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Mentor for a Hegemon

Mentor for a Hegemon

Mini Teaser: Hamilton's legacy is all around us. So why has his wisdom--particularly as concerns foreign affairs--been discounted?

by Author(s): John L. Harper

THE twentieth century belonged to Thomas Jefferson. No historically conscious person can fail to note that, while one of Washington's most prominent memorials is dedicated to the Sage of Monticello, there is nothing similar--only a run-of-the-mill statue on the south side of the Treasury Department--dedicated to his great adversary, Alexander Hamilton. If the point were to commemorate their respective contributions to the building of this country, Hamilton, surely, would have the memorial and Jefferson would have to content himself with a mere statue. Despite the suggestion on his tombstone, Jefferson was not the sole author of the Declaration of Independence. He contributed little or nothing to the Revolutionary War effort or to the writing of the Constitution. He resigned in frustration and near nervous exhaustion as secretary of state. True, he was in the right place at the right time when French Louisiana landed on his lap.

For his part, Hamilton was as responsible as anyone for the establishment of the American state: the consolidation and funding of the national debt, the tax system, the customs service, the first Bank of the United States. He was instrumental in the launching of the navy in 1794. He promoted the protection of infant industry for national security purposes and to develop a domestic market for American products. Meanwhile, Jefferson and his sidekick James Madison did all they could to sabotage Hamilton's program of developing the sinews of national strength.

No historically conscious observer can fail to be struck, moreover, by the fact that one hundred years ago, at the dawn of the "American century", the standing of the two men was more or less the reverse of what it is now. Hamilton's reputation was high; Jefferson's was low. One explanation of the current odd state of affairs is that Hamilton needs no beatification. Manhattan and the Pentagon are his monuments. He won the basic argument with Jefferson about the kind of country we were going to be. But such a claim begs the question of his low standing in the eyes of both the intelligentsia and ordinary citizens.

The key to Jefferson's popularity is not what he did but what he stood for: above all, individual liberty. Jefferson embodies the values that Americans like to think they hold most dear. Of course, there has also been a great deal of conscious manipulation. Someone had to put Jefferson's face on the nickel and to build his memorial--and that someone was Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt wrapped himself in Jefferson's mantle and made him the patron saint of the New Deal and modern liberalism. Even as he accumulated power for the central government with Hamiltonian relish, Roosevelt cast his fellow New Yorker as the villain.

By the same token, American conservatives, with some prominent exceptions, do not esteem or even know Hamilton. That is because postwar American conservatism has been, generally speaking, either libertarian or else hostile to a secularized industrial society, while Hamilton was neither of these. George Will picked Jefferson as "Person of the Millennium", while Hamilton was not even in the running. An influential traditional conservative, Russell Kirk, wrote,

Alexander Hamilton, the financier, the party-manager, the empire-builder, fascinates those numerous Americans among whom the acquisitive instinct is confounded with the conservative tendency, and they, in turn, have convinced the public that the 'first American businessman' was the first eminent American conservative.

Hamilton, in other words, was a sorcerer's apprentice whose program of economic development undermined the kind of conservative order he supposedly desired.

Not even academic realists revere Hamilton. Kenneth Waltz, when reminded that Hamilton's writings are a gold mine for realists, acknowledged (with some regret) that today's students of international relations theory do not read much of anything written before the 1950s. In fact, there is only one group in recent memory that has looked on Hamilton as a genuine hero: Progressive Republicans like Theodore Roosevelt and Herbert Croly, who believed in activist government, a meritocratic elite and an assertive foreign policy. Along with Jefferson's prominence, the sad demise of Progressive Republicanism is the main reason for the decline of Hamilton's reputation in the public eye.

Return to Grace?

IF THE twentieth century has not been kind to Hamilton, what about the twenty-first? More than one observer has noted a recent swing of the pendulum in his favor. National Review's Richard Brookhiser has declared his "return to grace." For The Economist Hamilton has been "making a comeback." At least ten books dealing with him have appeared in the past three years, compared with three or four in the previous decade. These offerings include Brookhiser's own Alexander Hamilton: American and Michael Lind's Hamilton's Republic: Readings in the American Democratic Nationalist Tradition. Lind's collection is a deliberate attempt to breathe life into a dormant tendency of thought and to apply its lessons to the contemporary political and cultural debate.

