Hamilton In Retrospect

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Alexander Hamilton was always the odd man out in American politics. This was due not just to his unique philosophy but also because his entire life set him apart from his contemporaries. He was not born in any of the original thirteen colonies. He was born on the tiny Caribbean island of Nevis to a Scottish father and a half-British, half-French mother; he was born out-of-wedlock in an era that took illegitimate births very seriously. When his father found out that his mother had been married before and even had a child with another man, he abandoned the family. Hamilton’s mother died when he was thirteen years old, leaving him orphaned. The boy was sent to live with his uncle who committed suicide not long afterward. Nobody can claim that Hamilton was born with a silver spoon in his mouth.

Hamilton was adopted by a local Nevis merchant and seemed destined to live an unremarkable life in trading. Everything changed, however, when he wrote a letter to his adoptive father about a hurricane that had struck the island while his father was out at sea. A family friend, struck by the powerful language and clever expressiveness of the letter, decided to publish it in a journal. It was a distinctive honor for a young man who was mostly self-educated. In the end, the letter impressed influential people on Nevis enough for them to gather a small fund to send Hamilton to be educated in New York.

Perhaps the only thing more unusual than how Hamilton came to the thirteen colonies was the political philosophy that was shaped by his mostly self-taught mind. There was always something earthy and practical in his ideas. Although he wore the same white breeches and powdered wigs as his peers and mouthed all the same silly slogans about the rights of man, Hamilton was never truly a classical liberal. Hamilton was a man wholly out of place and time, a foreigner in his own tongue, a stranger in his own home, a man who had slipped through the gaps of one era and fallen into another. He was a Bonapartist two decades before Bonaparte. He was a Caesarist one thousand eight-hundred years after Caesar lay dead on the marble steps of the Curia Julia.

Hamilton understood something that few Americans of his era understood; in fact, he understood something that even fewer Americans of our era understand. The core of Hamilton’s philosophy is something that liberals of all stripes, classical and modern, try their best to ignore or deny: good government comes from good leaders. Government is, by necessity, an executive function.

The Executive

Hamilton made no efforts to disguise this truth of his. Wisely he also decided not to affix a particular label to the ideal leader he had envisioned. He didn’t dub this man a king, an emperor, a consul, or a dictator. Instead he gave his ideal leader a very neutral title that wouldn’t ruffle too many liberal breeches. The word he used was “the executive.”

Energy in the Executive is a leading character in the definition of good government. It is essential to the protection of the community against foreign attacks; it is not less essential to the steady administration of the laws; to the protection of property against those irregular and high-handed combinations which sometimes interrupt the ordinary course of justice; to the security of liberty against the enterprises and assaults of ambition, of faction, and of anarchy. [1]

After reading such things as “all men are created equal,” Hamilton’s writing should ring like a silver clarion in any reactionary’s ears. This is truly an angelic passage. In one short paragraph, Hamilton provides not only a justification for a strong executive, but for a reactionary, he provides a baseline definition of the term. That is to say, if a reactionary were to dream up his ideal executive, regardless of whether he chose to name that executive person a king, a kaiser, or a consul, his ideal would very neatly match the vision of an executive that Hamilton outlined above.

The first role that Hamilton chose to list was, I think, not chosen first by coincidence. The protection of the community against foreign attacks is the foremost duty of any government. If we were to think of society as an organism, it’s clear that even the most capacious, the most resplendent brain would achieve nothing without the immune system there to fight off invading organisms. Michelangelo would have never lived long enough to pick up a chisel if the common cold had been enough to kill him. Edison would have never recorded his voice on a phonograph if scarlet fever had taken his life as a child. The first rule of survival is that you must be able to fend off threats to your survival.

This point is, unfortunately, lost on many Americans today. America is currently suffering from a tragic case of pathological altruism. But even if we agree on the necessity of national defense why does it have to be one man, an executive, to lead the charge?

I’d argue that it all boils down to pragmatism: if it’s not one man making the decisions, it has to be a committee, and a committee requires a consensus, and a consensus requires time and compromise, neither of which are very good at dealing with invaders. One mediocre decision, made swiftly and decisively, is worth far more in a crisis than an excellent decision made slowly and with a dithering hand. That is why the executive branch exists. The legislature can sit around and talk over luncheon meetings, wheel-and-deal at committee hearings, and give speeches on the floor of the House that are all sound and fury, signifying nothing. The executive, on the other hand, has to do things.

