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The Leftist Hamilton?



Ever since the 1820s, Americans have recreated the Founding Fathers they wished they had and used them in convenient ways to promote their own agenda. Little has changed over the decades except the addition of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and to a lesser extent, Theodore Roosevelt, to the pantheon of people who you can pull quotes from without context to promote your positions. Thus the MLK conservatives can claim to support, laughable as that may be to anyone who knows anything about the man.

Although it certainly never disappeared, this sort of thing went through a bit of a lull after World War II, as historical studies of the constitutional period went out of fashion and were replaced by Arthur Schlesinger and others studying the Jacksonian period for the roots of American democracy. In recent decades, conservatives made the wise political move to reclaim the Founders, even if they are as fabricated as their MLK. Scalia’s originalism, patent fraud that it is, has roots in his version of the Constitution. Of course, he, like most Americans, sees the Constitution as a living document despite his protestations. So the 2nd Amendment is deified and the 4th Amendment flushed down the toilet. There’s a long history of this sort of thing, including Gilded Age courts finding an expansive interpretation of the 14th Amendment for corporations while not applying it to African-Americans at all, even though it was written for the latter. In the end, the Constitution has worked reasonably OK for a pretty long time, and it’s hard to ask much more of a government, at least when compared to other governments in history. But the attempt to tie everything to what a bunch of elite men in powdered wigs thought 225 years ago causes more problems than it solves for modern society.

My favorite story around this absurdity is the following:

“What Justice Scalia wants to know is what James Madison thought about video games,” and if “he enjoyed them,” Justice Alito said sarcastically. Justice Scalia shot back, “No, I want to know what James Madison thought about violence.”

Who knows! And why should we try to answer an unknowable and absurd question! In effect, the Constitution means whatever we want it to mean in a given time. But to say that makes people very uncomfortable, I think because we ultimately still want to revere the Founders.

In recent years, liberals have tried to play catch up on originalism, for better of for worse. I’d probably argue for worse because I don’t think originalism is particularly helpful except as a rhetorical political tool. There’s certainly no sanctity in the words or intentions of the Founders.

I mention all of this because of Christian Parenti’s article in Jacobin arguing for a left-wing Alexander Hamilton that has useful lessons for modern Americans on fighting climate change. The article itself is relatively unobjectionable, except that I don’t think Hamilton has any meaningful lessons for us on fighting climate change. Parenti is certainly correct about Hamilton’s modern vision of what would become industrial capitalism and of course his vital role in creating the financial institutions of the new nation is not in question. Parenti’s fundamental argument is that leftists have long fallen on the wrong side of the Hamilton/Jefferson divide. He notes that Jefferson was a slaveholder who had a backwards view of economic development and Hamilton was anti-slavery with a vision of economic growth, and that Hamilton’s idea of an activist government needs to be resuscitated by modern progressives who need to fight back against conservative Jeffersonianism. A Hamiltonian government, not a Jeffersonian one, is the only Founding vision that can effectively fight against climate change.

I have no problem with the left abandoning its idea of romanticized agrarian Jeffersonianism. Leftists love talking about Jefferson’s vague revolutionary words, but I don’t think that’s all that useful for a democratic leftist revolution that is probably never going to happen, at least within my lifetime. Yet is tying our boat to Hamilton any better? Parenti notes that Hamilton has long been perceived as anti-democracy. There’s a good reason for that. Hamilton was anti-democracy. You can’t wave that away. I’m also a bit turned off by the slavery argument. Yes, Jefferson was a slaveholder and a bad guy for it, but that point does not immediately mean that, if we are supposed to learn anything from the Founders, that Jefferson, Madison, Washington, and the other slaveholders are immediately disqualified. If there is value to be gleaned from these long dead men, I don’t think one, admittedly quite horrible, sin automatically means they are out of bounds on everything else, especially given that the non-slave holding Founders also held political positions reprehensible to left-wing Americans in 2014.

Ultimately, I have two much larger problems here. First, Parenti is correct that we need to argue for the activist state. Hamilton is useful for that argument. But if that alone is the argument, we can draw off of Lincoln, FDR, Lenin, a pantheon of people. It’s not that Hamilton has lessons to teach us. It’s that there is a whole history of people showing that an activist government can accomplish a great deal. Tying that to Hamilton is just a politically convenient way of doing that because of the power of using the Founders. And maybe that’s OK.

But this gets to the second problem. If Hamilton’s view of an activist government means that we can use government to fight climate change, Hamilton himself pushed that activist government to facilitate industrial capitalism, i.e., the very system creating catastrophic climate change! Until industrial capitalism is solved, we aren’t going to create a comprehensive response to climate change. If that means a comprehensive response is not going to happen, well, yes, because that is actually what is happening.

In other words, saying Hamilton can guide us today requires a) taking the man out of context or b) making the lessons impossibly broad. There is no “leftist” Hamilton because he would never have recognized such a thing could be possible. It’s a construction of Hamilton based upon chosen facts and stories that serve a modern political purpose. I guess that’s alright, but it certainly raises the eyebrows of this historian. And if we are to learn this lesson from Hamilton, what other lessons should we learn? That the Alien and Sedition Acts were a good idea? That democracy is scary and should be crushed? None of these Founders are less complex than Jefferson; that the latter was a slaveholder who hated the urban poor was terrible, but he did genuinely believe in a form of democracy that was advanced for its day, even if it was a herrenvolk democracy. Hamilton sure didn’t believe in any form of democracy that advanced. If we are reappropriating Hamilton for the left, we have to reckon with these questions because they are as central to his being as creating the institutions of American capitalism, including a functioning federal government. Otherwise, we are cherry picking what we like about him.