Aside from the enduring fascination of a life story that would require a Stendhal to do it justice, there appear to be several reasons for this recent revival of interest. Jefferson's stock has been falling for reasons that have nothing to do with Hamilton, but this has had a buoying effect on the latter's. Perhaps the most compelling reason is the post-Cold War search for a foreign policy model other than the prevailing strategy of trying to have America's finger in every pie. If Jeffersonian liberalism is the ultimate source of a policy of economic globalization and democratic "enlargement", it is only natural that those skeptical of such policies and preferring a more measured and discriminating American strategy should look to Hamilton.

They will find that he has many valuable and provocative things to say, but that there are basic ambiguities in his life and message that make it hard to draw unequivocal lessons. It turns out that Hamilton was not exactly what he is often thought to have been. Moreover, while no one did more to establish the country, Hamilton was always an outsider, never fully at home or accepted in the United States. There is the inescapable sense with Hamilton that America was the stage he was acting on, but that the part he was playing originated elsewhere--and even that his chosen audience was somewhere else. He measured himself, in other words, against the likes of Pitt, Talleyrand and Bonaparte as much as against Jefferson, Madison and Jay.

An American Machiavelli

HAMILTON was, fundamentally, a kind of Machiavellian figure operating in the New World. His grasp of what the Florentine thinker meant by la fortuna, the fickle goddess of fortune, the force of circumstance, was practically innate. The history of the West Indies, where he grew up in the mid-eighteenth century, is the history of war, piracy, slave uprisings, sudden death from disease, economic boom and bust. His bankrupt father had disappeared and his mother had died by the time he was eleven. At the center of his character was a powerful drive to dominate fortune and create order, coexisting with a deep fatalism and pessimism about human life.

Hamilton was a person of exceptional virtu--highly intelligent, physically courageous, endowed with phenomenal energy and charm. As every schoolchild knows--this was also a defining feature of Machiavelli's principe nuovo or new prince--Hamilton was illegitimate. He was an upstart--in John Adams' notorious phrase, the "bastard brat of a Scotch peddlar"--and never allowed to forget it. Adams also called him "the Creole" to emphasize his parvenu, exotic roots. It should not be surprising, then, that an extraordinary ambition and obsession with personal honor ran through his life.

Like Machiavelli, Hamilton was inspired by the Greek and Roman idea that "the love of fame" was "the ruling passion of the noblest minds", meaning the kind of fame achieved only by the lawgivers and institution builders. He was also attracted by the noble prospect of ending it all in a blaze of glory and coming home on his shield. One sees this in his wartime letters and in his imploring Washington to allow him to lead an infantry attack before the British surrender at Yorktown that put an end to the war.

By war's end he believed that the states of the American confederation would either form a strong union or eventually fight each other--for example, over control of the West--and in the process become the tools of rival European powers. In the latter case, late eighteenth-century America would come to resemble early sixteenth-century Italy. The American states would fight each other despite--or rather in part because of--the fact that they had adopted highly democratic political systems. Hamilton's view of international politics derived from Machiavelli's view that it was precisely the element of popular p articipation that had made the Roman Republic such a successful expansionist state.

The key to Hamilton's political education was the army. He started out as an artillery officer and became Washington's protege and closest aide. During the war he adopted a nationalist, as opposed to a state-centered, point of view. Like much of the officer corps, he came to see himself as part of a tiny elite struggling to create the country while most Americans stood idly by or feathered their own nests.