In Hamilton’s America, the president would not have to ask Congress for the funding of a border wall. Since it’s obviously in the national interest, and since it provides immediate protection for American citizens, it would be a simple case of having to mouth the words, “Thy will be done, Mr. President.”

Hamilton also anticipates the legal entanglements of a strong executive acting against a vested interest in the government. He writes immediately afterward that the executive is “not less essential to the steady administration of the laws.” This means that a few uppity judges who think they can oppose a border wall by standing in defiance of the federal code would also be subject to executive justice. Their status as judges would not protect them from a president with a clear mandate.

The next role of the executive is the “protection of property” against those who “interrupt the ordinary course of justice.” This phrase is a little ambiguous, I admit. Due to the particular wording, “against those irregular and high-handed combinations,” I’m led to believe that Hamilton is referring specifically to corruption in high office. This would mean that Lois Lerner and the IRS wouldn’t be able to hold conservatives to a different standard of scrutiny on their taxes than liberals. It would mean that the Clintons would not be able to sell 20% of the USA’s uranium reserve to Russia after some very generous Russian donations to their so-called charity, the Clinton Foundation. Don’t expect congressional hearings on these matters to go anywhere fruitful. A Congressional gathering of criminals and sympathetic ideologues will never come to any conclusions firmer than a waffle. These are both serious interruptions to the ordinary course of justice, and they require, as a matter of necessity, the kind of justice that only an executive can provide.

The final role that Hamilton mentions is perhaps my favorite. “The security of liberty against the enterprises and assaults of ambition, of faction, and of anarchy.” It’s often assumed, especially among Americans, that one man with power is the greatest threat to a nation’s liberty. This is true, perhaps, in sleepy nations with a strong sense of local loyalty and a well-worn system of provincial representation, in nations like Switzerland, for instance. But America has never been much like Switzerland. Hamilton, a keen student of history, is well aware of this fact and isn’t fooled by such silly, New World prejudices against a strong leader.

He understood that America spans thousands of miles and contains a wide variety of dialects, pastimes, and preferred alcoholic beverages. We’ve always been a patchwork people. In Hamilton’s era, the states themselves were marked by such variety that the union was always in question. It took about seventy years but eventually these tensions could no longer be held in equilibrium, and so when the chords snapped, America went to war with itself. In our era, the problem is only exacerbated by the presence of too many foreign tongues, too many races, and too many crackpot ideas. The diversity in America today is on a tenfold scale of magnitude greater than America on the eve of the civil war.

In such circumstances, liberty isn’t threatened by one man with power. It’s threatened by the varied schemes and machinations of the political class. It’s the chattering ones, the race of lawmakers, who cause the most trouble in nations with no coherent identity. It’s only natural because they are the ones most able to turn the apathy that comes from diversity into personal gain; anarchy suits them nicely. In 49 BC, Rome was split by quarreling families in the Senate, upstart magistrates out in the provinces who ruled like demigods, and in every department and at every level of government, there was flagrant corruption. That is, until Caesar crossed the Rubicon.

Liberty cannot survive the pangs of ambition, faction, and anarchy. Liberty is too delicate to defend itself. It’s too enigmatic to be secured by committees and party politics. It requires the order that comes from a firm hand and a wreathed head — the rule of Caesar. Hamilton understood that the future of American liberty depended on a strong federal government with a strong executive at its head.

There are rival interpretations, of course. Jefferson in particular felt that the citizens themselves should be responsible for maintaining their liberty, clutching their guns and ready to rebel should they suffer too many affronts to their liberty. I find this view hopelessly naïve. Everyday men and women, middle class people, have to go to work. They have to pick up the kids from school, buy some carrots and squash at the store, order a nose hair trimmer for grandpa’s eighty-fifth birthday. They’re busy. They have neither the time nor the energy to police their government as assiduously as one man with a mandate.

