Alexander Hamilton: The Enlightened Realist

By Allen, Brooke | The Hudson Review, Autumn 2004 | Go to article overview

Alexander Hamilton: The Enlightened Realist


Allen, Brooke, The Hudson Review


Alexander Hamilton: The Enlightened Realist

IT IS SAID THAT WHEN HE WAS ASKED what was the ultimate significance of the Vietnam War, the Chinese statesman Chou En-lai responded that it would take a couple of hundred years to find out. The same is true, in spades, of the American Revolution. Even its participants could not agree on its meaning or legacy, as we can see in the valetudinarian correspondence between Adams and Jefferson, whose reflections on the apparently insuperable ideological conflict are as pertinent today as they were then. Now, as then, we are torn between two contradictory ideals: a "Jeffersonian" construct of pure republicanism in which maximum personal liberty is ensured by minimal government intrusion, and the "Hamiltonian" program of national prosperity and security over seen by a strong and ultimately responsible central government. To Hamilton (as to his fellow Federalists Washington and Adams) revolution ended in nation-building; to Jefferson it never ended at all. Permanent revolution, renewed with every generation, was the goal.

Modern conservatives like to think of themselves as Hamiltonian realists, supporters of a strong executive branch, a state-of-the-art military machine, and a capitalist system based on banking, credit, and the stock market. They try to dismiss Jefferson (and by extension today's liberals whom they believe to be his heirs) as a Utopian fantasist with crackpot ideas, derived from the likes of Robespierre and Marat, about the perfectibility of man. It is true, of course, that Jefferson was an optimist. "The good sense of our people," he once opined, "will direct the boat ultimately to its proper point." WRONG, to quote John McLaughlin. Why should the American people have more good sense, for instance, than their European cousins? Did human nature change when the colonists crossed the Atlantic? No; it is safer and wiser, surely, to assume, with Hamilton and his philosophical mentor David Hume, that "every man ought to be supposed a knave and to have no other end in all his actions but private interests," and to construct government according to this assumption.

But today's political parties can in no way be labeled exclusively or even primarily Jeffersonian or Hamiltonian. Our Republicans and Democrats are heirs in almost equal measure to both Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian philosophies, and to separate these strands within the mind, say, of a Ted Kennedy or a Newt Gingrich would be pointless. It is the Democrats, for instance, who now have-or claim to have-greater tolerance for government regulation of civil life, and the Republicans who voice a Jeffersonian mistrust of Big Government. Moving to the right, the NRA makes its arguments based on Jeffersonian ideals of personal liberty, and so do America's many militia groups. The Branch Davidian tragedy was, if you take it a certain way, a classic conflict between Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian world-views: the Jeffersonian Davidians asserted their right to live free of governmental regulations to which they did not assent, while Janet Reno went to battle against their insurgency armed with the full Hamiltonian panoply of federal bureaucracy and power. If Jefferson was a Jacobin, unacceptable to today's Republicans, he was also a libertarian, unacceptable to Democrats, and the marked strain of libertarianism that has resonated through American history can be attributed to his persistent influence.

The "Great Man" theory of history has been discredited in recent years, as historians strive to give voices to those who have long been relegated to the margins of historical narrative by virtue of their gender, race or social class. But some areas of history, or to be more precise some specific historical moments, have furiously resisted this leveling process: their Great Men were so undisputedly great that they cannot be ignored. The American Revolution was the classic example of such a moment, when the passions and aspirations of the masses were channeled by a group of men not only singularly brilliant but also, for all their faults, surprisingly virtuous.

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