading. Notable as these contributions to our military annals were, they seem inconsequential compared to the essay, in the form of a letter addressed to Robert Morris, which he put into the post on the very day in 1781 that he resigned as Washington's aide.
This message to Morris, newly established in his position as Superintendent of Finances, looms larger the longer one contemplates it. Here Hamilton, just past his twenty-fourth birthday (or his twenty-sixth, if one accepts the most recent calculations of historical scholars), boldly stated the principles essential for the building of a strong nation. Some of his associates had heard his thesis in fragmentary form on other occasions; but he had never indicated so explicitly how he would use political power, if it ever came to him. His plan was much too bold for Morris, who was naturally cautious, in spite of his financial speculations, and at the moment uncertain of his own ability to lead. The Financier could not know that his young correspondent had actually provided him with a workable blueprint for the next decade—and for generations thereafter.
But nothing that Hamilton wrote in later years reveals any more clearly the shape of a nation in the making. Out of his awareness of local prejudices, provincial rivalries, and the clamor for state sovereignty came his insistence that the Republic, to which he was emotionally devoted, must begin to "think continentally." Out of his contempt for the vague and the visionary, he fashioned a plan that was difficult but possible, bold but not dangerous, furthering the self-interest of men of property but cleverly contrived to use that self-interest for the public good. He did not fall into the error of so many in his generation, who persisted in confusing the economy of the private household with the principles of public finance.
What the nation needed most, Hamilton argued, was a currency adequate to its business needs and financial credit sound enough to command international confidence. Both could be provided by a national bank under public auspices, but attractive to private capital. Such an institution would
create a mass of credit that will supply the defect of moneyed capital, and answer all the purposes of cash; a plan which will offer adventurers immediate advantages, analogous to those they receive by employing their money in trade, and eventually greater advantages; a plan which will give them the greatest security the nature of the case will admit for what they lend; and which will not only advance their own and secure the independence of their country, but, in its progress, have the most beneficial influence upon its future commerce, and be a source of national wealth and strength.
Hamilton admitted that the "national wealth and strength" would be dependent upon the willingness of the government to borrow against its future and to pledge complete repayment of all its debts. He quickly tried to quiet the opposition of those who feared such a burden by characterizing a national debt as "a national blessing." "It will be a powerful cement of our union. It will also create a necessity for keeping up taxation to a degree, which, without being oppressive, will be a spur to industry." Probably no part of Hamilton's plan came closer to the English model, which he so greatly admired, and certainly no other feature was so violently attacked.
The financial proposals in the 1781 memorandum were less startling than the frank revelation of his political nationalism. On this theme his words were never to be "sicklied o'er" with moderation. The weaknesses of the Continental Congress, the lack of a strong central government, could not be corrected by the Articles of Confederation, which had just been ratified. A century and three-quarters after the event, one cannot read his words without being convinced of the genuineness of his alarm. "Disastrous dissolution" would be the fate of the Republic at its very beginning unless Congress was given "complete sovereignty in all but the mere municipal law of each state." "I wish to see a convention of all the States, with full power to alter and amend, finally and irrevocably, the present futile and senseless Confederation." It is no exaggeration to regard this as the "first call" for the Constitutional Convention which finally met in May, 1787.
Almost forty years ago Henry Jones Ford insisted that the events of 1787 constituted for the young New Yorker his "wonderful year." And so it was. This was the time when Hamilton began to build on the blueprint of 1781. He had help in construction, but there is a large measure of truth in the assertion of some historians that we owe to Hamilton more than to any other person the fact that we have a federal constitution and that we are a union rather than a league of jealous and warring states. His was the determination, the fixed objective, the steady hand. Much has been made of his relatively minor role in the Philadelphia Convention, his dislike of both the New Jersey and the Virginia plans and his own futile proposal of a plan of government as close to the "English model as circumstances and the temper of the people would permit." "I have no scruple," he declared, "that the British government is the best in the world and I doubt much whether anything short of it will do in America."
Such a sentiment went against the silence with which the Convention treated his proposals, and his speedy departure for New York, seems to mark his complete failure at Philadelphia. But this is a superficial view. It was Hamilton, neither Washington nor Madison nor Jay nor Franklin, who had made the Constitutional Convention possible. He had moved from the feeble conference of Virginia and Maryland commissioners at Mount Vernon in 1785 to the unsuccessful convention a year later at Annapolis, attended by representatives of only five states. But with Madison's help he used failure at Annapolis as the sounding board against which to issue the call for a meeting in 1787 that was successful. Hamilton's departure from Philadelphia was not the act of a leader too stubborn to compromise, who sulks at the first rebuff. So it has been portrayed by some of his biographers; but they are mistaken. He used the weeks from June 30 until September 2, when he returned to Philadelphia, in trying to overcome hostility to the whole idea underlying the Convention and in preparing men's minds for whatever compromise the delegates might finally approve.
His persuasive efforts involved no speeches, no appearances before mass meetings, no appeals to the crowd. Hamilton's medium was the written word. As a political essayist, he was unsurpassed. His articles appeared in the press, his encouraging letters went to Washington and Rufus King in the Convention, to Jeremiah Wadsworth, David Humphreys, and other friends in New England, advising them how to answer the Convention's foes. It was a period of preparation for the defense of the Constitution that was to come. Indeed, some of the letters of this period may have been as influential as some of the essays that comprise The Federalist.
Anyone who reads widely in the incomparable Federalist essays, in which Madison and Jay joined Hamilton, will quickly realize what Thomas Jefferson meant when he said "in some parts it is discoverable that the author means only to say what may be best said in defense of opinions in which he did not concur." He could not have come closer to the mark, if he had known that he was really aiming at Hamilton, for the young New Yorker never tried to conceal his disagreement with many of the provisions of the Constitution—though he gladly signed it. It was the measure of his statesmanship—that he put his own opinions aside, overcame his personal prejudices, and accepted the document as the only safeguard against "disunion and anarchy." Having made that decision, he never wavered in his public support of the work of the Convention. He wrote the major portion of the Federalist essays, which Jefferson praised as "the best commentary on the principles of government which ever was written"; and no American voice has ever dissented from that appraisal.
Hamilton's contemporaries, as well as his biographers, have been in substantial agreement that his own effort was the deciding factor in persuading New York to ratify the proposed Constitution at the Poughkeepsie Convention in 1788. When the document became fundamental law the following year, his most important work was actually finished. He had made his great gift to his fellow countrymen. He had shown them how their slender resources might be marshaled effectively to provide the national defense and domestic tranquility which they so sorely needed. His whole fiscal and financial program, as Secretary of the Treasury, had been explicitly stated years before he entered Washington's cabinet. However remarkable the famous Reports of 1790 and 1791, they rest securely on political foundation stones which Hamilton had set a decade earlier: first, the business and propertied classes generally must be tied by bonds of self-interest to the national government; and second, public policy should be directed toward the encouragement of economic diversification—including manufacturing and commerce as well as agriculture—capable of creating an integrated national economy and a firm political union.
The translation of his policies into law was a major triumph for the Secretary of the Treasury, but it was less important for the young Republic than the imaginative formulation of the principles out of which the policies grew. Indeed, the years during which Congress accepted the financial program known as the "Hamiltonian System" were marred by the blunders of the man who had written the legislation. Hamilton was not content to serve merely as a Chancellor of the Exchequer. He never overcame his desire to be regarded as the Prime Minister. He gave Washington advice, even when the President had not requested it, on foreign policy, legal affairs, military problems, and matters of protocol. In the process he established precedents which are still followed, but he also alienated associates in the government whose support would have been invaluable.
Perhaps Hamilton's greatest weakness in the half dozen years of the apparent triumph of his fiscal and economic policies was his failure to understand how rapidly the political opinions of his fellow countrymen were changing. Between the inauguration of George Washington and the election of Thomas Jefferson in 1800 a process of education in democracy had been going forward steadily. Wherever Hamilton encountered this process, he was inclined either to oppose or to ignore it. He refused to see that the Jeffersonian doctrine of "the cherishment of the people" encouraged the greatest possible diffusion of political power among a progressively educated body of citizens. Instead, he regarded the Republicans, who carefully nurtured the Jeffersonian doctrine, as a group of fractional insurgents, too quick in their imitation of the French Jacobis. But the Republicans had sensed the temper of this generation. To their standard rather than to the symbols of the Federalist party, the new voters were drawn. As a result, Hamilton and his associates were able only to design and construct the new edifice of government; men motivated by a broader concept of their civic responsibility moved in and took over the completed structure.
They did not dare, however, to destroy Hamilton's design. Indeed, they modified but slightly the precedents which he had set. Federalist institutions, even Federalist policies, survived, surprisingly intact. The Bank and the public funds remained undisturbed. The military and naval establishments, though reduced in size, were not abolished. The hated excise tax was repealed and other internal revenue duties were modified; but the Republicans in Congress initiated no general assault on the powers of the central government, which Hamilton had done so much to create.
Many Americans today are inclined to regard the first Secretary of the Treasury as merely an adroit politician, brilliant and versatile, but no greater in his influence on later generations that the short-lived Federalist party to which he belonged. A partisan leader he was, and a determined one. Yet no strategy of his in the political arena, not even his triumph in persuading the First Congress to accept his fiscal plans, can compare with the persistent force of his economic ideas. His critics, as well as his friends, recognized that during his years of service in Washington's cabinet he seemed to do the thinking for the administration.
The leaven of Hamilton's thought in time brought action even within the ranks of the Jeffersonian Republicans. By 1815 the leaders of the faction, dubbed the "War Hawks," had accepted a nationalistic program highly imitative of the "Hamiltonian System." Though they had won no decisive victory over the British during the War of 1812, they had captured President Madison and persuaded him to accept their program. It was, therefore, James Madison, once Thomas Jefferson's chief lieutenant, who wrote the proposals of the economic nationalists into his presidential message of December, 1815. Josiah Quincy, Massachusetts Federalist, listening to that message, sarcastically remarked that the Republican party had "out-Federalized Federalism"; for Madison asked the Congress to approve (1) a liberal provision for national defense, (2) governmental aid for the construction of roads and canals, (3) encouragement to manufacturers by means of a protective tariff, and (4) the re-establishment of a National Bank. Though the words were Madison's, many in both House and Senate must have been thinking of Alexander Hamilton.
The response of the Congress was quick and enthusiastic. A committee of the House, headed by John C. Calhoun, reported a bill to establish a Bank of the United States, not unlike the First Bank which had ceased to exist with the expiration of its Charter in 1811. A few of the "Old Republicans," like John Taylor of Virginia, protested against this "surrender to the money power," but most of their Republican colleagues accepted the Bank as a necessary extension of the powers of the national government. Henry Clay, with a characteristically dramatic flourish, rose to confess that he had spoken vigorously against the recharter of the old Bank in 1811, but that he was now sacrificing consistency for the welfare of his country. The sense of high drama must have been heightened for those among his hearers who realized that his eloquent speech closely followed Hamilton's arguments in 1791, when he wrote for Washington a defense of the constitutionality of the first Bank bill.
Nor was Henry Clay the only leader in his generation who turned to the writings of Hamilton for inspiration, even for the effective phrasing of ideas. John Marshall, then brilliantly engaged in reenforcing the spirit of nationalism, presided over a Supreme Court that handed down a series of opinions calculated to strengthen the federal government and to give judicial sanction to the doctrine of the implied powers to be derived from the Constitution. Few decisions have had greater influence on the course of constitutional government in this country than Marshall's opinion in the case of McCulloch vs. Maryland in 1819. His vigorous argument, upholding the power of Congress to charter a bank, was actually a rephrasing, in somewhat more legalistic terms, of Hamilton's classic exposition of the doctrine of implied powers.
Though sectional rivalries and partisan politics thwarted the plans of these economic nationalists early in the nineteenth century, their followers in a later generation carried similar views into the Republican party. Young Abraham Lincoln in Illinois, a devoted supporter of Henry Clay and the American System, was but one of many whose imagination was quickened by the spirit of nationalism that pervades every public paper written by Alexander Hamilton. Consider, for example, Lincoln's first political speech. The report of it may be apocryphal; yet the tone is so characteristic of him that it almost compels acceptance. In announcing his candidacy for the Illinois state legislature early in 1832, he said:
I presume you all know who I am. I am humble Abraham Lincoln. I have been solicited by many friends to become a candidate for the Legislature. My politics are short, and sweet, like the old woman's dance. I am in favor of a national bank. I am in favor of the internal improvement system, and a high protective tariff. These are my sentiments and political principles. If elected, I shall be thankful; if not, it will be all the same.
Though the personal mood is alien to Hamilton, the political program is his.
Surely it is not merely the eye of fancy that sees in the Congressional legislation of the Civil War years some of the greatest triumphs of the Hamiltonian philosophy. His ideas were but slightly modified by those who championed such laws as the protective tariffs of 1862 and 1864, the granting of federal lands to the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads, the establishment of a national banking system in 1863, and the passage of a contract labor law to stimulate European immigration. Every one of these measures received the approval of the Illinois "railsplitter" in the White House, who had dedicated his life to the preservation of the Union which Hamilton had done so much to build.
It is wise for us to remember that Hamilton, like every worthy statesman, spoke and wrote in context. His United States of America was a young and relatively insignificant republic in the great family of nations. His task was to give it energetic leadership in the uncertain years of its infancy. His loyalty transcended every parochialism and embraced the nation. His quest was for national strength, and he used skillfully whatever resources promised to be most effective. Among the founders of this nation none argued more eloquently than he for that combination of private enterprise and governmental policies which has made industrial America what it is today. And none succeeded so well in translating theory into action.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5070
SOURCE: "Jefferson, Hamilton, and the Constitution," in Theory and Practice in American Politics, edited by William H. Nelson with Francis L. Loewenham, The University of Chicago Press, 1964, pp. 13-23.
[Malone wrote the definitive biography of Jefferson: the six-volume Jefferson and His Time (1948-1981). In the following essay, he explicates the respective roles of Jefferson and Hamilton in shaping the interpretation of Constitutional law and the role of government.]