This Jeffersonian paradigm leads to the absurdity of modern American politics: the great masses of the middle-class are excluded from the political process on every day except election day, while the people with the most free time, the extremely poor and the extremely rich, get to play politics all they want. Students, grifters, bums, and louts spend their time rioting to win handouts from the rich politicians, and the politicians are more than happy to surrender to their demands, because they’re smart enough to realize that they are simply buying poor votes with middle-class tax dollars.

This vicious cycle is hard to break. The politicians raise the minimum wage on the urging of the poor, this increases unemployment, which leads to more generous welfare packages for the poor. The politicians get their votes, the poor get their cash, and the middle-class quietly signs the check. The politicians raise disability benefits, extend health insurance coverage to people who can’t pay, regulate the height and make of factory equipment, hand out subsidies for worthless ethanol in gasoline, prop up inefficient solar panels, dole out Medicaid drugs for junkies, and throughout it all, middle-class America asks in a very meek and inoffensive voice, “All right then, where do I sign?”

Jefferson got it wrong. Rebellion is not in the middle-class DNA. The middle-income ranges stand too much to lose and too little to gain from armed revolt; they have neither the time nor the energy to keep up with the struggle of politics in a democracy. To his credit, of course, Jefferson probably never anticipated extending suffrage to the American underclass of thieves, pimps, felons, illiterates, foreigners, and invalids. He might have even opposed it for women. He certainly would have opposed it for former slaves. Nonetheless, I find his fundamental thesis flawed, even accounting for the different ideas about who could and could not vote in Jefferson’s era. The middle-class are not natural rebels.

Hamilton realized, more than many of his contemporaries in the New World, that the greatest champion of liberty is a strong executive. We can’t police the politicians and make sure that their dealings are as clean as they should be — but an executive can. We can’t stop an unholy alliance of the rich and the poor, a political coup, lawless judges, or a gradual pruning of our constitutional rights for the benefit of lobbyists — but an executive can. To put the matter in Hamilton’s own words, “The sole and undivided responsibility of one man, will naturally beget a livelier sense of duty, and a more exact regard to reputation.” [2]

One man, one nation, one people. The executive office, the federal government, and the American identity. Hamilton was not looking to Switzerland for his inspiration, he was looking to Rome — the Roman Empire.

Human Nature

It’s only logical that we should discuss human nature when discussing one of America’s founding fathers. As a whole, the fathers loved opining on the nature of man, as most classical liberals were fascinated by the topic. These quotes sound to us now, at this point in history, like an angelic harp plucked high in the heavens, beautiful but surreal. The quotes comfort us and they fit well in speeches and lectures, but there’s something far too naïve about them. There’s something that never quite satisfies modern man, perhaps because modern man is living in a world that’s a testament to just how wrong the liberals were two hundred years ago. Even with a radical change in man’s institutions, mankind remains as flawed as ever.

It’s a tragic case of overreach. Liberalism paints a picture of man that is far too flattering. It paints over his warts, blots out his scars, whitens his rashes, and turns man from a flawed but brilliant creature into an Olympian. To a liberal, a man is not just usually kind, he’s fundamentally good. A man is not often just, his very nature is fairness. The liberal fallacy is to take some of mankind’s better qualities and derive an abstract, universal principle from them.

This is one reason why an astute reader can find the beginnings of Marxism in the works of America’s founding fathers. Marxism is one, short step to the left of liberalism. Jefferson’s writings in particular illustrate this point, although, to be clear, Jefferson was not a Marxist; but Marx was almost certainly a Jeffersonian.

There was one founding father, however, who stood against his era’s fallacies on human nature. Hamilton was under no misconceptions about man’s limitations and he based his ideas on government off of this premise: that governments exist specifically because men are flawed.

Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice, without constraint. [3]

Man is a wily creature. He’s hard to control and especially hard to reason with when he’s overwhelmed with emotion. By admitting the limitations in man’s nature, Hamilton is not trying to reinvent the wheel like his contemporaries. He’s not trying to better man by bettering his institutions. He’s not taking a stand for social justice, equality, or universal welfare. On the contrary, Hamilton is confessing to the simple truth that his cousins in London, the Tories, long believed: governments uphold the law and the law exists to bring some rational consistency to the irrationality of man.

