Ian Garrick Mason

Articles and Essays

National Post -- October 30, 2004

Hamilton's currency rising

The often overlooked Founding Father envisioned an urban, industrial United States, led by a strong central government and backed by a huge military. It is no wonder today's conservatives are embracing him.

by Ian Garrick Mason

As part of his speech at the Republican National Convention in New York in early September, President George W. Bush rattled off a list of domestic proposals that was almost Clintonian in its length -- increased funding for job training, community colleges, and rural health centres, the creation of economic “opportunity zones” in poorer states, tax exemptions for small businesses buying health insurance -- and that struck many commentators as being jarringly out of sync with the traditional conservative distrust of activist government. But with a closely-fought election campaign focusing on the war in Iraq, the domestic policy divisions in the Republican Party have been papered over for the sake of keeping the Democrats out of the White House.

Once the paper is removed, however, the divisions that emerge will reflect something deeper than tactical disagreements over government programs. They will reflect, rather, a much older conflict in American politics, one between the followers of Thomas Jefferson, one of America's best known and most admired presidents, and the followers of Alexander Hamilton, who most Americans know only as the man on the $10 bill.

The New-York Historical Society is doing its best to increase Hamilton's constituency with a well-publicized exhibition about his remarkable life, which ended 200 years ago this past July 12. Indeed, Hamilton's status as one of the least remembered of the founding fathers seems odd when one considers his accomplishments. Born in 1757 on the tiny Caribbean island of Nevis, Hamilton began working at the age of nine to support his family after his father abandoned them. Having risen to manager of a counting house, he was sent by benefactors to complete his schooling in America. At 17, Hamilton began writing political articles, and when the Revolutionary War began he organized an artillery company, fought bravely, and ended up as General George Washington's aide-de-camp at the age of only 20.

After the war, Hamilton participated in the convention that created the new constitution, and then went on to write the lion’s share of the Federalist essays (James Madison and John Jay wrote the remainder), which were aimed at convincing New York state to ratify the document. By thirty-two he was appointed the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury, at which post he re-organized the nation’s parlous finances, created a central bank -- and warred mightily with fellow cabinet member, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. Hamilton was killed in 1804 in a famous duel with Aaron Burr, a tragic end to a long-festering political and personal feud.

Despite all his achievements, it was the conflict with Jefferson that was to influence the public memory of Hamilton for ever after. In the view of posterity, the two men represented irreconcilable visions of the nation: Jefferson, an idealistic, small-government, agrarian, democratic America; Hamilton, a realistic, strong-government, industrial, aristocratic America. And throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, Jefferson’s legacy outshone Hamilton’s.

But the coming of the Civil War discredited Jefferson’s emphasis on states’ rights, and in the aftermath, the proven power of the Union’s economy and military seemed to justify Hamilton’s modernist views on government and commerce. Indeed, by the end of the nineteenth century respect for Hamilton had reached an apex. America had transformed itself from a nation of farmers and local merchants into an industrial-military state that had embarked on the beginnings of empire. President Theodore Roosevelt, the great apostle of “active” government, held Hamilton in high esteem. “The most brilliant American statesman who ever lived,” Roosevelt said of him, “possessing the loftiest and keenest intellect of his time.”

The Roosevelt era, in fact, was a kind of cross-over opportunity for Hamilton’s legacy. Roosevelt was both a Republican and a progressive reformer in the style of what would later become known as big government liberalism: he supported income and inheritance taxes, improved labour standards, federal regulation of monopolies, and the creation of national parks. When Roosevelt was stonewalled in his third presidential run by pro-business party bosses at the Republican Convention of 1912, he stormed out -- “feeling like a bull moose,” he said -- and set up the Progressive Party, with a bull moose as its symbol.

Roosevelt only managed to split the Republican vote, however, and the small-government, free-market spirit of Jefferson returned to the White House with Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Though the pro-business administrations of the 1920s paid some homage to Hamilton -- Calvin Coolidge put Hamilton’s face on the ten-dollar bill in 1928 -- it was mainly his financier’s spirit which was being invoked.

This simplification left Hamilton’s legacy vulnerable. When the Great Depression arrived, Wall Street, seen as Hamilton’s creation, was widely blamed for the collapse. Though Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal government would ultimately swell to unprecedented size, FDR chose small-government Jefferson as his icon, dedicating the Jefferson Memorial in 1943. Hamilton’s ghost was relegated to the shadows.