Jefferson and Hamilton had much to do with interpreting the Constitution, but little or nothing to do with its framing. Had Jefferson been available, he could hardly have failed to be a delegate from his state to the convention which met in Philadelphia in 1787, but he was then minister of the United States at the court of France; he did not return to his own country, in fact, until after the Constitution had been ratified and put into operation with George Washington as President. Hamilton was a delegate to the Convention from the state of New York, but, since they voted in the Convention by states and he was regularly outvoted by the other New York delegates, he soon withdrew, realizing that he was virtually without influence on the deliberations. From what he said, however, and from what he wrote out for incorporation in the record, we know that he favored a national government so strongly centralized, so consolidated, that it would have had no chance of adoption by the states of the Union if it had been submitted to them. He would have reduced these states to administrative provinces, the governors of which were appointed by the President, who would himself hold office for life; and he would have reduced popular control to a very low point, for he had no confidence in the wisdom of the people. No doubt he would have accepted something less, as of course he had to do, but these views could not command much favor. Since the deliberations of the Convention were secret, they did not need to be made public, which was fortunate for him.
One person who certainly knew about them and, in fact, knew more about these proceedings than anybody else was James Madison, the man who best deserves to be called the father of the Constitution.… Not only was he there all the time; he also kept careful notes on the proceedings. These were not published in his own lifetime, but it is safe to say that no man of his generation knew as much about what actually went on in the closed meetings in Philadelphia and about what the framers had in mind. His intimate knowledge was fully available to Jefferson after that gentleman returned from France, for these two had no secrets from each other. It is my own guess, however, that Jefferson did not take time to study the written notes carefully, and that he got his impressions chiefly from what Madison told him personally. This must have included some reference to the extreme views which Hamilton had expressed with respect to national consolidation.
Hamilton settled for considerably less in the ratification fight and performed magnificent service in that fight. Madison's service in it was comparable, and these two men co-operated in writing the Federalist papers, a work which excited Jefferson's enthusiasm and which has been universally recognized as a classic interpretation of the American governmental system under the Constitution. Since the original purpose of this series of essays was to win votes for ratification, however, and it was written in great haste, both men said some things they afterward regretted. For this reason no doubt both of them were glad that the authorship of the individual essays was not revealed. Since we now know just who wrote what, we can perceive that the constitutional philosophies of the two men were not identical, but it is as indisputable that they stood shoulder to shoulder in this fight as that they afterward diverged.
The explanation of this later divergence most favored by Hamilton's partisans was that it was owing to the sinister influence on Madison of Jefferson, after he came back from France full of wild revolutionary ideas. One difficulty about that fanciful theory is that Madison began to diverge from Hamilton before Jefferson got back on the national scene. Furthermore, in constitutional matters at this stage and perhaps at most times, it is nearer the truth to say that Madison told Jefferson than that Jefferson told Madison. Finally, it may be seriously doubted whether Jefferson brought back from France any important ideas that he did not already have when he went there. A more plausible explanation, it seems to me, is that Madison concluded that Hamilton in office as Secretary of the Treasury was seeking a greater degree of consolidation than he had argued for in the ratification fight, that he was in fact moving toward the sort of government that, as his expressions in the Philadelphia convention showed, he really wanted. This is to oversimplify the matter, however. Economic considerations were involved, and political opinion in Virginia surely was. That is, this was not merely a matter of constitutional theory. Further explanation must be sought in the actualities of the political situation.
Let us now return to Jefferson, who had been relegated to the role of distant observer while he was in France. If the Constitution as framed was a less powerful instrument than Hamilton wanted, it was a more powerful one than Jefferson had expected or thought necessary, and at first glance he feared that it might be made into an instrument of oppression. Unlike Hamilton and Madison, he had seen despotism at first hand in Europe and had recoiled against it. One of his specific objections—of which there were really only two—was to the perpetual re-eligibility of the President, which seemed to leave the way open to the eventual establishment of a monarchy. He had a phobia about kings which now appears to have been unwarranted so far as his own country was concerned, but we must remember that he lived in a world in which kings were the rule and republics the very rare exception. He was determined that in America the clock should not be turned backward, that there should be no resort to the British example, no return to the political system from which the young American republic had so painfully emerged. In that context his talk about kings and monocrats in this period of history does not sound so unrealistic. He continued to be disturbed, throughout this period, by what he described as monocratic tendencies, but his immediate fear that there might be an American king was quieted by the reflection that George Washington would be the first president. Jefferson, who viewed the national hero with a respect bordering on reverence, never thought he would permit himself to be made king. (In passing we may remind ourselves that Washington started the two-term tradition, and that Jefferson confirmed it.)
The second specific objection was not, as some might suppose, that the Constitution went too far in curtailing the powers of the states. He was surprised that the states had yielded so much but was fully aware that their powers had been far too great, and as an official he had had abundant reason to recognize the imperative need of bolstering up the general government. No, his immediate fears were not of what might happen to states; they were of what might happen to individuals. This is a crucial point, I think. A good reason for not putting tags on people is that it is generally impossible to find a perfect fit, but if I had to designate this complicated man of diverse genius by a single term I would call him an individualist. We must remember also that, although in his own commonwealth of Virginia he had observed and been part of a mild government, he had seen nowhere a government which in a positive way could be truly called beneficent. There was nothing remotely suggesting the welfare state, which renders direct services and benefits to its individual citizens. He had insufficient reason to think of government as a positive good. He did not say that government is a necessary evil and I do not believe that his approach to it was as negative as has often been alleged, but unquestionably he believed that all sorts of governments tended to be repressive and that rulers tended to become tyrannical.
In other words, individuals needed to be protected against their rulers, against any rulers. Specifically, the American Constitution needed a bill of rights and he was shocked that it did not have one. His correspondence with Madison on that subject is most interesting and illuminating. It made an impress on Madison, who was himself a staunch friend of human rights but had been giving most of his thought lately to the creation of an effective federal government. It was Madison who introduced the Bill of Rights in the form of amendments to the Constitution in the first Congress. Indeed, the promise of some action of the sort was a virtual condition under which his state and other states ratified the Constitution, and we have always regarded the Bill of Rights as a part of the original document, thought it was not actually quite that. (Incidentally, it should be noted that Madison was particularly aware of the criticisms of the Constitution in the ratification fight, and of the explanations and assurances that were then given by its advocates. These bore chiefly on the limitation of centralized authority, and he took them so seriously that perhaps it may be said that he was now prepared to settle for less central power than he had advocated in the Federal Convention.)
Since Jefferson's major objections to the Constitution were met, he accepted it. He would never have assumed the secretaryship of state if he had not. The partisan charge of later years that he was against the Constitution meant nothing more than that in his interpretation of that document he did not agree with Hamilton. He was no anti-federalist in the original meaning of the term, whatever his political enemies might say.
The two men did not disagree on all points, of course, and we must recognize the danger of exaggerating their differences and ignoring the very large area of agreement. They approached constitutional questions from opposite angles, however, and the gap between them widened in the actualities of successive political situations. Had situations been different it is certainly conceivable that the gap would never have become so wide. I regard it as exceedingly unfortunate that it became such a chasm. I am disposed to explain it on the ground of what appears to be virtually a law of history, namely, that excess tends to promote excess, that extremes on one side lead to extremes on the other. To be more specific, I do not believe that Jefferson would have gone as far as he did in interpreting the Constitution in this era if Hamilton had not pressed things so far and so hard, and in the duel with Jefferson which ensued, I regard Hamilton as the aggressor, even though he himself claimed just the opposite.
Some degree of conflict was probably inevitable, however, in view of their antithetical philosophies and incompatible personalities. The temptation to dwell on their personalities must be resisted, for this conflict went much deeper than that. But in this connection Hamilton's personality is of particular importance, because the reaction against his policies and the constitutional interpretation with which he supported them cannot be dissociated from the personal reaction against him. He had constructive talents of the first order and in the realm of government and finance may truly be described as creative. But he was an exceedingly aggressive man, inordinately ambitious, and undeniably arrogant. He was a hard man to like unless one agreed with him completely, and it was easy to believe that he was doing everything possible to increase his own power. He provoked resistance. That he wanted power for himself cannot be doubted, but he also wanted it for the nation. Indeed, that is the best way to describe his central purpose.
Hamilton's patriotism cannot be questioned, but one can ask what he wanted a powerful nation for. He himself gave one of the best answers in something he said later in this decade, at a time when he and his partisans would have liked to enter the international arena on the side of Great Britain and against France. He wrote Rufus King, then our minister in London: "I anticipate with you that this country will, ere long, assume an attitude correspondent with its great destinies—majestic, efficient and operative of great things. A noble career lies before it" Hamilton to Rufus King, Oct. 2, 1798 [Works of Alexander Hamilton, ed. H. C. Lodge, 1904]. He wanted it to play a great and active role in the world, and it is easy to see why Theodore Roosevelt admired him. In the perspective of history it seems that Hamilton's major service was in laying foundations of national power for the future, and for this we should be grateful, since we have had to enter the world arena. In his own time he seized every opportunity to extend the authority of the general government; indeed, he created opportunities. He wanted as much as possible to be done at the center; regarding the state governments as a good deal of a nuisance, he had no concern for state rights; and he was indifferent to, even contemptuous of, the ordinary individual.
His attitude toward ordinary individuals would not commend him to our democratic age, but in certain respects he was a notably prophetic figure. Indeed, he was far ahead of his time. The United States was not ready to play a great role in the world until the era of Theodore Roosevelt, and prior to our own century its major task was to open up its own land and develop its own resources. That sort of thing could not be well directed from the center. Jefferson correctly perceived that at this stage it was of the utmost importance to have local vitality, or, if you will, vitality at the grass roots; and he believed that men will do and dare most if they breathe the air of freedom. It can be argued, therefore, that after Hamilton's great financial measures, which served not only to make the nation solvent but also to widen the authority of the national government, centralization had gone far enough. He envisioned a more spacious governmental edifice than these times required. That was the way Jefferson and Madison felt about it anyway, and if they could not stop him one way they would try another.
They did not do too well when they sought to check him on constitutional grounds in the most important theoretical conflict (outside the field of foreign affairs) in Washington's administration, the one over the first Bank of the United States. In this, Hamilton had much the better of the argument. Here is an excellent example of the impingement of political considerations on constitutional interpretation. Madison and Jefferson opposed the creation of this bank for a good many reasons, including their own ignorance of banking. Their own state had benefited relatively little from Hamilton's financial system, of which he regarded the bank as the crown, and they saw this as another instance of federal encroachment. Madison opposed it in the House on its merits, but he was not at his best in the field of banking, and he fell back on the Constitution. He could find nothing in the Constitution which, in his opinion, empowered Congress to grant a charter to a corporation. The bill was passed nonetheless, but Washington hesitated to sign it, since he rightly had a very high opinion of Madison as an interpreter of the Constitution. He passed it on to the Attorney General, who agreed with Madison, and then to Jefferson. It is from the latter's argument that we generally date the doctrine of strict construction. We might date it from Madison's speech, which contained essentially the same arguments, though they sound stricter in Jefferson's paper.
The doctrine of strict construction is much easier to understand than the one with which Hamilton opposed it. It is simply that a document means just what it says—no more, no less. According to the Constitution the general, or federal, government possesses only specifically enumerated powers, all the others belonging to the states. In none of these enumerated powers is there any reference to granting charters of incorporation. Accordingly one must have recourse to the general expressions—the necessary and proper clause, for example. This Jefferson construed with complete rigidity, as meaning in effect "absolutely necessary." At this point I begin to be somewhat repelled by his argument; it is too rigid; he is imposing too severe a test. And I wonder if he would have taken so stiff and unyielding a position if he had not had so many grounds for wanting to stop Hamilton. As for the general welfare clause, his discussion of that, while somewhat pedantic, makes a lot of sense. If that clause were construed too liberally, Congress could do anything it liked, and there would be no need to have in the Constitution a list of the things it could do. Like Parliament, the legislature would be omnipotent.
The forbidding rigidity he displayed in this argument is not at all like Jefferson when he was discussing science or religion, and does not sound like the man who had said that constitutions should be revised every twenty years or so. But he would stand for no trifling with law while it was still on the books, least of all with a constitution; he regarded basic law as a shield or fence for the protection of human beings against wrong; he distrusted rulers who might interpret law in their own way for their own purposes; and by now he deeply distrusted Hamilton. So he prepared a paper which, though narrow, was utterly logical and which upon its face looked unanswerable.
Hamilton's answer to it is, in my opinion, the greatest paper he ever drew. He had to prove that the Constitution meant more than it explicitly said, that no government could be effective if rigidly confined within a narrow framework, that latitude must be permitted in the interpretation of basic law. He did this by starting with the premise that the federal government has sovereign power within the field allotted to it, and by concluding that in the exercise of this it may reasonably employ any means not specifically prohibited. There is more to his argument than this, but the important thing to remember is that the dominant trend of constitutional interpretation in our country was here anticipated. And whatever else this meant, it surely meant that our constitutional system would not be static but would be allowed to grow and might become dynamic. The essence of the matter Hamilton himself stated in a passage which ought to be quoted more often than it is: "The moment the literal meaning is departed from, there is a chance of error and abuse. And yet an adherence to the letter of its powers would at once arrest the motions of government." If Jefferson's observations of government and of his colleague had not rendered him so distrustful, he might have fitted these words into his own philosophy of progress, for certainly he did not believe in a static society. There is more sweet reasonableness in Hamilton's words, however, than those who differed with him in policy had detected in his public conduct; and they may be pardoned for believing that he was interpreting and would continue to interpret the Constitution to suit himself. They did not give up the fight, and it is well they did not, for he was a man who had to be kept in bounds. He was always likely to overreach himself.
This conflict had been waged behind the scenes, not in public; and there is no reason to suppose that Hamilton's opinion was shown to Jefferson and Madison. They undoubtedly knew his general line, but they did not see his full argument and had no occasion to rebut it. They did not abandon strict construction, though I do not believe that they again used it in a form which was quite this rigid. It was a natural, almost inevitable line for them to take afterward as leaders of the opposition to a government which was exercising powers which they thought unwarranted and regarded as dangerous to human liberty. This was after Washington had relinquished the first office but when Hamilton was more powerful than ever. It was the time of the Alien and Sedition Acts.