I completely agree with Parenti that environmental activists need to double down on their focus on the state, but then I don’t agree with him that lots of greens today don’t rely on the state. That may be true with some grassroots activists, but it most certainly is not true of the big green organizations who are so reliant on the state that they struggle to even comprehend how to motivate the grassroots in an era where they can’t get legislation passed for the first time in a half-century. It’s also not true of the 350.org movement, which is completely reliant upon pressuring the state not to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline. I don’t doubt there is an anarcho-environmentalism that’s popular in some grassroots groups, but that’s hardly indicative of a movement that has long understood the power of the state to enact change. Even here though, Parenti seems to be talking about a libertarian environmentalism that argues for corporate social responsibility. Those ideas are out there but I think is more of an environmentalist strategy in the face of hostile government shutting off legislation than an end game.

Personally, I would rather we not turn the Founders, ever more distant in the past, into people we bow before, or at least their faces chiseled on the sides of South Dakota mountains, an odd American institution. I think it’s really problematic because it relies upon constructed histories of them that almost inherently have to leave out difficult facts. It also reinforces the narrative that change is primarily created by wealthy white great men, not a theory with which I am particularly comfortable. The left likes to talk about “the people,” but it sure loves its great men.

So what is history good for then? I speak for no one but myself, but for this historian, there are very few “lessons” from the past that we can easily learn. Nothing can be understood without the context of the time. What history offers is the understanding of how we got into the situation we are in today, whether positive or negative. For example, we can’t understand Ferguson without understanding the history of slavery, Jim Crow, urban segregation, police violence, etc., both nationally and in the context of the St. Louis area specifically. That’s not a lesson, it’s figuring out the context of what is happening today. It’s the actions of millions of individuals, the ideology of white supremacy as it has developed through time, and the decisions made by municipal, state, and federal governments, not to mention the entire economic context around the disappearance of jobs for the poor, and especially poor people of color. In other words, it’s really hard and certainly not dilutable down to a simple lesson for public consumption.

Although far less intellectually honest than Parenti, Jody Hice, your next congressman from Georgia’s beet red 10th district is promoting made up quotes about the Founders on his Twitter feed. Some of these are misattributed, some are just plain nuts, but in a way it doesn’t matter because the Founders are constructed to be useful to everyone and therefore are probably useful to no one except as a political tool. Which is fine I suppose. It’s a usable past. It just a false one in Hice’s case. Both sides hitch their wagons to the Founders, making them mean whatever the individual wants them to mean.

Finally, I’ll note that for an article in Jacobin, Parenti’s piece can easily be construed as quite the defense of capitalism. Of course, one must acknowledge the reality of capitalism, but Parenti argues simply for a more robust role of the state in operating it. Which is not a radical argument, however defined.

This is all me spitting in the wind. People are going to keep using the past to justify their own positions no matter what any historian says about it. If you want to think Hamilton has lessons for you, go for it. But I think those “lessons” are really tenuous and have to be so broad as to lose the specificity for that person. If they help people decide government is good, I guess that serves a social good and I am just a cranky historian. Print the legend.

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  • c u n d gulag


    I wonder what the Founding Fathers would have thought about internet p*rn?

    No, no really.
    They have no clues about late 19th Century life – let alone life in the 20th and 21st Century.

    They were brilliant and brave people in their time.
    And, we can certainly thank them.

    But if you’re an “Originalist” like Scalia, then you’re living in the past, instead of the here and now.

    Times have changed, Judge.
    You need to, too.

    • rea

      I’m an originalist–I believe in a living Constitution, applied and adapted according to changing circumstances, just like the Founders intended!

      • c u n d gulag


      • c u n d gulag


      • Incontinentia Buttocks

        ….B-I-N-G-O and Bingo was his name-o!

      • wengler

        Boo! I believe in the Articles of Confederation and believe the Constitution is a nationalist plot to enslave the states.

    • Hogan

      The version I’ve read is “What would the Founders have thought of buying mifepristone over the internet?”

  • matt w

    Unsubstantive comment: Jody Hice is male.

    • I did forget I was talking about Georgia there. Thanks.

  • More or less OT, but I’ve worked on restoring Hamilton’s grave marker. During the two months that it was hidden behind a plywood fence, I met a number of disappointed groupies who were upset that we had blocked access to the goal of their pilgrimage. Creepy motherfuckers, IMO.

    • You know what I love about that church graveyard? That Hamilton is buried on one side and his nemesis Albert Gallatin is buried on the other. It’s like a Federal period Secretary of the Treasury party!

      • It’s next door to my office. I occasionally go, sit on a bench, and relax, staring at the 18C and 19C dead.

        • Lee Rudolph

          Do they stare back at you?

          • Fucking federalist zombies.

            • rea

              Gallatin was no Federalist. And he was the original Birther victim, having been removed from the senate by the Federalists on the grounds that he hadn’t been a citizen for 9 years

    • rea

      Say hello to James Lawrence, Robert Fulton, and Albert Gallatin for us.

  • cpinva

    “But if you’re an “Originalist” like Scalia, then you’re living in the past, instead of the here and now.”

    this certainly explains his well-coiffed, lightly powdered wig, and the horse & carriage which takes him to and from work each day. I have to admit though, using an outhouse, in the dead of a Washington, DC winter, has to be hard on the guy.

    • Vance Maverick

      Have you never heard of the chamberpot?

  • Rob in CT

    OT (my apologies), but I just saw that the Market Basket feud has ended with Arthur T.’s side ending up with sole control.

    The Globe article:


    It might not be the workers taking control of the means of production, but it’s something.

    • Gregor Sansa

      Yes, this is definitely worth a front page post.

  • Rob in CT

    But if that alone is the argument, we can draw off of Lincoln, FDR, Lenin, a pantheon of people.

    If you’re trying to make headway in the USA, you’re not going to draw off Lenin. Come the hell on.

    Lincoln & FDR? Sure, absolutely, and I agree they’re better fits than Hamilton.

    • Right; but that gets to my point that the lesson we are supposed to draw from is just so insanely broad.

    • Also relevant is the fact that Jacobin is a left publication, making Lenin a more, well, citable figure (if not usable since there isn’t much one would really want to use).

      • rea

        Can we cite James II? No, that would be Jacobite–I always get them confused. Robespierre, then.

