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Paragon or Devil: Alexander Hamilton and “Vigorous” Government
Nicholas R. Satin
Alexander Hamilton’s America
Dr. Carol Berkin
Dr. Joseph Murphy
In Federalist No. 1, Alexander Hamilton commences the defense of the Constitution and the reasons for New York to ratify it, proclaiming “the vigor of government is essential to the security of liberty.” But what does Hamilton mean by “vigor of government”? To his defenders, he referred to, among other aspects, efficient government and rule of law, and a stable, successful, and hardy nation. To his detractors, he is a cancer who aborted the glory that could be America by using the auspices of “vigorous government” to become the so-called American Bonaparte. Which is it? Alexander Hamilton was many things, but a chameleon was not among them; a paragon cannot be a devil, nor a devil a paragon.
The late Forrest McDonald has written Hamilton was “primarily concerned…with the distribution of power on the vertical axis, not the horizontal.” By “vertical” and “horizontal” McDonald refers to a hierarchy of sovereignty with each entity preeminent within its own field. Using the pyramid of British government to elaborate, McDonald explains Hamilton was an admirer of this British system: “the power of Crown in Parliament was absolute at the top of the pyramid, but so was that of each part of the system on its own level, down to the lowly justiceships of the peace.” It was the dearth of a similar structure in America that contributed to Congress’s shortcomings in prosecuting the Revolutionary War. Hamilton believed “narrow and niggardly provincialism of [Congressional] constituents, the state governments,” lacking “checks and controls…and an effective separation of powers” hindered the American cause throughout the duration of the conflict. The only method of restraining this unbridled state power was “a vast increase in the powers of Congress.”
This “vast increase” of federal power – a “vigorous government” – did not occasion abolition of the state governments. As Hamilton’s preference for the British hierarchy revealed, Hamilton proposed a “concept of divided sovereignty…the idea that each level of government in America was sovereign, but only in regard to the objects entrusted to it.” At the apex would stand the national government to stall “the aristocracy of state pretensions.” However, each sovereign, according to Hamilton, would own the “requisite” power(s) to meet the obligations of its sovereignty.
Biographer Ron Chernow comparably echoes McDonald. Hamilton scoffed at notions a “vigorous” national government necessarily entailed a zero-sum game with the states. Hamilton conveyed “the general government will at all times stand ready to check the usurpations of the state governments and these will have the same dispositions towards the general government.” In other words, the national government will check the states, and the states will check the national government. Chernow insightfully recognizes that Hamilton “was as quick to applaud checks on powers as those powers themselves, as he continued his lifelong effort to balance freedom and order.” Likewise, he acknowledges Hamilton’s faith in a sovereign national government with the requisite power to serve its role, citing the esteemed Bernard Bailyn, who specified:
The Constitution, in creating a [vigorous] [national] government…did not betray the Revolution, with its radical hopes for greater political freedom than had been known before. Quite the contrary, it fulfilled those radical aspirations, by creating the power necessary to guarantee both the nation’s survival and the preservation of the people and the states’ rights.
Paul Light has reflected similarly. Hamilton “saw the delicate balance between a government strong enough to protect a fragile nation against foreign and domestic threats, yet not strong enough to oppress the nation.” Striking this precarious balance, the “vigorous” national government would have the authority to “tap the genius of the people,” “eliminate duplication and overlap between the states,” and “guard against illicit trade, collect taxes, build armies and assure ‘the tranquility, commerce, revenue, and liberty for every part.’” A proponent of governmental transparency, Hamilton queried what sort of “vigorous” government “can simultaneously respect the people yet protect them,” as the two are not always synonymous. His answer was a government that has the “ability to detect and punish ‘national miscarriage or misfortune.’”
Clarifying this tableau of Alexander Hamilton, Michael Federici advises that Hamilton did not “plea for centralized power in any form.” And this, for Federici, is the crux of Hamilton’s position. “One of his objections to the government under the Articles of Confederation,” Federici inscribes, “was that it concentrated power in one branch.” “Vigorous” government cannot exist if it is not “adequately separated, balanced…checked” and “part of the rule of law and subject to judicial review.” As such, “the national government would be constrained, by itself, the states, and the Constitution,” according to Hamilton’s definition. Again reinforcing obligatory requisite power(s), Hamilton talked about “joining the states into a tighter political form and equipping the national government with sufficient power to defend and develop the nation.” Hamilton demarcated a “vigorous” government as one “with sufficient power to meet the challenges of the new nation” – what he called thinking “continentally.”