(Some extremely interesting constitutional questions, relating to the powers of the House of Representatives with respect to treaties, came up in the long fight over Jay's treaty. Jefferson was then in retirement and Republican policy was determined by Madison, Gallatin, and others in Congress. The episode is an unusually good illustration of the effect of party policy on constitutional positions. Jefferson expressed himself freely on the subject in private, showing himself a complete Republican in this matter and taking a different position from the one he probably would have as Secretary of State. Since this subject is relatively technical, however, I shall not enter into it here.)
The situation created by the notorious Alien and Sedition Acts was far more dangerous to Jefferson's dearest interests than the one in which Hamilton successfully defended the Bank of the United States. That proved to be an excellent institution even though it did relatively little for the agricultural districts. These measures were adopted at a time of hysterical patriotism and fantastic fear of subversive foreign influences (especially French) the like of which our country has rarely seen, though our own generation can perceive a certain similarity to it in the madness we had to live through shortly after World War II, when some excited people saw subversives behind every bush. There was no single public figure in this earlier period of hysteria who can be properly compared to the late Senator Joseph McCarthy, who played a unique role as an inciter of suspicion and hatred, but on the whole I believe that the situation then was considerably worse. There was a concerted campaign, in the name of patriotism, against every form of criticism of the federal government, and against the very existence of political opposition. In short, freedom of opinion and speech was at stake, and the party of which Jefferson was the undisputed leader was threatened with destruction. By silencing its newspapers the party in power sought to deprive it of a voice. This was the policy of the extreme section of the party commonly described as High Federalists. Their acknowledged leader was not John Adams but Hamilton, who was not in office but whose influence was at its height. If I seem to ignore him in discussing this particular matter you may safely assumed that Jefferson and Madison were battling against him, more than against any other man, and that he opposed them on all points.
All I have space for here is the response to this challenge which Jefferson and Madison made in the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. These were conceived in no vacuum, and the direction they took, though not necessarily the details, was determined by the actualities of the situation. The three branches of the general government—executive, legislative, and judicial—were united with respect to these detested laws. Hence Jefferson turned to the states because he had nothing else to turn to. He had said very little about the rights of states before he became fearful of Hamiltonian consolidation. Now, under the pressure of circumstances he found intolerable, he took the most extreme position of his entire life with respect to state rights.
The direct part he played in these events was not made public until long years afterward, by which time he had returned to a more moderate position and his own administration as President had been assailed on grounds of state rights by his political opponents. Not until after his retirement was it known that he drafted the Kentucky Resolutions. But they and their companion Virginia Resolutions, which Madison drew, became part of the public record. In later years these documents were often cited by upholders of the state-rights tradition—a tradition which our Southern forefathers naturally clung to as they passed into the minority, but in the name of which they took actions which proved disastrous. Many of these forefathers of ours misinterpreted Jefferson's position. Never again did he emphasize the theory of state rights as he did here, and not even here were these the prime consideration. What he did was to invoke state rights in defense of human rights, as a means and not an end. And it is as a champion of human rights that he should be best remembered.
This question has so many ramifications that I cannot possibly do justice to it in brief compass. For the purposes of the present discussion, I should remind you that the Alien and Sedition Acts have received virtually unanimous condemnation at the bar of history. Therefore, Jefferson was abundantly warranted in inducing the states of Kentucky and Virginia to protest against them. He sought to support his position, as the Republicans had already done in Congress, by arguing that these acts were unconstitutional. Without entering into these arguments I simply make the point that in a dangerous political situation he and his party resorted to the Constitution for defense. Naturally, they followed the line of strict construction and, against what they regarded as an unwarranted assumption of power by the federal government, they talked of the reserved rights of states. In the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, Jefferson went to the dangerous extreme of asserting the right of a single state to declare unconstitutional an act of Congress which it judged to be in violation of the original compact, and in his draft he said that the nullification of such a law within a state's own borders was proper procedure. This proposal the Kentuckians left out of their first set of resolutions but they used it the next year in a second set which Jefferson did not write.
The South Carolinians resurrected the word "nullification" a generation later in a wholly different situation. They were then opposing a tariff which was obviously disadvantageous to them, but their protest, unlike Jefferson's, was not in the name of the universal human right to freedom. Madison in his resolutions did not claim the right of nullification by a single state. In the final document of this series, his magnificent Report of 1800, he refined away the original excesses and put the Republican party on defensible ground. Without implying that I now agree with everything he said, I can safely say that there is real validity in the doctrine of state rights as presented in this report. With all this Jefferson went along, showing increased moderation as dangers lessened. But the highest wave at the peak of the storm left its mark on the shore.
This episode provides a striking illustration of the intimate connection between constitutional interpretation and political situations. Indeed, we would do well to think of these historic resolutions primarily as political documents. We should certainly remember that Jefferson never attempted to put into practice the extreme theory he advanced at a time when he almost despaired of human liberty and the survival of his party. This was a theoretical matter altogether. It is far more important to remember what he fought against and what he fought for than a particular weapon which he never regarded as anything but a threat and which in fact he afterward discarded.
In dealing briefly with so complicated a subject as this, it is easy to create a confused impression. I hope that one impression at least is clear: namely, that people ought to know more about history. We have no right to expect highly detailed and special knowledge of many people, but surely we can ask that anybody who draws on ancient documents or doctrines to support a position he himself is taking should inform himself of the major circumstances which caused that document or doctrine to come into being. The only thing that can be safely quoted out of context is something that bears upon itself the mark of timelessness and universality. Constitutional interpretations do not do that, even when they are reiterated often enough to become doctrines, even when they harden into dogma. They cannot be divorced from circumstances. It is fortunate that this is so, for no constitution which cannot be adjusted to changing conditions can be expected to survive. One of the major reasons for the long survival and recognized success of our Constitution is that it has proved flexible. Judges have to consider all that has gone before, and they should anticipate as best they can what the future effects of their judgment may be, but, after all, they are addressing themselves to particular cases in specific situations.
In constitutional matters, as in theological, I regard the absolutist spirit as unfortunate. It is presumptuous to think that God is on one side or the other in a constitutional debate. The truth need not lie precisely in the middle, but in major controversies there are generally important conflicting interests which must somehow be reconciled. One of the major tasks of government is to reconcile them. To me it is regrettable that the two eminent men we have been talking about diverged so far, and I dislike the excesses of both, though I do not say that I dislike them equally. I can forgive Jefferson more because I tend to value freedom more than power, to be more fearful of power than of liberty. But if we now had as feeble a national government as he advocated a century and a half ago, our liberties would surely perish. So I must recognize that somehow we must reconcile ourselves to Hamilton. Indeed, I suppose that we have been reconciling the conflicting philosophies of these two men from their day to this as we have found ourselves in a succession of particular situations.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8198
SOURCE: "Strategies of Candor in The Federalist," in Early American Literature, Vol. XIV, No. 1, Spring 1979, pp. 91-109.
[In the following excerpt, Furtwangler provides a close analysis of language and rhetorical strategy in The Federalist.]
In the course of the eighteenth century an important shift occurred in the usage of the word "candor," so that it came to mean what it does today: forthrightness, frankness, direct honesty. Corresponding with this shift was a perceptible turn in the way readers and authors regarded one another or looked at the writings that stood between them. When a writer early in the century asked his readers to be candid in accepting his productions, he relied on a kind of polite deference that was to disappear in the course of succeeding decades. Yet as late as 1788, we can find the authors of the Federalist papers appealing to this earlier mood of candor. In fact, Hamilton, Jay, and Madison went out of their way to make this mood a persistent theme of their work, referring to it at the beginning and end of the entire series and frequently recalling it in the midst of their most rigorous political reasonings. Why should they have done this and exactly how did they manage this appeal? The answers to this question provide us with a valuable way into the flavor of their constitutional arguments and into the structure not only of disparate papers but of the Federalist as a whole.
The history of "candor" and its meanings is briefly summarized in the Oxford English Dictionary. Five definitions of the word are listed there, but the first two need not detain us long. Both are obsolete and are valuable chiefly as root meanings from which later usages have developed. The first, "brilliant whiteness; brilliancy" was last recorded in 1692; the second, "stainlessness of character; purity, integrity, innocence," faded out around 1704.
The third definition, now marked obsolete or archaic in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, more directly affects later developments: "freedom from mental bias, openness of mind; fairness, impartiality, justice." It is first recorded in a poem of Ben Jonson's dated 1637, and this usage is common throughout the eighteenth century. The remaining meanings trace a shift of attitudes toward such disinterestedness or freedom from bias.
The older attitude is given in the fourth definition: "freedom from malice, favourable disposition, kindliness," or in Dr. Johnson's words, "sweetness of temper, kindness." (Later editions of Johnson's dictionary defined "candid" as "free from malice; not desirous to find faults.") Two examples from the great lexicographer's writings precisely catch this meaning: "He shews himself sincere, but without candour" (1751) and "That bigotry which sets candour higher than truth" (1765). This is an old-fashioned, deferential sort of candor to be sure. The word fits in conveniently with eighteenth-century optimism and doctrines of benevolence, and with the good manners they have begotten. This usage arises around 1653 and passes away, or is last recorded, in 1802.
The fifth, modem, and only surviving definition turns from such good feeling and indulgence to a balder sort of disinterestedness, and even to an energetic challenge against presumed doubtfulness or secrecy: "freedom from reserve in one's statements; openness, frankness, ingenuousness, outspokenness." The first example is dated 1769 and comes from the Letters of Junius: "This writer, with all his boasted candour, has not told us the real cause of the evils."
Thus does the usage of a single word suggest a subtle change in the mental outlook of an age. And looking up from the dictionary for a moment, one may recall that that is just what this word does in that mid-century masterpiece, Voltaire's Candide. The protagonist of that little work is nothing if not free from malice, sweet of temper, and favorably disposed to all that he encounters. As the opening words explain, he is a perfect example of the trusting candor of the fourth definition: "un jeune garcon a qui la nature avait donne les moeurs les plus douces. Sa physionomie annoncait son ame. II avait le jugement assez droit, avec l'esprit le plus simple; c'est, je crois, pour cette raison qu'on le nommait Candide." Yet the more modern candor of the author shows him up at every turn imaginable, revealing the limitations of such persistent and groundless optimism, and trying to penetrate to a deeper truth. In the end, both the character's name and the title of the book stand for a wisdom born of bitter experience rather than the easy hope of an innocent.
Looking further abroad into the writings of this period, we should also notice that an author's understanding of candor could condition the way he presented himself before the public. As long as old-fashioned candor could be trusted, he might appeal to a reader's good will and try out new experiments and propositions without personal risk. If the readers "bring not candor to the reading of this Discourse," says Walton in the earliest example of this usage, they shall "injure me … by too many criticisms." And, by implication, if the readers do bring candor, then they and the writer can build on a platform of mutual generosity. It would not be correct to say that the peculiar prose form of the eighteenth century, the anonymous or pseudonymous periodical essay, arose on this basis alone, but it was certainly nourished by a mood of candor. In the early and influential Spectator, for example, Addison was at pains to try out experiments in criticism and sustained argument from paper to paper. And at the outset of his most ambitious projects he adverted to this mood quite specifically. When he introduced a series of eighteen papers on Paradise Lost, he asked his readers to respond freely but gently. "If you have made any better Remarks of your own, communicate them with Candour; if not, make use of these I present you with." Later, he apologized for seeming picayune in criticizing Milton, recalling that "Ancient Criticks … who were acted by a Spirit of Candour, rather than that of Cavilling, invented certain figures of Speech, on purpose to palliate little Errors of this nature." Finally, when he reviewed his critical efforts and tried to sum them up in his papers on pleasures of the imagination, he appealed for polite indulgence: "As an Undertaking of this nature is entirely new, I question not but it will be receiv'd with Candour." A spirit of generous courtesy thus informed Addison's ideal relation with his readers, especially when he threatened to become censorious himself or embark on a risky venture. And his continuing importance as a moralist and essayist may well have promoted a century-long remembrance of this kindly decorum in public discourse.
Yet, in adopting Addison's essay form and perhaps by borrowing something of his prose style, the Federalist did not necessarily have to be kindly, generous, and sweet tempered. It could just as easily have been harsh, biting, mean, blunt, or aggressive—with good precedents from other more polemical essays of the age. Most writers on the proposed Constitution, to be sure, simply took up the standard device of persuasive anonymity and applied it to the urgent necessities of their situation. Furthermore, an appeal to the good name of candor became a well-worn debating maneuver in 1787. Richard Henry Lee, for example, opened his Letters of a Federal Farmer by promising to study the issues "so far as I am able, with candor and fairness; and leave you to decide upon the propriety of my opinions, the weight of my reasons, and how far my conclusions are well drawn." Governor George Clinton, in the first of his Cato letters, urged his readers to "deliberate … on this new national government with coolness; analyze it with criticism; and reflect on it with candor." And again: "Beware of those who wish to influence your passions …—personal invectives can never persuade, but they always fix prejudices, which candor might have removed." In other words, two senses of candor seem to have been widely used on this occasion. Anyone drawn into analyzing the new Constitution would want to seem disinterested. And a shrewd debater would also want to persuade readers that they were acting candidly—from pure and generous motives—in siding with him.
The Federalist, however, penetrated through these tactics to focus on a candor that went beyond disinterest or enlightened self-interest, a generous candor that became almost an end in itself. Its opening paper makes this attitude the central issue of a proper approach to the Constitution.
In a long central paragraph, Hamilton uses the word for the first time—not merely to warn readers away from the wild zeal of adversaries, but to generously admit that truth and motives for zeal can make strange combinations.