This view is neither pessimistic nor optimistic. There’s no need to argue about whether or not we should want to embrace this line of thinking. Man is flawed, and any system of government that does not hold this truth as one of its foundational principles is fated to have an unfortunate end. There is no correcting or uplifting man; no setting him straight or redeeming him en masse. There are wonderful individuals, to be sure, but there is no solution that will make all men, everywhere wonderful. The government, then, should not seek to correct men’s natures, but to curb them just enough so that society can function in accordance with “the dictates of reason and justice.”

I never expect to see a perfect work from imperfect man. The result of the deliberations of all collective bodies must necessarily be a compound, as well of the errors and prejudices, as of the good sense and wisdom, of the individuals of whom they are composed. [4]

Power Divided

Hamilton had an exceptional ability to understand the dynamics of power. When power is divvied into shares, when it’s parceled out to a committee instead of to an individual man, the group acts with far less restraint and is much less prudent in the use of its power. Without individual accountability, there is nothing to restrain them.

Has it been found that bodies of men act with more rectitude or greater disinterestedness than individuals? The contrary of this has been inferred by all accurate observers of the conduct of mankind; and the inference is founded upon obvious reasons. Regard to reputation has a less active influence, when the infamy of a bad action is to be divided among a number than when it is to fall singly upon one. [5]

It’s the same principle of collective versus individual ownership: a collective is never as careful or as exacting with a piece of property as one man who has it all to himself. After all, the state has to pay people to clean its parks, while a man is more than happy to tend to his own garden. Tenements with green spaces shared by hundreds of residents inevitably become slums. Democracy, in short, is the tragedy of the commons taken to the national level.

It’s apparent that in Hamilton’s America there would be a clear chain of command, a distinct executive hierarchy at both the state and federal levels, where one citizen could very confidently draw a line of responsibility up the chain above him and hold those men accountable for their actions. Diffusing power between many different branches of government and a thousand committees and departments is the surest sign of governmental dysfunction. “A feeble executive implies a feeble execution of the government.” [6]

In true High Tory fashion, we must admit that power divided cannot remain powerful. Hamilton’s federal government, much to his credit, would look very little like the bloated and dyspeptic U.S. federal government of today. It would be a beautiful anachronism in a world dying from democratic excess. What it would look like specifically, I’ll explain in more detail soon.

Aristocracy

In a similar vein, Hamilton is intensely skeptical of the masses. Individuals can exercise ownership but the masses can only split the spoils between a thousand different hands. It’s only natural that when individuals bear a greater burden of power in the executive and judicial system that an aristocracy will arise. This is not something to resist. There is no need to wheel out the guillotine. Hamilton reasons that an aristocracy is inevitable and should therefore be encouraged; provided, of course, that it’s instituted in such a way that the interests of the aristocrats align with the interests of the nation.

All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and well born, the other the mass of the people. The voice of the people has been said to be the voice of God; and however generally this maxim has been quoted and believed, it is not true in fact. The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct, permanent share in the government. They will check the unsteadiness of the second, and as they cannot receive any advantage by a change, they therefore will ever maintain good government. [7]

The wording here is very important. Take note of the part that says, “a distinct, permanent share in the government.” This approach is the exact opposite approach of America today. America’s elite are always struggling to remain in office; they promise outlandish things like more and more money to the poor, they cheat the system with mail-in ballots, they raise taxes to extortionate levels, they bribe and bully their opponents, and they form grand conspiracies against the public. They have no permanent stake in government, however, so all of this scrounging for power is done to line their own pockets. Ideas of civic duty are not strong enough in a nation as diverse as America to keep politicians honest; they are using their elected positions to enrich themselves and the nation is, of course, only a secondary concern.

An aristocracy, a true aristocracy, works nothing like this. From the old Roman Senate to the Meiji House of Peers, true aristocrats have no need to beg for approval from the flip-flopping common folk. They hold the lion’s share of the nation’s land and money, and therefore the lion’s share of the responsibility that comes with them. A true aristocracy is not elected, it’s invested. Ownership makes all the difference.

People who are invested in a government are much less likely to make the kind of radical changes needed to overthrow it. They might plot against the powers of the executive or the people, they might make underhanded deals just like they do now, but they are unlikely to want to burn the whole framework of law and tradition to the ground. An invested aristocracy has too much to lose; especially if there’s a strong executive around to reign them in, or even a highly organized and politically charged populace that reveres the executive and will gladly reign them in on his behalf.