While Hamilton’s admirers paint an image of complementarity and balance, the critics counter Hamilton was protagonist for something nefarious and destructive to humble Americans when he wrote of “vigorous government.” One of the most recent proprietors of this angle is William Hogeland, who sees in Hamilton “the essential relationship between the concentration of national wealth and the obstruction of democracy through military force.” Hogeland posits a corrupt, all-pervasive national government resulted from Hamilton’s machinations (and to a substantial extent his mentor Robert Morris’s, asserting Hamilton’s rise resulted directly from Morris’s “openly corrupt efforts of the 1780s”). Hogeland even alleges Hamilton “was developing an urgent desire for authoritarian government, whose well-funded debt, supported by nationally enforced taxes, would increase the wealth of the richest class of Americans and yoke that class to national purpose.” Hogeland closes his diatribe with Hamilton’s supposed end-game: “an executive branch run by him, strong enough to do anything it deemed in the national interest.”
Hogeland is only one of the more recent detractors of Hamilton. Aaron N. Colemen has admirably displayed the history of anti-Hamilton vitriol that has existed in the historiography. Richard Kohn castigated Hamilton’s intent of “vigorous government,” in assurance it was designed to “suppress dissent and intimidate the population.” Stanley Kurtz was of a like mind, delegating to Hamilton the powers of a military dictator.Alexander DeConde claimed “Hamilton and other High Federalists viewed the military as a ‘political instrument’ for maintaining power.” Succinctly, Hamilton’s disparagers emphasize a militancy that should be apparent in Hamilton’s writings and actions. Ken Owen has tersely summed up this locus by specifically calling him “anti-democratic” and through insinuation, a conspirator and thug who was “convinced of his own superiority.”
In order to document which side is right – or at least “more right” – it is instructive to ruminate on Hamilton’s contributions to The Federalist. His assistance to the series represented the climax of a brilliant mind singularly focused and dedicated to a cause he zealously believed in. If his attitude on the nature of what constitutes a “vigorous” government can be discerned anywhere, it would be within these essays.
To help with this discernment, it is useful to follow the outline presented by McDonald (regardless of one’s perspective in this debate), dissecting a representative quantity of Hamilton’s essays within each tier. McDonald indicates The Federalist unfolds over five sections, four of which are especially applicable to the purpose here. Section 1, “Numbers 2 through 14 were designed to show the importance of union to the ‘political prosperity’ of America.” Section 2, “Numbers 15 through 22 pointed out the inadequacy of the existing confederation…for the purposes of union.” Section 3, Numbers 23 through 36 examine the need for a more robust constitution affirming an independent, but complimentary national government. Section 5, Numbers 52 to the concluding remarks in 85, analyzes the (potential) national government branch by branch.
Because only representative Federalist essays are considered, it is solely possible to extract a mere portion of characteristics Hamilton considered part of a “vigorous” government. That said, collectively the samples considered portray a government necessary to offset human nature and act complimentarily to the states. Obliquely, “complementarity” also denotes a check on state power. The overarching purpose, then, of this “vigorous” national government is chiefly to preserve permanency and fortune for the citizenry within all states by staving off turmoil that is larger than one component part – i.e., a solitary state. As Hamilton argues, a “confederacy,” which lacks a “vigorous” national government by definition, is insufficient to respond to intrastate problems or events. In practice, a Chief Executive would helm the ship of State, adhering to rule of law and military limitations, and owning compassion and benevolence.
In Federalist No. 6, Alexander Hamilton directs focus to harm from “wholly disunited” or “partially [confederated]” states. Hamilton warns under such arrangements the states would degenerate into “subdivisions” who would “frequently” and “violently” compete with one another. Those who think otherwise are “Utopian” in belief, for Man is by nature “ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious.” All the utopian need do is look to history to witness the folly of their thinking. Additionally, the verity nations have warred for economic purposes strongly implies it is only a matter of when, not if, the states will eventually break out in violence, for all thirteen possess thirteen different and often competing economic interests and needs, resulting in the “national dignity” and credit plummeting.
Hamilton continues with “Dangers from Dissensions Between the States” in No. 7. Matters such as “territorial disputes” also contribute to the likelihood of intrastate violence. America contains “vast tract[s] of unsettled territory,” some of which still reckon “discordant and undecided” claims between the states. If the “Union” were to be rejected, these competing claims would not only increase, but would exacerbate in intensity. At time of writing, some of these claims had been resolved by “amicably” ceding the land for Congress to dispose of, whereas rejection of the Constitution would reopen them. For evidence, Hamilton offers the dispute between Connecticut and Pennsylvania that, while submitted before the federal government willingly, saw Connecticut demonstrate “strong indications of dissatisfaction” with the verdict.
