Thursday, August 13, 2009

Jefferson vs. Hamilton Redux

A very interesting article at TCS Daily brings history to life by comparing the current debate over health care 'reform' to those that took place in the early republic:
Hamilton, our first Secretary of the Treasury, was a nationalist who had an expansive view of the powers granted to the nascent federal government under the newly-ratified Constitution. ... [H]e promoted federal involvement in manufacturing enterprises and other economic activities (something that had to wait for 20th century presidents for implementation).

In these endeavors, Hamilton faced the bitter opposition of Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson warned that raising taxes to finance a growing national debt would spark resistance. But he went well beyond merely counseling the President and wrestling with Hamilton inside the cabinet.

In combination with James Madison, Hamilton's erstwhile collaborator in the ratification struggle who had broken with his ally over the Bank of the United States, Jefferson took the lead in organizing a "republican" opposition to Hamilton's "royalists" or "monocrats." He corresponded with activists in several states, toured the back country with Madison in search of supporters, and gave a hack writer a job at the State Department, helping him found a newspaper with which to savage Hamilton (who relied on his own allied newspaper to punch back).
The conflict took a dangerous turn with the outbreak of the Whiskey Rebellion, an uprising against an excise tax on spirits that Hamilton had recommended. Public protests erupted first in Pennsylvania and were mostly peaceful, but not entirely; there were several mob attacks on tax collectors.

Federalist forces struck back, painting the protesters as "a rabble" and "an ignorant herd" wedded to "worn out ideas." President Washington temporized, hoping that reducing the tax and emitting conciliatory messages would dissipate public anger. But official reports kept reaching him that characterized the protests, with more than a little exaggeration, "as a vast conspiracy of Anti-Federalist sympathizers bent on destroying the new national government."
The entire article is well worth a read, as is most of the material on that period. [Side note on that link: this ain't the dry stuff you were taught in school. This is high drama!]


madmax said...

Have you heard of this book:

DiLorenzo is a libertarian and I would be suspicious of him because of what I know about libertarians, namely their anarchist tendency to hate the state instead of hating statism. But its a book I intend to read.

But as I understand it, Mercantilism was the dominant economic theory of the time. Adam Smith was just starting to publish his works. So I wonder how much blame we can lay at Hamilton's feet given the historical and philosophical context.

Jeff Perren said...

I haven't read that book, but I've read a few of DiLorenzo's articles and view them with the same jaundiced eye as libertarians in general. They, like Ron Paul, for example, sometimes make good points - usually by borrowing or adopting those parts of classical liberalism, Mises, Rand, etc - that you or I could applaud. But, as for an integrated philosophy, Rand has it all over them, especially when it comes to applications in foreign policy.

On Hamilton, I'm inclined to be less generous than you, perhaps. As a co-author of the Federalist Papers, I give him his due. But, and I admit I know much more about Madison's and Jefferson's views than his, I'm very wary nonetheless.

In part that's because, while one does have to consider his context, both Madison and Jefferson (along with others like Paine, Adams - John and Samuel - etc) got it so much more right. That suggests some unsavory elements in his thinking and character, like a fondness for excessively concentrated power. All the Founders were mixed bags, but Hamilton seems to have contained more of the ill aspects, even for a man of the times.

Fortunately, when it comes to studying them, one doesn't have to rely on individuals like DiLorenzo. The original documents are quite readable and, if paired with a good general history of the times, provide really good data to form one's own independent assessment. Like you, I suspect, I think it would be great to have someone like Dr. John Lewis do some work in this area. (I don't know C. Bradley Thompson's work well enough to give an educated opinion.) There's only so much time for books and it always helps to have a concentrated work to read.

Beyond all that, what's most interesting, I think (and what the article here points out) is just how relevant all of this material remains. That, as I know you well know, is proof of the power of broad principles.

Thanks for writing, and welcome back to Shaving Leviathan. I hope you'll comment again.

Jeff Perren said...

By the way, if you're interested in readable, authentic, original source material, the two volume:

Debate on the Constitution (Ed. Bernard Bailyn)

is excellent. Filled with articles, letters, speeches, and more from the period.