Positive and negative
Daniel Lazare reviews Christian Parenti's "Radical Hamilton: economic lessons from a misunderstood founder"
At some point around the turn of the millennium, US historiography flipped. Previously, Thomas Jefferson - America’s third president and the author of its founding document, the Declaration of Independence - was the great democratic hero. While liberals and conservatives might dwell on different aspects of his legacy, all agreed that the ‘sage of Monticello’ best expressed the age of the common man that the American Revolution supposedly introduced.
As for Alexander Hamilton, Jefferson’s nemesis from the early 1790s on, opinion seemed to be settled as well. While he certainly had his talents, America’s first treasury secretary foreshadowed the stifling industrial and financial dictatorship that would descend on the United States after the Civil War. “Jefferson was the first example of that combination of philosopher, ideologist, man of science, organiser of the masses and practical political leader and statesman, which is necessary to bring into being the power of democracy,” declared none other than US Communist Party general secretary, Earl Browder, in 1943.1 By contrast, Hamilton, the man who tried to jump-start American capitalism, stood for the corporate dictatorship that would descend on America after the Civil War.
Then came the great reversal. Ronald Reagan may have started it with a 1987 speech claiming Jefferson for the anti-government right:
It’s time to finish the job Jefferson began and to protect our people and their livelihoods with restrictions on government that will ensure the fundamental economic freedom of the people - the equivalent of an Economic Bill of Rights. I’m certain, if Thomas Jefferson were here, he’d be one of the most articulate and aggressive champions of this cause.
Sensing that the great man had his flaws, left-leaning scholars began delving into the question of Jefferson’s racism, which turned out to be more central to his make-up than admirers had previously been willing to admit. Not only did he father six children by Sally Hemings, his deceased wife’s enslaved half-sister, but he also authored a Virginia state law criminalising any white woman who gave birth to a child fathered by a black man. One law for me, in other words, another for thee. He believed that black people were ugly, that they were so primitive that they aroused the lust of orangutans, and that “Their griefs are transient” - a convenient argument for slaveholders in the habit of snatching children from their mother’s arms and selling them to the highest bidder. Black reasoning powers, he wrote in his Notes on the state of Virginia (1781-83), are “much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and … in imagination they are dull, tasteless and anomalous.”
Interest in Hamilton meanwhile rose as the Republican offensive against ‘big gum mint’ advanced on Capitol Hill. In 2004, Ron Chernow’s 800-page biography, which stressed Hamilton’s pro-government beliefs, climbed to the top of US bestseller charts. In 2015, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop tribute to Hamilton as an opponent of slavery and a champion of immigrants turned into an unlikely Broadway hit. After years of opprobrium, as Christian Parenti notes in this new study, Hamilton had suddenly become “hip”.
But what does it all mean? Is the Hamilton revival merely an attempt to put a human face on neoliberalism by presenting America’s most enthusiastically pro-capitalist founder as tolerant and anti-racist? Or is it an effort to better understand American history by viewing it from the perspective of someone who tried to put it on a different path?
Radical Hamilton clearly believes the latter. It argues that not only did Hamilton play an important role in gluing the country together after the anarchic 1770s and 80s, but that his 1791 Report on manufactures was a milestone in dirigiste economics that would help shape development in late-blooming economic powers like Germany and Japan. As the title suggests, Parenti goes so far as to claim his man for the left, by arguing that Hamiltonian industrial policy might prove useful in the transition from fossil fuels. “If we’re serious about the climate crisis and the reindustrialisation it demands, we could do worse than consulting templates from our own history,” he writes. This is an attempt to update Hamilton for the 21st century that, unfortunately, does not quite succeed.
Hamilton was a classic outsider - a native of the West Indies and the only founder born outside British North America. He was also illegitimate, the “bastard brat of a Scotch peddler”, as John Adams put it, which pulls him down a rung or two on the social scale. But he was brilliant and precocious, and had an outsider’s ability to size up his new country’s predicament at a glance - not in part, but in toto.
This was apparent in a couple of pamphlets he dashed off at the age of 19 in 1774-75 just as the revolutionary crisis was beginning to boil over. Already thinking in continental terms, he wrote that America was so vast and rich that it had no need of Britain at all:
Some parts of it are favourable to some things, others to others; some colonies are best calculated for grain; others for flax and hemp; others for cotton; and others for livestock of every kind: by this means, a mutually advantageous intercourse may be established between them all. If we were to turn our attention from external to internal commerce, we should give greater stability, and more lasting prosperity, to our country than she can possibly have otherwise.