Developing the economic rivalries from No. 6 further, Hamilton reasons “less favorably circumstanced” states “would be desirous of escaping from the disadvantages of local situation, and of sharing in the advantages of their more fortunate neighbors.” This would cause them to endeavor “a system of commercial policy peculiar to itself.” Put simply, the interests of one’s home state will take precedence over every other state, ultimately rendering some “tributary” to the more affluent and successful. “Would Connecticut and New Jersey long submit to be taxed by New York for her exclusive benefit?” asks Hamilton.
Most important of all, what check(s) would exist on the states? “If unrestrained by any additional checks” it is quite probable “laws in violation of private contracts” would be, if not commonplace, nevertheless possible. Approval of the Constitution maintains checks and balance between the national and state governments.
From these essays, it is seen by “vigor of government,” Hamilton referred to a national government to which the states cooperatively rally behind, subordinating each of their individual needs as appropriate for the betterment of all, defined as an absence of intrastate strain escalating into violence. And most significant, a “vigorous” federal government establishes checks and balance between it and state governments.
In Federalist No. 15, Alexander Hamilton shifts attention to communicating the "insufficiency of the present Confederation to the preservation of the Union.'' Hamilton assents that “all classes of men” find problems in the Articles of Confederation, problems that have America on the brink of “national humiliation.” Hamilton enumerates ways by which this “humiliation” has occurred:
“Do we owe debts to foreigners and to our own citizens contracted in a time of imminent peril for the preservation of our political existence? These remain without any proper or satisfactory provision for their discharge.
“Have we valuable territories and important posts in the possession of a foreign power which, by express stipulations, ought long since to have been surrendered? These are still retained, to the prejudice of our interests, not less than of our rights.
“Are we entitled by nature and compact to a free participation in the navigation of the Mississippi? Spain excludes us from it.
“Is public credit an indispensable resource in time of public danger? We seem to have abandoned its cause as desperate and irretrievable. Is commerce of importance to national wealth?
“Is respectability in the eyes of foreign powers a safeguard against foreign encroachments? The imbecility of our government even forbids them to treat with us.
“Is a violent and unnatural decrease in the value of land a symptom of national distress? The price of improved land in most parts of the country is much lower than can be accounted for by the quantity of waste land at market, and can only be fully explained by that want of private and public confidence, which are so alarmingly prevalent among all ranks, and which have a direct tendency to depreciate property of every kind.
“Is private credit the friend and patron of industry? That most useful kind which relates to borrowing and lending is reduced within the narrowest limits, and this still more from an opinion of insecurity than from the scarcity of money.”
Hamilton laments, while there is consensus the intrinsic flaws of the Articles of Confederation have crippled America, there remains “strenuous opposition to a remedy, upon the only principles that can give it a chance of success.” Americans are not willing to make the necessary sacrifices to ensure the stability and prosperity of the United States. Americans desire to see the United States achieve stability and prosperity, but not if it requires subordinating their state for the common welfare. Americans clamor for “an augmentation of federal authority, without a diminution of State authority; at sovereignty in the Union, and complete independence in the members.” Americans want to have it all, without accepting they face an either/or proposition.
The recommended Constitution would rectify America’s humiliation. It would engage each failure of the Articles by ensuring a vibrant national government can meet the requirements of a nation and draw Americans out beyond their stately provincialism. Accordingly, it befuddles Hamilton “there should still be found men who object to the new Constitution.” He negates the standard conviction the states would cast aside their parochialism when the moment demanded it for the sake of “common interest.” This “betrayed an ignorance of the true springs by which human conduct is actuated, and belied the original inducements to the establishment of civil power.” For why is government established at all? “Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice, without constraint.”
Federalist No. 21 features the “most important of those defects which have hitherto disappointed our hopes from the system established among ourselves.” Hamilton, of course, refers to the utter impotence of the national government under the Articles. “The United States, as now composed, have no powers to exact obedience, or punish disobedience to their resolutions….” Federally, the United States is completely beholden unto the states. Hamilton forecasts a scenario like the one tendered in No. 6: were a state to “trample upon the liberties of the people,” the national government would be powerless to confront it. There is no check on state initiative under the current arrangement.
