Although no other founder has had “a bigger impact on American society” than Alexander Hamilton, his impact has nevertheless been “almost universally negative from the perspective of those who would like to think of America as the land of the free,” people like you and me (p. 9).
Thomas J. DiLorenzo continues with this theme as he embarks on chapter two of Hamilton’s Curse, the title of which comes from an article by political scientist Cecelia Kenyon in the scholarly journal Political Science Quarterly (pp. 22–23).
The deﬁning characteristics of the British Empire, the same British Empire American revolutionaries found so liberticidal that secession was their only option, were “dictatorial monarchy, centralized power, imperialism, and economic mercantilism”—the very same set of conditions Hamilton fervently hoped America would adopt (p. 9). Thus, if Hamilton was to convince the public to adopt these conditions, he would have to use rhetoric with striking simularity to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s conception of “general will.” Thus, Hamilton discussed his policies in terms of “the public interest” literally “hundreds of times in [his] speeches, letters, and writings” (Ibid.). This is, of course, an ancient tactic of statist oppressors, but one that often proves successful nonetheless.
Thus DiLorenzo writes, “Hamilton was an American mercantilist, and he and his party (and its political heirs, the Whigs and Republicans) advocated special-interest policies that would primarily beneﬁt politically connected merchants, manufacturers, speculators, and bankers at the expense of the rest of the public. The ‘public interest’ rhetoric was (and is) an indispensable political smoke screen if they were to achieve political success. The wool must be pulled over the public’s eyes with ‘public interest’ rhetoric if mercantilism were to succeed. Jefferson and his political compatriots, such as John Taylor, saw through it” (pp. 23–24).
We learn a bit more about Hamilton in this chapter, for example we learn that he was a slave-owner (pp. 10–11) who became a founder of the New York Post with the purpose of smearing his rival Thomas Jefferson. We learn that Hamilton was an advocate of outright nationalism (p. 13) who wanted America to “a kind of ‘king’ [a permanent president] who would yield supreme power over all people, who in turn would have essentially no say in how their government was run. The states would be mere provinces whose governors would be appointed by and loyal to the ‘king.’ Under such a regime, all political power in the nation would be exercised by the chief executive and his circle of advisors” (pp. 16–17). And we learn that Hamilton had no qualms with lying in order to achieve his goals.
Hamilton, for example, prior to the ratiﬁcation of the U.S. Constitution, assured Jeffersonian localists that the various states would still be sovereign under the Constitution, even though he clearly had no personal opposition to the seizure of power by the central state. Moreover, he promised that the newly-proposed U.S. Congress would never contemplate “marching the troops of one state into the bosom of another” for any reason (p. 20). This, it turns out, was a bald-faced lie.
Hamilton, who wished to have a huge national debt and ever-higher levels of taxation, “was instrumental in getting Congress to enact numberous excise taxes, a national property tax, and other taxes, including a special tax on whiskey” (p. 34). Unfortunately for western Pennsylvanian farmers, who used whiskey as their means of exchange (i.e. money), this made basic commerce too difﬁcult and thus destroyed trade. Needless to say, the farmers rebelled by refusing to pay the insane tax.
This act of independence and rebellion infuriated Hamilton, who wanted to ﬁght the rebellion with “overwhelming force” (Ibid.). “So at Hamilton’s urging, President Washington personally led an army of more than 13,000 conscripts to Pennsylvania, accompanied by Hamilton the chief tax collector,” the very thing he had promised the New York ratifying convention less than a decade earlier would never happen (Ibid.).
We really shouldn’t be surprised by this corruption. Hamilton had no love for restrained government, and instead aimed to “build the foundations of a new empire” (p. 14). Both Jefferson and Hamilton, DiLorenzo tells us, “fully understood what was at stake: Would the American government mimic the British and pursue ‘national greatness,’ ‘imperial glory,’ and empire, as Hamilton preferred? Or would the primary purpose of government be the modest Jeffersonian one of protecting the lives, liberties, and property of its citizens? Both men understood that empire would mean that government would become the master, rather than the servant, of the people, as it had been for generations in the Old World” (p. 12). The difference between the two men is that Hamilton wanted the involuntary servitude associated with statism to be foisted upon the haplas masses; the Jeffersonians did not.
Hamilton was no doubt disappointed by the Philadelphia Convention, therefore, which rejected his goals. As Robert Yates’s Secret Proceedings and Debates of the Constitutional Convention and Senator John Taylor’s New Views of the Constitution of the United States (1823) point out, the Founders understood themselves to be creating a system wherein each of the states retain their sovereignty. Although Hamilton proposed his “permanent president,” the Convention whole-heartedly rejected the proposal and the philosophy of “executive dictatorship and monopoly government” (p. 17), instead viewing the Constitution as “a compact among the free and independent states and not as the creation of a ‘national’ government” (Ibid.). It was never their intention to create a “central government whose laws would always trump the laws of the states” (p. 18), so it should come as no surprise that Hamilton, following the convention, called the Constitution “a frail and worthless fabric” (p. 14)—it didn’t achieve his hypernationalist goals.
Unfortunately today, the central state is treated as a Leviathan whose legitimacy trumps all below it, from the various state governments down to the individual. Thus, although Hamilton initially saw his objective as having failed, in the end Hamiltonianism has unfortunately succeeded in transforming the American republic into the American Empire. Hamilton the nationalist, Hamilton the mercantilist, Hamilton the militarist (pp. 28–29, 32), would be gleeful at the position of the modern American state.
I cannot say that this chapter comes without a personal objection. On page 27, DiLorenzo states that the doctrine of implied powers, as advocated by Hamilton and his Federalist Party, bore “liberal judicial activism.”
I must ask, why do people still insist on implying that judicial activism necessarily expands the state? It seems to me that it is judicial restraint that allows the Congress and the president to expand state power—in other words, the judiciary restrains itself from overriding the unconstitutional actions of the other two branches.
Liberal judicial activism was used back in the day to limit the power of the state, used to say that the unconstitutional big government policies of the other two branches were just that—unconstitutional—and were thus null and void. Liberal judicial activism was used in the early years of Roosevelt to ﬁght his unconstitutional New Deal.
Judicial restraint, conversely, was used—more often then not—to pretend that various big government programmes of Congress and the president were in fact perfectly ﬁne vis-à-vis the Constitution. Thus, the judicially restrained court effectively restrained itself from nullifying these laws.
It therefore seems to me that the Federalist Party brought us the birth of conservative judicial restraint.
DiLorenzo also fails to point out, when speaking of state sovereignty, that states do not actually possess “rights,” that rights can only be possessed by individuals and the voluntary associations they form. (Surely, not even Mussolini would be so cavalier as to claim that the state is a voluntary association.) The Founders clearly understood this, as the tenth amendment, which DiLorenzo himself addressed on pages 17–18, refer to the reserved powers of the states, not their “rights.”
DiLorenzo’s failure to mention that states do not actually possess rights and his willingness to associate judicial activism with either the Federalists or Hamilton’s doctrine of implied powers appear to be the only drawbacks to this chapter. DiLorenzo’s attack on Hamilton remains well-deserved, and my view of Hamilton has, especially in light of his vicious and vile attack on the admirable Whiskey Rebellion, sunk to all new levels.
—Alexander S. Peak