The Hamiltonian Perspective: Why We Need It More Than Ever

In the coming decades, the great American political debates will be less and less likely to feature Franklin Roosevelt-style Democrats squaring off against Ronald Reagan-style Republicans. Although these two schools of thought will not die out overnight, the United States will be likely to see a reemergence of a much older, much longer-lasting debate: conservatives in the mold of Thomas Jefferson versus progressives in the mold of Alexander Hamilton. The exact contours of this struggle will take some time to become clear, but by the time they do, American politics will likely have taken on what is, in historical terms, a truly familiar shape.

This is the first in a series of PolicyMic articles discussing what Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian positions on long-debated political issues have been in the past, how such lessons from the past can be applied to American politics in the future, and why, in my opinion, the Hamiltonian tradition is far better equipped than its Jeffersonian rival to handle the challenges that will face America and Americans for much of the 21st century. From civil rights and civil liberties to economic policies to international affairs and national security, the Hamiltonian school of thought, born of the mind and experiences of America’s first secretary of the treasury, promoted by eloquent statesmen like Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, and put into practice by presidents from Abraham Lincoln to Theodore Roosevelt, has consistently made America more united socially, prosperous economically, and stronger on the world stage.

Why should the Hamilton-Jefferson debate reemerge in the near future, after decades of being pushed aside in favor of a debate between a conservatism epitomized by Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, on the one hand, and a progressivism that has gone by such names as the New Deal and the Great Society, on the other? There are three reasons for this. First, ongoing economic and technological changes, trends that cannot adequately be dealt with through either Roosevelt-style or Reagan-style methods, make the Hamiltonian school of political economy the best available option for achieving large-scale growth and widespread prosperity. From Hamilton’s First Bank of the United States to Clay’s American System to Lincoln’s support for the Transcontinental Railroad and land-grant colleges, it has historically been Hamiltonians who have kept up with changes in the economic landscape, updated government policy accordingly, and seen government and business not as rivals but as partners in the quest for national economic growth.

Second, demographic trends already underway in America make what might be called “liberal nationalism” a much better force for national unity than its rivals, nativism and multiculturalism (each of which, in its own way, can be seen as an outgrowth of Jeffersonian ideas, as will be discussed in forthcoming articles). As the percentage of the U.S. population that is white continues to decline, and as rates of interracial marriage continue to increase, the all-too-frequent categorization of Americans based on racial heritage is likely to wither away (as it should), while political appeals to an America of old, one dominated by conservative-minded white males, will increasingly fall on deaf ears. While not all Hamiltonian statesmen and thinkers have been liberal nationalists, Hamiltonians have historically been more likely than Jeffersonians to believe in the melting pot not merely as a national myth, but as something government should promote and strive to achieve. Furthermore, in debates over slavery and civil rights dating back to the late 18th century (when Hamilton co-founded an abolitionist group while Jefferson kept hundreds of human beings as property), Hamiltonians have been far more likely than Jeffersonians to come down on the side of racial equality in the eyes of the law (this topic will be explored in greater detail in later articles).

Finally, the geopolitical situation of the 21st century calls for the U.S. to embrace a foreign policy that has more in common with Hamilton’s vision of America’s role in the world than with that of Jefferson or any of Jefferson’s followers. Although they share many of the same core beliefs and insights into human nature as old-school European realists, and place a premium on concepts like the national interest and the international balance of power, Hamiltonians have historically put American commercial interests on the same level of importance as traditional concerns like military strength. This is not surprising, given the concern of Hamilton himself with measures to ensure not just America’s political independence from the European powers, but also economic independence, one of the goals of which was to make the U.S. strong enough to compete with its rivals on the world stage. Unlike many idealistic Jeffersonians, notably Woodrow Wilson, Hamiltonians have been quite pragmatic about how American power can and should be wielded, and do not see the world in terms of moral absolutes (although Hamiltonianism does not rule out the inclusion of a strong moral dimension to foreign policy). As American economic and geopolitical power declines relative to that of other countries (even if it does not decline in absolute terms), a Hamiltonian pragmatism that insists on clearly defined national interests and the possession of the means to defend them will be the best way forward for the U.S.

Why should the Hamiltonians be called the more progressive of these two feuding groups, and the Jeffersonians the conservatives? This will be discussed in greater detail in future articles, especially those dealing with political economy (the area of public policy where the arguments have often been fiercest). The short answer, however, is that for as long as this debate has been going on, the trend has been clear and consistent: Jeffersonians, clinging to a utopian vision of America, have defended the status quo, while Hamiltonians, aware that America and its citizens exist in an imperfect world, have pushed for changes that Jeffersonians have detested. Both schools are firmly committed to the principles of life and liberty for which the American Revolution was fought, but their opinions concerning how best to preserve those principles have diverged sharply.

In the coming weeks, I will put forward a series of discussions of contemporary political subjects in light of the Hamilton-Jefferson debates, each accompanied by an argument for resolving the debate discussed from a Hamiltonian perspective. It will not always be easy to take a Hamiltonian or Jeffersonian position on a 21st century issue. For one thing, to state the obvious, American politics has evolved over and over again over the last 200 years and more, as old issues have been buried and new ones have arisen. It is impossible, for example, to know how an 18th century statesman would have felt about same-sex marriage or the taxation of internet commerce. For another thing, Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians have not always argued with each other about every single item on the political agenda. Indeed, once in government, many critics of Hamiltonianism, including Jefferson himself, have used federal powers they previously attacked for purposes that would have made Hamilton proud.

Nevertheless, I believe that, using the beliefs and actions of Hamilton and Jefferson as guides (not as solemn gospel) offers Americans across the current political spectrum a wonderful chance to reassess some long-held opinions, and to consider how their own core beliefs can best be expressed and advocated through the Hamiltonian-Jeffersonian debates that are likely to become more and more prevalent in the coming years and decades. It would be unreasonable to expect every single person to fall squarely into one category or the other (that has never been the case in the past), but I believe most Americans who take the time to consider the question will find themselves at least leaning toward Jefferson or toward Hamilton. I intend for the coming series of articles to be my contribution to the new incarnation of an old debate. Stay tuned.