The first ambiguity in Hamilton has to do with the relationship between his basic views and the Constitution. Though he did as much as anyone to secure its ratification, he had serious doubts about whether the resulting government would be strong enough to survive. Hamilton was not really a federalist in the sense in which we use the term today. He favored a central government with a veto over state laws. He had serious doubts about democracy-after all, Greek history taught that democracies were often dominated by demagogues. To insulate the system against demagoguery and corruption by foreigners, Hamilton favored a senate and an executive elected for life (as in the Florentine Republic). One can only wonder how seriously the current presidential candidates would be taken if they were running for a life term.

Another ambiguity in Hamilton has to do with his relationship to the "parent state." Even as he fought the British, he made no secret of the fact that Britain was his chosen model. Britain's insular--not to be confused with isolated--and maritime destiny provided an example for America's own. The British executive had the kind of authority and continuity required to conduct foreign policy in a world where the law of the jungle usually prevailed. Hamilton particularly admired the way the British financial system had mobilized wealth on an unprecedented scale to wage war. Hamilton's partisans, from Henry Cabot Lodge to Clinton Rossiter, have denied or downplayed his leaning toward Britain, but he was essentially an Anglophile. Unlike the radicals Jefferson and Adams, his preference in 1775 was political autonomy within the British Empire. British arrogance and obtuseness could drive Hamilton to distraction, but he always favored a kind of Anglo-American entente in which, he believed, America would eventually p lay the leading role.

The message of his famous Report on Manufactures is similarly ambiguous. To the British it said: Mercantilism is not necessarily our preference, but since you have imposed restrictions on our trade and shipping, we can try to beat you at your own game. On the other hand, Hamilton held out hope that the British might open their markets and the two sides could become a single trading system, as they had been before 1776. Hamilton did not believe--despite the sentiments attributed to him by George W. Bush--that "commerce has a tendency to soften the manners of men." (Amazingly, Bush attributes to Hamilton the very view that the latter is attacking in the Federalist 6.) He was not--pace Walter Russell Mead--the prophet of a "fully integrated world economy." But nor-despite what Pat Buchanan has argued-was he a strict economic nationalist. In other words, he was not a "Hamiltonian" in the sense that term is often understood today.

To say that Hamilton was Machiavellian is not, of course, to say that he was a carbon copy of the original (due allowance must be made for the different intellectual milieus in which they operated) or that he consciously emulated Machiavelli (although his mother's collection of books was said to include a French translation of The Prince). Machiavelli, after all, had a bad name in the eighteenth century. Even Frederick the Great, one of his aptest pupils, penned a famous essay against him. Nor does it mean that there were not fundamental differences between Hamilton and Machiavelli, for instance over the very existence of natural rights.

Rather, it means two things. First, as already suggested, Hamilton's personal story is that of a kind of prince, who uses audacity and cunning in his drive for legitimacy and fame. Nowhere was such cunning more on display than in his involvement in foreign policy. Hamilton maintained his own channel, unauthorized by George Washington or Secretary of State Jefferson, to the British government. He consistently misled Washington as to the extent of his pro-British views. That is to say, the kind of "neutrality" he recommended during the European war that followed the revolution of 1789 was always more ostensible than real because, as a practical matter, it favored Britain over France. In the late 1790s, he attempted to exercise control over key members of Adams' cabinet as a private citizen in New York.

Second, there is the basic similarity of outlook and temperament, starting with the almost romantic belief in the regeneration and greatness of their countries, to be accomplished, at least in part, by heroic leadership. Both lived through a "revolution in military affairs", in Machiavelli's case the one that began with the French invasion of Italy using artillery in 1494, in Hamilton's the one launched by Napoleon in the 1790s. Both were deeply preoccupied with the problems of military organization and favored national and citizen armies over the hiring of foreign troops. Both viscerally disliked half-measures and procrastination, and were prone to despair over the human raw material they had to work with. Hamilton became bitterly alienated from what he saw as basic traits of the American character, including localism, extreme individualism and the belief in American moral superiority. On American "exceptionalism" he wrote, "Is it not time to awake from the deceitful dream of a golden age?"