In this respect, Hamilton’s legislative houses would resemble Prussia after 1848 much more than modern America and Britain. In Prussia, representatives were chosen through a three-class franchise system, where the people in the first class, the wealthy, paid the most in taxes and therefore received a greater share of the vote than the other two classes. The third class, the poor, paid almost nothing in taxes and therefore received a comparatively small share of the vote. Historians estimate that in this system one vote in the first class would have 17.5 times more power than one vote in the third class. Some detractors might say that this system is unfair. A Hamiltonian would rightly argue that it’s unfair to give those who are heavily invested in the government the same voting power as those who are not invested at all.

The more one studies the Prussian constitution, the more one realizes that Hamilton would have much rather fashioned America on a German model instead of an Anglo-Saxon one. The lower house of the legislature had mostly an advisory role. The upper house was comprised of landowners, wealthy industrialists, and direct appointments made by the king and they were, as Hamilton predicted, a deeply conservative bunch. They had no interest in kicking over the apple-cart to fleece middle-class tax payers for more cash; after all, they were the primary tax payers.

The king, in true Hamiltonian fashion, was the energetic executive around which the entire system of government rotated, like dust, debris, and planets orbiting the sun. The king had full control over his cabinet, all house legislation required his consent (although he also required the house’s consent to pass legislation of his own), he could appoint any official he wanted at the federal level, he had full control over the armed forces even to the point of being able to declare war or peace under whatever conditions he pleased. He could never be impeached and if the legislators got a little too uppity, he could dismiss either one or both of the legislative houses at his leisure.

The entire Prussian system was designed to provide “a distinct, permanent share in the government.” And it worked beautifully. The system was transposed onto the German Empire in 1871, albeit with an uncomfortable number of concessions to liberal pluralism in order to win the consent of all the German states, most of which had been reluctant to form a federal union with Prussia. But it still worked well.

The system was not abolished until 1918, and even then, it was not by choice. It took a communist revolution in the middle of a world war to bring it down, and its socialist-pluralist replacement, Weimar Germany, was so unsatisfactory to both the left and right wings of German society that it hardly survived a decade. The old system was just superior. Hamilton would have wept.

Nationalism, Before It Was Cool

Prussia’s federal system would have certainly impressed Hamilton. The Meiji system in Japan, which was modeled mostly on the Prussian constitution but with a few British elements thrown in, might have appealed to him most of all. Had his life not been cut short by an 1804 duel, he might have been able to find many merits in Napoleonic France. It’s no coincidence that historians often consider these governments to be the first nationalist governments: they consisted of a powerful federal authority, centered around a strong executive figure, with local governments retaining some authority in local matters but ultimately subordinated to the federal government. Hamilton’s federalism was nothing more than nationalism before the word had even been coined.

It’s telling how Hamilton’s criticism of feudalism does not rely on the stock set of criticisms that liberals often use. He didn’t complain about “tyranny” because ditch diggers couldn’t vote in a feudal system. He didn’t chide the monarchs for their “greed.” For Hamilton, the feudal system would inevitably have to yield to a federalist system in the same way that a horse and buggy would have to yield to the explosive rush of steam: a federal system is simply more efficient. It’s a much more suitable vehicle for executive authority.

Though the ancient feudal systems were not, strictly speaking, confederacies, yet they partook of the nature of that species of association… Each principal vassal was a kind of sovereign, within his particular demesnes. The consequences of this situation were a continual opposition to authority of the sovereign, and frequent wars between the great barons or chief feudatories themselves. The power of the head of the nation was commonly too weak, either to preserve the public peace, or to protect the people against the oppressions of their immediate lords. [8]

An executive is nothing more than a figurehead if every man under him is an also an executive with supreme sovereignty over his own domains. There must always be a hierarchy; a lesser and a greater order. Hamilton’s federalism, therefore, is an attempt to paint a sharper line of division between the provincial and the national. An executive is not a caretaker of unruly playmates — he’s the undisputed head of a nation. He’s its first peacekeeper and the champion of its citizens’ liberty.

Why Hamilton?