I am well aware that it would be disingenuous to resolve indiscriminately the opposition of any set of men (merely because their situations might subject them to suspicion) into interested or ambitious views. Candor will oblige us to admit that even such men may be actuated by upright intentions; and it cannot be doubted that much of the opposition which has made its appearance, or may hereafter make its appearance, will spring from sources, blameless at least, if not respectable—the honest errors of minds led astray by preconceived jealousies and fears. So numerous indeed and so powerful are the causes which serve to give a false bias to the judgment, that we, upon many occasions, see wise and good men on the wrong as well as on the right side of questions of the first magnitude to society. This circumstance, if duly attended to, would furnish a lesson in moderation to those who are ever so much persuaded of their being in the right in any controversy. And a further reason for caution, in this respect, might be drawn from the reflection that we are not always sure that those who advocate the truth are influenced by purer principles than their antagonists.
Of course, Hamilton moves on promptly to suppose that truth and safety are most likely to be found among partisans of strong government; to frankly acknowledge that these papers "proceed from a source not unfriendly to the new Constitution"; and thus to set adversaries of the new plan under a shadow. But this fair-minded wavering at the outset is ample and generous, and it leads to a promise which Publius was scrupulous to observe: "My arguments will be open to all, and may be judged of by all. They shall at least be offered in a spirit which will not disgrace the cause of truth."
The reasons for this generous opening may lie partly in the immediate circumstances of the Federalist's publication. In New York, the Constitution had been attacked in September in Clinton's Cato letters. Two virulent papers of counterattack, by "Caesar," soon followed. Whether or not these latter papers were by Hamilton, they set a precedent of intemperate squabbling from which the Federalist authors needed to distance themselves. But they also had better reasons for sustaining a more tolerant spirit—reasons that lay in the way this series was organized, the nature of its own argument, and the larger political situation it addressed. Each of these factors deserves some extended attention.
First of all, the Federalist aimed to meet every criticism that was likely to arise against the Constitution. This is stated quite specifically near the end of the first paper. "In the progress of this discussion I shall endeavor to give a satisfactory answer to all the objections which shall have made their appearance, that may seem to have any claim to your attention." The point is stressed again at the opening of No. 15. "If the road over which you will still have to pass should in some places appear to you tedious or irksome, you will recollect … that the difficulties of the journey have been unnecessarily increased by the mazes with which sophistry has beset the way. It will be my aim to remove the obstacles from your progress in as compendious a manner as it can be done, without sacrificing utility to despatch." This design of meeting and answering objections shows up in the structure of paper after paper, especially in the later stages of this work.
The consequences of such a plan are subtle and far-reaching. By setting out to meet objections, Publius immediately cast himself as a defender rather than an attacker in this debate—as a spokesman for positive action rather than captious criticism. He also committed himself to develop an extensive argument. The Federalist is longer than other contemporary essays on ratification; it does take in a "compendious" survey of Constitutional problems. Its purpose, moreover, was not only to survey these problems but to conclude discussion about them, "to give a satisfactory answer" that might silence the noise of a misleading opposition. In this way Publius could display a massive weight of authority. Hamilton and Madison had been leaders in the call for the Philadelphia convention, and the latter had been the most assiduous delegate there, recording and mastering the details of the long summer's debates. Now in the public forum of the periodical press of New York, these men had the chance to enlarge and settle the strength of their positions as constitutionalists. In appropriating the name "federalist" for their cause they tacitly absorbed the legitimacy of those who would preserve the old confederation, and so left their opponents in the position of useful antagonists, purveyors of objections to be met and fully answered. For all these reasons, they were well prepared to write amply and generously on the Constitution. In a word, they were better prepared than anyone else to write with full-bodied candor.
Some leading ideas in the Federalist also required a tone of assured good will. For example, the authors were prompt to develop the notion that the Philadelphia convention itself had been specially blessed by concord, respect, civility, and sober deliberation.
This convention, composed of men who possessed the confidence of the people, and many of whom had become highly distinguished by their patriotism, virtue, and wisdom, in times which tried the minds and hearts of men, undertook the arduous task. In the mild season of peace, with minds unoccupied by other subjects, they passed many months in cool, uninterrupted, and daily consultation; and finally, without having been awed by power, or influenced by any passions except love for their country, they presented and recommended to the people the plan produced by their joint and very unanimous councils.
These words, taken alone, might seem a parody of filiopietistic historical writing. In fact they come directly from Jay's Federalist No. 2, and a steady chain of reasoning in favor of "that sedate and candid consideration which the magnitude and importance of the subject demand, and which it certainly ought to receive." Madison dwelt further on how important it was to catch the fleeting occasion for a stable constitution. In No. 49 he insists that constitutional questions are too ticklish to be brought often before the public.
We are to recollect that all the existing [state] constitutions were formed in the midst of a danger which repressed the passions most unfriendly to order and concord; of an enthusiastic confidence of the people in their patriotic leaders, which stifled the ordinary diversity of opinions on great national questions; of a universal ardor for new and opposite forms, produced by a universal resentment and indignation against the ancient government; and whilst no spirit of party connected with the changes to be made, or the abuses to be reformed, could mingle its leaven in the operation. The future situations in which we must expect to be usually placed, do not present any equivalent security.…
Again, in discussing the compromise of popular representation in the House and state representation in the Senate, he ascribes it to "a spirit of amity, and that mutual deference and concession which the peculiarity of our political situation rendered indispensible" (No. 62).
A very sophisticated treatment of why men can so seldom agree on basic issues appears in Madison's celebrated paper on faction, No. 10. There he argues that "the latent causes of faction are … sown in the nature of man." The reason of man is fallible and subject to the pressures of passion and self-love. Men join together most naturally over partial or factional issues, which are "adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community." For this reason, society is constantly divided into fragments or short-sighted interest groups, and the chief task of modem legislation is to regulate these interfering interests, and direct their energies to the common good. Englightened statesmen, even if such rare talents happen to be in power, cannot overcome this situation by themselves. They must be aided and sustained by the structure of a constitutional republic. Only be entrusting power to delegates, and by drawing governmental officers from a large geographical territory, can a people hope to control the effects of faction. By this means, no faction can grow large or strong enough to impose its will on the nation. Thus, concludes Madison, "we behold a republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government." Pressed to its logical conclusion, however, this line of argument leads to an enormous new problem. For if disinterestedness is so rare among men in politics—if indeed its opposite, factional interest, provides the energy necessary to animate popular government—how can a wisely designed constitution arise and come to control the endless, chaotic struggles for power among local demagogues and partisan alliances?
This problem preyed on Madison's mind as he continued to reason his way through these papers. Looking to antiquity in No. 38, he saw that in every government which ruled by consent of the governed, the task of framing a constitution fell to a single wise, just statesman. The task was too delicate, the difficulties too large, to risk dissension among collaborators. And in the end even Solon and Lycurgus resorted to compromise and stratagem to complete their undertakings. There was no other way to bring their own disinterested wisdom within the grasp of ordinary men. Viewed in this light, the Philadelphia convention was a prodigy in history. Only a candid eye could see properly into its disinterested work and, further, into the hopeful balance of compromises it had reached. Ideal readers of the Federalist, Madison insisted, "will proceed to an examination of the plan submitted by the convention, not only without a disposition to find or to magnify faults; but will see the propriety of reflecting, that a faultless plan was not to be expected. Nor will they barely make allowances for the errors which may be chargeable on the fallibility to which the convention, as a body of men, were liable; but will keep in mind, that they themselves also are but men, and ought not to assume an infallibility in rejudging the fallible opinion of others" (No. 37). Later in the same paper, he plainly expresses the problem the convention faced in overcoming the impediments of faction. A variety of factional interests, "for reasons sufficiently explained in a former paper, may have a salutary influence on the administration of the government when formed, yet everyone must be sensible of the contrary influence, which must have been experienced in the task of forming it."
The real wonder is that so many difficulties should have been surmounted, and surmounted with a unanimity almost as unprecedented as it must have been unexpected. It is impossible for any man of candor to reflect on this circumstance without partaking of the astonishment. It is impossible for the man of pious reflection not to perceive in it a finger of that Almighty hand which has been so frequently and signally extended to our relief in the critical stages of the revolution.
If candor thus led to astonishment and even awe at the work of the convention, the same spirit might accomplish yet more in the moment at hand. A paper constitution had been completed at Philadelphia, but it was still to be established as the basis of American life. Ratification remained uncertain as the Federalist was being written, and beyond lay the difficulties of turning words into deeds, clauses into precedents, the consent of a majority into sustained acceptance by a nation. "'T is time only," wrote Hamilton, "that can mature and perfect so compound a system, can liquidate the meaning of all the parts, and can adjust them to each other in a harmonious and consistent WHOLE" (NO. 82). In such a delicate political situation, it was essential to develop a national spirit of good will. The Constitution obviously had to survive the worst attacks generated in the struggle over ratification, but to carry authority it also had to rise above them. The Federalist, in turn, had to be more than trenchant, and its authors had to see further than the winning of a few grudged ballots or narrow majorities. They had to dispel doubt, elicit assent, and promote a lasting sense of confidence in the new framework of government.
Pressure toward candor must have become even firmer when they considered that their cause might well succeed. Then not only would the Constitution come into force, but the collected Federalist would become its earliest full commentary. It might see prolonged service in the establishment of early administrations. Its arguments could be repeated to settle nice questions of interpretation. Its tone could be scrutinized again as actual crises revived doubts about the propriety of some provisions. If it should somehow become known that Hamilton and Madison were the authors behind Publius, further questions might arise about interpretations from their hands. Such major provisions as the accommodations between large states and small, and the distinctions between national and state powers, could take on a different color, especially if tell-tale personal remarks could be found in these papers. The only way out of such a perplexity was to produce arguments that would wear well no matter who had written them, to survey and anticipate all major criticisms that might arise, and to approach the worst that adversaries might offer in a mood of clear-sighted conciliation.
Thus candor developed as a mood directed outward from Publius toward his readers and even toward his opponents. But Publius stood as an ethical model, too, for the conduct and attitudes readers should adopt in return. He worked to elicit feelings of candor not only toward himself, or the Federalist papers, but toward the work of the convention, the new Constitution, and the embryo nation that would grow from its ratification.
Let us now consider the actual strategies used to foster this mood and look first at the general arrangement of arguments in the Federalist and then at devices peculiar to certain arguments or sets of papers. The first paper provides a general outline of topics, which Publius carefully recalled as he marked his progress from stage to stage. We can use it to construct a table of topical divisions:
- The utility of the Union to. political prosperity (Nos. 2-14);
- The insufficiency of the present Confederation to preserve that Union (Nos. 15-22);
- The necessity of a government at least equally energetic with the one proposed, to the attainment of this object (Nos. 23-36);
- The conformity of the proposed Constitution to the true principles of republican government (Nos. 37-84);
- Its analogy to your own State constitution (No. 85);
- The additional security which its adoption will afford to the preservation of that species of government, to liberty, and to property (No. 85).
The uneven division of space here, however, makes clear that this scheme was worn out well before the end. In fact, any such topical outline obscures the rhetorical stress points in these papers. The greatest number consist of replies to attacks made against particular points in the Constitution. But the consistent use of this approach comes late, from No. 39 to the end. Earlier papers prepare the way for it by focusing on the need for union among the American states and on the weaknesses of the old Confederation. The rhythm of argument thus falls into three segments—favoring union (Nos. 2-14); analyzing needs beyond Confederation (Nos. 15-36); and defending the structure of the Constitution (Nos. 37-85). It also falls into two large movements: positive remarks on the necessities and resources of American government, and defense of the Constitution at just those points where attack was heaviest or confusion was most likely. It is worth noticing that both these major movements are prefaced by explicit appeals to candor. The first follows Hamilton's opening paper and Jay's paean to the providential powers that so far had fostered a spirit of confidence in American union. The second begins with Madison's Nos. 37 and 38, which No. 39 describes as "observations … meant to introduce a candid survey of the plan reported by the convention."
The opening strategy of the Federalist, then, is to stress positive advantages of union. The states should further the harmony that already subsists under Confederation, to avoid dangers of strife from without and within. A series of three papers by Jay (Nos. 3-5) describes how disunion could draw foreign powers into local broils and lead to continuous warfare. Hamilton continues by discussing grounds of irritation that by themselves could lead to sectional disputes. Madison's No. 10 describes the positive advantages of size for a republican government. And Hamilton then observes several economic advantages in union. Madison closes this section by repeating how suitable an extensive union is to particular American conditions. His peroration in No. 14 then urges his readers to shut their ears to the "unnatural voice" that would counsel a separation, to heed rather the blood ties of family and mutual sacrifice, and to perpetuate the progress toward stable government that has been made since the revolution.
The substance of this argument now seems specious, since union among the states was already accomplished and its loss was not a necessary consequence of rejecting the Constitution. Hamilton introduces the subject rather warily at the end of No. 1, and neither he nor the other writers proves here that disunion was really imminent. As an opening maneuver, however, this line of argument gives Publius two clear advantages. First, he can press for a more perfect union—with a stronger central government—very forcefully by detailing the palpable advantages of present union. Second, he can make common cause from the first with almost any patriot; he appeals to a point already "deeply engraved on the hearts of the people in every State." Actually the logic of this argument depends on what was to follow. If Confederation was no longer workable and if the Constitution were rejected, then separation into new confederacies might have been a possibility. But consider the consequences of stating the argument in this more "logical" form: confederation is outworn; union is necessary; the Constitution is therefore an alternative to chaos. This is to begin with an attack on things-as-they-are, to run against the grain of adversaries and patriots alike, to set oneself up for heavy counterattack. Instead, Publius not only escapes rejoinder here, he puts his adversaries in the weaker position. He stands for union, for strengthening common advantages, for the steady progression of stable government. Cutting two ways at once, Madison in No. 14 accuses others of standing for novelty—"the most alarming of all novelties … that of rending us in pieces"—while he moves with the manly spirit of American innovation, from revolution to Constitution.
At the next stage of argument, Publius could not be so completely positive. To describe the insufficiency of Confederation he had to engage in attack and criticism. Yet he still manages to argue his case by maintaining a tone of affirmation. The strategy here is to assert that principles beyond reasonable dispute are what matters. Candid (i.e., disinterested) reasoners all must agree that Confederation is too weak. "It may perhaps be asked what need there is of reasoning or proof to illustrate a position which is not either controverted or doubted, to which the understandings and feelings of all classes of men assent, and which in substance is admitted by the opponents as well as by the friends of the new Constitution" (No. 15). Therefore it remains only to explain the grounds of this weakness and thereby build a candid (i.e., tolerant, appreciative) attitude toward the newly proposed form of government. The argument here divides into two topics—"the insufficiency of the present Confederation to preserve … Union" and "the necessity of a government at least equally energetic with the one proposed." For both topics, incontrovertible axioms of government are set forth and the individual papers are derived from them.