It can be added that by “vigorous” government Hamilton intended a firm alliance of disparate sovereignties (in the American case, the states), who are both checked and balanced by a national government with the ability to withstand “humiliation.” Implied in such an arrangement is a complimentary national government to the various sovereignties comprising it. A “vigorous” national government has the power – and authority – to act as the moment necessitates within its purviews. The arrangement of the Articles of Confederation created the opposite: a national government that had to request approval from the states; a national government that was weaker than the parts which made it up. Consequently, such a confederation was inappropriate and undesired as a means of ensuring strength, confidence, and affluence, not merely for one state, but all states. The ideal, which Hamilton suggested ratification of the Constitution would inaugurate, was a national government that was complimentary to the states and served as a check on provincial domination.
Beginning in Federalist No. 23, Alexander Hamilton no longer hints a “vigorous” national government is one acting in compliment to the states; rather, he tackles this idea directly. In fact, Hamilton specifically delineates in what fashion a “vigorous” national government compliments states:
“The common defense of the members;
“The preservation of the public peace as well against internal convulsions as external attacks;
“The regulation of commerce with other nations and between the States;
“The superintendence of our intercourse, political and commercial, with foreign countries.”
Hamilton inquires, for instance, who will ensure the safety of the “Whole.” Would South Carolina ensure Rhode Island is protected? Would Massachusetts defend Georgia? Hamilton remarks such a thing is not likely to happen, nor is it appropriate. Satisfactorily, it is the responsibility of an authority to which all members cooperate with to ensure the “Whole” is upheld.
Federalist No. 28 returns to the fear of a despotic state. “In a single state, if the persons entrusted with supreme power become usurpers,” Hamilton warns, “the different parcels, subdivisions, or districts of which it consists, having no distinct government in each, can take no regular measures for defense.” The citizens in such a condition would “rush tumultuously to arms, without concert, without system, without resource…. The usurpers, clothed in the forms of legal authority, can too often crush the opposition in embryo.” A “vigorous” national government prevents this possibility. If leaders of a state overreach or directly affront the people of the state, they can turn toward the national government for aid.
In this sampling from Section 3, it becomes clear a “vigorous” national government is one that ensures the defense of all citizens. It operates in concert with the states, but as required, the national government can operate independently of the states within its preset domains. A “vigorous” national government does not seek to coopt what rightfully belongs to the states, but to confirm the peaceful cooperation among them and the wider world. Ergo, complimentary national and state governments certify an equilibrium between both as well as the citizenry to the betterment of all.
It being established Alexander Hamilton favored checks on state and national power, with each working within discrete spheres of authority, and enjoying the power to act on their respective authority, it remains to be seen what such a government looked like for Hamilton. As the critics have pushed for a militaristic tyrant, it is best to examine The Federalist’s musings on the executive branch.
In No. 67, Hamilton unambiguously professes a “vigorous government” leads neither to monarchy nor tyranny. Moreover, “vigorous government” cannot abrogate rule of law. Rejecting such accusations, Hamilton pens, “The first of these two clauses, it is clear, only provides a mode for appointing…officers, ‘whose appointments are NOT OTHERWISE PROVIDED FOR in the Constitution, and which SHALL BE ESTABLISHED BY LAW [emphasis Hamilton].” In brief, the President of the United States is legally constrained from violating the sovereignty of other governmental entities, even within the national government. To Hamilton, an executive, even a President, respects sovereignty in a “vigorous government.”
Dispelling the military slant, in No. 74 Hamilton rebuffs any pretensions of an American Bonaparte. “The President of the United States is to be ‘commander-in-chief [of America’s military] WHEN CALLED INTO THE ACTUAL SERVICE of the United States [emphasis again Hamilton’s].” It is entirely self-evident to Hamilton, the Chief Executive of a “vigorous government” can only activate or use military might when the situation obliges it, and only in “service” to the country. Such power in an individual is imperative as “the direction of war most peculiarly demands those qualities which distinguish the exercise of power by a single hand.” The “single hand” can act with swiftness and boldness in an emergency without being mired in deliberation.
A Chief Executive is correspondingly compassionate, for he wields the power to pardon out of “humanity” (and “good policy”). Compassion is warranted and concomitant to the station because “the criminal code of every country partakes of so much necessary severity, that without an easy access to exceptions…justice would wear a countenance too sanguinary and cruel.”
Contrary to Hamilton’s decriers, the picture of a “vigorous government’s” Chief Executive that emerges in the final portion of The Federalist is one constrained by rule of law, yet also of temperament, as it is understood one ascends to the role in full knowledge of the legal constraints. In the same vein, a “vigorous government” concedes the Chief Executive military power for emergent situations only, again in understanding he acts for the common defense of the country and relinquishes that power upon the situation’s termination. Last, the position compels a compassionate, benign leader – someone people can turn for help.