      • Rob in CT

        Yes, two problems with Lenin: 1) murdering bastard; and 2) commie, which hands the other side what they want. They want to be able to call us commies. All of us, even barely left-of-center liberals. Cite Lenin and you help them. IMO.

        • I don’t care about the latter, but the former is certainly a huge problem.

        • Bruce B.

          I admit that I’ve kind of stopped caring about that. Look at the fate of ACORN, for instance – they are completely comfortable fabricating shit out of whole cloth, and indeed routinely rally around their inventions in preference to damaging actual facts. Heck, these are the folks who filibuster their own legislation when it turns out Democrats are wiling to vote for it. Literally, the facts of anything we do or say do not matter when it comes to their attacks.

        • postmodulator

          Generally they just sort of call us Commies if they want. It doesn’t matter whether or not we give them ammo; ask fierce leftist Dwight D. Eisenhower.

          • witlesschum

            This. As much as we talked about the Overton window idea being basically wrong, the best defense is a good offense on those things. They’ll make shit up if they can’t find something.

          • Rob in CT

            Fair point.

            Let me ‘splain.

            I don’t think we can prevent wingnuts from being wingnuts. They’ll do their thing, as always.

            But there are people who might lean right but aren’t wingnuts, and they need to be continually shown that the wingnuts are nutty. This is where some caution pays off. Obama does this pretty well, IMO. They screetch all sorts of nonsense about him, and it’s depressing how many fall for it (’cause they want to), but a lot of others – enough to carry an election – notice the bugfuck crazy.

            • I kinda agree with this.

              You aren’t going to win over the bulk of the opposition easily, if ever. Mere nuttiness of their thought leadership is never enough, and in that sense, it doesn’t matter how you respond.

              Around the margins, there are members of your own base that are shored up by your being sane. Some coalitions are supported. Finally, there are various pick up opportunities. Given how veto point laden the US govt is, having the occasional key person flip (e.g., Jeffords, Spector) can be a big deal.

              To put it another way, it typically doesn’t hurt you to be sane even if the other side is raving. So why not? That you might have some wins as well is icing.

            • So your argument is that communists shouldn’t advocate communism or refer to communist theorists because it’s bad PR for liberals? I’m not really sure how that’s supposed to be a convincing argument.

    • burritoboy

      Well, if you’re talking about Lincoln, a lot of what Lincoln (as far as we can tell) took to be standard economics is stuff that was inspired by Hamilton. Lincoln owned and read closely Henry Carey’s Harmony of Interests. As President, Lincoln makes Carey his top economic advisor. And Carey is explicitly a follower and supporter of Hamilton’s economics.

  • CP

    Little has changed over the decades except the addition of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and to a lesser extent, Theodore Roosevelt, to the pantheon of people who you can pull quotes from without context to promote your positions.

    I’m torn between thinking it’s an epic injustice that FDR hasn’t been added to the mix, and thinking that it’s kind of a good thing that Republicans don’t routinely use his name to promote deregulation, privatization and other euphemisms for “fuck the poor.”

    • 1937: The Year Republicans Could Love FDR

    • rea

      And you know, it’s possible to pull quotes from Reagan without context praising FDR . . .

      • Yeah, Reagan is pretty much in that pantheon now too, as even Obama will pull him out every now and again. God, that’s depressing.

        • CP

          Not sure I’d list Reagan in the same pantheon. I know he comes up under “Most Popular American President Ever” in modern day polls, but the one who usually comes in second in that is Bill Clinton, and I seriously doubt if he’ll be remembered on that level – it’s just that those two are recent enough that everyone still has them in mind, yet old enough that we can remember them nostalgically in a way that we don’t Obama or Bush II.

          I’d put Reagan in the same category as FDR – he’s immensely popular with part of the American public, but also rejected by the other side of the aisle. He hasn’t become the kind of generic figure like MLK or Lincoln that each side insists was really one of them.

  • CP

    But this gets to the second problem. If Hamilton’s view of an activist government means that we can use government to fight climate change, Hamilton himself pushed that activist government to facilitate industrial capitalism, i.e., the very system creating catastrophic climate change! Until industrial capitalism is solved, we aren’t going to create a comprehensive response to climate change. If that means a comprehensive response is not going to happen, well, yes, because that is actually what is happening.

    The thing that seems weird to us nowadays about pre-20th century America is that back then, if I’m not mistaken, “pro-business” and “pro-big-centralized-government” were considered to go together. The Federalists were the party of Northeastern capitalists AND of strong federal government, and then you’ve got their various successors, and Jacksonian Democrats and their successors resented the federal government and the robber-barons together. I don’t think it was until the turn of the century that “pro-business” and “pro-government” became the opposites that they are today.

    • mpowell

      It’s not that weird when you consider that for an agricultural society to industrialize requires a lot of infrastructure development that is best undertaken by a centralized federal government. Once you get that infrastructure and establish the government agencies that maintain it, it is possible for capitalist to start complaining about big government involvement in taking care of the poor, for example. They just take the infrastructure for granted. Obama was making this point with his, “you didn’t build that” speech, and you can see how the right responded. But in the beginning the industrialists needed that shift. But at that time the conservative position was prioritizing the interests of big land owning agriculturalists. A lot has changed since then.

      • Linnaeus

        Obama was making this point with his, “you didn’t build that” speech, and you can see how the right responded.

        As an aside, when I read the transcript of what he said, I knew what he meant, but I also knew that the right would deliberately misconstrue what he meant (which was clear from context). Sure enough, they did, and it was disappoint to see some people I knew who are fairly intelligent folks go along with that.

  • postmodulator

    OT: It appears that the Dolchenstosslegende is getting spun up out in the red states.

  • There is no “leftist” Hamilton because he would never have recognized such a thing could be possible.