Federalist No. 15 opens the discussion of Confederation by emphasizing a general weakness: "The great and radical vice in the construction of the existing Confederation is in the principle of LEGISLATION for STATES or GOVERNMENTS, in their CORPORATE or COLLECTIVE CAPACITIES, and as contradistinguished from the INDIVIDUALS of which they consist." This central point about weakness in government is then developed through reference not only to the present union of American states, but also to major confederacies of the past: feudal alliances (No. 17), the leagues of ancient Greece (No. 18), Germany, Poland, and Switzerland (No. 19), and the United Netherlands (No. 20). It is only after this prolonged discussion of general and historical considerations that Hamilton moves on to detail specific weaknesses in the Articles of Confederation (Nos. 21 and 22).
The general principle behind the next section also appears in emphatic typography. National powers (in particular, powers over national defense) "ought to exist without limitation because it is impossible to foresee or define the extent and variety of national exigencies, or the correspondent extent and variety of the means which may be necessary to satisfy them" (No. 23). The justification for this point, Hamilton insists, is sheer self-evidence. "This is one of those truths which, to a correct and unprejudiced mind, carries its own evidence along with it; and may be obscured, but cannot be made plainer by argument or reasoning. It rests upon axioms as simple as they are universal; the means ought to be proportioned to the end; the persons, from whose agency the attainment of any end is expected, ought to possess the means by which it is to be attained." The issue at hand is not how much power should be granted, therefore, but what ends the federal government should pursue without limitation. In general, the papers that follow serve to define these major ends—common defense and public safety (Nos. 24-29) and control over national revenue (Nos. 30-36).
At this point in the Federalist some individual papers also make a conspicuous display of rigorous, incontrovertible reasoning. The survey of historical confederacies effects its "experimental instruction" with the weight of sheer fact. And Hamilton's later papers devote much precious space to repeating that primary truths can be found in ethics and politics as surely as in geometry (No. 31); or that there are propositions so necessarily implied in "the very act of constituting a federal government… that moderation itself can scarcely listen to the railings which have been so copiously vented against this part of the plan, without emotions that disturb its equanimity" (No. 33). Altogether these papers witness an intensive effort to make criticism appear as affirmation, or at least as the corollary of shining certainties.
Yet from No. 24 onward Hamilton had also organized some of his papers by noticing the objections of adversaries. As Madison moved on to discuss the main features of the Constitution, he too assumed this approach as his central mode of argument. He begins by generally and affirmatively surveying the Constitution as a whole under several general topics: the republican form of government that would be established (Nos. 39-40), the amount of power to be vested in the new government (Nos. 41-46), and the structure through which that power would be distributed (Nos. 47-51). On each of these topics, however, he immediately turns to questions raised by real or supposed adversaries, and develops his papers as replies.
The advantages of this third major strategy are plain enough. Earlier, the Federalist authors had been able to use materials they already had at hand. Hamilton had notes he had used in the longest speech given at the Constitutional Convention. Madison had prepared a set of "Notes of Ancient and Modem Confederacies" for use in Philadelphia, and his novel theory of extensive republics had gone through three written versions before the Federalist began. But this material was now exhausted. The demands of the printers continued at the rate of three or four papers a week. And Madison and Hamilton went on writing their papers in consecutive series, singlehandedly. "It frequently happened," Madison wrote later, "that, while the printer was putting into types parts of a number, the following parts were under the pen and had to be furnished in time for the press." Under these circumstances, the clamor of the opposition provided Publius with some welcome assistance. By taking up the chief arguments that had already been made on a subject, he could readily provide himself with a clear focus. Furthermore, he could shift the burden of his argument very conveniently, without sacrificing its continuous development. Earlier he had had to attack Confederation while seeming to affirm its basic principles of union and representative government. Now he had to explain the Constitution without reducing it too compactly into the controversial products of a rigorous theory. To deal with the Confederation he had had to be positive, asserting his own authority in interpreting a common experience. But the Constitution was not yet common to public knowledge, let alone experience. It was still being developed. As it stood, it went beyond the plans that Hamilton, Madison, or anyone else had brought to the convention. It still had to survive the test of nine or more ratifications. Even then it might be amended (with perhaps a bill of rights). And it would surely be modified by the precedents to be set in establishing an actual federal executive and judiciary. Its clauses now called for interpretation that would be clear but not rigid, precise but not narrow. Hamilton and Madison were exceptionally well prepared for detailed argument of just this sort. And if there was a danger of becoming too detailed, it was offset by the fact that there were to be more than thirty of these papers, progressing steadily through the sections of the Constitution on "the several parts of the government" (No. 52).
The "edge" of argument in these later papers thus arose from the antifederalists, to be smoothed by Publius. Candor was observed by blunting and absorbing attacks so that argument might end in justified agreement.
Publius began the reconciliation by looking beyond persons to issues, and drawing the latter into the full light of day. He practiced severe restraint toward particular adversaries, almost never mentioning names or otherwise calling attention to the exact source of any attack on the Constitution. Frequently he made arguments seem widely held by imputing them broadly to "the adversaries of the plan of the convention." He might take note that various (unspecified) groups objected to the same point for different reasons. (As Madison put it in No. 58, "most … objections against the Constitution … can only proceed from a partial view of the subject, or from a jealousy which discolors and disfigures every object which is beheld.") He might distinguish "the more respectable adversaries" (No. 47), "the most intelligent of those who have found fault" (No. 76), or even "the more candid opposers" (No. 61). But proper names are rare. I have found them raised in only five papers, and invoked there mainly to clarify some marginal observations.
To completely absorb attacks, Publius was careful, too, to state them fully and allow for the most contingent circumstances in which they might prove telling. An especially good example of this fullness can be found in No. 44. This paper faces the "necessary and proper" clause (Article I, section viii, clause 18), which seems to grant blanket powers beyond those enumerated in the same section of the Constitution. Madison denies that excessive powers are granted here, and the method of his answer is characteristic. First he appeals to the alternative means that might have been used to the same end. "There are four other possible methods which the Constitution might have taken on this subject." One by one he names them, and one by one he shows that each of them leads to impossible consequences. Then he goes further. What if Congress itself misconstrues this part of the Constitution? He describes a remedy for that in the separation of federal powers and in the balance between the states and the federal government. Then he goes further still, by noticing another similar provision—the "supreme law of the land" clause (Article VI, clause 2)—and giving three prompt arguments in its defense, too. In short, Publius not only returns a sufficient answer, but penetrates beyond the immediate objection into the depth of the problem that prompts it.
Even when an adversary's charges seem strained and farfetched we find Publius leaning out to catch and respond to them. "The only refuge left for those who prophesy the downfall of the State governments," reads No. 46, "is the visionary supposition that the federal government may previously accumulate a military force for the projects of ambition." Is this remark an out-of-hand dismissal of such prophets? No; their position is attacked here as absurd on its face, but the paragraph goes on to meet it even so. "Extravagant as the supposition is, let it however be made." The Federalist has a further answer ready in that case, too. Similar concessions can be found at the close of Nos. 40, 60, 63, and 64.
The most extraordinary involution of deference toward adversaries occurs, however, in No. 54, concerning the provision in Article I for counting slaves as three-fifths of "other persons" for purposes of taxation and representation. Madison begins by condensing the leading objection: "Slaves are considered as property, not as persons. They ought therefore to be comprehended in estimates of taxation which are founded on property, and to be excluded from representation which is regulated by a census of persons. This is the objection, as I understand it, stated in its full force." But to answer the objection, Publius invokes yet a further mask. "I shall be equally candid," he says, "in stating the reasoning which may be offered on the opposite side"; but that reasoning is presented as what "might" be observed by "one of our Southern brethen." This manifestly fictitious slaveholder is quoted through several paragraphs, and in the end Publius concludes that though such reasoning "may appear to be a little strained in some points, yet, on the whole, I must confess that it fully reconciles me to the scale of representation which the convention have established."
The light of later history makes this part of the Federalist seem ingenuous if not inhumane, in its compromised calculations of how much like a man a black slave could be. And all for the remote end of adjusting votes and taxes! But a closer look reveals Madison being conscious, steady, and principled here. If the convention had been strained to its limits, it had been so over questions of representation. And as Madison had noticed in the debates, if there were one great difference between regions it was the contrast between small, free states to the north, and large, slave states to the south. Constitutionalist James Madison of Philadelphia here holds slaveholder Madison of Virginia at arm's length, and acknowledges the weaknesses of the southern case. In fact, he forces the southern spokesman to admit from the first that slaves are persons and that "it is only under the pretext that the laws have transformed the negroes into subjects of property, that a place is disputed them in the computation of numbers; … if the laws were to restore the rights which have been taken away, the negroes could no longer be refused an equal share of representation with the other inhabitants." At the same time he catches northerners in the paradox of reproaching the South for the "barbarous policy" of considering "human brethen" as property, while arguing on the other hand that Negroes should not be represented. Publius thus upholds this provision by anatomizing the difficulties of any partisan approach to it. He interprets it by allowing that it is, and can only be, a strained compromise—one that he cannot defend on any principles of his own. Yet he shows, too, that no matter how anyone writhes around the point, a Negro has to be considered a man.
As the Federalist authors refined and nullified the objections they saw, they exposed the confusion of some critics and the misunderstandings of others. They also called into question the motives that might have lain behind some lines of opposition. Preaching candor themselves, they were quick to find and comment on others' lapses. In No. 24, for example, Hamilton asks us to follow the mental processes of "a stranger to our politics, who was to read our newspapers at the present juncture, without having previously inspected the plan reported by the convention." As this perfectly disinterested observer sought information about the controversy before him, he would find himself astonished at the groundless vehemence of attacks on certain points. And as he went on to gather complete information, "his astonishment would not only be increased, but would acquire a mixture of indignation." And if "he happened to be a man of calm and dispassionate feelings, he would indulge a sigh for the frailty of human nature, and would lament, that in a matter so interesting to the happiness of millions, the true merits of the question should be perplexed and entangled by expedients so unfriendly to an impartial and right determination." With remorseless logic, Madison likewise separated the critic from the unthinking supporter of the Constitution. Both types were wrong, he said in No. 37, but at least the latter was temperamentally in the right. And Jay began the only paper he contributed to the later Federalist, No. 64, by questioning "the motives of their conduct, who condemn the proposed Constitution in the aggregate, and treat with severity some of the most unexceptionable articles in it."
These considerations seem to justify the several shorter remarks tossed off here and there on the "rage for objection" that provokes one attack or the "insatiable avidity for censure" that has invented another. But counterattacks like these could go only so far before they violated candor in their turn.
Thus it is almost amusing to contemplate Hamilton's dilemma in Federalist No. 67. This paper begins his series on the presidency, the focus of centralized power, and it seems to touch Hamilton on a tender spot. Instead of opening with a broad consideration of the needs for a well-organized executive branch (as he does later, in No. 70), he immediately lashes out—and at the particular barb of a particular foe, the fifth letter of Governor Clinton's Cato series. The language of this Federalist is harsh; its imagery vivid; its central argument narrowly conceived. Cato had charged that the president would be like a monarch; Publius replies by hammering at one small point, that presidents cannot fill casual vacancies in the Senate. One can almost feel the heat glowing off Hamilton's cheeks here in a hand-to-hand struggle between the two mighty New Yorkers. But only "almost"—because even here he is at pains to acknowledge that the Federalist allows only so much. No part of the Constitution, he says, has been attacked with so little candor; and it is therefore necessary not only to meet adversity here, but to unmask it.
In the execution of this task, there is no man who would not findit an arduous effort either to behold with moderation, or to treat with seriousness, the devices, not less weak than wicked, which have been contrived to pervert the public opinion in relation to the subject. They so far exceed the usual though unjustifiable licenses of party artifice, that even in a disposition the most candid and tolerant, they must force the sentiments which favor an indulgent construction of the conduct of political adversaries to give place to a voluntary and unreserved indignation.
At the end of the paper, he apologizes again: "Nor have I scrupled, in so flagrant a case, to allow myself a severity of animadversion little congenial with the general spirit of these papers." Even in anger, Hamilton preserves so much of Publius' decorum.
Throughout the Federalist, then, we find remarks about candor, arguments about how indispensable it is in this debate, and, more important, conscious perceptions of how intrinsic it is to republican government, matched by deliberate maneuvers and restraints in the rhetoric of all three authors and in the design underlying their collaboration.
Even so, a scrupulous reader may still feel uneasy about this term and its usage in this work. The Federalist authors may have toyed with the name of candor and even seen advantages in flaunting their own practice of the attitude. But generous candor, as it is defined here, is nothing if not an exercise in deference—a feeling that might well be encouraged by an authoritarian Hamilton or a well-born Madison. How better defend the indefensible than by insisting on the necessity for trust in matters too pressing for delay and too delicate for complete analysis? To modern readers, accustomed to the modern sense of candor—and to debates about the motives of the founders—a haunting question still lingers. Does the Federalist present genuine, forthright insights about the nature and promise of the Constitution, or does it not? The evidence we have reviewed here does not provide a sufficient answer.
But I have tried to make a different approach to such questions by looking at the Federalist as a whole and on its own terms. The generalized views of its several authors, or the secrets of their personal motivation, have thus been slighted here; so have the substantial issues and arguments of separate Federalist numbers. Instead I have tried to focus attention on one important line of coherence that can be traced throughout this composite text. If I still refrain from saying whose strategies of candor are at work in the Federalist, it is for this reason. To be candid myself, I believe that such strategies originated with neither a person nor a cabal, but may rather have been intrinsic to the nature of a full argument in favor of the Constitution. To pursue this matter further, one should explore how the demands of both form and argument drew Hamilton and Madison into areas of agreement they never knew before or after. This would involve detailed review of how each of them saw the Constitution through its several stages of creation and ratification. But it would also call for further searches into the coherence of these papers and the conventions of the essay-series in which they are cast. Such studies would end, I think, not in a vindication of anyone's sincerity, but in fuller discoveries of just how far we can ascribe integrity, consistency, or harmony to the writings of Publius.