Indeed, he added, Britain might find “in 50 or 60 years” that it was more dependent on America than America was on the mother country. The timing was off, but Hamilton was still in the right ball park.2
Curiously, Parenti skips over such pre-revolutionary writings despite the light they shed on the direction his thinking would take. But he is very good on the events that would cause Hamilton to work out his ideas more fully. The problem facing America in the 1770s is familiar: how to create a new political authority out of an old one that is being overthrown. Americans floundered about miserably. The new Continental Congress authorised the creation of a revolutionary army, but local officials refused to supply it. Soldiers went unfed and unpaid as a consequence, while generals refused to follow orders. When Pennsylvania agreed to forward a shipment of cloth, for example, the governor specified that it was only to be used to outfit the state’s own troops. Congress had no navy, no banks, no power of taxation, and not even a regular bureaucracy with which to administer the war.
“You can hardly conceive in how dreadful a situation we are,” Hamilton, a member of Washington’s general staff at this point, wrote to a fellow officer in 1780. He continued:
The army, in the course of the present month, has received only four or five days’ rations of meal, and we really know not of any adequate relief in the future. This distress at such a stage sours the soldiery. ’Tis in vain you make apologies to them ... I hate Congress - I hate the army - I hate the world - I hate myself.
A severe post-war depression only made matters worse. With worthless paper money flooding forth from both Congress and the states, it was said that debtors in Rhode Island chased down creditors and paid them off “without mercy” with what the state insisted was legal tender. New York banned imports from New Jersey and Connecticut, and threatened to go to war with Vermont. Settlers from Pennsylvania and Connecticut fought for control of what is now eastern Tennessee. Georgia and South Carolina battled pro-British runaway slaves, who had taken to raiding back-country settlers, while skirmishes with native Americans flared up and down the western frontier. “Squatters settled where they wanted, and, for lack of prosecution, killed Indians when they wanted,” Parenti writes. Washington bemoaned “Land jobbers and lawless Banditti who would bid defiance to the Authority [of Congress and the states] and more than probably involve this country in an Indian war”.
After indebted farmers rose up in western Massachusetts under a destitute ex-army captain named Daniel Shays, Hamilton declared that the country had “reached almost the last stage of national humiliation”. In a last-ditch effort to prevent the infant US from dissolving into total anarchy, he helped organise a constitutional convention in May 1787 and then seized upon the occasion to push for a no-nonsense government that would put America under firm, centralised control.
Hamilton’s constitutional proposals, which he outlined in a six-hour speech a few weeks into the convention, marks the start of what might be called the black legend of authoritarianism. Hamilton, it was said, wanted to impose a new system of monarchy. While Parenti clearly approves of one part of Hamilton’s proposal - ie, his call to break up the states and replace them with equal-sized electoral districts - he describes other aspects as “less appealing - in particular, lifetime terms for the president and for senators”.
It is hard to disagree. But Parenti fails to mention yet another aspect of Hamilton’s ideas: his proposal that the new government include a national assembly “consist[ing] of persons elected by the people to serve for three years”, according to his own notes. The phrase, “elected by the people”, is key, since peoplehood is a concept that would have to be defined - not by the states, but at a national level. With a uniform voting standard - something the US still lacks - extending from one end of the country to the other and the electorate no longer divided along state lines, democratic reformers would have every incentive to scour the land for supporters wherever they could find them: among non-property-owning whites, among women and among free blacks. Since every ex-slave would be a vote for the party that set him or her free, they would also have every incentive to tackle slavery. With state governments out of the way, there would be little to stop them.
Hamilton’s plan was thus more democratic than the paralysing system of checks and powers that would eventually emerge - one that rendered slavery constitutionally impregnable and set the scene for a bloody civil war less than 75 years later, which would take the life of as many as three percent of the population. So if he is guilty of authoritarianism, he is guilty “with an explanation” (to quote Woody Allen in Bananas), in that his proposal was more progressive than generally realised. With a freshly-elected popular assembly facing off against a lifetime senate and presidency, there is little question as to who would have won the tug of war. America would have been on its way to becoming a centralised democracy, and a burgeoning industrial power to boot.
But Hamilton’s constitutional proposals met with stony silence in Philadelphia. Undeterred, he signed on as Washington’s treasury secretary after ratification and then, after making sense of the country’s shattered finances - a process that Radical Hamilton also describes very well - he turned his attention to the problem of how to speed up economic development.
The result in 1791 was his remarkable Report on manufactures - a 40,000-word document calling for the creation of a sweeping national system, consisting of tariffs, infrastructure investment in roads and canals, a national bank, plus targeted subsidies and rewards to foster new industries.
This is the other part of the black legend - that of Hamilton as incipient bourgeois monopolist. The charge is ahistorical nonsense, needless to say, since monopoly capitalism was not remotely on the horizon. Moreover, it ignores the revolutionary thrust of Hamilton’s ideas, since realising them would have meant yet another confrontation with Great Britain, the leading economic power of the day. Had Hamilton been “the finance minister of a developing country today”, notes the developmental economist, Ha-Joon Chang, “the IMF and World Bank would certainly have refused to lend money to this country and would be lobbying for his removal from office”.
