Steve G.

Live-blogging: Hamilton’s Curse: Introduction: The Real Hamilton

In Books, Corruption, History, literature, Live-blogging, US Government on March 12, 2009 at 10:22 pm

Today I begin my live-blogging journey through Thomas James DiLorenzo’s most recent book, Hamilton’s Curse: How Jefferson’s Archenemy Betrayed the American Revolution—and What It Means for Americans Today.

The book, 209 pages in length and dedicated to Dr. Murray N. Rothbard, “a brilliant scholar and tireless defender of the free society,” is about exactly what you would expect given the title.  Alexander Hamilton, revered today by both nationalists on the right and social engineers on the “left,” was in actual fact a manipulative engineer for the undermining of the Constitution and Liberty.

On the one side, we had Thomas Jefferson—a defender of limited, decentralised government; of “strict constructionism” with regards to the Constitution; of free trade and minimal taxation.  On the other, we had Hamilton.

Hamilton wanted for America a strong, centralised state—the more centralised, the better.  He took this so far that, at the Philadelphia Convention, “he proposed a permanent chief executive who could veto all state legislation—in other words, an American king” (p. 2).  The contrast between Jefferson and Hamilton could not be more stark.

DiLorenzo explains that Hamilton “wanted to use this centralized power to subsidize business in particular, and the more affluent in general, so as to make them supportive of an ever-growing state.  As treasury secretary, he was a frenetic tax-increaser and advocated government planning of the economy.  He championed the accumulation of public debt, protectionist tariffs, and politically controlled banks; belittled politicians like Jefferson who spoke too much of liberty; and believed that the new American government should pursue the course of national and imperial glory, just like the British, French, and Spanish empires” (Ibid.).  Given that the United States have adopted all of these evils, it should come as no surprise that DiLorenzo quotes George F. Will as saying we now live, despite our honouring of Jefferson, “in Hamilton’s country” (pp. 3–4).  The American Revolution has been betrayed, and in large part thanks to the surviving influence of Hamiltonianism (p. 4).

It seems DiLorenzo was moved to write this book as a means of dispelling various myths that have arisen surrounding Hamilton’s legacy.  For example, Ron Chernow has called Hamilton “the prophet of the capitalist revolution in America,” and neoconservative commentator David Brooks has claimed that Hamilton somehow single-handedly “created capitalism.”  Correcting this error, DiLorenzo points out that Hamilton’s “hyperinterventionist approach to the economy was anything but capitalism” (p. 5).

Thus far, it appears my only main contention with DiLorenzo is going to be with his use of vocabulary.  On page six, Professor DiLorenzo associates liberalism with its big-government, modern-day imposture by referring to the Brookings Institute as a liberal think tank.  This would be more reasonable if the author were to place “liberalism” in quotes, thereby distinguishing it from the real liberalism of Jefferson, Thoreau, and Mises.

Professor DiLorenzo also describes traditional conservatism as an ideology opposed to big government.  It seems to me, on the contrary, that traditional conservatism arose as an ideology aimed at defending and restoring the ancien régime.  What better or more succinct way to describe Hamilton’s objective?  I can think of no man who better exemplifies in my mind “traditional conservatism” than Hamilton, save for possibly Thomas Hobbes.

Perhaps the author understands this, but chose to describe conservatism as an ideology favouring smaller government because, after all, self-described conservatives often do use small-government rhetoric, even if their policies do not reflect said rhetoric.  Reagan, for example, called government “the problem,” and it’s not hard to overlook the fact that his big-government policies never lived up to his limited-government talk.  In any event, Crown Publishing Group—the publisher of this book—appears to be a conservative-oriented publisher.

This, it currently appears, is my only notable problem with DiLorenzo’s book.  His main thesis, that Hamilton and his Federalist Party betrayed the revolution, is certainly credible and deserves to be promoted.

—Alexander S. Peak

  1. Great post, Alex. I often cringe at how words and their usage, over time, can denote very opposite ideas from those originally intended. Sadly, not many people take the time to adequately research etymology (indeed many don’t even know the term) and therefore run around pretending expert while displaying foolishness. Your post is spot on in the description of liberal and conservative and while I love the book blog point of it, I appreciate that you took time to mark the distinction.

  2. Alexander,

    Thanks for keeping the definitions of “liberal” and “conservative” in view. It may seem like a small point but I believe that it may be important going forward to push the classical view of liberal back to the forefront so as to recapture it true meaning. I wonder if we should not use the “classical liberal” title as F. A. Hayek did?

    Other than that, I am happy to see DiLorenzo take on the misconceptions of Hamilton as the one who “created capitalism.” That is like saying FDR stopped the great depression. Yea I know, that is being said to.

  3. Here’s the real kicker: would America have risen to be as strong and influential as it is today without the influence of Hamilton?

  4. Funny you should ask that question. I’m not sure any of us can answer it with 100% certainty…there are others that are as difficult. This problem of slavery is one. The Founders overlooked that because the would not have been able to get the south to sign onto a federal constitution. If the north had mandated an end to slavery be included within the Constitution would we have an America today? Or maybe two or more countries?

  5. Mr. zwit,

    That depends upon what you mean by “strong and influential.”

    Hamilton was certainly an advocate of imperialism, and America would not be the empire it is today had the government followed the small-government path of the Jeffersonians. But, I would argue, this sort of strength and influence is ultimately undesirable. In other words, we should have followed the Jeffersonian path, thus eschewing standing armies, entangling alliances, and militarism. Being a so-called “world power” is vastly overrated, and these United States would be far better off with a weak central government rather than the strong one we possess now.

    But strength and influence can be understood in another way as well. Specifically, we lack the economic strength we would otherwise possess precisely because we have pursued the Hamiltonian path of deficit spending, central banking, high taxation, and corporate welfare/bailouts. This system of neo-mercantilism always benefits the few powerful players receiving statist privilege at the expense of the whole consumer class, viz. everyone except the privileged firms and the politicians. Protectionist steel tariffs, as just one of so many examples, benefit those U.S. firms that produce steel by allowing them to not have to compete with foreign steel producers who could otherwise provide better quality steel at lower costs to American consumers, but does nothing beneficial for the American consumers who now have to go without the better quality and/or cheaper steel they would otherwise be consuming. Unfortunately for all of us, this doesn’t merely hurt the direct purchasers of steel, but also hurts anyone who purchase products from businesses that need to use steel since those businesses have to raise prices on consumers as well so as to afford the unnaturally-high monopoly/oligopoly costs of steel.

    The average American would be far better off today had the political class not vied for power and influence through pursuing Hamiltonian policies. The best way to improve the condition of the average American is to re-embrace Jeffersonianism. Sure, we’d be giving up our position as “world power” (a phrase found nowhere in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution), but hat we’d gain in exchange is well-worth it.

    Regards,
    Alex Peak

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