Already we have seen how a commitment to candor checked and conditioned the answers Hamilton and Madison gave on issues that touched them closely. And we have found them avowing that the tone of these papers should count as much as their cold logic. In a perverse way, at least one major adversary acknowledged this point. Recall Madison's famous remark in No. 55: "As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form." Or review the way Hamilton closes the whole series in No. 85, by adverting to "the spirit with which my endeavors should be conducted" and reminding his readers that the present moment can inspire awe: "The establishment of a Constitution, in time of profound peace, by the voluntary consent of a whole people, is a prodigy, to the completion of which I look forward with trembling anxiety." And now hear how Clinton closes the last of the Cato letters, for January 3, 1788. Reasonable confidence, he admits, has a proper place in government; "but such an unbounded one as the advocates and framers of this new system advise you to, would be dangerous to your liberties." There is only one sure bulwark against their appeal, prescribed by Demosthenes and echoed by Montesquieu: distrust. "There is, therefore, no other way of interrupting this insensible descent and warding off the evil as long as possible, than by establishing principles of distrust in your constituents, and cultivating it among yourselves." The price of liberty is eternal vigilence. But Cato seems not to understand that even vigilence in excess can become a yoke. His own pessimism reverberates in the dim prospect of merely "interrupting" and "warding off inevitable evils. And he all but insists that the constitutionalists had a special potency on their side—not in what they propounded so much as in the positive faith with which they fostered it.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6579
SOURCE: "The Rhetoric of Alexander Hamilton" in Rhetoric and American Statesmanship, edited by Glen E. Thurow and Jeffrey D. Wallin, Carolina Academic Press and The Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy, 1984, pp. 71-86.
[In the following essay, originally a paper delivered at a conference in 1980, McDonald discusses Hamilton's language, his rhetorical strategies, and his literary style.]
The political rhetoric of the Founders of the American Republic has received scant attention from scholars. The relative neglect is understandable. On the one hand, the very concept of rhetoric has, in modem times, all but lost its classical signification, and has come to mean empty verbosity or ornament. On the other, the political achievements of the Founders—the winning of independence, the establishment of a durable federal Union on republican principles, the creation of a system of government which is itself bound by law—were of such monumental proportions as to make their methods of persuasion seem of pedantic and picayune consequence. And thus, though every student of the epoch is at least vaguely aware that the general level of public discourse in late eighteenth-century America was extraordinarily high, perhaps unprecedentedly so, we tend to regard the way the Founders spoke and wrote as only incidental to what they did. I would contend, on the contrary, that it was their commitment to and practice of open, dispassionate, informed, and reasoned discussion of public questions which made their achievements possible. Their rhetoric, in other words, was not a mere by-product of their accomplishments: rather, their accomplishments were the product of their rhetorical interchange.
In the most general proper sense of the term, rhetoric is the art of persuasion through written or spoken language. In the classical and eighteenth-century usage, however, it meant persuasion according to certain formal rules. The Founding Fathers studied and practiced the art in accordance with the Aristotelian model, and … I shall begin by pointing out a couple of the implications inherent in that model.
First, Aristotle ruled out the relationship of rhetoric to pure knowledge, insisting instead that, since it was founded upon opinion rather than upon absolute truth, it was concerned only with matters of probability. I shall clarify that point later. For now, what is important is that consciousness of that limitation of the art was of immense value in the building of American republican institutions, for it meant that public discourse could not be conducted in terms of ideological certainties of the sort that perverted the French Revolution and, indeed, most other revolutions. Instead, discussion of public questions was at its best a trial-and-error process of moving toward ever-greater probabilities of truth without succumbing to the fatal sin of gnosticism, the belief that one has arrived at absolute Truth.
Second, though the rules required that persuasion be based on reasoned argument, they permitted two additional forms of "proof' besides logical proof. These were ethical proof, which was designed to win from the audience a favorable attitude toward the author or speaker, and emotional proof, which was aimed at putting the audience in a receptive frame of mind. Given the Founding Fathers' understanding that men are governed by their passions—that is, drives for self-gratification—and by habits and sentiments, and that reason is normally the servant rather than the master of the passions, this meant that their rhetoric and their view of the nature of man could complement and reinforce one another. It also meant that they were enabled to (as they were obliged to) work toward raising the level of public sentiments as well as the level of public understanding. This was put simply and clearly by the celebrated author of the 1767 Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, John Dickinson. In his seventh letter Dickinson quotes at length from speeches that Lord Camden and William Pitt had given in Parliament, praises the "generous zeal for the rights of mankind that glows in every sentence," and analyzes what it was that made their rhetoric so powerful: "Their reasoning is not only just—it is, as Mr. Hume says of the eloquence of Demosthenes, 'vehement.' It is disdain, anger, boldness, freedom, involved in a continual stream of argument."
Historians, in dealing with the Founding Fathers, have paid too much attention to the "justice of their reasoning" and not enough to their "vehemence." If a proper balance were brought to a study of the writings of the founders, I believe, the result would be an enormous contribution to our understanding of them. If I were outlining such a study, I would suggest a rhetorical analysis of a half-dozen patriotic tracts written between the 1760s and 1776: Dickinson's Letters, John Adams's Novanglus Letters, James Wilson's Considerations on the … Authority of the British Parliament, Thomas Jefferson's Summary View of the Rights of British America, Thomas Paine's Common Sense, and the Declaration of Independence.
I would also suggest that the student be sensitive to certain nuances of eighteenth-century political writing which have eluded most investigators. One concerns the meaning of words. The meaning of many crucial words has changed so radically that, without an Oxford English Dictionary at one's side, one is likely to commit grave errors of interpretation. In a moment I shall offer some fairly dramatic examples of the ways that meanings have changed; meanwhile, a related subtlety is that there were then, as there are now, a variety of code words in common currency. For instance, there was the phrase "Great Man." In one of my early books I missed entirely the connotations of the phrase: having noticed that it was frequently used to describe the financier of the Revolution, Robert Morris, I misread it to mean that even Morris's enemies viewed him with a touch of awe: Much later I learned that it had been used by English Oppositionists as a contemptuous description of Sir Robert Walpole, then applied to the corrupt and wealthy aristocrats who dominated English politics in mid-century. It was the Oppositionists' ideological heirs in America, anti-Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans, who applied the term to Morris—as they did also to Hamilton and Washington—and they were using it as a form of condemnation. Finally, there are literary conventions which can sometimes be revealing. For example, pre-Revolutionary political tracts abounded in typographical variations—the use of italics, all capital letters, and extravagant punctuation—designed to achieve emphasis, indicating that the authors were thinking in terms of speech to small, tangible audiences. Upon the emergence of a truly national politics and the large, impersonal audience that that implied, typographical variations were abandoned, indicating that the writers now intended their words to be read rather than heard.
Enough of preaching: it is time to start practicing. I have been speaking of a study that someone should make; let us turn to one that I have made, of the rhetoric of Alexander Hamilton. As we do so, we immediately face three formidable obstacles, all of which arise from Hamilton's historical reputation. It is commonly alleged that Hamilton was contemptuous of public opinion; that he created a system based upon greed, in disdain of public spiritedness; and that he was hypocritical, saying one thing in private and another in public. These allegations, if true, would make analysis of his rhetoric pointless, save perhaps as an exercise in the study of duplicity. Each must therefore be considered before we proceed.
The first allegation rests mainly on a misreading of Hamilton's language. After the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794, Hamilton said in a letter to Washington that he had "long since … learnt to hold popular opinion of no value." If those words are read in their twentieth-century sense, they are pretty damning, and they seem conclusive; and that is the sense in which historians have read them. Richard K. Kohn, for instance, though usually a careful scholar, quotes Hamilton's remark, adds that President Washington "knew he could not govern on such principles," and cites with approval Secretary of State Edmund Randolph as saying that "Hamilton's ideas 'would heap curses upon the government. The strength of a government is the affection of the people'."
But let us consider Hamilton's language more carefully. The operative words are "popular" and "opinion." I do not have space here (even if I knew enough) to do full justice to the etymology of the word "popular" or to the historical distinction between it and the word "public," but I can summarize briefly. In its ancient forms and in its seventeenth and eighteenth century usage, "popular" comprehended everybody; in meaning, though not in its roots, it was akin to "common" or "vulgar." It also had a specific political connotation, namely left-wing (significantly, Hamilton's remark was apropos political attacks in Philip Freneau's left-wing newspaper, The National Gazette). "Public," by contrast, was derived from the same root as the word public, meaning manhood; it referred individually to those who had attained the full status and responsibilities of manhood and referred collectively to the political society or body politic itself. Interestingly, "virtue"—which Montesquieu and others regarded as the actuating principle of a republic—was also derived from a root word meaning manhood. Thus the phrases "public virtue" and "republican virtue," which had considerable currency in eighteenth century America, were somewhat tautological, whereas "popular virtue" would have been a contradiction in terms, the component words being mutually exclusive. As for the word "opinion," it was used in at least three distinct ways in the eighteenth century. One was the Aristotelian usage, as a technical term associated with probability, with the assembly and the courts, and thus with rhetoric. More frequently, it was used in the present sense, meaning belief or prejudice. Still a third usage signified confidence, esteem, and high regard. Following an essay by David Hume, Hamilton had indicated in the Constitutional Convention that he used the term in the third sense. In other words, he was saying in 1794 that he held it of no value to be well-regarded by the rabble and by rabble-rousers—or, to phrase it differently, that statesmanship is not a popularity contest.
That is a far cry from expressing contempt for what the public thinks and believes. Hamilton made his meaning clearer in the rest of his letter to Washington: after saying that he had learned to hold popularity of no value, he added that his reward for service to the public would be in "the esteem of the discerning and in internal consciousness of zealous endeavours for the public good." Historians have somehow managed to omit that part of his letter, just as they have managed to ignore the fact that Hamilton probably expended more energy, thought, and words trying to create and guide an informed public opinion than did any of his contemporaries.
The second allegation, that Hamilton's policies represented an effort to build a political system on greed rather than on civic virtue, stemmed from more complex roots. It originated in the charges of his political enemies. Some (William Maclay, for example) were economically interested in discrediting Hamilton; others (Jefferson and Madison, for example) were politically interested in doing so; still others (John Taylor of Caroline, for example) were ideologically interested in doing so. But that view of Hamilton has also been expounded by an impressive array of modern scholars including E. James Ferguson, Gerald Stourzh, J. G. A. Pocock, and, most recently, Drew R. McCoy. The eighteenth century, as these historians have pointed out, witnessed the development of a school of political theory that espoused what Pocock calls "the movement from virtue to interest" as the activating principle of government: it began with Bernard de Mandeville's Fable of the Bees (1714), holding that private vice was the wellspring of public virtue, and ran through Adam Smith and his often-quoted passage which begins, "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard of their own interest." According to McCoy, the "powerful, economically advanced modem state" which Hamilton envisaged "would stand squarely on the worldly foundations of 'corruption" that Bernard Mandeville had spoken of.
The case is persuasive. Though Hamilton never read Mandeville, as far as I am aware, he did read and on several occasions quote from David Hume's essays in a similar vein, and he read and was influenced by Adam Smith. Moreover, in 1783 he clearly advocated the consolidation of national authority through appeals to the interests of public creditors and financial and commercial groups, and in 1784 he said flatly that "the safest reliance of every government is on men's interest." I myself have been guilty of writing that Hamilton's program as Secretary of the Treasury depended upon tying the interests of public creditors to the fate of his measures.
But I was wrong, and so are the others. Two things happened to Hamilton between 1783 and 1789 which radically altered his thinking on this subject: he learned from observing and participating in state politics that state governments could be more effective in employing avarice to win political support than could a national government, and he learned from study of the principles of natural law that morality, in the long run, was a more stable foundation for government than was economic self-interest. Despite the abundance of charges, there is no evidence whatsoever that Hamilton used the lure of personal gain in seeking congressional support for his measures. Moreover, he expressed himself clearly on the subject in a remarkable private document he wrote in 1795. In drafting his plan for assuming the state debts, he admitted, he had taken into account the tendency of assumption "to strengthen our infant Government by increasing the number of ligaments between the Government and the interests of Individuals … Yet upon the whole it was the consideration upon which I relied least of all." Even on purely practical grounds, had this been "the weightiest motive to the measure, it would never have received my patronage." And, he added in a marginal note to himself, "such means are not to be resorted to but the good sense & virtue of the people."
The third common allegation against Hamilton, that he was hypocritical in his public utterances—and most particularly, that he spoke contemptuously of "the people" in private and sang a different tune for public consumption—is likewise without foundation. It is true that, in his youthful disillusionment with the way the Revolutionary War was going, he expressed his disgust with the people. In 1779 he wrote his intimate friend Henry Laurens that "the birth and education of these states has fitted their inhabitants for the chain, and … the only condition they sincerely desire is that it may be a golden one." The next year he wrote Laurens that "Our countrymen have all the folly of the ass and the passiveness of the sheep in their composition.… The whole is a mass of fools and knaves." In maturity, however, he arrived at a different and more balanced view and expressed it in public and private alike. I shall return to that later. Meanwhile, the measure of his duplicity, or lack of it, is to be found in comparing his public writings, from The Federalist Papers through the 1790s, with his private correspondence. Such comparison reveals a record of virtually perfect consistency. The truth is that Hamilton was, as Fisher Ames said of him, "the most frank of men"; and, as he said of himself in a letter to an intimate friend, "what I would not promulge I would avoid … pride makes it part of my plan to appear truly what I am." Indeed, his passion for candor more than once led him to transcend the boundaries of prudence—as he did, for instance, in publishing the details of his sexual affair with Maria Reynolds so as to protect the integrity of the office he had filled.