    Yes. If we lived in a world where Royalist Jeffersonians were preventing the creation of industrial capitalism in the United States, maybe Hamilton could be A Hero for the Left. But, as doesn’t even need to be said, we don’t. And even if we did, you’d need to assume a lot of other things about the necessary progress of History through industrial capitalism before you could get to socialism. We can assume that Jacobin, being a left-wing publication, is thinking along those lines. But.

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  • Lasker

    Interesting response. I was surprised by your snarky initial twitter response to the article as it’s actual point seemed to be something you would agree with. I see that I wasn’t mistaken.

    I would tend to agree with you that the use of history here was at, the very least, sort of odd and distracting. I like Hamilton and I agree with Parenti about the present but I think his argument would be stronger with more recent examples of pro and anti state arguments, especially within the left itself.

    In one paragraph, you wonder who Parenti is really talking to, since most large environmental orgs do indeed focus on the state, and in another, you wonder why Jacobin would be interested in such a status-quo-oriented, “liberal” opinion piece. I think your two questions there answer each other. Parenti isn’t talking to the Sierra club, he is talking to Jacobin readers, who are much more likely to have more anarchist sympathies. While this article is ind of odd, (Though Parenti is generally excellent), I think it is encouraging to see Jacobin widening its range. They are probably still too cool to tell people to vote for Teachout though, which is disappointing.

    I thought Parenti made many of the same points more cogently (perhaps because he left out Hamilton and Jefferson) on Doug Henwood’s Behind the News back in January: http://shout.lbo-talk.org/lbo/RadioArchive/2014/14_01_23.mp3

    Which leads to a slightly off topic question: What are other good leftish political radio shows/podcasts besides BTN? I listen to Belabored sometimes, which is useful for keeping up with labor issues but much more hit-or-miss when it comes to the quality of the interviews. Democracy Now seems to rub me th wrong way but maybe I should give it another chance. I’m in NYC so anything more locally focused would be interesting too.

    • “I think your two questions there answer each other. Parenti isn’t talking to the Sierra club, he is talking to Jacobin readers, who are much more likely to have more anarchist sympathies.”

      Interesting point. I don’t read a lot in Jacobin that seems too anarchist-friendly, but no doubt you are right about the readership. That doesn’t mean I think he is accurately portraying actual green organizations, but that certainly could be a politically motivated point.

      • Lasker

        I think you’re correct that Jacobin is not particularly friendly to anarchism in general, the question is the readership. Parenti has published frequently in the Nation, and this article would have been less pertinent there.

        My reading of his likely intentions is probably influenced by the earlier interview, which was much more explicitly an argument aimed at those parts of the left who reject or are suspicious of state action.

        BTW, Did you read to Robert Brenner’s recent Jacobin piece (the long one, not the follow-up) on Occupy and the ILWU? – That was one of the best things they’ve published recently, and contained a lot of recent history I had not been aware of despite following Occupy fairly closely. Seems like it would be right up your alley.

        • I think someone noted it to me and then I didn’t read it. I have missed a lot lately with all the work. I will check it out.

        • Linnaeus

          Robert Brenner is generally very good. I’ve read some of his stuff in New Left Review.

    • Barry Freed

      What are other good leftish political radio shows/podcasts besides BTN?

      BTN is the best that I’ve found. Counterspin is pretty good. Radio4all.net has a bunch of different shows you can try out but it’s pretty much hit or miss though I’ve found some good shows there. I like Ian Masters’ Background Briefing program though I wish he’d talk less and let his guests talk more (OTOH it’s been awhile since I’ve listened to it – still I recommend you give it a try). Also Against the Grain can be pretty good.

      • Lasker

        Thanks, I will check those out!

  • LeeEsq

    Hamilton favored a much more centralized government than many other Founders. In so much as most American liberals aren’t that fond of federalism these days, that makes him more sympathetic to us. On the other hand, he thought the President should be a life-long position like the Dodge of Venice. The fact that this was ignored probably saved us from a lot of trouble.

    The important thing to remember about Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, and company is that they were people not deities. They were working in the dark when they wrote the Constitution.

    • postmodulator

      On the other hand, he thought the President should be a life-long position like the Dodge of Venice.

      It’s Doge of Venice. Such lifetime. Very power. Wow.

      (I read Othello for the first time about six months ago and this is the first chance I’ve had to make that joke. Thanks!)

      • LeeEsq

        No, I meant the Dodge of Venice. Little known fact was that the people of Venice made a Dodge van accidentally sent back in time by drunk scientists their leader. It was very shiny.

        • postmodulator

          Ah, I see. Sorry, I don’t have the extensive history knowledge that some other commenters here do, and so I’m sometimes tripped up by details like that.

          • njorl

            You should ask him about the historical Jesus Chrysler.

    • CP

      The important thing to remember about Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, and company is that they were people not deities.

      Yep. Though it’s not at all clear that most Americans understand that: they’re practically prophets in the American civic tradition.

      Of all the things that would piss them off if they came back from the dead, I suspect that one would rank pretty high. “STOP sitting around thinking about us and solve your fucking problems, assholes.”

      • tsam

        Not to mention the internal conflicts and contradictions they all displayed at one time or another.

        The grossly simple one was declaring independence based on the idea that we have decided that all men are created equal. They forgot the parenthetical (white, propertied)

    • mpowell

      Very true. I still find that Hamilton had a much better vision overall than most, especially Jefferson. He got plenty of details wrong, though.

    • rea

      In so much as most American liberals aren’t that fond of federalism these days

      The term “federalism” is now used in a way that is 180 degrees from what it meant in Hamilton’s day.

  • Juststoppingby

    Ironically, the best rebuke to “textual originalism” was given by a “founding father,” Paine, at the beginning of the most widely read political document (Rights of Man, Part One) in the eighteenth-century Anglophone world.

