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Sunday, November 1, 1998

Hamilton’s Republic: Readings in the American Democratic Nationalist Tradition

Twentieth-Century "Hamiltonians" Have Little in Common with the Founding Fathers

David Upham is a doctoral student in political science at the University of Dallas.

In this anthology, Michael Lind has compiled excerpts from speeches and writings by important American statesmen and intellectuals that are illustrative of what Lind calls the Hamiltonian or “Democratic Nationalist Tradition.” Included among the Democratic Nationalists are such figures as Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. Lind argues that they share a common attachment to four main political principles that distinguish them from their chief rivals, the “Jeffersonians”: the primacy of the national community versus local communities; the sovereignty of the national people, rather than the sovereignty of the states; nationalist political realism instead of isolationism or world federalism; and a broad understanding of the powers and role of the federal government.

Lind clearly favors the Hamiltonian tradition, even going so far as to say that it is “the source of most of what is sensible and sound in American foreign policy, constitutional law, and economic policy.” He confidently hopes for a revival of the Hamiltonianism (or at least his view thereof) most recently championed by New Deal and Cold War liberals and an end of the current domination (again in Lind’s view) by the “Jeffersonian” conservative Republicans.

The chief and ruinous flaw in Lind’s argument is that he ignores the fact that whatever the disagreements between Hamilton and the Federalists, on the one hand, and Jefferson and his allies, on the other, they were small compared to the divergence of opinion between all of the leading men of the Founding generation and the “Progressives” of the twentieth century. Hamilton, no less than Jefferson, would have repudiated the political projects of such Progressives as Herbert Croly and Franklin Roosevelt, whom Lind calls “Hamiltonian.”

Lind can obfuscate the difference between Hamilton and the Progressives mainly because he presents only a few short excerpts from Hamilton’s writings. In a 345-page anthology entitled Hamilton’s Republic, one would expect to find more than 15 pages devoted to Hamilton’s own work. Moreover, Lind presents these excerpts in a misleading way. For example, under the heading “The Need for Direct and Plenary Federal Authority,” Lind includes a few passages from The Federalist Papers. Yet he fails to include those passages in which Hamilton emphatically states that the federal power is not plenary, such as insistence in Federalist 17 that if the federal government were to undertake to control “the administration of private justice between the citizens of the same State, the supervision of agriculture, and other concerns of a similar nature,” it would represent “usurpations” of state authority.

While it is true that in opposition to Jefferson, Hamilton held that the federal government did have the constitutional power to establish a national bank, for instance, he would most certainly have opposed the recent establishment of a multitude of federal agencies to exercise extensive control over the details of economic and social life in the United States. Lyndon Johnson would hardly have agreed with Hamilton’s statement at the New York ratifying convention that “whatever is not expressly given to the federal head is reserved to its members.” Yet Lind calls Johnson one of the “greatest Hamiltonian presidents.”

On a more fundamental theoretical level, what separates Lind’s twentieth-century “Hamiltonians” from Hamilton and the rest of the Founders is their rejection of the earlier American consensus, according to which there is a universal, natural law from which one can derive fixed governing principles. In “The Farmer Refuted,” another work Lind did not include, Hamilton (at the age of 18!) wrote that “the deity . . . has constituted an eternal and immutable law, which is, indispensably, obligatory upon all mankind, prior to any human institution whatever.” According to this universal law, all men have certain rights, including the right to property: “no man had any moral power to deprive another of his life, limbs, property, or liberty.” Legitimate government is instituted “for the security of [these] absolute rights.” This understanding of good government is, of course, virtually identical with that set forth in the Declaration of Independence. Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and the others whom Lind praises saw things quite differently.