Hamilton's rhetoric may be fruitfully examined by considering separately his employment of each of the Aristotelian forms of proof. Thorough analyses of two of his performances have been made along those lines: Bower Aly's study of Hamilton's speeches in the New York ratifying convention, published in 1941, and Larry Amhart's study of the rhetoric of The Federalist, delivered before the Midwest Political Science Association in 1979, Some of what I have to say in the following pages draws on these two studies.
Logical proof, as opposed to ethical and emotional proof, carries the greatest portion of the burden in Hamilton's rhetoric. Let me pause here to say … that I shall try to keep this as simple as possible. Logical reasoning is of two broad kinds: deductive, which means reasoning from general propositions to arrive at particular conclusions, and inductive, which means reasoning from a number of particular observations to arrive at general propositions. The principal device of deductive reasoning is called a syllogism, and it is something we all employ even if we have never heard the word. A syllogism consists, in order, of 1) a major premise, 2) a minor premise, and 3) a conclusion, as in this example: 1) no man is immortal. 2) John Smith is a man, and 3) therefore John Smith is not immortal.
But deductive reasoning in rhetoric, though having the same structure as that in other forms of logic, is not quite the same in substance. In rhetorical reasoning, one uses a special kind of syllogism called an enthymeme. The main difference between a pure syllogism and an enthymeme is in the nature of the major premise. In a pure syllogism the major premise is absolutely true, as in "the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle equals the sum of the squares of the other two sides." In an enthymeme, the major premise is based instead upon the reputable beliefs of the audience, which are only probably and relatively true, as in the statements "people are creatures of habit," or "honesty is the best policy."
Hamilton described the two kinds of premises, as well as deductive reasoning as he practiced it, in "Federalist 31." "In disputations of every kind," he said at the beginning of that essay, "there are certain primary truths or first principles upon which all subsequent reasonings must depend. These contain an internal evidence, which antecedent to all reflection or combination commands the assent of the mind.… Of this nature are the maxims in geometry, that 'the whole is greater than its part,"' and so on. "Of the same nature are those other maxims in ethics and politics, that there cannot be an effect without a cause; that the means ought to be proportioned to the end; that every power ought to be commensurate with its object; that there ought to be no limitation of a power destined to effect a purpose, which is itself incapable of limitation."
A couple of aspects of this description want special notice. One is that Hamilton tends, in the passage quoted, to treat the two kinds of premises as equally valid. Doing so was an effective rhetorical device as well as a reflection of his personality—he was nothing if not positive and forceful—but he knew the difference. The first kind was what, elsewhere, he called "geometrically true," the other what he called "morally certain." The second subtle aspect of the passage quoted is that there is a progression in his examples of "maxims in ethics and politics," from one which nobody would question to one that many members of his audience might challenge. The listing itself is almost a process of deduction. That, too, was both an effective rhetorical device and a reflection of his personality.
As for Hamilton's inductive reasoning—that is, reasoning from experience, observation, or example—he always employed it, his mixture of inductive and deductive varying with the audience. Temperamentally, he distrusted the deductive and preferred the inductive, "A great source of error," he wrote early in his career, "is the judging of events by abstract calculations, which though geometrically true are false as they relate to the concerns of beings governed more by passion and prejudice than by an enlightened sense of their interests." In "Federalist 20," echoing a sentiment shared by most of the Founding Fathers, he and Madison said that "Experience is the oracle of truth; and where its responses are unequivocal, they ought to be conclusive and sacred." In any event, as Arnhart has pointed out, he made clear to his audience whether he was using one or the other or both by introducing his arguments with such phrases as "theory and practice conspire to prove."
I shall not go into a detailed analysis of all the rhetorical techniques Hamilton employed in his logical proof. Aly has done so at great length, in regard to speech after speech. Aly points out where Hamilton has employed dilemma, antecedent probability, analogy, exposure of inconsistency, reduction to absurdity, causal relation, turning the tables, and other devices. For those who are interested in pursuing the matter further. I recommend Aly's work heartily.
But there are three additional aspects of Hamilton's method of using rhetorical logic which, while compatible with the Aristotelian model, were unique to him. One was that his approach was always positive, never negative. As the editors of his law papers put it, "His habit of thought even when acting for the defense was affirmative; in other words, he was always carrying the war to the enemy." That habit reflected his personality, but it was also a deliberate choice of rhetorical strategy and tactics. In this regard, it is instructive to observe the brief notes Hamilton recorded from Demosthenes' Orations (which he studied while in the army). "'Where attack him, it will be said? Ah Athenians, war, war itself will discover to you his weak sides, if you will seek them.' Sublimely simple." And again, "As a general marches at the head of his troops, so ought wise politicians, if I dare to use the expression, to march at the head of affairs; insomuch that they ought not to await the event, to know what measures to take; but the measures which they have taken, ought to produce the event." In addition to being effective, this positive style had a special advantage that is related to the inner logic of rhetorical reasoning. The speaker or writer is limited, in attempting to persuade his audience, by the fact that the premises from which he can argue are restricted to what the audience already accepts as an established truth. Hamilton's practice of seeking the enemy's weak sides and seizing the initiative "to produce the event" enabled him to broaden the range of acceptable premises, and thus to educate as well as to persuade his audiences.
The second of Hamilton's special qualities was an intuitive sense of the heart of a subject combined with an awesome capacity for mastering its details. As William Pierce wrote of him in the Constitutional Convention, "he enquires into every part of his subject with the searchings of philosophy … there is no skimming over the surface of a subject with him, he must sink to the bottom to see what foundation it rests on … and when he comes forward he comes highly charged with interesting matter." His speeches and writings were characteristically long, for he was rarely content to rely upon only one approach to an argument, even when he was confident of winning in a single stroke. His celebrated opinion on the constitutionality of the bank affords an excellent example. He disposes of Randolph's and Jefferson's arguments in six brief but devastating paragraphs—piercing immediately to the heart of their position, showing the false premise on which it rests, indicating the appropriate premise, and drawing from it the only reasonable conclusion. But then he goes on for another 15,000 words, ringing every imaginable change on the argument. The beauty of this technique is again its educational value: it goes beyond successful persuasion in the particular instance and establishes new foundations for further persuasion on the morrow.
Hamilton's third special quality is more difficult to describe. He was sensitive to the difference between the two nontechnical connotations of the word opinion: belief, judgment, prejudice on the one hand, approval, esteem, regard on the other. In conventional rhetorical theory, it was opinion in the first sense, belief, that supplied the premises for deductive logical proof; opinion in the second sense, approval, would fall under ethical proof, having to do with the audience's favorable view of the author or speaker. Hamilton perceived that in the circumstances in which he labored—the attempt to establish a durable republican system of government—the two were so interrelated as to be inseparable. Each supported the other: the tasks of winning belief and approval went hand in hand. As a statesman he was seeking to establish public "credit" in the broad sense of credibility or confidence as well as in the narrow financial sense; indeed, in some respects he viewed the latter as only a means of attaining the former. Moreover—and this is crucial—he understood that opinions derive as much from perceptions as they do from facts. "A degree of illusion mixes itself in all the affairs of society," he wrote; "The opinion of objects has more influence than their real nature." Or, as he said in his First Report on the Public Credit. "In nothing are appearances of greater moment, than in whatever regards credit. Opinion is the soul of it, and this is affected by appearances, as well as realities." There is an extremely subtle point here: one central aim of Hamilton's public life was to replace the prevailing law of contract, based upon the medieval concepts of just price and fair value, with a modern theory of contract based upon consent in a free market. Thus Hamilton's attention to the effect of appearances on opinion, like his other two special qualities, was an extension of the dimensions of logical proof, for it broadened the possible range of premises available within the rules of reasoning with enthymemes.
Most of the techniques I have been describing can be illustrated by a brief analysis of one of Hamilton's greatest performances, the Report on Manufactures presented to Congress in December, 1791. The rhetorical situation was different from what it had been when Hamilton had given his reports on the public credit and the bank. On the earlier occasions the audience agreed with the first premise, that it was imperative to establish a system of public credit; Hamilton's task of persuasion was to convince Congress that it was desirable to do so in a particular way. In regard to the Report on Manufactures, the body of beliefs shared by most members of the audience, which we may describe in shorthand as the agrarian ideal, was hostile to Hamilton's objective, the promotion of industry. His task of persuasion was to convince Congress that it was desirable to encourage manufacturing, whatever the means.
He began by isolating and attacking the enemy's weakest side. The agrarian ideal itself was an impregnable bastion of prejudice, but the economic theory used to justify it—the physiocrat's rather silly notion that land is the source of all wealth and that the labor of craftsmen adds nothing to the value of things—was highly vulnerable. Hamilton demolished the physiocratic theory by quoting and paraphrasing at length from Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, a work whose free-trade doctrines the audience regarded with great respect. He was careful, however, not to draw any conclusions beyond what his argument demonstrated: all he claimed at that stage was that manufacturing could produce wealth, probably about equally with farming.
Hamilton's rhetorical strategy so far, that of using one body of acceptable premises to displace another, was effective, but it created a new rhetorical problem. The use of Smith's work had the advantage of establishing as premises for further argument, that the wealth of a nation could be increased. On the other hand, it also had a disadvantage, for Hamilton was advocating active government promotion of manufactures, and Smith had championed the doctrine of noninterference—the idea that human industry, "if left to itself, will naturally find its way to the most useful and profitable employment." To overcome that difficulty, Hamilton again sought the weakest sides of the argument. Smith, as Hamilton paraphrased him, had laid down seven new premises to prove that manufacturing could increase the wealth of a nation—the principle of the division of labor, the advantages of the use of machinery, the possibility of enlarging the labor pool by pulling normally idle people into it, and so on. As Hamilton developed each point, he corrected Smith by using inductive rather than deductive reasoning, which is to say by employing the awesome array of factual data which Hamilton had laboriously gathered for the purpose. By that means he transformed Smith's premises into his own. To put it another way, he had taken premises acceptable to the audience, from which it was not logically possible to conclude that governmental activism was desirable, and altered them in such a way that it could logically be shown that such activism was not only desirable but in fact necessary.
Now Hamilton brought the cumulative effects of previous argumentation into play. Given the proposition that manufacturing should be encouraged, the fact remained that the United States, as an undeveloped country, was woefully short of the necessary capital. That obstacle was readily overcome, Hamilton said, and he showed how by reviewing his reports on public credit, where he had demonstrated that the public debt could be institutionally manipulated in such a way that, with the support of public opinion, it would be turned into a great pool of liquid wealth or capital. From there to the end of the report, Hamilton had smooth sailing: all he had to do was propose a series of practical steps to be taken to bring about the desired ends.
I described the Report on Manufactures as one of Hamilton's greatest performances. The historians among you, however, will recall that Congress did not act on the report; and the rhetoricians, armed with that datum, will conclude that the performance was not a great one at all. Let me construct the enthymeme: excellent rhetoric persuades the audience, Hamilton's report failed to persuade the audience, and therefore the report was not excellent rhetoric. But Hamilton's audience did not consist exclusively of the members of the Second Congress. In his rhetoric as in his statesmanship, Hamilton was addressing posterity and building cumulatively toward the future. In the course of time, the nation would begin the active promotion of manufactures, and for more than a century Hamilton's report would provide the rhetorical foundation for such a policy. Indeed, the report itself became a first premise.
There remains the task of reviewing briefly Hamilton's use of ethical and emotional proof and, finally, his style. In regard to the first two I shall depend, for my theoretical underpinnings, largely on Arnhart, [in "The Federalist as Aristotelian Rhetoric"] for he has put the matter extremely well. For the last I shall return exclusively to my own analysis, for there is an important dimension to Hamilton's style which he and others have overlooked.
Since the time of John Locke, logicians and rhetoricians have tended to share Plato's suspicion of traditional rhetoric because of its admission of irrational appeals to the audience. If ethical and emotional proofs are made in adherence to Aristotle's standards, however, they can in fact contribute to rational discourse. As for ethical proof, Aristotle says that a speaker will be most persuasive if he shows himself to be possessed of prudence, virtue, and good will. The persuasiveness of a speaker's character, based upon those criteria, can scarcely be dismissed as irrational: it is obviously quite reasonable to judge the reliability of a writer or speaker as being proportionate to his prudence, his virtue, and his good will. Besides, the more an author or speaker establishes his own credentials on those foundations, the more he conditions the audience to expect and demand them of other authors and speakers—and thus contributes to raising the general level of the rationality of the audience, which in turn elevates the rational possibilities available to the author or speaker.
Hamilton's use of ethical proof was calculated to obtain just that end. His techniques varied with his audience, of course, as they necessarily must. In dealing with Washington, for instance, the appropriate tone was one of deference—not of flattery, which the president would instantly have regarded as showing an absence of character, but out of respect for the presidential office and for the president's own character. In other words, one gained Washington's respect by showing respect in a proper manner. Washington was a special case, but in a sense that was the way Hamilton employed ethical proofs in more conventional rhetorical situations. That is to say, Hamilton normally sought to establish his good character among the members of his audience not by reciting his own virtues but by appealing to theirs. He appealed to his audiences to judge his arguments dispassionately, openly, and in a spirit of moderation tempered by zealous concern for the happiness of their country. By urging them to be prudent, virtuous, and possessed of good will, he avoided the necessity of claiming to have those qualities himself; and to the extent that he succeeded, he actually instilled them in his audiences.
As for emotional proofs, they are legitimate in Aristotle's scheme of things only insofar as the passions with which they deal are rational ones. Now, passions are passions and reason is reason, to be sure; but passions can be shortsighted or prudent, biased or open, hastily formed or carefully considered. After all, there is such a thing as reasonable fear, and in some circumstances to be unafraid is to be unreasonable. Hamilton sometimes appealed to the fears of his audience, as when, in numerous of the Federalist essays, he declared that failure to adopt the Constitution would result in anarchy, tyranny, and war—and when, in essays on the French Revolution, he warned of the perils of emotional or ideological attachment to foreign powers. There are those of us who believe those fears were entirely reasonable. More characteristically, however, Hamilton's appeals were to noble and positive passions: pride, honor, love of liberty, love of country. There are those of us who believe that stimulation of those passions is likewise reasonable.