Finally, there is the feeling of kinship with an idealized foreign model, in Machiavelli's case the Roman Republic, in Hamilton's contemporary Britain. The two states were far from identical, but they did have something fundamental in common: both were dynamic, self-aggrandizing states that saw expansion as necessary to security and well-being--states inclined to prefer glory to republican purity, if that were to be the choice.

Hamilton's Ten Commandments

HAMILTON's foreign policy ad vice in the 1780s and 1790s would seem, on the face of it, to belie the image of an aggrandizing Machiavellian. His voluminous writings can be reduced to a decalogue of axioms emphasizing, among other things, solvency and self-restraint:

1. "There can be no time, no state of things, in which credit is not essential to a nation." Like the "declinists" of our day, he is reminding us of the permanent nexus between financial stability and national security

2. "Not only the wealth, but the independence and security of a Country, appear to be materially connected with the prosperity of manufactures. Every nation ... ought to ... possess within itself all the essentials of national supply." The state must promote the health of industry, especially defense-related industry, regardless of the dictates of the market.

3. "Foreign influence is truly the Grecian horse to a republic." What we call today domestic lobbies, emotionally and financially tied to other countries, undermine republican virtue and pervert the national interest.

4. "Whenever a particular nation adopts maxims of conduct contrary to those generally established among nations calculated to disturb their tranquillity & to expose their safety, they may justifiably make a common cause to oppose & controul [sic] such Nation." The clear implication is Anglo-American cooperation to uphold the European balance of power.

5. "There have been ... almost as many popular as royal wars." It would be foolish to think that in creating a world of perfect democracies one would have altered human nature or eliminated the causes of deadly conflict. What we call today the "democratic peace" is a will-of-the-wisp.

6. "Wars more often proceed from angry and perverse passions than from cool calculations of Interest." The statesman should always allow for the role of emotion, and especially of injured pride, in the behavior of potential adversaries.

7. "Mildness in the manner and firmness in the thing are most compatible with true dignity, and almost always go farther than harshness and stateliness." Or as Theodore Roosevelt was to put it one hundred years later, "speak softly and carry a big stick."

8. "It is often wise by some early condescension to avoid the danger of future humiliation." Going more than halfway to settle disputes--appeasing the other party--may be a way to buy time or to avoid needless and costly wars.

9. "Evil is seldom as great, in the reality, as in the prospect." In other words, external threats are usually not all they are cracked up to be, and one should try to avoid fulfilling one's own gloomy prophecies.

10. If there were to be a summation of the Hamiltonian approach, it would be in the injunction "ever to combine energy with moderation." Running through these axioms is the assumption that a distinction should always be made between what the country needs to do in order to survive and what it might want to do in the world if it could. It is, arguably, an approach as valid now as it was two hundred years ago. In this view, Hamilton becomes the patron of a self-centered, robust, but self-contained and cautiously accommodationist foreign policy. Yet to understand Hamilton one must also ask the question whether he would argue that his philosophy of foreign affairs is appropriate to the position of the United States today.

A clue to the probable answer lies in his observation that, "A very powerful state may frequently hazard a high and haughty tone with good policy, but a weak State can scarcely ever do it without imprudence. The last is yet our character, though we are the embryo of a great empire." Hamilton would surely point out that many of his axioms were designed for a country that was unarmed, thinly populated, surrounded by potential enemies, and beset by serious sectional tensions--a "Hercules in the cradle."

When Hamilton and Washington spoke in the Farewell Address about taking advantage of America's "detached and distant situation", they were talking about conditions in 1796. They fully expected that, as the country became stronger, as distances grew shorter due to improvements in ocean transport, it would join the ranks of the world powers. One had only to look at what the British had managed to achieve, and at America's power base compared to theirs. Hamilton did not say exactly what he meant by an American "empire", but he presumably foresaw that the United States, by virtue of its commercial and naval might, would come to exercise hegemony (not the same as formal control) over wide areas of the globe.