If Hamilton’s plan had been implemented in full, according to Parenti, the result would have been an early version of “one of the greatest developmentalist bureaucracies in world history: post-war Japan’s famously effective Ministry of Internal Trade and Industry”. But only bits and pieces made it through the legislative meat grinder, due to opposition from slave-owning southern agrarians, for whom an activist national government and a growing population of free labourers posed an existential threat. “If Congress can make canals,” a North Carolina politician observed, “they can with more propriety emancipate.” Hamilton found himself increasingly isolated, and, in 1804, he all but committed suicide by throwing away his shot in a duel with Aaron Burr.
Hamilton was an ardent centralist, urbanist and industrialiser who tried to push a somnolent new republic into the modern age. He was the true progressive in the Marxist sense, not the faux egalitarian Jefferson, who defended slavery, believed that the federal government lacked constitutional authority even to dredge riverbeds, and denounced urbanisation on the grounds that “The mobs of the great cities add just so much to the support of pure government as sores do to the human body.”
But claiming Hamilton for the contemporary left is another matter. After all, he was a capitalist pioneer at a time when the American bourgeoisie was still in its revolutionary ascendancy - a period that has so faded into the rear-view mirror that most people cannot believe it ever existed at all. Parenti argues that the climate crisis gives Hamilton’s developmental economics a new relevance. As he puts it,
Like that first generation of Americans, we contemporary Americans also face crisis. Ours takes the form of anthropogenic climate change and the inability of laissez-faire ideology to address it. Modern civilisation must mitigate the causes of global warming and adapt to its effects. Failure to face this reality will mean almost certain violent social breakdown. Addressing climate change hinges upon, among other things, a total transformation of the world’s energy sector. We must euthanise the fossil fuel industry and build out clean-energy technologies and infrastructure. This means a project of fossil-fuel sector deindustrialisation, coupled with a simultaneous green reindustrialisation [original emphasis].
But this understates the problem, since America does not just face a climate crisis, but a perfect storm that is at once racial, economic, constitutional and imperial. Hamilton is not irrelevant in the historical sense, certainly. But while his ideas make sense in an 18th or 19th century national context, they have little to do with a modern reconstruction programme that of necessity must be both socialist and internationalist.
Indeed, Hamilton’s real significance may be very different than what Parenti imagines. Rather than dirigisme, it may have more to do with the futility of compromise. Quoting the historian James Oakes, he notes that Hamilton was one of those “men in the middle - those who considered themselves progressives, but who compromised with pro-slavery extremists for the sake of ratification, and thereby secured a constitution that resisted much of the Revolution’s anti-slavery impulse”. Hamilton no doubt thought he had no choice, since southern planters had made it plain that they would leave the union if their demands were not met.
But, while he thought he could forge ahead with his programme regardless, the new constitution proved him wrong by providing slave-owners with a virtual stranglehold over national policy. Thanks to the constitution’s notorious ‘three-fifths clause’, the south was able to use its extra votes in the electoral college to capture the White House in 1800 and then, with the exception of John Quincy Adams’s administration in 1825-29, maintain an iron grip right up to Lincoln’s election in 1860.
So Hamilton’s great achievement was a negative one: to prove that you cannot compromise with a snake, but that ‘you’ve got to kill it before it kills you’, as Harriet Tubman would later observe.3 To be sure, Congress eventually instituted a Hamiltonian programme in 1862-64 by approving such dirigiste measures as a national bank and a land-grant college system, and authorising construction of a transcontinental railroad. America’s rapid industrialisation was already the wonder of the world, but such measures kicked the process up to a whole new level.
But radical Republicans - the neo-Hamiltonians of their day - could do so only after acquiring the capability to combat slavery, not before.
‘The farmer refuted’, February 23 1775: founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-01-02-0057#ARHN-01-01-02-0057-fn-0041-ptr.↩︎
“God won’t let Master Lincoln beat the South until he does right thing. Master Lincoln, he’s a great man, and I’m a poor negro, but this negro can tell Master Lincoln how to save money and young men. He can do it by setting the negroes free. Suppose there was an awful big snake down there on the floor. He bites you. Folks all scared, because you may die. You send for a doctor to cut the bite; but the snake rolled up there and, while the doctor is doing it, he bites you again. The doctor cuts out that bite; but, while he’s doing it, the snake springs up and bites you again, and so he keeps doing it, till you kill him. That’s what Master Lincoln ought to know.” Although the movie Harriet transposes the speech to mid-1863, it actually dates from January 1862. Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation eight months later. Marx described the proclamation as “tantamount to the tearing up of the old American constitution”. But, once the war was over, the constitution would be restored in full.↩︎