Saturday, November 1, 2008

Is "Hamilton's Curse" a New Version of the Same Old Lie? Part 1

Note: This post is a brief interruption from my series of posts on Hamilton's religion, which series I promise to continue. Stay tuned for an update on that series, which will discuss Hamilton's wife, Elizabeth Schuyler, her faith, and how their relationship points to Hamilton's true religious convictions. I would like to thank my good friend Jean from Yeah, Right ... for pointing out this interesting piece of news to me. I thought it best that I deal with this subject here and now, while the book in question is still fresh on the shelves, and is likely to be a center of public attention.

Well, it's official. Thomas DiLorenzo's latest release, Hamilton's Curse: How Jefferson's Archenemy Betrayed the American Revolution, has hit the bookshelves during the past month. How timely it is that this book should arrive just when American citizens are still in shock at the recent bailout decision passed by the federal government. For this reason, DiLorenzo's book may give a greater springboard for those who blame big American government on Hamilton, to more effectively vocalize their view, and shape public opinion regarding the forces of good and evil at work in the Founding Era.

As the title of this series of posts (and of my blog for that matter) may indicate, I do not agree with several of DiLorenzo's key conclusions on some historical points. Having studied Hamilton's life through his writings and the writings of his immediate contemporaries, I find several of the key elements in DiLorenzo's portrait of Hamilton to be faulty, or at best, lacking. However, before I advance my counter-argument, let me make my position – where I stand, and where I am coming from – clear to my audience:

  • I believe that the Constitution limits government, by expressly forbidding it to do certain things; however, it also widened the fence a little for the federal government, so that it would not feel obligated to over-leap the fence in times of crisis. Sometimes, cramped space can give anyone an excuse to jump over the fence. And once the fence is behind them, they are without any bounds at all. This is the argument that Hamilton and James Wilson made at the Constitutional Convention.
  • I believe that our government has gone way to far from the limits of the Constitution, and has created for itself a new standard – the standard of administrative law. We are in effect, a government by man, and not a government of law.
  • I do not believe that the Federal Reserve System, or central banking, huge national debt, etc., are good or useful, or healthy to our country. So this post is not meant to defend them.
Having said that, let me introduce what I believe is the key issue in this “debate.” For decades, Americans have been greatly mistaken in classifying Jefferson and the Jeffersonians as believing in “small or limited government,” and Hamilton and the Federalists as believing in “big or elastic government.” In fact, in almost every textbook from the 20th century to the present, that tries to summarize Hamilton's political beliefs is found a sentence that reads, without fail, something much like this: “Hamilton and the Federalist Party believed in a strong central government to keep the nation strong and united.”

This phrase “strong central government” has been so often repeated in association with Hamilton during the 20th century, that it has become ingrained in us that this is what Hamilton wanted. However, Hamilton's own words stand to contradict the “just-so” notions we have accepted about his beliefs. First of all, it was not the fashion with Hamilton to refer to the federal government as a “central” government. He never referred to it as a central government, or that power needed to be “centralized.” He referred to the federal government as either “federal,” “national” (but that only as opposed to “state” governments), and even “general.” These terms that Hamilton faithfully used do not denote the same degree of political power as the term “strong central government,” which 20th century authors have, for all practical purposes, put into Hamilton's mouth.

This is the whole issue that has never been argued or emphasized for some time. Until now, the argument that has taken place in broad public view has been “Was Hamilton or Jefferson right about the proper place of government?” The debate has rarely ever been “What did Hamilton and Jefferson really believe about government, and other issues like human nature and liberty?” Unfortunately, I think that DiLorenzo has focused on the “right or wrong” issue, without first insuring that the question of “what” -- which should be asked first before we can get the second question right – has been answered correctly.

After having studied the Founder's writings for about 5 years, and Hamilton's and Jefferson's writings for slightly less than that, I have come to realize that Americans have not been taught the truth about our history, and that many of the “historical truths” that have been passed down to us through our public school classes, mainstream history textbooks, and popular documentaries, contain some fundamental errors. While there have definitely been some excellent things taught, and even authors who may often have some erroneous conclusions have at other times discerned other facts brilliantly, I have come to the conclusion that it is safer for Americans to trust the primary sources, and books which contain considerable selections from them. I hope that this series of posts will help to clear up some of the fog that has been cast over this issue, and that it will effectively shed the light of truth upon this discussion.

These have been only my introductory remarks. In the following posts of this series, I will cover the specifics. In the meantime, here are some links that will introduce those unfamiliar, to DiLorenzo's opinion of Hamilton:


Anonymous said...

Well done, Herky. You have me poised in anticipation for the new installment. :)

Anonymous said...

Excellent! I have a lot of questions about Hamilton and his view on federal government. I grew up with those textbooks yuo speak of, and so I know very little. I am really looking forward to reading more about this! Thanks!

Hercules Mulligan said...

Hello all. Thanks for reading and leaving your comments.

I am glad that you liked my introduction. Hopefully my future installments will be just as satisfactory.

I appreciate your interest and your input. I will try not to disappoint your anticipation by delaying the next installment for long.

Have a great week.

Sean said...

I am so sick of people saying Hamilton was for a big and excessive government. Hamilton NEVER said big, he said strong. His business acumen alone should tell you that he wanted above all an effecient government. Hamilton beleived that by election there should be an inherent respect and trust for a government's actions. People held the ultimate control over a government by voting. Hamilton did have a distrust of people (the public) as they were very susceptable to demagogery (sound familiar). This is why he argued for more permanance in Govt. He also knew that we are all human and that people are subject to the ills that can trap us all.
I get very sick of EVERY time there is the least bit of financial turmoil, historians are quick to throw Hamilton under the bus. President's beat him up at every turn (Wilson, F. Roosevelt, Truman, to give some modern examples), yet are generrally the ones who have expanded govt, increased taxes, and placed excessive burdens on our economy.

Hamilton was for a strong, efficient govt that served the public good. He was a visionary who saw the true potential and what could be.

Hercules Mulligan said...

Hi Sean. Welcome to my blog! Thanks for reading and leaving your comment.

You expressed the sentiments I feel exactly. It is so nice to hear from others who feel as I do on this subject, because as you said, it is an all-too-common misunderstanding among Americans to think that Hamilton was for big and intrusive government.

It's a great point you made that several of our modern presidents and other figures who have denounced Hamilton as not having enough faith in democracy were the real "big government" guys.

I wonder if DiLorenzo ever stopped to consider, after saying that Hamilton's ghost was resurrected in the form of the Federal Reserve, ever stopped to consider that Woodrow Wilson was a fan of Jefferson, and despised Hamilton?

I hope to update this series on Hamilton's so-called curse and the historical revisionism that has permeated American thought on this subject, in the near future. I hope you will have the opportunity to read it, and I would appreciate your input.

Thanks again for your comment.

God bless you, and Happy Thanksgiving!

droll said...

The fact people don't weigh into the Hamilton position about big government was that when he was advocating for bigger government there was NOOOOO federal governement. Washington was writing his own administrative letters. Obama has a staff of 2000 in ridiculous contrast. Jefferson and his followers wanted no government because they were jealous of central power - that is until they all started running for president. If Jefferson and Madison and Monroe were such states rights purists, why did they all line up to become president? It seems mildly amusing. The latest group to attack Hamilton are the anti-bank, anti-Fed crowd (Ron Paul supporters quite often) and though there hearts and minds are going in a good direction they buy into all the silliest nonsense about Hamilton. They usually have to recreate substantial history to justify their long history of banking conspiracy and Hamilton gets re-invented by them mor than anyone.

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