Hamilton's Ups and Downs: Scholars Revive Interest in a Misunderstood Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton, Whose Pragmatic Ideas Could Help the United States through Its Current Confusion. (NATION: Founding Father)

By Rust, Michael | Insight on the News, May 17, 1999 | Go to article overview

Hamilton's Ups and Downs: Scholars Revive Interest in a Misunderstood Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton, Whose Pragmatic Ideas Could Help the United States through Its Current Confusion. (NATION: Founding Father)


Rust, Michael, Insight on the News


As bombs rained on Kosovo, confusion seemed to reign in Washington: Uncertainty about U.S. and NATO goals and tactics continued to escalate, even as chaos devastated the beleaguered Yugoslav province. Those looking for reassurance from Bill Clinton's White House may be forgiven if they look wistfully 100 yards to the east, to a statue standing in the rear of the U.S. Treasury, an unimposing monument to Alexander Hamilton.

The first U.S. secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton has had his ups and downs on the ever-fluctuating market of historical reputation. There are definite signs of a Hamiltonian revival, and Richard Brookhiser, author of the new biography Alexander Hamilton, American, points out that this trend could be enhanced as "foreign policy becomes more complicated." Hamilton, a valued staff officer to George Washington through much of the Revolution and a combat hero during the battle of Yorktown, was an early champion of the need for a professional military and a nuanced view of foreign alliances and involvements.

During the great foreign-policy controversy of two centuries ago concerning U.S. relations with postrevolutionary France and Great Britain, Brookhiser points out, Hamilton wrote, "Real firmness is good for everything. Strut is good for nothing." Hamilton, Brookhiser tells Insight, was "not the first foreign-policy realist in American history -- that's [George] Washington -- but he's the first intellectual of foreign-policy realism." Michael Lind, editor of the 1997 anthology Hamilton's Republic, agrees. "In foreign policy, Hamiltonism is realism and support for a strong military."

Any presidential hopeful who looks to Hamilton for guidance would see the necessity "to base today's foreign policy on national interest and not emotion or sentiment," says William Hawkins, a senior aide to Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican and national-security specialist. Today's presidential hopefuls would do well, says Brookhiser, to consult Hamilton's ideas about foreign policy, "not so much for the specific recommendations as for the bracing way of thinking about it." Today's politicians, suggests Hamilton biographer Forrest McDonald, should realize that Hamilton "was the boldest of men but he was also very cautious and very prudential." His last report to Congress on public credit in January 1795 is adaptable to today, as the costs of NATO's intervention continue to mount, suggests McDonald, a history professor at the University of Alabama: "Hamilton said, Look, the public debt is a good thing if it's managed properly; it's a bad thing if it's not. But you've always got to have public credit. There are always times when you have to borrow. But when you do go into deficit financing, always at the time you take on the debt, set up the means of paying it off. Provide for the means for servicing it."

But adding a focus on balanced budgets to the agony of the Balkans is not the only reason for a renewal of interest in Hamilton. "I do sense that out of a culmination of Clinton and all his private peccadilloes and this damn stupid war, there's going to be a tremendous reaction back toward respectability and back toward a lot of older values," McDonald tells Insight. "And [the reputation of] Hamilton can do nothing but profit from that."

The current posthumous troubles experienced by Hamilton's rival, Thomas Jefferson, also may contribute. "Hamilton and Jefferson are like a rod and a mobile; when one is up, the other's down," says Brookhiser. "I'm kind of sorry that that's the case, because I see them as apples and oranges and their great qualities are nonintersecting in a way. But Jefferson is slipping right now," particularly in regard to his views on slavery. "But as that happens, maybe his great enemy gets some innings now."

Indeed. In the historical wars that posthumously engulfed the reputations of the Founding Fathers, Hamilton has been targeted by many on both left and right, including neo-Marxist New Leftists and laissez-faire libertarians. …

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