Where it remained for the next fifty years. Though government continued to expand in support of national priorities like the Cold War and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, Jefferson remained ascendant for both egalitarian liberals and small-government conservatives. Indeed, led by low-taxes crusader and Republican Party stalwart Grover Norquist, activists at the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project have been mounting a campaign over the past several years to replace Hamilton’s face on the ten dollar bill with Reagan’s. Apparently, it’s nothing personal. “Hamilton has less of a built-in constituency of people who would be opposed to him being removed,” Project director Chris Butler told the New York Times this year.

Recently, however, Hamilton has once again been gaining defenders. Ron Chernow's full-scale biography of him earlier in the summer attracted a great deal of favourable media attention, and the New-York Historical Society exhibition has been organized by another of Hamilton's biographers, Richard Brookhiser, who wrote Alexander Hamilton, American in 1999.

Brookhiser is senior editor at the conservative American magazine National Review, and it is from conservatives that Hamilton’s memory has been getting its strongest support. For Brookhiser, Hamilton’s appeal is as a moral exemplar. His life story, after all, could be a brochure for the American Dream: immigrant arrives with nothing and bootstraps himself to a top cabinet position, then builds a legal and economic infrastructure that in turn helps others to realize their potential. “Hamilton,” writes Brookhiser, “who had already come from the Caribbean to the pulpit at St. Paul’s [where he gave the eulogy for the deceased General Nathanael Greene], and would go on to more glittering prizes yet, wanted to generalize his experience. That is why he is a great man, and a great American.”

Meanwhile, to conservatives who admire strong executive power, Hamilton has become a stern post-9/11 icon. Pondering the ashes from the World Trade Center that covered Hamilton’s nearby resting place, Stephen F. Knott, author of Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth, writes in an essay for the Claremont Institute that “One can almost hear him calling from his despoiled grave, exhorting the nation not to bow to those still warring with the Enlightenment, those who are fearful of modernity and change, and envious of our wealth and power... [H]e would also suggest, no doubt to the concern of some contemporary observers, that there are occasions when the government's obligation to protect our right to life necessarily precedes some civil rights.”

There is even an attempt to use Hamilton’s legacy to rejuvenate the Republican Party itself. In 1997, David Brooks and William Kristol of the Weekly Standard wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal advocating “national-greatness conservatism”. Criticizing the anti-government rhetoric of many of their conservative colleagues, they asked, “How can Americans love their nation if they hate its government?” They then proceeded to outline a manifesto of park- and monument-building programs, of “national strength and moral assertiveness abroad”, and of limited but “energetic” government.

Now a columnist for the New York Times, David Brooks recently updated this call in a feature piece in the paper’s weekly magazine (“How to reinvent the G.O.P.”). “Strong-government conservatism” or “progressive conservatism” is what he calls it now, but once again he links it tightly to the legacy of Hamilton, as well as to the legacies of Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. His manifesto has grown a little more ambitious: he’s for aggressively prosecuting “the war on Islamic extremism” and implementing an 18-month national service program for young people -- “for the sake of character development and national union,” he argues. He’s for reducing the size of government “where it is useless or worse” and for eliminating corporate subsidies “in a great sweep that overwhelms the parochial lobbying campaigns that groups will mount on behalf of each one” -- a classic Jeffersonian small-government goal dressed up in Hamiltonian language.

It was with the same sort of activist spirit that President Bush’s convention speech was imbued. Hamilton’s ghost became more tangible that evening.

Yet while the temptation to glorify the wisdom of Hamilton is a strong one, like other fallible human beings he wasn’t always wise. Though he deserves much credit for having built the foundations of the modern American state, as much good came from delegates ignoring his recommendations as following them. At the Constitutional Convention, Hamilton advocated the election of a president-for-life (subject to recall for bad behaviour) -- an idea which would have made America a kind of “elective monarchy”, as James Madison described it in his notes. Luckily, the other delegates took little notice; Hamilton was later told that his speech had been “praised by everybody”, but “supported by none”.

In the end, much of what Hamilton advocated did come true -- America is run by a powerful federal government with a permanent and huge military; as a country, it is urban, industrial, commercial, and capitalist. “[Hamilton] was the messenger from the future we now inhabit,” writes Chernow. To many of his modern supporters, this is enough to justify elevating him in the public mind to a place equal to or higher than Jefferson. But most Americans have never really been comfortable with Hamilton -- perhaps because they continue to believe that there is something unique about the American experiment, and that it is Jefferson’s legacy, not Hamilton’s, that embodies that uniqueness. Praise Hamilton, and you may praise the iron sinews of the American nation-state. But praise Jefferson, and you praise its heart.