    “There never did, there never will, and there can, exist a Parliament, or any description of men, or any generation of men, in any country, possessed of the right or the power of binding or controuling posterity to the ‘end of time.’ Every age and generation must be free to act for itself in all cases as the ages and generations which preceded it. The vanity and presumption of governing beyond the grave is the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies. Man has no property in man; neither has any generation a property in the generations which are to follow. The Parliament or the people of 1688, or any other period, had no more right to dispose of the people of the present day, or to bind or controul them in any shape whatever, than the Parliament or the people of the present day have to dispose of, bind or controul those who are to live a hundred or a thousand years hence. Every generation is, and must be, competent to all the purposes which its occasions require. It is the living, and not the dead, that are to be accommodated. When man ceases to be, his power and his wants cease with him; and having no longer any participation in the concerns of this world, he has no longer any authority in directing who shall be its governors, or how its Government shall be organised, or how administered.”

    Paine’s line on Edmund Burke works for our Nino: “It is power, and not principles, that Mr. Burke venerates.”

    • zoomar

      “There never did, there never will, and there NEVER can, exist a Parliament, or any description of men, or any generation of men, in any country, possessed of the right or the power of binding or controuling posterity to the ‘end of time.’

    • UserGoogol

      Depends on what exactly you mean by originalism. The more moderate way to interpret originalism (and “what James Madison thought about video games/violence” certainly isn’t moderate) is that the past doesn’t have any particular moral authority, but that the law itself does. That governments have to be bound by the law in order for liberal democracy to work, so although people have the right to change the law, they need to do it properly and go through the proper channels, or else they’re bound by what dead generations wrote by default.

      Of course, few people would argue that judges should just invent new law out of whole cloth. Legal philosophy, when not getting side tracked by Founding Father worship, is about how to interpret law. The argument isn’t merely that the Founding Fathers aren’t ideal sources of law, but that bending over backwards to interpret law exactly as they would have is going beyond merely accepting that law has a stable meaning. So for instance, the founding fathers probably did not think the death penalty was cruel. The liberal argument (well, one of them) isn’t just that we should rule it unconstitutional anyway because we feel like it, but because the death penalty as a matter of fact really is cruel, so the text of the Constitution bans it, even if the Founding Fathers did not realize that at the time.

  • Bruce Vail

    Sense of humor, Cliven Bundy style:

    My version of this post is carrying an advertisement for gun holsters suitable for concealed carry. They’re watching you, Erik!

  • KarenJo12

    I’ve always thought that the true genius of the Founders was that they created something that transcended their own intentions by such a great distance. None of them would be happy living now, except possibly about air conditioning and indoor plumbing, but they couldn’t argue that their own creation didn’t produce our world. We don’t need to fabricate a Hamilton The Revolutionary becuase that insults the actual man and denigrates what others have done to expand and improve on Hamilton’s actual deeds.

    • tsam

      I agree, though I’m not sure none of them would be happy living now. I thought the best part of the Constitution was what it didn’t say, something along the lines of being a forever enshrined law that can never be changed or modified. Much has changed since the original writing, and I believe the framers had exactly that in mind–an eventual end to slavery, citizenship and universal suffrage, etc…

      • KarenJo12

        The fact that they specified a way of adding things and a procedure for scrapping the whole business and starting over strongly supports the conclusion that they expected things to change.

    • mpowell

      Who the f wouldn’t be happier living now? Even the rich suffered horrible maladies in that era. Travel, communications, healthcare, such dramatic improvements for even the most filthy rich. It’s hard to imagine a rationalist being disappointed. The religious, maybe.

      • tsam

        24/7 PORN ON THE INTERNET. That’s happiness all by itself.

        • They might have regretted goatse.

          • tsam

            They wore wigs and fancy pants. I’m thinking they’d be down with the goatse and other Rule 34 atrocities.

      • KarenJo12

        Ben Franklin would be ECSTATIC. Constantly.

        • tsam

          Without a single doubt! Although the philandering isn’t nearly as socially acceptable as it was then, so…?

          • KarenJo12

            He could be discreet, and if not, Internet porn.

            • tsam

              He’d find a way to handle it. I think he’d be thrilled with the internet and how easy it is to publish things for the whole world to see in a minute or two.

              He was definitely my favorite guy who was around during that time. Aside from how things went down with his Tory son, maybe, but definitely an interesting and exceptionally bright guy.

      • KarenJo12

        I was mostly thinking that the FF’s wouldn’t like modern social structures, but probably indoor plumbing alone would convince them our way is better.

    • burritoboy

      Hamilton made his money primarily as an early form of distressed debt investing – the guy was a truly great and ground-breaking investor. I don’t see any reason why he wouldn’t have flourished in today’s financial markets (some big portions of he himself created).

  • Bruce Vail

    I, too, have visited the graveyard at Trinity church.

    Much more interesting was my visit to the dueling ground on Weehawken Heights. I kid you not, there is a little park there and visitors can actually walk over the ground of the famous duel.

    • I need to check that out.

    • rea

      there is a little park there and visitors can actually walk over the ground of the famous duel.

      Well, not really. The actual ground on which the duel was fought was down the cliffs toward the river, on a patch of level ground accessible only by boat. The old dueling ground was subsequently obliterated by a railroad right-of-way.

      • Bruce Vail

        My bad. My memory not so great in general, and my Weehawken Heights visit was more than 20 years ago.

        I seem to remember one area of the park being described as a place used by duelists of Hamilton-Burr era, and also that were stunning views of the river and Manhattan’s West Side.

    • njorl

      They should have one of those old arcade quick-draw games like they used to have on the boardwalk, except with Aaron Burr instead of a cowboy.

  • Mark Field

    Very nicely done. One nitpick: Hamilton opposed the Alien & Sedition Acts on policy grounds, though he thought they were Constitutional.

  • Manny Kant

    Yes, absolutely. There’s nothing I find more tedious than arguments about which basically terrible from today’s perspective 18th/19th century political figure is the true exemplar of progressive values. I hate this Jacobin article. I hate Howe’s attempt to claim that the Whig Party are somehow the “good guys” of Jacksonian American, and I hate Sean Wilentz’s rebuttal for the Democrats. I hate Jonathan Israel’s ridiculous doorstop length rewrite of Lamartine’s history of the Girondins in the French Revolution/anti-Robespierre polemic.