Lastly, there is the matter of Hamilton's literary style. His style changed and improved over the years, as one might expect (though few scholars seem to have noticed); but what is more significant is that it evolved in a direction. Whatever one thinks of the intellectual merits of his earliest political writings, the 1774-1775 polemics entitled A Full Vindication of the Measures of Congress and The Farmer Refuted—unlike most other Hamilton scholars, I regard them as extremely muddle-headed—one is struck by their sophomoric literary quality. The Farmer Refuted, especially, is studded with strained metaphors, pretentious words, latinisms, citations of authorities (many of whom young Hamilton had obviously not read), and other displays of affected erudition. By 1781-82, when he wrote The Continentalist essays, and 1784, when he wrote the Letters from Phocian, he had discarded most of that excess baggage, but there was still more than was necessary. By 1788, when he co-authored The Federalist, he had almost reached his mature form, but not quite: though he made far fewer classical allusions than Madison did, he was still making unnecessary ones, and though he rarely attempted a consciously ornate metaphor, his unconscious metaphors were sometimes mixed or strained. Thereafter, he had arrived: from 1790 until the end of his life his prose style was straightforward, clear, lean, hard, and energetic.
That course of evolution paralleled the growth of Hamilton's commitment to making a success of the American experiment in constitutional government. More than most of his countrymen, he doubted that the experiment could succeed; more than any of them, he was dedicated to making the effort. He perceived clearly that political rhetoric of the highest order was necessary to the attempt, for such is essential to statecraft in a republic. Now, we hear a great deal these days about the public's "right to know." That is a perversion of the truth, even as modern public relations, propaganda, and political blather are perversions of classical rhetoric. If the republic is to survive, the emphasis must be shifted from rights back to obligations. It is the obligation, not the right, of the citizen of a republic to be informed; it is the obligation of the public servant to inform him and simultaneously to raise his standards of judgment. In adapting his style to his audience, Hamilton was fulfilling his part of the obligation.
I would close with a postscript. Despite Hamilton's efforts, and despite the efforts of other patriotic souls, the level of public discourse degenerated rapidly in the late 1790s. A plague of unscrupulous scribblers infested the nation, spewing venom, scurrility, deception, and hysteria throughout the land. Hamilton himself was subjected to as much abuse as any man, and possibly more. But he remained true to his principles until the very end.
One of his last and most celebrated cases as a lawyer arose from the frenzied partisan propaganda warfare that had developed. Harry Croswell, editor of a small-town newspaper, published a report that Jefferson had paid the notorious pamphleteer J. T. Callender to slander Washington, Adams, and other public men. The charge against Jefferson was true; but the Jeffersonians, who had stoutly defended freedom of the press when in the opposition, thought a "few wholesome prosecutions" were in order once they came to power. The Jeffersonian attorney general of New York, Ambrose Spencer, brought proceedings against Croswell for libel. On conviction, he appealed, and Hamilton became his counsel in the arguments before the state supreme court.
The key point at issue was that the judge in the trial court had refused to admit testimony regarding the truth of the statement as defense. English common-law doctrine, to which Republicans adhered, held that truth was not a defense. Hamilton scored effectively with a bit of emotional proof, showing that the doctrine itself was questionable since it had originated not in common-law courts but in the odious Star Chamber, as a departure from older law. But he was particularly concerned with the suitability of the doctrine in a republic. Libel, he said, was "a slanderous or ridiculous writing, picture or sign, with a malicious or mischievous design or intent, towards government, magistrates, or individuals." Intent was crucial, and truth was relevant to determining intent. Truth was therefore a defense, though not an absolute one. If it were used "wantonly; if for the purpose of disturbing the peace of families; if for relating that which does not appertain to official conduct," it was not acceptable. "But that the truth cannot be material in any respect, is contrary to the nature of things. No tribunal, no codes, no systems can repeal or impair this law of God, for by his eternal laws it is inherent in the nature of things.… It is evident that if you cannot apply this mitigated doctrine for which I speak, to the cases of libels here, you must for ever remain ignorant of what your rulers do. I never can think this ought to be; I never did think the truth was a crime; I am glad the day is come in which it is to be decided; for my soul has ever abhorred the thought, that a free man dared not speak the truth."
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2081
SOURCE: "John Adams and Liberty under Law: Alexander Hamilton," in The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, revised edition, Regnery Books, 1986, pp. 75-80.
[An American historian, political theorist, novelist, journalist, and lecturer, Kirk was one of America's most eminent conservative intellectuals. His works have provided a major impetus to the conservative revival that has developed since the 1950s. In The Conservative Mind, Kirk traces the roots and canons of modern conservative thought to such important predecessors as Edmund Burke, John Adams, and Alexis de Tocqueville. In the following excerpt from the seventh (1986) edition of that work, Kirk discourses on Hamilton's thought and stature as a conservative statesman.]
"In the commencement of a revolution, which received its birth from the usurpations of tyranny, nothing was more natural than that the public mind should be influenced by an extreme spirit of jealousy." So Alexander Hamilton spoke to the Convention of New York, in 1788. "To resist these encroachments, and to nourish this spirit, was the great object of all our public and private institutions. The zeal for liberty became predominant and excessive. In forming our Confederation, this passion alone seemed to actuate us, and we appear to have had no other view than to secure ourselves from despotism.… But there is another object, equally important, and which our enthusiasm rendered us little capable of regarding. I mean a principle of strength and stability in the organization of our government, and of vigor in its operations."
Both the virtue and the weakness of Hamilton as a conservative thinker may be detected in this brief passage. His political principles were simple: he distrusted popular and local impulses, and he believed that salvation from the consequence of levelling ideas lay in establishing invincible national authority. He would have liked a central government; perceiving this wholly unacceptable to America, he settled for a federal government, and became its most vigorous organizer and pamphleteer. To him, with Madison and Jay, the United States owe the adoption of their Constitution. Such was Hamilton's wisdom and such were his achievements, and they have kept his memory fresh even in this generation, celebrating the Constitution's bicentenary, which in many ways badly misunderstands Hamilton. But General Hamilton was not vouchsafed the gift of prophecy, the highest talent of Burke and (in a lesser degree) of Adams. It seems hardly to have occurred to Hamilton's mind that a consolidated nation might also be a levelling and innovating nation, though he had the example of Jacobin France right before him; and he does not appear to have reflected upon the possibility that force in government may be applied to other purposes than the maintenance of a conservative order. Even in political economy, he was a practicing financier rather than an economic thinker, and he ignored the probability that the industrialized nation he projected might conjure up not only conservative industrialists, but also radical factory-hands—the latter infinitely more numerous, and more inimical to Hamilton's old-fashioned idea of class and order than all the agrarians out of Jefferson's Virginia. Now Hamilton's scheme for stimulating American industry was neither narrow nor selfish, it ought to be said; he looked forward to benefits truly general. "Hamilton asked for protection, not to confer privilege on industry, or to swell its profits, but to bring the natural occupation of a free country, namely, agriculture, into the stream of cultural advance," writes C. R. Fay. Still, his splendid practical abilities had for their substratum a set of traditional assumptions almost naive; and he rarely speculated upon what compound might result from mixing his prejudices with the elixir of American industrial vigor.
Vernon Parrington, though now and then guilty of using the terms "Tory" and "liberal" in a sense hardly discriminating, is accurate when he remarks that Hamilton was at bottom a Tory without a king, and that his teachers were Hume and Hobbes. All his revolutionary ardor notwithstanding, Hamilton loved English society as an English colonial adores it. His vision of the coming America was of another, stronger, richer eighteenth-century England. To the difficulties in the way of his dream, he was almost oblivious. American hostility to his proposal for a more powerful chief magistracy, preferably hereditary, grieved and rather surprised him, and with pain he relinquished this plan. As England was a single state, its sovereignty indivisible and its parliament omnicompetent, so should America be: he shrugged impatiently away those considerations of territorial extent, historical origin, and local prerogative which Burke would have been the first to recognize and approve.
"It is a known fact to human nature, that its affections are commonly weak in proportion to the distance or diffusiveness of the object," wrote this "bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar" (Adams' epithet) from Nevis; he had none of those local attachments of ancestry and nativity that caused leaders like Josiah Quincy and John Randolph to love their state with a passion beside which nationalism was a feeble infatuation. "Upon the same principle that a man is more attached to his family than to the community at large [he wrote in The Federalist, No. 17], the people of each State would be apt to feel a stronger bias toward their local governments than towards the government of the Union; unless the force of that principle should be destroyed by a much better administration of the latter." But Hamilton's very exoticism, which enabled his patriotism to ignore local distinctions, tended to conceal from him the obdurate resolution which was latent in the several state governments and local affections. Despite his remarks above, generally he mistook these profound impulses for mere transitory delusions; he thought they could be eradicated by the strong arm of national government—by the federal courts, the Congress, the tariff, the Bank, and his whole nationalizing program. In the long run, his instruments did indeed crush particularism to earth; but only by provoking a civil war which did more than all of Jefferson's speculations to dissipate the tranquil eighteenth-century aristocratic society that really was Hamilton's aspiration. Hamilton misunderstood both the tendency of the age (naturally toward consolidation, not localism, without much need of assistance from governmental policies deliberately pursued) and the dogged courage of his opponents. A political thinker of the first magnitude possesses greater prescience.
Similarly, that industrialization of America which Hamilton successfully promoted was burdened with consequences the haughty and forceful new aristocrat did not perceive. Commerce and manufactures, he believed, would produce a body of wealthy men whose interests would coincide with those of the national common-wealth. Probably he conceived of these pillars of society as being very like great English merchants—purchasing country estates, forming presently a stable class possessed of leisure, talent, and means, providing moral and political and intellectual leadership for the nation. The actual American businessman, generally speaking, has turned out to be a different sort of person: it is difficult to reproduce social classes from a model three thousand miles over the water. Modern captains of industry might surprise Hamilton, modern cities shock him, and the power of industrial labor frighten him: for Hamilton never quite understood the transmuting properties of social change, which in its operation is more miraculous than scientific. Like Dr. Faustus' manservant, Hamilton could evoke elementals; but once materialized, that new industrialism swept away from the control of eighteenth-century virtuosos like the masterful Secretary of the Treasury. Indeed, Hamilton was contemplating not so much the creation of a new industrialism, as the reproduction of European economic systems which the spirit of the age already was erasing:
To preserve the balance of trade in favor of a nation ought to be a leading aim of its policy. The avarice of individuals may frequently find its account in pursuing channels of traffic prejudicial to that balance, to which the government may be able to oppose effectual impediments. There may, on the other hand, be a possibility of opening new sources, which though accompanied with great difficulties in the commencement, would in the event amply reward the trouble and expense of bringing them to perfection. The undertaking may often exceed the influence and capitals of individuals, and may require no small assistance, as well from the revenue as from the authority of the state.
This is mercantilism. Hamilton had read Adam Smith with attention, but his heart was in the seventeenth century. The influence of government, in his view, might properly be exerted to encourage and enrich particular classes and occupations; the natural consequence of this would be an ultimate benefiting of the nation in general. Had America left fallow what Hamilton took in hand, her industrial growth would have been slower, but no less sure; and the consequences might have been perceptibly less roughhewn. Hamilton, however, was fascinated by the idea of a planned productivity: "We seem not to reflect that in human society there is scarcely any plan, however salutary to the whole and to every part, by the share each has in the common prosperity, but in one way, or another, will operate more to the benefit of some parts than of others [he wrote in 1782]. Unless we can overcome this narrow disposition and learn to estimate measures by their general tendencies, we shall never be a great or a happy people, if we remain a people at all." Burke—who, despite his reforming energy, would have delayed indefinitely any alteration if it menaced the lawful property and prerogative of a single tidewaiter—was extremely suspicious of such doctrines in their English form. To excuse present injustice by a plea of well-intentioned general tendency is treacherous ground for a conservative; and in this instance the argument is suggestive of how much more familiar Hamilton was with particularities than with principles.
For the rest, Hamilton gives small hint as to how this mercantilistic America is to be managed; he appears to have thought (since he had a thoroughgoing contempt for the people) that somehow, through political manipulation, through firm enforcement of the laws and national consolidation, the rich and well-born could keep their saddles and ride this imperial system like English squires. These are the hopes of a man who thinks in terms of the short run. Seven years before, the shrewd young John Quincy Adams had written from Europe to his father, "From the moment when the great mass of the nations in Europe were taught to inquire why is this or that man possessed of such or such an enjoyment at our expense, and of which we are deprived, the signal was given of a civil war in the social arrangements of Europe, which cannot finish but with the total ruin of their feudal constitutions." Those powers which Hamilton was so ready to bestow upon the state eventually would be diverted to ends at the the antipodes from Hamilton's; and the urban population that Hamilton's policies stimulated would be the forcing-ground of a newer radicalism. The conservative side of Jefferson's complex nature frowned against this arbitrary meddling with populations and occupations, and presently Randolph, and after him Calhoun, denounced with impotent fury the coming of the new industrial era, more hideous in their eyes than the old colonial condition. In several respects, they were sounder conservatives than Hamilton: for he was eminently a city-man, and veneration withers upon the pavements. "It is hard to learn to love the new gas-station," writes Walter Lippmann, "that stands where the wild honeysuckle grew." But Hamilton never penetrated far beneath the surface of politics to the mysteries of veneration and presumption.
For all that, one ought not to confuse Hamilton with the Utilitarians; if he erred, it was after the fashion of the old Tories, rather than that of the philosophic radicals. He remained a Christian, in the formal eighteenth-century way, and wrote of the follies of the French Revolution, "The politician who loves liberty, sees them with regret as a gulf that may swallow up the liberty to which he is devoted. He knows that morality overthrown (and morality must fall with religion), the terrors of despotism can alone curb the impetuous passions of man, and confine him within the bounds of social duty." Burke's vaticinations had stirred him here, as they affected John Adams, J. Q. Adams, Randolph, and so many other Americans; but the influence of Burke went no deeper. Hamilton was a straggler behind his age, rather than the prophet of a new way. By a very curious coincidence, this old-fangled grand gentleman died from the bullet of Aaron Burr, friend and disciple of Bentham.