“The vigor of government is essential to the security of liberty”
The examples studied exhibit a portion of what Alexander Hamilton meant when he wrote about “vigorous” government. He did not appeal to a ubiquitous national government with tentacles in all aspects of life that invalidated state sovereignty. Reasonably, he spoke for a national government that compensated for human nature and complimented the states. Complementarity also signified a check on state power. The accurate purpose of this “vigorous” national government is to preserve permanency and fortune for the citizenry within all states. It would do so by thwarting conflict and turmoil that is larger than one state. A confederacy, under which the United States found itself prior to the Constitution, precludes a “vigorous” national government and would thus be insufficient to respond to intrastate problems or events. Spearheading a government like this is a Chief Executive, who acceded to rule of law and martial restraints, and acted out of consideration and sympathy for the populace.
Alexander Hamilton has had many cavilers and many enemies in his lifetime and after. These individuals, however, must contend with a body of evidence contained within the most famous and momentous of Hamilton’s writings, The Federalist, and the onus is upon them to prove Hamilton lied about what he wrote or abandoned such thoughts subsequently.
Hamilton, Alexander. “Federalist No. 1.” The Avalon Project.
http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed01.asphttp://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed01.asp (accessed March 14, 2017).
----- “Federalist No. 6.” The Avalon Project.
http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed06.asphttp://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed06.asp (accessed March 14, 2017).
----- “Federalist No. 7.” The Avalon Project.
http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed07.asphttp://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed07.asp (accessed March 14, 2017).
----- “Federalist No. 15.” The Avalon Project.
http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed15.asphttp://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed15.asp (accessed March 15, 2017).
----- “Federalist No. 21.” The Avalon Project.
http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed21.asphttp://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed21.asp (accessed March 15, 2017).
----- “Federalist No. 23.” The Avalon Project.
http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed23.asphttp://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed23.asp (accessed March 15, 2017).
----- “Federalist No. 28.” The Avalon Project.
http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed28.asphttp://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed28.asp (accessed March 16, 2017).
----- “Federalist No. 67.” The Avalon Project.
http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed67.asphttp://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed67.asp (accessed April 1, 2017).
----- “Federalist No. 74,” The Avalon Project.
http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed74.asphttp://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed74.asp (accessed April 1, 2017).
Colemen, Aaron N. “‘A Second Bournaparty?’ A Reexamination of Alexander Hamilton During the Franco-American Crisis, 1796-1801.” Journal of the Early Republic 28, 2 (Summer, 2008): 183-214.
Light, Paul C. “Federalist No. 1: How Would Publius Define Good Government Today.” Public Administration Review 71, Supplement to Volume 71: The Federalist Papers Revised for Twenty-First Century Reality (December 2011): S7-S14.
Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. Penguin Books. 2004.
McDonald, Forrest. Alexander Hamilton: A Biography. W. W. Norton & Company. 1982.
Federici, Michael. The Political Philosophy of Alexander Hamilton. The Johns Hopkins University Press. 2012.
Hogeland, William. “Inventing Alexander Hamilton: The Troubling Embrace of the Founder of American Finance.” Boston Review.
http://bostonreview.net/hogeland-inventing-alexander-hamiltonhttp://bostonreview.net/hogeland-inventing-alexander-hamilton (accessed April 1, 2017).
Owen, Ken. “Historians and Hamilton: Founders Chic and the Cult of Personality.” The Junto.
https://earlyamericanists.com/2016/04/21/historians-and-hamilton-founders-chic-and-the-cult-of-personality/https://earlyamericanists.com/2016/04/21/historians-and-hamilton-founders-chic-and-the-cult-of-personality/ (accessed April 1, 2017).
3 aspects of life that invalidated state sovereignty. Reasonably, he spoke for a national government that compensated for human nature and complimented the states. Complementarity also signified a check on state power. The accurate purpose of this “vigorous” national government is to preserve permanency and fortune for the citizenry within all states. It would do so by thwarting conflict and turmoil that is larger than one state. A confederacy, under which the United States found itself prior to the Constitution, precludes a “vigorous” national government and would thus be insufficient to respond to intrastate problems or events. Spearheading a government like this is a Chief Executive, who acceded to rule of law and martial restraints, and acted out of consideration and sympathy for the populace.
Alexander Hamilton has had many cavilers and many enemies in his lifetime and after. These individuals, however, must contend with a body of evidence contained within the most famous and momentous of Hamilton’s writings, The Federal