    It is all terrible. Some level of presentism is almost inevitable in any historical work, but this stuff is indefensible.

    • CP

      I’m curious: who, if anyone, do you see as “the good guys” in Jacksonian America? Or, you know, not “good guys,” but do you see either side as the lesser of two evils (in the same way, I suppose, that we’ll all bitch about the problems of the Democratic Party today but still vote for it on election day because Republicans are still much worse)?

      Open question to the floor, I guess. Federalists vs Jeffersonians? Whigs vs Jacksonians? Any preferences? I’m asking as much for my education as pure curiosity, I know much less about pre-Civil War America than post.

      • Manny Kant

        I don’t think there really were good guys, and I don’t think there’s much point in trying to find the lesser evil — certainly I don’t understand historians who view this as one of the major purposes of their activities.

        On the Whigs vs. Jacksonians, Sean Wilentz gives the case for the Jacksonians and Daniel Elias Howe the case for the Whigs. You can read and see which you find more convincing.

        But to me it feels a bit like trying to figure out who the lesser evil is in post-Reconstruction Gilded Age politics (something that, thankfully, nobody has really yet tried to do, as far as I’m aware). Why bother?

      • Mark Field

        The major issues of the Jackson presidency were:

        1. The Bank.
        2. Nullification
        3. Indian removal
        4. White male voting rights
        5. Internal improvements

        Jackson took the (by modern standards) correct position on 2 and 4. Most Whigs took the (by modern standards) correct position on 1, 2, 3, and 5 but fudged on 4.

        • True with the Whigs and nullification, but then they had to make political alliances with the Calhounites to ever win an election and thus John Tyler.

          • Mark Field


          • Manny Kant

            Clay was much softer on nullification than Jackson was. There was a weird Webster & Jackson vs. Clay & Calhoun dynamic for part of the crisis.

            I’d add that I’m not sure there’s much moral urgency to the Whigs’ better stands on the Bank and internal improvements, and that their opposition to Indian removal was weak and ineffectual at best.

            Looking at the second party system more broadly, rather than just Jackson’s presidency, I’d further note that on immigration, the Whigs tended to be much more nativist than the Democrats (with honorable exceptions like William Seward), and that evangelicals and temperance types tended to back the whigs – I’m certainly a bit more sympathetic to the Democrats’ greater rejection of moralistic god-bothering.

            And on slavery, both parties were pretty bad. Each of them had anti-slavery elements within them, but also relied on an alliance with pro-slavery types. The northern Whigs were probably more anti-slavery, on the whole, than northern Democrats, but it’s a difference of degree, not kind.

            • CP

              I’d further note that on immigration, the Whigs tended to be much more nativist than the Democrats (with honorable exceptions like William Seward)

              I always thought the reason for that was that native Democrats were concentrated in the South, and immigrants mostly went to Northern cities – in other words, Democrats didn’t have much of an “immigrant problem” to react against. Hence, the fact that for a big chunk of history the two wings of the Democratic Party would be native WASPs from the South and immigrant Catholics from the North (both of whom, for their own reasons, resented the Northern WASPs who were the backbone of the Federalists, Whigs, and eventually Republicans).

              Others on this thread pointed out that the Federalists and Whigs were, on the other hand, at least a little better on abolitionism and Indian rights – I similarly assumed that was the same principle in reverse. With most black people living in the South and most conflicts with Indians being on the frontier, those prejudices wouldn’t be as big a thing as, say, Know-Nothing anti-Catholicism. (Eventually the 1%ers wanting to expand westward meant wanting the Indian tribes swatted out of the way, and black migration to Northern cities allowed Yankees to make it to the major leagues in that prejudice as well).

              • Lee Rudolph

                I always thought the reason for that was that native Democrats were concentrated in the South, and


                immigrants mostly went to Northern cities[.]

                (Yes, yes, I know the dates are all wrong.)

    • Scott Lemieux

      hate Howe’s attempt to claim that the Whig Party are somehow the “good guys” of Jacksonian American

      In fairness, I read Howe as much more anti-Jacksonian than pro-Whig, and God knows the former is desperately necessary (cf. Wilentz.)

      • Manny Kant

        It felt to me like he basically just goes overboard in the other direction.

  • Bruce Vail

    Erik notes that Hamilton was ‘anti-democracy,’ but it’s a little more sinister than that (most the Founders were anti-democracy as we understand the term today). Although he may not have been guilty of the Jeffersonian charge that he was a monarchist, he was a plutocrat both literally (he married into one of New York’s wealthiest families) and figuratively. He believed in an activist state, yes, but only in service to the one percent.

    Not very academic, but accurate and a fun read, is Gore Vidal’s “Burr,” which explores this point in some detail.

    • rea

      Hamilton himself came from a completely impoverished background, and there were plausible contemporary claims that he was part black . . .

      But yeah, he wanted to be Napoleon a few years ahead of Napoleon (he would have adored generalling a big war).

    • burritoboy

      That’s simply not true. Hamilton did, of course, make himself very wealthy in adulthood, but being quite wealthy is equally true of most of the other Founders. Further, he made most of his money in financial speculation, which may or may not be dubious, but is a hell of a lot better than making money being a slave owner, or simply inheriting a large land grant originally made by the King off land stolen from the First Nations.

      Second, what Hamilton explicitly says is that he wants an activist state to encourage and control industrialization. Jefferson at the same time was yammering on about an agrarian republic that could not have happened and messed up a lot of people’s minds until today. Hamilton admitted that the industrial enterprises were going to be hierarchical – the population would largely not be managers or owners, but primarily workers. Hamilton hoped that if industrialization was managed properly (partially by the activist state), the workers will come out all right.

      That may be more than slightly optimistic, but Hamilton was grappling with issues that most people of his time didn’t realize were inevitably going to occur. Indeed, most Americans really didn’t realize these were problems until 70-90 years after Hamilton’s death.