The inevitable question arises: Why is a reactionary picking over the words of a classical liberal like Hamilton? Surely, it would be better to spend my time writing about proud, card-carrying reactionaries like Carlyle or Froude. I have two points to defend my decision to write about Hamilton, both equally valid, but one being of considerably more importance than the other.

The first reason, as stated in the introduction, is that I don’t consider Hamilton to be a classical liberal. He was a crypto-reactionary, a pseudo-liberal; by this I mean that he used the lingo of a liberal to express ideas that were distinctly at odds with the ideas of liberalism. In this regard, I feel that Hamilton deserves more serious consideration as a reactionary thinker.

The second reason is related to the first but it is a good deal more significant in the grand scheme of politics. It’s precisely because Hamilton was able to disguise his ideas behind the drapery of liberal rhetoric that he was able to have some influence on America in its post-revolutionary distress. When the Articles of Confederation failed to unite the states, Hamilton didn’t throw in the towel. He didn’t catch a ship to Britain and he didn’t start plotting a coup to get George III reinstated as head of state. He was too clever for that kind of nonsense. He asked a much simpler, much shrewder question: how can America get the executive leadership it so desperately needs?

And that is what we reactionaries are also going to have to ask ourselves. We’re not going to be able to bring back the Stuarts. The Habsburgs wouldn’t wear a crown even if we handed it to them on a velvet pillow. The very mention of a tsar, kaiser, or king sounds absolutely ridiculous to modern ears. You can forget all about a Fuhrer. These terms fly in the face of the neoliberal colossus that has dominated the discourse in the West for the past hundred years.

But words like federalism and president are still relevant in American discourse. They’re neutral, inoffensive terms. We only need to shift the conceptual basis of them a little bit to get everyday Americans thinking more like we think. Using Hamiltonian federalism, it would not be too hard to convince Americans that the office of president was always supposed to be more powerful, more certain of itself than it currently is. We can have both a constitution and a strong executive; the two are not mutually exclusive.

I have claimed before that the best states are ethnostates. I still believe this. But in an already ethnically diverse America, forming an ethnostate is unthinkable. It would require decades of civil warfare where the outcome of victory would always be in doubt: after all, there is a sizeable portion of the white population that would get to extol their own virtues by not siding with the “racists” of their race. Fighting for a white ethnostate would split the whites of America and unite all of the other races against us, leading to the worst possible scenario: our side divided with the left united against us.

A political platform that pushes civic nationalism with a strong executive at its head is much more likely to succeed: it can unite whites and rope in the smarter, harder-working minorities without much trouble. This would lead to the inverse scenario mentioned above: our side united with the left divided by a thousand different ethnic interests. A strong executive with a clear mandate to protect American citizens and their rights could do far more to protect white citizens than a civil war with a questionable outcome.

A strong executive with popular support could cull the deep state, build a border wall, kick women out of combat roles, rip up every law related to affirmative action, repeal supreme court rulings on things like desegregation, and do everything every right-winger has dreamed of and he’d be able to do it all within the limits of the law. Just imagine if a federalist party were to prop up a president with a constitution like the 1848 Prussian constitution to help him rule.

When kings return to America, and they will return, they will not call themselves kings. When America’s Caesar sits down for the first time in the oval office, most Americans will have no idea that he’s our Caesar because nobody will call him something so pompous. There will be no wine in the streets, no wreath on his head, no public deification of his likeness. But despite there being no recognition for his true title, he will be the man to tighten the screws and scrape away the rust of our political machinery, just like Caesar did in Rome.

Ask yourself, would you rather live in a divided Balkans, fighting and dying for a tiny patch of land or would you rather live under an enlightened despot like Augustus or Bonaparte? I have asked myself this question and I have chosen to examine Hamilton’s writings for a very specific reason.

In Hamilton, we find the beginnings of an American Empire.

 

 

Notes

[1] Federalist No. 70 (18 March 1788)

[2] Federalist No. 76 (1 April 1788)

[3] Federalist No. 15 (1 December 1787)

[4] Federalist No. 85 (16 August 1788)

[5] Federalist No. 15 (1 December 1787)

[6] Federalist No. 70 (18 March 1788)

[7] Farrand’s Records of the Federal Convention, v. 1, p. 299. (19 June 1787)

[8] Federalist No. 17 (4 December 1787)

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