What, now that the United States is the number one world power, would Hamilton have to say on the central, vexing issue of the new century? Should it try to prevent the emergence of "peer competitors" even at the risk of exhausting itself over the long run? It is conceivable that he might argue, in the spirit of his 1790s advice, that the United States should appease the Chinese by granting them naval supremacy on their own doorstep, just as the British prudently conceded U.S. naval supremacy in the Western Hemisphere one hundred years ago. He might argue that the United States should gracefully accept, and even abet, the rise of a powerful united Europe just as Britain accepted, more or less gracefully, the rise of the United States.

But it seems more likely that Hamilton's geopolitical instincts, akin after all to those of British statesmen, would lead him to oppose the emergence of a single power center on the European continent that might defy the United States elsewhere in the world. And it would be more in the spirit of Hamilton's fatalistic and imperial vision of America to argue that it has no choice but to try to keep allies and client states in line (lest they climb on someone else's bandwagon) and potential challengers at bay. As Pericles (whose name Hamilton used as a pseudonym) said, "Your empire is now like a tyranny: it may have been wrong to take it; it is certainly dangerous to let it go." Or as an acute modern observer put it, "Great power status is lost, as it is won, by violence. A great power does not die in its bed." We should have realized that long ago. What little meliorism one detects in Hamilton's view of international politics (and there is precious little) is based on his faith in American, or rather Anglo-American, military and economic strength.

The Imperial Temptation

A BASIC unanswered question, and fundamental ambiguity, in Hamilton is that if you succeed in creating institutions and in pursuing policies designed to generate the power needed to survive, what is to prevent you sooner or later from over-reaching yourself abroad, and even threatening liberty at home? Is it really possible to be rich and austere, energetic and moderate, imperial and republican, at the same time?

The last episode in Hamilton's career is a kind of parable in this respect. In 1798, through Washington's patronage and over President Adams' strong objections, Hamilton had himself appointed inspector general of an army that he intended to lead, in cooperation with the British in the conquest of the Floridas, Louisiana and possibly parts of Latin America. Hamilton was not (as Jeffersonians have always claimed) a militarist, and his view of the French threat to American territory during the Franco-American "quasi-war" was a reasonable one, especially before the destruction of the French fleet at the Baffle of the Nile in August 1798. But it is hard to avoid the conclusion that he was driven by dreams of personal military glory, and that his model at this point was that other general, also born on an island, also an artillery officer by origin, also about five feet seven inches tall. Hamilton did all he could to prevent Adams from not having a war with France and Spain. When Adams accused Hamilton of pro-Brit ish views and decided to send a peace mission to France, Hamilton tried to destroy him by writing a famous pamphlet. The result was that he helped to break up the Federalist Party and to make his arch-rival, Jefferson, president of the United States. The quarrel can be seen to mark the beginning of a historic split over foreign policy between Hamiltonians, or conservative internationalists, with their world power ambitions, and conservative isolationists (including Adams' son, John Quincy), who would pursue a narrower, more continental vision of the national destiny.

For Hamilton, in any event, it was a kind of political suicide, anticipating what was a kind of literal suicide in the duel with Aaron Burr four years later. Hamilton's army, despite the extraordinary energy its commander devoted to raising and training it, was used only to round up a handful of tax evaders in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, then disbanded in disgrace.

The foreign policy legacy of Thomas Jefferson, according to Robert Tucker and David Hendrickson, is fundamentally ambiguous. His message can be read to support the notion of America as passive exemplar of liberal values, but also of America as crusader, actively attempting to reform the world. It would be comforting to think otherwise of Hamilton; in other words, that he offers a clear set of assumptions and lessons for the new century. But such is not the case.

In the end, his foreign policy legacy is also ambiguous. The compelling messages of his remarkable career and writings are solvency, realism and the creative role of the. state. But another is what Tucker and Hendrickson call the "imperial temptation", the impulse to solve problems through force rather than painstaking diplomacy, the tendency toward hubris, the loss of self-control. The first part of his legacy entitles him to a sustained revival of interest in his life and work, a rank second to none in the national pantheon, and a monument of his own. The second part should give us pause.

John L. Harper is professor of American foreign policy at the Bologna Center of the Johns Hopkins University.

Essay Types: Essay