      • At the same time, if I’m remembering correctly, there was small-scale manufacture, especially in the north, and the politicized artisans and skilled workers were politically allied with Jefferson and opposed to Hamilton and Madison (bankers and merchants). No one was really interested in them (maybe Franklin?), but Jefferson saw their political usefulness and they supported his party rhetorically.

        I never seem to read anything about Hamilton’s achievements vis-a-vis government support of industry (he wasn’t all that successful w/r/t the Bank either, was he? I’ve forgotten a lot, maybe that’s what you mean about 70-90 years later). What did he actually propose/get passed? Madison was in his party but IIRC had little interest in manufactures.

        • Mark Field

          Hamilton got the Bank enacted. He also won a legislative plan for the payment of Revolutionary War debts (state and federal). He also got a tax plan through, and was influential with Washington in foreign policy issues (e.g., the Neutrality Proclamation).

          Hamilton presented an industrial plan to Congress, but it never was adopted.

    • Not quite right – Hamilton believed intensely in the idea of a harmony of interests; what’s good for the merchant is good for the artisan, and all that.

      Also, careful on Gore Vidal – the man’s novels were heavily colored by his own peculiar politics.

      • burritoboy

        Yes, and it was eventually shown that there could be no harmony of interests. But at Hamilton’s time, it would have been hard to predict that it was impossible. Lincoln, 50 years later, still believed in the harmony of interests. Further, the policies that Hamilton supported – the high tariff wall, for instance – did somewhat harmonize the interests for a significant period of time.

      • Bruce Vail

        Not quite right – Hamilton wrote about the harmony of interests, but was a life-long servant of the plutocracy.

        And I’m always careful with Gore Vidal …:)

  • mbxxxxxx

    Sometimes I think conservatism is fundamentally an expression of insecurity and low self esteem as evidenced by “American is Exceptional!” and the endless search for truth within the words of dead men. If it’s not the founders it’s fucking Hayek. It’s really kind of pitiful.

    • CP

      I remember reading a blog post from a guy on PJMedia recounting his conversion from a liberal to a conservative and how it went hand in hand with his conversion from a dorky insecure nerd to a confident and self-assured manly man. I’m sure half of it was just bragging for the audience, but it nevertheless struck me just how much he seemed to tie his own personal self-worth to his political identity – almost seemed like a guy joining a cult or a gang.

      • tsam

        Born Again Christians always had a shady past they’re ashamed of, but they are MUCH BETTER NOW!

        Those personal redemption stories are so loaded with bullshit that I never bother reading them.

        And yeah, tying your self worth to a political identity, especially one that actively promotes being a dimwitted, non-thinking relay station for the wingnut welfare crowd is pretty fucking sick.

        Then again, there is a certain machismo attached to standing around with your buddies and complaining about bitchez not giving up the V because they’re frigid, and how we should just nuke the Middle East and be done with it, etc…

        I call that dick flexing. It’s another America’s favorite past times.

        • CP

          What gets me about their Shady Pasts is how utterly inane the dark sins they confess to are, and how all their stories seem to revolve around the same few ones.

          Yes, we get it. You masturbate a lot. It doesn’t make you a vampire with a soul, you goddamn drama queen.

        • CP

          (Epic win on “dick flexing,” by the way).

  • royko

    Although technically, Scalia doesn’t even want to know what Madison thought about violence. He’s not an originalist, he’s a textualist, so he isn’t even trying to divine what was in the head of a particular founding father, for which we have at least some bits of evidence. He’s trying to imagine what an entirely invented generalized founding father would have understood the words of the Constitution to mean. So he really wants to know what his hypothetical founding father would have thought about the meaning of the Constitution in relation to the concept of violence in some sort of hypothetical entertainment medium that the imaginary founding father could relate to.

    Yeah, no possibly way Scalia’s personal views could work their way into THAT ironclad construction!

  • Gregor Sansa

    Not your main point, but I don’t agree that we can’t possibly do the right things on climate change without fixing capitalism as a whole. Yes, capitalism does need fixing; as it is, it’s inextricably linked to growing inequality and bubble-and-bust failishness. And yes, it also happens to be accelerating apocalyptic climate change. But the latter problem, unlike the former ones, could be fixed with a superficial measure: a significant and growing carbon tax or the equivalent.

    Obviously, that’s politically impossible in the short term. But y’all know what I say about approval voting and/or proportional representation being a viable structural fix for political gridlock….

    • I think you significantly underestimate the problem of a significant fight on climate change. A carbon tax is a drop in the bucket. Doesn’t mean it shouldn’t happen–it very much should!–but it’s a minor tweak at best.

      • Gregor Sansa

        If I’m mis-estimating something, it’s the power of a significant tax to galvanize capitalism, not the scale of the problem. Forget the moon-shot analogy; to avoid the probability that climate change would be the worst disaster in human history, we’d have to start and sustain economic changes that would be easily bigger than those of a world war. (Speaking in terms of “wedges” of carbon savings, I’d ballpark one wedge as perhaps the size of two Apollo programs, maybe three wedges as about the size of the US home front commitment in WWII. And we need over 10 wedges, globally, starting now, to do it right.) It’s just that I think that a carbon tax could spur that level of change.

  • I was actually finding the article persuasive until I got to the following paragraph, which is unfortunate:

    Hamilton’s time in the Continental Army included wintering at Valley Forge. It was an object lesson in the dangers of political decentralization and economic underdevelopment.

    That may be the lesson Hamilton took from Valley Forge, and it may be a valid lesson for that time and place. The political decentralization point is in fact pretty standard. But a personal experience of a terrible winter during a war can’t prove a point about governmental structure. If it could, Russia would prove Napoleon’s France was insufficiently centralized.

    The fact that people without shoes suffer in winter is a pretty good argument against economic underdevelopment, sure. I’ll give Hamilton that. But unless he wasn’t aware that there were “economically underdeveloped” people without shoes even in cold climates, until he was with an army composed of such people, it isn’t clear what kind of “object lesson” it’s supposed to be.

    Interesting, though.

    • It’s not the weather than Hamilton was complaining about – it was the fact that the Continental Congress couldn’t pay, feed, equip, and supply ordinance to their armies at all, in part because of its own lack of institutional capacity but also in part the U.S simply didn’t have the industrial capacity to produce shoes, clothing, guns, etc. in the necessary quantities.

      • True. OTOH they weren’t fighting out of Valley Forge, they were only hunkering down there for winter (and also much of the North was occupied by the enemy at that point), so possibly it’s not a representative example.

        (Also I thought the men were supposed to supply their own clothes and weapons so asking the Continental Congress–which had lots of problems supplying what they’d agreed to supply, which was why they were at Valley Forge in the first place–for things like boots was seen as out of the ordinary, necessary only because they weren’t regular soldiers but simple farmers and so on and lacking proper equipment, but I may be misremembering that, or maybe it’s discredited legend.)

  • wengler

    Hamilton as a leftist. I guess only if you consider protecting your economy as a leftist position these days.

    • Cheerful

      I think one can predict with some confidence how zombie resurrected Hamilton would have voted with respect to raising the debt limit.

      • shah8

        For, baby, FOR! Brraaaaaaaiiiiinnnns

  • Lurking Canadian

    In the anarcho-capitalist, alt-hist utopia penned by L. Neil Smith, Hamilton is essentially a Satan-figure, remembered as the patron saint of evil government. All the gun-grabby statists in the world are described as “Hamiltonians”.

    Since a relatively good guide to ethical behaviour is that if L. Neil Smith is for a thing, I should be against it, I am inclined to think very fondly of Hamilton.

    • UserGoogol

      Lots of libertarians profoundly hate Alexander Hamilton. He created the first American central bank, so the Austrian-types really don’t like him. And a lot of libertarians view his attitude towards the Constitution as being the slippery slope that led America to everything that’s wrong with it. (“That kind of libertarian” tends to be very big on natural law, so going back to the founding fathers isn’t nearly originalist enough.)

      And yeah, hearing all this dislike is precisely what made me start to warm up to Alexander Hamilton.

  • shah8

    Eeeh, Hamilton, as far as I understood it, was more leftist than the likes of Madison, Jefferson, etc in practical terms. He wasn’t much in favor of democracy for reasons people can be sympathetic with today. Not only is he better than the sort of militarist centralizer/modernizers like Attaturk or some guy like that, he was still better than the likes of Jean-Baptiste Colbert or Kido Koin. There is a lot of merit in discussing Hamilton as someone who believed in government that enable the talents of all of its members–rather than precisely a centralization that optimized the state’s ability to function and enrich its insiders (which is a more common profile).

    Not only was he an abolitionist, he also apparently felt that Native Americans were actual real people whose aspirations should be respected. He built orphanages, and I’m pretty sure he would have understood the merits of a welfare state, simply out of his own personal history.

    In a sense the essay is off, but I personally view in a different way than Loomis’ hangups were. The buried point is that that there are many a crisis that cannot be solved through amorphous ad-hoc responses, but through a system with a consistent vision of desirable outcome. The article would have been better served had it focused on one of the things Hamilton did, and worked through his thought processes. Then compare with Jeffersonian tendencies.

    I also think that current environmentalists face different problems vis á vis the state in the sense that the state is thoroughly captured at all levels. Thus, you’re going to have to do some kind of flanking maneuver, whether that be by raising public awareness and activism, or through international treaties or something.

    • UserGoogol

      The Federalists and Whigs seem to have been somewhat better on Native American issues in general. The ideal of the small farmer very much included giving them land taken from the Indians.

  • Mike in DC

    Hamilton’s arguments, while not fully embodied in the text of the Constitution, did indirectly lead to McCulloch v Maryland, in which Hamiltonian principles trumped a narrow view of Madisonian principles. So there is that.

    • Mark Field

      Not “Madisonian” principles — Madison supported the Bank (he signed it into law). It was Jeffersonian principles that McCulloch rejected.

      • Mike in DC

        Well, in the sense that Madisonian principles were said to have won out during the drafting, McCulloch represents something of a reversal in favor of Hamilton.

        • Mark Field

          I’m not sure what you mean here. In 1787 and for at least a couple of years afterwards, Madison was a Federalist. He and Hamilton were allies in getting the Constitution passed. It’s fair to say that even then they saw many things differently, but they were united on the main issue.

          As for Madisonian principles, some got into the Constitution, some didn’t. Since some of the ones that didn’t were pretty important (e.g., he wanted proportional representation in the Senate), I don’t know if we can say that his principles “won out”.

  • William Berry

    A little OT, perhaps, but what fascinates me about Hamilton is the reverence today’s so-called Federalists have for him. The modern Federalists seem to be basically states’ righters, a philosophy completely at odds with the strong-central-government federalism of Hamilton, Madison*, and Jay.

    But then, no matter how many lawyers and judges the Federalist Society can claim, they can’t relly be all that sharp. They are not left-liberals, after all.

    *Madison was a Federalist wrt the constitutional ratification debates; after the rise of the parties, he was a (Democratic) Republican.

    • CP

      Yea… I’ve never understood that. Why DO they call themselves the Federalist Society when one of the only things we remember about the Feds nowadays is that they were the Big Government Party of their day? It can’t be as simple as “the Federalists were pro-business,” can it?

  • j_kay

    But, weirdly, Hamilton DID have a lefty side, Central banks are lefty because they help the little in econ crises. And he a thoughtful officer, a liberal thinmg. And he was a democrat, just an oligachic one, just a tad more than the the rest of the Founders.

    It’s because it was a time annoying commie pinko and red oppression, bwaha.

    But Jefferson’s words about EQUALITY are still worth it. Though I can see why JACOBIN would hate Jefferson’s words and love best burying the idea. Not that I’m willing to give my eyeballs to Jacobin.

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